The Idea of Limited Words

I have a few mentors that I touch base with from time to time. One of them recently said to me that I was smart to balance my workload based on free vs. paid and original vs. tie-in, because we only have so many words we will write.

The idea that a writer has a limited amount of words they’ll write in their lifetime is, quite frankly, horrifying to me. What happens on the days that I didn’t write? Should I feel guilty that I neglected to pour myself into a story?

Even though the idea of limited words has implications, I think those are worth exploring because writing on “borrowed time” raises several questions like:

  • Am I writing what I want to write? Or what others want me to write?
  • Have I gotten paid for what I’m worth?
  • Am I satisfied with the submission choices I’ve made?
  • Do I know what markets are a good fit for my work?
  • Am I stretching and experimenting with my limits?
  • How am I measuring progress? By my own publications or someone else’s?
  • Where do I want to be as a writer in five years? Ten?
  • What form of writing do I enjoy the most? Least?
  • If I died tomorrow, would I be satisfied with my work?

The other thing that I feel this concept does, is help you shape how you spend your time. While you’ll never know when you reach your limit of words, I suspect that the fear one day you’ll run out of them may help shape not only what you write, but where you submit and how much you get paid for it.

What Does “Write What You Know” Mean to You?

If you’re looking for either a full-time writing gig or a freelancing opportunity, you may see something along the lines of: Experience preferred in [subject matter.]

The idea behind those qualifiers, is that an article will be of better quality (and faster written) if it’s about “something you know.” Can a writer pen an article about how to make a good doughnut when they really prefer chocolate chip cookies? Yeah, absolutely. The idea that “write what you know” doesn’t always work, because all writers — regardless of whether you’re a subject matter expert or not — have to spend a fair amount of time researching and reading the subject you’re writing about. When you’re a writer, you are an experienced wordsmith who understands how to provide clear and engaging prose. By its very nature, our profession requires us to be versatile.

Writing “what you know” can have an influence in other areas for non-fiction including: where you pitch and whether or not you’re a good fit for the publication. For marketing purposes, publications often want their writers to have a “tie” back to the subject in either a professional or casual way. A lot of times, this opens up opportunities for ghost writers, because not every mountain climber/CEO/politician is a good writer.

In fiction, however, “write what you know” takes on a different meaning because it’s fiction. Have you trained a dragon personally? Are you a necromancer in real life? Have you built a robot?

Um, yeah. You get the idea. Here, “write what you know” might be better understood if I rephrase it as: “write what you’re comfortable with.” Here’s some examples of that: I’m not a religious person, but you will see both religious and non-religious characters in my fiction. I enjoy writing horror and stories with darker themes, but I don’t normally write so-called gore porn because I’m not comfortable with straight-up slasher flicks that are light on plot.

Writing what you’re comfortable with also has subtle meanings and consequences. If you like a genre — like science fiction — then you’re probably reading other authors and know what other readers are reading. Last year, I wrote a short story that didn’t work, because I wasn’t comfortable with the genre I was writing in. This year, I wrote a couple of short stories that did work, because I knew the setting cold and had a lot of fun with them.

When I was starting out, I did write some stories that had a personal theme to them — and I’m glad I did. I would NEVER publish those stories professionally, but what those stories taught me was invaluable. First, it’s a BAD idea to “write what you know,” because it’s almost impossible to get a bird’s eye view of your story. Critiques? Oh, man. Talk about taking things way, way too personally. Often, what happens in real life doesn’t make a good story because, like movie dramatizations, there are things that have to be altered/omitted/etc. in order for it to fit the structure of a tale. Even in literary fiction, the character (or characters) are often irrevocably changed by their experiences. In real life? Do you think people like change?

Hah. Do I really have to answer that? [Insert current political climate here.] No, no they don’t. If people liked to change, then we wouldn’t have as many arguments about who puts the cap on the toothbrush and who deserves what rights as we do. Characters, however, do change.

And that, my dear readers, is where writing what you know can be a benefit to your work. Focus on the emotion. How something feels is a great thing to share with your readers, because emotions reach past cultural boundaries — it touches all of us. We fear. We grieve. We’re happy. We’re sad.

And we’re out of caffeine…

What does “write what you know” mean to you?

Day 22: A Video about the Value of Time Off

Today I’d like to share with you a video Wil Upchurch (Thank you, Wil!) had sent me in an e-mail. This talk was given by Stefan Sagmeister and discusses the value of time off. Every seven years he takes a one-year sabbatical to refresh and rejuvenate his creativity.

I really enjoyed the video not only because it resonates with my social media experiment now, but because there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying. Constant production — whether it be words or art or whatever — takes its toll. Add deadlines on top of that or some other kind of pressure (e.g. marketing, promotion, social media, other people, etc.) and the quality can (and will) suffer.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when that quality takes a dive. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why or to catch it before it does. In a way, this video reminds me of a mantra I’ve once heard: Americans live to work; Europeans work to live. Here, Stefan shows how the work can be more fulfilling if you take time off to pursue personal projects. Powerful stuff, because he’s not advocating that you stop doing whatever it is you love, but to redirect your talent into a different direction to help your baseline grow.

In my case, I’ve removed social media because I perceived its effects on me. Have I learned anything from this? On that “deep” personal level? I’m starting to. The reason why I am didn’t come from me, though. That insight came from another author and I’ll be writing about that later this week.

Take a minute and check out this video of Stefan Sagmeister: The Power of Time Off at TED.

Writers: This is Not the Pyramid Scheme You’re Hoping For

I’m a writer. Always have been. Always will be. I’m also a writer who wants to work on a project that will hopefully attract new readers and get paid. Sometimes that works out. Sometimes that doesn’t.

Like everyone else, I too dream of “making it big.” But what does that mean, anyway? Let’s say the hand of publishing blessed me and I made millions on a book. What then? Would I stop writing?


What happens if I didn’t sell as many copies as I thought I did. Would I stop writing?


If tomorrow, an EMP destroyed the entire internet and all my digital files, would I stop writing?


If some reader publicly came out and said “Gee, I don’t like any of the other books in your series besides the first one, so stop writing.” Would I listen?

Yeah, not a chance.

I write because I love it and I’m trying like hell to make an honest living from my words.

The thing is, the publishing industry has always been in flux. For as long as I can remember, there’s always been some kerfluffle or another. We’re seeing it and hearing more about it now because that’s what the internet does — highlights micro-and-macro trends as they happen. Yes, what’s happening now is a big deal for the industry. Bookstores are going out of business. e-Readers are changing their buying habits. Advances are changing. Prices are all over the map. Self-publishing is less and less of a stigma. But it won’t getting sorted out by the end of this year. Chances are, it will take five, ten or twenty years for the dust to truly settle before there’s any sort of a baseline trend. Even after everything stabilizes, there will always be an anomaly. There will always be change. Adapt or don’t.

So why then, are so many writers freaking out? Well, here’s the thing: we all want a guarantee that we’re going to be successful… Only there is NO guarantee… And that’s where people get a little nutty about this stuff. I often imagine an author sitting at his (or her) keyboard with a calculator figuring out ye olde writing algorithm to scale the proverbial publishing pyramid. Make the rounds at small presses? Check. Sell 20 short stories? Check. Get an agent? Check. Don’t forget to level up! Overnight publishing success? Of course!

But being a successful writer isn’t a zero sum game. You don’t get 1,000 readers who will only read your work and no one else’s. You don’t forgo small presses and self-publishing because they’re so much worse off than the larger houses. You make choices that work for you. Period. If self-publishing works for you? Then do it. If you’re happy going through a small press? Then okay! Trying to get an agent? Go you.

Hopefully, you make informed choices based on what you want to earn, how much time is required, etc. Even then, you have to realize you’re going to screw up. And that’s okay, too! If you’re in it for the long haul, like I am, then persistence is key. Just say it with me: money flows to the writer…

Here’s what I focus on: writing. And then? Selling my work. If that doesn’t pan out? I pitch. You know, for more writing. To sell. That’s it. Maybe go to a con or two. As my readership increases, my tune may change to include more appearances, but right now that’s what I’m focusing on.

Am I worried about what the future will bring? Yeah, but worrying about writing and actually sitting down and writing are two, very different things. I can whine about wanting to be a popular and successful author all I want, but if I have nothing for people to read… Well, I guess I can keep whining. For a different reason. As in: What was I thinking?

Oh, I suppose I should remember to have fun. If I’m not doing that, then why am I writing again?

Your Business Model is not Your Neighbor’s

I’ve been in a lot of discussions recently with other authors and a few game designers about pricing. Over and over again, I hear comparisons to the iTunes model or whatever Amazon is doing. If “free” is not the golden calf, then ninety-nine cents is the deal of the decade.

From my perspective, pricing right now is being determined not based on the content that is being created, but by its ease of distribution and the potential market reach a website has. The iTunes model worked for music, and now it’s being applied to fiction and games, too. While I understand why this is happening, I’m disappointed that the pricing is based on availability rather than its intrinsic value. Impulse buy? Sure, but in my opinion, some things are worth paying more than ninety-nine cents for.

Just for the sake of argument, say that it takes a composer as much time to write a good song as it does an author to write a short story. Should they be priced the same? From a consumer standpoint, you listen to a song, regardless of what you’re doing. You can consume this song over and over again, and don’t have to drop your activities to listen to it.

Ninety-Nine Cent Pricing Should Work for All Publishers, Right?

Readers who purchase a story are making an investment because they are committing their time to the product, much like a movie. Games are another beast entirely, because they often require a larger time investment depending upon the type of game. Also, many games require multiple players and have a much higher production value in terms of formatting than a story does.

Just for a second, take a game and price it at ninety-nine cents. Is it text-based? Typically, no. There’s often art, tables, borders and even color. What happens to your sales when you strip out all of that formatting? I honestly don’t know. Phil Reed was recently speculating about that, too. Would you pay the same price for two products that are identical in every way, with the exception of the formatting?

Now, to be clear, I am not advocating that hobby games publishers shouldn’t experiment with their product offerings. However, I am suggesting that ninety-nine cents is too low for the standard price of a game. If I had a hobby game company and my production costs were low, I would experiment with structuring themed games for four to six players with a suggested running time and package/develop/market it like that. (Renting, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely and I don’t want to get into that here. And yes, some publishers, like WoTC, are already going with boxed sets. My idea is nothing new. I just like the idea of playing around with a streamlined digital version.)

Lastly, a publisher’s inventory also comes into play. Say I own a gaming company and I have a total of twenty products. Would it make sense for me to price them that low? What if I had two? Or five hundred? What then? Of those products, how long are they? Core books or supplements? What value do they provide to my players?

Now, one thing that fiction publishers are doing is offering short stories from an anthology as individual downloads and then bundling them together in an anthology. This is interesting to me, because now instead of having one product to sell, you have eleven or thirteen. In this way, the “singles” idea from music increases a publisher’s inventory. Even though singles have always been sold, traditionally we have purchased albums or CDs from musicians or, in other words, an anthology of an artist’s music. Here, there’s a loose correlation to fiction based on how a product is structured.

I have also heard some use “piracy” as a low-price argument. My two cents: Pricing your products at a lower price because you think they’re going to be stolen is not a business model. Why? Because you are defining your sales goals on either making more than nothing or generating revenue to cover losses you have not experienced. To quote Spock: This is not logical. By structuring your business around whether or not you think your product will be stolen, you’re predicting that your potential customers could all be thieves. Ugh. That’s a crappy way to treat your customers. (On the receiving end, too. Went to two, different businesses for returns this holiday season and I felt like a criminal.)

But Biff is Doing It, So Why Can’t I?

I have never talked to a creative professional that deeply and truly did not love to write, design, paint, program, photograph or draw, but I have talked to people who hate running and owning a business. When you write or edit and sell that work, even if it’s in your spare time, that’s pretty much what you’re doing. Many people, including myself, are thrilled that the internet gives them the chance to collaborate or see what the next guy is doing to keep up on the trends. However, what works for your neighbor may not work for you, which is why I strongly encourage you to think before you leap. Yes, you have to take risks and believe me I understand that now more than ever. This is where your business acumen comes into play. Run the numbers. Do the cost analysis. Ask yourself those important questions. What percentage do you need to increase sales by at a lower price to break even? Do you know what your production costs are? Can you look at historical trends? Is there a segment of your business you can safely experiment with? How long can you offer this promotion before it hurts your bottom line?

To be clear, I am not saying that some sort of industry standard for pricing is bad. What I am saying, is that I believe the standardization of a popular business model is not a healthy or reasonable expectation for any business. You can’t take a template and mold businesses that have been around for a year, five years or even ten years and expect them to change overnight just because something is working right now. Unfortunately, like offering things for free, the market (e.g. customers) may react that way even if the reality is very different. Take social media for example. It’s the hot thing that everyone’s talking about, but no one knows why. Does every business need to be on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? No, because like any other business venture there are pros and cons to doing it and social media doesn’t always equate to sales. Does it mean that that business is evil? Not at all. They’re doing what works for them. Same is true with ninety-nine cent pricing or offering free product, etc.

Can You Give Me An Example?

Recently, I brought up this topic with Jason Sizemore over at Apex Book Company. What I told him was, that even though Apex publishes science fiction, horror and fantasy books and may be the same size as other small press publishers, he has his own modus operandi, goals and future. It’s great to talk shop and be inspired by like-minded businesses, but no one should immediately run out and change their business structure because someone else is doing something that appears to be successful without thinking it through. I feel that Apex has a better chance of emerging as a leader because Jason is concerned with forging his own identity and he has good people to help him do that.

One big change that I recommended, was to stop offering the magazine for free and go to a subscription-based model. This was in place already, after a fashion, but I had suggested the semantics were confusing. Many creatives use the word “support” when talking about their artwork or music or whatever. You support a team or a cause. You buy from a business or you purchase something you want. In order for the magazine to be profitable, the donation suggestions needed to be removed and the subscribers rewarded. This was a great example of how free stuff works for some businesses, but too much free can distract a reader from converting into a buyer. In the end, Jason’s decisions aren’t solely based on his gut or my suggestions, they’re inspired by data, which gives him something to work from.

For extra credit, here’s some additional reading material and tools on the subject that pinpoint different issues through the past year:

Your comments are welcome. Please respect Biff.

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