Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Is Fantasy Truer Than Fiction?

If you’ve read any fantasy novel—such as Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter,  The Lord of the Rings, or Twilight—you knew it wasn’t real. Cats that vanish, leaving behind only a smile? Flying monkeys? Young wizards and witches casting magic spells with wands? Hobbits and dragons? Vampires? How could any of that be real?

And yet . . .

And yet, there’s a magic in these stories, a spell they cast over their readers. If you’ve ever felt it, you know. That magic is real. It’s the magic that takes you to strange and wonderfully magical worlds. It touches your heart. It makes you cry. It makes you cheer. It makes you feel.  

That magic plays a more obvious role in many of my stories, never more so than in Toren the Teller’s take. It’s the topic of discussion in this scene from my soon to be released YA fantasy epic, Toren the Teller’s Tale. Toren, disguised as a boy and a storyteller’s apprentice, is at a tellers’ gathering. Between stories, the tellers discuss their craft:

Yes,” said another apprentice. “And what about made-up stories, ones about fantastic things that could never be true? Where’s the common starting point, and where’s the greater truth?” 

The elder master said the answer to this question was obvious, and he turned it over to us. No one else spoke, so I asked if I might be allowed to. He nodded.
“We all have common hopes and fears,” I said, “from the lowliest peasant to the king. We dream of someone who will love us more than life itself. In her dreams, every maiden is a princess longing for love; in his dreams, every youth is the one who will win her heart. Even the king’s hopes and fears are as common as our own.”

“And what about fantastic stories?” the elder master asked me.

“My master’s story was fantastic,” I said. “And yet it’s true. A man wants a son to follow in his footsteps and may be blinded to a truth he doesn’t wish to see. A woman may know the truth and be afraid to speak it. And a child may suffer for not being what the world demands her to be.”

The elders smiled at my answer, but one of them shook his finger.

“Although what you say is true,” he said, “I believe a story’s truth is even greater than that. One day you’ll see. You’ll think you are telling a story, but the truth of it will take over, and you’ll realize the thing you thought you created was always there, not in this place and time but somewhere in the infinite universe and as true as your own existence. We tellers are bridges from the past to the present, from the present to the future, from distant lands to here, and from here to everywhere.” 

“Of course we are bridges,” the man to his side said, “but only to imaginary worlds.”

“On the contrary!” the first elder shouted. “All worlds are equally real! You may think of stories as mere entertainment, but they are so much more. We spoke of how the audience must shape the story, but responsibility we tellers carry.”

The other elders were silent. One rolled his eyes. It was a man in front of me who dared to speak what was on everyone’s mind.

“The worlds of our stories already exist?” he mumbled. “Old coot’s gone senile.”

A murmur of agreement rose from the crowd, followed by laughter.   

“It is rather ridiculous, isn’t it?” Giddy asked me. “That would make everything imaginable real, and you know that can’t be right, can it, Tor?”

I laughed, but inside I wondered. Of course it did sound impossible.
And yet . . .


Is the first elder truly crazy?
The reply Toren gives above is the sort of thing Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Fantasy deals with universal human experiences. Its archetypes are familiar—not from our day-to-day lives that differ from one person to the next, but from the dreams we all share. There is one language we all know, and it’s the language of the night. It’s what Carl Jung referred to as “the collective unconscious.” We all have similar hopes and fears, and they come out in our dreams—and in our fantasy and science-fiction stories.    

And that's why fantasy fiction is more honest than realistic fiction: because fantasy fiction deals with archetypes without the pretense that they are more than--or less than--archetypes. You know that Harry Potter isn't a real, living, breathing person; but you also know that his universal need for a family is real.  You know it because you've felt it too.

But this only fits what Toren says about the nature of stories. What about the first elder teller? Could he be right? Could there be a truth in fantasy that goes beyond touching upon our dreams and nightmares?

According to the Many Worlds theory of physics, the answer to this is a resounding yes.

Our world is one of many, many worlds that are like ours but different in ways both big and small. Expansions of the Many Worlds theory say that there are even worlds out there that don’t follow our own laws of physics.

Do you realize what that means? Disappearing cats, flying monkeys, young wizards and witches casting magic spells with wands, hobbits and dragons, vampires: they could all exist. Every story you’ve ever read—not matter if it’s realistic, science fiction, or fantasy—could be true. Not here, of course, but somewhere out there in our amazing universe.

And our dreams and our stories can show these fantastic worlds to you.

Toren, however, can do so much more. She can build bridges from her world to the worlds of her imagination, and she can take you along for the journey.

Which magical world would you like to visit today?  

And now I'd best step down before someone calls me a crazy old coot.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Some fun stuff coming up this week:

  • The truth behind fantasy fiction. Harry Potter, Twilight, The Lord of the Rings--can any of it be real?

  • An interview with the very funny Sarah Billington, author of Life Was Cool Until You Got Popular. There will be a chance to win a copy of this great eBook for older middle-grade or younger YA readers, and you don't want to miss it.

  • A discussion about picture-book apps and how to make them with David Fox, who has done just that. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Where do you get your ideas?” 12 things a writer can use to create an infinite number of story ideas

Writers, want to have more stories ideas than you can shake a pencil at? Well, here’s a secret that will let you do just that. It’s given me more story ideas than I could ever write in a lifetime, and it can do the same for you.

Science fiction writers know that at the root of every story are two little words: “What if?” “What if we could travel into the future?”  “What if robots took over the world?” “What if robots from the future could travel to our time?” “What if?” 

But you don’t have to write science fiction to take advantage of the power of these two little words. In fact, you can use “What if?” to create stories in any genre or for any age group: from humorous fiction to thrillers and from picture books to romance novels. The only difference is that--if you aren’t writing science fiction--your “What ifs” probably won’t involve time travel or robots. 

“What if?” is really just what I call “Surprise” in my House of Funny formula. It’s all about taking something and looking at it in a new, unexpected way, a way that asks, “What if?” 

There’s an infinite number of things you can ask “What if” about. Here is a list of 12 to get you started:

1.       Old stories--Old myths or legends, fairy tales, Shakespeare’s plays, nursery rhymes, jokes,  and so on make great setups. Just make sure they’re really old—like at least 100-years old—so you don’t infringe on the original creator’s copyright. Percy Jackson and the Olympians came from Greek mythology combined with the question: “What if these stories were real and took place today?” My book, Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey, came from asking the same question about the classic novel Don Quixote.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians Paperback Boxed Set (Books 1-3)
2.       The news--In print, online or on TV, it doesn’t matter how you get the news, only what you do with it. My YA romantic ghost story, Ride of Your Life, was inspired by a true event: the Great Adventure theme park Haunted Castle fire, which killed eight people. I wanted to give that event a happy ending, and that inspired my story. My picture book, Click the Dog, was inspired by a news item about a dog that ate something strange. Of course, when you base your story on real events it’s necessary to change all names, quotes, details and the like, so you don’t write something that might be considered defamation of character. (That’s why all works of fiction have a disclaimer like “Any similarity to any person living or dead is completely coincidental.”)

3.       Anything you would change—one of the wonderful things about being a writer is that you have the power to change anything you like. What if you had told off that bully? What if you could solve a murder? Write a story with a character who does just that, and see what happens. Read a really awful book? How would you completely change it? Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” Well, as a writer you can write the change you want to see in the world.

4.       Fears—What are you afraid of? Fears make great topics for stories, particularly horror stories. Think about what’s the worst thing that can happen, and make it happen to your character. But make sure you find some sort of resolution to your story. No one wants to feel invested in a character only to find out the character died without dying for something. I started Why My Love Life Sucks: The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer by asking myself what a teenage super geek's worst nightmare would be. Getting stuck with a gorgeous girl who only want to be his platonic best friend forever? Yeah, that's it.

5.       Dreams—These could be actual dreams, but they could also be aspirations. Supposedly, the story of Frankenstein came from an actual dream. But if there’s something you want to do but haven’t or can’t, writing might be a good way to experience it through your characters. They could be famous, read minds, predict the future, or fly for you. So ask yourself, “What if?”
Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel (Classic Graphic Novel Collection)

6.       Science—It doesn’t matter which science, from archeology to zoology, there are story possibilities in there. Archeological digs reveal stories of actual people, but archeologists themselves can have stories too. Indiana Jones was an archeologist (sort of), and he is one of Hollywood’s greatest heroes. When it comes to zoology, you could write a story about an animal or a person’s relationship with an animal, or you can create a story based on an animal society in the past, present or future. You can even mix animal qualities with human qualities, like Brian Jacques does in his Redwall series. Most science fiction has its roots in some kind of science, but science can be a part of any genre. 

  Redwall (Redwall, Book 1)

7.       History—The past is full of amazing stories. Child emperors? Parents trusting their children to strangers in another country to save them? Tribes nearly wiped out by strange new diseases? Empires rising and then falling? History has them all. The simplest “What if?” to ask when writing historical fiction is “What if I were there?” And if you don’t want to write historical fiction, there’s always Steampunk, fantasy based on history, science fiction that mixes the past and the future, and so much more.  

8.       Movies , TV and comic books--When you watch a TV show, try to imagine how you would do it. What if you were the writer? I’ve been writing episodes in my head since I was a kid, and it’s fun. This is more of an exercise than something you can use to create your own story, because the characters on a TV show belong to that show’s creator. But maybe you’ll create a character who can be spun off into a new series, something completely yours. And if you ever find yourself on The Tonight Show, you’ll have what you want to say all prepared.  

9.       Your life--Some people like to say that every writer’s first novel is autobiographical. (If that’s true, I’m a magical storyteller, because Toren the Teller’s Tale was the first novel I wrote.) But you don’t have to write an autobiography or something semi-autobiographical to turn pieces of your life into stories. If something deeply affects you, there’s a good chance it will deeply affect your readers too.  

10.   People around you--When I was little and my mom would take me shopping, she’d frequently sigh and tell me, “Shevi, we’re shopping for clothes, not people.” Even back then I liked to observe and make up stories about what I saw. There’s no shortage of story ideas at a mall. Anywhere you can find people, you can find something to turn into a story.   

11.   Photos, paintings, or other works of visual art--In a way, this is like using the people around you as inspiration; but when it comes to visual art, the artist has already chosen the focus of your story. It’s whatever is in the photo, painting, or other piece of art. Ursula Le Guin started writing her award-winning science-fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness with just a single image in her head, the image of two people and a sled. She asked herself who these people were, how they got there, and where they were going. Questions like this can turn almost any image with people into stories.
The Left Hand of Darkness

12.   Mash-ups—As I mentioned in a previous blog post, conflict is an essential part of a good story, and one of the easiest ways to achieve it is by putting together things that don’t go together.  You could use two conflicting characters, two conflicting desires, or one character who conflicts with his or her world. You can also combine genres or mediums in new and original ways. There are already novels in verse, eBooks with animation, and books written like email correspondences. Or you can also take an old classic or fairy tale and put it into a different genre, like Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy. Or you could take a serious work and make it funny, which is the essence of parody, like the movie Airplane!, Mad Magazine, any Weird Al Yankovic song.   
The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime

So the next time you hear an old story, watch the news, observe people at the mall or on the street, or look at an image of people interacting, ask yourself “What if?”  And if you think the answer holds some potential, write it down. Pretty soon you’ll have more story ideas than you can shake a pencil at too.

Oh, dear. I forgot one, and it's a biggie:

13. Word play--I often come up with great story ideas just by playing with words. I have an idea for a middle-grade science-fiction series that came from the expression "a stitch in time." Can't believe I left that out. Are there any others I'm missing?

Yippee! I just read the nicest review for Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey!

I don't know who J.C. is, but I thank you so very, very much!I hope your eldest enjoys it too.

"So, I guess to sum it up there are a lot of great messages in this book, delivered in an amusing story without being preachy or too in your face. I think it would definitely appeal to the middle grade reader, and even as an adult I found things to like. I will probably read this with my eldest in the near future."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Me Write Funny Someday—how to add humor to your writing (part 2)

I have a surprise for you, and it’s a doozy. Are you ready? Here it is:
You’re a comic genius.

Okay, did I see some eyes rolling? Well, it's true. You ARE a comic genius, and that’s because you know how to create the kind of unique surprises that create laughs. Um . . . at least you will after you read this post.

In my last post, I told you that when I was a political cartoonist I invented a very simple formula for creating humor, and it is


I call this formula the House of Funny, and the reason why is that it works like a house of fun.

Look in a house-of-fun mirror, and you will see things in a surprising new way. Likewise, the House of Funny creates surprise by changing your perspective and giving you a new way to look at things. And also like a house of fun, it does this with a variety of mirrors and lenses.

As I said in the previous post, your setup creates an expectation, and you create surprise by taking the setup in an unexpected direction. Which direction? That depends on the mirror or lens you decide to use.

The Mirrors and Lenses of the House of Funny

·        A regular mirror

·        A closed-circuit camera

·        A magnifying glass

·        A reverse magnifying glass

·        Blue, pink, yellow and other colored lenses

·        A wiggly mirror

The regular mirror

A regular, household mirror flips right to left and left to right. We don’t usually laugh at this, because we’re used to it. In fact, when we don’t see this--for example, in the monitor of a closed-circuit camera--we might actually find it funny. You move off to your left, and you see yourself move off to the right on the screen. It takes some getting used to.

The regular, household mirror in the House of Funny, though, goes against our expectations. It flips it. Right becomes left, and left becomes right. While we're used to this when we peer at ourselves over the bathroom sink, we're not used to it in the stories we read.

For example, in so many fairy tales, the handsome prince comes to the princess’s rescue. So what’s the flipside? Well, the flipside of a handsome prince is an ugly ogre, and that gives you the plot of Shrek.

Shrek: The Whole Story Boxed Set (Shrek / Shrek 2 / Shrek the Third / Shrek Forever After)In fact, that’s just one of many flips in Shrek. The charming prince who wants the princess is actually a less-than-charming lord. The princess is . . . . well, I wouldn’t want to give any spoilers. In the second movie, the Fairy Godmother is not the kindly lady from Cinderella. The Shrek series is all about flipping fairy tales from left to right. But that’s not the only possible flipside for the standard princess fairy tale. You could write a story about a brave princess who rescues a prince, or a prince who gets a princess in trouble instead of rescuing her, or a princess who prefers not to be rescued, or . . . the possibilities are endless.

A closed-circuit camera monitor

This shows us things exactly as they are, and this is surprising because we’re used to see things--particularly ourselves--differently. Like I said, every time you look in your bathroom mirror, you see yourself flipped from right to left. It's interesting to note that the only person incapable of seeing you the way the rest of the world does . . . is you.

I think that the humor that comes from exposing the truth behind false assumptions is the greatest humor of all. It shows us what we’ve been missing . . . or maybe something we once noticed but ignored because someone told us it was wrong. It's the little kid from the story of the Emperor's new clothes, the one who points out that the king is naked.

I also think that this is one of the hardest kinds of humor to create, because it requires that you first recognize that a generally held assumption is untrue. The other problem is that some people hold very tightly to their false beliefs. They need them. It gives them a steady footing on reality, and anything else throws them off balance. In medieval times, people were often ostracized or worse for exposing false assumptions. The sun turned around the earth, and people didn’t want to hear otherwise. The Dark Ages didn’t have a sense of humor.  

But there are those who think this is the only kind of standup comedy that’s worth something, the kind that tells the truth. It can also be a fun way to look at fairy tales. While we know they aren’t true, there are some things about them that are just plain out absurd. Like who wears glass slippers? And who has such a weird shoe size that her shoes won’t fit anyone else? And where did Cinderella get her shoes before her Fairy Godmother showed up with the only pair of shoes that precisely fit her very weird feet? And why was the prince so obsessed with her feet anyway?

Looking beyond assumptions can lead to some pretty funny results.  

The magnifying glass

Take anything small and blow it up way out of proportion. In fiction, don’t write small when you can write big. Characters shouldn’t like each other but be madly in love. A nemesis shouldn’t be mildly annoying but outright evil. It makes readers care more, love more, worry more, hate more, feel more, and laugh more. Of course, if you want it to be funny, it has to be surprising, too, not something that has been magnified in that way many times before. And it can’t be viewed as too painful to the audience.

The obvious example from a children’s book of a magnifying glass being used to create humor? Clifford the Big Red Dog, of course!

Clifford The Big Red Dog

The reverse magnifying glass

British humor is often about understatement. It’s Monty Python calling a severed leg, “just a scratch.” Take something huge and treat it as if it’s something tiny. This is the reverse magnifying glass, and it’s great for satire. When something huge and outrageous—like nuclear war—is treated as no big deal, you have all the ingredients for satire or black comedy.

Blue, pink, yellow, and other colored lenses

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMy all-time favorite humorous fiction series is The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and one of my favorite characters in it is Marvin the paranoid android. Marvin’s comedy comes from the blue lens in the House of Funny. For him, everything is depressing. Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh is another funny, blue-lens character.

In my stories, Amber from Why My Love Life Sucks: The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer generally dances through life (and un-death) with rose-colored glasses. That’s the pink lens of the House of Funny, and it works because it contrasts nicely with Amber’s less-than-rosy circumstance.

Colored lenses are all about seeing the world with one very specific attitude, one that’s often at odds with the setup or the character’s situation.  Many standup comedians use colored lenses to give their onstage personas a focused, unified character. Steven Wright, for example, is deadpan. He’s the Eeyore of stand up, and his lens would be blue. Kate Micucci is always perky. Her onstage persona definitely wears rose-colored glasses.  The next time you see a great standup act, ask yourself, “Does the persona the comedian plays see things through a colored lens? And if so, which color?”

The wiggly mirror

As I wrote in an article on my website, the wiggly mirror is great for writing fiction, because the humor in it comes from conflict. Look in a wiggly house-of-fun mirror, and you’ll see a too long neck with too short legs, or a too thin body with a too wide head. This mirror is all about putting together things that don’t belong together--and that’s what conflict is all about. Since conflict is a necessary element in fiction, this mirror is the perfect mirror for creating fiction.  Put a character with another character who doesn't fit him, in a place or situation that doesn't fit him, or have him want or be or believe two things that are mutually exclusive, and you have both a story and the potential for humor. (Click here to read more.) 

One thing I didn’t mention in that article is that the wiggly mirror can be used in another--almost opposite--in the House of Funny. While this mirror puts unlikely things together, it also shows us how something is like something else. People who look in these mirrors in a house of fun often say, “I look like a giraffe!” or “I look like a penguin!” By changing certain parts of your appearance, you end up looking like something else.
Airplane! (Don't Call Me Shirley! Edition)
This aspect of the wiggly mirror is great for adapting stories, whether in funny or dramatic ways. I could use it to adapt the news of the day when I was a political cartoonist. If someone reminded me of a captain of a sinking ship, I could draw him as a captain of a sinking ship. This aspect is also the one used for creating puns, because puns are based on things that are different but sound alike. It can also be used in parodies, like the movie Airplane!

And when it comes to writing fiction, this aspect of the wiggly mirror can let you use anything--from your life, to the news, to old classics--as a springboard for creating new stories.

DON QUIJOTE - II (94 min.) Spanish audio / English SubtitlesFor example, when I wrote Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey, I looked at the classic story of Don Quixote and asked myself what it might be like in today’s world. Don Quixote, with his love of reading and his desire to become a storybook hero, reminded me of a kid who wants to be Harry Potter or Prince Charming. Don Quixote’s trusty servant, Sancho Panza, reminded me of a faithful friend. So I turned Don Quixote into 13-year-old Dan Tyler; and I turned Sancho Panza into his best friend Sandy.  I went through the rest of Don Quixote asking what in Dan and Sandy’s lives could be like the elements of Don Quixote’s story. And that's how Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey came about. 

Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey

In conclusion

If you want to write something funny or add humor to something you’ve already written, try to look at your setup through the various House of Funny mirrors and lenses.

Ask yourself the following questions:

1.       What is the expectation your set up creates?

2.       What is the opposite of that expectation?

3.       Is your setup about an assumption, and is that assumption false or plain out absurd? If so, what’s the unrevealed truth about that assumption?

4.        If your setup is something small, what happens when you magnify it?

5.       If your setup is something huge, what happens when you understate it?

6.       What is the expected attitude people have about your setup, and which colored lens might create a surprisingly different perspective?

7.       What conflicting thing can you put together with your setup in a surprising way that makes sense? (In fiction, this can be a conflicting character, a conflicting external situation, or a conflict a character has with himself or herself.)

8.       If your setup is something that’s been done to death (variations on Cinderella, for example), what does the setup remind you of? Is there something similar but very different that’s never been done before?  

Brainstorm this out on paper. In the center, write down the setup you intend to use. Put a circle around it. Now write or draw (when I was a political cartoonist, I often drew) the answers to these questions. Sometimes one question will have several promising answers, and sometimes a question will not lead to any answers at all. When you find an answer you like, put a circle around it. If you like, you can even rewrite your answer at the center of another piece of paper and use that to brainstorm the next part of your story.
Not only will this method help you add humor to your writing, it can help you come up with an infinite number of story ideas, or brainstorm solutions to all sorts of problems by giving you new ways to look at them. After all, anything can be a setup.

So now you know how to add humor to your writing in ways no one else has thought of before. See, I told you you were a comic genius!


I hope this was helpful, and if so I hope you'll use it to create humor wherever and whenever you find a need for it. As always, I welcome your questions and comments.  As the tagline for Dan Quixote goes, life and laughter are better with friends.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Me Write Funny Someday—how to add humor to your writing (part 1)

Would you like to add humor to your writing? I'm guessing the answer is yes. Humor adds so much, whether your aim is to write something altogether funny, pique a reader's interest with humor, create a comic interlude to give readers a break between more dramatic scenes, or use humor to contrast with dark and perhaps scary scenes in a way that brings the darkness in your story out even more.

I've used humor to do all of these, as a political cartoonist, arts-and-entertainment writer, consumer columnist, and a writer of a variety of books for kids and teens: everything from funny picture books and illustrated novels for middle graders to an epic fantasy about a magical storyteller, a romantic YA ghost story, and a novel about a super geek turned into a reluctant vampire.

To do this, I used a formula that I invented during the seven years I was a political cartoonist. Back then, I had to come up with four to eight cartoons a week--usually written on the same day, so my cartoons would be timely. Since then, this formula has not only helped me add humor to my writing; it's helped me come up with an endless supply of story ideas.

So how does it work?

Shevi’s House of Funny formula for creating humor

The House of Funny formula is comprised of three Ss:


The setup can be anything you want to be. In this case, it's whatever you want to make funny or add humor to. The setup creates an expectation, and the surprise comes from taking the setup in a completely unexpected direction.

Therefore, if you want to add humor to your writing, you have to work out what the reader will expect--and then you have to take your story in a completely different, unexpected direction. Not only will this add humor to your writing--it will let you create something that stands out from the crowd, something unexpected and new, something readers haven’t seen before. It will give your writing the "Wow" factor everyone is looking for.

Will any kind of surprise do?
Well, no. To fit the House of Funny formula, the surprise has to make sense on some level. Otherwise, it's just funny weird, not funny ha ha. We laugh at a joke because we "get it"--and we can't get it if it doesn't make sense!

Also, as I mentioned in my first video on the topic, while other comedy experts see pain as an essential element in comedy, I see it as a comedy killer.

Of course, some audiences have a much higher pain threshold than others, so you have to know your audience. Will they be surprised by your surprise, able to make sense of your logic, and accept any pain that may be a part of your joke? If so, you have all the ingredients for humor.

So how do I creates that surprise?

Great question! I'm glad you asked. (Okay, technically I'm the one who asked. But it's still a great question.)  The answer is rather complicated, so we’ll be looking at that in my next blog post. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

How I learned to stop worrying and love the e-book

I know my friends mean well when they tell me that an agent and a book deal are right around the corner. Every writer wants to be traditionally published, right? Every writer wants to see his or her book with a Random House or Simon & Schuster logo on the spine, right? And that’s what I’ve been working toward these last nine years. That’s the reason I’ve written seven middle-grade and YA novels, the reason I attended all those writers conferences, the reason I’ve entered contests, and the reason I’ve submitted my manuscripts to agents. I’m getting so close. Why would I want to give up all I’ve worked so hard for when I’m so close to getting it?  

The assumption is that traditional publishing is the real deal and self-publishing is for writers who couldn’t make it any other way. But I’m not a big fan of assumptions. I like to examine things more closely and from different perspectives. So let’s take a closer look at how traditional publishing stacks up against indie publishing today.

Traditional Publishing
Indie E-Publishing
How long does it take?
According to a survey conducted by SF writer Jim C. Hines, it takes the average writer ten years to get a first novel published.
This works according to Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the amount of time allotted to it. Three months to a year is about right.

How much does it cost?
That depends on how much you want to invest. There are the basic expenses of mailing dozens of query packages over ten years, but most successful writers also invest in conferences, which cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. Some writers also take MFAs, which generally cost over $10,000.
Again, it depends on how much an author wants to invest. Basic expenses include books on writing and publishing, copyright registration, an editor, and a professionally designed cover. Total expenses usually run $200-$1,000.

How big of an advance can a writer expect to get?
According to a survey conducted by SF writer Tobias S. Buckell, the median first-time author advance is about $5,000. Combine that with the above survey, and that means the average writer earns $500 a year for the first ten years of his career:

Indie Publishers don’t get an advance, and they do have to spend money to publish their books.
What about royalties?
A traditionally published author earns royalties once his or her book has earned out its advance. That doesn't sound too bad...except when one considers the majority of books by first-time authors don't earn back their advance. What's even more alarming, is that, according to research conducted by writer Kris Rusch, publishers--including some of the big six--are under-reporting ebook sales. So even if your book is selling enough to earn back your advance, you might never know it:
This depends on the writer’s abilities as a writer and as a marketer, but consider this: in ten years, an indie publisher can easily produce five ebooks, and if he sells them at $2.99 each (which would earn $2 for every copy sold), he only needs to sell 500 copies on average per book over a ten year period to make up the money he didn’t get from an advance.

What about a second book?
According to editor Alan Rinzler, 80-90% of books don’t earn out their advance, which means that’s all an author gets--and it means an author will have a doubly hard time finding a publisher for a second book:
Indie publishers usually build an audience, which means they generally make more money the more books they have out. One unsuccessful book doesn’t put an end to an indie publisher’s career. He can always try, try again--with a different book or even the same book.

What about editing?
According to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, “first-time authors are being printed rather than published—assuming they’re fortunate enough to get a publishing contract in the first place.... An acquisitions editor who signs up fifteen or twenty books a year couldn’t possibly edit them all...”
Most smart indie publishers hire editors. This costs money, but at least indies can shop around. They choose who they’re going to work with, and they have the final say. You can’t fire your editor at a traditional publishing house, but you can fire a freelance editor who works for you.

What about cover and interior design?
The publishing house chooses your cover based on their knowledge of the market and sometimes other factors (including a cheaper royalty-free cover). Authors may or may not be happy with the results, but they have no say. Brunettes have been turned into blondes. African-American protagonists have been portrayed on covers as white. Sometimes writers have had to rewrite scenes to fit cover images.
The cover is perhaps the most important thing an indie publisher can invest in. Some designers sell halfway decent covers for under $50, but most good ones go for $300 and up. It’s a good idea to start with something cheaper and then change it when you’ve made enough to justify the expense. Again, if you’re self-publishing, the choice is yours.

What about marketing?
Most publishers today expect most first-time novelists to do their own publicity. Those big advertising budgets are for writers who have already made the bestseller lists. You get a book launch, maybe a book signing or two, and a dozen or so review copies to mail out. Otherwise you’re basically on your own.

Like a traditionally published writer, this is mostly in your own hands. Your one advantage here is that you know it.
What about getting your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores? And what about Amazon?
A big publisher does have an easier time getting your book into brick-and-mortar stores, however...You might not have noticed, but brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing at an alarming rate. In addition, new books usually only stay on the shelf for a few months before they’re remaindered. After that, your book is the same boat as one that was self-published---unless your book goes out-of-print, in which case, it’s at a disadvantage. Your access to Amazon is pretty much the same, except that the publisher will probably act on your behalf. Again, it’s not in your hands.
For a small additional fee (about $50), most POD printers can make your book available to brick-and-mortar bookstores that ask for them, whenever they ask for them. It can never go out-of-print. You can sell your book through Amazon, and what goes on your book’s page (with the exception of reviews and comments) is in your hands.

What about reviews?
Big publishers usually have access to more print reviewers than indie publishers do, but that doesn’t guarantee your book will be reviewed in the New York Times. And even if it is, that doesn’t guarantee the review will be positive or that it will lead to sales. Print newspapers are fading even faster than brick-and-mortar bookstores. They still matter, but not as much as word of mouth and social media marketing.
When it comes to marketing, indie publishers usually focus on social media. A dozen glowing reviews from real people with real names on Amazon--or people saying nice things about your book on Twitter--will probably boost your book sales more than a great review from a print newspaper.

What about ebooks?
Traditional publishers usually charge $9.99 (the maximum Amazon allows in the 70% royalty range) for ebooks, because they don’t want ebooks to undercut their hardcover sales. Authors, however, usually only make about 15% of that. There is a very slim chance your publisher will invest heavily in marketing your ebook (they do that for bestsellers), so your $9.99 ebook will probably have to compete with similar indie-published books that cost a lot less than yours. In some categories, the indies are winning hands down. Recently, only one of the top ten Science-Fiction novels on Kindle was traditionally published--and it was a decades-old classic, Ender’s Game. In short, the competition is fierce, and this is one you're very unlikely to win. Amazon claims to sell more ebooks than books in any other format, so this is a major loss for the traditionally published writer who isn't a bestseller.
Indie publishers can charge less for ebooks and still make money, not only because their expenses are low and they can put out as many books as they can write in any given length of time, but because ebooks--when done right--should be their primary money maker. They can make $2 of pure profit for every ebook copy sold at $2.99. That’s 25% more than a traditionally published author whose ebook sells for $9.99.

So to all my friends, thank you for your kind words, but I didn’t give up my goal of finding an agent and a publisher because I lost faith in myself; I did it because I lost faith in the traditional publishing industry and because I truly believe in my work and my vision for it.

Thank you for believing in it too.