Enough people have asked me for advice about how to write, that I created this blog entry to share random thoughts about what I have learned. Regarding my advice: Your Mileage May Vary, so take the advice you like and ignore the rest.
Some very common advice given to writers is 'write what you know' and that is total BS. I have never been on a starship or met a wizard, so I don't know anything about those subjects, yet I have written many books about starships or wizards. Instead, write the kind of book YOU would like to read. If you are excited about your book, other people out there will be excited to read it.
Do not try to imitate your favorite authors, write in your own style (this is called a writer's "voice'). If you try to copy someone else's style, it won't work, and your book will come across as forced and fake. Developing your "voice" takes time and a LOT of writing.
Joining a writer's circle can be good because you can get support and feedback from other writers, but there are some drawbacks. A person who writes romance novels will not likely give useful feedback on your military sci fi space-marine-desperate-battle-to-save-humanity novel. Also, if you revise your writing to meet the approval of your fellow writers, you can lose your "voice". It is YOUR novel so write it in your style. A novel written by a committee can only be mediocre and bland. The same applies to revising a story on your own; if you scrub your manuscript too many times, you can lose what makes it special and unique. There are a lot of mediocre and bland books out there; don't make yours one of them.
Reviews: ignore the bad reviews. This is VERY hard to do but you MUST do it. The human mind gives more attention to bad news than to good news, which sort of makes sense. If our ancestors ignored good news, they missed eating an extra banana, which is no big deal. If they ignored bad news, they got eaten by a leopard. So, we are programmed to focus on bad news. Do not read bad reviews and if you read them anyway, do NOT reply. People are entitled to their opinions and if they don't like your book, you will never hear from them again and that is one less negative person in your life. Instead, focus on the positive reviews, because these are the people who will read your next book and will tell their friends about your awesome book. Pay attention to what they like about your book, and keep that in mind as you write your next book.
Ok, here it is, the NUMBER ONE piece of advice I can offer: write. Keep writing. It took me several years and several discarded half-finished novels before I wrote 'Aces', 'Ascendant' and 'Columbus Day'.
Good luck to you, and keep writing.
When I was writing Columbus Day, I used a spreadsheet to keep track of characters, alien species, The Rules, the technology, etc. Expeditionary Force was always planned to be a series, and halfway through writing Columbus Day, I realized I needed to plan the story arc for the entire series so I would know where the story is going.
Back in the day (2004) I began watching the TV show 'Lost'. After investing three seasons, I realized the writers had absolutely no idea where the story was going, were simply making shit up each season, and none of the plotlines needed to make sense or be consistent. To me, that is disrespectful to the fans. ExForce fans can be confident that each book and novella in the series is advancing the plot toward revealing who Skippy is, how he came to be buried in the dirt on Paradise, who threw the planet Newark out of its original orbit, why Elder sites across the galaxy were destroyed, etc.
About 'novellas': The first novella 'Trouble on Paradise' explained what happened to UNEF on that planet after the Merry Band of Pirates left, and the events of TonP drove the action in the subsequent book 'Black Ops'. TonP is a novella around 55,000 words which is long for a novella. The next 'novella' Book5.5 will be around 90,000 words (a typical full-length novel for many writers) and will include Joe, Skippy and the Merry Band of Pirates.
Typical day of writing for Craig Alanson:
6-7AM Get up to walk dogs before it gets too hot. While walking, think of scenes to write today
7-9AM Breakfast, shower, edit previous day's writing
9AM Sit down to write, with notes and voice memos from this morning, last night and yesterday
9:07AM Finish writing all the scenes I had planned
9:08AM Try to think up ideas for scenes to write
9:32AM Browse Amazon to look for writers who are much, much better than me, which is all of them.
9:37AM Including the guy who published a book about clipping his toenails. Actually, it is a trilogy.
9:48AM Wonder why I ever thought I could write a book
11AM Have incredibly clever idea for putting Merry Band of Pirates in impossible situation
11:12AM Finish writing scene that puts Merry Band of Pirates in impossible situation
11:23AM How the F&*% am I going to get the Merry Band of Pirates out of this mess? It's impossible!
11:58AM Brainstorm! Have idea to get the Merry Band of Pirates out of impossible situation.
12:11PM Make incredibly delicious Fluffernutter sandwich, eat it
12:29PM Realize "idea" is to have Gandalf from Lord of the Rings rescue the Merry Band of Pirates
12:30PM Consider other ideas
12:53PM Consider writing to JRR Tolkien's estate for permission to use Gandalf as an ExForce character
1:24PM Utter, abject despair
1:45PM The Pit of Despair from 'Princess Bride' is looking like a nice place compared to where I am now
1:52PM Look to bourbon bottle for ideas
1:53PM Bourbon bottle says I am an idiot and should never, never try to write again
1:55PM Finally an idea! I will pour a shot of rum into the Fluff jar to make 'Flumm'.
1:56PM Need an idea related to the book I am writing
2:05PM Consider applying for a real job because I clearly can't write
2:06PM Reject idea of finding a real job because no one would hire such an idiot
2:24PM Take dog for another walk
2:41PM Get idea for scene to write
2:42PM Lose track of dog while attempting to write notes on phone
2:44PM Drop phone, note gets erased
3:02PM Return home, dog is on front porch waiting for me
3:17PM Have new idea, since I already forgot the idea I had while walking the dog.
3:33PM Finally sit down to write something, anything.
4:08PM Goal wordcount for the day: 4,000. Actual wordcount: 4192. Yay!
4:09PM Celebrate that today was SO much better than yesterday
We have been notified by some of our overseas customers, specifically in the UK, that they are being charged additional postage by their own countries. Originally, we wanted to offer FedEx, DHL, etc. Those options turned out to be prohibitively expensive, $90 - $140 for even a small package. The US Postal service 'Flat Rate' seemed a bargain. However, that seems to be the cost to ship it to the foreign country and hand it over to that country's internal mail service, so it is not really a 'flat rate' at all. The UK cost is the highest and set the bar for the worldwide shipping. Some other countries are cheaper (even Australia is cheaper than the UK!) and we have been refunding the excess shipping costs. We have no way at present of being able to set a price for every overseas address. Quite a few of our overseas orders have not been shipped due to back orders. If you have not received a shipping confirmation, you can cancel the order if you are concerned.
Sincerely, The shipping monkeys
FAWR: Mr. Alanson, first -
ME: Is your name really ‘FAWR’?
FAWR: No, that is an acronym. I could tell you my real name, but I would have to kill you first.
ME: That would seem counterproductive.
FAWR: If I kill you first, I could make up whatever crap I want for this interview. It would save me a lot of time.
ME: Death would be inconvenient for me. I’m good with ‘FAWR’.
FAWR: Good idea. So, first, can I say how talented you are?
ME: You can.
FAWR: Seriously, you are incredibly talented.
ME: I cannot argue with the factual nature of that statement.
FAWR: No one could. What was that sound?
ME” That was my wife gagging and rolling her eyes in the background. Ignore her, she is upset that I didn’t empty the dishwasher. Technically, I did empty the dishwasher, but I put the clean dishes right back in the sink.
FAWR: Brilliant. Its more convenient to have dishes in the sink, rather than having to look for them in the cabinets.
ME: I know, right? She doesn’t see it that way.
FAWR: So, we have established that you are brilliant and talented.
ME: And humble.
ME: I didn’t say I was talented, you did. Even though it is forehead-slappingly obvious.
FAWR: True. What is the potential for seeing ExForce on the big screen? I heard a rumor that Steven Spielburg called you?
ME: Steven did call me. He locked the keys in his jet, and wanted to borrow a coathanger to jimmy the door open.
FAWR: So, no movie deal yet?
ME: I did learn that he hates to be called ‘Steve-a-reeno’, so there’s that.
FAWR: If Spielburg offered to produce an ExForce TV show instead of a movie, would that be OK with you?
ME: Steven Spielburg is a genius. If he wants to do ExForce as a sock puppet show in his backyard, it would be brilliant and win the Nobel prize.
FAWR: There is not a Nobel prize for making movies.
ME: There should be.
FAWR: I think we can all agree about that. Any other film or TV possibilities?
ME: HBO did contact me.
FAWR: That is exciting! Are they offering a big budget series deal like ‘Game of Thrones’?
ME: They offered a free month if I sign up for two years.
ME: That’s what I said. Still, it’s a free month.
FAWR: You can’t argue with that.
ME: I have been trying to negotiate with Netflix, but the restraining order makes that awkward.
FAWR: No HBO or Netflix, then.
ME: One of my neighbors wants to make an ExForce movie, but she is six years old and the only equipment she has is her My Little Pony play set and her Mom’s phone.
FAWR: So, forget it, then.
ME: No, this girl made a ten-minute trailer that was surprisingly good, I mean way better than The Phantom Menace. Although, that’s not saying much.
FAWR: Is her project going to get greenlit for production?
ME: No, her lawyer had too many conditions in the contract. Seriously, I have to provide a jet for her to go to school? Duh! There’s not even a runway at her elementary school. Stupid lawyers.
FAWR: Have you considered-
ME: Ah! Yuck! Sorry, one of my dogs just barfed up something disgusting.
FAWR: Do you need a minute to clean the floor?
ME: No, the other dog ate it. I figure we have ten minutes before it reappears.
FAWR: I’ll try to hurry. Have you considered shopping around for a traditional publishing contract?
ME: I don’t see that happening. A traditional publisher would take a huge chunk of money, in exchange for not much at this point.
ME: Still, if I hear the ‘Beep! Beep!’ sound of a truck backing up to dump a huge pile of cash on my lawn, I’m willing to talk about it. Just don’t dump the cash on my wife’s flowers, please, she worked hard on those.
FAWR: Since you are self-published, you have avoided the disappointment of receiving rejection notices.
ME: Ha! As if! Some writers whine about getting one or two rejection notices a month. I crowdsource my rejections.
ME: Every day, thousands of people see my ads on Amazon, and do not buy my books. I get rejected by thousands of people every day! But hundreds of people buy my books every day. I do not need a gatekeeper at a publisher to reject me; with self-publishing, the public can reject me directly. Power to the people! Bunch of jerks.
FAWR: Every day, thousands of people choose not to read your books? What is wrong with them?
ME: Them? Do you mean the books, or the people?
FAWR: The books are undeniably awesome, so clearly, the people have something seriously wrong with their brains.
ME: It’s not their fault; only the cool kids can read my books.
ME: It’s in the fine print, which only the cool kids can read.
FAWR: On another subject, where do you get your ideas?
ME: Usually while walking a dog, or riding a bike, at the gym, running, even vacuuming the house. Don’t tell my wife that last one.
FAWR: No, I didn’t mean physically ‘where’ do you get your ideas. I meant, how do you think up this stuff?
ME: I have no idea.
ME: Seriously, I do not know where my ideas come from. Sometimes I will get stuck on a plot detail in a book, and what helps is taking a walk with my wife. I explain the problem to her, and in talking through the issue, I figure out how to solve it. I have tried talking through a problem with my dogs, but the only ideas I get are ‘cookie!’ or ‘squirrel!’.
FAWR: Your wife helps you write the books?
ME: No. Except that she listens to me, often with a bemused smile, when I talk through the plot of a book. My wife is the only other person who knows the full plot outline for each of my book series. Although she’s not a fan of my books, so I don’t think she really pays attention when I talk about writing.
FAWR: I have heard she also handles your merchandise?
ME: You were supposed to say ‘fabulously awesome merchandise’.
ME: Damn, for what I’m paying you to promote T-shirt sales, you could get it right.
FAWR: I said I was sorry.
ME: Anyway, yes, my wife handles all the logistics for the T-shirts, patches, stickers, magnets, coffee cups, beer coozies, hats and whatever else she thought of. She did a LOT of work setting up online sales, getting T-shirts printed and all that. Even stuff like getting the proper size boxes for shipping, and those boxes are not cheap. My brother created and manages the website; he is an IT consultant guru. All I do is approve the final artwork.
FAWR: Your wife creates the artwork?
ME: No, the artwork is created by Jeff Ross, an awesome guy and creator of the ‘Skippy the Magnificent’ Facebook page. Jeff worked for Silicon Graphics and he is awesomely talented. He also knows a LOT about marketing.
FAWR: How much did he pay you to say that?
ME: Nothing. He’s a great guy, a super fan, a key member of Team Skippy and I’m giving him props.
FAWR: Regarding your merchandise, is it shipped from a giant warehouse in Arizona?
ME: Uh, no. It is stacked all over our family room. When I watch ‘The Expanse’ I have to move a pile of T-shirts out of the way. We created T-shirts and patches and other stuff because fans ask for it, this is not something that makes a lot of money.
FAWR: Are you concerned you won’t be able to sell any merchandise?
ME: If the T-shirts don’t sell, I might have a whole box of ExForce rags for washing my truck. We only ordered a small number of- Ah! What the hell is that?
FAWR: What happened?
ME: The second dog barfed up something from one of the ‘Alien’ movies. I have to go.
FAWR: Thank you, Mr. Alanson.
The first week of our ExForce store experienced great success and a few of what Skippy might call 'minor issues'. We sold out of most items and new stock will be arriving next week. We also will have new items (beer glasses, embroidered hats, beer coozies) and new designs for all items. In addition to the 'Skippy the Magnificent' logo, there will be a 'monkey on a flying banana' design that is the official logo of the Flying Dutchman.
The biggest and most visible problem with the store was how the engine behind the site calculated estimated shipping costs. We (because we are ignorant monkeys) do not yet know how to fix the problem, so my wife made an executive decision that all US shipping will be a flat rate of $9.50 and if anyone ordered just a patch or a sticker, she will use regular mail and refund the difference. International orders (so far Tasmania, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the UK etc.) will be a flat rate of $25. There is one exception to the international rate: to the north of the United States is a place calling itself 'Canada', which looking at a map I thought was just Baja Alaska. Apparently this 'Canada' is a separate country where they eat things like 'poutine' and 'Tim Horton donuts'. So, we are trying to set up shipping to Canada as a flat rate of $17.50. If this doesn't work I am sure Canadians will be too polite to complain, but we will refund the difference.