Waiting for George

People are still angry at G. R. R. Martin.


They want what they want, and even people who write don’t seem to get it. They say they understand that you can’t force these things, that good writing takes time – but then they point to the things he’s published since (in their eyes) abandoning the Game of Thrones series, and seem to think that if he can write other stuff, it’s some kind of mean trick/malicious intention that he has not produced that final novel.

I have a lot of sympathy for George, because it’s not that simple.

You can want like nothing else on earth to write a particular thing, and not be able to.

Your choices, in these moments are not wide. Either you spend every day staring at the cursor as it blinks evilly at you and force boring and uninspired sentences onto the screen, then immediately cut them – or you can write something else in the hopes that this will  spark the necessary inspiration for the thing you know you ought to be working on.

And sometimes this actually works, but not always, and not necessarily in the time-frame you would wish for.

And it’s a catch-22 for the writer. They could produce some formulaic, boring, industrial piece of predictable claptrap, sell a bunch of copies, get a lot of terrible reviews and hope that, in time, fans will forget and forgive.

Or they can wait, and try, and hope like hell that eventually, the creative juices will flow.


The readers, apparently, will be angry either way, but I’m guessing that Martin, not being young enough to figure he has the time to regain his reputation, has opted for trying to put out a good book, not a stopgap.

I know that there are writers out there who will not agree, who will say that writing is simply a matter of getting on with it, that they have managed to pump out four books a year, that Martin is just lazy, or holding out for more money, or just being an asshole.

But I think they are wrong.

Every writer is different.

Every writing process is different.

And even if right now, you are capable of churning out 3000 words every morning before you leave for work, it does not follow that you will be able to do this ten years from now, or even next week. People change. Circumstances change. And writers, as they age, might want different things out of their writing than they did when younger.

You need to be kind. You need to be generous.

You need to be patient, because good writing is worth waiting for.




Free to starve


It’s the advice everyone gives to self-published authors.

“Giving books away for free will get you sales.”

Oh, they smile (metaphorically, of course, because all this is on-line advice) and pat your little digital hand, and reassure you: “Oh, we know, honey. It sounds counterintuitive, but it works!”

And in a way it does. You get a little bit of buzz going – people tweet and retweet about you for maybe ten minutes. If you have more than one book, you’ll get some sales on the one that isn’t free, and then you can, a week or two later, turn it around, and get a few sales on the other book.

And all your friends and relations are way impressed, and they like and share you all over Facebook, and everything is grand.

Sooner or later, though, you hit the slump. Everyone you know that was willing to download for free has done it. But the gurus, the marketing pros, the old self-publishing hands, they just send out another digital grin and tell you to do a big social media splash and offer Everything and More for FREEFREEFREE again.

“Watch,” they say. “Sales will boom!”

And sometimes, they do, for a little while.

The trouble with having everything for free is that people come to expect it. The trouble with successively putting your work out for anyone to download without paying for it is that people who might otherwise shell out those laughable pittances that are keeping the wolf from your door – they come to realize that they don’t have to. All they have to do is wait until the next desperate move from the author comes around.

Every author hits a sales slump. Sometimes it can be measured in days or weeks. Sometimes it paces down through literal years.

But this is the advantage of self-publishing.

With a traditional publisher, if your books don’t sell, they let them go out of print. If you were really smart and lucky, you might get some of the rights back, but for most first-time authors, well, they usually get to keep those rights for decades, and even if fans are clamoring for a re-release, they probably won’t do it, because they’ve already lost money on you, and they aren’t about to risk any more.

As an indie, though, time really stays on your side. Your book can remain technically available forever, on Amazon, on Smashwords, and through whichever Print On Demand service you went with.

The upshot? Giving books away for free is a short-term mechanism that ceases, over time, to give anything back to you. Giving books away for free actually trains your readers to expect free content.

The bloody opposite of what you meant to do.


It’s time to stop.

No Instant Answers


There’s no magic bullet when it comes to writing.

I know there are literally millions of websites and courses and master classes out there, insisting that they can tell you exactly how to write best-seller/award-winning/luminous prose, but Reader: they lie.

MFA Writing programs notwithstanding, no one honestly knows how to do any of that.


Some writers know (or at least they think they know) how it works for *them*.

It might not work for you. In fact, it almost certainly will not work for you.

First, because there’s almost a 90% chance that the writer who hit the top of the hit list on their very first venture into the world of writing just got a mysterious, unrepeatable stroke of luck. They hit the right editor, at the right magazine, at the right moment, or they queried a book agent on a slow day of a slow week, or someone at a national TV show wanted a “small town success story” for some reason and the writer’s sister’s best friend from high school mentioned their name.

Secondly, and even more importantly, what works for one writer, in terms of subject, or plot, or theme, or genre, might be all wrong for millions of other writers.

I mean, romance writers sell a kajillion more books than I do, but I couldn’t write a straight romance if my life depended on it. My heart’s not in it, and readers, dog love ‘em, would sense that on page one.

I’m not saying you don’t learn stuff from those MFA programs, or the expensive master classes, or even from a website listicle. There are things that can be taught, and you definitely should go out and learn them. Like most endeavours, it’s very important to know the rules before you break them.

But there’s no formula. Computer programmers keep telling us there is, but I haven’t seen any evidence that making sure you use certain words in certain percentages that mimic all the NYTimes Top Ten novels for the last decade will result in anything more than crap.

It’s not the words. It’s how you – specifically you – use them.

It’s not the story you tell. It’s how you – again, specifically you – tell it.

And, perhaps paradoxically, it isn’t merely what you bring to the novel, but also what the reader(s) bring. Fiction is not a monologue.

There is no way to predict any of this, and far less of any magic charm telling you how any current zeitgeist will play into the equation.

There is one thing that all really successful writers do uniformly, though, and it’s not a big secret.

They write the very best book they possibly can, with as much love, commitment, and sincerity as they can possibly give.

It’s as easy as that.

The sounds of silence: publishing scams and other beasts

There are a lot of pitfalls for hungry new authors out there.


And this article here will tell you all about them:
publishing scams

But there are other problematic things going on, too.

Sometimes, I get offers by email to submit my next novel to a small press. They beg me to check out their website and note the submission guidelines and then hurry up and submit because they have a lot of other writers clamoring for a chance to work with them.

Sometimes it’s just well-meaning friends, telling me I should totally check out this small press they are with, because definitely I deserve to have the burden of all this formatting and cover nonsense lifted from my shoulders, and don’t I want the “legitimacy” of being “really published”?

And sometimes I succumb to the blandishments and click on the link.

You know what I see, when I’m badgered into checking out a website for a small press?

I see their submission guidelines, and a lot of verbiage about what they are looking for (“We are excited to see works that sing to us/break new ground/push the edge of the envelope/make us weep/whatever”) and the minutiae of how your stuff should be formatted. They are meticulous about font and point size, about margins, and headers and footers, and the exact placement of your name and the title of the work being submitted.

Sometimes the website does mention that they’ll spring for a professional edit, but conversely, they almost never – in the absence of that declaration – admit up front that the writer will bear that cost.

Once in a while the site will mention how they market the books they publish (Twitter. Facebook. Maybe some attempts at paid advertising if they are really serious.)

Even, very, very occasionally, the small press site mentions the royalty split.

But you know what they don’t mention?

What advantage they can offer in the way of getting your book into libraries and bricks-and-mortar stores.

Not one site I have visited has ever noted what their distribution system is. They mention no partnerships with larger book distributors. There is no listing of the book rep staff, or representation of any kind.

And frankly, that’s the one thing I cannot, as a self-published author, do effectively for myself.

And that feeds back into my problem with traditional publishing models.

They are banking on the insecurity and need for validation that many writers have, in order to make money from our hard work.

But they’ve discovered that they need not offer much in the way of a return for the writer – that as a group, we are still so blinded by the words “published author” that we don’t even notice when we are being fleeced.

Don’t believe me?

The next time a small press puts out a call for submissions, or reaches out to you personally asking you to submit, ask them what their distribution system is. That’s all – just a simple sentence asking them if they field their own book reps to the libraries, chains, and independent bookstores, or have an agreement with a distribution company like Independent Book Publishers Association.

And then settle back to enjoy the soothing sound of nothing at all.


O, vanitas, vanitatum, omnia vanitas

This blogger (who I admire greatly) has a very different view of this:


When you start out as a writer, everyone and their aunt’s grandmother will warn you about vanity publishers.

These are outfits that are, very simply, a scam. You pay for everything under the sun (like editing, and PR and the cost of printing the books themselves) and are required by the contract you sign to buy a large number of copies up front. There are no royalties, and you are expected to publicize the book yourself, and do the sales part as well.

You pay for the privilege of having a physical book.

And you would think, in this day and age, when anyone who wants to can produce a book at no actual up-front costs – in this age of Kindle and Ingram and Lulu, et al – that these guys would have folded up and gone away like the dodo.

But they are still out there, catching the unwary by pretending to be actual publishing houses. They solicit your manuscript, flatter you by acting like they don’t go after “just anyone” and that they realio-trulio believe you are the next JK Rowling or whatever.

Because they know that you crave the validation and legitimacy that the mainstream “actual” publishing houses have created as a bar to keep the field in check.

Seriously, the gatekeeper status of the traditional publishing sector is what fueled the need for vanity publishers in large part, and their jealous guardianship of what is “literature” (or even “marketable”) is what keeps these scammers in business.

And to be honest, I don’t think today’s publishing world is that much different from the thieves and con-men on the other side of this fence.



Hear me out.

One has only to look at the track record of these “legitimate” businesses to know that they are almost wholly concerned with money, and do not much care if the books they publish are any good at all.

Maybe once upon a time, the men (they were mostly men) who owned and ran these houses cared about books.

And I am sure that the people who act as editors still believe that they care about the text, first and foremost, and are hopeful, every time, that when they pitch a project to the accounting people, that they can fulfill both objectives: to make money and release a great piece of writing.

But when most of the companies involved are owned by huge global corporations that probably sell everything from cell-phone cases to carrot juice, the fact is that it is not about the product’s excellence, but about the money earned. No ifs, ands, or buts.

And because they need to stay earning those dollars, they, too, play on the need for validation and legitimacy – in fact, that’s how they stay in business at all.

They have artificially restricted the input of “product” by erecting more and more barriers to a manuscript being accepted. Very few places allow unsolicited manuscripts (the dreaded “slush pile”) and require you to have an agent (who also erects barriers and gate-keeping walls) to front for you and woo an editor into maybe, possibly, rarely, taking a look at the synopsis and page one before throwing it into the trash.

To get an agent, you will have to have paid for a professional editor, to make sure that the book is good enough (ie: ready right now for publication) to attract an agent.

This means that the few authors that do get accepted have a perceived value over those unaccepted writers. It confers a status.

But it comes at a price.

The authors who have landed actual contracts with actual publishers give up a lot. They aren’t, especially as first timers or “midlist” authors, going to have even minimal input, much less control, over their covers, for example, and, if they want a second kick at the can, they will be docile and obedient about the editing process.

They will be expected to already have a strong social media presence, and for most of them, the majority of time, energy, and costs of publicizing the book will be on their shoulders.

They will, on average, receive about 10-15% for every copy of their book that is sold, once the advance* is paid off and BEFORE the agent gets their cut.

And there is a very high probability that after the second book fails to make the publisher a million or so in profit, that will be the end of the contract.

But forever afterwards, the author gets to bask in the reflected glory of having their work published by a “real” publisher, which means they are a “real” writer, and set apart from the hoi polloi of indies and the unpublished.

Frankly, it’s become as much of a scam as the naked robbery evidenced by those “vanity publishers”.


*Advances are trending ever downward, too: the average amount for a first time/unknown author is between $5000 and $15000 now – and that’s if you’re lucky.