David Farland’s Writing Tip: Costs Versus Rewards

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Last night, #1 New York Times bestselling fantasy writer Terry Brooks spoke to our Apex Writer’s group and gave reams of great advice. One of our authors asked which of the books he’d written was his favorite and why, and Terry said that the answer changes from time to time, but he noted that the ones he is most proud of were often the ones that were most challenging. They forced him to grow, and gave a sense of conquest.

But what if you’ve got several novels that you’ve considered writing, and you’re trying to decide which one to write next? How do you choose the best book to write?

Sometimes, your heart demands that you write “Book A” because it speaks to you, while “Book B” doesn’t feel as compelling. But after you’ve written a few novels, you reach a point where you’ve got several books that you’re interested in, and the decision of what to write next becomes more complex.

When that happens, I may look at the books and try to gauge, “How much work will this book require versus how much will I get in return?”

In Hollywood, I worked with a company that did greenlighting analysis. We would study a script and figure out how much it would cost to create a movie based on the script. Then we’d analyze the screenplay and use data to predict just how well it would sell to a global audience if advertised properly. Once we knew how much the movie would cost and how much it could earn, we would only greenlight the film if it was expected to make twice as much money as it cost to produce, advertise, and distribute it.

More than half the time, we found that the film wouldn’t make back the investment. You can’t spend a hundred million dollars to make a movie that only promises ten million in return.

Similarly, with novels, you probably don’t want to invest a thousand hours developing and promoting a book that will only earn a hundred dollars. You have to figure out, how much do I want to make per hour? If a book will take a thousand hours to write and make you $50,000 in return, then you plan to make about $50 per hour. So you can choose to write for nothing, or you can struggle to make $50 per hour, or you can spend the same amount of time writing a book that makes $100,000 per hour.

Sometimes when advising producers, we could suggest to strategies to improve a movie script, but those strategies almost always involved one of two things: Either we’d try to boost the size of the audience (by adding elements such as humor, adventure, or romance that would boost sales), or we’d try to figure out how to reduce the costs—say by cutting certain special effects, or scaling back on the amount spent for major actors.

As an author, you can and must figure out how to make the book “big” by appealing to a wide audience. You don’t have to worry so much about material costs—a huge cast, dazzling special effects, or dangerous stunts. But there are hidden costs in writing, both in money and time.

So boosting a manuscript’s potential is easy. Cutting the time and money involved in creating or promoting a book can be done, though, too.

When you create a novel, there is a certain amount of time and money you will need to invest. Some of the time of composing the book is easy to gauge, but other allocations are harder to see.

  1. Brainstorming and outlining your story. This is something that normally takes a few days, at least. You may want to write out your ideas, talk with your writing group, and run it past an editor or agent. I often have authors who have me “greenlight” their outlines as they look for ways to tell a story better or adapt it to a larger audience (email mystorydoctor@gmail.com to set up appointments to do that). So outlining might take a few days, but I’ve seen authors spend weeks honing a good outline to perfection.
  1. Researching both your audience and competition. If I am going to write a script, I first look at “comparable” films. If I have to watch say a dozen of the best horror movies in the genre, it’s time well spent, and it might be done in just a single day. I can study the pacing and plotting and see what I’m up against.

But very often in this research, I may want to talk to fans.

If I’m reading books, I might spend a month just reading my top competitors—and I don’t do that lightly. I literally sit down at a table with the book in one hand and a notepad in the other, and I take notes on what the competition has done.

  1. Researching the book itself. I do a lot of research online and by reading books, but I also  travel to distant locations, study character accents, etc.

I’ve spent as much as a year researching a book. When I wrote “In the Company of Angels,” I read hundreds of articles and historical accounts from the 1850s. I visited museums and interviewed other researchers and historians.

Since I was writing about a group of pioneers who traveled across the US by handcart, I re-traced their journey at the appropriate time of the year. I even drove into the mountains in late October in the middle of a blizzard to pull a handcart through the snow where some of my characters had died.

I remember thinking when I started the novel, “This book will be easy, since it is based on historical fact.” But the research took much more time than writing the book.

  1. Composing a first draft. Most authors think this is where most of the time is spent writing a book. They’re usually wrong. I compose a couple of pages an hour. So when I write a novel of 600 pages, I plan on 300 hours of writing time—let’s call it six weeks for a first draft. That’s much more realistic than that ½ an hour a day for thirty days kind of crap.
  1. Revising the book (usually several times). By the time a book gets to my publisher, I’ve looked at every scene a minimum of three times. By the time I go through edits and it is published, I’ve probably done a couple more read-throughs. Now, some authors try to cut out this process, but the truth is that this usually takes as long as writing a first draft—six weeks.
  1. Shopping the book to agents and editors. If you try to publish traditionally, the first time you send out pitch proposals, this can eat up weeks and months of an author’s time. Researching agents and editors, crafting a pitch—usually takes a week minimum, but plan on more.

Once you pitch a book, it may take months to hear back from the agents and editors, and you may have to do it over and over. Frank Herbert pitched Dune more than forty times and spent years trying to find a publisher.

  1. Advertising and promoting the book. If you’re a traditional author, much of the promotion may be handled by your publisher, but I know romance writers who feel that only one third of their time is spent writing—the other two thirds is spent promoting. I know many writers who spend perhaps ten times more time promoting than writing.

This is especially true of Indies. Do you know people who go online day after day and send out pleas for others to buy their books? Don’t be that person.

This is a real danger. I’ve seen a lot of authors who get three or four novels into their career who suddenly discover they are spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to run ads, make appearances, or otherwise promote their books in various platforms. Their careers stall and die.

So creating a book does cost real time and money, but it will also have a payoff. If you understand how to write and promote a book, it can be very lucrative. But if you don’t, it can be a disaster.

Several of my students have sold well enough to become multimillionaires, but most authors write books that are too “small.” A small book is one that is aimed at a small audience.

For example, if you write a book aimed at men over 65 who have an IQ of 160 and above, and you’re writing in Tongan, you’ve got a very narrow audience. You can’t make a living at it.

On the other hand, if you write a “big” book aimed at a broad audience of children and adults, both male and female, and it is written in English, you can find yourself making hundreds of millions, as J.K. Rowling did.

So when choosing whether to write Book A, B, C, or D, you can get a sense of just how big your audience is by studying novels and films similar to yours and seeing how they perform. Are books in your genre hitting the top of the bestseller lists? What can you do better than what others have done? And how much do you want for all of the work you’re going to do?


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