Random Thoughts On What To Write

The funny thing that most writers quickly learn is that once they start writing they find that they have more ideas than they have hours in the day.  Which means you have to make a choice as to what to focus your efforts on.

This is where the common wisdom to find that place where what you like to write intersects with what the market likes to buy and focus on that.

But it’s not quite as simple as it seems sometimes to figure out what the market likes to buy.

I happen to be a data nerd, so I like to crunch numbers and analyze things and make projections and have all sorts of fun with my data.  (I know of at least two very successful authors who can’t really tell you how many sales they’ve had this month, so I can assure you that it’s not a necessity to look at your data in order to succeed.)

But I think it can help with focusing efforts in the proper area.

For example, the one novel I did publish that’s a standalone and unrelated to pretty much anything else I’ve written is my second highest grossing title.  I could combine revenues from my bottom ten or twenty titles and they might add up to what I’ve earned on that novel.

Which, at first glance, means that I should spend more time on novels like that.


Dig a little deeper and you find a few interesting problems with that notion. Which is that, sure it’s made me more money than a lot of my other titles BUT it also took a lot, lot longer to write.  And not just on an absolute basis (total hours spent) but on a per-word basis.

If I write a short story I generally put it through about three defined editing passes.  Doing this  I can write and edit a 5,ooo-word short story in about three to four hours.  For fantasy/sci-fi shorts this is maybe more in the seven- to eight-hour range.  (Sometimes those take a lot, lot longer if the story starts more as cool shiny idea than character with a problem.)

A novel is much more complex.  Most have at least one or two subplots and lots of moving parts that all have to fit together.  At this point, for me, it takes maybe nine editing passes to finish one.  And that doesn’t count my rereading the prior day’s writing before starting the new day.

That 72,000-word novel I published?  Took me 164 hours to write.

I could’ve written 72,000 words worth of short stories in less than half the time it took me to write that novel.

So, for me, pure dollars earned per title isn’t the right metric to use when judging the success of a title.

If not that, then what?

I’ve been tracking two other key metrics:

-Pay Per Word

-Pay Per Hour

I don’t really focus on pay per word other than to see if any of my titles are at the level where I’m earning “pro rates” on them.  (Currently 6 cents per word or higher.)

Pay per hour is much more interesting to me.  But that one can get a little skewed.  I have some very short pieces that under KU1 (when each borrow paid about $1.35) did very well.  They only took an hour to write and edit.  But to do well with those I’d have to generate a very high volume and I can’t.  The short, short ideas just don’t come to me often enough to be sustainable.

Also, the problem with all three of the above metrics is that they are hard to measure early on.  A title that doesn’t generate immediate rockstar sales can still be a steady earner.  And if it is, then those numbers won’t look good early on but over months (or probably years) those titles will do well moneywise.

One of my pen names has titles that all just kind of chug along earning a little bit each month, but none were ever breakouts and two took over a year to reach the steady progress stage.

For example, You Can Survive This, which is published under my M.H. Lee name didn’t really sell up front but now generates low-level steady sales each month.  (In paperback not ebook, so keep that in mind, too.)  Not much, but it’s a niche title geared towards a very, very particular audience and the people who need to find it will over a long, long time.

On the flip side, I had another pen name where a title soared when I released it and then took about four months to fizzle out.  (Holiday-themed…)  It may do so again next year or it may have been an on-trend title that has seen its better days.

I also sometimes calculate ROI (a method that Dean Wesley Smith talks about) and see if I’m getting a certain ROI on each title.

(You place a value on your time and aim to make 10% a year on each title you publish.  So, a book that took ten hours at $50 an hour “cost” $500, so a 10% return would mean earning $50 that first year.  If you have other costs, you include those in your costs, too.)

Problem with that one is what value to set on my time.  Dean uses $50/hour.  I can see arguments for less, because I’m new to this and not a thirty-year professional, and more, because of what I could earn if I put my efforts elsewhere.

Of course, there’s also the question of where or how the revenues are being generated.  I have some titles where revenues are 100% earned through KU borrows.  Well, now that KU2 has rolled out, each borrow is worth about twenty cents on the dollar for me compared to before.  So the money I earned on them was great, but…(a) I’m not going to earn that anymore and (b) I don’t want to focus efforts on titles like that because, even if I can earn money through the new KU, it’s too subject to variability and the whim of Amazon for me to want to focus in that direction.

Then, of course, on top of all that is what I haven’t tried yet (writing a series of novels) and where others have succeeded (writing a series of novels, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, etc.).

And, finally, there’s the issue of what I can write consistently.

I find that it’s much harder to generate day-to-day high word count when I’m working on shorter pieces.  If I write a story on Monday or on Monday/Tuesday, then the next writing day I’m facing a blank page again, which means I have to think about what to write and I lose time or get distracted and don’t write.

Whereas if I’m 30,000 words into a novel, well, the next day I write the next chapter.  And maybe the chapter after that.  No questions, no hesitations, just sit down and write it.

(And if I do get stuck there’s generally a backlog of interesting ideas that’ve gathered while I’m writing the novel and I can knock one of those out before turning back to it.)

So where does that leave me at the end of the day?  What should I be writing right now instead of this blog post?

Hell if I know.  That’s why I’m writing this instead of starting on the next project.  Haha…Sigh.


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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