The Cost of Writing a Book

Like many writers, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops though maybe not for the atmosphere.  I’ve been a member of a couple writing groups for the last year or so, they help keep things interesting, and, of course, they meet at coffee shops.

Whenever I go to these groups I buy something.  It doesn’t seem right to sit down, use their WiFi for a couple hours and not spend some money.  Usually it’s just two or three bucks for an iced tea but once a week or so I’ll add a sandwich or snack.  Plus a tip, of course.

Today, after paying for my iced tea and a veggie wrap, as I tried to find an unoccupied table to write at, I wondered how much money I’ve spent at these various shops.

This turned out to be a far scarier topic than I thought it would.  I did the math.

It takes me about two months to finish a very rough first draft, with two group meetings a week.

Two hours of writing costs me about $5 on average.  In two months I’ll have visited 8 times, spending a minimum of $40 just to get through a first draft.

That adds up fast, $240 a year for writing in coffee shops.  Now, it’s not just writing, there’s networking and commiserating with other writers, but still.  As Indies we’re always hearing about the costs for good covers, editing, marketing, etc.  But how many people talk about the cost of coffee (or iced tea)?  Maybe that should get figured into more Indie budgets.  I mean, $240 could pay for a lot of marketing.

But then, of course, if I didn’t spend so much time at coffee shops I would never get anything written.  I guess it just comes with the territory, the cost of writing a book.  😉

9/11

I wasn’t planning on writing anything about the anniversary of 9/11 but all the other memories being posted today dragged mine back up to the surface.

In September, 2001, I was on break from college, staying with my parents on the far west of the country.  I was 19 and still trying to decide if I was going to sign up for a Sophomore year or try my luck with something else.

As we were four hours behind everyone else, I got a phone call at an ungodly hour from one of my closest friends.  We’d known each other for years and been roommates in the dorms the previous two semesters.  He had family back east that had given him a similar call a few minutes earlier.

I fumbled at the phone until it stopped beeping and put it to my ear.

“Dude, turn on your TV.”

“What?”

“Just do it, turn on the TV.”

From the tone of his voice I knew it was something serious, but just because it was a big deal to him didn’t necessarily mean it would be to me.  And it was 5 o’clock in the morning, what could be so important?  With much cajoling he convinced me to get up and go to the living room.

I switched it on and the screen filled with a building pouring out black smoke.

Satisfied that I was paying attention he got off the phone to make more calls.

I still didn’t know what was going on, nobody did at that point.  A plane had hit one of the skyscrapers half a world away.

My dad left for work, my mom came and sat on the couch with me.

I honestly don’t remember whether we saw the second plane hit in real time or whether it was one of the thousands of replays that day, it all blurs together, but it soon became apparent that this was no accident.

We watched the towers hit and fall, over and over again for hours as all the talking heads tried to make sense of it.  Terrorism.  That was the word of the day, but no one really knew anything.

I had work that day so I had to leave.  At the time I was a waiter at a diner downtown.  A couple blocks away was one of the main roads and it dead-ended into the largest Army base in the state.  Before even arriving at work I could see the traffic backed up for miles.  The terror threat had jumped the less alarming colors and the security measures had increased dramatically.  Cars were being searched, there were dogs everywhere, men with guns watching everyone very, very carefully, traffic inched forward.

My boss, who was an all around horrible person, was just as shook up by the situation as I was and that prompted her to somehow make one of the nicest decisions I’d seen so far.  We packed up boxes of to-go cups full of coffee and walked to the traffic jam, handing them out to all the soldiers stuck in their cars.

It was a small gesture but we couldn’t think of anything else to do.

The rest of that day was spent in a daze of disbelief.

And fear.  Terrible, creeping, undeniable fear.

For those who were too young to understand, or born after 9/11, this is all history.  It’s easy for them to see it as a singular blip in time, one horrible action that hasn’t been repeated.  But at the time we didn’t know what was coming, we didn’t know if this was a first strike in a coordinated attack.  We didn’t know if this was just the beginning of something even worse.  Would Chicago be next?  Would it be trains, or bombs, or gunmen at the malls?  We didn’t know, and that was terrifying.

I was 19, not currently enrolled in college, what if the government started the draft again?

Of course, all our hearts went out for those that lost their lives, and all our support went out to the men and women responding to the situation… but underneath all of that was this uncertainty that ate away at us.  We had all been blissfully unaware of danger, children really, in a stable life, a safe place, far from the horrors we heard about on the news in countries we couldn’t find on a map, and that innocent naivete was wiped out in a single morning.

That was the point.  That’s the goal of terrorism, to terrorize, and it worked.

A year later I joined the Navy.  Originally I’d signed up for the Marines but the Navy process was months faster at the time.  How much of that decision, and all the others that followed, how much of my life was changed by that day I’ll never know.

But I do know I’ll never forget it.

The importance of Beta Readers

Most of us writers probably have a similar response to finishing a story.  We gaze at our manuscript with starry eyes and proclaim it’s the best thing we’ve ever written, conveniently forgetting how we said the same thing after the last finished manuscript.  To be fair, it probably is at least a little better, but from how we (I) feel you’d think we skipped fifty developmental steps and just wrote the GREATEST AMERICAN NOVEL EVER.

I did this after finishing The Apocalypse Gazette.  Greatest.  American.  Novel.  Ever.

It’s not, I know, but it feels like it is.

Then come those pesky Beta Readers, poking holes in our ego.

It’s not pleasant but it’s important.

One of my favorite things about The Apocalypse Gazette is that it’s vague about what’s real in the story and what’s just in the main character’s head.  He’s losing his marbles and I like the fact that it’s not obvious how much of the story is actually happening vs. what he thinks is happening.  To me, that opens up this whole playful world that takes ‘post-apocalyptic’ into ‘anything goes’.

I passed the story on to a trusted friend for her opinions.  She’s read most of my stuff and is quick to point out any issues she has.

The first thing she said?  “I don’t understand what’s going on with Wally when XYZ happens…”

My ego wanted to jump in and say “That’s the point, isn’t it clever?”

But that wasn’t how it worked for her, she found the vagueness distracting and confusing.

As much as it pained me to admit, if she found it distracting and confusing, a large percentage of the readers would too.  And that’s not what I want.

So, back to the writing board to rework all those sections, trying to balance the parts I like with just enough clarity that I don’t lose the audience.  Sigh.  But that’s why Beta Readers are so important, the good ones will point out the good and the bad, hopefully leading to a better book.

Writing Humor

Some stories are easier to write than others, the most difficult I’ve found so far is humor.  I love a funny story but I’m also picky, probably like most readers.  Humor is such a subjective thing.

The last few stories I’ve written for NaNo were light-hearted.  I chose those stories very specifically because they wouldn’t be too heavy, they’d be fast and fairly easy to keep up the word count.

Geeks, Greens, and Guns was more situational humor, crazy stuff happening to fairly normal people.  It’s humorous without really being funny, if that makes any sense.  There wasn’t pressure to make jokes or have good one-liners, it was more about coming up with weird situations to stick the characters into.

The Apocalypse Gazette was almost the opposite, less crazy situational stuff and more funny stuff.  That wasn’t intentional, per se, it was just how the story turned out.  The main character goes through this boredom inspired insanity that leads to him writing the gazette.  In essence, he’s finding ways to amuse himself and humor played a large role.  Not a lot actually happens in the story, the humor has to carry a lot of the burden, which had me nervous at times.  If the reader doesn’t get the jokes they’re going to put down the story pretty fast.

Well, I can’t speak for other readers, but as I was perusing some of the chapters of The Apocalypse Gazette this evening I found myself chuckling over jokes that I’d forgotten.  I’m taking that as a positive sign.  Whether or not anybody else is amused, well, at least I’ve amused myself.  Life imitating art.

NaNo Update

Whew, wow.  Yeah.  This month has been crazy.  I signed up for my third NaNo at the beginning of the July (full Nano last November, then April and July for camp), and this was the first time so far that I actually thought I wouldn’t finish on time.

This month has been busy all around, work, personal, and everything in between.  I was struggling to even make progress on The Apocalypse Gazette, which is why I haven’t taken the time to post here much.  Work work work.

At the beginning of this week I was barely at 35k with only five days to go.  Not insurmountable but way farther back than I wanted to be at that point.  But over the last three days I managed to pull together another 10k.  Which means I have to only get down another 5k by midnight Friday.

That I can do.  I might even finish a day early at this rate.

While I think I can make the goal for the month the story itself is far from done.  I’ve already come up with some major changes I need to make and 50k will get me close to done but I’ll probably need another 5-10 thousand words to wrap up the first draft.  It’s looking good though, I’m enjoying the story.  It’s a lot bigger and crazier and wilder than I thought it would be.  It’s been fun.

Like I did for the last Camp project, I put up sections of The Apocalypse Gazette on Wattpad as I was writing it.  If you’re interested you can pop over and see how it’s going.

And good luck to all of us participating this month!  Home stretch!

https://www.wattpad.com/story/41391002

Camp NaNo

Woohoo, Camp NaNo started!  I’m on track with my word count so far, not that that’s saying much.  Just like last time I’ve decided to post the story to Wattpad as I’m writing it so interested readers and writers can follow along.  As an experiment it hasn’t yielded much in the way of results but it amuses me.

I put up the first couple chapters yesterday.

(Yes, I messed with the cover.  Again.)

The Apocalypse Gazette

How does the world end? Plague, calamity, aliens, solar flares? Maybe a combination of all the above? One morning Wally Mason woke up to find he was the last surviving person in his small town, maybe the last man on Earth. There’s plenty of food and water, he doesn’t lack for anything except entertainment. No social media, no TV, no internet, no Twitter. After a few months with only the company of his cat Spalding, Wally might just be going crazy. But just because he can’t blog or tweet anymore doesn’t mean he can’t write. In fact, why not document his apocalypse experiences in style? Why not write the one and only Apocalypse Gazette?

http://www.wattpad.com/story/41391002-the-apocalypse-gazette

Back to my Roots

When I was growing up I loved to read.  I’d read anything and I’d tear through a thousand page book in a week.  It would go everywhere with me until it was finished.  As much as I enjoyed reading, it wasn’t until I was thirteen that I discovered how much I loved to write.

When I was a Freshman in High School my friends and I used to have an hour long bus-ride home from school.  We were all avid horror and fantasy readers, one day we decided to use that time to write a short story on whatever topic we wanted, at the end of the ride we’d vote on who’s was best.

I wrote a short horror story about the four of us, my three friends and I.  We went camping, told scary stories around the fire, and one by one started to disappear.  We figured that one of the urban legends from the stories was actually real… but in the end found out that one of us was a werewolf (before they were trendy) and had invited everyone out to make meals of us.

It was scary, the descriptions were gory, like the horror flicks we loved, blood everywhere.

I won the little contest and discovered the joy I got from their reactions as we traded pages.  It was a blast to write something like all those stories that I enjoyed and have other people get a kick out of reading it.  Those little story contests became a regular part of our rides from then on.

Fast forward two decades.

This week I’m working on a new project.  As I was writing I realized I had a little hole in my plot, the characters were going to have to spend the night out in this hazardous place.  That wasn’t supposed to happen originally but it was just the way it worked out.  Thinking about that scene I figured I could just gloss over it, “they found an abandoned cabin to stay the night and nothing happened”…  but that’s not what I ended up happening

Instead, I spent the last two days writing over a dozen pages about the characters being haunted all night by creepy visions and monsters.  It just kind of evolved on the page into this huge, scary situation that I had so much fun creating.

In thinking about the project and the last two days it all kind of reminded me of writing those stories on the bus.  Those creepy, gruesome, edge-of-the-seat tales were what got me started writing to begin with because they were so much fun.  Even as a little kid, those R.L. Stein books were my favorites.  As I got older I transitioned into Stephen King and Dean Koontz, as well as a plethora of fantasy writers like Robert Jordan (RIP).

So I’m taking some time today to enjoy the process and remember what makes writing and reading enjoyable for me.  My last few projects have been pretty tame on the scare-o-meter, maybe my next one (or this one) will end up a few marks higher.  And if you find yourself hitting a slump, maybe thinking back to what you first loved about reading and writing will help get those juices flowing again.

Does it feel right?

Done with Camp NaNo, a couple days early even!  Woo hoo!  Now that I’ve found myself with a bit more spare time I thought it might be a good time to write about an interesting little experience I had during this project.

The first week of April I was on a trip overseas.  I knew that it’d be hard to keep my word count up but I had almost two days of flying involved so I figured that’d give me a chance do some writing, even if I didn’t get much done the rest of the week.

On my return flight, the story was feeling a little slow so I write this really intense action sequence.  It was fast paced, lots of back and forth, it was awesome.  Probably the best action scene I’ve ever written.  I ripped out six or seven pages in no time.  Word count, smerd count, I’m the man.

But about an hour later, something was bugging me.  I wasn’t sure what it was, I just knew that there was something off about the scene.  I kept tweaking it, trying to make it feel better, but there was some underlying problem that unsettled me.

One of the things that I have learned as a writer is to pay attention to those gut feelings.  Often the subconscious will pick up on something before the conscious mind does.  So I paused the story while I tried to understand out what was going on.

It took me a while to figure it out but when I kind of stepped back and looked at it, it was obvious. I had wanted to write a certain type of scene so bad that I forced the characters into it.  My main character was way too savvy to get sucked into that situation, it should never have happened.

It didn’t fit, I’d forced it.  No amount of tweaking was going to change that.  So, with reluctance, I chopped the entire seven pages.  Seven pages!

This was so frustrating because that’s one of those holes that writers are often advised to avoid.  If you’re true to your characters than the plot flows along, if a character makes some decision that doesn’t make sense that’s probably a sign that the writer is forcing the characters to fit into a specific plot point.  I’d always thought that wasn’t a problem for me since I’m more of a pantser, but now I know better.

My word count suffered, it felt like all that work went down the drain, I had to rewrite pages and pages, but in the end the story was so much better for it.  I’m glad I listened to my gut, figured out what was wrong and fixed it.

(Side note: I saved the pages in another file and was later able to salvage some of it in a more appropriate place in the story.)

An Observation

It’s been about a year since I started writing seriously.  I’ve ‘finished’ five big first drafts in that time but have hesitated to publish anything.  One of the reason is that I haven’t had the time or money to put into getting good edits done but the biggest reason is that every draft is a learning experience.  Writing so much, then reading and revising, has taught me so much about the craft.  Every time I look back at one of my early drafts I realize how far I’ve come.  As I want my first published work to be the highest quality I’ve been focused on learning rather than publishing.

An excellent example is my Camp NaNo project.  I hesitate to call it a ‘throw away’ novel but it didn’t have a lot of promise going into it.  Whenever I get involved with NaNo I pick out one of my ideas that light, easy to write, and doesn’t have a lot of depth.  The idea being that it should be easier to keep up the high word count daily.  If it sucks, no big deal, it’s just for fun (I’m even posting it on Wattpad as it gets written).  However, even with the not-so-serious premise and some edits I know I need to make, I can still see how far I’ve come in the last year.  Even writing something I’m not that invested in, the quality of the writing has improved dramatically.

While I still consider myself a student of the craft, it’s awesome to see the difference.

If you’re curious, it’s available on Wattpad (and getting closer to completion every day).  Feel free to leave comments or critiques, I’m always looking for feedback.

http://www.wattpad.com/story/35668423-geeks-greens-and-guns

Where do you get your ideas?

When I talk to non-writers about projects there is one inevitable question; where do I get my ideas?  There seems to be this magical aura around the subject as though writers have tapped into some underground magical force that no one else can find.   Or maybe they think we’re genetically coded in some unique way to boost creativity.  That’s not the way it works, at least not for me.

They want to know where I get my ideas?  I keep my eyes open.  Wherever I’m going, whatever I’m doing, I’m paying attention and keep an open mind.  A dozen times a day, at least, something occurs to me.  The comments people make, how they move, how they look, what’s on TV, who’s at the restaurant.  Words, phrases, scenes, subjects, they’re constantly bouncing around my head and rearranging themselves in different ways.  Hey, that’d be interesting in a story.

I’m sure that isn’t an ability that’s unique to me.  In fact, I’m pretty sure just about anyone can do what I do.  Most people probably have a ton of good ideas for stories that occur to them.  But here’s the key thing: writers do something about it.  When one of these ideas occur to me, I don’t move on and forget about it, I let it wiggle around the back of my head for a while.  What kind of characters would be involved in a story like this?  What kind of plot would it have?  Where would it take place?  What kind of twist can I inject?

Sometimes I evaluate the idea and decide it isn’t that good, not all are going to be, but the ones with any promise get written down.  The really good ones, I’ll find the time to write out at least a page synopsis and notes so I can dig into it deeper later on.

But I’m always paying attention, always thinking.

Here’s an example:

A couple weeks ago I was struggling with the name for a project I was working on.  You might remember that, I wrote a post called It’s all been written.  Usually I have a title before I start writing but that story was giving me fits.  I kept checking ideas online and all the good ones had been taken, so I emailed a friend and asked for her opinion.

She wrote back an innocuous suggestion that didn’t remotely fit the story… But I thought it was a hilarious.  Immediately my brain kicked into gear.  What would that story be like?  What kind of characters would it have?  How would that work?

I could have disregarded her title idea and moved on because it didn’t fit my story.  Instead, I got a really amazing idea for a new one just because I was paying attention and I kept an open mind.

So, there might not be any mythical well spring of story ideas out there (if there is, point me in the right direction) but paying attention and writing things down is almost as good.