I’m going to blog today on the subject of ‘advice I wish I’d gotten when I first started writing’. But actually, this is not advice I wish I had gotten; it’s a rule I created and followed without realizing how important it was at the time.
The publishing industry is really different now than it was, say, five years ago. It used to be that you could write one book or one short (2- or 3-book) series and just spend all your time marketing that one product and do really well for a couple of years, financially. (Assuming, of course, that your writing was good.) Now, however, I think it’s a really rare situation where a writer who is self-publishing can write just one book or just one small series and find a lot of financial success with it, even while spending a lot of money and a lot of effort on promotion.
One of the keys to my success has been writing a lot of books (which is not the advice I’m blogging about here, so keep reading!) I average about a book every month or every six weeks. It used to be that this level of output was considered impossible, just like the four-minute mile used to be, but now it’s not just me doing it; there are lots of prolific authors out there consistently putting out new work every month or every quarter at least. We’ve proven that it’s definitely possible to put out a great book every month that people really enjoy reading and will pay good money for.
There’s a key, however, to being this prolific, and I think for me that’s the advice I want to share. Because I think being a consistent writer, someone who regularly puts out new material, not only helps you out financially, which allows you to keep writing, but it also allows you to indulge your writer dreams and whims and flex that creative muscle.
Essentially, if you’re writing four or more books a year, you can write whatever you want; you have the time and the space to do it all. But the one thing you really need to have in place in order to accomplish this is a deadline. So that’s the highlight of what I’m going to talk about: The importance of strict deadlines.
I used to be a purely indie writer, but now I also have a couple of traditional publishing contracts. When you sign a traditional publishing contract you will be given a deadline — the date by which you must deliver your manuscript to the acquiring and developmental editors. Having someone else set that deadline for you makes it kind of easy to hit it. As long as you don’t succumb to writer’s block (another subject for another post!), you can use this ‘date of doom’ to urge you forward and finish on time.
But before I had those other-people-imposed deadlines, I just had myself and my readers. Because my readers were so kind in their comments and seemed so excited for the next part of the story or the next series to come out, I was very anxious to get those books out for them. In a way, my readers were like traditional publishers to me in that they were expecting a good product delivered on time. So I told them I would give them a book every month, and I meant it. I set a date that was the very last date I could publish that book each month, and I stuck to it, no matter what. It tended to be the last day of the month, which made it really easy for me to visualize in my mind during the month how much time I had left before the deadline was upon me.
For more than two years, I never missed a deadline. That’s about 25 books that came out on time, if you’re counting. I didn’t allow myself to miss, even by a day. I’m the kind of person who if you give me an inch I’ll take a mile. My parents said this enough times about me when I was growing up that I know it to be true. Knowing that about myself made it very important that I follow this simple rule: Never be late. Never not deliver as promised. Never go past the deadline date with the manuscript. And so I didn’t. I couldn’t risk giving myself even a day beyond what I’d promised, or I knew I’d take two and then three and then … well, you get the picture.
That meant often that I was up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning editing. It meant that I sometimes got up at 5:00 in the morning to write before everyone else was awake. It meant sacrificing many weekends. It was a true labor of love and dedication to my readers.
In the beginning of my writing career, it took me a lot more time and effort to reach those deadlines, but because I was writing so much and so frequently, my skills improved really quickly. (Practice makes perfect!) It became easier for me to reach the deadlines. Before long, I didn’t have to take my weekends writing anymore. I didn’t have to get up before the sun. It was only in the beginning that I really had to sacrifice the hardest, but that sacrifice really paid off. I’m now a New York Times, USA Today, Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and iBooks bestselling author with well over a million dollars in earnings.
As an American, I grew up in an environment where workaholism is admired. But now I live in France, and that kind of attitude is really frowned upon. Having lived in both places, I’ve found that I don’t agree that a person should work ridiculous hours all week long and neglect their free time or their family over the long term; however, I also don’t think it’s a bad idea to put in the time and sacrifice for your work or your art, especially in the beginning, for the rewards it will reap in the long term.
I’m only talking nine months to a year before I was able to ease off and get my weekends back. It might take someone else longer, but regardless, I believe it’ll be worth the investment. I still work really hard. I still do a lot of social networking and promotions. But my actual writing time has reduced significantly, and because I spent so many hours honing my craft in a very disciplined way for several years, I now have enough income to hire a full-time assistant who handles much of the back-end administrative work for me, which then frees up more of my time for creative endeavors and enjoying life.
Of course, there will be people who will argue that you should never have a hard deadline, because the book might not be ready at the deadline and then you may upload a book that is inferior. To be clear, I am not advocating uploading inferior workmanship. What I’m saying is that if you tell yourself you have a hard deadline, and you know that it takes you a certain number of hours to hammer out a good book, those are the hours you will take; you’ll find a way to squeeze those hours out of your days, weeks, months, whatever.
But if you tell yourself, on the other hand, that it’s a soft deadline and that you will reevaluate the deadline once you get closer and adjust as necessary, I can pretty much guarantee you will not finish your manuscript anywhere near that deadline date. Here’s the cold, hard fact that no amount of negotiating or whining is going to change: The only way you’re going to make a living writing books is if you finish a book and publish it. There will always be excuses you can make for failure, but why not just stick to the deadline and see where that gets you first?
My advice to a newbie who doesn’t yet know how good her writing is or how people are going to receive her writing is have her first deadline be a hard deadline for what she considers to be a finished product. Then, when she’s done on deadline, give that manuscript to her beta readers (people who will do a prescreening of the book and give her feedback). If they say it’s good to go then she knows she’s got a good hard deadline for herself. But if her beta readers say her work needs more polish, needs more proofreading, or needs more whatever, her deadlines need to be farther out than she’s currently placing them. Make the next hard deadline further out than the prior one was.
With practice, you’ll learn how long it takes for you to put out a great finished product. My deadline is about 30 days from start to finish. I write for the first three weeks and then edit and get beta readers on it for the last week. (Yes, I have found people who will read really fast for me. You can too.) Your deadline might be six months or nine or twelve. It’s completely individual and nobody’s timeline is ‘better’ than anyone else’s; you have your productive cycle and I have mine. But regardless of what your productive cycle is, you must set a date to finish the book and stick to it. That is the only way that I know how to get books published and into readers’ hands consistently.
I guess that’s all I have to say on this particular subject, but I have plenty more to say on other issues, so I invite you to come and read my blog where I’ve posted many articles for current or aspiring writers. www.ElleCasey.com. Happy writing!