On completing a 145,000-word manuscript

I finally killed my white whale. I slew the dragon. I wrote until my fingers bled. I read court transcripts until I started saying, "Yes, Your Honor" when my daughter asked me for another juice box. I recently finished a 145,00o-word first draft of "Framed," the story behind the story about the trial, imprisonment and royal screwing that Rick Tabish received at the hands of the Las Vegas "justice" system in the death of Ted Binion. If you don't remember the Las Vegas "trial of the century," look it up here

Rick (who is a great guy and was most certainly not guilty) hired me to write his story because he wanted to tell it. Getting a publisher was a secondary concern, though I'm certainly going to do all I can do to that. But the main thing was getting the real story out into the world about how the Binion family, with its wealth and power, despised Ted's live-in girlfriend, Sandra Murphy. When Ted, a heroin addict, died after overdosing on heroin and Xanax, the family couldn't stand the idea of Sandy getting Ted's house and wealth. They also wanted to collect on a fat life insurance policy. They needed a felony. They needed a murder. Rick, Ted's friend and Sandy's sometime babysitter, became the fall guy. Read the book one of these days and you'll see what a royal ass-reaming Rick Tabish took at the hands of the law. 

What does it take to complete a book like this? First of all, an understanding of the seriousness of the affair. I had this man's story in my hands. His truth. That's one reason I took so long on it: I had to make sure I got it right. The detail was immense, and I'm sure the rewrite will be immense because with thousands of names, dates, facts and statements, I'm sure I got a lot wrong. That's why we do drafts.  

Second, it takes organization. I had to be ferociously organized, even in moving my residence twice during the writing. I had to have everything in its proper file, in the proper chronology. Even then, I was constantly finding a new piece of news coverage or a new fact that shed some light on some part of the two trials, countless hearings, dozens of writs and motions and beyond.  

Finally, I had to give myself time to read and absorb. You can't write a book like this without first grasping the big picture. So I read news accounts, court transcripts, books by newspaper reporters, and Rick's own handwritten recollection of his arrest and trial. I watched video on DVD. I tried to wrap my head around all the parts of the story before writing it—and then found that I was still barely keeping my head above water with the detail: Rick's time in Las Vegas, Ted Binion, the death scene, Ted's silver hoard buried in the desert, supposed Mafia connections, an FBI investigation, Vegas politics, the Binion family infighting, private investigator Tom Dillard, the arrest, charges of not only murder but silver theft and a separate kidnapping, preliminary hearings, the first trial, prison life, rotating attorneys, massive media coverage, family issues, the appeal before the Nevada Supreme Court, the second trial, maverick attorney Tony Serra (check this out if you want a taste of this brilliant, eccentric cat) , the verdict, continuing appeals, Rick's adventures in the prison kitchen, his parole, his release and his life after prison. 

It was insane. But it's going to make one hell of a book.  

Carlos Danger and Internet Time

I was in San Diego on business when "Carlos Danger" became a thing. As in, former Rep. and current New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner (nominative determinism at its best) tweeting more snaps of his "little Congressional aide" to another woman who—whoops—wasn't his wife, this time under the handle Carlos Danger. The sleazy romance novel handle became a monster Twitter hashtag and I had a ball following the story. I even ordered my very own Carlos Danger shirt (see above).  

But the whole thing also made me reflect on how fast a story can become, for better or worse, a viral meme thanks to the "discover and pounce" style of the Internet—especially the mobile Internet. Today, the default mentality of millions of users (especially people under 30 who live on their smart phones and tablets) is to tweak, tweet and twist stories and personalities that run afoul of accepted behavior. The response is instantaneous; the mentality is ruthless. If you can be mocked, you will be. If you can become Daily Show  fodder, you will be. 

That's not necessarily a bad thing; some people deserve to be mocked. Weiner created Carlos Danger; now he gets to deal with the Butthead to his Beavis. But the story is an effective reminder at how careful we all need to be with what we say and how truthful we are to who we are, especially if we're online. Like it or not, we live in a private, always-on world. Think twice before you click "Post." 

Author PR: An accountability-free zone

Over the past few months I've received panicked calls from at least half a dozen authors asking me the same question: "Tim, how do I find a publicist who doesn't want to charge me $10,000 a month for doing nothing?" I have to admit, I'm a cynic about PR, because the accountability bar is set low. When you work with the press, you're not in control of the ecosystem that determines if you can deliver your deliverable. In other words, unless you're Rupert Murdoch you can't guarantee press coverage (and if you ARE Rupert Murdoch, why the hell are you reading this?). So it's very easy for publicists to make big promises, collect big fees, and then when they don't get their authors on The Daily Show  or in the New York Times  the first month, to do a French shrug and say, "I tried, but I don't control the press."

Bullshit. Today, author PR isn't about traditional media. It's about social media. I'm working on an experiment in changing how author PR is done, and I'll share it as it develops. But the basic idea is this: I want to "invert story scarcity." That sounds really impressive, doesn't it? Well, it's not. This is what it means in a few quick points:

  • The currency of the PR economy is attention. Media outlets "pay attention" to authors, who spend that attention to sell books. If you're an author, you want to get paid more. 
  • The problem is that authors create too much supply of their stories. They issue press releases, beg media outlets to do profiles or interviews, and invest time in the smallest podcasts and tiniest local newspapers. By doing this, they create over-supply of story, and that reduces both demand and price. Why should a media outlet care about your story when there are a thousand other desperate authors banging on the door? 
  • The answer: artificial scarcity. Disney's done it for years by only releasing a few of their movies on DVD or streaming at any one time.  
  • In story scarcity, authors don't chase the traditional media. They work their own social media (blogs, podcasts, webinars) and social networks (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) relentlessly, using a master brand strategy designed to make them likable, provocative and unavoidable. Over time, they create a personality that the traditional media HAVE to cover, so the newspapers, TV stations, etc., reach out to the authors—NOT the other way around. 
  • When that happens, scarity says "DON'T say yes to everything." Don't agree to every interview. Play hard to get. Instead of begging, make the media beg a little. Obviously, if Oprah calls you say yes, but that's just common sense. 

Anyway, that's where this is beginning. I'll keep you posted as it evolves.  

Glad to be back in steamy hot KC, where the real local baseball team is doing a lot better than my fantasy one... 

TV

 

Are You a Writer Or a Wannabe?

A literary agent I have worked with for years once told me a story that made my jaw drop.  She regularly attends writer’s conferences and at some of them, participates in “speed pitches,” where an attendee gets a couple of minutes at a table with a literary agent to pitch his or her book idea.  It’s a great opportunity, and this agent told me that out of respect for the time and expense the writers have put in to be at the conference, when their pitch is done she always gives them her business card and invites them to send her their proposal or manuscript when it’s ready.  But here’s what floored me: she will hear 50 or 60 pitches during a typical event, and do you know how many actual proposals or manuscripts she’ll get?  Five or six.

What?  A working literary agent says, “Send me your work” and only ten percent of people follow through?  Is it me or is that insane?  What I took from that was this: most people who say they want to write don’t actually want to write.  They want to be writers.  There is a difference.  If you write professionally or aspire to, you write every day.  You learn about the business.  But that 90 percent who ignore the agent’s invitation want to hold on to some self-image of themselves as living some sort of bullshit writer’s lifestyle.  They think being a writer means having a writing cottage and doing book signings and sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike.  They want to think of themselves as writers.

What they don’t want is to do the work, worry about how to get paid for their writing, or be told that their writing sucks.  They are wannabes, and wannabes drive professional working writers crazy.  We don’t mind answering their questions (I really enjoy talking about the business of writing), but we can’t stand these effete dilettantes who think it’s crass to get paid for your work, think writing nonfiction or advertising or articles isn’t real writing, and spend all their time in writer’s groups whose members tell them exactly what they want to hear.

Writers want to write, be professionals and earn a living from their work.  That’s a noble thing; the written word has the potential to change the world.  Never mind those idiots who insist that writing is dead as a career and that the iPad will kill books; technology will actually save publishing, and twenty years from now there will still be paper books alongside ebooks, audio books and video books (I refuse to call them “vooks”).  The world will always need good writers with original voices and compelling visions.

But are you a writer or one of those wannabes?  Take this quiz to find out:

  • If you write every day, even on days when you want to smash your computer with a crowbar, you’re a Writer.
  • If you write only when inspiration strikes, you’re a Wannabe.
  • If you only belong to writer’s groups that give you brutally honest feedback, you’re a Writer.
  • If you spend more time in writer’s groups getting softball critiques than you do actually writing, you’re a Wannabe.
  • If you finish what you start, you’re a Writer.
  • If you have a stack of unfinished projects, including a novel you’ve been working on for ten years, you’re a Wannabe.
  • If you can write anything from ad copy to speeches to ghostwritten blogs to business plans because your writing pays the bills, you’re a Writer.
  • If you think it’s unseemly to want to get paid for your work, you’re a Wannabe.
  • If you self-publish your books, you’re a Writer.
  • If you’re waiting for a literary agent and a New York publishing sugar daddy to discover you, you’re a Wannabe.
  • If you’re interested in the craft and skill set behind any kind of writing, from nonfiction to tech writing, you’re a Writer.
  • If you think the only “real” writing is fiction and poetry, you’re a Wannabe.
  • If your response to rejection and criticism from an agent or editor is to find ways to get better, you’re a Writer.
  • If your response to that criticism and rejection is to become defensive and insist they just don’t “get” your work, you’re a Wannabe.

Now, I’m not saying you have a to be a professional writer to be a Writer.  There is nothing wrong with writing for the love of the craft and because you feel compelled to put words on paper.  Those are wonderful reasons to write.  You don’t have to publish to be a Writer.  But to my mind, even if you write for your own private pleasure, you must do three things to be taken seriously: finish some of what you start, accept valid criticism, and have an understanding of what it means to be a professional writer.  Because there’s a big difference between a hobbyist writer and a paid professional who sends words out into the streets each day to boogie with the people in the hopes of bringing in a paycheck.  Even if you have no desire to learn about the business, accept that what we do is not the same as what you do.  Not better, just different.

And if you DO have a desire to learn about the business of writing and making a living as a writer, this blog’s for you. 

Wilkommen…

Eight Reasons to Quit Working On Your Novel and Start Having a Writing Career

Novelists, it’s time to give it up.

I come into contact with lots of writers’ groups and a dizzying majority of them are focused almost exclusively on people writing book-length fiction, i.e., novels. But most of the would-be writers have two things in common: not only have they never been published, but they often have never finished a novel to the degree that it’s ready to submit to an agent. They hash out their character profiles on WriterFace.com, upload chapters to Scribd and solicit feedback so often that the rest of us are numb.

So as a public service, because I care about writers not wasting their lives, and because I’m sick to death of hearing about ripoffs of Tolkien, Sue Grafton and Twilight (Jesus as a vampire, anyone?), here are my eight reasons to give up on that 800-page historical romance/zombie apocalypse story that you’ve been working on since the Reagan Administration:

  • We’re all sick of hearing about it. Finish the damned thing already or stop talking about it.  We don’t want to read your post about how you rewrote Jake McSlick, gumshoe for hire, for the thirty-fourth time.  The only person for whom the process of writing a novel is interesting is the person writing it.  If you’re Stephen King, sure, we’ll sit and listen to you talk about how you got the idea for Hearts in Atlantis while you were taking a crap (which may be why the final products of both processes were indistinguishable), but you’re not Stephen King.  If your novel isn’t at least close enough to done so we can read it, we don’t care.
  • You’re probably never going to finish it. Let’s be real.  If you have been working on a novel for at least five years and it’s not at least 80% done, you’re not going to finish it. You care more about being able to tell people that you’re “working on your novel” than actually completing it. For plenty of amateur writers, the process of completing a novel—with the endless rewrites and the terror of exposing your work to critique—is unthinkable.  Endless writing, with the implied promise that “someday” you’ll finish, becomes far more preferable.  So if you’re still plugging away, please consider giving it up.
  • It’s not as easy as it looks. Just because you want to write fiction doesn’t mean you have the talent.  That’s a hard, hard thing for some people to accept, and I get it.  I’ve met writers who absolutely hunger with all their heart and soul to be writers, to be published, and to make a living writing.  They dream of it, but that doesn’t make the dream possible.  I wanted to pitch for my hometown Los Angeles Dodgers, but I lacked a vital ingredient: talent.  Wishing doesn’t make it so.  Have you ever been told you have writing talent by someone who doesn’t care about sparing your feelings?  Have you won an award?  Had something published?  Then how do you know that you have what it takes to write good fiction?  Most writers are hacks. Most practitioners of any field are hacks. If you’re having a hard time duplicating the work of your favorite writers, you may simply lack the skill.
  • The odds against getting published are ridiculous. According to R.R. Bowker, about 300,000 books were published by publishing companies large and small in 2012.  About 25% of those, or 75,000, were fiction.  But only about one percent of the manuscripts submitted to literary agents find publishers.  That means about 7.5 million fiction manuscripts submitted.  Does your novel have what it takes to stand out among 7.5 million competitors?  That’s not to say you can’t keep trying, but do you really want to slave for years only to have your manuscript sit in a slush pile?
  • Self-publishing is really hard. Self-publishing itself is easy, especially with Amazon Kindle Books. If it was difficult, there wouldn’t have been two million self-published books in 2012.  But creating a good self-published book and knowing how to sell it?  That’s tough. Self publishing usually winds up costing the author a lot of money and time and accomplishing little.
  • You could be writing other things. When I meet an aspiring professional writer who’s been working on a novel for umpteen years, one of the things I can’t help but think is, “What a waste.  You could have been writing so much else.”  It’s true.  If you can write fiction, you can write lots more and possibly have better luck getting it published, getting it read and making a living with it.  Articles, nonfiction, essays, opinion, scripts, travel writing—there are hundreds of different kinds of writing out there. But if you focus only on cranking out that great novel, fifteen years later you won’t have written a word in any other form, and you’ll have missed a lot of opportunities.  Even if you can’t bear giving up your novel forever, at least devote part of your time to some other forms of writing.
  • There are other ways to be a writer. Many would-be authors want to be writers more than they want to write. And they think that the only way to be a “real” writer is to write long fiction, which is nonsense. But do you even love writing novels?  You’d better love it, because it’s a hell of a lot of work. If you don’t love it, why do it?  If it’s because you want to see yourself as a novelist, screw that.  There are 20 million unpublished novelists out there. What about looking in the mirror and seeing a published journalist or columnist, or a professional marketing copywriter, or a nonfiction ghostwriter?  Being a working, paid, professional writer is much cooler than being a frustrated novelist.
  • Your novel might not be any good. I hate to break it to you, but if your work hasn’t gotten some sort of notice, it might be because it’s just not good. There’s no shame in that; not everyone is a great novelist. We see the great outliers—the Jonathan Franzens and Michael Chabons and Barbara Kingsolvers—and think, “I could do that.”  But talent like that droppeth not as the gentle rain from heaven.  The law of averages alone dictates that you are probably an average fiction writer at best, just as it dictates that despite my hard work, I will never be more than an average blues harmonica player.  If you’re not gifted, why not set your novel aside and hone your craft writing something else, something that will allow you to make a living and write even more, further improving your craft?  If you still think your work is exceptional, then write a chapter or story and submit it to a critique site like The Next Big Writer. Invite criticism, and take it to heart. If people say your work is wonderful, then tell me to shove my opinions and finish your damned novel.  If the world says your work stinks, man up and try another kind of writing.  If you love words and communication, there are many forms that will allow you to reach people, be creative and even change lives.

Just don’t waste your life.  The world has enough unfinished manuscripts.

Peace.

Best Non-Writing Sources Of Income For Writers

You’re not always going to make a lot of scratch writing.  You might do a long article for your local paper thinking that it will lead to more assignments down the line, and that’s great.  But in the now, you might invest ten hours on the piece and get paid $200.  Not exactly a living wage.  So it’s important that as writers, we have alternative ways to generate income when the work is thin, the checks are late or the pay rate ain’t so hot.

BEST ALTERNATIVE SOURCES OF INCOME:

  • Editing and proofreading—Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can edit.  I’ve met plenty of good writers who had no editorial skills. But if you have an editorial background and/or proofreading training, this is a great way to pick up some extra cash. There are always online ads for book editors, proofers, and so on.  I know several writers who earn 25% of their income and survive slow periods by picking up editing work.  I’ve done it, and when you’re a little burnt out from wordsmithing, it can be a nice break to hack the living shit out of…I mean, to tenderly caress someone else’s work.
  • Speaking—Yes, you can get speaking gigs.  No, you don’t have to be a great speaker.  Yes, you can get paid for them.  Speaking guru Jim Malinchak insists that you should never ask for less than $2500 for a speech—not bad money.  If you have some expertise in an area of writing and some information that can help people, you can get hired to speak at writer’s conferences, workshops and book fairs.  It’s a lot of fun and provides a great value to sell your books, too.
  • Coaching—There are plenty of people who want to write books and need someone to help them navigate the process.  Coaches typically work one-on-one to help their clients get organized, produce pages and self-publish their book. Come up with an hourly rate, make a business card, and start networking among successful people like doctors, CEOs and financial professionals.  They often want to write books.  Tip: there’s no reason you can’t have more than one coaching client at a time.
  • Teaching—Don’t have a community college near you?  Don’t have a teaching credential?  You don’t need either!  Websites like Writers.com will pay you to teach writing online. Look online at places like Writer’s Digest University and see what courses they’re not offering that you might be qualified to teach—memoir writing, ghostwriting, article writing, book proposal writing, etc.  Contact the site’s operators, submit a proposal, and voila!  You’re a teacher. You can also create your own online course at Udemy.com. 
  • Reading—Different organizations often need readers.  Publishers, writers conferences, competitions, colleges…all need experienced writers to read and evaluate submissions ranging from short stories to journalistic articles to chapters from full-length manuscripts.  The pay varies, but if you love to read, why not get paid for it?
  • Consulting—Consulting is different from coaching.  In coaching, you walk someone through the process of writing.  In consulting, you counsel someone working on a project on how to do it right.  So if you have experience self-publishing, you might make yourself known as a self-publishing consultant and meet with authors about getting their books properly designed, printed, distributed and marketed.  If you’re a marketing copywriter, maybe you consult with in-house corporate marketing departments on how to improve their messaging.  Get it?  Basically, you’re trading on your expertise to swoop in and advise.  And who knows—you might land some writing work because of it.

Be entrepreneurial. Don’t wait around for agents to accept you or publishers to discover you.  Create your own work and opportunities.