04 Jul 2016
At the Career Indie Author, our goal is to give you the tools to launch yourself on a successful career as a writer. Our job is not to teach you how to write; there are plenty of places to learn that, and we’ll point you to books that we feel give good advice on improving your skills.There is one way to become a better writer that ties into our goal. It’s a way to learn your craft, earn some money, get valuable feedback, and move on to publishing better books.
I was talking to my wife about the various ways writers got their start. Women like Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, and Jennifer Crusie labored in the Harlequin mines, writing two, three, even four or more romances per year. Men like Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake wrote soft-core porn novels.
Why not do the same, only with a twist? Don’t make your first novel the one that’s burning inside you, the complex, multi-dimensional sure-to-be-the-next-HBO-series book.
Instead, start small and write pulp, or romance, or adventure, or space opera. Churn them out, publish them yourself under a penname, and see what happens.
This practice, combined with regular deadlines looser than National Novel Writing Month, can jump-start your career past those few awkward first books, let you experiment with different genres, and learn your strengths and weaknesses.
Why Hide Under a Penname?
In a word, performance anxiety.
Movie actors such as Clark Gable and Meryl Streep suffered from it. Ian Holm and Daniel Day-Lewis experienced episodes so bad they stopped performing on stage. So did Adele, despite her massive success (and maybe because of it).
No matter how often they tell themselves that it’s just a performance, that they’ve done this a thousand times already, they still know that when they step out on stage, all eyes will be on them, judging.
Throwing up before being minutely examined by thousands of people seems like a rational response.
The same thing happens to some writers, including me. The thought of having your first work appear under your byline is daunting. What if they hate it? My name would be stained forever.
In reality, I learned once I had published a book that few people remember your name. But if the anxiety is still there, the easiest way to handle it is to change your name, just like many actors, comedians, singers, and writers before you.
Liberated to Write
What kind of ideas for stories do you get? If you’re like me, they range all over the place. I have outlines for cozy mysteries in a small town; a noir set in modern London; an alternative-history Hollywood including different actors, movies, and studios; a series about a consulting detective in Gilded Age New York City; and a horror story involving zombies set at a rock festival. I even have notes for an erotic series of stories reminiscent of Anne-Marie Villefranche’s spurious memoirs of Paris in the 1920s.
Publishing all of them under my name could be confusing to my readership. I could solve some of that problem with proper branding, but it would be simpler to publish them under other names. There would be less risk of having an unpopular book sink my sales of the better book, and since I own the rights, I can rebrand the book later if it is successful.
Also, there’s freedom in writing under another name. You can take greater risks in what you write and how you write about it.
If you’re at the beginning of your career, it is more important to write than to market. When you have only 1-3 books out, your options are limited. You still want to have your website up, but that’s about it. Facebook ads drawing readers to your series won’t pay off as much if you only have a couple of books to offer.
Opening Your Harlequin Mine
Here are the principles on which your company can be set up:
1. Commit yourself to publishing at least three novels a year. Four could be better if you like the idea of writing according to the seasons. These books can be short, topping out at 50,000 words, roughly the same length as the Harlequin books.
2. Get used to producing material on a regular schedule. Four books a year at 50,000 words equals 200,000 finished words breaks down to 550 publishable words a day. That’s 3,850 words a week.
3. The stories you’re producing should be simple with minimal research. They should fit the parameters and style of a particular genre (presumably one you’re familiar with and love. Don’t write in a category you hate; the contempt will leak through to the page.)
What about historicals? If you’re familiar with the period, go ahead and try. I’ve read romances set in the Regency and Victorian periods by authors such as Amanda Quick where the details are minimal. But you have to know enough about the era not to make anachronistic mistakes, such as having Lord Beefcake write with a ball-point pen in 1879.
4. Keep your prose simple. The goal here is to produce publishable words and tell a coherent story. Don’t worry about finding the perfect polished phrase. People who write those kinds of books spend years on their prose.
5. Give yourself permission to trash a book at the end. I’m not a fan of publishing subpar work. If your first two books reek and you realize that, throw them away or keep them in your trunk to bring out later and marvel at how much better you’ve gotten. And take heart: Recognizing bad work means that you have an inkling of what makes good work. All you have to do is put in the effort to make it so.
Publish or Perish
There are a lot of ways to write your book. Some outline their book, then write out each chapter. Others start with a compelling image, character, or phrase and go to it.
If you don’t know what to do next, try this method.
* You have an idea for your first book. Don’t overthink it; just start writing. The secret to running a marathon is to run a shorter distance first. Then the next time you go out running, match that or extend yourself.
* At the end of each day’s work, print it out and keep it in a stack on your desk. Seeing it grow every day can motivate you to keep going; a wall calendar where you X out each day in red if you meet your word count is another method.
* Write an outline, but after you finish each chapter. This gives you a quick way of looking back and see what structure your book is taking. Keep track on another sheet of your characters and how they’re described or defined so you can keep consistent. Again, don’t overthink this.
* Edit the previous day’s work before beginning on the next section. This will get your creative juices flowing and identify and solve any problems that crop up.
* Come up with a title and potential cover. Sooner is better, but not required. Check out royalty-free photo sites such as Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Corbis, or Trevillion Images. If you’re handy with Photoshop, create a mock-up of the cover with the title and your name and pin it on the wall where you can see it. This can help you keep your focus by reminding you of your goal. (Of course, if you’re going to use this image when you publish your book, go back and buy the rights to it.)
* When you’re done, celebrate! You’ve now done what a thousand people say they want to do: write a book.
Then begin again.
How Hidden Can I Be?
Unless you do something that lands you in court, such as committing fraud or libeling a living person who sues, you can create a company name and penname and publish your book anonymously.
Amazon, for example, lets you have up to three Author Pages linked to your Kindle account (which is the account you set up the first time you buy something there). This means you can publish under your own name and two pen names, or three pen names. There is a specific procedure to set this up. You have to publish the book, claim it as yours, and indicate that it’s a pen name. Amazon will check with the holder of the account (which is you of course) before approving it. None of the Author Pages will be linked to each other, unless you do something like post the same author photo to each.
If you have more pen names, you’ll need to set up another account with a different email address. Just make sure if you’re switching between the two books to log out of your current account, then log into the new account.
Other companies have their own rules and procedures to follow.
What About U.S. Copyright?
You can copyright work under your pen name, but how you do it determines the length of the copyright.
It depends upon what you write in the space asking for the name of the copyright claimant. If you put down your real name, it is copyrighted for life plus 70 years, just like any other book. If you write your pseudonym, it is the publication date plus 95 years, or the creation date plus 120 years, whichever is shorter.
The U.S. Copyright Office also warns (in flyer FL-101) that you could run into problems in any business dealings involving your fictitious name. This becomes a matter for your legal adviser.
Why would you want to keep your real name out of the copyright record? Because copyright records can be searched by other people. In 1971, the diary of a teenage girl published under the title “Go Ask Alice” caused a sensation with its description of drug use, sex and rape. Although credited to “Anonymous,” the novel was copyrighted by Beatrice Sparks, a psychologist who promoted the book as its editor. In the copyright record, she listed herself as author.A more notorious example was John Frederick Lange Jr., who wrote a series of softcore sex novels depicting a fantasy society based on the belief that men were naturally dominant and women submissive. The Gor series was copyrighted under the penname John Norman, currently a professor of philosophy at Queens College in New York.
So if you want to keep your name away from your sex novel based on the university where you teach, don’t copyright the book in your name. You can always amend the record later.