Self-Publishing: The Punk Rock of Publishing

The Punk Rock of Publishing

Self-publishing has often been seen as the “punk rock” of the publishing world, with writers taking control of their own work and publishing it on their own terms. In many ways, self-publishing is a rebellion against the traditional publishing world, which can often be a bad deal for writers.

One of the biggest drawbacks of traditional publishing is that writers are often required to give up the lifetime publishing rights to their work. This means that if a book doesn’t sell well, the writer is often unable to republish it. This can be a huge financial blow to writers, who may have spent years working on a book only to see it fail to find an audience.

With self-publishing, writers retain the rights to their work. This means that even if a book doesn’t sell well initially, the writer can continue to promote and sell it, or even republish it under a different title or with different marketing. This gives writers more control over their work and the ability to make a living from their writing.

Self-publishing also allows writers to be more experimental and take risks with their work. In the traditional publishing world, publishers are often wary of taking on books that are too “out there” or that don’t fit into established genres. Self-published writers, on the other hand, can take risks and publish whatever they want without worrying about whether it will be commercially viable.

Furthermore, self-publishing allows writers to connect directly with their audience. With traditional publishing, there is often a disconnect between the writer and the reader, with the publisher serving as a middleman. Self-publishing, on the other hand, allows writers to build a direct relationship with their readers and to connect with them on a more personal level.

Of course, self-publishing isn’t without its challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the fact that self-published writers are responsible for everything from editing and formatting to marketing and promotion. This can be a lot of work, and it can be difficult for writers to get their work out there and seen by a wide audience.

Additionally, self-publishing can be seen as less prestigious than traditional publishing, and self-published writers may struggle to gain the same level of recognition and respect as writers who have been published by a major publishing house.

Despite these challenges, however, self-publishing is becoming an increasingly popular option for writers. With the rise of e-books and print-on-demand technology, it’s now easier than ever for writers to self-publish and reach a global audience.

In many ways, self-publishing is the punk rock of the publishing world. It’s a way for writers to take control of their work, to experiment and take risks, and to connect directly with their readers. And while it may not be the easiest path, for many writers, it’s the most rewarding.

Planet Mars, red planet, on a dark background. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. High quality photo

Story Pre-planning for Market Fit

In January 2021, the United Kingdom went into another full-scale Covid-19 lockdown. This lockdown didn’t feel as stressful to me as the schools were better prepared for online learning than in previous lockdowns. With a less stressful lockdown, my mind felt clearer to think up short story ideas. 

Towards the end of January, I came up with a story with two characters, a boy called Elliot and a girl called Mei, who live on Mars as fourth-generation Martians. When these children are in class, an alarm sounds, and they must evacuate the colony building. It was a pretty action-packed short story.

Writing this story was fun. I loved the setting on Mars and the characters, Elliot and Mei. This short story spurred another idea: I would write more short stories, but in the same world. Some stories would be with Elliot and Mei, and some with other characters. For a few months, my intention was to put together a collection of short stories in this world.

As I planned out my stories I evolved what looked like a story arc for Elliot and Mei. It didn’t take much more planning for me to realise I had the start of a potential novel instead of a short story collection. Considering our lockdown situation, I became quite excited about the idea as it served as a great distraction to everything going on in the world.

To start my planning process, I came up with a twenty-five-word pitch to set the feel of the novel.

When Martian colonists discover a doorway in a hidden tunnel, humanity can finally answer one of its biggest questions: Are we alone in the universe? 

Diary of a Martian Twenty-Five Word Pitch

This simple pitch, or log line, helped solidify the premise I had when planning the short stories. For the Martian setting, I had the idea of two colonies: one called New London – which is part of the Global Space Alliance, a future NASA-style agency – and one called New Beijing. Both colonies are located around the base of the Olympus Mons volcano on Mars. The colonies are rivals, established by rival space agencies. 

At the start of my story idea, the two colonies unite. However, as you can imagine, not everyone is happy about the idea, which raises the threat level at the start of the book. 

My protagonist, Elliot, who is a resident of New London, and Mei, a resident of New Beijing, soon become good friends. Elliot is my main character – I based him on my son, Daniel – Mei is his sidekick in the story. While this is Elliot’s story, Mei is essential to the plot. Armed with my basic premise and details about my characters, I started some market research. I wasn’t necessarily trying to write to market, but I wanted to understand the marketplace for this genre and age range. I was going to write this book, regardless. Still, I wanted to look at what was already out in the market to make sure I target the right audience.

Genre and Market Research

I already knew that I wanted to target the middle-grade reading age, which is nine to twelve-years-old. This is the reading group I have been writing my short stories for. What I needed to think about was how long a book like this would need to be and what sort of story structure it should have. From my research, I knew that for middle-grade book publishing, word count was important, so I looked at books on the market to see how long they were. 

If the authors were already famous, I looked at their first few books, written when they were unpublished or lesser known. Middle-grade falls into two major categories: lower middle-grade and upper middle-grade. Lower middle-grade books are easier reads of about thirty to 40,000 words. Books by David Williams and Roald Dahl are good examples of this category. Upper middle-grade books tend to have 50,000–80,000 words. Books like Artemis Fowl and the early Harry Potter books are good examples.

I wanted a more accurate idea of the range, so I needed some average word counts. If you search for a book on the store – a vendor of eBooks – the sales page for a book tells you the word count, which is very helpful. Below are some example word counts for books in the area I wanted to write in.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J. K. Rowling) – 80,000

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling) – 89,000

Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer) – 61,000

Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident (Eoin Colfer) – 61,000

Sky Thieves (Dan Walker) – 58,000

Desert Thieves (Dan Walker) – 60,000

Light Hunters (Dan Walker) – 61,000

Percy Jackson (Rick Riordan) – 90,000

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Sue Townsend) – 57,000

I have read all these books and consider them to target the audience I want to write for. What I gleaned from this exercise is that a range of 50,000 words on the lower end to 80,000 on the upper end seems reasonable. If I were to split the difference, my actual target would be 60,000–70,000. This gives me a rough idea of the amount of writing I will need to do. 

On looking into word counts in more detail in articles and videos from agents, I have since learned that for a middle-grade debut, the word count agents generally look for in a debut novelist is anywhere from 40,000 to 65,000 words, with the longer word count reserved for science fiction/fantasy books that require heavy world building. So, my initial estimates were not too far off. You can easily push these word counts a little if you decide to publish independently but going too high might put off all but the most advanced readers in the target age category.

Doing this sort of research up front before even knowing what the book is going to be about may seem strange. Many writers like to start with only a basic premise and a rough idea of a character, but perhaps because of my background in software engineering, I am the sort of person who likes to plan. 

Book Goals and Style Guide

As someone who likes to plan, I set myself goals for the book, along with a style guide. I find making some stylistic decisions in advance helps establish a series of guard rails, so I don’t veer off target. I have done something like this for pretty much every project I have worked on in my professional career. 

Middle-grade reading age: I set out to target a reading age of nine to twelve years old. While targeting a younger audience, I would like the book to be fun for adult readers too. As already discussed, middle-grade is split into two areas: upper and lower middle-grade. Lower middle-grade is aimed at younger readers and has a word count of fewer than 40,000 words. These are short, easy-to-read, fun books. Upper middle-grade books are aimed at a more advanced reader in the same age group and can sixty to 75,000 words long. These are challenging but fun stories that children and adults alike can enjoy. I started reading lots of upper middle-grade books.

Chapters presented like diary entries: The book is called Diary of a Martian as I wanted the chapters to be presented as diary entries written by the protagonist, Elliot. Therefore, the book would be written in the first person and past tense, and each chapter would take place on a particular date. However, I wanted the chapters to read as flowing prose rather than a rough, realistic diary entry. The book is very much about the world seen through Elliot’s eyes.

Minimal description of the main protagonists: I remember reading in a few books, and in some writing craft videos, that with children’s books, it can be a good idea not to describe the protagonists in too much detail as children like to imagine themselves in the role of the main character. After putting some thought into that idea, I think it’s great, and something I have stuck with in my novel. For example, I don’t describe Elliot’s appearance. We know he is a boy of average height for his age (twelve years old). I don’t describe eye or hair colour, or any other relevant descriptive details, unless required for the plot.

With my secondary protagonist, Mei, all I describe is that she is Chinese and has shoulder-length black hair, and I believe that is enough detail for the reader’s imagination. The fact that she is Chinese is important to the plot as I show the two previous rival Martian colonies coming together. 

I hope that both boys and girls who can imagine themselves in these roles will enjoy the novel. I know that under-describing characters can be controversial, and there are strong opinions on it, but for me, I feel this is right for the story. My secondary characters are described in more detail. When I reach the editing and revision stage of the manuscript, I may change my mind when I read the story back in its entirety. The level of character description I use feel like it will be a topic I revisit a few times.

Short chapters for a fast-paced read: To make the book an easy read for younger and reluctant readers, I want to keep the chapters short – around 1200–2000 words. Those limits are not a hard and fast rule but more of a guideline. I want to create fast-paced, forward momentum for the reader. 

Many younger readers, and I am basing part of this on my own children, read at night before bed. In my household, we have made it a habit that at 7 p.m., the children must read. This means they have around thirty minutes to an hour to read before lights out. I want the completion of a chapter to feel like a win for the child, so they feel encouraged to continue. If you complete a chapter that is short, you feel more compelled to read the next chapter, especially if there is a cliff hanger to entice you to turn the page.

I read many books on the Kindle e-reader, which tells me how long I have left in a chapter based on my reading speed. If I am reading a book and the e-reader tells me the chapter is fifteen minutes or shorter, I am more inclined to read it. When I complete that chapter, if the Kindle tells me the next chapter is only ten minutes long, I will continue. Before I know it, it’s 1 a.m. 

Other books I have read have very long chapters, so if I complete a chapter and the Kindle tells me the next chapter is forty-five minutes long, I will stop reading and go to sleep because I like to complete a chapter.

This isn’t scientific advice. I am basing these observations about chapter length on my reading habits and those of my children, but that’s okay with me and forms the basis of my plan to keep my chapters short and fast-paced. 

Chapter cliff-hangers to encourage forward reading: Along with brief chapters, I want to have a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter. I don’t want to force myself to do this on every chapter, but if action is buzzing, ending a chapter when something interesting is about to happen is a great way to encourage the reader to keep going. 

Cliff-hangers have been used in TV shows for decades. The main character gets into a dangerous situation, but the episode stops. You just have to tune in next week to find out what happens; or let Netflix (or your streaming service of choice) guide you into the next episode. It’s a simple and effective technique to ensure audience engagement, and I intend to exploit it as much as I can.

Main characters are twelve years old: At the start of the book, my protagonist, Elliot, is eleven years old, and he soon turns twelve. Twelve years old is the top of the middle-grade reading age range. Children like to read up in age rather than down, so a ten-year-old reader would prefer to read about children older than them and not younger. Reading down in age can feel a bit too babyish. I took this advice from R. L. Stine’s Masterclass course and talking to my own children confirmed it.

Rich and visual world building: Children are highly visual. As well as a gripping story line, fast action, and likeable characters, they need the setting to be rich and visual. However, a balance must be struck because too much description and exposition can put off younger readers, so any description included in the story needs to hit its mark straightaway. 

I expect this balance will be difficult to get right, so I will rely on beta readers and editors to help me. But my goal is for the children – and adults – reading this novel to imagine a realistic yet rich world in which the story takes place.

Story Theme

To write an entire novel, your story needs depth to keep it interesting for the reader, even for a younger audience. What I mean by depth is seeing more of the characters world than just the main plot. Diary of a Martian has a well-defined plot. The characters go from point a to b and so on until a resolution has been reached, but at the same time, I want the readers to see more of their lives than the main plot required. 

I remember watching a documentary with George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. In that documentary he talked about the plot of the film, but he also said that Star Wars was a family drama. We learn just as much about the characters families and circumstances as we do about the direct plot and action. I wanted to achieve the same goal. Again, how I do that is a balancing act as I must keep the readers engaged, but I want the reader to imagine what it is like living on Mars.

When I started my planning for Diary of a Martian, I wanted to ground the story so that the characters and setting feel normal to the reader, even though the story is set far into the future and on a different planet.

One way to achieve this is to anchor the story in something familiar. For that, I used the humble game of football (soccer for my American friends). Football plays a large role in Martian colony life, bringing people together and making the setting feel familiar to its readers.

Key Takeaways

I enjoy the process of planning a book. I know some writers hate the idea of planning, but by putting some effort into understanding what you are writing, the genre and the readership, you can go a long way in avoiding writing a book that you need to change or abandon later. 

In any project I embark on, I have also always liked the idea of putting a series of guard rails in place. These guard rails serve as a set of constraints I need to stay within, so I don’t veer off target and produce something that is irrelevant and ill-fitting for my target audience. 

These guard rails don’t have to be a complete plan of the book. They’re just a guide to help keep me moving in the right direction when the writing becomes tougher later on in the project. And it will.

My Six Favourite Writing Craft Books

I started my creative writing journey in anger during the first Covid lockdown of 2020. I have always wanted to write a novel, but it was one of those projects that I put off as I was so busy with other aspects of my life: family, career, etc. During the lockdown, I put effort into creative writing to help deal with the pressures of lockdown and home-schooling, and I started off by reading lots of craft books and writing short stories. 

I love reading craft books. I always have at least one novel and one craft book being read at anyone time. In this post, I want to talk about my top 6 favourite book that have really helped me. There are, of course, many other books that I think are brilliant, but if I had to recommend a reading list to a new writer, then I would offer the following books:

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King

The Art of Character – David Corbett

The First Five Pages – Noah Lukeman

The Anatomy of Story – John Truby

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

On Editing – Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price

Let’s start with one of my favourite writing books of all time.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King

No list of writing craft books is complete without a mention of Stephen King’s On Writing. I really enjoyed this book as it is part biography from a master of commercial fiction mixed in with lots of writing advice. I have read this book several times, and I always feel motivated to write afterwards. I also really recommend the audiobook as King narrated it himself, and I could listen to his voice for hours.

One message to take from this book is that you should never give up. King, like many writers who wish to follow the traditional publishing route, faced rejection after rejection. King also nearly gave up. He threw the manuscript for Carrie into the trash. If his wife hadn’t had recovered the book and convinced him to send it out to a publisher, then we may never have had the classics, such as The Shining, IT, and Pet Cemetery.

The Art of Character – David Corbett

No matter what type of story you are writing, all good books come down to characters, and that is what The Art of Character explores. If you have thin, uninspiring characters, then it doesn’t matter how wiz bang your plot is, the book will not be a great read. That is the focus of this book. It’s all about writing well-rounded characters. 

This book is very in depth, and the author throws a lot at you. It’s not the sort of book you just read once and then move on. I class this book as an essential workbook that you will refer to many times over your career.

The First Five Pages – Noah Lukeman

In a market that is saturated with new books each day, the first few pages of your manuscript are essential to hooking a reader. If you are looking for a traditional publishing deal, then you also have to hook an agent, and then a publishing editor, before you even get to your readers. The premise of this book, The First Five Pages, is about making sure your first five pages really engage the reader so that they continue with the book instead of abandoning it and moving onto something else. 

I found the advice in this book to be excellent. The book covers subjects like: A weak opening hook, Overuse of adjectives and adverbs, Flat or forced metaphors or similes, Undeveloped characterisations and lifeless settings, and Uneven pacing and lack of progression.

It’s not a long book, but you get a lot of useful and actionable information to help the beginning of your book grab the attention of the reader.

The Anatomy of Story – John Truby

The Anatomy of Story is a book that explores story telling and story telling tropes. John Truby primarily aimed the book at screenwriting and he dissects a lot of movies, but that is a good thing as movies have to have stories that engage the viewer from the start. The book offers twenty-two steps to becoming a master storyteller, and I believe the book lives up to that promise.

Some films explored, and his examples, felt a little dated by today’s standards, as the book is quite old. I still found it very useful, and I recommend and storyteller to read it, even if he aimed it more at screenplay writers. There is plenty to absorb here for novelists.

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird is different kind of writing book. It isn’t a direct craft or technique book. Instead. I class this as a book about the writer’s life and I found it a fun, engaging and motivating read. Writing a novel is hard work and sometimes you just want to read something that will motivate and inspire you. I found Anne’s discussions about writing to be honest, entertaining and I quite appreciate her self-deprecating style. 

The book is split into five sections: writing, the writing frame of mind, help along the way, publication and other reasons to write, and finally a section called the last class. If you want some inspiration and advice from a seasoned writer, both the good parts of writing and the not so good, then I recommend this book.

On Editing – Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price

It may seem odd including a book on editing in a list of writing craft books, but On Editing, is very good. As the title suggest, the book is about how to edit your own work to make it the best it can be before you show the manuscript to anyone else, either a professional editor, agent, or self-publication. 

This book teaches you all the skills you need to help whip your first draft into shape and looks at fixing story issues as a developmental edit, and the finer-grained line editing problems you need to fix. At the time of writing this post, I have completed my first draft of my middle-grade novel, so editing is something I am thinking a lot about. I have read several books on the topic, and this is by far my favourite.

Don’t Put Off Creative Writing Until Later in Life–I Regret It

I have always had a desire to write a novel since my early twenties. I had plenty of ideas, but I always procrastinated and delayed starting. When I was younger, written English was never my strongest subject at school—debatable that it is now :-). In fact, I hated English lessons. We had to read books I didn’t like and write essays on subjects I was not interested in. I was also quite stubborn, so if I wasn’t interested in the subject, I didn’t give it a lot of attention. It didn’t help that I did not get on with my English teacher. Looking back, I was the problem and not the teacher. I was young and thought I knew it all.

I enjoyed reading novels, but in my teenage years, I didn’t read as much as I should. I would rather be out with my friends, or playing video games. After I finished university, started my career and settled down in my early twenties, I started reading more books again. I like to read a variety of novels: science fiction, fantasy, spy thrillers, horror. Pretty much most genre fiction novels, although I am not so leen on romantic, or literary fiction; they are just not my thing.

As I read more books, I had ideas for my own stories. I have always had an active imagination, and I loved the idea of being able to write my own stories. Some people want to be rockstars. I liked the idea of being a novelist. As fun as this sounded, I had many excuses for not starting. I regret a lot of these now, but hindsight can help me uncover my regrets.

Intimidated by Other Books

One problem with wanting to start a creative endeavour is that it is easy to compare your ideas to those of others. Whenever I picked up another author’s novel to read, they always struck me by how flawless they seemed. The plots were well thought out. The grammar seemed perfect. Overall, the quality was high. I found that intimidating. How could I ever do the same?

What I didn’t understand at the time was the process an author goes through to write a book. I had attempted to write short stories before, and although I was pleased with them, the writing didn’t seem as good as I was reading in other novels. I just assumed I didn’t have the skills to produce something of the same quality. My short stories were essentially first drafts that I didn’t develop further.

If I had done my research, I would have found out that an author will write a first draft. That draft will not be very good. They will then do a full revision of their work. Then they’ll do another, and another. This revision process could happen many times until the author has a good draft. This revised version is the real first draft. Even then, the book is not complete. If they are signed to an agent and they have sold the book, then the manuscript will go through a further series of revisions with a professional editor. 

Once the publisher’s editor has finished, then there is a final stage which is the final line edit and proofread. Your book could easily go through ten to fifteen revisions before it’s published, along with multiple gate-keepers. No wonder published novels are of high-quality. Over a long period of time, the text has been revised and reworked. Of course, my first draft stories didn’t seem as good. I hadn’t gone through the entire process.

Worried my Ideas are Bad

I thought my book ideas were good, but everyone thinks that of their ideas. I was worried about what other people would think. People can be cruel. You can find reviews on Amazon to see what people really think. Even for popular books, if you look at the one and two star reviews, people can be very nasty, especially when hidden behind an anonymous name. 

Being criticised is scary. Nobody likes it, but now that I am older and hopefully a little wiser, I am not so worried about it. Sure, if I get a bad review and there are lots of other positive reviews, then I just think the book wasn’t to their taste. I now believe that if you do the best work you can, go through the revision steps and use a professional editor, and take their advice, then the product you put into the marketplace will be good. If someone doesn’t like it, well, that’s on them.

I mentioned before that I have released some non-fiction books, so I now have practical experience of this. All the steps I mentioned above about revision, I did with my non-fiction books, and I put out the best books I could. I know they are good, and the reviews are all mostly very good, so if I get the occasional bad review, while it still hurts, I have learnt to brush it off. Provided the reviews are not deliberately offensive, then I try to learn from them.

Scared by the Amount of Work

When I was younger, I was intimidated by the amount of work required to write a book; that was just for the first draft stage. Like a lot of younger people, I wanted instant gratification. I liked the idea of having written a book. I was worried about the amount of work it would take. As someone once said to me, ‘you want to get to the destination, but you don’t want to do the journey.’

I will bet that this is a common problem for anyone looking to tackle an enormous project. As a young man. I was not as experienced in how to plan a large project. With over twenty-eight years of industry experience working on huge software development projects, I would tackle a book project like any of my former career projects: lots of planning, and break the project down into smaller pieces. It’s like that joke, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ That is so true. 

Some writers blame inaction with a project on writer’s block, or the muse not being with them. I don’t agree with that. If you get stuck on one project, work on something else; you can still write. You don’t hear of a car mechanic suddenly getting mechanics block, and can’t work on all those cars that are booked into the garage. When I get stuck on a plot point in my novel, I work on another non-fiction project, or a blog post—like this one.

By focusing on a little at a time, you can complete the project. I experience this firsthand with one of my non-fiction books. It was a business and entrepreneurial book called ‘The Path to Freedom – Starting a Business for the Reluctant Entrepreneur’. The final manuscript was one-hundred-fifty-thousand words. That’s a big book, but I applied the same principle to that book. Working on a small piece at a time. It took eighteen months to write that book, but I wasn’t daunted by the size of the project anymore because I had broken the problem down into much smaller pieces. I believe that if any project scares you, then you haven’t broken it down far enough.

Busy Learning Software Development

Like most career minded professionals in their twenties, I was trying to build up my career in software development. I started my career in the video games industry, and after eight years, I moved into financial services as a software developer, and then through the ranks as a leader. My career wasn’t writing novels, that was just a dream; a nice to have.

Even though I have regrets about not starting a novel earlier in my life, I don’t have regrets about focusing on my career. You need the career to help provide for your family, put a roof over your head and make sure everyone has what they need. Building a stable career is very hard, so while I include career building in my reasons for not starting a novel, this one is justified.

Starting a Family Took Up My Time

I don’t regret building up a decent career, and I also don’t regret having children. I have two kids, Amy, thirteen at the time of this post and my son Daniel, ten. If you are reading this and you have young children, then you understand they are fun, yet very tiring. Bringing up infants is exhausting. Me and my wife found two children hard work. Anyone that can raise three of more children deserves a medal.

As a parent, when you have a little spare time and you want to write, or take part in some other creative activity, you’ll be tired and uninspired. I know I was. This constant level of tiredness also contributed to not wanting to start a novel. All the other reasons I stated in this chapter were the primary reasons, but being tired with children was the perfect excuse, as I don’t really think anyone would argue with it.

Now my children are a little older, they are not as challenging. We do lots of activities as a family, but the kids also want to play with their friends, do sleepovers, play video games etc, so me and my wife find we have more time to do activities together, and also do our own things. For a little of motivation for young parents, it gets easier; I promise. 

Now you know why I put off starting my novel for so long. You have probably read this post, thinking these are just excuses for inaction. You would be correct, they are. That’s why a lot of them are regrets, and I hope I can save you from the same problem. At the time of writing this post I am forty-five and I feel like I have wasted a lot of writing time. Don’t make the same mistake.

Understanding Your Destination with Personal Writing Commandments

I have always been a strategic thinker. Every project I embark on, I need to know the end-game upfront. If my project was a ship, I need to see the dock, so I know where to steer. My writing is no different. I am part way through drafting (on the third act) a middle-grade novel, called Diary of a Martian. I will need a home for the novel at some point. It could be my desk drawer, it might be an agent/publisher, or I might release it myself. There are many options, but to understand where to end up, you need guide-rails to help get you there. It’s the same in corporate strategy. You need to see a bigger picture so you can steer that enormous ship, a company, in the right direction.

Steering a ship to your ultimate destination
Your writing destination is a lot like steering a ship to a port.

With all this in mind, I set about defining what my personal commandments are for my writing. Writing a series of commandments helps to solidify, for me, why I am doing this in the first place—other than just for fun. These commandments will be important later when I have finished writing my novel, as I will have to decide what to do with it: publish through a traditional publisher (well, try anyway), or independent publication. 

Just like biblical commandments, I will refer to these further down the line if I reach an impasse with my work, or feel as though I am veering in the wrong direction. The moment I get a feeling that I am taking a wrong turn, I will refer to these commandments. Commandments shouldn’t be mistaken for goals. Goals have a determined outcome. You can tick off when they are complete. These commandments aren’t like that. It’s more like trying to steer that vast ship; by following them, the ship should head in the right direction.

1. Create a lasting legacy

When I hit my mid-forties, I looked back over my career and didn’t like the idea that most of the projects and products I have worked on over the years no longer exist. Software systems get superseded; companies bought out; technology and teams replaced. With my writing, I want the end result to last long into the future, and live after I am eventually gone. This feeling is probably a symptom of a mid-life crisis. I never used to worry about such things, but now I do. I want a lasting legacy, something I am proud of, that doesn’t go out of date or expire. 

2. Create something I can pass on

Following on from the previous commandment, by creating a lasting legacy I am proud of, I can pass my work down to my children and grandchildren. If my books ever become a success, then this can help my children in the future. Even if the books are not a financial success, long after I have shuffled off this mortal coil, I will have a body of work that my children and grandchildren can remember me by. 

The legacy of my other work in creating online corporate training just wouldn’t have the same sentimental impact on my family, even if I think that work is pretty good. But, a series of stories that can live on beyond my own life that my children can enjoy and remember me by, is something that is really important to me.

3. Not put financial gain as a priority

This is quite an important commandment. Creative writing can either be a passion where monetary gain isn’t the major success factor, or I can treat it like a business. I put a lot of thought into this, probably too much considering I haven’t actually finished writing the novel, but I am an over-thinker. 

I have been very fortunate. For many years I have worked for myself, doing work that I find interesting. There comes a time, though, that when you do something that is fun and also your job, the shine can wear off as financial stress sets in. For my “day job”, that is a given. It’s how I earn my living and help to provide for my family. So, the question is, do I want creative writing to be a job? 

On one hand, the thought of sitting here writing novels every day sounds fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to do that? But I know that if I have other people and companies depending on the words that I write, would that fun diminish for me? I already know the answer; it’s yes. Having commitments and dependencies can and will lead to stress. Is that what I want with creative writing? I don’t think it is. I want it to remain enjoyable, on my terms.

4. Produce my best work

Most of your time writing a novel has you, the author, on your own crafting the story. To produce your best work, you need the help of others, such as editors, beta-readers, proof-readers etc. Book covers need to be created by professionals to make them fit in, and the typesetting has to look professional. 

If I publish my book independently, then I will hire all these people to help me make the best book I can. I will go through the same steps that a traditional published book would go through, and with the same level of editorial critique. I don’t intend to take any shortcuts. I will have to pay for these services, and they can be quite expensive, but people spend money on their hobbies and interests all the time; this is no different.

5. Seek to satisfy my vision above anyone else

In traditional publishing, there’s a lot of talk about writing to fit market trends. A good example is when the Hunger Games novels came out. These books created a big resurgence in dystopian young adult books. Because of the success of the Hunger Games, a lot of publishers were suddenly looking for young adult dystopian stories and the market became flooded. If you queried for an agent and publishing deal at the right time with a book that fit the mould, you could get a deal. Over time, young adult dystopian books fell out of favour. It’s not that they are bad, on the contrary, but the market cooled to them and other genres became the in-thing.

If your timing was bad, you might have written an amazing dystopian young adult book, but if that’s not what the publishers are looking for, then you face a barrage of rejections. On one hand, I get it, the publishers are businesses with enormous overheads; they have to publish what’s on trend to make money. It doesn’t feel fair to the creative who has spent months, if not years, slaving over their book.

Diary of a Martian (my novel) is a science fiction and fantasy story. I am writing the book because I think it’s a fun story and I really like the characters. In terms of market fit, I am not sure how well it would fair with a traditional publisher. Fantasy books for a middle-grade audience at the time of writing seem to do well, but with a science fiction theme, I am not so sure. 

If I was trying to think with a commercial mindset, I might be tempted to abandon the book and work on something else that I think has commercial appeal; perhaps another Harry Potter clone. If I did that, it might take me a year to eighteen months to write that book, at which point the market will have moved on to something else and all that effort becomes wasted.

If I ignore the commercial and market focused aspect, then I could just write the book I want to write; because I want to write it. That may not be the best “Business” approach, but I have already decided that this is a creative exploit primarily, and financial gain isn’t my chief priority. If it sells a lot of copies, then fantastic. I will certainly try to do that, but I am not treating it as a get rich scheme to replace my primary income.

6. Not sacrifice my rights on the altar of success

I am fortunate in that a traditional publisher has published me—for non-fiction books, so I know what it’s like in that environment. I am also friends with people that have traditionally published fiction. While signing that publishing contract can be exciting, and if that is what you want, then you should go for it, but there is a side to it I don’t like. 

When you sign that publishing contract, you are signing away the rights to your story. You still own the copyright, but you are giving away the rights to publication. If your book sells, and you go through multiple reprints, then you are in a great position. The harsh truth, though, most books do not earn enough money to earn out their advances and make any additional money for the author. If you get an advance, it is just that, an advance on future earnings. The publisher wants that back before you see any royalties, and most royalty rates for traditionally published books are very low—between ten and fifteen percent.

If your first print run takes a long time to sell, the publisher may decide that your book is not commercially viable enough to pay for another print run, and the book goes out of print. If that happens, and it happens, there is nothing you can do about it. You don’t own the publishing rights anymore, the publisher does, so you are at their mercy. Your contract may have a clause that states if sales dip below a certain threshold then you can have a discussion about getting your rights back. Sounds good, but there is a catch. 

The publisher will still sell copies of your ebook. I have spoken to authors who wanted to get their rights back based on sales volume, but the publisher will set the ebook temporarily to 99p (or 99c in the US) and run a promotion for a month. You sell a lot of copies at this price, then the book returns to its normal price. The publisher has hit the sales threshold to keep the rights; yes, this happens.

A lot of writers are happy to go into this situation as they are desperate to be published via a traditional publisher, but for me, I think the sacrifice is too great. I really don’t like the idea of giving away the publication rights to something that I came up with and spent a long time writing. This is a long way of saying that I am not prepared to give away rights to my work. I would rather sell fewer copies but own all my rights than make a gamble that a publisher will sell a lot of copies. 

The publishing industry differs from what it was ten years ago. As an author, you are on your own to promote your book when it comes out. If your book gets some traction and sells a lot of copies, then the publisher will start actively advertising and promoting your work. Until then, they expect you to promote your own book, all for a small royalty percentage. I would much rather spend that advertising money, knowing the vast majority of the royalties come back to me.

It took a while to come up with these commandments. Each one required thought to decide what’s important to me. Your publication journey can be long and difficult, but I think it is important to understand what you want up front, even before you have a finished writing the book. That’s strategic thinking. Making your ship sail in the right direction, course correcting along the way.

Writer’s Block is Just an Excuse

Writer’s block is just an excuse to not write. It doesn’t really exist. After reading that you will either be nodding your head in agreement, or about to rage quit this blog; but give me a chance to share my thoughts first, as it’s just an opinion. Writers get stuck with what they are writing. It happens to me all the time, but I don’t consider it writer’s block. My muse hasn’t flown out the window. I am just stuck. 

A man struggling with writers block while huddled over a typewriter.
Portrait of frustrated man struggling with writers block over typewriter.

A few weeks ago, I was working on my debut middle-grade novel, Diary of a Martian. The story is about two-thirds done. I reached one section of the story where I knew where the characters had to end up, but I was struggling with a convincing way of getting them to that point. I wrestled with the problem for about an hour. Still no joy. I walked to see if the answer would come to me. It didn’t. I was stuck. Hmm, what to do? I could have pleaded that I had writers’ block, shut my laptop and do something else entirely, but that’s silly and not professional. 

I am a professional writer. I write for a living. Fiction may be new to me, but I have written a lot of non-fiction material. Instead I switched to something else; another writing project. I have another non-fiction book in the early stages that I am working on, so I carried on with that book. I had already outlined the next few chapters, so I knew what I needed to write. I carried on working on that non-fiction book for another four days solid. 

When doing the school run, and picking my son up, I left a little earlier and did a longer walk that ended up at the school; it was a sunny day. I loaded up a TV show score on my phone (the score for Picard series 1; the music is better than the show) and off I trot. Just over halfway through the walk, I had an epiphany. I figured out how to solve my plot problem. Was it the music that helped, or the walk? Don’t know. Why didn’t I think of this idea initially? Well, I was stuck, but now I had the answer. I pulled out my phone, loaded up the voice recorder and made a few audio notes. Satisfied, and with a big smile on my face, I finished the walk and picked up my son from school. 

That evening, I loaded up my novel in Scrivener, and finished writing the first draft for the section that was causing me issues. I wasn’t blocked. My muse may have been confused, but he chose to work on something else instead.

But Stephen, what if you had also become stuck with the non-fiction book at the same time? Then what would you do? Well, I have this blog, and a list of posts I want to write. I would work on one of those. It’s still writing. I have a collection of short stories that I have been working on. I could continue with one of those. I have quite a few other children’s novel ideas rattling around in my brain. I could make notes on those ideas; start their beat sheets, write profiles for the characters. I produce online training courses as part of my business. They are all scripted. I can carry on with the current course I am writing. There is always something to be getting on with.

There is a good way to summarise this:

Professional writers don’t get blocked. They get stuck, and then do something else temporarily.

Amateurs or hobby writers get stuck, think they are blocked, and then procrastinate.

I say choose the professional mindset. Just work on something else until you become unstuck. You don’t have a car mechanic claim to be blocked when fixing a car and then give up. They get help, or fix another car. Plumbers don’t get plumbers block. Professionals don’t claim <name of profession> block, they get stuck, try to fix the issue, or carry on with something else that needs doing for their profession, and come back to the problem later.

As with anything, this is just my opinion. You may agree, or you may disagree. That’s fine. Either way, leave a comment and let me know your take on writer’s block.

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