What is a potboiler? #writing

The term ‘potboiler’ is an old-timey writing term for a writing project which is short or easy to do, and will result in some writing income that the writer can use for basic survival. Picture a writer in a garret, working on a project so he can buy some dried beans or lentils so he can make a pot of soup so he can keep eating even when he is between project and his REAL writing work is far from finished.

In the days when pulp magazines in every genre were on the newsstands, and they paid enough to make a difference, many writers wrote short stories for income while they were waiting for their REAL writing career to take off.

In more recent times, the common potboilers have been when a literary author writes in a popular genre, usually using a pseudonym. Stephen King’s novel The Dark Half tells about such an event. Being a Stephen King novel, of course the pseudonym who got the credit for the literary author’s violent crime novels comes to life and starts killing people, but I understand that rarely happens in real life.

Another example is when a lady author of science fiction and/or fantasy dashes off some quick romance novels to get the income flowing. I’ve known of a couple of well-known authoresses who have gone this route.

Of course, for many authors it may feel that selling a potboiler crime novel or romance is just as hard as selling other work. It’s a pretty risky source of income. Especially when you don’t have an agent yet, or a novel in your REAL genre on the market.

One trick that many modern author-bloggers do is to monetize their blog readers by selling a self-published ebook to that audience. If the author normally blogs about the process of writing, he might write some how-to-write ebook, perhaps a short one, for a little income. If the author-blogger has other non-fiction topics covered on the blog, those topics might also earn some income.

Non-fiction is often an easier sell than fiction by an unfamiliar author. Especially when you have a blog on that covers that topic. You may even be able to re-write and expand a few blog posts into something that will sell.

Perhaps you are thinking that a potboiler is all too crass and commercial. But the Bible says ‘Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn.’ (I Cor. 9:9, KJV.) A writer needs to be paid for writing, or it feels like just a hobby. An unjustifiably expensive hobby, when you buy how-to-write books or pay to attend writers’ conferences. Many writers feel that their early potboiler-writing years improved their writing skills, and made them feel like a real writer.

What kind of writing could you do, right now, that would probably make you a little money to keep the wolf away from the door?

What your book cover must do #writing

Book covers. Some people say you must spend a certain amount of money on your book cover. Others make lists of what they think are bad book covers, some of which are quite good for the story involved. But forget what ‘they’ say. A book cover must only do one thing— pass as a professional cover from a major publisher (as the illustrated ‘bad book cover’ above cannot.)

A lot of trad-published authors kvetch about their book covers. A fantasy novel with a non-blonde, non-combat oriented heroine has a blondie in a chain-mail bikini on the cover fighting a bad guy. One with a scrawny male Lead who unexpectedly outsmarts the warrior-types has a clone of Conan on the cover. A romance heroine with small boobs is shown with stripper-level boobs on the book cover. But all of these things are OK, if annoying, because the book cover, however wrong, passes as a professional book cover.


Traditional publishers sometimes put very plain covers on books. Particularly books in obscure languages where the books will sell whether or not there is a cover illustration. But a plain cover is not the same thing as an amateur cover. A self-published author is better off with a home-made cover as plain as this, than with an illustrated cover that can’t possibly pass as a ‘real’ book cover.

You may be thinking: isn’t it better to have an illustrated cover in any case, even if it isn’t great? But remember that your readers are judging your writing skills by the cover. Plain cover— could equal good book. Amateur cover— probably very bad amateur author.

How do you get a good book cover? Well, that’s one reason to network with other authors and aspiring authors. You may be able to get recommendations. And remember— the cover doesn’t have to be pretty. You don’t have to like it. It’s probably better, if your book cover has a dragon on the cover, that your book has a dragon in it, or at least is set in a fantasy world that might have dragons. But the only important thing is that it has to look like a big traditional publisher could have made that ugly or inaccurate book cover. Nothing else matters.

Can you do your own covers? It depends. Do you have graphics skills? Have you made graphics that look professional? I’ve read some articles on how to do your own book covers. If you have the right skills, you can try that. But if you are hopeless at illustration, pay someone to do it right.

New Writers must develop discernment

What do you need as a writer? Loads of original ideas? Loads of knowledge from hundreds of how-to-write books and blog posts? No, what you really need is discernment. Discernment to help you tell which ideas— your own or other people’s— are good enough to work with.

I have seen a number of new writers who consider themselves Christian writers. They develop a novel idea which is a fantasy idea set in Old Testament times and they write it. And self-publish it. And wonder why after 5 years they have not one review on Amazon that wasn’t written by their mother.

They lack discernment about what the average Christian novel buyer wants. Go into a Christian bookstore and see what fiction is being published by the Christian publishing houses. How many are retold Old Testament tales? None? Maybe that should tell new writers something, but some still churn out tales about the Nephilim and such that may not sell.

How-to-write books have a lot of advice, but the advice may not apply to YOU. If the how-to-write book author makes a load of money at self-publishing, but he worked as a salesman for years and had a very popular blog, you shouldn’t expect his success to come to you unless YOU have salesmanship skills and have a popular blog— which is harder to do now than in the heyday of blogging.

If you read some book promoting advice which requires you to have 50 friends, it probably won’t work for you if you have .5 friend(s). If someone says you should write what you are enthusiastic about, it probably won’t help if you are an enthusiast for Victorian doorknobs and your novel is filled with specialized doorknob content at the expense of plot.

Suppose you have a lot of ‘weird’ writing ideas. Do you have the ability to tell which one can be made into a story other people can relate to?

One way to tell if your writing ideas have appeal is if you have a few author-friends you can communicate your ideas with. In the online age, even hopeless people like me— I have Asperger Syndrome and a long history of having no real-world friends— can interact with other writers online. (You have to do things like read and review your friends’ books’ in order to make this work for you.)

In time if you read enough and interact with other writers (and readers) enough, discernment happens. And it will be one of the best tools in your writing toolkit.