Here’s a nice bit of news. Kirkus Reviews calls Gate 76 “A consummate thriller with some of the best characterization you’ll see all year.”
And we got a star too!
I read a lot of classic crime fiction, and when I go back to the best writers in the genre, I consistently find that they pack more substance, insight, and emotional weight into 200 pages than today’s bestselling authors can get into 500 pages. And yet, a handful of authors manage to consistently sell millions of copies of books about uninteresting characters doing far-fetched things described in prose that is not compelling and sometimes not even convincing. Why is this?
The computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra once wrote a parable about two programmers who were both assigned to write a new software program. One programmer set to work immediately writing code. The other spent weeks thinking about the design of the program and the fundamental problems it had to solve before he typed a single line of code.
Both completed their work in nine months, and both programs did what they were supposed to do. When it came time for the programmers’ annual job reviews, their managers looked at the code they had written. The manager of the programmer who had started writing code immediately found a huge, sprawling code base with tens of thousands of lines of code. It was so complex, he could barely make sense of it. But he knew it worked, because people were using it.
When the manager of the other programmer looked at his employee’s code, he found just a few thousand lines of concise easy-to-read code that laid out with crystal clarity the problems the program needed to address, and then very neatly solved them.
The first programmer’s manager said to his employee, “I can tell by what I’ve read that you’ve solved a very difficult and complicated problem. That fact that the software works as well as it does is amazing. I can’t believe you cranked out eighty thousand lines of code in just nine months. You’re getting a raise.”
The second programmer’s manager said, “Your code is so surprisingly simple and clear, it shows that the underlying problem couldn’t have been very complex. The fact that the software works as well as it does just proves you were working on a simple problem all along. I can’t believe it took you nine months to write five thousand lines of code. You’re fired.”
This is how the software world sometimes works, and this is how the publishing world seems to work, especially in bestselling mystery and thriller fiction.
To write a good 200 page book, you first have to write a middling 50o page book. Then you have to distill that and pare it down. It’s not just a process of cutting unnecessary sentences. It’s often a process of conveying three chapters worth of information in a single scene, which has to come across as natural and fluid while advancing the story, developing themes, and conveying facts, emotions, and insights to reader.
Unfortunately, many established authors, knowing they have a dedicated readership, crank out the 500 page version and stop there. A good editor should push them either to have 500 pages of substance, or to cut the book down to where it’s nothing but substance (say, 200 pages?), so it will have more impact. But the writers and editors don’t have to, so they don’t put in the extra work. Readers happily accept the pale and flabby works of [I won’t say who] and have no idea how much deeper and more powerful are the works of the masters like Dorothy Hughes, Elliott Chaze, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Williams, and Jim Thompson.
To put it another way, readers would rather sink into a 500 page mess then contemplate a 200 page gem.
Edsger Dijkstra summed up the problem when he said, “Simplicity is a great virtue, but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse, complexity sells better.”
In the world of genre fiction, readers tastes have become accustomed to lazy writing and pointless scenes the way children’s tastes become accustomed to processed food. When you give them something fresh, they reject it.
I call this “The Seinfeld Problem.” If you pick up a popular mystery, thriller, or suspense novel that is part of a series, you’ll find lots of scenes where the main character has lunch with a partner or dinner with a date, or has a long argument with a friend over who makes the best meatball subs in town. These scenes don’t advance the plot or enrich the story. They’re supposed to give the reader some insight into the main character, or to make the reader feel more connected.
In series fiction, however, the reader already knows the main character from previous books. The writer doesn’t have to do the difficult and rewarding work of revealing the character through his actions and words. Because that work has already been done, the reader often finds himself just hanging out with the main character, talking about nothing over a long lunch, in just the way Seinfeld and Kramer and Elaine and George hung out and talked about nothing in the show that Seinfeld himself called “a show about nothing.”
Seinfeld got away with it because the characters were interesting and funny, and the viewer understood there would be no plot and none of the characters would change by the end of the story. But mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels are supposed to have plots, and those plots should keep moving. Stories where the main character changes and grows are always more interesting than stories where he/she doesn’t. But part of the nature of series is that the main character has to be the same from book to book. The main character is the product, and readers expect him to be same in the next book as he was in the last, just like they expect the can of ravioli they’re about to open to taste just like the one they ate yesterday.
As a software engineer, I became accustomed to managers asking, “Why are you still working on that program if it’s not crashing and there are no glaring bugs?” I keep working on it because I see it can be simplified, that a thousand lines can be boiled down to two hundred. Managers don’t always appreciate that, and neither do readers. But if you spend a few months reading the powerful, well-written works of the masters in any genre, and then you return to what passes for “a great read” on the current bestseller lists, you start shaking your head and wondering what’s going on.
What is going on?
A few months ago, my wife brought home a book by Micheal Tolkin called Among the Dead. Tolkin was the author of The Player, which was made into a film directed by Robert Altman, and like The Player, Among the Dead is a dark satirical look at the vanity and egotism of the bit players in the entertainment industry.
Among the Dead begins with a man missing a flight that he was supposed to be on with his wife. The plane crashes, and the rest of the book is an examination of the man’s thoughts and character, and of his failure to deal with or even care about the real consequences of what has happened. The man himself, with his shallowness and lack of empathy, can be counted metaphorically among the dead.
When I read it, I thought, “This book would have been a lot more interesting if the woman hadn’t gotten on that plane.” I explained the idea to my wife, but she didn’t quite get it. So I wrote the first chapter of the book and showed it to her. I said, “See? Now that’s an interesting story.” I had no intention of finishing it. I just wanted to show her what a good premise that would be. But after reading the first chapter, she was hooked. She said, “You have to finish this! I need to know what happens.”
So I did. You can read the first chapter here.
The manuscript is complete, and I’ve started to get feedback from beta readers. It will go to the editor in a few weeks, and then I might try shopping it around to publishers.
I got word yesterday that Bibliolabs and Library Journal added Impala to their Self-E Select list as one of the notable indie titles of the month. They’ll help make it available through local libraries around the country. Since Kirkus also featured it in their September issue, I’m interested to see if libraries pick up the paperback.
In other news, I wrote a guest post for Elizabeth A. White’s blog the other day about Impala and the tradition of classic American crime novels. And today, The Feathered Quill posted an interview with me along with a nice review of Impala.
If you read it, please leave a review on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or Goodreads, or wherever you like to post your opinions. Reader reviews are usually the best testimony, and I’d like to hear from you.
My new book, Impala, was finished in May–not just the writing, but the editing, proofreading, design, and layout. I decided to have it ready four months before release so I could do some of the promotional work that traditional publishers do: get the book into the hands of reviewers, talk to bookstores and news outlets. The ebook market is quite competitive, and like the app market for smart phones, it often seems like a race to the bottom. The writers and app developers who appear to be winning are the ones who are working really hard to sell their product for 99 cents, or to give it away for free in hopes of drawing attention to their paid works.
In the book market, hard copies still account for the bulk of sales, so I wanted to spend some time trying to get Impala into stores. Few of the ebook authors cranking out formulaic series put much effort into selling physical books, so I thought there might be a little less competition there. I’ve also noticed that the indie titles that tend to sell well on Amazon belong to genres where people tend to read quickly and in high volume: romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Amazon is to Kindle readers what 7-11 is to stoners: a place to find something quick, cheap, tasty, and forgettable that will tide you over until the next time you get the munchies.
The first step in selling to bookstores, so I thought, was getting good reviews from the reputable sources that booksellers actually read: Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, local and regional newspapers and magazines. To make a long story short, most newspapers and magazines state explicitly that they will not accept self-published work. Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist say they welcome your submission, but they may or may not review it, and if they don’t review it, they don’t give any explanation why.
I spent a few hours a week for many months reading independent book review blogs, and made a list of bloggers who might like my book. I wrote individually crafted emails to each of them, but only one agreed to look at Impala. In fact, she was the only one who even acknowledged receiving my email. Many independent bloggers also now also say they will not review self-published books. I understand that, because there’s a flood of them now, and no one wants to wade through that slush pile in their spare time for free.
In the end, phase one of my strategy yielded a number of very good reviews, but not all of them came from the prestigious sources I was after. While the book was out for review, I started talking to bookstore owners and managers, and I learned a few things there as well. If you’re an unknown author, they don’t want your book taking up limited shelf space unless 1) the book takes place in their town or pertains directly to some local interest (like a book about farming in farm country), 2) you’re willing to do a reading or event in their store, and 3) you have some general marketing plan that shows you’re serious about promoting the book. The marketing plan should include a series of appearances on radio, at bookstores, and events, etc.
My first book, Warren Lane, is published through Ingram and listed in Ingram’s catalog under standard terms, which means a 55% wholesale discount, and the book is returnable. I went into a few stores and asked the manager to look the book up in their system to see how it appeared, then I asked them if there was anything in the listing itself that would prevent them from ordering the book. They all said, “Well, it’s Print On Demand (POD). We don’t stock those, but if a customer comes in and requests the book, we’ll order a copy.” That left me thinking that most customers would just order the title online from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and have it shipped right to their house.
Print On Demand makes sense, both economically and environmentally. When putting out a new title, publishers have traditionally guessed how many copies they could sell, and then ordered a print run of 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 copies. They distribute those to bookstores and regional warehouses, and hope they got the number right. If the book sells better than expected, they order another print run, and hope they can get the title back onto store shelves before the first printing runs out. If the book doesn’t sell, they wind up shredding thousands of copies, losing money and wasting trees.
Print On Demand neatly solves the problems of having enough copies available and avoiding returns, but it has a stigma, as Brook Warner notes. Even though the big publishers now use POD for parts of their backlists, bookstore owners think POD means either 1) the author is self-published and therefore won’t sell, or 2) the publisher didn’t have enough faith in the book to issue an initial print run, so why should they take a chance on it?
Indies face yet another problem in bookstores. Traditional publishers send book reps out to stores to sell new titles months before they hit the market. The book rep meets face-to-face with the store owner to discuss upcoming titles. The rep and the manager have a trust relationship. They may talk every few months. As an indie author, you’re trying to get shelf space from someone who’s never heard of you, and the space you’re trying to get may have been reserved months ago.
All these obstacles led me to focus once again on online sales. I had learned a number of things about the online market after publishing Warren Lane. First, the promotional sites like Just Kindle Books and Kindle Nation Daily catered to readers of genre fiction, and if your book didn’t fall neatly into one genre, it’s going to be difficult to market. Second, the books that sell well are not necessarily well written or insightful or memorable in any way, but they do give the reader what they’re after. (I noticed that most of the hot-selling genre fiction on the promotional sites fell into the Romance category. I used Amazon’s Look Inside feature to read the opening chapters of some of those books, and I got a little education there too. I had thought “Romance” meant something like courtship and Prince Charming and happily ever after. Instead, I learned that women like to read porn, instead of watching it like men.)
Finally, most successful indie authors are writing series within one or more genres. They have a detective or a fantasy hero or a spaceship and crew that readers follow from one adventure to the next. The book covers in each series have a similar look, so readers can identify them, and once the series has two or more titles, the author will give away the first book, or sell it for 99 cents, to bring in new readers. That’s a good strategy for writers, and it makes economic sense. The software market these days follows a similar pattern, with free and paid versions of the same app, “freemium” web services that give you bonus features if you’re willing to pay, and open source software that companies give away, making their money through customization and support instead of sales.
What’s disheartening to me is what the genre-series model says about readers: that they only want what’s familiar, and if the book they read today isn’t just like the one they read yesterday, they might be disappointed. I’ve never quite understood that kind of reader, because I’ve always been that kind of reader. I read to find new insights, new depth and perspective. Bookstores tend to be full of books that offer those things, while the hot-selling indie titles on Amazon tend to be closer in spirit and substance to the mass-market paperbacks at the grocery checkout.
So if you’re an indie author and you’re not interested in writing a commercial series, you’re in a bind. Your real readers are in bookstores, but getting into those is difficult.
I had been lamenting this after publishing my first book, and as I was beginning to promote my second. Then, recently, I came across a series of books by Chris Fox, which embraces all of the things I had once lamented about the online book market. In a book called Write to Market, Fox describes the process he followed to produce a top-selling ebook. First, identify a sub-genre on Amazon that has strong sales and is underserved. That’s one in which the top few sellers are selling very well, but the tenth and twentieth best-selling items on the list are not moving many copies at all. After identifying a sub-genre, Fox read the top few titles and figured out their formula. In his case, he found books about spaceships with maverick captains having to fend off some alien threat that might wipe out the whole human race. The final part of Fox’s advice is to write a book that follows that formula, give it a cover and a blurb similar to the covers and blurbs of the best sellers, do a little marketing, and collect your paycheck.
Fox says he took a lot of flack for the process he described in Write to Market, with a number of readers and writers calling him a cynic and a sellout. I actually think he’s really smart. If you want to make money, you’ll do much better embracing the market than complaining about it. And I agree with his point that if you choose a sub-genre that you actually enjoy reading, you can still write a unique and compelling book, despite the fact that you’re following a formula. Think about how many painters have done landscapes and battle scenes, and what a different feeling you get from two people presenting two different views of the same subject.
If you look at fiction from a business perspective, it looks like a bunch of people creating products that no one asked for, and then wringing their hands because no one is buying what they made. Most businesses, from home building down to cupcake baking, first ask, “What do people actually buy?” And then they say, “OK, we’ll make some of those.” Writers and painters and musicians, especially the more intellectual ones, think their creations are special and that they’re entitled to an exception to the market rules. I’m guilty of that myself sometimes. We might as well expect the law of gravity not to apply to us.
So Fox’s books got me thinking about why I read and why I write. What do I look for in a book, and what do I try to create in a book? Fox has another book called 5000 Words Per Hour, which describes why and how you should write 5000 words per hour if you want to make it as an indie author. (For the why part, the short of it is that Kindle readers like series, and they’ll binge read if they can. The faster you can put books in front of them, the happier they’ll be. As your sales increase, you become more visible to new readers on Amazon, creating a cycle of sales growth.)
Now I can probably write 5000 words per hour. I can certainly type that fast. After all these years as a software developer, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the keyboard. But I know I couldn’t produce the work I want to produce if I were writing at that speed. I tried to formulate the reason why, but I couldn’t quite do it until yesterday, when I was looking at paintings in the art museum in Richmond.
I was admiring the work of Kehinde Wiley, who himself has something of a formula, and when I looked past his message to the quality and detail of his work, I was finally able to describe why I can’t be a 5000-word-per-hour genre writer. It comes down to this: There is no story we can tell that hasn’t already been told. The stories that stick with us are the ones that are told in a way that moves us. They have a little more heart, a little more depth and style than what we’re used to finding. In telling yet another version of a story we’ve heard before, they reveal a something new, reaching us in a way the other tellings didn’t.
I like writing that shows a willingness to open up and look deep, that shows attention to composition and detail, building not just the story, but an overall experience in the reader’s mind by working on many levels at once. That kind of writing doesn’t really happen at 5000 words per hour. In the online writing market, choosing the challenges of depth and detail means giving up your shot at being a first-tier seller. You’re aiming at a smaller, pickier audience that’s harder to find, and the chances of them discovering you without the marketing channels available to traditional publishers is slim.
So for now, I look at writing and earning a living as two different things. Software pays the bills, and when I have time to do it, writing is the creative outlet that keeps me going.
My new novel, Impala, is a thriller in the vein of the classic crime novels of the thirties, forties, and fifties. The best of those novels follow a pattern that goes like this: An intelligent but flawed character gets in trouble after he gives into to some desire or compulsion, like lust, greed, or revenge. He finds himself surrounded by people and powers that will not let him go. His attempts to extricate himself from his troubles only lead to deeper trouble. He’s usually involved with a woman who is either in love with him or betraying him, but either way, their fates become inextricably intertwined. Finally, these stories always convey a mounting sense of inevitability, as if the fates of these specific characters in these specific circumstances could have only one inevitable conclusion.
The best of these novels—such as Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel—also share a fundamental aesthetic of leanness. There are no superfluous chapters, scenes, or words. If you haven’t read them, you’ll be surprised at how much story these authors can pack into 200 pages or less. Leanness and tautness are essential to a good thriller. You don’t ride a roller coaster in a cushy reclining chair. You might also be surprised, when you return to reading contemporary mass-market mysteries and thrillers, how larded they are with description, back story, and events that don’t add much to the story.
Many of today’s 450-page bestsellers would have more impact if they were pared down to 250 pages. That kind of editing is hard work, and I think it requires a mindset that many novelists and editors don’t have, but many playwrights, screenwriters, and poets are forced to have. It you wrote a 450-page screenplay, the resulting movie would run for 20 hours. Playwrights, screenwriters, and poets put a lot of effort into reducing characters and scenes to their essence, because they have to. And it’s interesting to note that Kenneth Fearing was a poet, while Thompson and Cain wrote screenplays. Chaze was a news reporter who had to file stories daily, so he was used to getting to the point.
With the exception of The Big Clock, each of these four books was considered pulp when it was published, and received little attention and no respect from the literary establishment. Today, they’re all considered classics, with The Big Clock and Black Wings now available under the New York Review of Books imprint, which has also rescued a number of other brilliant but overlooked works.
When I was in college and graduate school, I was very much into literary fiction, which I’ll define loosely as fiction one appreciates for the quality of its prose, the depth of its insight, and the development of rich and nuanced characters and themes. Commercial fiction and genre fiction tend to focus more on plot, and when you read it, you’re much more interested in whether the main character is going to get shot than in how subtle idiosyncrasies of that character’s psychology may be a comment on the social, political, and economic conditions of his upbringing.
It’s interesting to look back on the classics I read as a student, and to see that many of them were considered pulp fiction (or worse) when they were published. All of Charles Dickens’ novels were published as serials in bi-weekly penny papers, and initially had the taint of being written for the uneducated masses, whose coarse tastes weren’t capable of appreciating refined writing. Many of the classic crime writers, employed by the dime-store pulp publishers, had the same taint.
But these writers all tell compelling stories in clear, engaging prose that almost any ready can identify with. That, to me, is one of the hallmarks of good writing. Clear prose looks simple on the surface, but it actually takes a lot of work to produce. You can’t get to clarity until you’ve sorted through a lot detail. You probably know this from your own life. Think of times when you’ve tried to explain some emotionally important event to a friend. The first time you tell the story, it’s a flood of jumbled words that may go on for 20 minutes without really conveying the essence and impact of what happened. After weeks and months, and sometimes years, you can tell that story fairly clearly, in fewer words, with greater impact. But your mind needed that time to clarify what it wanted to say.
Computer programming and writing are similar in this regard. There’s a parable of two programmers who are asked to write the same program. One programmer starts writing code right away, while the other spends many weeks meditating on the problem that the program needs to solve. The busy programmer churns out an enormous volume of confusing, complicated code that eventually solves the problem. The thoughtful programmer doesn’t write a single line of code until he has boiled the problem down to its essence. He then writes a very short, concise program of crystalline clarity that solves the problem.
The busy programmer’s boss looks at the enormous amount of code his employee has written and, overwhelmed by the complexity of it, says “Wow! You did a great job on what was obviously a really hard problem.” The thoughtful programmer’s boss looks at his employee’s work and says, “There’s not much code here, and from the simplicity of it, it looks like the original problem wasn’t that hard. Why did it take you so long?”
When I look at a lot of today’s literary fiction, I sometimes think the whole literary establishment suffers from the same problem as the busy programmer’s manager, mistaking complexity for genius. I find much of today’s “literary” work to be unreadable because it’s wordy, slow-moving, lacking in substance, and worst of all, larded with unnecessary description and metaphor.
You’ve probably had a teacher or professor somewhere along the way whose lectures left you swimming in confusion, and you thought, “Wow! They are so brilliant, my mind can barely grasp a tenth of what they’re saying.”
Actually, I think that person was just a poor communicator, and perhaps unable to clarify ideas even to himself. You should have come away thinking, “Wow! My grasp of the subject is so much deeper and clearer than it was yesterday.”
That kind of clarity—focused words that build over time to impact the mind and the emotions—is what the old crime writers were good at. It’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of enduring popular fiction.
Impala tries to follow in that vein, though of course, crime today is different from what it was in the mid-twentieth century. Much of it has moved online, and the characteristics of the successful criminal have changed, with intelligence, cleverness, and stealth replacing force, intimidation, and ruthlessness. (Though those latter three have their place, when push comes to shove, as it often does in the world of crime. Impala‘s protagonist learns this the hard way.)
If you’re interested in learning more about the illicit markets of the dark web, which is where all the trouble starts in Impala, The Economist’s article on cryptomarkets provides an excellent and fascinating)introduction.
So far, the reviews for Impala have been very good. They’ll be available online closer to the release date in September, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the general public responds to the book.
The other day, I was trying to buy a new phone and sign up for a mobile service plan online. I added a phone to my cart, and then when I selected a payment method, the page disappeared, and I found myself looking at a different page full of phones I didn’t want.
“OK,” I said. “Let’s try that again.”
Another try, and I got the same result. So I tried again without specifying the payment option. After I added the first phone to my cart, the site asked if I would like to purchase a second phone. Yes. I put the second phone in the cart, and the first one disappeared. Again, and again, and again. There was just no way to get two phones in the cart at the same time. And the service plan I had selected kept changing, even though I wasn’t changing it.
How can a major corporation run a website that’s THIS bad?
Well, I happen to be a programmer who has built a number of sites like this, so I have some idea of what’s going on. I know from someone who worked at this company that they outsourced development of the site to a major contractor, who brought in a huge team of programmers to build it.
This is the root of the problem. Try getting hundreds of people to collaborate seamlessly on ANY project. Try getting hundreds of people to build a coherent product of ANY kind.
Imagine you want to write a 500-page novel, and you need to do it quick, because every day it’s not out there selling on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, you’re losing money. (This is how corporate managers think.) You need to hire someone right away. But it would take a writer months to crank out 500 pages. Maybe weeks, if you keep the pressure on. But still, that’s just too long.
So how about we hire 500 writers and have them each write a page? Brilliant! We’ll have our novel by noon!
We just have to give the writers a few parameters. We’ll say it’s a Romance novel, because Romance sells well, and the formula is pretty straightforward. You have a woman who is lonely or unfulfilled. You have a new guy appear on the scene who is single. They meet under less-than-ideal circumstances, there’s lots of tension between them, and the reader knows they’re meant for each other, but they can’t be together because…
I don’t know, just throw some obstacles in their way. Maybe 400 pages worth of obstacles, but make sure we get to know and like the characters while their being obstacled to death. Then — THEN! — though fate and luck and force of will, they get together, and it’s oh so satisfying! Your readers are delighted, and they can’t wait for your next book.
We’ll put our 500 writers in the lunchroom, and we’ll assign a manager to walk around and make sure they’re actually writing and not wasting company time on Facebook. We’ll give them these parameters:
Heroine: Rebecca, a passionate but repressed red-headed librarian, age 30.
Hero: Maxibillion, a wealthy maverick technologist from the Scottish Highlands with a devil-may-care attitude and nothing on under his kilt, age 34.
Location: Portland, OR
We’ll call the book Maximum Satisfaction.
At 10:00 AM the writers are in the lunchroom and they have their instructions. OK, everyone, pens to paper, and… GO!
At noon, the proctor collects the papers, and voilà, we’re done!
Except we’re not, because the story doesn’t make any sense. Rebecca is sensitive, and then she’s not. She met the blonde-haired Max in a coffee shop on page 10, and when she meets him at the pool on page 30, she’s smitten by “the tall dark-haired man she’d never seen before.” The whole book is riddled with these inconsistencies. There are no transitions, and the tone changes from page to page. Chronologically, it’s a mess. You might as well throw all the pages up in the air and read them in whatever order they land.
Those damn writers! Why do they screw everything up?
We have to call them all back in, and we’re going to make them read the entire novel and identify all of the problems and inconsistencies. Then we’re going to outline the entire plot, scene by scene. We’ll workshop it. Then we’ll assign each writer a page and have them get to work. If the guy writing page 400 needs a bearskin rug in the living room, he’s going to have to coordinate with the guy writing page 20, where the living room is first described.
Each writer will have to consult with each of the other 499 writers to ensure that his page is consistent in fact, spirit, character, and tone with what the others have written. This will require a great number of meetings. We’ll have to cater lunches and pay overtime.
18 months into our project, we see Lonely Red sitting at the top of the bestseller lists. The passionate librarian has snagged her kilted billionaire to the delight of readers everywhere.
But this is not our book! According to the three dozen managers who are now overseeing the project, our book won’t be ready for at least another 18 months. And this Lonely Red, this bestseller that was OUR original utterly unique once-in-a-lifetime idea, was cranked out by some lone self-published author in just nine months! What the hell?
As absurd as this story sounds, this is how many large organizations develop software. They look at developers as interchangeable commodities, ten of whom should reasonably be able to produce ten times as much software as a single programmer working alone.
When they have a big project, they put together a big team, and then find that communication and management are more difficult and time-consuming than the original problem their programmers set out to solve. Though Fred Brooks exposed these issues over 40 years ago in The Mythical Man Month, some organizations still don’t get it.
In the 2000’s, many companies doubled down on their big-team philosophy by choosing the Java and C# programming languages. The hallmark of both those languages is their restrictiveness. They were designed primarily to prevent mediocre programmers from doing bad things on big projects, and they came with Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) to help enforce consistency.
If our 500 writers had IDEs like the ones the Java/C# developers use, the guy writing page 400 would not be able to say Rebecca’s raincoat is green, because the guy who wrote page 20 said it was black. The IDE knows this, and will put a squiggly red line under the word “green” when the page-400 writer types it.
So now, at least, our book is consistent, and the manager who made everyone use the IDE will get a raise for having solved an entire class of problems in one fell swoop. A $200 IDE license for each of our 500 writers cost the company $100,000 up front, but will save $200,000 in editing and proofreading over the life of the project. Which is now at least 36 months from completion. And even though the book is still going to suck compared to Lonely Red, it WILL be error free!
In his 2010 book, The Design of Design, Brooks notes that virtually every major creative and innovative work of the last century has been the product of a single mind, with a few rare exceptions coming from two well-matched minds. (Brooks lists Apple, Inc. as an example of the latter, with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak being an extraordinarily fortuitous match.)
In the software world of the past decade, most people working outside of Large Dysfunctional Organizations (LDOs) have recognized that smaller teams of talented people will vastly outperform large teams that have huge communications and organizational overhead. The non-LDOs have also recognized that the creative and innovative aspects of programming flourish under less restrictive programming languages, like Ruby, Python, Go, and Clojure. Instead of the Java/C# design principle of “don’t trust the programmer,” these languages were designed to let programmers express themselves freely, clearly, and simply.
Is it any wonder then, that for the past ten years or so the startups have been running circles around the LDOs?
I came away from that website the other day thinking about all this. And about how, in the past, I’ve worked with teams of 3–5 developers to produce fully functional, high-traffic retail sites that work quite well.
In the end, I wound up going with a different cell carrier, because if a company can’t even take my money when I’m trying to hand it to them, what kind of service can I expect them to provide?
By the way, LDO Publishing’s Maximum Satisfaction will be published under the pen name Duke Newcomb sometime in
2016 2017 2018 the future. While you’re waiting for that, enjoy the next seven books in the Lonely Red series.
Are you a self-published indie author by choice, or are you one of those losers who couldn’t get a book deal?
What’s the process like? What happens between conceiving a book and getting it into the marketplace?
You get an idea, and you turn it over in your head for a while. You write a draft, and you think it’s great, so you show it to some friends. Then you think it sucks.
You do some major revisions, throwing out whole chapters and adding new ones. When you get to the fourth or fifth draft, you give it to an editor. Ideally, it should go through a developmental edit and a copy edit. The dev edit addresses big issues like plot development, pacing, character development, and themes. The copy edit addresses line-level issues, like sentence structure, clarity, and word repetition. Then proofreading catches typos, spelling errors, and other minor issues.
I’m lucky because my wife is designer, and in fact, she used to design book covers. She reads the book and comes up with a bunch of design comps. We go through them and pick one to develop. Sometimes she posts the comps on Facebook and asks people to vote on their favorites.
A good cover is a big deal. If your cover is alluring and gives some sense of what the book is about, people are willing to look at it. If you have a bad cover, particularly one that looks amateurish, people will assume you didn’t put much care or effort into the project, and they won’t look at it.
After we have the cover, my wife sets up an Adobe InDesign project with the interior layout and pours in the text. Then I fiddle with it for a long time, breaking the chapters into sections, making sure the formatting is correct, fixing widows and orphans.
When we have the cover and the interior ready, I assign an ISBN and upload the files to Ingram Spark and order a proof copy, which I actually read, cover to cover. I correct whatever errors I find, send the new PDF to Ingram, and then the book can go into production.
By then, it’s been a year or so since I first sat down to write the thing.
I’ll order a few dozen copies to send to friends and reviewers. Then I’ll create the e-book copies from InDesign and upload them to Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. I stopped selling through Google, in part because they kept changing the price of my book without telling me, and their price changes forced price changes on Amazon that I couldn’t control.
I chose Ingram over CreateSpace because Ingram lets you price your book on standard terms and accept returns. Bookstores require that, or they won’t stock your title. And Ingram is one of the two big suppliers in the US. Bookstores already have a relationship with them.
The production process is long and tedious. You’d better like the book you’ve written, because you’re going to be looking at it a lot.
And that’s just getting the book into production. Then you have to sell it. That part is really hard, especially for an Indie writer who doesn’t stick to any particular genre.
What kinds of challenges do indie writers face in selling their books?
The biggest problem is just getting people’s attention. Many people who would have been readers in prior generations are not readers today. They’re watching Netflix, or playing video games, or spending their leisure time on Facebook and Instagram. In the 1950s and 60s, those people might have been reading one or two books a month. Now they might be reading one or two books a year.
Then, keep in mind, when you write a novel, you’re creating a product that nobody asked for. And it takes, like, a year. What sane person does that? Would you spend all day cooking a big meal on the off chance that a bunch of people might stop by for a dinner party?
You get your book out there, and then you’re competing with millions of other titles on Amazon. Literally millions!
If you’re writing in a popular genre like Romance, Mystery, or Thriller, there are actually quite a few channels to help you reach your target readers. Paid promotional sites like Just Kindle Books and Kindle Nation Daily can promote your title to their huge mailing lists. It costs money, but it does help you build a readership.
If you’re not writing squarely within some well-defined genre, you’re going to have a hard time. I learned that the hard way with my first book. There are no readily available marketing channels for general fiction.
One of the most frustrating aspects of being self-published is that many high-profile publications whose reviews could help put your book in front of a large audience will not even consider self-published books. They say so outright in their review policies. Even some of the more popular independent bloggers won’t look at self-published work.
I get why that is. There are too many books out there, and most of them are really bad. Most reviewers don’t want to open the floodgates and drown themselves.
As a self-published indie author, you also don’t have access to the kind of paid placements the big publishers can buy. You can’t purchase prime listing space on the Kindle storefront, or on the new titles shelf at Barnes and Noble. Not because of the cost. Because they won’t sell that placement to indies.
So you have to go out and find as many small channels as you can, like bloggers with modest followings who review books like yours. You share things out on Facebook or Twitter and urge your friends and followers to pass them along. You write a blog to give people a sense of who you are, and you give away books to help build a readership. You have grassroots and guerrilla tactics, and you have to learn to use them.
In many ways, I think it’s a better system for writers and readers. Success shouldn’t be easy, because easy things attract lazy and untalented people, but it should be possible. The old system, in which agents and publishers had to guess what was worthy of publication, was never all that efficient, and its errors of omission–what was excluded from publication–were worse than its errors of commission–the published works that didn’t sell.
Publishers had no interest in the Pulitzer Prize winner A Confederacy of Dunces. One of Elmore Leonard’s finest novels, 52 Pickup, received more than eighty rejections, even though he was an established author with a proven sales record. And J.A. Konrath’s novels were rejected over five hundred times–five hundred!–before several million readers got together and overruled the entire publishing industry.
I’m not saying the publishers short changed anyone. Most of what they turned down was probably crap. And who knows how many good books are lost in the current sea of publication?
Being an indie author today is a lot like being a standup comic or an indie musician. You can take your work directly to the people, though you usually have access only to small venues and limited audiences. If your work sucks, people will tell you. But at least you heard it from them. If it’s good, they’ll tell you that too, and they might even buy the next thing you put out. But you have to keep working. Getting people to read your book requires a combination of talent, quality, exposure, and persistence.
What do you like about being an indie author?
Being able to write whatever I want. And the sense of satisfaction when something turns out well. I like working with my wife on the design. I like to hold the final product in my hand. I like to send copies out to my friends.
I’m not in it for the money, because there is none. In fact, like most hobbies, you put more money into it than you get out of it. But when you send a book to someone you like, and they say, “Hey, I really enjoyed that,” it’s priceless.
I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about Warren Lane. While the positive feedback provides much-needed encouragement, the negative feedback has been the most useful. There have been three consistent themes to the negative feedback:
- The story isn’t told from the point of view of a single character that I can get behind and root for.
- There’s too much dialog.
- It’s hard to sympathize with the characters because they’re all messed up and they make bad choices.
When I wrote the book, I followed the structure and principles of drama instead of those of the traditional novel. That means:
- The story follows a straight chronological timeline.
- Virtually all of the action takes place over a period of a few days.
- There’s a tight focus on a limited number of characters.
- We meet the characters at the moment they are entering their crises.
- Virtually everything we know about the characters is exposed through dialog. The characters, not the narrator, tell us who they are.
These were all deliberate decisions, and I stuck to them throughout. My interest in the book was in seeing what happens when people with different perspectives and experiences interact, how they affect each other, misunderstand each other and change each other.
I was surprised by the first criticism, that there’s no one character to root for. I had not anticipated that critique because people watch series all the time on HBO and Netflix in which they follow the interactions of a number of characters without there having to be a single central person whose perspective they share or whose fate they are concerned with above all others. In shows like Game of Thrones and The Leftovers, some viewers attach more to one character, some to another.
But people bring different expectations to a novel. Reading is an intimate experience, and many people read specifically to bond with a character, to think and feel what the character thinks and feels, and to take on that character’s perspective as their own. If a reader comes to a novel with this expectation, they can get antsy, bored, or annoyed when their “main character” is off-screen. Even worse, if the perspectives of a number of characters are given equal time and presented with equal weight and sympathy, the reader doesn’t know what to think. The thoughts and feelings of the other characters interfere with the reader’s desire to identify and bond with the primary character they are seeking.
So a number of readers will happily watch drama, on the stage or screen, in which they are partially invested in a number of characters; but they will not put up with this in a novel because it’s not what they came for. Novels are primarily narrative, and good narrative typically employs a voice that conveys a distinct perspective. When a reader expects to find this single voice and single perspective, but finds instead an ensemble piece with multiple, almost equally-weighted perspectives, they will sometimes reject it, because it wasn’t what they ordered. (Most readers will also accept ensemble casts in non-fiction, because when they read about the making of the atomic bomb or the westward expansion of the US in the 19th century, they understand that the events are the focus of the story, and those events involve a great number of players.)
The second criticism, too much dialog, again comes at least in part from a mismatch between what I was trying to do and what readers expect. In the traditional novel, regardless of genre, a narrator fills the reader in on virtually all details of the characters and the story. Of course, there are scenes where the characters interact, and all you get is a description of the setting and the dialog. But most novels are predominantly narrative.
I deliberately chose to have the characters in this book show themselves through dialog, as characters do in drama, because I wanted the reader to have an unmediated view of who they were, what they thought and how they saw the world. The first draft of the novel was almost entirely dialog. Less than 5% of the text in that draft was narrative.
Reading dialog can be taxing for many people, because the reader has to simultaneously hold in their mind the voice, the speech patterns, and the mental and emotional state of each speaker, and switch back and forth between them every few seconds. Actors can do this naturally when they read a script, but many readers, even very good readers, either can’t do this or find it too challenging to maintain for long periods.
You’ll recognize this when you listen to people read aloud. Some read with great feeling, embodying the voice and soul of each character when they speak, while others are wooden, and the way they say the words is at odds with what the words themselves are saying.
In a novel, readers expect a fairly consistent narrative voice. Even if that narrator changes from chapter to chapter, each narrator is fairly consistent, and to a large extent, guides both what you see and how you feel about it. In a script, the actor has to put himself into the character, generating the feeling and voice on his own, through empathy and a projection of himself into the character’s situation and mindset. These are two very different ways of reading, and asking a novel reader to read like an actor puts a burden on them that they don’t expect and may come to resent.
The final criticism of Warren Lane–that the characters are hard to sympathize with because they’re lives are messed up and they make stupid choices–also took me by surprise. Most of the people I grew up with were struggling and lost for years. We drank too much, were too promiscuous, and used drugs to the point of harming or even killing ourselves. But we all saw each other as people who were worth just as much as the shiny straight-A kids who glided through the Ivy League. There was very little judgment in our crowd, because each of us knew that, in our own unique way, we were just as messed up as everyone else.
So characters like Ready (the drinker) and Ella (the promiscuous seeker) were normal to me. When I was writing the book, I was too busy empathizing with those characters to think that anyone would judge them or be turned off by them. Or that some people simply don’t want to read about people who mess up their own lives. Like the friends of my youth, Ready and Ella just needed more time to grow up. They needed bigger mistakes, harsher lessons, and a little more grace to find their way.
While I was writing the book, I had also noted how the people around me reacted to shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. My friends and family members watched passively as the characters in those shows did incredibly nasty things to each other. But despite that fact that Tony Soprano made his living extorting, robbing, and killing, or that Walter White made his living poisoning addicts and destroying families and communities, the audience still accepted them and cared about them.
I thought if people were willing to put up with that, they could certainly accept the much tamer things that happen in Warren Lane. But that wasn’t always true. Some of the very people who watched those shows with passive indifference complained about my characters using drugs and sleeping around. Why?
I think part of the reason is that people watch television much more passively than they read books. As Bjork points out in her charming explanation of how television works, people often just absorb what the television projects, without thinking or judging. Before you can really think through a scene and its implications, the next scene is already on screen. And viewers are less involved in creating the reality of film than in creating the reality of literature.
While viewers consume what’s presented on screen, readers recruit their own experience, feelings, and understanding into the process of bringing the page to life. They are highly-engaged co-creators of the experience, which makes them much more involved with the story. Reading doesn’t work when you’re passive. You have to engage.
So while television becomes increasingly over-the-top in depicting action to the audience it has spent years numbing, fiction can still present scenes which, if filmed, would look relatively tame, and yet are still quite powerful and moving, because of the way they invite the reader to invest their own mental and emotional energy. That gives me hope for the written word.
All in all, publishing a novel has been a learning experience, as I expected. In future work, I’ll put that learning to good use.
And thanks to everyone who gave me feedback!
UPDATE – Feb. 16, 2016 – I watched LA Confidential with my wife the other night. That’s a brilliant film, and one of the best noirs I’ve ever seen. I saw it when it first came out, and I always admired the film’s carefully constructed and well-executed narrative structure. When it was over, my wife said that in the first quarter of the film, she didn’t know who to follow, or who to identify with. There’s an assumption beneath that statement that this is one person’s story. It’s not. But if you bring that assumption to a film, and that’s not what the film is, you’ll have a hard time getting into it. I never really knew until a few months ago how many people bring that assumption to the works they see and read.