100DTG: A Blueprint to Launching a Writing Career

The ironically named 100 Days to Greatness series (in honor of all those cheesy self-help books and motivational montages falsely claiming “you can do anything!”) chronicled my attempt to completely kickstart my indie career – mostly from scratch – in just over three months (from 5/21/16 – 8/31/16).

Over fourteen helter-skelter posts I laid out my successes, setbacks, failures, fuck-ups and meditations on topics I considered crucial to becoming a full-time author.

This post is the capstone: a blueprint of principles vital to creating a full-time indie career. Hint: I was on the verge of quitting everything twice. I missed nearly all my weekly goals and deadlines. I was convinced that I screwed up the launch to Demon Rogue catastrophically.

But in the end, things worked out okay. So here’s the post.

Remember to tailor everything I say to your own situation (say no to dogma). There are probably 5 – 7 paths to success; this is just one road, based heavily around 80/20 principles (maximize efficiency, write a fair bit, build a mailing list, and forget almost everything else).

Or, in the immortal words of Bruce Lee: Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.

Unless your own ideas suck, of course.

The Goals (and Results)

Original goals are copy and pasted below; results are in parenthesis, in red.

  • Take my earnings from $200/mo from $3400/mo for my two personal pen names Nicholas Erik & D.N. Erikson (Jun: $185.77; Jul: $799.35; Aug: $2739.35)
    • 3 novels + lead magnet novella for new pen name. (2 novels, 1 lead magnet novella)
    • 1 novel + lead magnet novella for current Nicholas Erik pen name. (part of novel written, release pushed back to 9/28)
  • 1000 mailing list subscribers between the two pen names (378 subscribers)
  • 150 hours of guitar practice. (57 hours)
  • Workout and clean up my diet. (20 of 44 workouts)

As you can see, I missed them all. But there were still a few major wins:

  • Increased earnings over 12x + gained 200+ quality subscribers.
  • Demon Rogue + Blood Frost got sticky sub-4,000 in the Amazon Kindle Store
  • I hit the UF genre notes reasonably well, despite limited experience (played to my strengths – snarky protagonist with anti-hero shades – essentially Mickey Spillane with wizards, using the Lester Dent Formula)
  • Kept costs low and managed to create a quality product
  • Tie-in prequel novella made for a great, high-converting lead magnet that took less than three days to write.

Was this challenge possible? Yes. I had a problem with showing up and not planning certain aspects of the project better, which we’ll talk about later in the blueprint. I skipped a number of days and slacked off frequently; I would rate my overall effort level low.

If this is low capacity – only releasing half the # of books I wanted – then it’s likely I could have smashed my goals.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend a challenge like this. Instead, set a weekly/monthly/yearly production schedule that you can realistically adhere to. I would say 4 books is the minimum yearly output for a full-timer (although there are exceptions). Not only is that way more books than trad-pub authors put out, it also adds up over a few years. We really underestimate what we can do over five to ten years.

I’ve already been working at this for four years. I’ve been working out for close to five. Had I been more consistent – instead of trying to do these massive Herculean overhauls every couple months – I would be much farther along with far less stress.

Obvious Unforced Errors

Basically, an undertaking like this demands exceptional clarity, especially when you’re working under a fairly challenging time constraint. I didn’t have it. Surface level, I did: the goals are crystal clear and check all the scientific boxes. But there needed to be an even more granular focus, with some of them culled to make best use of the limited time.

100 days isn’t very long. And when you’re trying to run multiple high level projects at once, time seems to elapse even quicker. Particularly when you have significant execution issues.

I discussed in more than one post that trying to succeed rapidly was a stupid decision. After the results (which, honestly, are better than expected, given my level of effort), I’m more on the fence – while we’re a culture that celebrates quick-fixes and 90-day transformations, often at the expense of the long-term picture, the deadline + constraints did force me to get more work done and cut away a little (business) fat.

But there were three main flaws present from the beginning of the project that muted its effectiveness:

  • Too many goals competing for time and energy – fixing everything at once, while noble, usually leads to stagnation.  All of these were “expert level” goals and would be difficult to reach on their own (with the exception of the guitar playing). Indeed, many people spend their lives without writing a single novel or seeing a single ab. I should have cut at least one of them, if not two, and then redoubled my efforts on what mattered to give myself a better shot at success. Sometimes you gotta hit maintain on certain aspects of your life (I’m not super unhealthy, I’m just not ripped to the bone lean) and pour your energy into what matters most at that time.
    • There was also a distinct lack of clarity. I wanted to play some SRV songs or something – I should’ve focused on studying one sub-genre of music – blues, in this instance – and a few key tracks (“Pride and Joy” by SRV, for example).
  • A failure to reverse-engineer my goals with a workable monthly + weekly plan based on my current resources. I didn’t have the money to release 4 novels + 2 novellas with substantial ad support/pro covers and invest in the Facebook ads required to build my list to 1,000 quality subs.
    • I was going to address cash flow issues via freelancing, but I quickly dropped that when it became apparent that this would sap vital mental bandwidth.
    • I also refused to factor in the knowledge that, historically, I write on a max of 65 – 70% of days. For this experiment, I assumed I would write every day. I planned for the best case scenario. Plan for reality, and then add significant slippage.
  • Refusing to acknowledge past history. I go through periods of low activity, followed by “a fuck this, I gotta fix everything!” blitz which is short-lived. When you’ve tried something…I don’t know, like thirty times the same damn way, it’s time to use a different approach.

Incoherent focus was deep-rooted within the project. I wanted this series to be a blueprint for staring an indie career; I wanted to improve my craft; I wanted to show how the tenets of deliberate practice and writing fast improved one’s fiction. And there were other ideas: proving that someone could reboot a dead pen name and kick off a new pen name with zero author platform.

These unclear shadow goals could have been better stated as wanting to provide total transparency and honesty about my experiment. Here, I succeeded tremendously – bouncing from craft, to business, to inner mindset from week-to-week. There’s an authenticity that bleeds through, which was the real, unstated goal that all those little wishes hinted at: to show what it really takes to craft an indie career.

Mistakes You Should Avoid

With these errors in mind, here’s a quick summary of common mistakes to avoid:

  1. Shadow goals. These are unstated wants that “would be nice” or you would kind of like to do if you had time. Get rid of this mental fuzz; it siphons away valuable focus and ruins your chances of hitting your actual goals.
  2. Production schedules that exceed your current production capabilities. Execution is a skill that’s learned. Some have practiced it since grade school and, subsequently, are quite adept at working like a mother fucker. If your work ethic is middling to poor or your focus has deteriorated because of too much Candy Crush Saga, you need to be honest about where you are right now.
  3. Looking short term at the expense of the long-term. Yes, I made some money; but that pen name will die without steady releases. It’s a pain in the ass to support multiple pen names, resource-wise. And there’s no spill-over from my success with the two books to my other 15 releases (for example, as I write this, Adrift has 19 pre-orders, despite a solid premise + stellar cover; this is mildly depressing).

Three Key Principles: The Blueprint

  1. Show up and write 80% of the time. The more books you write that meet reader’s expectations (what startup founders call “product-market fit”), the less of the other stuff you have to worry about. Writing and honing your craft pretty much solves all of your problems.
  2. Build your mailing list, and skills in at least one other marketing channel.
  3. Adapt your production plan and business to your strengths, weaknesses and circumstances, being realistic about your current challenges/obstacles/set of skills.

#1: Show Up and Write 80% of the Time

80%.

That’s around what it takes to have a career. Probably not a 7-figure career, or the type where you win prestigious awards, or option your book for big motion picture deals. Those all take a dash of luck, I think, in addition to massive obsession and grinding for the opportunity to even present itself.

But a solid living? A more than solid living? Oh yeah, definitely.

Why writing more is beneficial: the retailers, readers, craft and your pocketbook all respond better with more releases. Nonetheless, let’s delve a little deeper.

Basically, your job as an author is to solve readers’ problems – their problem being that they want a book with wizards/dragons/space ships of a certain quality with certain characters plus a certain je ne said quoi, but there’s a dearth of titles on the market. That’s where you, swashbuckling indie author of sub-genre X, jump in.

However, there are two harsh realities that stop most authors from making any money:

  • Most books don’t succeed because they’re written for an audience of zero and, unfortunately, aren’t very good. I know, I know; art is subjective. Spare me, please. As an author, you need to figure out what’s good and what isn’t, and why it’s good/works. Not so you can judge it on your blog or explain to your taste-challenged friends why something is atrocious. The reason is simple: so you can extract those diamonds in order to expand your readership, improve your craft and make a living. My early books were broken; I incorporated feedback and used my admittedly limited powers of self-awareness to fix some of these issues, and the next ones have sold better + received better reader reviews.
  • Writing without regard to the audience and expecting them to accept your greatness with open arms is unbelievably narcissistic and ridiculous. If you want to write as a hobby, that’s fine. I have hobbies, too. If you want people to give you money, then that’s a two-way street, which involves compromise & listening to what the other side wants. And what the other person wants in this transaction matters a lot more than what you, humble author, desires in your egotistical little artist’s heart.

Assuming you can get beyond these two difficult points, you can start making progress on your career in earnest. Remember: more output is only useful if you write books that other humans want to read. Doing this is not horribly difficult, but it is perhaps a mite more tricky than most suspect after breezing through the latest airport bestseller.

How do you gain those elusive craft skills?

Write as much as you possibly can. And understand that speed and production are skills, like craft, that must be trained. Usually up from zero. Embrace it, and start writing. The most important part is being consistent.

You see, we’re creatures of habit and automation; willpower is a limited and overrated resource. Drill something in well enough and ramping up the # of actual words is a fairly simple matter. Why? Your brain has already formed the necessary circuits and grooves in its neural network. Discipline has become expected, whereas before, Netflix (and probably no chill, you lonely writer bastard) was the default du jour.

It was Week 3, I believe, where I discussed the “threshold of consistency.” This principle is as such: you have to show up and check the boxes 80% of the time in most domains to be successful. While this level of commitment is unlikely to get you to legendary or master status, the truth is that the price of mastery is so intense and all-consuming that 99.99999% of people have neither the drive nor the actual desire to sacrifice what is necessary to achieve that level of expertise.

Mastery (or, let’s say, the financial equivalent – being a billionaire) is obsession at the expense of many other things. There is nothing wrong with that; but most people do not have the focus or willingness to ignore all the other doors, distractions and opportunities that pop up in life.

But being an expert at most things – impressive enough to wow your friends and also make 6-figures – takes far less time in most domains. There are still trade-offs; 80% of days is still, on average, more than the salaried worker’s schedule. But in exchange, you receive the freedom to work on your own terms and build something meaningful that is wholly your own.

You can also work less than 8 hours, so long as you work hard during the hours you do work.

No matter what, you show up at least 80% of the time. No matter what. Build up to it in increments, as slowly as you need to – from 50%, if that’s where you’re at, or 10%. The more you show up, the more it builds confidence and neural wiring within your brain that you can succeed – you’re literally reshaping your brain’s architecture.

And each time you say fuck it and play Pokemon Go, you’re rewiring your brain to keep doing that, too.

Why 80%? It seems to be the threshold that maximizes productivity while minimizing burnout. It’s the principle behind the concept, rather than the number that’s important: you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to show up enough and do the right things when you do. That’s difficult, but it’s an achievable standard.

Likewise, it blasts a hole in any thoughts that you’re going to be working one day a month while sipping mojitos. This is possible, but for various reasons it’s a lot more impractical and less fun than it sounds (take it from someone eager to get by with the least amount of work possible).

And a key quote from Week 9, for when you’re ready to give up: Life isn’t about passion, or always enjoying yourself. Indeed, many tasks that lead to a satisfying life are not (at least in the moment) particularly pleasant.

Some days will still suck, feeling like the words are being drawn from your brain via a poorly inserted catheter.

Two key things to realize about this point:

  1. Showing up is just the beginning. Most productivity books make it the end – as if just showing up is enough. That’s usually enough to get competent. But to survive and thrive, you need to engage in deliberate practice during those 80% of days – consistently improving your craft by listening to feedback and strengthening your stories, characters, prose, settings, pacing and other fiction writing sub-skills. From Week 9: In other words, all that productivity and “showing up” content that makes up approximately 96.1% of the Internet is simply the price of entry. Perfect deliberate practice makes perfect. And deliberate practice is damn hard.
  2. You need to write books that satisfy readers’ expectations in a sub-genre that has a clear demand for more books. In the world of start-ups, this is called product-market-fit. This means understanding tropes, covers and blurbs in the sub-genre. How do you learn about those? Read other authors in the genre and study their Amazon listings. Study the Amazon bestseller charts – it’s like a free market research report worth thousands of dollars. This also means, at an advanced level, subverting some of those expectations and combining them with other sub-genres. This is where you go beyond “good” storyteller into the pantheon of “expert” – and start seeing the big bucks. Where you take the expected (spy thriller) and infuse it with emotion and gravitas (maybe a dash of romance and serious drama). Then you get The Bourne Identity.

Finally, realize that good fiction writing is really about good storytelling.

If you already can write fairly competent English – as in readable – and write six to eight novels following what I outlined above, you can make excellent progress in a year. Full time? Maybe, maybe not. But don’t worry about the pace: that’s a fool’s game, and has ironically only slowed me down. Be patient, assess your own abilities and hash out a schedule you can adhere to (key #3).

And if you screw something up, here’s a good reminder from Week 6: we get unlimited rolls of the dice as indies. In life, too, really, but that’s for another post.

#2: Build Your Mailing List (+1 Other Marketing Channel)

Since the other section is by far the most important (deliberate practice, show up at least 80% of the time, and make sure your books are written with readers’ expectations in mind), this will be short and sweet.

You need to build a mailing list. You’re probably putting it off, because it’s hard and a big pain in the ass. I know, I know. Start with Noah Kagan’s free Email 1K course and implement the concepts. Yes, some authors thrive on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest and neglect all other venues. They will be hosed when those platforms inevitably change their algorithms or policies. Because, you see, you own exactly none of the content or followers on those sites.

That doesn’t mean you don’t use them. You can, if you want. You can build a big ass following there, and it can make you lots of money.

But you need something that you control – a direct transmission line straight to readers that can’t be cut off by 3rd party bullshit.

I’m working on a guide to building a mailing list, but the highlights are this:

  • Offer readers a free incentive to sign-up – the best converting ones are either the next book in the series or an exclusive short story/novella starring the series characters.
  • Put a link to your mailing list sign-up offer in the front matter, on its own page. You’ll get more sign-ups from this than the offer link in the back, but put one in the back, too, right after “THE END.”
  • Be sure to actually email your readers. Don’t just collect addresses and then never tell them about your next books (or your current ones, for that matter – readers don’t know about your backlist until you tell ’em). They want to hear from you. That’s why they took the time to sign up.

Oh, and about that one other marketing channel: that’s where the other stuff comes in. BookBub + other promo sites, Facebook Ads, social media, Amazon PPC, blog tours, forums, whatever. Some of these are too small to be your “one other” thing, so you might have to combine them. But pick things that you have the resources for (e.g. if you’re broke, Facebook Ads chew through capital like a bear at a campsite) and where you can find your readers.

For example, Facebook (the social media part of it) is really useful for romance authors. You can kill it on there; it might be more powerful than the mailing list for those folks.

But I don’t write romance, and I don’t want to hang out on Facebook – which brings us to another point. Do marketing that fits your strengths. That might mean getting out of your comfort zone a little – I have signed up for these social media platforms, then promptly wanted to wretch and die at the constant stream of bullshit and irrelevant information. But I did give them a feeble try.

There’s money to be made. You can get over your fear of marketing or human contact to snag some with your basket, right?

#3: Create a Production Plan and Business Based Around Your Strengths + Assets

The essence of planning, in under 150 words: set a limited number of clear goals based on your current abilities + 5 – 15% (e.g. if you write 500 words a day, aim for 550), reverse engineer from your deadline what you need to do on a monthly, weekly and daily basis to succeed, revise said goals based on the realities of your schedule, further simplify goals that don’t matter, anticipate obstacles/sticking points based on past behavior and current resources, and then, once you’ve determined a realistic plan that can succeed, consistently attack.

Or, in less than 20: know yourself, be patient and progress at a pace just at the edge of your abilities.

On business: work within the confines of your current resources and schedule. Don’t wish for what you don’t have; more money is better than less, but less money forces you to be resourceful. That’s a critical skill that can’t be purchased. And if you have a full-time job, understand that this actually reduces stress + allows you to smooth out your release schedule. Those royalties above sound decent if you’re just starting out, but two thousand bucks goes up in smoke quickly when you’re running a business. For most, it’s much better to have a steady paycheck and have one less thing to be stressed out about.

Of course, there are some who will never buy-in unless they have the hounds of eviction and embarrassment nipping at their heels.

Understand who you are and plan accordingly.

Oh, and one more thing about business: please, for the love of everything, double down on what’s working. When my UF series began to show serious signs of life, I should’ve flipped the bird to my sci-fi stuff for the time being and just written in that series. This is obvious, but most of us, upon seeing a live and healthy horse ready to whisk us away from our troubles, instead insist on believing it’s a mirage, and resume whipping our dead steed in vain.

Parting Thoughts

I’m not sure if this guide qualifies as a “blueprint.” I didn’t lay out a production schedule or any step-by-step plan which you can follow – at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, I gave you the building blocks (or what I think they are, anyway; it’s entirely possible you shouldn’t listen to anything I said. After all, I didn’t exactly set the world on fire over the last 100 days).

So let’s call it a principles blueprint: I’m not telling you what to do, because, quite frankly, I don’t know you. I have no idea if you’re a fast writer, slow writer, sci-fi author, romance fanatic – and, as such, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription that you can check off the boxes and magically launch your career. Trying to follow a plan that ill-fits your skills + temperament is a recipe for disaster.

Take it from me.

I desperately want to be a fast writer with a crushing work ethic. I desperately want that now, and refuse to acknowledge a simple truth: I do not have a legendary work ethic or ironclad discipline. By trying to go as fast and hard as I can, I’m setting myself up for failure. It doesn’t matter if other writers can do it.

I can’t.

Not right now, and perhaps, given 27 years of history, not ever.

And that’s what this series and final post are really about: understanding yourself, and how you can succeed in the weird collection of quirks, parameters, experiences and skills that makes you a unique individual. It’s about absorbing good principles and applying them to your situation. This requires a little contemplation, but it’s ultimately going to serve you better.

Otherwise, the lesson of this series could be work like an idiot, only show up 30% of the time and you, too, can make almost 3k in a month! But that’s obviously the wrong takeaway, because success is about more than money, or writing fast, or even walking around so happy that you have a stoned-stupid grin on your mug all the time.

True success is really about feeling effective and satisfied. And you can only feel effective when you’re following your own blueprint, based on your own skills and understanding of how you work. Someone else’s plan won’t work – and, really, they don’t know shit, anyway, so you shouldn’t listen to most people peddling their two-bit advice.

Being effective is about having the various skills at your disposal to make an impact on the world.

And this is hard.

Improvement is painful due to homeostasis. All your brain and body know in this comfortable modern world is that they are safe from imminent death. Changing involves risk. In addition, it requires energy – focus and resources that could be used for survival situations. Your body will do everything it can to stay the same, no matter how miserable your life is. Any type of risk or alteration, no matter how minute, can be interpreted as a threat to this delicate status quo. This sounds overly dramatic, but the proof is in the pudding, so to speak: look at the volumes of self-help books out there, and look at how many people actually achieve their goals or change their lives, absent some sort of massive external event (a new child, firing, near-death experience etc.). If you’re finding change difficult, that’s because becoming a full-time author is supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be desirable and you wouldn’t get paid a bunch of money to do it and you wouldn’t get the freedom that comes with working for yourself.

But you can do it. After all, you can outwork me, right, and I pretty damn well almost made it. If we throw in my earnings from the other books I publish, I hit over 7k this month. Maybe that’s pure chance, and it’ll all go away. I’ve shot myself in the foot just enough in the past, however, to understand that it wasn’t luck.

I’m a little better at this than I was four years ago. And that has been the difference these past few months, more than any mad scramble challenges.

So I’ll leave you with this, from Week 9: luck only goes so far. I’ve been lucky in the past, and totally blown it because I either didn’t recognize the opportunity, or wasn’t equipped with the skills to execute. Anyone who has a good-looking friend who attracts women – or men – consistently only to totally squander it by having the charisma of a toaster understands this well. We all spend way too much time wishing we were better looking, wealthier, taller or more talented – rather than doing the damn work and getting better.

It’s time to get better.

It’s time to craft your own blueprint and write some damn words.