The transcription of this podcast is brought to you by the Christian Indie Publishing Association.
When I was growing up, my dad often said, “Success is a poor teacher, but failure is a cruel teacher.”
It’s far less painful to learn from someone else’s failures than to live through those cruel lessons yourself.
It can be hard to find authors who are willing to talk honestly about their failures in the publishing world. But I recently interviewed an outlier.
Daeus Lamb has made mistakes in his writing and publishing journey, and he’s willing to share those experiences so other authors can learn from them. He’s an epic fantasy novelist and the Director of Outreach and Community at StoryEmbers.org, a site dedicated to helping Christian storytellers enthrall readers through exceptional storytelling that honestly depicts God’s reality.
Mistake #1: Hiring a professional editor too late.
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: What was the first lesson you learned the hard way on your publishing journey?
Daeus Lamb: For years, I wrote without seeking any education or help from professional writers, editors, or coaches. My beta readers gave fantastic feedback, but I never paid for a coach or an editor.
When I finally launched my first lead magnet and hired an editor, I was blown away by how much I needed to grow and how much I grew through the process of working with the editor.
It was like taking a college course in writing. We worked through pages of red lines and completely rewrote the lead magnet. Since then, my writing has never been the same. It was a turning point in my writing career.
I came away thinking, “Why didn’t I spend $200 to hire an editor for a short story three years ago?” I know I wouldn’t have been able to publish it. I wasn’t that good then. But I would have grown so much. In one month of working with a professional editor, I learned more than I did in six months of pounding away on my own.
Thomas: The Boy Scouts say, “One week of canoe training is better than a lifetime of paddling around the lake.” You can use the same bad techniques your whole life without realizing they’re bad techniques.
There’s a big difference between practice and deliberate practice. People talk about the 10,000-hour rule, which comes from the famous book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (Affiliate Link). The author points out that in the time between a person’s breakout success and their starting point, they performed about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
Some authors take that to mean they just need to write for 10,000 hours, and then they’ll be a success. But if those hours aren’t filled with deliberate practice, you won’t improve much.
If you have a coach giving you feedback, you can improve your skill with every hour of practice. Your “coaching” can simply come from reading a book on craft or reading your writing aloud. That refining practice can be painful, but if you’re not challenging yourself to get better, you’re not practicing deliberately.
When we had Jerry Jenkins on the show, he told us he wrote an entire novel without using attribution tags in the dialogue. He didn’t publish it, but it was an act of deliberate practice to help himself become a better writer. That’s the kind of challenge that transforms regular practice into deliberate practice.
Even after Jenkins has sold millions of books, he’s still working to improve his craft.
Daeus: My lead magnet was only a novella; and by the time we were through editing, I was used to hearing the same corrections, and I learned the lessons. I wrote them down. I memorized them. I didn’t need to spend $2,000 to learn those lessons from my edited novel. I learned them through working with my editor on a much shorter novella.
Mistake #2: Starting with an epic novel, rather than a short story.
Thomas: If you’re not writing short stories, you are making your writing life a lot harder. Learn how to write short stories, and then write the longer works.
Daeus: I didn’t write enough short stories. I wrote two full novels from the omniscient point of view, which is the old style of many classics. I wrote that way because I had read so many classics. It wasn’t until my third novel that I figured out I wasn’t very good at it.
If I had written more short stories, I’m sure I would’ve figured that out earlier. You can’t just write ten short stories. You have to try different things in those short stories to push yourself and find out what you’re good at.
It’s also easier to get feedback on short stories. If I ask a beta reader to give feedback on a huge novel, I’m asking for a huge commitment. People are much more likely to agree to read and give feedback on a short story.
Thomas: I encourage every novelist to write one short story in each of the three major points of view just to try it out and learn what each feels like. You probably naturally default to one of the three main points of view: omniscient, first-person, or third-person. If you force yourself out of your comfort zone, your writing will dramatically improve.
You don’t have to publish them or sell them to an anthology. The stories are simply an exercise in improving your craft. And who knows? You may discover you like writing in first-person.
Daeus: I encourage writers to try different genres too. I was inspired to use the omniscient point of view because I like the classics. But now I’m an epic fantasy novelist, and I love it.
Mistake #3: Believing that fast writing is poor writing.
Daeus: I have wasted thousands of hours believing that if I write fast, surely I must be writing poorly.
Thomas: That misconception has an evil twin who says, “If you’re writing slowly, you must be writing well.”
Daeus: I used to write less than 500 words per hour. I was a slow, slow writer. The surprising catalyst for helping me write faster was that I got a full-time job. I had been working part-time; and when I started working full-time, I thought my writing time would be gone.
But I still had a little time each evening, and I had to figure out how to write these massive epic fantasy novels in less time. The only solution was to write faster.
I bought Chris Fox’s book How to Write 5,000 Words Per Hour (Affiliate Link), and I was skeptical. I’m sorry to say, I don’t write 5,000 words per hour; but my writing speed did triple in three days.
Thomas: That is such a common story. I’m starting to believe there are two kinds of writers: those who’ve tried Chris Fox’s courses and methods and those who tell themselves it’s impossible, so they won’t even read the book.
I’ve interviewed Chris Fox multiple times, and he believes that getting into the zone helps you write faster and better. Learning how to get into that zone makes you better and faster. If you’re not in the zone or only taste the zone occasionally, spend some time learning how to get into the zone more consistently. It can dramatically transform your writing.
Daeus: I was writing slowly because there was so much fluff and junk in my head. To write faster, I got rid of unnecessary thoughts.
Mistake #4: Having too much time to write.
Daeus: I started writing when I was 17 years old. I was living at home for free without many bills. I figured that if I wanted to be a full-time writer, I’d need plenty of writing experience to achieve excellence and build a platform.
Unfortunately, as you now know, I was writing slowly and wasting time; but it didn’t feel like it at the time. It felt like the right thing to do.
I worked a part-time job, and the hours weren’t predictable. I was paying for some expenses and building some savings, but it wasn’t much.
If I could relive those years, I would get a part-time job where I worked about 20 hours a week; and I’d try to earn at least $10,000 per year. I would spend that money on editors, writing coaches, and courses so that I could get professional feedback right away.
The time limit that comes with having a job launched me into learning to write faster. If I had had less time to write, I think I might have done even more writing.
Thomas: The same principle applies to authors at the end of their careers.
Some people think that if they retire, they’ll have more time to write and they’ll write more books; but it rarely happens that way. I see people retiring to work on their craft; but it often doesn’t improve their output because when it comes down to it, the lack of time wasn’t holding them back. It was a lack of priority.
We all have the same amount of time. I learned a long time ago that when somebody says, “I don’t have time for that,” they mean it’s not a high priority. They’re saying that other things are a higher priority.
Mistake #5: Publishing my first book first.
Daeus: I recently launched my first big novel, and I learned some hard lessons.
My first big novel, which I spent three years writing, shouldn’t have been my first launch experience. I had trouble getting reviews. I didn’t build up enough before the launch. It was rushed. There are things I would’ve done differently, and I will do better next time.
Instead of launching this massive novel, I wish I had launched a novella that only took me three months to write. I could have learned those lessons in a shorter time, and I would have invested less time on the front end. Then I could have applied those lessons to the novel I care about so much more.
Thomas: The ninth commandment of book marketing is, “Thou shalt not publish thy first book first.”
It’s the most common mistake authors make. They have a story in their heart, so they write that story; and then they want to publish it. They don’t realize that the purpose of your first book is to teach you how to write a book. It won’t be a masterpiece you can sell. Often, especially in epic fantasy, the first book is too long.
If you’re indie publishing, the economics for paperbacks work well for books between 200 and 250 pages long. Books with more than 250 pages don’t make sense financially.
Long books are way too expensive because everyone is trying not to lose money on them. Readers don’t want to read them because they’re expensive, so it’s hard to get reviews.
Authors argue that epic fantasy readers like long books, and they do. They’ll buy the ebook and listen to the audiobook, but the pricing just doesn’t work for paperbacks.
If you’re planning to indie publish, I recommend releasing your story in smaller chunks. For instance, break your story into three 250-page books and publish a series.
Brandon Sanderson can write a 700-page book, and Robert Jordan can write a 900-page book; and a lot of people will buy them. But the economics only work because they’re printing hundreds of thousands of copies. They’re able to print them cheap enough that readers can still afford them.
Indie authors can’t. You can’t print 100,000 copies. No one talks about this, and it’s a real challenge for fantasy publishers who use print-on-demand technology.
Print-on-demand printers charge by the page, so a 400-page book is twice as expensive to print as a 200-page book. But readers are not willing to pay twice as much. They don’t want to pay $30.00 for a book. They want to pay $15.00, but it costs you $10.00 to print it. If Amazon takes 70%, everyone’s losing money.
And now, printing prices are going through the roof. How much does it cost to print your book?
Daeus: I think it’s $8.00
Thomas: When you order your author copies, you pay $8.00 plus shipping, which means if you want to go to a conference and sell books, your cost per book is around $10.00. For comparison, that hardback Harry Potter book that they printed a million copies of may have only cost them $1.00 to print.
It cost them $1 million to print one million copies of the book. Even if it cost them $2 million for a million copies, they still have a large profit margin.
Your $10.00 book is way more expensive. If you were able to break it up into shorter books of around 200 pages, you’d be closer to $4.00 for the cost of the book, which is much easier to work with.
Daeus: I did publish and launch the first book I ever wrote, and I’m ashamed to say it. Thankfully, it’s pretty much removed from the Internet now. If you search for it, I don’t think you’ll find it.
My parents told me the book wasn’t ready to be published, but I guess I’m too optimistic.
Thomas: There’s a saying that goes, “That’s a face only a mother could love.” When it comes to publishing your book “baby,” it’s true.
Mothers generally don’t usually think their own babies are ugly, but the truth is that some babies aren’t very cute. It’s hard to hear that your “book” baby is ugly.
No author wants to hear that their book isn’t ready or isn’t good enough, but they’re usually blind to the flaws because beauty is in the eye of the beholder and love covers a multitude of defects. You love your story, and you can’t see the defects.
Sometimes the people you love won’t give you that honest feedback. When you’re trying to get feedback, don’t listen to what people say. Look at what they do. When people ask, “How can I buy this for a friend?” then you know it’s a good book.
Mistake #6: Believing everyone will leave reviews in a timely fashion.
Daeus: After I launched my most recent book, I struggled to get reviews. I had a decent number of people sign up to read and leave a review.
I’d read that about one-third of those who sign up will actually leave a review. That ended up being exactly right. I didn’t realize that people need a lot of nudging to leave that review. I didn’t plan enough time for that.
When I contacted people to remind them to leave reviews, I noticed a big difference in the response rate of those I emailed and those I texted. The people I texted replied to me and acted sooner. I received very few replies to my emails.
In the future, when people sign up to be early reviewers, I’m going to ask for their phone number so I can text. It’s more conversational and friendly.
Thomas: A phone number means you have a strong personal connection with those reviewers, and that’s where your first reviews come from. If you can’t get friends and family on board, it’s hard to get anybody else on board.
Mistake #7: Not having a writing mentor.
Daeus: I’ve never had a specific mentor. It’s funny because I’m telling other beginning writers, “You need to get a mentor”; but I still don’t have one myself.
I wish I’d had a mentor for those times when I was at a fork in the road. When I published my first book, my parents tried to tell me it wasn’t ready, but I didn’t consider them publishing experts and I didn’t listen.
I wish I’d had someone who had gone down the road before me who could tell me, “This is what will happen when you do that.”
Thomas: That’s why I launched the Author Media Mastermind Groups.
We have three mastermind groups:
- Pre-published Authors—for unpublished novelists.
- Influencers—the nonfiction expert track.
- Published Authors—for folks writing their second, third, or twentieth book. We focus less on craft and more on the career of writing.
It’s been fun working with beginning authors and helping them avoid some of these mistakes.
Some writers fail to connect with a mentor because they look for the “perfect” person. For example, an author may believe that only Jerry Jenkins or Brandon Sanderson could be their mentor. But authors at that level aren’t doing much mentoring because they’re writing books.
Other writers hesitate to work with a mentor because it seems expensive. But time is your most precious resource, and learning things the hard way is actually the more expensive way to do it. You must be willing to spend money on mentoring if you’re serious about avoiding mistakes.
Mistake #8: Ignoring my characters’ backstories.
Daeus: I ignored my characters’ backstories for years. I figured that since the backstory didn’t come into the plot, I didn’t need to write it.
As soon as I changed that and started focusing on the backstories, I got to know my characters so much better.
I was also skeptical of writing journal entries for my characters because it sounded cheesy. But as soon as I tried it, I was amazed. It helped me discover a great breakthrough on a character I didn’t understand.
Thomas: I need to find a nice way to say this. But I often want to tell authors, “You are not special. The rules still apply to you. Being called by God doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply. You still have to learn the lessons and do the work.”
The other hard truth is that you can’t knock a technique until you’ve tried it.
Writing a journal entry for a character might seem silly, but successful authors know that the better you understand your character, the more consistent they will be. Your book and characters will be more interesting if you know and understand them well.
Another great exercise is to write a short scene involving your character that takes place before your main story starts. You can also write backstory short stories and explore your characters that way.
My brother is doing this for one of his epic fantasies.
To explore and develop the town where his book is set, he’s writing a series of short stories featuring the tavern owner. The tavern owner isn’t even a character in the book; but he’s an interesting character, and the tavern is an intense location. Writing short stories from his perspective helps my brother explore all the quirks of the city.
Mistake #9: Ignoring scene structure.
Daeus: For the longest time, I also ignored scene structure. I read K.M. Weiland’s book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, which I love. I am 100% on board with her theory for your general plot structure. I use it for every novel I write, and it works. But in that book, she also outlined scene structure; and for whatever reason, it did not click with me. It didn’t seem important because it wasn’t how I thought.
I went on my merry way, thinking that I understood scene structure, even though I wasn’t going to use her system.
I didn’t use her system; and my scenes were fat, bloated, and needed to be cut.
I eventually realized that I could create a scene structure built for me and by me. It ended up being very similar to K.M. Weiland’s scene structure, but I used different terminology and core ideas that were meaningful to me in crafting stories. My writing improved instantly.
Thomas: If a writer friend reads your book and then recommends a book on a certain skill, take that advice seriously. If they recommend a book on showing instead of telling or on structuring your scenes, read the book.
Authors tend to be good at different aspects of writing. You might be great at writing dialogue, but your plotting may be weak. If someone recommends a book on plot, read it.
Don’t tell yourself you’re the exception. Just because you don’t understand a concept doesn’t mean you don’t need to learn it. If you don’t understand it, you need to read several books on that topic until you do. You have to climb the hill of understanding before you earn the right to break the rules.
Daeus: If you don’t click with what the experts say, don’t assume they’re wrong. Assume it’s their presentation style, and then go read another expert on the topic.
What books helped you on your publishing journey?
Thomas: You’ve mentioned a couple of great books. What other books helped you along the way?
Daeus: The Book Thief would be at the top of my list because Markus Zusak is an absolute wizard with words.
Several years ago, I sat down to hand-copy The Book Thief. I got a writing desk so I wouldn’t get carpal tunnel syndrome, and I hand-copied about 15% of the novel, which is a ton of hand-copying.
I didn’t finish because that was way too much work, but it revolutionized how I wrote prose. I’m not as good as Zusak; but I picked up a couple of his tricks, and I’ve been able to use them.
I like to think of how painters try to recreate a painting from one of the masters. Writers can do that too.
Thomas: Authors have used the hand-copying technique for centuries as a way to learn from other authors and force themselves to better understand writing.
The modern version of that technique is to write fan fiction in another author’s story world. It’s especially helpful for fantasy authors. World-building and character creation require a lot of work, but they don’t help you craft a good scene.
To work on crafting a scene, you can use another author’s characters and story world and write a scene in that world. It’s like playing in somebody else’s sandbox.
You can’t publish your scene, but it can serve as one method of deliberate practice.
Mistake #10: Giving characters unconvincing goals.
Thomas: What else did you learn the hard way?
Daeus: Another struggle came to light when I was working on scene structure. I had characters who had goals, but the scenes still flopped.
It suddenly struck me that people set New Year’s goals all the time, and I roll my eyes when I hear about it. You don’t expect people to meet their goals.
Goals don’t have life. They’re just something to be held accountable for. But a character becomes fascinating when they’re obsessed with something.
I scratched the word “goals” from my vocabulary, and now I give my characters obsessions. If you have an obsession, you’re not going to dillydally around the palace courts. You’re going to get involved in the political intrigue with a lot of conviction and emotion.
Choosing obsessions for my characters has made them come alive, and it’s kept me from writing fluff.
Thomas: I read a book from the Monster Hunter International series, which was basically about hillbillies with shotguns who hunt down vampires. That’s a little overstated, but it’s a lot of fun.
One of the characters has a child who is stolen by vampires who plan to sell the child to the highest evil bidder. This mother tears the world to pieces to get her baby back.
When I read the book, I was a new parent; and the story resonated because I would have been doing all the same things. If I had read the book when I was single with no children, I might have thought the character was reckless. But as a new dad, that particular story resonated with me because the idea of a vulnerable child being taken away was moving.
As an author, you need to give your characters a motivation that resonates with your target reader.
Mistake #11: Believing everything the marketing gurus teach will work exactly the same way for you.
Daeus: I had a bit too much optimism about what I’d learned from the marketing gurus. I figured since I had learned a bunch of great ideas, and I was actually doing them, then my book would surely be amazing and sell thousands of copies.
That didn’t happen. It wasn’t an instant bestseller. And while that’s disappointing in some sense, the bigger failure was what I missed out on because of that incorrect belief. It made it harder for me to balance my writing with other parts of my life.
I got married this year, and I probably would have been married a year earlier if I hadn’t struggled so much to figure out how to balance writing with other business endeavors. That struggle put me behind in being able to provide a full-time income.
Thomas: There are two different kinds of jobs in this world. There are “big dip” jobs and “little dip” jobs. In “big dip” jobs, income and success are not evenly distributed. The income difference between the best and worst workers in “big dip” jobs is enormous. In little “dip jobs,” income and success vary, but the variations are less dramatic.
Being a plumber, accountant, or lawyer is a “little dip” job.
A plumber goes to school, graduates with a certification to be a plumber, and can make an annual salary of $150,000. Plumbing pays better than most of the jobs people go to school for.
The income gap between the highest and lowest paid people in those jobs is relatively small. The highest-paid plumber might make three times more than a beginning plumber.
But in the same universe, working as an author, a professional musician, or a professional athlete means there’s a much deeper dip.
If you look at the income distribution, there’s a huge dip where you’re learning how to get good and building an audience; but you’re making no money.
The income gap between the most and least successful authors is huge. The best author isn’t making five or ten times more than the least successful author. They’re making a billion times more. It might be millions of dollars more.
The second-best writer isn’t that much worse than the first.
It’s like the difference between the fourth-place and first-place Olympic athletes. They’re in the same pool, swimming neck-and-neck. There’s just one second difference between their times; but one person is on the podium, and the other is not.
The success is not evenly distributed. It’s not easy to support a family on a writer’s income if you haven’t worked your way past that dip, and most people don’t. Most people can’t because part of what makes a book fun, especially in fiction, is reading the book that everyone else is reading.
As you do gain success, more success will come.
These are uncomfortable truths. Publishing is not an industry with a healthy middle class. There are wealthy writers, and there are starving writers.
In indie publishing, there are some middle-class authors who can write quickly and write a book a certain kind of reader wants. Those authors learn how to advertise; and they can make a middle-class income, which is fabulous.
It’s important to have writers who can live in the normal world. They aren’t starving, and they aren’t millionaires. They’re able to fund their work and support a family. I see more and more of that in indie publishing.
Where can people find out more about you and your book?
My book is The Songkiller’s Symphony. It’s an epic fantasy novel where a young man goes on a quest to conquer his inner demons through the rigors of the heroism he has to go through.
Thomas: I applaud your courage and willingness to share your hard lessons. I hope people take your lessons to heart so that they don’t have to learn them the hard way themselves.
If you want a mentor to help you avoid these and other mistakes, learn more about my mastermind groups.
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You can listen to this episode Publishing Mistakes You Don’t Want to Learn the Hard Way on Christian Publishing Show.