I wrote my first book when I was five years old.
Ok, 'book' may be a bit strong. What I wrote was five pages of a story, on notebook paper, front and back. I stapled this along the left-hand side and finished it with a nice masking tape binding. I even did a custom illustrated cover and a hand-lettered synopsis on the back. The finest in artisanal publishing.
Of course, when I brought it to school the next day, my teacher and my fellow students laughed. “Real books aren’t written on notebook paper,” my teacher snickered. And thus began a long and often fought battle against imposter syndrome. A tale for another post.
Lingering anxieties and feelings of self-loathing aside, that first book did put me on a path to doing something amazing with the rest of my life. It was the seedling of a career that I love. Today, almost four decades later, I’m still out here, pulling ideas out of the ether and scrawling them on the page. I even still design my own covers.
I’ve learned a lot since that first book and most of it can be summed up in the following four tips:
I can sum up this whole tip in one sentence:
“When you’re writing, your only job is to write.”
Simple, right? Yet after years of talking to aspiring writers, this is the one thing that has hands-down proven toughest to get across. For some reason, we just can’t turn off the Inner Editor.
The problem is, we’ve been fooled by our own nature.
There’s a delusion we’ve fallen victim to—and it’s the idea that if we edit and make the writing perfect as we go, we cut the whole process in half. We think that by editing as we write, we’re saving ourselves double work later.
The reality is, we actually increase the amount of time we spend. And it’s not just double … it’s an exponential increase. We end up busting our momentum and slowing ourselves down, getting off track and increasing the risk of losing the thread of the story altogether.
If we want to write faster, we have to turn off our Inner Editor and just write.
Let’s just get one thing straight—you are never going to escape editing. Not if you want to do this work for a living. Editing has its time and place, however, and that is definitely not during the actual writing.
Turn off your Inner Editor, send him or her on a vacation and then just start writing in total freedom. Spend your energy on making tons of mistakes, going on wild tangents, flinging words on the page like a monkey flinging poo at zoo-goers. You’ll make a heck of a mess, but it will be a glorious mess.
Later, when you pull on your Editor Pants™ you’ll find yourself coming across happy little accidents. You’ll laugh at something you wrote that you couldn't have planned in advance. You’ll discover that you took chances with your narrative that you might never have taken with the overly cautious Inner Editor nagging your every word. In short, you’ll have a better book because you did your only real job at the time.
In '30-Day Author' I introduce a formula for creating deadlines, total word counts, and daily word targets. You can have it for free, because I’m swell.
It goes like this:
TWT / TDC = TDT
You’re welcome. Also, here’s what that gibberish actually means.
First, let’s figure out your total word target (TWT).
I like to start by going to the book-store. I have a latte, I peruse the aisles, I read for a bit. The Author Thug Life.
Then I pick up three books. And not just any three books, but the three books that are most like the book I’d like to write, and I do a word count to find their approximate length. Here’s how—
For example, let’s say that your first book was an average of 50,000 words, the second was 55,000, and the third was 48,000. Add those to get 153,000 words. Divide that by 3 and get 51,000 words. Your TWT, then, is 51,000 words.
Now that we have our TWT, we can plug it into the formula to figure out how many words we need to write per day to meet our deadline, otherwise known as our
Target days to completion (TDC).
This can be any amount of time you want. I advocate a 30-day target, but you can decide to write your book in 15, 50, or even 365 days. The deadline is up to you. Choose what makes you feel comfortable and commit to it.
Let’s say, though, that your deadline is 30 days. Now you have your TWT (51,000 words) and your TDC (30 days)—you can figure out your total daily target (TDT), or how many words you need to write every single day, with some simple division:
TWT/TDC=TDT or 51,000 / 30 = 1,700 words per day
Boom. The power of math.
Like compound interest, doing a bit of daily writing will get you to your book faster than you ever thought possible, and it’s much easier to hit that daily word target because you’ve turned off your Inner Editor, right?
Now that you know your TDT, the trick is to commit to writing those words every single day. Commitment is the real magic here. If you really want this, you can definitely do a measly 1,700 words each day.
There are a lot of avenues for getting your work out there. You can shop it around to agents and publishers, writing query letters, attending industry events so your face and name are recognizable. This is generally referred to as 'traditional publishing' and it has its perks and its downsides.
For the most part, if you do manage to get your book picked up by one of the Big Five publishers, you get the backing of their brands, their teams of editors and cover designers, and their marketing departments. Those are pretty decent perks.
The downsides, for the most part, are that you are signing over the rights to your baby, and If your book doesn’t sell well you may never see any more than the advance you got for signing the contract. Even with the resources of the publisher, you’re still on the hook for marketing yourself and your work.
Plus, you know, they own your baby. It could be a long while before you get those rights back.
On the other hand, there’s indie (or self) publishing.
There used to be a stigma on the term 'self-publishing' and in some cases, it’s still around. However, with hyper success stories such as Andy Weir ('The Martian') and Hugh Howey ('Wool') out hob-knobbin’ with celebrities and buying catamarans, the pallor is starting to fade and the whole business is getting a bit of color in its cheeks.
Indie publishing has the downside of putting all the responsibility squarely on you. Any marketing or promotion comes out of your pocket. The same is true for paying for editors, cover designers, layout artists and any other services you might need. Those things are getting less expensive and easier to find online, but they can still add up.
The upside, though, is that you own everything. You control the content of your book, the style of your cover, the funky coolness of your marketing. It’s all you. Plus, added bonus, when your books do sell, you get a higher royalty than you will with a traditional publisher. In many cases, you can get around 70% of the sale, versus typically less than 10% (sometimes less than 3%) with traditional publishers.
As an indie publisher myself, and as the co-host of shows like the 'Self Publishing Answers Podcast', I am clearly an advocate of self-publishing. However, that in no way means that it’s right for everyone. Amanda Hocking was an uber-success in indie publishing, clearing two million dollars in book sales in her first two years on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, but the instant she got an offer for a traditional deal, she took it.
Why? Because it took the burden of marketing and promotion, plus the overhead of editing and layout and cover design, off her shoulders. She was in a good position, with her huge success, to negotiate terms. The fact was, she had always wanted a traditional contract. So she took it when it was offered and it was absolutely right for her.
If you’re goal is to publish no matter what, self publishing might be right for you. It can always be something you use as a proving ground, building an audience and racking up sales so that you’re more attractive to an agent and publisher later.
This last tip is kind of a cheat, but it bears mentioning.
You do this because you love it.
You need that love, believe me. There are going to be a lot of moments that you will not love it. There will be mornings when it’s tough to face the keyboard and evenings when you have to suck it up and finish your word target before turning in. There will be days when your book sells zero copies. There will be days when a reader leaves a review that makes you wish you’d never been born.
Then there are the days when you read back what you wrote and you laugh. You smile at the thought of someone curling up with your book in their hands. You get an email from a reader that makes you remember exactly why you put in all those hours and effort and energy.
That’s why you’re doing this. If it isn’t enough, you should really think about doing something else, because there are a lot easier ways to make a living and most of them don’t have an Inner Editor at all.
About Kevin Tumlinson
Kevin Tumlinson is the author of more than 20 novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, including 30-Day Author: Develop a Daily Writing Habit and Write Your Book in 30 Days (or less). He is the host of the Wordslinger Podcast, and co-host of the Self Publishing Answers and Creative Writing Career podcasts. Learn more at kevintumlinson.com. You can also connect with Kevin on Stage 32!
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