It's been 5 years already since I started writing. Wow. I can't believe it. I have started writing my first trilogy, Siren Suicides, on May 15th 2012. Since then I've written and self-published the before-mentioned trilogy (and republished it later as one book, Siren Suicides: Second Edition), stand-alone novels Rosehead, Irkadura and The Badlings, and two books of tweets, Blue Sparrow and Blue Sparrow 2. I'm currently in the process of finishing my new novel TUBE (the one I started writing during the Amtrak residency) and plotting my first thriller (so excited!!!) The Dacha Murders, with 15 more novels outlined and waiting their turn (among them Dogwood, the sequel to Rosehead). Oh, and I have a bunch of short stories that may comprise a whole book by the end of 2017 (or beginning of 2018).
Is this crazy or what? I know I'm nowhere near as prolific as some other indie authors—publishing on average 2 books a year—but I've been also concentrating on learning the craft of writing in a language that's not my first, and that has eaten up a good chunk of my time. Plus learning how to plot has slowed me down as well. But the results will be worth it, I promise.
So what did I learn over these years? Many, many things. You can compare them to this post where I talk about what I learned after writing for 3 years, and see a big difference. I'm more relaxed now, and less idealistic, and not as ignorant and unbendable as I used to be. My ego took a good beating, and it worked wonders. I stopped thinking that I know how to write books, I now believe in myself more, and I know that I know nothing and no one else knows anything either, we all just flounder around and pretend we know, and assure one another, and keep guessing at this book-writing-and-publishing game, but often the results are based on pure luck and nothing else. So here goes.
1. If you won't sell your book, no one else will.
This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I used to dismiss the idea of selling books. I used to tell you, "Just do what you love, and money will follow" and "Numbers don't matter" and so on. Well, I was wrong. Yes, your readers will sell books for you by recommending them to all their friends (if they love your books to begin with), but they won't do it without you nudging them. You have to actively sell and fire up others to sell for you. The moment you stop, everyone else stops too.
2. If you won't sell your book, no one else will.
Did I say this already? I guess I did. Well, it needs repeating. People easily forget about you if you're invisible. So if you don't actively sell everywhere you can, and I mean, everywhere, you'll vanish in the dark, sorry lake of obscurity where no free money ever floats for grabbing.
3. If you won't sell your book, no one else will.
Go ahead and kill me, I don't care. IF YOU WON'T SELL YOUR BOOK, NO ONE ELSE WILL. Got it? Good. Just making sure. Moving on.
4. Without studying writing craft you're fucked.
I can't get any more clear (or explicit) than this. Study your craft until you bleed out of your nose, then study some more. Sure, you can write books by simply pouring out your emotions on paper and argue with anyone who tells you that you have to plot and structure and so on by explaining to them that this is the work of pure art and pure expression of your pure self, and how could they denigrate your self-expression by trying to force your creation into some kind of a formula?? Of course there is no formula, but there are rules for writing well that are centuries old that have worked, are working, and will work for as long as we have language and explain the world to one another via stories. So study it. Study it. Study it. It will help you bridge the understanding between you and your reader, which is what you want.
5. All writing craft in the world won't help if you don't have a story.
Having said the above, I want to caution you against believing into writing craft too much. Yes, you can study all the writing craft in the world and still write a bad book, a book no one will want to read. Why? Because it's a bad story. Or, in other words, it's a non-story, not something we can invest ourselves in emotionally. It's a fickle thing, storytelling. Some people can tell a story, and some people can't. I don't know why. But I know that beautiful sentences and crips descriptions and brilliant dialogue won't make readers' hearts beat faster if you have no story. At the same time, if your sentences are clunky and your dialogue is monotonous and your descriptions are too long or too flowery or too sparse, we will forgive you all this for the story that grabs us. Go figure.
6. Focus on writing what you want to sell.
I got pulled into doing all kinds of things for money: ghostwriting, speaking, editing, coaching, consulting, helping with book distribution, and so on, and none of these things taught me how to sell my books better, so I have stopped doing them (well, almost). My attention was split, and it took me away from doing what I love most: writing the kinds of books I want to sell, meaning, making money by writing the kinds of stories that I want to give to the world. Otherwise why write them, if I can't reach my fellow humans and tell them about all I know and have lived through and learned? Food for thought.
7. Have multiple source of income.
Like they say about the eggs and the many baskets. Just making sure you haven't fallen asleep and are paying attention. I'm contradicting what I just said above. Yes, do other things beside just writing and selling your books. Why? Because you never know when you will sell and when you will not. Again, you can do all the right things, and still not sell, and watch those who write poorly make big bucks while you're sitting there in your barren shack with all your brilliance and no cash in your pockets. Why? Because the world is cruel and unpredictable. So don't despair and support yourself any way you can so you can keep writing and getting better, every single day.
8. Learn how to say no, and say it often.
When I started out, I said yes to everything. "Can you review my book?" Yes! "Can you help me figure out how to self-publish my book?" Yes! "Can you come speak at our convention?" Yes! "Can you be a judge in our book contest?" Yes! Lately I have started saying no, because I simply don't have the time for all requests anymore. It's a tough game. You want to say yes, to meet new people, to gain visibility and experience and make connections, but you also have to think about your book writing, and make your picks. When it starts eating away at your writing time, it's time to start saying no, and saying it often.
9. Listen to criticism and learn from it.
Social media has helped me in this department, A LOT. Twitter in particular, but Twitter is very brutal, so every confrontation I had there left scars, although most of them taught me invaluable things, in particular about my misunderstanding of racism in America (as compared to racism in Russia), my white privilege, my often crass and uncivilized conduct (inherited from my family), and my tendency to fetishize people as objects. I also learned to listen to my writing mentor (remember, his code name is Pchelkin). I wish I listened to him earlier, but it took 5 years for him to break through my stubbornness. I'm glad he finally did. He saved me a lot of agony. Another wonderful pool of critics is comprised of my readers on Wattpad who leave me comments daily. I have learned a great deal from them, and I continue learning. And you all, thank you for teaching me things I wasn't aware of. It makes me a better writer and a better human being (though on the inside I'm a green alien, and on the outside I've a nice human suit that I wash once a year).
10. Find what works for you and stick with it, then change it.
There is so much writing advice out there. Do this, do that. I remember I gloried in giving out advice when I just started writing. "Write like this!" I said. "Write like that!" I was enamored with things that worked for me and thought they would work the same way for everyone else. I was very naive. And I was narrow in my worldview, which is typical for beginners. Now I know to ignore most writing advice out there and only do things that work for me, then discard them when they no longer work and go look for new things. It's a constant process, and it's different for everyone.
11. Plotting saves rewriting headaches.
I used to cry for almost 30 minutes every morning before starting to write. I mean, daily. I wish I was kidding. You can ask Royce, he'll tell you horror stories. I was pantsing most of my books, and the fear of the unknown terrified me to the point of weeping. But being the brave little shit that I am, I would still make myself move forward and write every day. Except then I had to make myself edit my own stuff, and that was more pain and tears and hollering. Thank God for plotting. It might not work for you the way it works for me, but regardless of what kind of writer you are, having some plan as opposed to having no plan at all will save you lots of headaches later. So consider it. Try it. You might be blown away.
12. Writing is not your whole life.
You know how I used to be: always only writing. I think after 5 years of this I've let it go somewhat and realized that it's okay once in a while to just stare at the clouds in the sky, and that it's a good thing. It recharges my brain, so then later I write more and better words in a shorter amount of time. I'm leaving the house more often, I'm more open to seeing people (and meeting new people). A miracle, I know, but it's precisely writing that showed me that life is precious. It can end every day, so I need to enjoy it.
13. Patience and perseverance are your tools to get there.
When everything goes to shit around you, and you want to quit, either because you got a bad review, or your books are not selling, or you've been stuck in writers block for months, whatever the reason, be patient with yourself. Keep moving forward every day, one step at a time. Set yourself word goals that you can complete. Or scene goals. Or hour goals. After trying all kinds of methods I have finally settled on the schedule method: I get up at 7 a.m., have coffee and good off online until 8 a.m., then turn everything off and read a chapter or two from some book on writing until 9 a.m., and then write until it's 2 p.m. So if between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. I produce no words, I will still sit in front of the blank screen until it's 2 o'clock. What happens is, I rarely write nothing, and I have a stopping point after which, even if I wrote zero words, I feel accomplished for the day.
14. Every book is different.
I said that in the 3-year-blog post, and I'll say it again. Every book is different. They're like kids, and they have to be treated as such. Why? You change. Your process changes. Your story changes. A million tiny factors. Respect them, and respect your book. It will tell you which path to take, so follow it. TUBE, for example, is taking me over a year to finish. I've never spent this much time on writing a single book! I was freaking out at first. But now I relaxed and let it run its course. It's demanding more time, so I'm giving it more time. It means it needs it.
15. Five years of writing is nothing.
I used to think I know things. But now I know I don't know, and curiously, this has given me more confidence. It seems it's easier to be a fool and to accept it than to be a fool and to fight against it. I stopped worrying over trying to learn everything there is to learn, because I know that I'll never learn everything, and that's okay. I wish I had this wisdom when I started writing. Alas, it takes time to develop it. Can't wait to find out what I will feel like in 10 years, in 15, in 20. It will be fun to compare.
16. Protect your tribe, and protect it fiercely.
Quite a few unpleasant incidents happened on social media where a troll tromped into my domain and stamped around with his dirty feet and insulted my tribe. I've been so paralyzed by my fear that I did nothing and as a result alienated those of my readers whom the troll has hurt. I've been called out on it, and I'm grateful I was. I now nip this shit in the bud, deleting the comments and blocking the trolls without mercy. Only took me 5 years to learn. Yeah, I know.
17. Getting your book out there is a work of a whole village.
When you pick up a book, you see one big bold name of the author. And we all like talking about our books like we wrote them ourselves. "I wrote a new book!" we'll say. "Check it out! It's everywhere!" Which is not exactly true. Yes, you wrote it, the actual words, but a whole team of people made the book happen: your editor, your proofreader, your designer, your formatter, your readers, and so on. It takes a whole village, and if you don't thank your village for all the hard work they do for you, next time they might not. So thank everyone, and thank profusely. Assholes don't last long in this business. (More on that below.)
18. Self-publishing is changing faster than you can say "Shit!"
Learn and change and adapt, it's the only way to survive. When you go deep into your book and concentrate on writing, by the time you come up for air, the rules of the game have changed again. If you approach it as something that you can settle into and just float along, you'll be setting yourself up for disappointment. So get ready for constant change, try things, and don't despair. We're all in the same boat here, and we're all learning. At least that's what I tell myself, which keeps me from banging my head on the wall and screaming bloody murder every time I have to yet again change something I thought I've taken care of and is done. It never stops.
19. Every story has already been told.
I thought my stories were unique. I firmly believed that if I put my writing into some kind of a structure, it would kill my uniqueness. I was wrong. Every story has already been told, with some variations, so every time I tried reinventing the wheel, I failed. In the end I succumbed to studying the kinds of stories that have been told for centuries and fashioning my stories to their structure (like the Hero's Journey, for example). And studying genre conventions. And dialogue rules. And so on. And my writing benefited from it. Big time. I wish I did it earlier.
20. Books are a product and so will sell (or not) accordingly.
Would you buy a pair of shoes that's wrapped in newspaper instead of packaged in a nice cardboard box? Well, your books are a product. If they look ugly (or not look like a traditionally published book, which is what readers are used to), they won't sell. End of story.
21. Nobody can predict (or explain) why some books sell and others don't.
And let me immediately contradict myself, just so you know that the world of publishing is not a clean and simple game with straightforward rules but a churning, bubbling chaos that everyone is trying to make sense of, especially when some book or other makes a bestseller list, and we pick it up and read it and know it's bad, and wonder why the hell it's selling so well. The answer is: nobody really knows. Yes, there are lots of theories, usually. But it's the result of the confluence of so many factors that nobody will ever know for sure. It's the nature of the beast. If you accept it, coexisting with it will be easier, trust me. It doesn't mean you don't know how to write or have no talent, it simply means nothing. Your book hasn't been seen by the right person at the right time, that is all. Keep trying.
22. Be understanding and loving—no one wants to deal with an asshole.
Don't pester editors to get back to you after you've submitted your piece of writing. Don't get pissed at readers who give you 1-star reviews. Don't call out a bookstore on social media for declining your request for a book reading (I'm guilty of this one). No one wants to deal with an asshole. Word travels fast, and bad word travels lighting fast. Be considerate. Be kind. Be loving. Everyone you get in touch with is a human being just like you, battling shit daily just like you, so be understanding. And if you can't, walk away, block, forget, but don't engage and don't make yourself look like an ass. Enough said.
23. Hard work pays off.
You're the one who will see it first. It might not pay off in terms of money (and we already talked about why), but it will pay off in giving you satisfaction, in making you happier with your own writing. It will even make you start loving it instead of hating it (my case). So don't shy away from hard work, hours and hours of it. It will pay off. For you. And no one else matters more to your writing than you. After all, your stories are your legacy, even if the only people who'll read it will be your children.
24. Trust your gut, then your heart, then your head.
You know when your writing is good. In your gut. And you know when it's bad. In your gut. Trust it. Rewrite until your gut tells you it's enough. After that, trust your heart. Does it move you? Does it make you laugh or cry or hurt? What do you feel? If you feel nothing, your reader won't feel anything either. And then trust your head. Pull your writing apart with cold logic, and try to see it from the outside, as if you're critiquing someone else's work. I found this helps me most, reminding myself that I need to trust my gut above all else.
25. Don't forget that writing is fun.
Yeah, do you remember the reason why you even started writing? It sounded like fun, didn't it? Then where did all the fun go? I've been lately doing weekly exercises on Patreon, exclusively for my patrons, and I found that writing some silly story for 30 minutes or an hour without worrying about structure or plotting, or if it will sell or not, reminded me that writing is fun. I have so much fun writing those, I'm ecstatic. So whatever it is that reminds you of why you started writing in the first place, repeat it occasionally. It's easy to forget. But it's for this exhilaration that we write, for the euphoria of creating a new world, of being masters of its universe and its people. In short, in having fun.
So go ahead. Have fun. Here is to 5 more years! Send me 5 bottles of vodka, 5 mismatched socks and 5 bags of coffee right here.
AND SUBSCRIBE TO MY NEWSLETTER IN THE NEXT 24 HOURS TO WIN THE BUNDLE OF ALL MY BOOKS! YES, THE ONES YOU SEE IN THE PICTURE! ALL OF THEM! GOOD LUCK. (NOTE: I can ship that many only inside U.S., unfortunately, because it costs approximately $22 per book to ship it internationally, so do the math. Yeah, I know. But one day I'll be terribly rich, and then I'll be able to send my books all over the world. Onward.)