The Myth of Starting Small — Part 1



“Build your publishing credits! Start with short stories while you finish your novel!”

This advice is all over the Web. But is it good advice? On the face of it, it seems like a good way to go. Crafting a solid short story means developing strong characters who are motivated by something, which drives them to take action (or not), which changes their lives. These are the essential elements of any good fiction.

So you work on your short story, revising and polishing it until it gleams brighter than any dream of a bestseller, and you send it off to get it published.

One of three things happens:


  • It’s rejected. This is the most common result of a first attempt.


  • It’s accepted by a major publication — like the New Yorker magazine, the epitome of short story publishing for many writers. This is the least likely thing to happen on your first attempt.


  • It’s accepted by a little-known, small-circulation print or online magazine. This is a possibility, if you’ve done all the right things in selecting a potential market for your story.


Because the odds are you’ll make your first publishing mark in the smaller magazines or e-zines, let’s say you’ve persisted and gotten three or four stories published in some tiny publications with small readerships.

Now let’s say you’ve managed to somehow get your novel written and you’re ready to submit it to an agent for representation (or the rare publishing company that still reads un-agented manuscripts). They get your packet of materials, including the results of your hard work in publishing those short stories.

Will those credentials make a difference in whether they decide to represent or publish you?

Nope. Believe me, I know.

As a former fiction editor for an international literary magazine, I didn’t even read cover letters until I’d read the short story. I didn’t want to be lured by some fabulous credentials into taking a sub-par story and ended up rejecting crappy stories by writers all of us have heard of. If a famous name can’t sway an editor, little-known publication credits won’t help at all.

Some writers are exclusively novelists. Others are exclusively short story writers. A short story is not just a novel with fewer pages — it’s a different fictional form entirely. Learning to write a great short story doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll write an awesome novel. Or that you’ll be able to publish either one. Editors and agents know this.

So if you want to be a novelist, write novels. If you want to write short stories, write those. If you want to do both, do both. But don’t assume what you learn writing one form will transfer easily into writing the other.

You don’t have a lot of time in this world. Write what you want to write, not what someone else (mistakenly) thinks will get you farther down your path to publication.

Got it?

[Next time… more on the Myth of Starting Small… Another bit of bad advice you shouldn’t follow, despite how popular it is.]

Writers Roundup

Time for another look around the Web and roundup some helpful blog posts, articles, and other resources to help you in your pursuit of writing near-perfection (because nothing is perfect, right?).


Jump start your next project with some help from novelist Norma Jean Lutz — she’s offering her “Don’t Dilly Dally” how-to PDF for free. Download and get started here. (I’m sorry, Norma Jean, but I just can’t call a document a workshop… it’s the professional trainer in me….)

Bestselling author Ann Packer has five simple tips for writing. Okay, not always simple to implement… but give them a look, then give them a try.



We hear a lot about self-publishing, indie publishing, and traditional publishing…. but what should we make of “hybrid” publishing? For a great summary of this business model (including four sub-categories), see Brooke Warner’s Huff Post Books article, “Hybrid Publishing: Getting a Handle on the New Middle Ground.”



I confess I’d never heard of Oyster before it showed up in my sales report from Lulu. So, of course, I Googled it. It’s an online e-book lending service. I have no idea how my book landed in Oyster, but I’m keeping my eye on it. And along the way, I came across a Publishers Weekly article by Calvin Reid titled, “Oyster Adds eBook Retail.” Hmmm… So if your book is available on Amazon, B&N, iTunes, and Kobo, but you’re looking for yet another distribution channel, you might check it out.



Member of LibraryThing? No? Might be worth it. I realized I joined when I read this article, then discovered I’d registered quite awhile ago. So I can’t vouch for the advice from Savvy Book Writers in their “How LibraryThing Can Help You to More Reviews,” except to say that it sounds a lot like what you can do via Goodreads. Even so, it’s probably worth checking out.



I’ve been writing author bios for years now, but they still make me scratch my head, wondering if I couldn’t be doing this little job better than the last time I updated my tiny but very important biography. Chris Robley gives us some help at BookBaby in this post from last month, “How to write a great author bio that will connect with readers.”

People who have known me a long time will wonder how this could possibly be true, but I’ve recently discovered I love crunching numbers. Maybe this newfound passion blossomed during my stint as a project manager for a Web company when I discovered what numbers could tell us: calculating a return-on-investment, risk analysis for potential impacts on the bottom line of not finishing X in favor of completing Y. So maybe it’s just that I’m not familiar with all the references in Chris McMullen’s article on advertising with Amazon (impressions? bids?) which is why he lost me somewhere, but for those of you who have been trying to figure out a magical formula for making money with Amazon ads, take a look at Chris’ calculations, formulas, and explanations in his “Advertising on Amazon with AMS via KDP — Is It Worth It?” Perhaps it will provide the key you’re missing.

Do you know “The Top 10 Things Authors Should Know About Amazon”? If not, Brooke Warner at She Writes spells them out for you. (Yep, two resources from Brooke this time — I don’t repeat sources in the same posting very often, but couldn’t resist including this one. Thanks, Brooke, for such valuable info!)

The Choice Is Yours… Here’s Mine

Writers I’ve known since way back in my traditional publishing days… even before then, actually… (and that’s a long time)… are picking up on the self-publishing, do-it-yourself (DIY) options for getting our books out there. We’re all believers in traditional publishing, but we’re also finding we have a desire to take some control over the process. In some ways, opting to do it ourselves is another way to be creative: we get to think about cover and interior design, for example.

So a few voices from my past have reached out with some questions: “What do you use to publish your books? What other choices are there? Which one should I use?”

Google any of these questions and you’ll get a slew of hits. Let me see if I can help narrow the field a bit. I’ll let you know why I use Lulu, what it is and isn’t, and give you a few resources so you can see some comparisons of the major options.

First of all, you need to know what the options are. Jane Friedman identifies four publishing paths; Gordon Williams narrows them to three based on who owns the imprint and who covers costs.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll describe Lulu as a printing house. You can purchase a package and get linked up with someone who can edit your book or design your cover, for example, but I didn’t do any of that. Instead, after I wrote my books (I’ve now published three using Lulu), I formatted them for print, created covers, and uploaded the files. Voila! Published books. Free. Repeat: I spent not a penny.

Let me clarify a few things.

You might look at my books and decide I should have invested in an editor and a cover designer, but I’m happy with my endeavors. As for the rest of the debate about whether to hire someone — well, I’ll leave that for another time. For now, just know that I did all the work (even used my own photos). Yes, it took a lot of time. I did almost twenty draft covers for “Pea Body” before I landed on one that seemed right.

A lot of companies will let you format your books for free, so Lulu isn’t unique for that.

What I do appreciate about Lulu is that they handle the middleman stuff, which takes a lot of chores out of my hands, leaving me more time to write (and blog, aren’t you the lucky one?).

Here’s what Lulu does for me:

Lulu delivers my e-book versions to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iTunes. I just click an option that says, basically, “Yes, make this e-book available in these outlets.”

Something else Lulu does is collect the money: I get one report from Lulu and one payment that includes every outlet. Do I give up some extra change because I pay them to be the middleman? Sure I do. Maybe it’s not worth it to you, but scrimping a dime or two here and there isn’t going to make a big impact on my bottom line, to be honest with you. It’s worth it to me to pay them to take care of the conversion and bookkeeping.

The bottom line reason why I keep coming back to Lulu (despite some bonehead decisions they’ve made in the past and caught flack from many of their customers for) is that they’ll issue me an old-fashioned check. I researched hackers awhile back (and have a copy of “Hacking Exposed” in my TBR pile) and that scared me silly about linking any personal or financial info up to the Web. Lulu has a current mailing address for me, so when my account hits the magic number, they print up a paper check, put it in a paper envelope, and snail mail it to me. I take that paper check to a building that says BANK on it, and trade it for green bills and coin.

Hopefully they will never decide to eliminate paper checks. If they do, I might have to go with CreateSpace or something like that.

So there are really three reasons why I stick with Lulu: I can publish my print and e-books for FREE, Lulu will collect and forward my payments from other outlets, and they’ll send me a paper check snail-mail to pay me for my sales.

How Lulu’s Business Model Works

As Gordon Williams pointed out in our interview a few posts ago, some companies make their money primarily from authors who are buying their own books. I’m not sure where most of Lulu’s sales come from, but this could be true for them. (And that’s okay by me, because that’s all I really want from them anyway.)

Recently some end-of-the-year reports came out that ranked the “platforms” — these are worth a close look and are an easy way to see how independent organizations believe the platforms stack up next to each other. Of course, a report’s conclusion or a high ranking shouldn’t be the only things you consider when you decide which platform works for you.

Here are the links so you can see how the companies compare:

Top 10 Reviews: Best Online Book Publishing Companies

The Independent Publishing Magazine’s Service Index for December 2014

eBook Self Publishing Secrets’ Reviews of Self-Publishing Companies: Best Platforms

What do you think? Do you agree with the rankings? Which platform(s) have you used? Which one(s) are you considering?

Publishing Company? Printer? Web Developer?

I’ve written before about how critical it is to watch your step when hiring a professional to help you edit your book or design your cover (See “Is the Professional You Hired Doing the Professional Job You Expect?” posted 12/26/14), and we all reaped the benefits of publisher Gordon Williams’ insights in his two-part interview (posted 2/2/15 and 2/5/15) on the various publishing options available to writers.

Still, there are a few things I need to get off my chest on this topic. My mental machinery nearly blew a brain gasket several months ago when I first learned about a new company, a publishing company I thought, and when I decided to look into it, I got flamed for my effort. I went into the inquiry thinking the company might be a nice match for what I need; might be a good place to refer those of you who look to the ellenbooks blog for recommendations…. but that’s not how it turned out.

The Web site wasn’t very helpful and the response to an e-mail I sent seeking clarification just sent me back to the very Web pages that didn’t answer my questions in the first place. I posted a question to fellow writers and self-publishers on a forum to find out if anyone had experience with the company or could help answer my questions. Apparently asking questions was the wrong thing to do. To make a long and sordid story short, the owner of the company ended up answering all of my questions through his online behavior. To this day I appreciate fellow forum members who came to my defense.

I learned a lot in the exchange, although most of what I discovered wasn’t about the company I originally wanted info on.

To add to Gordon’s terrific advice about sorting out the good from the not-so-good when it comes to companies who want to “publish” your book, I’ll offer these items:

  • Check their Website for credentials related to *publishing.* It might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many companies out there are actually *web development* companies, not publishers. Look for information on the staff, then check to see how many staff members have experience in editing, book production, graphic arts, and other areas related to book publishing. If the experience cited is all about marketing, promotion, or web development, then you’re dealing with a company that can help in some ways, but they are NOT a publishing company.


  • Read carefully to see what they will do for you. In the case of the company I was researching, they devoted paragraph after paragraph to describing a process that had nothing to do with editing or publishing and everything to do with popularity contests. If your book got enough “votes” (or something like that) then when you reached a certain level, the company *might* extend a contract offer to you. This has nothing to do with the quality of your work — only with how popular it is.


  • While you’re reading, ask yourself, “Does this business model work in their benefit or mine?” In the case I referred to above, the author ends up spending a lot of time getting people to vote for their book, all in hopes of getting a contract. That doesn’t benefit the writer, it benefits the company. They get to see a groundswell of support before they invest in you. Of course every company needs to make some money, and the more confident they are in their investment upfront the better. But what will they be doing *for you?* So far, you’re doing all the work and they’re not doing anything for you except provide a platform for garnering “votes” — support you could be building on platforms you already use.


  • Watch for vague language and terms. Using the same company as an example, I found lots of hemming and hawing in the way they described how their business model worked: if you got to a certain level of support for your book, they *might* offer a contract. If you decide to invest in editing or a professionally-produced book cover, they *might* reimburse you. Don’t pretend you don’t see those words. “Might” and “will” are not the same thing, you know.


  • Pay attention to who’s paying for what. Every publishing or printing company worth its salt is very clear about what they will cover for you and what they won’t. No secrets. No pretending. No slight-of-hand, no smoke-and-mirrors. Believe me, I’ve waded through real-life, reputable book publishing contracts, and they are very clear. In my case, my publisher paid for all editing, the cover, the book blurbs, even postage for sending out review copies (not to mention the cost of those review copies), for example. Nothing said they “might” pay for that stuff.


  • If something isn’t clear, ask questions. “This says you might pay for the cover art. What’s your criteria for your paying that cost? Can you give me an example of when you did cover the cost? Can you give me an example of when you didn’t with an explanation of why?” Reputable companies want you to understand the business — you’re a better client if you do — and they have nothing to hide. So if you ask questions but don’t get clear answers, WALK AWAY.

I hear a lot of writers claim they’ve been “ripped off” by some publisher or another. I always wonder what they signed — what their contract actually said. Yes, buyer beware. If you’re willing to tolerate wording like “we might pay for your cover art, if we decide to reimburse you” then don’t complain when they don’t. Instead, tell them you want a contract that says they *will* pay for it. They’ll either agree to that or they won’t, but you’ll be better off for having gotten it straight.

In business, we call this “due diligence.” Like it or not, you’re now in business. Performing due diligence isn’t an option — its your best protection against getting taken advantage of. Considering a coach to get you through the publishing catacombs? Not a bad idea — just make sure you perform due diligence on the coach!

Writers Roundup

It’s been a chilly winter in much of the US — and a blanket of thick hail on an Los Angeles area beach had people playing in the “snow.” The Ohioan in me loved that the locals called the hail “snow” — one youngster even built a snowman — “hail-man” I guess, to be technically correct. So if the weather has blossomed into stunning temperatures, luring you outdoors, that’s all well and good.

Just don’t forget to give a few minutes a day to your writing addiction. To help you along, here are a few more resources that should help you get motivated to read, write, edit or publish your book.


We’ve always known it: reading is good for us. Reading novels is even better than reading nonfiction. Now we have the science to back us up when we say that it’s also good for us. Writing for Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland — in “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function” — tells us “reading a novel has the power to reshape your brain and improve theory of mind.” Fascinating stuff.



Most of us would love to sit down with an author we admire, a successful author whose steps we’d like to follow, and soak up whatever tidbits of advice he or she cared to share. Elmore Leonard left us more than a year ago, but he left a pithy summary of his writing advice. Chris Robley revived “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing” in a post for BookBaby. If you’ve never seen it, you should read it. If you have, you should read it again.


Getting Published

Curtis Sittenfeld is ten years and four novels into his career as a novelist, and he’s made a great list of “24 Things No One Tells You About Book Publishing” for BuzzFeed. I agreed with nearly every item on his list, would have added a few more, and believe everyone thinking of publishing should read it. That includes you.


Book Covers

Sandra Poirier Smith, President of Smith Publicity, delivers an excellent checklist for your book cover in her article for the BookBaby blog, “Judging a Book by Its Cover: What Book Publicists — and Media — Want to See on the Outside of a Book.” Take the time to click through her links to the best and worst self-published covers.

The best covers link from The New York Times is worth a look, as I mentioned in the previous entry. I’m pulling it out here because even if you don’t look at the worst covers (afraid yours might be in that particular Top 10 list?!?), you MUST look at the best ones. If you do, you might just notice what I did: these covers have minimal images and are all about the typography. Simple is better.



It’s way past New Year’s now, but not too late to share this terrific post at Future of Ink on “How to Run a New Year’s Book Giveaway” by Justine Schofield. As a matter of fact, if everyone who saw this article back in late December decided to run a giveaway over the New Year holiday, the crowded field should now have thinned, making your giveaway easier for participants to find, right? (You’re welcome. It was my pleasure to procrastinate promoting this post.)

Joel Friedlander’s “7 Email Marketing Secrets Every Fiction Writer Should Know” at The Book Designer appeared last November. Good suggestions, but they do make me think of some things I’ve done in the past with e-mail lists that are free and worked really well that he doesn’t touch on here. Hmmm… sounds like I should write a post about this…. Anyway, Joel’s a pro and will get you started.

Book Club Reviews — A Dilemma

You’d think being asked by a book club leader if your book can be read and reviewed by its members would be a slam-dunk, “Yessirree, I’m all for that” easy answer. Turns out it wasn’t so simple, at least in my case.

Of course, I have the habit of making things more difficult that they have to be, of turning something simple inside out and upside down until I’m not sure what it is anymore. This could have been one of those things.

Let me tell you what happened, and you can let me know if you think I’ve really done something idiotic.

I received an e-mail from a woman who said she managed a book club that did reviews and had selected “Pea Body” among the 20 books her club would read and review over a three-month period. All I had to do was lower the cost of my e-book on Amazon to 99 cents for those three months.

She went on to say that while she reads the entire book, “it is suggested that authors read at least 10% of the book to write an honest, genuine review.” Authors?

I re-read her note more closely. Though it’s not clearly stated, what she’s actually doing is organizing a massive review swap. I’d be among twenty authors in the particular time period who’d also be responsible for reading 19 books (or at least 10% of the book) and posting “…about two reviews per week.”

The businesswoman in me went into high gear. I’m being asked to:

1. Lower my e-book price to about 1/3 of its normal price — affecting all of my sales, not just the 20 author-reviewers who’d be purchasing it.

2. Spend close to $19 for the 19 other books on the review list. I didn’t even know what the books were — what if they were the types of books I never read because they don’t interest me?

3. Give up untold hours reading and writing these reviews, maybe on books I didn’t like at all but felt obliged to find something nice to say about (after all, that’s what I’d be hoping they’re doing for me, right?).

4. Risk reviews from readers who might not understand the genre I’m writing in and bash the book because it doesn’t fit some inappropriate standard.

Before you jump on me for this last one, let me point out that #3 and #4 are closely related. Let me give you an example. I don’t read young adult fiction. I don’t read vampire, horror, paranormal, or romance. I don’t read science fiction. And I don’t read any combination of those. Yet many self-published titles I’m seeing these days fall into those categories.

I wouldn’t be a good reviewer for any of those authors or books. I wouldn’t. I don’t know the conventions of the genres, so it would be as if the reading/review club had flown me to southeast Asia or someplace, dropped me into a teaming city, and told me to have a good time and let them know what I thought. Ikes! Don’t speak the language, don’t know my way around… It’s not likely I’m going to have a positive experience, is it?

When I offer to review books for others, I’m careful to offer those reviews for books in categories I’m comfortable and familiar with. It’s only fair to the writers.

So I turned the offer down. I was grateful the group’s manager had spent some time explaining how the arrangement worked but told her I’d rather have a few reviews from readers who like the type of book I write than readers who are participating mostly to get reviews of their own novels.

Yes, I turned down a possible 20 sales, but at a dollar each, I’ve already made up for those lost sales. And I’m not wading through a lot of books I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to read. Now that I think of it, however, I might just send her a note to see if she’d mind sharing the titles and authors of the books anyway…. Isn’t she missing out on giving those writers a bit of free advertising by only sending that information to the select group of twenty?

Anyway, what do you think? What would you have done? Have you heard from groups like this one? Have you participated? What did you gain from the experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this review-swap model!

Men of Honor

Most of us who write novels watch a lot of movies. Movies, unlike novels, are stories told with pictures rather than words. If you don’t believe me, ask Clint Eastwood. Even early in his career he went through his scripts and eliminate line after line of dialogue. Acting is gesture and expression — so much more than memorizing lines and reciting them. As for other aspects of the story, like setting, a movie just needs a well-chosen shot to give us the location, the season, whether it’s day or night, and even set the mood for us. Movies are a visual medium.

Even so, we writers who work with words can learn a lot from movies, especially when it comes to character and story. Commercial movies are a great way to watch the three-acts unfold: sometimes you can set your watch by them. In many 90-minute movies, the set-up takes about the first ten minutes. At about the 20-minute mark, the triggering incident occurs, with the main character making a choice or getting pushed into making one. The next 40-50 minutes are the bulk of the plot, with the main character trying to achieve his or her goal only to be thwarted. In the last ten minutes or so the plot is tied up, the hero wins or loses. You can almost set your watch by it.

Even when there’s a pattern, I’m a sucker for a happy ending. Intellectually I appreciate the value of a realistic ending, a conclusion where things don’t always end up hunk-dory (its the literary-trained writer in me), but I still like it when the hero survives to triumph another day, the bad guys are punished, and the underdog wins.

“Men of Honor” is an older movie featuring Rober DeNiro and Cuba Gooding, Jr. It’s based on Carl Brashear’s real-life pursuit to become not only a Navy Master Diver (a feat in itself) but to overcome the racism and defeatism that surrounded him when he started out in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s an amazing story, made all the more wonderful by the actors’ powerful performances.


It was a great escape on a rainy night, but it also reminded me of something that will (hopefully) help my characters as I write: everyone has something at stake, a goal that’s put in jeopardy, or something treasured they could lose. Not just the hero. Every secondary character too.

I won’t give away the part of the movie where this struck me with such clarity, but I will say that when Carl is facing tough times, his wife gives him an ultimatum. She isn’t doing it, we realize, to be mean or selfish. She has her own life to live, and it isn’t going in the direction she expected. We know she has his interests at heart, but she reminds him — and us — her own goals are important too.

And so it is with our characters — all of them, not just the main characters. Ask “What does this character want more than anything?” — not just of the protagonist and the antagonist, but of any characters who have significant interaction with the main characters. If you do this, you’ll discover new tensions that present themselves.

Here’s an example. Let’s say the main character (MC) in your YA novel is struggling to get through high school and into college despite boyfriend and peer problems (the conflicts and barriers you’ve already set up for her). She has many interactions with her mother in the novel, but those scenes are missing something, so you ask, “What does the mother really want?” and decide the mother really wants her daughter to stay home, get a job in town, help out around the house.

Yes, that definitely adds another source of tension, but there has to be some reason for the mother to want this, or she’ll just seem petty. What if the mother has just found out she has cancer, but doesn’t want to burden her daughter with that news — instead, she subconsciously sabotages her daughter’s efforts to get into college?

Wow. Now that’s a plot. And those are very believable, and sympathetic, reasons for the mother to want to keep her daughter nearby.

So… If you’re stuck, pull out a sheet of paper and start asking: What does this character want? What does that character want? How do those goals conflict? Do they offer points of convergence instead? Where can these goals take your plot from here?

Well, don’t just sit there. Write!