Online writers’ communities: no thanks

The other day I was listening to a podcast, in which a trio of (indie) writers was talking enthusiastically about the “online writer community”.

The specific topic of the podcast was “What does community (the writing community) mean to you?”

Cue cringe and eye-rolls.

There are actually numerous online writers’ communities: in open venues like KBoards, and in various closed and open Facebook groups.

I have logins to a few of them, but I almost never post in any of them, and I avoid even reading them nowadays.

I suppose I’m not very enthusiastic about “the online writing community”.

I don’t wish other writers any ill, mind you. But nor do I take the view that every writer is my natural bosom buddy, confidant, and comrade-in-arms. I have an active dislike, moreover, of large Internet forums that consist solely of writers.

Let me explain.

I mostly don’t hang around with other writers in real life.

Within my personal (real world) circle, there are perhaps three or four people who have expressed a serious interest in writing fiction. But these are people who happen to be my friends, anyway—and they would be my friends if they were plumbers, stockbrokers, or dog trainers.

Once in a while, these individuals will initiate a discussion with me about writing, and I’ll gladly participate in these discussions. But mostly I don’t   talk about writing with them.

I wouldn’t say that I prefer outsider status; but I have always preferred to be an insider with an asterisk.

I’m not unique in this preference. When I was in college (in the Cincinnati area) I had a professor who hailed from the Lone Star State. He had a distinct Texas drawl, and he even wore the occasional bolo tie. In an interview for the campus newspaper, he stated, “It’s more fun to be a Texan in the Midwest than it is to be a Texan in Texas.”

Similarly, it’s more fun to be the lone writer in a group of corporate cubicle dwellers or factory workers than it is to be just one more writer amid a big group of writers. At least for me.

“The writing community” or the “indie writing community” is a myth, anyway.

For the most part, writers (especially indie writers) are solo entrepreneurs who don’t rely on others. Yes, there is some coauthoring going on out there (more on that shortly); but most books are the products of one person, one voice, with editors, proofreaders, and cover artists brought in as independent contractors.

A lot of people are in denial about this. There is one indie author community that has adopted the cringeworthy catchphrase, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

That might be true on the Atlantic seaboard at high tide. Artistic fields of endeavor, however, are characterized by tournament economies, in which a small group of players take a disproportionate amount of the rewards. The market for commercial fiction—just like the market for music, film, and visual art—is saturated. There is always more supply than demand.

So a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. A rising tide makes it harder to find customers (readers).

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, in which all authors compete for a fixed dollar amount each month via page reads, has only made publishing more of a zero-sum game. The recent Amazon practice of populating every available corner of screen space with ads (as opposed to organic search engine recommendations) has exacerbated the dog-eat-dog nature of things. Authors are not only competing for readers, they’re also locked in a bidding war for Amazon PPC ads.

This doesn’t mean that there are no areas where the interests of all writers intersect. While we’re on the subject of Amazon: The world’s largest retailer does have a tendency to change policies without much warning; and it can be beneficial for writers to talk about that in a big online space. But those needs can be met with a message board or two. No “community” needed.

Large writing communities invariably involve some writer’s schemes to make money from his fellow writers.

Before I tell you what I’m talking about here, let me tell you what I’m not talking about.

Every writer with an Internet connection will eventually talk about writing online. (That’s kind of what I’m doing now, right?)

So you blog about writing. Maybe that brings you some extra Web traffic. (Writers also like to read other writers’ blog posts about writing, after all.)

Since writers are also readers (of fiction), that may mean an additional book sale or two along the way. Back in 2002, I found John Scalzi’s website after one of his blog posts about writing came up in a Google search. I later bought his novel, Old Man’s War.

But that is long-tail, get-rich-slow kind of stuff.

Likewise, there are some writers who have published books about plotting, marketing, or other aspects of commercial writing.

Once again, nothing wrong there.

Some writers, however, have discovered that there is a much better way to cash in on the informational needs of other writers. Why sell a $4.99 ebook, when you can record a few presentations, and then sell a video course for $99, $299, or even $999?

Still other writers, meanwhile, have begun hosting live events, usually in expensive venues like Las Vegas or London. These are professional affairs that mimic what many of us are familiar with from our corporate experiences.

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Almost none of these events and courses are outright scams consisting of pure snake oil. There is real information being sold here. But the information is being packaged and sold at an unnecessarily high price.

There is nothing in any of these expensive online courses or live events that couldn’t be easily delivered via an ebook, a free YouTube video or two (which can earn Google Adsense fees for the creator), or even a free website (which can also make money for the creator, via advertising and affiliate commissions).

I’m an unrepentant capitalist. Caveat emptor, and all that. But let’s not kid ourselves about what’s going on here. There is an entire economy now of writers-turned-professional-writer-gurus.

***

As I hopefully have made clear, I see nothing wrong with a writer compiling and selling a how-to writing book, or making money from an informational website. It’s the $500 to $1,000 courses that raise my hackles.

It’s very clear that some writers are now making more money selling expensive courses to other writers than they are making by selling books to readers.

This is no big surprise—since aspiring artists are always a hungry market.

And it isn’t exactly unethical. But I’m not sure it’s an entirely good thing, either.

The content mills

And then there are the writers who have formed their own content mills. This usually means subcontracting other writers to write in their “universes”.

One of these writers recently stated in a YouTube video that he plans to publish 250 books in 2020.

Four to five books per week, more or less.

Once again, this isn’t a scam. But why would anyone want to write by committee, or as part of someone else’s organization? I would go back to a normal job before I would become a writer for another writer’s content mill—not unless that content mill provides health insurance, a 401K, and a fixed salary, that is.

Online writing communities encourage sameness.

I’m not against writing to market. The opposite of writing to market is the kind of navel-gazing, highly personalized story that has so long characterized the literary fiction space. But writing to market, like all basically good things, can be taken to an unhealthy extreme.

Every time I pop onto KBoards (I try to avoid the place, but sometimes I slip), I see at least one   post from some get-rich-quick aspirant who is generically asking which genres are “hot” at the moment.

This is usually answered with a list of ultra-niche genres that no one had heard of a mere decade ago, but which have become literary clichés since the advent of Kindle publishing: “billionaire romance”, “academy romance”, “LitRPG”, etc.

Some of these genres have now become so oversaturated that the only way to move the books is to essentially give them away, often in $0.99 box sets that include ten or twenty individual full-length novels.

Perhaps taking their cue from the content mills, some writers have decided that the best path for success is to find a “hot” genre, and then stamp out fictional widgets to toss into that big vat, in the hopes of making a quick buck in the churn.

Yet again: There is nothing explicitly dishonest going on here, but I want no part of any of this.

Most writers are petty, egotistical, easily offended people.

And yes—I’m talking about myself here, too.

One of the worst things about KBoards is that conversations there about seemingly innocuous topics often spiral into snark and acrimony. Writers love to play games of one-upmanship. And since most writers have at least some verbal facility, they are usually skilled at making subtle digs and backhanded compliments.

I believe that writers function best when their less sociable traits are moderated by the company of non-artists. Nothing will set a persnickety, hypersensitive writer straight like an afternoon with a landscaping crew, or a morning with a dozen accountants. But if you throw a bunch of writers together, they will reinforce each others’ worst instincts, and find a hundred piddling things to squabble about.

*   *    *

So much for me and online writers’ communities. I can only hope that the above doesn’t make me seem antisocial. But it probably does make me seem antisocial. Oh, well.

Should you ever meet me in person, I believe you’ll find me to be friendly enough. But if we’re meeting for the first time and you happen to be a writer (or an aspiring writer), you might do us both a favor, and keep that information to yourself. Tell me that you’re a landscaper or an accountant instead.

Should you outline that novel or not? 9 considerations

Should you plan out your novel before you actually write it, in words that you want other people to eventually read?

That’s a good question.

Most writers agonize at some point about the choice between outlining a novel in advance versus discovery writing it. (Note: I refuse to use the term “pantsing”, as it’s a little too cutesy for my tastes.)

To begin with the conclusion: Yes, and no….and maybe.

I am not going to mandate a method here. I am going to lay out some considerations that you should keep in mind when making this decision for yourself.

Therefore, this will be a somewhat free-ranging discussion, rather than a linear argument leading to the absolute resolution that you must do it this way.

An emotional issue

When this issue is discussed in various online writing forums, there is often a lot of emotion and drama involved. (Imagine that, on the Internet!)

This is because most writers are extremely conflicted themselves. Art, after all, is a combination of ideas that just pop into the brain for no apparent reason, and decisions that one must consciously make. 

For a number of years in my youth I took guitar lessons. I found out that I wasn’t cut out to be a musician. But having studied music, I can tell you this: When you see Iron Maiden or Metallica jamming onstage, there is an entire system of order underlying all that. Not only are there rules, there is mathematical precision.

At the same time, there is also a large degree of inspiration, of purely individual choices. This is why Iron Maiden doesn’t sound like Air Supply.

And so it is with writing. You have to balance chaos with order. Most writers are constantly uneasy about where the line between the two should be drawn. Many of us tend to swing back and forth between outlining and discovery writing, depending on our moods, and how the last project went.

Hence the emotions that surround the debate.

1.) There are bestselling authors in both camps.

Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, and Michael Connelly are discovery writers. John Grisham, James Patterson, and Ken Follett are meticulous outliners. The late Robert Ludlum’s outlines were often small books in their own right.

The proof here being: Either method can result in a quality product—quality defined as “pleases many readers and makes enough money to fill an ocean liner.”

2.) You can discovery write mystery and thriller fiction, too.

I once read an online essay (I forget where) alleging that Stephen King only discovery writes because most of his stories involve small numbers of protagonists battling supernatural forces. The argument here seems to be that he doesn’t have many balls in the air, and he can change the operating rules at will.

That might be true of some of his novels: The Shining, Pet Sematary, It. In 2014 and 2015, however, King published the much acclaimed Bill Hodges Trilogy. I read the first of these books, Mr. Mercedes.

Mr. Mercedes, at least, is basically a hard-boiled detective novel (and it’s a pretty good one, too.) The book contains no supernatural elements to speak of.

Michael Connelly, another discovery writer, is the author of the popular Harry Bosch detective novels. (I’ve read every one of these ever published.) Connelly writes almost exclusively about the world of forensics, police procedure, and criminal activity.

And he doesn’t use an outline. Connelly told an interviewer in 2014: “I don’t map out anything. I put nothing on paper but the books themselves. I don’t outline.”

On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) wrote what might be called literary horror. His stories are heavily weighted with mood and description, but the plots are often kind of thin.

This suggests that H.P. Lovecraft was a discovery writer. Wrong. Lovecraft indicated in several pieces of correspondence that he was an outliner.

3.) There are only two nonnegotiable factors: story structure, and a system for keeping track.

Whether you discovery write or outline, you have to have a knowledge of the elements of story: rising incident, lock-in, climax, etc.

Knowledge of story structure can be acquired by osmosis. You’ve spent your life watching films, television dramas, and reading stories, after all. But it’s probably worthwhile to read at least a few books on the subject, too.

There are many good books on story structure, but the best might be Robert McKee’s Story. McKee wrote this book for screenwriters, but its content can be easily applied to novel and short story writing.

No matter how you write, you also need a system for keeping track of what’s already happened in your story. Who’s been killed off? Who was involved in that heinous crime that occurred in Chapter 10?

Many beginning writers forget this. Then they find themselves 50,000 words into a discovery written story, and chronically unsure of whether the next plot point will make sense in relation to previous ones.

A simple solution is to write a brief summary of each chapter after you’ve written it. You can do this in Excel, Word, or on a legal pad.

(I personally prefer Scrivener. The use of Scrivener is beyond the scope of this essay; but Scrivener’s index card system facilitates organized discovery writing.)

The idea here is that you’re creating an outline, but it’s a retroactive outline, a record of what you’ve already written, versus a plan of what you should write.

4.) Outlining in advance may lead to repetitive stories that feel “thin”.

I’m a huge fan of John Grisham, a noted outliner. But I can’t help noticing that many of Grisham’s stories repeat the same character types and plot devices.

Grisham’s stories often involve a secret cache of ill-gotten money, often in a secret bank account in the Caymans. Many of his stories feature an idealistic-but-reluctant attorney. There is frequently a big, shadowy corporate, governmental, or organized criminal faction directing things behind the scenes. More than one Grisham novel has ended with a mad dash for the money.

James Patterson, on the other hand, writes novels that are technically competent but emotionally thin—at least to me. Trashing James Patterson is a favorite avocation of lesser-selling novelists. (Even Stephen King has taken potshots at James Patterson.) I won’t go there. But I seldom find myself emotionally engrossed in a James Patterson novel. And Patterson outlines everything.

(Note: The comparatively mechanical style of James Patterson novels may have something to do with the fact that most James Patterson novels are written between Patterson and a cowriter. (This explains his uber-prolific output.))

5.) Outlining in advance may lead to procrastination.

This seems counterintuitive at first glance. An outline should result in highly efficient, prolific output, right? Because with an outline, the writer always knows what she’s going to write next.

Not necessarily. Some writers find that after they’ve thoroughly outlined a story, that story is “done” so far as they’re concerned, and they’re ready to move on to something new. The actual writing of the outlined story becomes a chore.

The idea here is that discovery writing preserves enthusiasm—a key factor in any form of artistic output. Or, as Jonathan Franzen stated:

“You have to wing it. If you don’t then it seems like it’s written from an outline. And the idea is to start to set yourself some impossible kind of place to get to, then it becomes an adventure…And I have almost a cult belief that if it’s fun for the writer, and kind of an adventure for the writer, some of that will rub off and feel that way to the reader.”  – Jonathan Franzen

6.) Discovery writing relies on bursts of inspiration

This is the counterpoint to #4 above. We can sometimes come up with good ideas (about anything) through a process of directed brainstorming. More often, though, good ideas seem to arrive upon waking up in the morning, while in the shower, or while standing in line at the grocery.

In other words, the creative process is often random and nonlinear.

If you plan to write a 90,000-word novel from start to finish, without any advance planning, you may find yourself staring at the screen of your laptop during some of your writing sessions.

On the other hand, an outline for a story can be easily assembled over time, in a completely nonlinear manner. You can write down the inciting incident and the climax (if those happen to spring to your mind first), and then list out the other scenes as they occur to you.

Then, when the whole outline has been assembled, you can start writing. At that point, it really is just a matter of execution.

Greg Iles (a discovery writer) once described his writing process for a television interviewer. He stated that he spends most of the year “incubating” his story in his mind. Then he sits down and writes the whole thing in one burst, over the span of just a few weeks.

Lee Child (another discovery writer) writes the Jack Reacher novels the same way. This is how Michael Connelly also works.

Child and Connelly are both trad-pubbed authors. They put out one book per year. If each of their novels is 100,000 words long, that works out to about 275 words per day (a typical piece of office email correspondence). This isn’t exactly a blistering pace; but it’s based on the book release practices and business models of the traditional publishing industry.

Discovery writing, then, with its inevitable fits and starts, is less problematic when you have an entire year to crank out a single book, and when you’re only working on one book at a time.

Most indie authors aim for a more ambitious production schedule. Three or four books per year is common. Some indie authors publish one or more books per month.

That would be tough to achieve through pure discovery writing, and without having multiple books going at once.

A process of outlining and preplanning facilitates nonlinear work, and the management of multiple WIPs (works-in-process) at once. You don’t have to work in 275-word bursts of inspiration.

Is it possible to be prolific, year after year, as a discovery writer? Sure it is. But I’m going to suggest that it might be trickier.

Oh, a final observation about Jonathan Franzen: He publishes a novel an average of once every six years.

7.) Discovery writing sometimes leads to meandering stories.

Back to Stephen King. Almost all of the novels that Stephen King (a discovery writer) wrote early in his career were tightly plotted. Some of those original King novels were long, but there was little fat in them.

Then (I mark It (1986) as the turning point), Stephen King’s style abruptly changed. His novels became much, much longer, and the stories meandered all over the place.

Read The Shining (1977) or Cujo (1981). Then read Duma Key (2008), Under the Dome (2009) or 11/22/63 (2011). You’ll see the difference. I love the tight structure and economical plots of Stephen King’s earlier works. His later novels…not so much. (It used to be possible to adapt a Stephen King novel into 2-hour movie; now, a Stephen King adaptation requires a 12-hour miniseries.)

The tendency of the discovery writer to meander seems to grow more acute as the author becomes a brand name, and, one would assume, less subject to the oversight of editors. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami starts each book with “no plan”. Murakami is known for his oddball plots and surrealism. Nevertheless, there is a clearly structured storyline in some of his early works, like Norwegian Wood (1987).

Fast-forward to 2013, and IQ84. This 1,184-page novel of magical realism is all over the place. I tried to read IQ84. I gave up. Even some longtime Murakami fanatics whom I know were put off by the novel.

I realize that the preceding paragraphs contain an aspect of subjectivity. I like tightly structured thriller-type novels, and that bias is clear here. I don’t like 1,000-page literary novels that go all over the place. That’s clear, too.

Not everyone shares my preferences, of course. You might think that 11/22/63 is Stephen King’s greatest novel, and that Haruki Murakami hit his stride with IQ84.

I’m not tell you which kind of story to like—or to write. I am telling you that discovery writing tends to lead to a.) longer books, and b.) lots of subplots and segues.

8.) You don’t have to do it one way or the other.

In fact, I’m going to suggest that you shouldn’t do it entirely one way or the other.

In the beginning, especially, you should try both methods, to see how each one feels—and the results that each method produces for you. Where writing is concerned, the acronym YMMV, “your mileage may vary” definitely applies.

You might come up with a hybrid method. It may be helpful to think of this as a continuum rather than a binary choice. Perhaps you’ll want to plot out the major moments in your story, and then discovery-write your way between these points. That’s perfectly valid.

Other writers brainstorm scene ideas, and then structure the scenes they’ve thought up into a coherent story, inevitably adding and discarding some of the brainstorm work along the way. (Read Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream, for his explanation of “dreamstorming”.

9.) And finally, reevaluate your process at regular intervals.

Your writing process is bound to evolve over time. You may also discover that a method of writing that didn’t work for you two years ago suddenly works for you today.

This is because you’re a different writer than you were two years ago. In the intervening period, you’ve (hopefully) done a great deal of reading and writing.

The important thing is to remember that your writing process must strike a balance between chaos (inspiration) and order (story structure).

In other words, too much woo-woo, and you’ll never get past the dreaming stage. Too much meticulous planning, and…you may spend three years planning a story that you could have easily written in three months.

The power of audiobooks

As a tool to increase your reading time. In one of his Author Level Up videos, Michael La Ronn discusses how audiobooks can be used to increase your aggregate reading time, when time is at a premium.

Although the video is targeted at authors, the ideas therein could apply to anyone. 

I agree with Mr. La Ronn’s comments about audiobooks, obviously. 

I would add another tip to his list, however: reading while you’re on your stationary bike.

As I’ve noted in this space before, I use my daily cardio ride to catch up on my reading. In my case, that’s about 40 extra minutes of reading each day. 

Cardio and the writer

I’m an admitted cardio addict. I usually spend about an hour on my exercise bike each day, in addition to my thrice weekly weightlifting sessions. 

Why? First of all, because I used to be a fat guy. But that’s another story for another time.

Cardio is important for writers. Yes, that’s right, you heard me: Cardio is important for writers.

Nature’s mood drug

Most writers suffer from anxiety and depression. (I am prone to both.) 

Exercise is nature’s mood drug. Forget the crap that the pharmaceutical companies are peddling. You don’t need prozac, Ritalin, and all that crap from Big Pharma. 

And you certainly don’t need cannabis. Don’t get me started on the current (and utterly idiotic) cannabis craze.

Exercise floods your body with serotonin. It’s free! No prescription required! Completely legal in all fifty states! 

And while exercise is addicting, it’s a good form of addiction.

Reading and brainstorming

Time spent on the exercise bike is also a great time to catch up reading. I read whenever I’m on my bike, or on the Stairmaster at the gym.

But what about actually writing? Or preparing to write?

When the weather in southern Ohio is pleasant (and it often isn’t pleasant), I sometimes go for walks. 

I find walking to be conducive to brainstorming. If an aspect of a story is puzzling me, I can usually work it out during a walk. 

I’m not alone in this regard, by the way—Charles Dickens famously walked as many as twenty miles a day. He plotted his stories in his head during these long peregrinations.

Dickens also suffered from insomnia. It wasn’t uncommon for him to go walking at two o’clock in the morning.

If you’re a writer, then exercise should be a regular part of your routine. Especially cardio. And Charles Dickens, no less, would agree with me.

On coauthoring and author “teams”

Someone asked me about this the other day.

In a word, no. Just…no. Or maybe…hell no.

I realize that in the indie space, that’s the thing right now. The idea is that if writers pool their efforts, they can crank out even more volume…Get more Kindle Unlimited page reads!

Some successful indie writers have even become James Patterson-like book packagers, whereby they are hiring other writers to write in their “universes”.

As we used to say in the 1980s, gag me with a spoon.  

Or: sorry, not for me. If I wanted to work in committees, I would have stayed in the corporate world.

Sometimes collaboration is a necessary evil. Some art forms require groups by their very nature. For example, try to start a rock band by yourself, just you and your drum kit. It can’t be done.

But if a committee isn’t a necessary evil, why would you want to subject your creative process to that? My cousin’s boyfriend is an ex-member of a very successful rock band from the 1990s, and he’s told me about the challenges of dealing with bandmates.

Why would anyone want to bring that into their writing?

Writing stories and novels is a one-person venture. At least it is for me…