Thursday, June 26, 2014

Custer's Last Stand: Twice Upon a Time

Thriller Guy has been given a few days off. He’s working on his latest rant. Meanwhile, Allen Appel noticed that yesterday was the anniversary of Custer’s Last Stand, now known as The Battle of the Little Bighorn. (And known by the Lakota tribes as Lakota Victory Day.) Actually, although Custer was killed on the 25th the battle with the rest of his command took place on the 26th as well. I have written elsewhere on this blog about doing the research for the Custer book, Twice Upon a Time. Besides Custer, I got to read about many other fascinating characters (including Mark Twain) and events of the period. But I aimed the entire book at that last battle from the very beginning. My trip out west to the battle site remains one of my most chilling experiences. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the battle and the Evan Connell book, Son of the Morning Star remains a riveting read.

Here is a section from the final pages of Twice Upon a Time. Readers who wish to learn how Alex Balfour arrived in the Black Hills at the battle can read the book, available here.  

             Custer. Buckskin pants with long fringe, blue-gray shirt now dusted a dull dirty yellow. Hair cut short, his ragged whiskered face flushed, broad white hat pinned up on the right side to allow him to sight his rifle while he rode. Custer saw him, wheeled his horse around, and rode toward him. He reined to a stop and pointed at his stirrup. Alex stuck a Nike in the stirrup and swung up behind the saddle. They rode back the way Alex had come, over the ridge and down onto the far side where there were no Indians, no soldiers, no dust, only an odd, almost unworldly, quiet. Custer pushed him off onto the ground.
             "Get away!" Custer yelled. "Run! You've got a chance if you run!" His horse danced around Alex.
             "Call it off," Alex shouted. "It's not too late."
             "You're the writer," Custer said, distracted for a moment. The horse would not be calmed. Its eyes were wild. Custer wrestled with the reins until the animal was pointed back at Alex. "From back at the exposition. Did you steal my Indians?" Alex just stared at him. "No matter. Too late now." Custer stood up in the stirrups and looked back up the hill. "Tell the world what we did here, writer. Tell them about Custer and his brave men."
 "You can get away," Alex shouted. "If you run you can escape, at least some of you will get away. If you stay you'll die. You'll all die."
             Custer's horse reared and pawed at the sky, twisting as he came down. Custer laughed, his eyes seemed as blue and as bright as the sky. "Yes!" he shouted as he reined the horse around. "Yes!" He turned in the saddle and raised his hand to Alex. "Glorious, isn't it'?" He laughed again and raked the horse with his spurs and galloped away, back up the hill, to his men. Alex watched him disappear, trying to decide if he should follow. And then he saw the Indian.
             The Indian sat on his horse on the brow of the hill, watching.
             Alex held his breath as the Indian made his decision and kicked his horse into motion.
             Alex ran.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Thriller Guy’s wife, Mrs. Thriller Guy, (MTG) often complains that the entries in this blog are
too “inside baseball.” For those not familiar with this metaphor, TG always supposed the general meaning was that it means talking about a subject in detail that would appear boring to those not intimately involved in the subject. I.e. going on and on about the minutia and difficulties of The Writing Life until readers want to shout, shut up and just tell us the titles of some good thrillers. TG agrees: Guilty as charged. And before getting to today’s subject, TG can’t help but go just a bit further with the examination of the origins of the term “inside baseball.” Why? Because that's just the kind of guy TG is. It turns out that while TG’s meaning is correct, it refers not to simply talking about the sport of baseball in numbing detail, it refers to a particular style of play, sometimes also called “scientific baseball.” This is a style supposedly developed by the Baltimore Orioles back around 1910 that featured concentration on the small elements of the game: walks, bunts, base hits, and stolen bases, rather than home runs and other big plays. Who knew? Those who are whacky enough to look into this matter at even greater depth can start here with Wikipedia.

Onward to today’s subject: the struggle to make sense of the publishing business from the viewpoint of those who are completely indispensible to it: the writers. Those without whom there would be no business, and yet those who, at least most of them, are at the bottom end of the pay structure. It has always been thus, but with the rise of independent publishing and self-publishing it has seemed for some time that new possibilities are arising for writers to manage their own careers, output and financial rewards. But there has been little solid evidence for these possibilities. Until now. A new report on the important site, Author Earnings, shows that these opportunities are indeed real and that there is a body of statistics to back it up. TG suggests those who want all the details, and this should be anyone who is in the business of publishing on any level, should read the entire report here. The report is long, detailed, and at times the charts are difficult to make sense of, but it’s important to take the time and sift through it and figure it out.
Here are some of the takeaways from the report without the charts to get you interested. These are pulled directly from the report without any input from TG.    
The Tenured vs. Debut Author Report
In our most recent earnings report, one chart jumped out at us and begged for deeper analysis: It was a look at daily author earnings according to publication date, and it revealed the heavy reliance Big 5 publishers have on the sale of their backlist titles. The same chart showed, less surprisingly, that self-published authors are making the vast majority of their earnings on recently published works. In a single chart we were witness to the economic effects of new participants entering an industry in which they were formerly uncompetitive. The same chart made it apparent that the effects self-publishing will have on the trade book industry have only just begun.
Because of this chart, we began looking more deeply at authors from two different camps: those who debuted prior to the explosion of self-publishing and those who debuted after. Authors getting their start today will of course be joining the latter camp. And we believe those authors will want to know the following:
• Big-5 publishers are massively reliant on their most established authors to the tune of 63% of their e-book revenue.

• Roughly 46% of traditional publishing’s fiction dollars are coming from e-books.

• Very few authors who debut with major publishers make enough money to earn a living—and modern advances don’t cover the difference.

• In absolute numbers, more self-published authors are earning a living wage today than Big-5 authors.

• When comparing debut authors who have equal time on the market, the difference between self-published and Big-5 authors is even greater.
In this report, we will also reveal how e-book earnings represent roughly 64% of a traditionally published fiction author’s income, and therefore why authors should focus less on statistics geared toward publisher earnings and trade bookstore sales and consider their own incomes instead. Finally, we will tackle the difficult question of just how many authors are earning a living wage today. The results are sobering. I’ll spoil it for you and say that there aren’t many. But there are reasons to celebrate. Read on to see why.
Roughly 46% of traditional publishing’s fiction dollars are coming from e-books, while the other 54% comes from print sales, audiobooks, and other formats. On the non-fiction side, e-books make up a far smaller fraction of gross dollar revenues: only 20%.

For the average traditionally-published fiction author, this means 59% of unit sales are now e-books.

While only 32% of the publishing industry’s gross revenue currently comes from e-books, nearly 64% of the average traditionally-published fiction author’s earnings is coming from their e-books. Earnings for the average genre-fiction author will skew even further toward their e-book sales.

 There are far more indie debut authors from 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 who are now holding spots on the Amazon bestseller charts than Big-5 debut authors. Even more striking, the number of today’s bestsellers from these “New” indie debut authors increases steeply year-over-year, while the number of today’s bestsellers from “New” Big-5 debut authors stays flat. The number of today’s bestsellers from small to medium publisher debut authors is also growing year over year, although not at the same explosive rate with which indie debuts are grabbing and holding slots on the charts.

After years and years of querying and jumping through gatekeeper hoops, it appears that even the less-than-1% who are lucky enough to land an agent and a Big-5 publishing contract can’t manage to quit their day jobs. (This is an observation in the data that matches what we have seen anecdotally in the publishing and bookselling trenches).
By contrast, we see over 700 Indie-published authors who debuted in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 who are today earning more than $25,000/year from their Kindle e-books alone. For these authors, e-book sales on other platforms and POD print sales will add another 20%-30% on average to this total. It’s easy to see that, for the past 4 years, and even taking lost print sales into consideration, far more Indie authors than Big-5 authors are earning a living wage from their writing.

Does this mean that earning a living as an author is likely? Absolutely not. Here is where optimism for self-publishing is often mistaken for naïveté. It’s where excitement leads erroneously to a gold rush mentality. Let’s take an example from sports: Aspiring basketball players know precisely how many roster slots exist in the NBA. (30 teams with 15 roster spots each). Aspiring writers are not so lucky. We have no idea how many slots are open for us as we begin to dream of writing for a living. Many of us hopeful writers grew up browsing bookstores with the misguided impression that all of those tens of thousands of authors we see on the shelves were writing for a living. The vast majority are not.

Yes, millions of people dream of writing for a living. Yes, becoming one of those people is difficult. But it’s never been more likely for those willing to put in the effort. You don’t have to be in the top 200 to 300 of fiction writers to earn a living these days. You can be in the top 2,000 to 3,000. That’s an enormous improvement. And yet it goes largely uncommented on and unnoticed. We hope to highlight this trend for all those with manuscripts in-hand and a decision to make.
Final Thoughts
The picture that is emerging from our data collection and our look at bestseller churn is that the number of Big-5 debuts at each earning level is relatively flat, year over year, while the number of living-wage-earning indie author debuts is growing exponentially year over year. Even ignoring the hurdles and roadblocks that are a built-in part of traditional publishing’s drawn-out querying process, it’s easy to see which method of publishing represents the greater and faster-growing opportunity to earn a living wage as a writer. Again, the data matches everything we are seeing in the publishing community trenches. And these observations help to explain many of the restrictions we see in modern publishing contracts.
To combat these trends, we believe that major publishers are going to have to pay higher royalties on e-book sales in the very near future. We have heard from some authors and industry insiders that this is already taking place. Unfortunately, the sweetest deals are going to existing bestsellers, which means the rich get richer while debuting authors are left behind. This must change. Higher royalties will have to become the new standard across the board. Otherwise, the word will keep spreading—both anecdotally and through hard data—that the choice on how to publish keeps tilting toward retaining ownership of one’s art. We’re not saying this decision will ever be simple. But it sure seems to be getting easier and easier.

TG here. See, there is hope. And as readers of this blog know well, hope is often the only thing TG can give writers to keep them at their desks, or at least in front of their computers, staring at that blank page, working and dreaming.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

More Incredibly Interesting Interview

It’s instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I’m thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don’t know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections on the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are.  Raymond Carver                                                                                    

In the last entry (see below) Thriller Guy and Allen Appel discussed Appel’s latest book, The Ford Murders: Delia. Appel explained that he had finished eight drafts of the book and had printed it out for the last time and was going to give it a last run-through to make sure it had printed out correctly. TG and Appel continue their discussion.

TG: Just what is it that you look for when you’re rewriting? Several people wrote in asking this question. That surprised me; I didn’t think several people even read this blog. And for some reason, they don’t comment, but they send me email. I think this is because Blogspot makes it difficult to comment. So, gentle readers, go ahead and write to me any way you want to.

AA: That’s a good question, TG. It made me think about how I learned to write, which is essentially how I learned to rewrite. I have a feeling in Real Writing School they teach this sort of thing, but I had to learn it on my own.

After you finish your Terrible First Draft, you want to read it through and rewrite it so it makes sense. (For those of you who are able to turn out decent first drafts, I would say that while the writing may be acceptable, you are missing a valuable part of the process that only comes with working the material over and over again. Read on to learn why.) This is the heavy lifting of rewriting. If you do any sort of gardening, you know that one often has to do large basic chores first – pruning, digging -- before getting into the fine tuning -- the selection of plants and planting. You have to define the structure, the bones, of the garden in your mind, and then you can start with the cleaning up before getting down to the fine points and decisions. There is a joy to each of the processes of rewriting, the creative and the technical, (I wouldn’t call it fun) but there is satisfaction when things become clearer and the final shape begins to emerge. (This mention of gardens in an entry about writing, Little Ones, is what Big Time Writers call a simile. Can we all say sim.i.le? That’s when you compare one thing to another, usually using the word “like” to make a thought clearer or create an image. Used sparingly, similes are excellent tools; used to excess they begin to annoy and then become as odious as any verbal tick repeated over and over. Here’s an example from Dickens’ David Copperfield: Dora’s cousin is described as… “In the Life Guards, with such long legs that he looked like the afternoon shadow of someone else.” Cool, huh? If you study this sentence you will see that it is the all-important use and placement of the word “afternoon” that brings the image together and makes it sing.)

After five or six drafts where you read your book aloud in your mind, fixing stuff that just sounds clunky and moving pieces around so it all makes sense, you need to start looking for errors that are more technical that you’ve missed along the way. Here are a few of them that plague me.

Commas. Your punctuation must be a good as you can make it. Books go to editors and many editors were once English majors or at least consider themselves experts in the writing trade. When an editor reads a manuscript, good punctuation goes unnoticed, but bad punctuation marks the writer as a rube, a wannabe who is not going to make the cut. If you get the rules wrong, if you get the basics like punctuation wrong, an editor will stop reading and dump the manuscript into the trash. Trust me on this, I don’t care how fabulous your characters and story are, a professional is not going to read it if it has an amateur’s mistakes. And in reading manuscripts for a living, to review and to mentor writers, the most common mistake I come across in other people's manuscripts is not using commas correctly in compound sentences. To keep this already bloated entry from becoming even more gaseous, let me suggest that if one is in any way unsure how to do this they should pick up their well-used copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (you do have a copy, right? Or have internalized all the information and instruction therein?) Here’s the page in question that deals with these rules… 
So get your commas straight. But TG will tell you that sometimes a correct comma slows down the action, in which case, screw the rules, take it out.

TG: Enough about commas! What else?

AA: I search out words that are repeated within a paragraph, or that are just too close to one another. There is always a good substitute for one of these words.

I use the word “then” far too often and when it is not appropriate. Lots of writers do this. It comes from writing down the action sequences one sees in one’s head when visualizing the story. “Then he came down the steps and ran into the wall.” No. It should be simply “He came down the steps and ran into the wall.” Sometimes, often, it will feel clunky to take out the “then,” but after having done so a rereading of the sentence later will prove that doing so has made the sentence much stronger.

Another word I use too often is “seemed.” It always, well, seems correct when I’m writing, but on rewriting I find it can be taken out, which makes the sentence stronger. Seem and its variations are weak words. We do not want weak words in our writing.

I go through and replace the word “got” with something better. Got is a low class word. My friend and writing mentor Bill Garrison taught me this many years ago and he’s absolutely right. Sometimes there’s no other word that works as well, but 95% of the time it should be replaced.

Replacing the word “it” with what it is. It doesn’t always have to be done, but often there is some confusion with what “it” is referring to.

Pruning sentences and thoughts like, “He nodded his head in assent.” Take out “in assent.” A head nod means yes, a shake means no. Then take out “his head.” What else would he nod with, his foot? Best…”He nodded.” You’ll be amazed how many of these goofs slip through, written in the heat of the moment. They must be fixed in the cool of the rewriting.

Often dashes are called for rather than commas. Dashes are good; you don’t see enough dashes in writing today. Think of them as super commas. They inject another element into your writing, but like everything else, overuse will begin to annoy and grow into hatred.

Check that you have used one of the five senses to describe something on every page. It’s easy to have characters see and hear something, but break it up with having them touch, taste and smell as well. This adds texture and interest. When a character tastes something, the reader will taste it as well, which puts him solidly into the world of the book he’s reading, which is exactly where you want him to be.

While doing the above technical chores, you want to be slotting in sentences, paragraphs and even pages that foreshadow and make sense of events that occur later on. Of course you’re writing these thoughts down as they percolate to the top of your mind in the little Field notebooks that TG has recommended. (Anyone out there who would like on of these notebooks can contact me with an address and TG will send him/her one, gratis.) This is one of the most valuable side effects of the more mechanical corrections of punctuation, spelling, etc. This demand, the corrections, forces the writer to read and reread his book over and over, which keeps it perpetually in the writer’s mind, and as TG has explained many times, this allows the mind to work on the book at all times, awake or sleep, consciously or not. Which is where the most interesting work takes place, as the unconscious brain makes connections that we have not made while actively working on the writing. TG has also pointed out in earlier entries that the most interesting books, the most interesting plots, character attributes, twists and turns come from this unending reworking. This relates to my comment above, about writers who turn out polished first drafts and don’t need to rewrite over and over again. They are missing the opportunity to allow their brains to work on the book for longer periods of time when new ideas and particularly connections are going to come up, bidden or unbidden. The Hollywood writer/director/producer Lawrence Kasden once said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” Which sounds pretty odious, but at least much of that homework is done while we’re asleep or attending to something else -- bathing, daydreaming, gardening, traveling, whatever.

TG: How long does all of this take? Does it ever end?

AA: It takes as long as it takes, and no, it doesn’t ever really end. I said way up at the beginning of this entry that I had just finished my “last” run through of my current mystery novel. I explained how many times it had been rewritten (many) and how many professional readers had combed through it making corrections (many). My last read-through is always, ostensibly, to make sure that the computer hasn’t screwed up and left in blank pages or widows (look it up if you don’t know what I mean with this word) or any other computer/word processing error. And my latest experience proved to be just like all my other experiences with “final” drafts. After finishing this last run-through I found I had made 280 new changes. Many of these were small additions that made it read better, but probably a hundred of them were technical errors that had escaped the notice of my many professional readers. How can this be? Well, there are 71,361 words in this novel. That makes it a short novel, but every one of those words has to be looked at and it is inevitable that many of them are going to be either outright incorrect or not as good as they can possibly be. If I were to go through it again, I bet I’d find still more mistakes that I and everyone else missed. I’m tempted to do so.

TG: You’re crazy.

AA: You are correct. All writers have to be crazy to even start a novel, much less finish one with all the corrections. Flaubert famously said, and Oscar Wile said it as well, when talking about the mechanical parts of his writing: “I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.” Real writers will understand this insanity. It is just this sort of perfectionism that creates real books that publishers want to publish and people want to read.

TG: Thank you, Mr. Appel.

AA: You’re welcome. And now I have to get back to work. I have a manuscript to go though one last time.