Writing Advice

AN MbC MUST-READ: Ten Steps to Overnight Success…

(… or, How it Only Took a Decade to get Paid)

 

The top 1% of members of the Writers Guild of America — the folks who make between $600,000 and the “big money” (seven figures) number in the mere dozens. Of the rest of them — members of a group that as a rule has to get paid to even join — only the top 25% make $62,000 a year or more. And the average age of a person who actually makes it into the Guild — meaning they got that sale, or finally optioned enough screenplays to make it — is 35 years old.

 

Let’s talk now about some other averages. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for salaried writers hovers just over $50,000. Only the top 10% of salaried writers make over $95,000. And it must be emphasized that these are “salaried writers” — narrowly defined by the BLS as people like salaried journalists, or professional technical writers. Fiction writers are, for the most part, freelance writers whose annual takes — even if they are “professionals” (i.e., occasionally paid) — is
much, much lower.

 

In other words, “the big payoff” of becoming a “real, published author” may have more in common with the salary of your average janitor than it does with the sixteen bizillion dollars J.K. Rowling makes every time she writes a postcard.

 

Of course, the chances of making money go up greatly if you are signed by a large publisher — Scholastic, or Bantam, for instance. However, this itself has an inherent earnings inhibitor built in: most of the larger publishing houses require that submissions be “exclusive.” This means that a writer is only permitted to submit his work to one large publisher at a time. The average wait time to find out if the work has been rejected or accepted can range anywhere from a few weeks (if the writer already knows someone “on the inside” who is in a position to fast-track the review) or, more likely, several months to a year and a half. Then, even if the book is accepted for publication, the large publishing houses will typically take, again, several months to a year and a half to actually roll out the book.

 

In other words, even assuming your book is picked up by the first major publishing house you submit to — and the odds are against you — you are looking at somewhere between half a year and three years before you start really seeing any money. And if your book is not accepted by the first major publishing house, then you are once again in a sort of voluntary limbo, consigned there by the “no simultaneous submissions” rule.

 

What to do?

 

The reality is, most authors have “day jobs.” I am considered an anomaly. I have optioned screenplays and done rewrites for major Hollywood production companies. I have numerous television shows in development. I have written over a dozen novels that have spent time on Amazon’s major genre bestseller lists, and have spent the better part of a year as one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers.

 

I make a living writing.

 

Now, to put this in perspective: I began writing at the tender age of four. I made my first “sale” of a short story to a local newspaper at the age of 15. I earned creative writing scholarships in college. I hold the record as the person who has had the most screenplays go to quarterfinals and semifinals in the history of the Nicholls Screenwriting competition. And in spite of all this, it took me fifteen years of rejection letters to actually start making money.

 

Still, through it all I have learned some things about writing, and about how to become a “successful” writer, particularly in genre work like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. Following is my “road-map for success.” Which is not a guarantee that it will make you a millionaire…but it is a guarantee that you will never fail so long as you continue doing these things.

 

1) Write. This may seem obvious, but the simple fact is that if you wish to make a living as a writer, you MUST WRITE. Constantly and without letup. Write your books, your screenplays, your stories. And when you are done writing those, write about them. Start a blog. Issue press releases. Have a Facebook page. The “writing muscle” is one of the most easily atrophied muscles in the human body.
CONTINUE TO PART 2

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read, Writing Advice

Epub vs. Tradpub

There are a lot of articles across the interweb (and if it’s on your computer, it must be true!) about which is better – traditional publishing or epublishing.

Oddly, they seem to come down across party lines: people who are traditionally published, or who work for large publishing houses, tend to say that trad-pub is the way to go; people who have their work primarily on Kindles and Nooks and iPads and Smashwords scream about the future of epub and the death of print.

I know. Weird, right?

I wanted to set the record straight.

First of all: I am primarily epub myself. I have a few olde-tyme print books, but I’m one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers, a #1 Kindle bestseller, and a repeat bestseller on almost every one of Amazon’s major fiction genre lists (sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc.). I write everything from kids’ books about magic to grown up books about evil things that go bump in the night. My most recent novel, Strangers, has spent months on Amazon’s various horror bestseller lists, and I anticipate my next book will do even better.

I make a living writing, and a huge chunk of it is digital.

I also used to be a lawyer. And in good lawyerly fashion, I will render my verdict. Which is better, epub or trad-pub?

It depends.

Awesome lawyer answer, huh?

But it’s the truth. Because the reality is that each offers goods and bads. So let’s talk about each:

EPUB:

The Good here is that you have complete control. You get to do whatever you want, whenever you want.

The Bad here is largely the same. You have to do everything. Which is why there are a lot of drecky, poorly-edited books with ugly covers on epub.

I spend a lot of time and effort working on my books. Not just the drafts, but the edits, the layout, the covers… everything. I taught myself image manipulation (meaning, Photoshop-type stuff) so that I could produce good covers. I taught myself conversion principles so that I could make sure I did a good job getting my book to your Kindle without sacrificing layout. A lot of writers aren’t willing to do this; they slap a product together… and it shows. I would invite you to check out the differences between my covers (just go to michaelbrentcollings.com) and the ones at my friend Nathan Shumate’s lousybookcovers.com. Sadly, you often can judge a book by its cover.

Now, if you’re looking for “fast” then epub is the way to go – you can write fast, put a cover together fast, and get it to market fast. You might also hear crickets chirping exceedingly quickly as there is a concerted rush of absolutely no one to buy your book. And that’s not because the audience is bad. It’s because (more often than not) your book is. The cover is lousy, the layout is unprofessional, the story is been-there done-that.

Listen up: I firmly believe that everyone – everyone – has great stories in them. Stories worth telling. Stories people will gladly buy. But I also firmly believe that everyone has to practice to get to the point where they know how to tell those stories properly.

Think of a doctor: how many of you would go to a doctor who, when asked about his qualifications, shrugged and said, “Well, I went to a doctor once. And he sucked so I was, like, ‘I can do that!’ And then I, like, became a doctor. And stuff. That’ll be a hundred dollars.”?

No, you want a doctor who a) studied, b) graduated top of his/her class, c) practiced at an amazing hospital/medical practice, and d) preferably has been doing this for at least a decade. And that last is important, because practice and experience matter. No matter how smart the doc is, until he’s been around the block a few times, he’s not going to be all that good a doctor.

Writing is the same way. Most writers just suck until they’ve treated their writing with the seriousness of a PhD program, spent years honing their skills, years more practicing before trusted audiences, and then maybe they’ll be pro-level.

And epub will not shortcut any of that process.

Epub is faster. Faster to market. But if you’re marketing crap, or if you’re marketing your unprepared skills, it just means a faster failure, too.

TRAD-PUB:

The Good here is that you have help. The Bad here is that you have to give up control. You will have editors, you will have layout artists and cover artists. You will have other people giving input.* You will then have to actually listen to that input. And you will have to wait on it. Epub is a matter of writing the book and then uploading it to the outlet(s) of your choice. Boom. With trad-pub you:

1) Write the book.
2) Send query letters to agents.
3) Wait for two to twelve months.
4) Have an agent request your book (this is best-case scenario; most often you get rejected and have to start again from scratch).
5) Send in your book.
6) Wait another two to twelve months.
7) The agent accepts your book (again, best-case scenario here).
8) The agent sends your book around to publishers.
9) Someone accepts it after two to twelve months (do I even have to say the best-case thing again?).
10) The book gets plugged into their production scenario for sometime in the next year (very fast) to three years (not unheard of).
Total wait time from end of book to book on shelves: one to five YEARS.

Yikes. That’s time you’re not getting paid, by the way. You’ll get an advance (see my footnote below – if not getting an advance, why are you doing this?), but no money being actively earned in that time. There’s also the chance that during production the editor who loved your book and championed it will get fired or quit and your book will become an “orphan” with no one to champion it and will never see the light of day (this happens), or the company itself will go bust or get bought and the same thing will occur (this happens, too).

The upside is that trad-pub books have a tremendous amount of access to the market: they get into bookstores, libraries, WalMarts, Costcos, etc. They are in airports and liquor stores. They get foreign market rights and sell movie rights more often. They are more likely to end up making the extreme big bucks than epub. That’s changing as epub becomes more and more of a force to be reckoned with, but as of now if you want to get to the very top of the heap, you have to work with trad-pub at some point.

Also, because you do have a lot of talent at the top, your books are more likely to look and be presented better. I like my books. A lot. Could they look better? Sure. Would I love to see them at the checkout aisle at my local supermarket? Heck, yeah!

But, for me, I would prefer to get my books to market, make my fans happy, and put money in my pocket. And that brings me to…

The choice

Be aware: you will be choosing. If you epub, that book is dead to the trad-pub world. No big traditional publisher wants to take Amazon’s sloppy seconds, unless that ebook has sold in excess of something like 100,000 copies at around five bucks a copy. Then they’ll talk. (But if that happens, why do you really need them?) So if you’re hoping to parley your ebook success into a publishing contract with Penguin for that book… yeah, good luck with that. In fact, for a lot of agents and publishers, the fact that you’re epublished at all will be a black mark against you. Because how dare you!

Silly? Maybe. But true.

It’s something to be aware of. I think that’s going to keep changing more and more, but then if you do make a successful career for yourself you run into the problem of outgrowing agents and publishers: I regularly have offers from publishers I have to turn down because they can’t afford me, and most agents won’t touch me because they won’t be able to meet my expectations for the next phase of my career.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to epub. I think Shakespeare said that.

Conclusion

Epub and trad-pub are both awesome. I have books – real and electronic – all over my house. I love them. Some are traditionally published, some are indies. There is a place for both. You can choose either.

Just know what you’re getting into. And have the sense and courtesy to do a professional job no matter where you go.

* And if you don’t, RUN. This is the type of thing you should be getting at a traditional press. A lot of newer authors I know are signing deals that basically make them do everything, and they end up signing away a percentage of their profits in return for someone basically submitting their files to CreateSpace. Why do that? If some “publisher” is just a glorified self-publisher and you’re going to do all the work yourself, you might as well cut them out of the loop and keep all of whatever profits there are! Read your contract, find out what they’re going to do, and hold their feet to the fire! (Back to text)

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

AN MbC MUST-READ: Success is BAD

I am often asked questions about the business of writing – how to self-pub, how to market, how to amass a group of loyal fans – but the question I am most often asked (in some form or other) is this: “How do I become a successful writer?”

For a long time I tried to answer the question, babbling about sales and marketing and hard work and blahblahblahblah. But then I realized what I should have been saying, and what I now say to you: if you’re asking yourself – or anyone else – how to become a successful writer, you’re asking the wrong question.

Success is an ever-retreating illusion. Like the end of the rainbow, it looks beautiful, laudable, something that people just over there clearly can lay their hands on. So why not you?

Well, because even if you manage to get to the end of the rainbow, even if you somehow contrive to grasp the edge of that many-colored illusion, you will find in the next moment that it moves away from you once more. And your version of “success” moves right along with it.

How many times have you said this in your life?

“If only I could get that promotion – then I’ll be a success.”
“If only I could buy that car – then I’ll know I’m a success.”
“If only I could afford the big house – then I’d know I was a success.”

And what happens? You get the promotion, you buy the car, you put the down payment on the big house… and like the rainbow, your measure of success immediately moves. You’re not successful unless you are constantly moving onward, upward, forward. “Success” is a beast with a relentless appetite.

So what do you do? Is the only answer to eschew success as a writer? Do you put all your manuscripts in a box and bury them somewhere, then go off and live as a hermit in a cave?

Not at all. But you must stop thinking in terms of being “successful,” and instead ask yourself this: as a writer, what will make me happy?

In other words, what is my goal, my aim, which will give me satisfaction once reached?

Is it to simply write a book?
Is it to win an award?
Is it to pay the rent on a regular basis?

Each of these is an attainable goal, but each is different, and each carries with it different responsibilities. Recently, the finalists for the Whitney Awards were announced. Several of my friends were among them, which was great.

My name, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen on the list. I’ve sold oodles of books, my novels are consistent bestsellers on Amazon’s major lists, my most recent novel Darkbound is doing great and getting rave reviews.

But none of my books were there.

Did I break down crying over this? No. Because long ago I decided that my goal, my reason for writing, my “happy place,” if you will, was to write full-time, and take care of my family doing by doing so. So while it would have been nice to get on the list (if only to see the look on the judges’ faces, given the kind of books I tend to write), it mostly would have been nice inasmuch as it might have driven a few more sales my way. Because that’s my goal: to sell books.

Other people crumple into a fetal position when their names are missed for some honor or other. Not me. And it’s because I’m too busy achieving my goal – the thing that I decided will make me happy – to worry about incidentals.

How do you “succeed” as a writer? How do you “make it”? Beats me. But that doesn’t matter. Because more important is your determination of what will make you happy. The question is subtly different, but the difference allows you to focus on concrete steps that will aid you in achieving that goal. It also allows you to avoid the poisonous practice of comparing yourself with others, because no matter how “successful” other writers may be, their success is irrelevant to the question of your happiness.

What is your goal as a writer? What is your happy place? Answer those questions. Then push away everything else, and work to achieve those ends. And once you have achieved them, recognize that you have done so, and find joy in the attainment.

But oddly enough, you will most likely find that in the doing you achieve as much joy as in the accomplishing of them.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, Writing Advice

What Good is Horror

I hear it all the time: why do you spend your time on horror when there are so many other “good” things you could be writing?

And it’s a legitimate question. A lot of people’s opinions on horror are shaped by the images they see on movie trailers, or confined to the vague idea that horror is something best kept on the back shelves of the book store.

Certainly the average horror novel cover doesn’t do much to dispel that myth, either: disturbing images, creepy figures half-hidden (if we’re lucky) in dark mists… about the only things they all have in common is that 1) they seem a bit less polished than, say, the cover for The Joy Luck Club, and 2) they are designed to elicit fear.

A lot of this is just economic realities: as one of the red-headed stepchildren of publishing, horror has often gotten less-than-prime marketing; has often had to settle for covers that were slipshod or second-rate. Not always, of course, and things are improving a lot as the years go by, but it’s no secret that for decades the covers of horror novels pretty much all involved blood, guts, maybe a bit of flesh peeking out of a torn dress, and a half-seen monster or two.

And even now, when there’s more money and care to be had, a lot of said money goes to things like Hostel Part 42 or Saw 18: The Last Gut-Wrenching. So again, no surprise that people have a concept of horror that often skews toward the obscene.

And the reality is that there is a lot of horror that’s designed (or so it would seem) solely to elicit a gag reflex. Some so-called horror writers think the secret to horror is guts, gore, and gobs of goo. But they’re not really creating horror.

They’re creating pornography: a series of visual or mental images devoid of any emotion other than the minimum required to elicit a physical reaction.

Still, horror – real horror – is different. It’s a special class of literature that serves to remind us that there is evil abroad in the world. That there is terror outside our houses… sometimes even right in our own bedrooms.

But that’s only half the story of horror.

The other half is just as important: because horror, at its best, serves not only to terrorize, but to remind us that we are better than our fear. It drags us to the depths, yes, but then lifts us up again… and in so doing, reminds us that though we have a near-infinite capacity to fail and to fall, so also we have the ability to rise above ourselves. We can survive, we can thrive.

Evil and tragedy are realities, both in life and in fiction. Avoiding them only weakens the stories we tell. I’m not saying we have to dive into the sewers of our darkest impulses for no other reason than because we can, but I do believe that it is only after surviving the darkest hours that we can truly appreciate the brightest days.

A final thought on the brightness that is only possible in horror:

I have a beautiful wife. And by beautiful, I mean stunning. She is so pretty that the first few times I saw her I could barely talk – not a normal occurrence for me.

Now jump to another thought (I promise, it’ll all link up eventually): my gorgeous wife and I lost a child. Years ago. It was – and continues to be – one of the hardest things that either of us have ever gone through. But juxtaposed with that memory, that true horror (one which I dealt with in later novels), is a memory of my wife’s beauty. Because the time I remember her being her most beautiful was not the first time I laid eyes on her, it wasn’t the moment I realized I was in love, it wasn’t our wedding day or the births of our healthy children.

It was in a hospital. There was blood on the sheets, tears in our eyes. Our child was gone. And my wife, through her tears, looked at me… and smiled. She held my hand and said, “It’s all right. It’s all right.”

She was so beautiful.

Horror takes us far beyond what is comfortable. It takes us far below what we feel we can endure. But on the other side of horror, there is light, and beauty, and peace.

And this, my friends, is why I spend my time on horror rather than on “good” stories: because horror leads, in the hands of the best writers, inexorably to the “good” stories. They are one and the same.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, Writing Advice

The Magic of Misleading

When I was a teenager, my mom used to like popping out from around corners and scaring me. I had to be super careful when I came home and the house was dark; just getting from the front door to my room was an adventure because at some point along the way, I knew she was going to get me. Sounds mean, but I actually loved it. And I still love that element of surprise in the stories I read—when I think it’s headed one direction and then, WHAM! Surprise! Something happens that I totally didn’t see coming, but when I look back, all the clues are there.

This kind of misdirection is magical, but like any good trick, it’s hard to pull off. There’s not a lot of information out there about how to effectively mislead the reader in a way that doesn’t make them hate you forever, but Michaelbrent’s here today with some great advice on the topic. So listen and learn, people. Listen and learn…

I’ve always liked magicians. Who doesn’t? For me, a kid who had trouble getting girls to even look at him, I was fascinated by any guy who could convince a girl to get dressed up in what more or less amounted to lingerie and then let him cut her in half, or throw knives at her, or stab her with a sword while she was floating in a water-tank full of sharks that had angry bees superglued to their teeth.

The magic was cool, too. But mostly it was the fact that the guy got his pretty assistant to do all that stuff, whereas the girls I knew probably wouldn’t call 911 if I took a bullet for them.

Then I realized that the girl was part of a magician’s act. That he counted on me watching her. Because while I was watching her, he was doing the magic. He was setting up the trick, he was preparing to wow me with the surprise.

It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart and put to use ever since.

I’m a writer. I’ve written movies, numerous #1 bestselling novels, and am consistently one of Amazon’s bestselling horror writers. And one of the things I like to do most is surprise the audience. My novel The Haunted has spent almost a full year on Amazon’s bestselling Ghost Horror list, and my newest scare-fest Darkbound bowed a few weeks ago and is currently beating out folks like Joe Hill and Dean Koontz on Amazon’s Hot New Horror Releases. Partly (I hope) this is because the books are generally cool. But there’s no denying that a large part of their punch is packed into endings that catch the readers off-guard. They get to the end of the book expecting one thing… and when they get something completely different, they are not only happy, they are absolutely delighted.

So how does a writer go about doing that? How do you mislead your audience in such a way that when the final revelation comes, readers are caught flat-footed… and love you for it?

Well, let’s go back to magic. Remember when you were a kid and your idea of a magic trick was to hold out an object, then demand that your mom close her eyes and you would then run off and hide it? “Open your eyes,” you would say. And Mommy would clap and coo and shout with delight. But not because the magic was any good. No, it was because that kind of reaction is, I’m fairly certain, required under the U.S. Constitution. Mommies must love our tricks.

But non-Mommies? Strangers? Even (gasp!) readers?

They’re a bit tougher.

Readers demand a better magic show. The whole nine yards. Flaming pigeons bursting out of our sleeves, disappearing monkeys, and even – especially – those skimpy assistants.

Because those assistants are what makes the trick work. Great authors – like great magicians – know that the secret to misdirection isn’t withholding information, it’s giving extra information, and focusing the audience’s attention on that.

A pair of examples: I was recently driving to a conference where I was going to be talking authory stuff to a bunch of fans. On the way I listened to an audiobook, a suspense-thriller by a big-time writer. But I stopped listening rather abruptly when I started screaming because the author had, for the bijillionth time, said, “And then the super-spy told the other super-spy the plan. It was a cool plan, an awesome plan. And the two super-spies started doing the plan stuff, because they were super. But I, the author, won’t tell you what the plan was, because now you will be surprised when you find out. Mwahaha.” 

Okay, I’m probably paraphrasing. But it was pretty close.

Contrast that to the classic twist of recent times, The Sixth Sense. We’re so busy focusing on the ghosts, the scares, the plight of the little boy who we believe to be the protagonist, that we completely miss what was there the whole time (SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN LIVING UNDER A ROCK FOR THE LAST 15 YEARS OR SO): the fact that Bruce Willis was a ghost! Eek! But the clues were all there. The filmmaker didn’t hide them. He presented them all. He just gave us extra information, and made sure we paid attention to that instead of to the key stuff he planned on re-springing on us later.

As a reader, a good surprise can be one of the most gratifying experiences I have. But there’s a difference between a final revelation that ties together everything I already know and forces me to look at it in a completely new light… and a junky plot “twist” that the author throws at me out of left field with no warning whatsoever. One of them is a hoot, and makes me not only read the book again, but go around trying to get others to read it like I’ve just joined some kind of highly literary cult. The other just makes me want to hunt down the author and shake him/her until all the minutes he/she has wasted of my life are somehow tossed loose.

Authors are, by and large, solitary folks. We sit in our caves (we call them offices, but most of them are kind of dim and smell a bit odd, so “cave” is probably more apropros) and have only our own thoughts for company. That’s the bad news.

But the good news is that we can call up that attractive assistant at any time. To provide flash, dazzle, and interest. To give information we want our readers to have, so that the audience will not pay attention to the real information that will set them up for a surprise later on. Withhold everything and it’s irritating. But give a little extra, mislead properly… and it’s magic.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Dealing With Bad Reviews

Okay, so, you’re published. Your book is “out there.” It’s “in the world” and “up for grabs.” People can “read it” and “peruse it” at their “leisure” (I like quotation marks).

And at first, things seem all right. Fairly predictable. The book doesn’t become an instant bestseller, but it is selling. Your mom bought it, and your dad bought two copies, and so did that slightly weird person who sits in your closet and mumbles a lot. Or maybe that’s just what happens to me.

Regardless, your work is now on its own. Living, breathing, and (hopefully) being passed from hand to hand by readers who are — slowly but surely — going to become Your People. Your Followers. Your Army.

And then it happens. Among the four- and five-star reviews that have made you feel higher than a kite on meth, suddenly this rears its ugly head on Amazon:

A TERRIBLE read

I picked this boock up because of all the good revuews. But I guess the revuews were all dun by, like, the writers’ parents and stuff. Because the book stunk. It stunk a lot. It stunk like a dead skunk that has severe dysintary and then drowns in its own poop. Also, the author is a ca-ca doodie head and probably has lice and kix baby seals and stuff. Dont read this book, it will give you cooties.

– 1 star

You read it. And the questions start. Is my work really that bad? How could this reviewer have so completely missed the point of my book? Where did he learn to spell? What if I do have lice?

And, most urgently . . . how do I respond?

To that last, I have three little words: Ig. Nore. It.

Okay, maybe that’s four words, I don’t know. I’m a writer, not an accountant.

Seriously, though, when you get a review like the above, you must simply rejoice within yourself. Why? Because it means your book is being read. It’s getting out into the world, meeting new people, getting beyond the closed circles of your family, friends, and writers groups. It will inevitably meet up with people that hate it — because it’s not their style, because you did an objectively terrible job writing the piece (it does happen), or even for no good reason at all.

And like any good parent, you will have the urge to rush to your “child’s” defense.

RESIST.

There are really only two likely outcomes if you choose to wage war on the review or (even worse) on the reviewer himself.

1) You try to show the review is “wrong.” The reviewer takes offense and goes to war with you. You now have a dedicated enemy who will attack you at every possible turn, giving you low ratings wherever possible and urging his/her friends and family to avoid your work like a sack of rotten meat. You have just accomplished nothing more nor less than magnifying the effect and range of the viewer’s bile and hatred. Result: you lose.

2) You try to show the review is wrong. The reviewer takes offense and goes to war with you. You mobilize your friends and followers and fight back. A comment war ensues! You beat back the scummy, evil, poor-spelling reviewer. He/she is silenced forever. Huzzah! But wait . . . those comments are there forever. And you look like nothing more nor less than a prima donna bully. This will keep people from buying your books in perpetuity. Result: you lose.

Of the two, the second is gratifying to the author, but far more damaging. I am friends with a great many authors, some of them legitimately Famous People. And occasionally one of them will get their undies in a wad over some disparaging comment made regarding their work and will mobilize their fans to attack. The fans attack. Or some of them. Some don’t. Some become “un” fans, turned off by the author’s childishness. And though maybe Famous People can afford to lose fans, the average author just can’t.

An example: my most recent novel, Darkbound, just came out. It’s a deeply disturbing horror novel about six strangers who get on a subway train that turns out to go everywhere BUT where they want it to. When it was released, a very eminent horror review site called Hellnotes wrote up a stellar review. So did several other review sites. A friend who had received an advance copy sent me a note saying he was . . . well . . . less than enamored of it. It was too dark, too violent. Worried, no doubt, about typical author ego, he asked what my response would be if he posted such a review.

My response: “Do it!” People have a right to know others’ thoughts. The fact that this reviewer didn’t like Darkbound as much as he had liked other books I’d written was a bummer. But it didn’t mean the end of the world, and insisting that he love everything about my work, all the time, would be not merely ridiculous, but counterproductive.

The reviews of our work will at times be insightful, helpful, warming. And sometimes it will be shallow tripe that looks like it was probably written in crayon by a five-year-old struggling against some weird form of Tourrette Syndrome. Both are part of being a writer. Don’t respond to either (even the good ones — that can be a bit “stalky” and can also mess with your fan base). If you want to interact with fans, get a Facebook page, a Twitter account, or stand on a box in Hyde Park.

But leave the reviews — and reviewers — alone. Ig. Nore. Them.

It is three words. I counted with my fingers.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Typing Down and Dirty

Something I’m often asked about is how I manage to write so quickly. I’m also often asked about how I manage to murder with a smile on my face, and why Honey Boo-Boo is so popular with the American public. Two of these questions are Deep Mysteries, only answerable by God and perhaps certain network television execs. One of them, however, is within my grasp and understanding.

And no, it’s not the “murder” one.

It’s the writing thing. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a full-time writer. I’m a bestselling novelist and produced screenwriter who has had the great honor of having major Hollywood studios butcher his screenplays for borderline obscene amounts of money. I’m one of the bestselling horror writers on Amazon.com: my latest horror novel, Apparition, has been sitting pretty on the bestselling “ghost horror” books there pretty much since it came out, and my YA series The Billy Saga has been doing great business for two years straight.

So I write. That’s my thing. It’s what I do. And I do a lot of it. In the past two years, I’ve written over a dozen books, plus an additional dozen screenplays. That’s on top of countless articles, guest blogs like this one, and basically a caboodle (that’s classy talk for “a buttload”) of other writings, short and long. That sandwiched in among conventions, author signings, and other promotional events. Plus I occasionally try to show up and be a good dad and husband. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.

It’s not unusual for me to crank out 10,000 words before dinner. Sometimes closer to 15,000.

Now, I know it’s the middle of NaNoWriMo as I type these words, so some of you might be looking at your computer screens and wishing you could reach through them and throttle me via the magic of the internet. Luckily for me you can’t. And for you, too, because my point in all this isn’t to brag. It’s to bring a message of hope, and a statement of belief: I believe that most of YOU can write that fast. I think that many people sell themselves short when they write; that they believe less of themselves than they are capable of.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that you’re going to finish this article and start instantly blasting out thousands of quality words. I’m not magic. You want that, you go to Tony Robbins. But I do think I can whisper a bit of a secret to you, the elusive secret that so few writers seem to know, the secret to writing fast, and writing good stuff fast.

Ready?

The secret to writing fast is… writing fast.

Okay, don’t get out your special Mob Kits (only $49.95, patent pending) and come looking for my blood. There is a method to this madness. What I mean is this: very often on the best days of writing, the more you do, the better you write, and the better you write, the more you do. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle, it’s a “happy cycle,” for lack of anything better to call it. A lot of authors look at it as some rare visitation of their muse, but in reality it is just them getting out of their own ways, letting themselves do what they’re already good at.

So you… let’s say you do an average of 3,500 words a day during NaNo. So tomorrow when you type, worry less about quality than quantity. And yes, you read that right. Go for 4,000 words. Even if it’s crap. Crap is okay, that’s what God invented the delete key.

But here’s the thing: if you start writing, if you just let go and start “feelin’ it,” just movin’ and groovin’ and letting your fingers do the talking, I bet when you hit that 4,000 word mark you’ll look back and be amazed at how few words need serious revision.

There’s a lot of craftsmanship to writing. A lot of practice, a lot of effort. But like most things, once you’ve learned to a certain level the secret isn’t concentration, it’s getting out of your own way and letting yourself perform at the level you’ve trained for.

10,000 words? Bah. Watch me hit 15,000 tomorrow. The only real limit is how fast I can type. And I’m not even so sure about that one.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

A Snowball’s Chance in Marketing

I recently received an email from someone on my “official Michaelbrent Collings Facebook Fan Page” (which is still kinda weird to have, truth be known), asking in essence what he could do to sell his books to more than just his close personal friends and family… and promising me a kiss on the lips if I could help him out.

Now, first of all, please let me be clear: if you know a famous author, or a successful author, or even a semi-famous or semi-successful author, this is generally not the way to get help. It is considered “solicitation” in a lot of cases and is illegal in many states. However, because he and I have had a lot of previous interaction and he buys all my books and seems nice and has never (as yet) tried to make a lampshade out of my face-skin, I answered. And I thought the answer might be germane to others who have gotten over that huge first hurdle of getting a book published, but now face the surprisingly bigger hurdle of actually trying to sell the durn-dang-darn thing!

Rest easy. It never gets easy. I’m one of Amazon’s bestselling horror writers, nearly every book I write hits one of their major bestsellers lists and most of them stay there… and I still have to spend about 40 percent of my time doing PR work and getting the word out. So it’s always going to be a job, folks. But… well… here’s what I told my fan:

If you ever want to dissuade someone from helping you, promise them a kiss on the lips.

Seriously, the thing of it is that there’s no easy answer. It’s like rolling a snowball down a mountain, I suppose. The bad news is that at first… you have a snowball and it’s tiny and it rolls really freakin’ slow and you’re going to be coaxing it along every step of the way. Telling people you know about your book at parties, random gatherings, funerals. Telling people you DON’T know about it at bus stops, waiting in line at the supermarket, funerals. Carrying around business cards with your website on it. A great tactic I like to use is engaging people in conversation and then saying slyly, “So what kind of books do you like to read?” after they say anything I can use to segue into that. Like a statement about their baby, or the weather, or the fact that they hate reading. You basically have to hear everything as an invitation to talk about your writing.

This does not get you invited to the cool parties.

The bad news is, at the end of the day you still have to push that freakin’ snowball along constantly. The GOOD news is… the bigger it gets, the more surface area it has. And that means that eventually it will start picking up snow at a faster rate. Hopefully.

Again, there’s no easy answer. Talk to people you don’t know. Google book review sites, looking for folks that might be interested in reviewing your novel and offer to send them a free e-copy. Google podcasts and internet radio stations that might want to talk to authors of books like yours and send them your SHORT (like, three sentence) bio and offer to chat with them at their convenience. Push that snowball.

Patience. Work. Tenacity.

Luck!

Now, again, this is not the fistful of flowers and sunshine that most people want to get when they ask about selling their books. But the reality is that the hardest work starts when you type “The End” and turn off the computer. The difference between a great author and a successful one is that the successful one knows how to get out and sell, to work the system and network and make contacts. Anyone can do it, I think, but precious few people really want to.

Be one of the ones that does.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Horror and Hope

I am a guy who writes scary stuff. It’s basically all I do. I’m one of the bestselling horror writers on Amazon, and as of this writing one of the scary movies in Redboxes and video stores all over the world has my name after the “screenplay by” part.

I specialize in ghosts and goblins. In things that go bump in the night, in demons that steal souls, in madmen whose greatest desire is to maim and to kill.

In my most recent bestselling horror novel, Apparition, I write extensively about filicide – about parents who kill their children. And in my book, the parents who commit such atrocities do so with gusto, with relish, with lust. It is, as many reviewers have said, not only scary, but a deeply disturbing book.

To reiterate: I am a guy who writes scary stuff.

I am also a father who adores his children, a husband who loves his wife to a point that verges at times on worshipfulness. And I am a fairly (I hope) faithful member of my church (I’m LDS – what most folks call a Mormon), a person who believes in good and bad, and in a God who loves us.

This last is particularly interesting. There have been a lot of conversations at church that have gone like this:

Other Church Person: Hi! You must be new here!
Me: Yup! Just moved in.
OCP: Well, glad to have you. What do you do.
Me: I’m a writer.
OCP: How cool! Like, Harry Potter?
Me: Yeah. If Harry bursts into flames and then murders Ron and Hermione.
OCP: Um… huh….

I’m exaggerating a bit. But there are a lot of surprised looks when they realize I wrote that book, or that movie. Because how could someone so normal-seeming, so loving, so God-fearing write stuff like that?

The answer is in the question: it’s precisely because I am those things that horror comes so easily to me. Because horror is by far the most hopeful and Godly (note the capital “g”) of all the genres.

To be sure, there are plenty of horror stories out there that are nothing more than an excuse to go diving in the sewers of the mind. The kind of movies and books that basically make their audiences feel like taking a shower afterward… if not just taking a Brillo to the surface of their brains to get those images out.

But the thing about horror is that because it is, by definition, horrible, it also allows for goodness to bloom. In taking us to the depths of misery it allows us to climb to the heights of heroism.

An example: during history classes in U.S. schools, wars are taught more than anything else. Partly this is because wars determine history more than almost any other factor. Partly it is because wars are intrinsically dramatic and therefor interesting.

And of all the wars taught, there are two that are taught more than any other: WWII and the Civil War. There are a lot of erudite, scholarly reasons that could be given for this. But they are wrong. The simple fact is that in these two wars we saw something rare: a clear “good” guy and an even clearer “bad” guy. There was no way of painting the South as anything but evil, since their primary political platform rested on the backs of African slaves. Similarly, Hitler’s entire philosophy was one of megalomaniacal hatred and genocide. He even had the black moustache preferred by evildoers since caveman times (Snidely Whiplash and Yosemite Sam are actually based on cave paintings found in Mesopotamia).

So the lines were drawn. The evil stood on one side, the good on the other. And these were not genteel, rule-abiding evils. If you ever want a real definition of “horror,” read about what happened at places like Dachau and Buchenwald, imagine what occurred during the Bataan Death March, try to put yourself in the place of the slaves transported from Africa to the Southern Confederacy in the bellies of ships we wouldn’t consider humane for cockroaches today. The horror was real, and it was beyond the imagining of most of us.

But just as important… the horror, the evil, the wickedness failed to conquer. There were perils, there were horrors. Real people were challenged, many lost their lives. Perhaps even worse, those that did not die lived lives marred by mental and physical maimings, by emotional and psychic traumas the true depths of which no one else could understand.

But we went on. Heroes were made, not born. Humanity rose above itself and, in the best of moments, became enough – if only just enough – to combat the evil.

We remember Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents, in no small measure because we see him as the embodiment of the spirit that brought us through a terrible and troubling time in our nation’s history. We remember the WWII G.I.’s as some of the Greatest Generation, because they fought some of the wickedest men the world has ever known… and resisted the urge to become that wickedness themselves.

And what does all this have to do with writing horror?

Everything.

Horror has power possessed by no other genre. It can take us to the depths. It can then leave us there to rot, which is not my style, or it can then bring us back up… and in so doing show us that salvation is possible even from the profoundest darkness. It can possess a child and put her through terrible privations and suffering… but then rescue her, and in so doing remind us that if there is a Devil, perhaps there is also a God.

There are many kinds of horror. There are those that celebrate evil, and I don’t like those so much. I’m not saying don’t ever read them, I’m not advocating for a book-burning (one of the lessons we’ve learned). I’m just saying I don’t like them.

But I do like the horror that examines evil. And then shows us its weaknesses. Shows us that it can be beaten. And shows us, most importantly, that we are not it. That we are better than it. That we are more than what we fear.

Horror is the failure of hope. But it is only in that final moment when hope fails that we can find faith, and in so doing can rise above our fallen states and find a bit of divinity within ourselves.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, Writing Advice

Where Scary Ideas are Born

As a horror writer, I am often asked where I get my ideas from. (I’m also asked about the voices in my head – sometimes by the other voices in my head, which is weird – but that’s a whole other therapy session.) And the sad answer is that there’s no one answer. The ideas I get can come from anywhere: a radio piece I found interesting, a disturbing dream I had after too much hot sauce on my tacos, or just me watching a movie and thinking “they did that wrong.”

That being said, all of the scary things I write about have one thing in common: they scare me.

An example: my most recent horror novel, Apparition, has been Amazon’s list of bestselling supernatural horror for months now. It’s about a family in which the mother goes insane and tries to stab her children to death. The father stops her, and she turns the knife on herself. Months later, the father is trying to cope with the loss of his wife, the kids are trying to get over it, they’re trying to heal… and the father starts feeling urges to kill his children. Hijinks ensue.

Now a lot of people have asked how a devoted family man (which I am) could come up with something so messed up… something that revolves around the destruction of a family. And the answer is, of course, that that is the reason it’s so scary. It is a story about the destruction of something I hold most dear. So how could it fail to be terrifying? Horror critics all over seem to agree with me (I’ll avoid the temptation to spew quotes about how cool the book is; besides, I’m sure you’ve already bought it by now).

The thing with horror is that it is a universal element of life. We are born crying, terrified of a world which suddenly shows itself to be much larger, brighter, and more daunting than the womb we think of as our universe during our early months. Boo-boos and owies are the stitching in the tapestry of our childhood. Adolescence is as purely terrifying a time as any I can think of. And then we grow up, have children of our own… and suddenly we fear for more than just our own selves.

I don’t mean to paint a maleficent picture here. The fear we all experience is just that: an experience. And we can either use it to tear us down, or we can create stories about it that meld us together like warriors against a dark invading army. We tell stories of terror so that we may come to control our fear. We whisper ghost tales around the campfire so that, come the dawn (and assuming all the campers have survived), we can clap hands and celebrate and draw tighter together as a community.

Fear is uncomfortable. But it is a fact of life. It is a facet of growth.

Where do I get my scary ideas from? From life. From the loss of the things most important to me. And so I tell stories about those things, in the hopes that by doing so I can ward off the losses, or at least cope better when they inevitably come. My stories of terror come from my own fear. But like many, they are really stories of hope. Tales in which I pray to be greater than the fear that I know must come upon me.

Halloween season is upon us. A month long celebration of all things dark and gruesome, a night of terror. But it is also a night of treats. We brave the darkness, we step onto paths decorated with the incarnations of our deepest fears… and in so doing, we may (we hope) win the prize.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice