So You Want to Be a Writer? Part 4

[My fourth and final essay for The Dillydoun Review. A couple of notes – since I wrote this I have become a member of both the SFWA and the Author’s Guild, and my first traditionally published novel “Beyond Tomorrow’s Sun” will be published by Cinnabar Moth Publishing in December 2024]

In my previous essay I said that the next step, after writing something, is to get published. Following that same line, the next step after publication is to get paid. Of course, lots of people write for the sheer joy of writing and are satisfied for their work to be published without ever getting paid. 

I do not fall into that category. 

I want to do this full time for the rest of my life and to make that work, I need to earn a living at writing. Additionally, some of the best writers’ associations, like the SFWA – Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America – require members to be published in paying markets that meet specific criteria. 

After two years, I’m happy to report that this year I managed to turn a small profit. About enough to pay my electric bill for one month, but a profit all the same. That income was small because it was stacked against the losses incurred with my first book.

It may seem strange to think of writing that way, profit and loss, but it’s essential for me because I self-published that first book, and there’s a ton of cost associated with such an effort.  

Of course, I’ve said it before – I made every mistake a new author can make in the self-publishing game, and invented a few new ones. Mistakes cost extra, like sides at a homestyle diner.

There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing and there are a lot of people making very good money at it. But for every one of them there are thousands who never earn a penny from their self-published work.

This may be changing as platforms like Medium and Wattpad offer writers new ways to monetize their writing. For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to focus on a few of the ins and outs of self-publishing novels as compared to traditional publishing, and leave these newer platforms out of the discussion.

Experienced readers can spot most self-published books in an instant, first from the cover, then the layout and font, and of course there’s always the dreaded typos. Enough of those and your novel will look more like alphabet soup than a polished work of art.

Yes, I made all of those mistakes. I created a hideous cover using stock images, chose a terrible  font, failed to properly align my pages and paragraphs, and filled every chapter with the worst of amateurish writing (including multiple typos in every chapter). 

In the end, for me, that was OK. 

It was my first go at a novel and I was in fact an amateur. I got over the embarrassment because after 20 years in the entertainment and media business, I’ve got thick skin that protects me even from my own self-inflicted barbs. Thankfully I had not made any effort to market the book at that point. 

Before I go any further, let’s take a moment to set the self-publishing stage. 

Amazon is the most obvious behemoth in the industry, but it’s not the only one, especially if we’re talking e-books. The digital marketplace for novels is enormous and multifaceted, with Apple, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, Kobo, and others all getting in on the game. This is not an exhaustive list, but its enough for now. 

On the print side, print-on-demand (POD) continues to evolve and grow. Many people still love a bound copy of a book, myself included – I’m a former bookstore owner after all. But the convenience of loading up a lightweight device with a store’s worth of books is hard to beat.

If you’ve written a novel and have decided on self-publishing, like it or not you’re now a player on this stage. If you’re like me, you’re somewhere back in the rigging, or lost in the curtains, nowhere near the spotlight. Gotta start someplace, but before you take the plunge here are some things I learned along the way.

First, publishing your book does not equal selling your book. You need to package that book to look as much like traditionally published books as possible, choose the right platform and format, hire the right editorial services, if you can afford them, and get your marketing game working, including social media. 

Quick note: as a good friend and fellow writer once told me, Twitter isn’t for sales, it’s for snark. Your mileage may vary, but I do believe he’s right about the first part of that statement. Use Twitter to build a following and make connections, but don’t expect it to deliver book sales. 

When I received the box containing printed copies of my first book, the cover art was like syrup of ipecac for the eyes. Yes, it was that bad. Then I started reading and it got worse. The saving grace is that no reader perusing a shelf would have picked up the book and started reading in the first place.

If you’re going to self-publish, do yourself a favor and get a professionally designed cover, or at least take the time to research what a good cover should look like and how to create one. I redesigned mine and while it’s still not great, it will do for now and has garnered a few compliments, so I’ll call that an improvement. Social media is a good place to find talented artists creating amazing book covers. These will set you back at least $500, and the best ones will cost a lot more. However you create your cover, both your e-book and printed book will use it, so make this first impression count. 

Now that you have your packaged product, it’s time to decide where to sell it. This is too broad a topic to cover in one essay, but basically if you go with Amazon and you use Amazon’s free ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and place your e-book in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, you’re done, that’s it. You won’t be able to place your book on any other platform without violating Amazon’s terms, and that ISBN will only be searchable via Amazon. You have to decide if this is OK for you, and clearly there are many writers for whom it’s just fine. 

For me, it was a mistake that still needs correcting. 

I urge you to buy your own ISBN. It’s neither difficult or expensive and I believe it’s more than worth it. ISBN.org is a good place to start.

Because once you’ve done that, a whole world of opportunity opens up. You can publish your book through every e-book and print-on-demand market out there, and you can hire a company to handle that for you. One such company is Draft2Digital. I’m not endorsing them, I am not currently a customer. But as examples go, they’re a good one. They also get a nod of approval from the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and their “Best Self-Publishing Services” list.

A service like Draft2Digital can take your finished novel and cover art and publish to multiple e-book and POD markets simultaneously. This particular company does not charge any upfront fees and instead takes a cut of sales. If you go this path, do your homework before making any commitment, but its nice to know this type of service exists, especially one that takes some of the risk, and cost, out of the equation. 

This is also true for any editorial services you might purchase. A good editor, like a good agent, is worth their weight in gold. I didn’t bother to ask anyone, much less an editor, to read my book before I published it. Huge mistake. I’m eternally grateful to whatever forces in the universe prompted me to re-read my book before I began marketing it. 

That’s the next piece of the puzzle, marketing. It’s not enough to post your book to social media, unless you’re Stephen King and one tweet can reach millions of fans. But social media didn’t build Stephen King’s catalog into a juggernaut. Old-school publishing, and a bunch of scary movies, did that. 

As with publishing, there are a lot of companies out there that claim they can market your book to their huge social media following. In my opinion, most of these companies are not worth it. They have no idea who is going to see a book promo on their social feeds, and you have no idea if their numbers are legit or their followers are your target audience. Some may be better than others, but if you’re going to use a marketing service, go back to that ALLi list and make an informed choice. I prefer a service that has highly targeted email campaign capabilities, but you may find success elsewhere. 

NOTE: DO NOT PAY for reviews of your book on Amazon or any other market. This is a fast way to get the reviews deleted and your book pulled from the platform. Many companies offer this, and it is true that reviews help drive sales, but any company that charges for reviews puts your hard work at risk by potentially violating the terms of almost every marketplace out there. Don’t waste your money. Instead do book swaps, give-aways, etc, always with the caveat that you seek honest reviews, good or bad. You and your readers deserve honest feedback. 

Which leads me to the next part of this process, ongoing marketing. You can’t market your book once and expect sales to continue on forever. You can light a fire with a single match, but if you want it to keep you warm through the long dark night, you need to stoke it every so often. A great way to do this is to build your own email list. If you’re serious about being an author, you should have a website. If you have a website, you can place links to your site and to your email sign-up page in your ebook. There are low-cost and free services like TinyLetter that provide an alternative to full-fledge email marketing tools and services. If you want to keep readers engaged, keep them in the loop via opt-in emails. When your next book comes out, you’ll be able to market directly to consumers who’ve already shown interest in your work. You can’t get much more targeted than that.

Now, if all of that hasn’t scared you away from self-publishing then I say go for it. As for me, I was spending more time on publishing, sales, and marketing than I was spending on writing. It was costing me money on top of the time as well. 

But I still don’t have a publishing deal because I haven’t put in the effort to get one. After a few ham-fisted attempts at querying agents I realized two things. First, I didn’t know what a good query letter looked like and second, I wasn’t ready for an agent. What I am ready for is a publisher who accepts unsolicited work from un-agented writers. There are more of these out there than you might think! That’s my focus now. I want go the traditional publishing route with my novels going forward, but through a publisher first. If I can make that happen, then maybe I’ll need an agent later and presumably I’ll be ready for eventually. In other words, if a publisher picks up one of my books, and that book sells, it should make meeting a good agent much easier.

Because a lot of what you have to do to be successful as an author, an agency and/or publisher will do for you. They will be taking on the time, effort, cost and risk associated with bringing a new novel from an unknown author into the world. They’re good at it and that’s why they take a percentage, but it’s also why it’s the more difficult path for new authors. We represent unknown risk, and any business that survives for any length of time does so in part by mitigating risk, and publishing is filled to the rafters with risk. 

Whichever path you chose, if you take the time to educate yourself, spend you money wisely, and put in the effort to learn as much as you can about the publishing business, you’ll get where you’re going eventually. When that happens, don’t forget where you came from and the journey you’ve undertaken. There are a lot of successful writers out there and one thing many have in common is a willingness to share what they’ve learned on their own journey. In that sense, we call all be like them, even before we’re one of them.

Best of luck – you got this.

So You Want to Be a Writer? Part 3

[My third essay for The Dillydoun Review, in which I make the case that writing is the journey and publication is the (first) destination.]

Writing is the First Step

So you want to be a writer, and the starting point seems obvious, write something! Therein lies the problem. Writing, creating, storytelling, that is the beginning of the journey, not the destination. The next step is getting published, and as hard as producing good work can be, getting it in front of readers (other than friends and family) can be the most difficult step to take. 

Let’s say you’ve done the work, you’ve refined your novel, you’ve even got objective feedback and some editorial guidance. Now what? Find an agent or a publisher or go the self-publish route? There’s a lot to unpack related to those decisions and processes, so I’m going to save that for my next essay. 

In this essay I’m going to focus on the business of getting your short work published digitally, in print, or both. Because you can go big and swing for the fences with your first novel if that works for you, but there are rewards to be reaped when you go small and submit your short stories, creative non-fiction and essays for publication. 

A quick search of the internet will turn up thousands of places to submit your work, including literary journals (online and print), writing contests, publishers (particularly anthologies), and several blogging/self-publishing platforms (e.g., Medium). The latter of these offer an opportunity to build and monetize an audience in a ways that didn’t exist before the internet. 

Before I dive into the more traditional offerings from this short list, I want to caution new writers. If you choose to post your work on a blog (even your own), or on sites like Medium or Wattpad, be aware that the overwhelming majority of literary journals, writing contests, and publishers consider anything published to any digital platform to be previously published work. This means either they will not consider the work for their platform/publication our it will be treated as a reprint, which at a minimum means any pay rate for the work will be lower than that for previously unpublished work. 

I have a WordPress site and I publish almost nothing there. I post links to my published work, which helps both my site and the publishing website. Right now my site generates about 2000 page views per day, which means several hundred people every day have the potential to discover new platforms where my work exists. Is it breaking any records? No, but if a literary journal publishes your work it’s in everyone’s best interest if you direct readers to that journal. The goal, as a new writer, is to get published and connect with readers. I recommend that you consider yourself in a symbiotic relationship with any publisher that gives your work a platform. 

With all that said, let’s talk about my three favorite places to submit work, and why. 

First and foremost, I love literary journals. I said there were thousands, but this is an understatement. There are online and print journals to match any and every taste and genre. Some are run by large well-funded teams affiliated with a university, others are side projects by young writers, some still in high school, and still others are the result of dedicated writers and editors who are passionate about the written word and give their heart and soul (as well as time and money) to an effort that might never generate revenue. 

One of the great things about submitting your work to a journal, whether online, print, or both, is that quite often you will receive editorial feedback on your submission. You may pay a reading fee to get that feedback, but as I said in my previous essay, this is a legitimate and useful tradeoff, a win-win situation. 

Keep in mind that most literary journals have limited resources and it takes time for submissions to go through the review process. Patience when submitting your work isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. If you’re not comfortable waiting, perhaps months, to find out if your work has been accepted, then you’re a good candidate for additional fees. In other words, if you want an expedited response, there are quite a few journals that will give you one for a price. To me this is fair, but keep in mind you are likely one of many writers who have submitted and paid a fee for a fast turnaround. The fee guarantees nothing beyond the response time – your odds of acceptance don’t go up, and might even go down due to the speed of the reply. Spend your money wisely. 

It’s a good idea to have multiple active submissions at any given moment, even if you’ve only produced one piece of work you feel is ready for submission. I personally do not like simultaneous submissions (submission of the same work to multiple journals). Yes, it is a numbers game to some extent and you need to write, submit, repeat. But as good as it feels to get a “yes” from one journal, if you’ve submitted to multiple journals you’ll have to withdraw your work from consideration from all of them. This is not fun, and while most journals accept work that has been submitted elsewhere, having a piece of work withdrawn is no fun for them either. 

My strategy: write, write, and write some more. When I’m not writing, I’m editing. When I think a piece is ready, I find a match (if I haven’t already) and submit. Then move on. Once you submit, it’s out of your hands so you might as well start something new. 

Because you never know when an opportunity is going to pop up, a call for submissions or a contest, that is a good match for your work. 

Writing contests are second on my list of favorite places to submit my work. Second because they tend to have a long run-up before even a short list is announced. I submitted two stories to a competition and by the time the winners were announced I had revised both stories several times and they were accepted for publication at two different journals. This is where my simultaneous submission rule breaks down. I’d rather withdraw from a competition if my work is accepted for publication than miss out on a chance to get published. To each their own on this point. 

Whether you win a competition, make the short list, or are rejected outright, there’s a lot of value in the process for new writers. At the least, you’ll see where you stand against other writers by reading the work of those who place in the competition. In some cases, your submission will garner critical feedback. Such a competition may have a higher entry fee, but in many cases it’s worth it. Just be clear on the vetting and feedback process before you pay your entry fees. As with anything, not every competition is worth the price. Of course, there’s always the chance your work will win the top prize. If this happens, make sure you shout it from the highest mountain top because you deserve the recognition, as does the competition. For lists of sites that can guide you to excellent writing competitions, check out the links in my first essay in this series. 

Finally, let’s talk about publishers. In this case I’m referring to book publishers who also publish anthologies of short work. An example of this would be Ab Terra, the sci-fi imprint of Brain Mill Press. While Ab Terra’s focus is on publishing novels, they also produce an annual sci-fi anthology. As with most publishers, submissions for these publications are usually open for a brief time once per year (more often for more frequently published anthologies). This is where preparation and patience are critical. Make sure your work is ready because there are no do-overs, and be certain you are a good fit for the publication because it could be months before you learn whether or not your work is accepted. 

The beauty of submitting your work to a publisher for an anthology like this is that the publication will be available in print, and if your piece is accepted, there’s nothing quite like holding a book and opening it to the page where your short story or essay lives. I just ordered two copies of the “Queer as Hell” anthology from Haunted MTL to give away because I honestly can’t wait to crack open the cover and see my story in print. This may not be special to everyone, but to me it’s the first time one of my short stories will appear in print, and in the end, getting published is, for me, the point. Getting published in a print anthology? That’s icing on the cake, and who doesn’t love a little icing now and again?

Just remember, like I said, it is a numbers game. If your work is solid and you know it’s ready, submit it and get back to writing. The more your write, the more you can submit, and in so doing, shift the odds a little more in your favor. Yes, you’ll have to deal with more rejection, but if you’re not ready for rejection, you’re not ready to submit. 

But if you’re truly ready, rejection will only make you stronger. Keep writing, keep reading, forge on. You got this.

TIP: If you’re submitting your work, you need a third-person bio. If you don’t know what that is, or how to write one, check out this great set of tips from the folks at Coverfly. (https://www.coverfly.com/5-tips-for-crafting-your-perfect-writer-bio/) Note that these tips are geared toward screenwriters, but they are still useful in helping any writer hone their “pitch.”

So You Want to Be a Writer? Part 1

[This was the first in a four part series of essays for The Dillydoun Review, sharing my experience to date in the business of writing.]

Writing is not easy, it seldom pays well, and it fills your inbox with rejection. In early 2020, because I’m a glutton for punishment, I decided to write full time. 

If I knew then what I know now I would have made the same choice, but with a better strategy.

Because writing is also emotionally rewarding, intellectually stimulating, and can provide a good living for those who persist and hone their craft. As for rejection, it’s like table stakes in a poker game. If you can’t manage the baseline bet, you should sit out the game.

With that said, I am no expert. I did write for a major news outlet years ago, but that was a side job to my real job. Since last year, I’ve completed three novels, a book of poetry, a script for a TV pilot, and have a growing collection of short stories. 

In my first year I made every mistake a rookie writer can make, and it’s possible I invented some new ones. The last six months have gone much better.

I’m not a rookie anymore.

What do I have to show for all this you ask? Good question. 

My first script was a finalist in a TV Pilot competition, my self-published novel (under a pen name) was a finalist in another competition and cracked the Top 100 in its genre on Amazon (#98 briefly), and I’ve had several short stories accepted for publication. I have one novel in the hands of a publisher right now, another one just completed, and I have begun querying agents.

So far I’ve made exactly zero dollars.

The Big Payoff for me is experience

I learn best from hands-on experience. Now I’m on this journey and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned so far.

Let’s start with the most basic – Do The Work. 

It sounds simple, but many aspiring writers never write, and for active writers, writing is haphazard and filled with distractions.

I spent years dreaming of being a novelist, and I didn’t write a single word toward my goal, mostly out of fear and self-doubt.

Your dream of being a writer won’t materialize if you don’t sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and type. Hemingway wrote his first drafts in pencil, so that works too. 

As new writers, the odds are already against us in this business. But there are ways we can start to tilt things in our favor.

I’ve found the three most important things for me are having a dedicated space to work, blocking out distractions, and setting a writing a schedule (and sticking to it). 

I work in the afternoon, six hours per day minimum, on average.

This includes research, querying agents, or submitting to publishers, contests and literary magazines. Mornings are for strong coffee, light reading, and walking the dog. In the evening, I do more research and a lot of brainstorming.

Yet I still struggle.

My schedule was recently obliterated by a piece of mail. Its contents presented a frustrating problem, but not an urgent one.

I spent ninety minutes of my afternoon dealing with it. 

Then I spent the rest of the day trying to refocus on writing. I got next to nothing done. It felt awful.

I didn’t properly prioritize my time and I paid for it with a lost afternoon. 

If I’m to have any hope of succeeded as a writer I have to learn to be selfish with my time, my space, my priorities, and my writing.

Because a loss of focus can cost even more time by allowing loads of errors to sneak into my work.

The less focused I am, the more likely I am to make mistakes I will fail to find and fix later.

The most insidious of these are typos. I am a self-taught typist, so I make a lot of typos.

For the record, spellcheck is not your friend and auto-correct is your declared enemy.

Spellcheck won’t tell you when you’ve typed “form” instead of “from” and it won’t tell you when auto-correct changed a mistyped “decided” to a correctly spelled, but wrong, “denied.” 

These tools are unreliable. They are often a hinderance. Plus, I tend to read right through typos and incorrect words, my mind filling in where my eyes refuse to see. 

I’m not saying, ‘don’t use them,’ I’m saying, ‘don’t trust them.’

I learned this the hard way when I wrote my first novel and decided to self-publish. I ran spellcheck and grammar check, fixed what was found, and sent the manuscript off to The Land of E-Book Publishing. 

When I loaded the ebook into my reader, I discovered it was filled with typos. I stopped counting at 47, across 42 chapters. One was in the opening paragraph. It wouldn’t have mattered if no one had downloaded the book. But they had, and I was embarrassed.   

Don’t trust automated tools, ever. 

Reread, reread, then reread some more. If you have someone in your life to proofread your work, or can afford to pay someone, consider yourself lucky. 

My solution is to reformat my text every time I read it. 

Change the font, the spacing, the borders, or even print the work if it’s not too long. If it’s a novel, I export it as an EPUB and read it on my favorite device. Think of it like driving down a bumpy road, then driving down the same road after it’s been repaved. Same road, different experience.

When I do this, I’m more likely to catch my errors and correct them before anyone else sees my work. It’s not a perfect system, but I’ve gotten good results from it.

In the end, writing is editing and editing is writing. I allow myself one exception to this rule. I try to avoid extensive editing while writing a first draft, whether it’s a novel or flash fiction, or anything in between. I like to capture my thoughts, finish the story, and clean up the words later.

Whatever I write, I expect to edit and revise until the work is polished. 

Here’s another useful tip: take some time between each pass. A day, a week, a month, you’ll figure out over time what length of break works for you.

Work on something else, read a book, improve your third-person bio, or research publishers, agents, journals, and competitions. Create some space to let your mind forget some of what you just wrote, then come back to it and edit with fresh eyes. 

Since you’ve read this far, I’ll leave you with a final thought. 

Don’t believe everything you read about writing. 

People like to Tweet quotes by famous writers, and Hemingway’s missives are no exception. The attributions are often wrong, or the words taken out of context. 

Hemingway is often quoted as saying, “Write drunk, edit sober.” 

I’d argue that’s objectively bad advice. 

According to Katherine Firth, Hemingway never said it. What he wrote in A Moveable Feast was: 

‘…my training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing’ (p.61).

You can see the difference. 

The internet, and book stores, are loaded with advice for writers and a lot of it is good. But even the good advice won’t always be a good fit for you, and the bad advice can send you on some costly detours. Consider the source, take what works for you, leave the rest. 

I said I was no expert, but after 18 months of full time writing and research, I know where to find a few experts. 

Below are links to some websites I’ve found useful. If you’ve been writing for a while you know them already. If not, they make terrific companions for your writing journey. 

To sum it all up, work hard, be selfish with your time and attention, write-edit-repeat, take advantage of the help that’s out there, trust yourself, and learn from your mistakes. 

You got this.

Writer’s Digest: workshops, free downloads, how-to articles, competitions, you name it, they’ve got it, and most of it is free.  https://www.writersdigest.com

Winning Writers: one of the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers, they’ve got a focus on competitions and a massive list of links to great resources for writers, everything from advice, to literary forums, to ways to spot scams targeting writers. https://winningwriters.com

Alliance of Independent Authors: This should be your first stop if you’re considering self-publishing. There’s a LOT here, just like the two websites above, but one of the most useful things you’ll find is their ‘Best Self-Publishing Services’ list. If you read nothing else before you self-publish, review this list. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/best-self-publishing-services/

Lit Rejections: A site with stories, quotes and a blog about literary rejection, it also has some great interviews as well as information about literary agencies. If none of that sounds useful, at least visit and take a look at the collage of book covers from best sellers that were initially rejected. It’s eye opening. http://www.litrejections.com 

Authors Publish Magazine: Everything is free on this site and their email newsletter is filled with great information, but not overloaded. They research publishers and provide links to one that are open for submission, with a healthy does of paying markets. https://authorspublish.com