Whoring Our Talents

cover-fiction-unboxed-2 copyNOTE: This is an abridged excerpt from the book, Fiction Unboxed. 

We Only Tell Stories. Sorta.

We didn’t set out to be nonfiction authors. Really, we didn’t.

I met Sean online because we both wrote for a popular website called Copyblogger. Copyblogger is tops in its field, but not a haven for story-spinners. It’s more about marketing, like how to make your business better and attract more leads.

Sean has a natural love of movies, books, and stories in general, but segued sideways into copywriting because he’s terminally infected with the entrepreneurism gene and did quite well as a scribe for hire. I’d been writing all my life and had always wanted to pen novels, but in 2008, when I started online, there was still no way to make a living as a fiction writer unless you got lucky and hit the right literary agent with the ideal (and appropriately marketable) novel at the perfect time. So I, too, asked myself how I could make money with words. Copyblogger had many of the answers.

If Sean and I wanted to be storytellers and diverted into marketing reluctantly, Dave must have done so kicking and screaming.

So there we were: three guys who wanted to be creatives, stuck doing what my artist father affectionately called “whoring our talents.” Sean and I were good at marketing, but marketing, in and of itself, was never our goal. We wanted to tell tales. We wanted to build worlds, but our families needed to eat. And there was no feasible way, in 2008, to build a sensible business around fiction.

Sean and Dave published serialized fiction on their Collective Inkwell blog, posting new chapters of their first fiction together, Available Darkness, one chapter per week. Readers loved it, but the audience was relatively small and difficult to grow.

Then came the Kindle and a transformation of the Inkwell. Overnight, it went from a site where Sean and Dave hung their shingle, hoping for copy and design jobs, to the tiny publishing house responsible for the first “season” of their cult hit serial Yesterday’s Gone.

Yesterday’s Gone eventually exploded in popularity, but suffered the same slow start as any new series. And while it was still limping along and earning pennies, Sean decided to launch his first information product: a high-value copywriting course called Sales Letter Shortcut. This was Sean’s sliding door moment, an axis upon which everything to follow might be entirely different, and he recalls feeling like he had to make a choice: Do I want to sell nonfiction courses? Or do I want to put my stakes in the sand and declare to the universe that I am a fiction writer?

Sales Letter Shortcut was on the market for exactly one day. The second morning, Sean closed it down and refunded everyone who’d bought it. That’s how badly he wanted to be a fiction writer.

While Sean was facing his own fork in the road, I was doing the same. I’d created a rather popular blog with a five-digit following, and as Sean was choosing art over relatively easy profit (surely with Dave shoving from behind), I found myself facing one suspiciously loaded choice after another. Something creative I’d written would take off while a “sure thing” moneymaker would somehow fail. I was less willing to leap before looking than Sean, so I needed a push. My nonfiction profits were drying, so when I interviewed Sean about his “crazy experiments in fiction writing,” it was simple enough to start dabbling myself.

I’m a compulsive type when it comes to interests and dreams, and Sean and Dave’s quickly growing fiction success had rekindled that old spark inside me — the spark of writing fiction for a living that I’d thought was dead and buried forever. Passion fueled me and made me forget about money — a good thing, because for nearly a year there was barely more than a dime at a time. And so while my wife, Robin, watched in horror, I diverted to full-time fiction writing in mere months, leaving our bank dry enough to cry.

I’ll fast-forward at this point, because you’ve already heard this story if you read Write. Publish. Repeat. or listen to our podcast. Here’s the quick version: I wrote the six-book Fat Vampire saga, which gave my fiction career the jumpstart it needed. Sean and I wrote a ton of books in several genres at our new imprint, Realm & Sands, while Sean and Dave continued to turn the crank on horrors and nightmares at Collective Inkwell. Little by little, life — and our bank accounts — improved. We were full-time fiction authors, living our dreams.

But behind all that fiction was the Self-Publishing Podcast we’d started together — a podcast with an audience of writers, which helped to advance our author platforms and promote our novels and serials. It was, in other words, a nonfiction audience that was accidentally instrumental in bringing us together, making us stronger, and helping to craft our careers as they exist today. SPP was a conduit through which we reached hybrid fans — people who wanted to know how we operated our publishing businesses (now one big business under Sterling & Stone) as authorpreneurs, but who also read and loved our flights of fancy.

We’d always wanted to be fiction authors … but our fiction business had, as its backbone and catalyst, a huge nonfiction entity. We were where we were because of the Self-Publishing Podcast, the brain trust it had fostered, the friendships it had forged, and the audience it had built. I’ve said many times on the show, “If it weren’t for SPP, I wouldn’t be an author today.” And it’s true.

Yes, we wanted to be fiction authors. But we found that we also love the nonfiction aspects of what we do. Recording the podcasts (we have another called Better Off Undead, but you should avoid that one at all costs) are the highlights of our week. We love interacting with our listeners. We love it when writers e-mail us — and this happens many times each week — to tell us that SPP got them moving, gave them confidence, allowed them to finally write and publish the thing they’d been working on for years. A friend of mine once said, “If you don’t get regular thanks in your job, I don’t think you should do that job anymore.” And I agree, with all my heart.

So there we were: fiction writers with a nonfiction core. Storytellers with students. Spinners of yarn who, no matter how we sliced it, had an obligation (a delightful obligation) to speak, in real-world terms, about what it was we did all day and how we’d built and sustained full-time careers as authors.

Productivity Vs. Process

Write. Publish. Repeat. was written primarily by Sean and me, with Dave contributing here and there. When Sean and I write together, we’re like a wonder-filled factory. We plow through words in mountainous piles, in part because we don’t believe in writer’s block. Each project has a deadline, and we seldom miss one. This is a business, dammit, even though it’s a business founded (and filled with) magic. In business, you’re not allowed to miss deadlines or go over budget.

The budget for Write. Publish. Repeat. was originally fifty thousand words. We quickly realized it would require sixty thousand, and reluctantly extended the deadline accordingly. But as I wrote, I kept sheepishly reporting to Sean: “It’s going to take 75K.” “Man, I think this may top 100K.” “Sorry, dude, but it looks more like 120K.”

Even after spilling almost two and a half times our original budget into the book, we had to axe an entire productivity section from the outline. We simply didn’t have time to write another huge swatch of words on this already over-budget project, and knew we’d imposed on our readers’ time enough already. It was time to call it quits. We mentioned the missing section at the end and promised to hit it later, in a follow-up book. It seemed that another bit of nonfiction had landed on our “eventual” plate.

The book dropped, and e-mails flooded. Many shared a central question: “When can we read the ‘productivity’ book you mentioned at the end?” Or really, once we read between the lines: “I understand what’s in Write. Publish. Repeat. But still … how the hell do you actually do it?”

People had loved all the nuts and bolts delivered in WPR, but the recurring inquiries were all about how, even after they knew what.

If all we did was tell people how to be more productive — how to budget time, how to eliminate distractions, how to get more words written in a given period of time — we wouldn’t be answering their real question.

How do I write more good books, faster and with less difficulty?

That wasn’t a productivity question. That was a process question.

I used to be a king of productivity. I could sit down and crank out two thousand words per hour, no problem. But what I found over and over and over again — as I tried to write a novel between 1999’s The Bialy Pimps and 2011’s Fat Vampire — was that all of my stories went nowhere. I’d create these wonderful scenes, then have no idea where to take them. I didn’t know what came next or what should have come before, to prep and foreshadow a reader. I had no idea how to budget my effort, how much to do with each stage of my draft, how to track loose ends and embed reader-delighting callbacks later into the manuscript. I didn’t know how to “listen to what the story was trying to tell me” and follow threads on faith. I didn’t understand how much to plan in advance (I thought outlining was anathema to creativity and had no clue about the “anti-outlining” preproduction process Sean and I use today) or how to follow any preplanned structure while still allowing for deviations … or how much to deviate if so.

Other than what I could glean from books (which were sterile by nature; no writer wants to show you his or her true guts), I didn’t know how successful writers moved from book’s start to book’s end. I didn’t get what they changed during edits, how they polished and salted mentions of important events throughout their works, how they knew when it was ready for publication, how much feedback to get, or any of the stuff that actually mattered.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable of doing any of that work. It was that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know that most of my struggles were typical. Did a confused character mean my failure as a writer, or was it a natural part of the process? Did writers routinely make messes before crafting beautiful stories, or was their work clean in scope (albeit rough in execution) the first time through?

If, in the early 2000s, someone had given me productivity tips, they wouldn’t have helped me at all. I was plenty productive. I needed to understand process, and know that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. I needed to know that if I was smart and persistent, those knots could work themselves out.

So we shifted our thinking. People thought they wanted productivity tips, but what they really wanted was to understand our process — the process that allows us to pump out twenty-five thousand words or more of publishable content, per week.

But Screw That

No matter how we split hairs over productivity versus process, we still weren’t nonfiction guys and didn’t want to write a follow-up to Write. Publish. Repeat. anytime soon. WPR had been great, but it was time to count our dead (or delayed, I suppose) and move on.

Sean and I are both incurably ADD in nature, unable to choose between A and B and always tending to select the unspoken third option: both. Our problem is that we think everything is awesome. Our story meetings are like tossing tennis balls to puppies. We’re always bouncing around, saying how amazing everything is. And our focus is fiction.

We had no room for a “process” book, or any interest in shoving one in. That notion seeped heavily into the seed of an idea that bloomed into Fiction Unboxed: that writing fiction should always be fun. We worked our faces off at the end of 2013, but I’ve never laughed more or harder. And it’s not because we write such cheery material. Some of our books have plenty of laughs, but many are dead serious, disturbing, violent, or uncomfortable. There are moments that make readers cry, and always moments that make readers think. But regardless of a story’s content, writing them can be fun. And at least for Sean and me, they always are.

As e-mails asking for productivity and process continued to pour in, we thought a lot about fun. How can we produce so much? Because we love what we’re doing as much as we do, we’re willing to put in the hours. Time feels weightless. The more story meetings we have, the more excited we get about each of our stories. When I hit a scintillating scene, our cell phones erupt in a flurry of excited texts. Our energy stays high, and we want to work. It’s not always that way for us, but we began to ponder why. What makes for a slow, sluggish writing day? Usually for us, it meant being out of flow, such as when we returned from a week away from the page.

Little by little, we began building mental file folders dedicated to explaining why our process works as well as it does. As 2013 wound down and Sean and I completed “product funnels” for each of our stories (which usually meant finishing a series or the first “season” of a serial), we began to outline our process book without even meaning to.

Sean writes rough “story beats” for a new project. We have a meeting to discuss those beats, and the meeting is fun. I get excited. That makes the writing fun. The harder we work, the more fun we have. The only hard times are when our flow breaks … and the more we write, the better our flow becomes. 

Our thoughts on process weren’t remotely coherent as we finished all that fiction, but the seed had been planted. We don’t believe in formulas, but there was a formula to what we did nonetheless, and I think both our minds had begun to scratch at that bottomless itch.

What was the secret?

Why didn’t we ever get writer’s block?

Why did we see the concept of writer’s block as so incredibly absurd?

People always ask writers where they get their ideas, so why did it feel like we had more ideas than we’d ever manage to tap? We’d taken something Dave mentioned in jest as a “stupid idea” and turned it into what readers tell us is an unforgettable story. Over and over, we’d stumbled across random thoughts, then turned them into plot points within our in-progress stories as if they’d been born there. What was it about our process — our formula that wasn’t a formula — that made it so simple to turn almost any idea into gold?

We knew that there were no formulas, per se — that anyone who wants to do something well needs to find her own way, and that talk of “formula” is merely a manipulative technique used to trick suckers with dreams of quick fixes into spending dollars on bullshit.

So you can imagine how unhappy I was when Sean sent me an entirely inappropriate text … even if that inappropriate text planted the seeds for the Fiction Unboxed project.

A Pair of Assholes

It’s November of 2013, late for me, maybe ten at night, when I get a text from Sean that goes something like this:

Dude. Hear me out. But what do you think of The Fiction Formula as a name for our book?

I stared at my iPhone. The book in question was the one that became Write. Publish. Repeat. (a much better name suggested by a podcast listener named Shannon Morgan), and Sean was sending me this text just weeks before publication. The book already had a name. And a cover, with said name on it. We’d referred to it over and over again on our website, in e-mails, and on the podcast itself.

But what was worse, I thought as I stared at my screen with a scalp on fire, was that we didn’t believe in formulas. We’d said it repeatedly on our podcasts, in blog posts, and to anyone who would listen: “There is no formula. If anyone tells you there’s a formula, they’re about to ask you for $97.” That’s a recurring joke on our show, because all infomercial products (99 percent of which Dave feels are evil) seem to have prices that end in sevens. Unlike Dave, Sean and I have paid $97 for info products without being scammed or duped, and feel they were of excellent value, but we both felt the universe nudging us away from instruction and toward fiction. We’d grudgingly sell nonfiction if people wanted it, and we could deliver great value, but there was no damned way I would ever allow myself to be associated with a “formula.”

I texted back:

Are you kidding? Tell me you’re kidding.

I didn’t wait for Sean’s response. I wrote one or two more long-winded texts detailing our firm stance against formulas, our oft-stated opinions that those who sold formulas were consummate bullshitters, and my general shock that he’d even consider pitching me such a stupid idea.

Then I waited for a response that never came.

This went on for a good thirty seconds before I decided that Sean was 1) drunk, 2) being unduly influenced by the asshole I knew he was having dinner with, and 3) transforming into an asshole himself. I kept waiting for a response, then finally decided that 4) Sean was pissed at me for my ranting and that we were in trouble.

As it turned out, Sean’s phone was glitchy that night, and he didn’t call me until the next day because he hadn’t seen my texts. By then I’d calmed down, but still wondered what the hell was wrong with him. I knew the asshole he was having dinner with and rather like him despite his admitted assholishness, but this formula crap was too much.

Sean heard me out, then gave his reply. What’s so annoying about Sean is that I usually agree with him even when I don’t want to. There were some seriously excellent points that had been made during this dinner between two assholes, and I had to admit it. Sean is a business genius, and the other asshole happened to be a #1 New York Times best-selling author and a general Gandalf of marketing who’s sold more than five million books. Neither has a scammy personality, and Sean, at least, knew the Self-Publishing Podcast and Sterling & Stone brands. He knew how I’d react, but had thought it worthy of mentioning anyway.

“We’ll have to position it just right, and have a section at the front that explains, despite the title, that there is no formula,” he said. “The book itself won’t change — just the title and that introduction. It’s a headline, nothing more.”

“We’ll look like scammers,” I said. “We’ll look like hypocrites to our audience, promising a formula — if only in the title.”

Sean enumerated the points: There’d never been a book quite like Write. Publish. Repeat that explains how fiction writers in particular can build a sensible marketing plan around a body of work. There were plenty of books like that for nonfiction writers — books that explained the use of nonfiction work as lead generators, designed to pull readers into other books or paid services — but not for novelists. We’d created a way of commoditizing fiction that no one else had, and yet our title did nothing to attract the readers who’d be most interested in it. There was no formula … but given that nobody really talked about fiction marketing and fiction product funnels quite like we had, the truth said it was closer to a formula than anything before it. Besides, Sean argued, there’s nothing sleazy about hooking people with the idea of a formula. What’s sleazy is promising an instant and infallible money machine, and WPR, under any title, promised the opposite. The first 20 percent is all about how difficult it is to build a career as a fiction writer, and encourages readers to quit yesterday if they’re expecting instant riches.

We seriously considered the idea for one long day, but ultimately decided it was too far off-brand and would alienate more people in our audience than it would please. And that’s one of our core tenants: Pleasing our current fans and readers will always be more important to us than attracting new ones. If we called our first how-to book The Fiction Formula, it could very well cripple the Self-Publishing Podcast community. It might net us more book sales, yes. But it would also mar our reputations, and we rather liked them as they were.

But like a persistent housefly, the idea wouldn’t leave us alone. As Write. Publish. Repeat. rolled toward publication under its original name, we talked about writing a Fiction Formula manifesto, almost tongue in cheek, and putting it up for sale cheap (or ideally free) as a lead generator to steer people toward WPR. We talked about titling our second nonfiction book The Fiction Formula, but handling all the preliminary discussion by making it clear that the idea of a formula was a joke. We even thought about adding a parenthetical to the title in order to keep our noses clean: The Fiction Formula (There Is No Formula).

None of those ideas bore fruit, but in early 2014 we began to think a bit outside the book. Maybe we didn’t need to write a follow-up to WPR — at least, not yet. Maybe we could do something else. Something visual. Something experiential. Something huge, and raw, and real, and brave.

We harkened back to 2013’s flood of requests for a process book detailing what we do to produce a novel from scratch, and the two ideas ran to hug each other like chocolate greeting peanut butter. It hit us hard: what those people had been asking for was a formula — a fiction formula — just like Asshole #1 had said.

“I know we can’t write out some kind of formula,” Sean said, rubbing his chin. “But what if we show it instead?”

I’ve known Sean long enough now that I can usually pre-guess what he’s going to say. The trick isn’t to understand his intentions and realize that although what he’s saying sounds crazy, it actually isn’t. The trick is to understand that it’s thoroughly batshit, and that Sean simply doesn’t care.

“You want to write a novel in front of a live audience because of that whole fiction formula thing, don’t you?” I said.

Sean grinned.

If you liked this excerpt from Fiction Unboxed, you’ll LOVE the book. It comes with all sorts of goodies (like 350,000 words worth of transcripts that detail the entire month long project!). Click here to get it. 

About Sean Platt

Sean Platt is an author entrepreneur, founder of Sterling & Stone, and co-founder of the Collective Inkwell and Realm & Sands imprints. Follow him on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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