WRITING RESILIENT

The first time I got punched in the face, I cried.

To be fair, the day was kind of rough to begin with. I’d lost everything—my family, my livelihood, my freedom, my name—and my opponent knocked my contact lens straight out of my eye. On top of being reduced to the gangling, cluelessly flustered #150600, I was now half-blind.

Bloody brilliant.

I remember turning to the boxing coach in that moment. He must have looked back at the sniveling, watery-eyed newb and seen everything I was thinking.

This is a mistake. I’m not cut out for this. This hurts too bad. Can I go back to my summer job?

The old man leaned over the ropes and squinted beneath the brim of his ballcap. “Well,” he said, “aren’t you gonna hit back?”

The first time I received a query rejection, I cried.

I remember that day just as fondly, and if I could collage every gut-wrenching, whiplash moment of my young adult life, I might glue those two gems right beside one another. You pour your heart and soul into a manuscript, spent hours meticulously crafting of the perfect query, then nibble your fingernails down to bloody stumps as you wait for those polite “no’s,” form rejections, or maybe even nothing at all.

Honestly, I prefer getting punched in the face.

I wish someone would have told me how awful rejections are—how much they hurt, grate, and grind you over months of breathlessly refreshing your inbox. Maybe a sagacious writing wizard could have warned me, prepared me, or figured out how to soften the blow. But once the rejections start, they don’t end anytime soon. If you’re anything like me, telling yourself you can only stand one more hit, you’re in for a rough fight.

The only way to categorize my boxing is amateur. I’m freakishly tall, hopelessly uncoordinated, and tragically unathletic. No matter how good I get at blocking, dodging, screaming, or wincing, I keep getting hit in the face.

If you’re waiting for the sports analogy, this is it: Hit back.

I remember the first day I actually listened to the Naval Academy boxing coach. It was in the middle of being pulverized, pummeled to a pulp by a lacrosse player. (And, let me tell you, if you’ve never fought a female lacrosse player, beware. They have deceptively powerful thighs.)

I remember being angry and frazzled. Panicked, and slightly woozy after that last punch to the jugular.

Why am I doing this? This hurts so bad.

The pain would end if I quit. I could flee the ring whenever I wanted and banish this nonsense from my life. Maybe if I bellowed like a whale, sank to the mat, then curled myself into a ball…

But then I hit back. It wasn’t a very good hit, but it did surprise her. Even more than that, it surprised me.

Hitting back felt good.

I lost the fight, but I went down swinging. The next time, I came out swinging, and I still lost—though not as quickly as previous fights. Every new opponent socked, battered, and bruised me, but every opponent who beat me taught me something about strategy, technique, and my own physical limitations.

Sometimes, I’d win. More often than that, I’d lose. But the more I fought, the better I boxed. The better I boxed, the more often I’d win. (Not often often—just often enough to show things were getting better.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. Being hit in the face hurt just as much as it did the first time it happened. The pain didn’t change. I became more skillful at handling it.

If you step into a boxing ring, you’re going to get hit. If you query a book, you’re going to get rejections. As much as it hurts, that’s the game we’ve chosen to play. It’s very easy for me to look at authors more advanced in their careers—agented, published, renowned authors—and assume that hurt stops. But the farther I toddle along, the more I realize this just isn’t so.

I’ve written nine novels, sent hundreds of query letters, and received just as many rejections. My mentor has written nineteen novels. She’s still receiving them, too. After signing with an agent and going on submission for the first time, I thought the sting would ease, but now I’m getting rejections from publishers.

What happens after publication? What if you get a nasty review? What if the public response isn’t what you hoped for? Just where does this vicious cycle of hope, rejection, and rejuvenation end?

If you’re still in the ring, I think you can assume the answer.

As a young, starry-eyed author, I’m constantly searching for that magic bullet. (Maybe this contest, this program, this agent, this manuscript…) I’ve met many of my goals and improved my skill exponentially, but the rejections haven’t stopped. The recruit #150600 in me wants to cower, run away—do anything to shield myself from disappointment—but I just can’t help but think of that weathered old man in the boxing loft.

What can you do when you’re being pummeled?

My first publishing deal fell through months before its debut. We had a cover, illustrations—the whole wazoo. In the midst of grieving that book, I hit back. I signed up for #WriteMentor, where a kindhearted, acutely experienced author helped me whip up another manuscript to take to the fall showcase.

A big part of me wanted to see #WriteMentor as my silver bullet. This was the place where dreams came true. I saw my friends, peers, and contemporaries celebrating great success. My fairy tale ending had to be somewhere in the stack of rejections…

Right?

I wasn’t agented during the showcase, and, if I’m going to be completely honest, something about that crushed me. It had nothing to do with entitlement or a sense of obligation. I’d just always been told if I hoped enough, worked hard, and got myself in the right place and the right time with a good product, things would turn out splendidly.

But that’s not how publishing works. I was in a fantastic place with fantastic agents and a fantastic manuscript, but it didn’t come together. No matter how good you are, if you enter the ring, you’re going to get hit.

There’s only one thing to do when that happens.

I drafted up a new book in a month. In another month, I was getting full agent requisitions. Fast-forward a month, I was taking multiple calls from agents.

Was it a better manuscript? Maybe. Was it being in the right place at the right time? I honestly couldn’t tell you.

To try to giftwrap an anomaly—a stroke of fortune, a lucky break, a hard-earned milestone, or whatever you want to call it—is difficult, so let’s run the boxing analogy just a tad bit further: If you keep hitting, something’s going to land.

If you keep hitting stronger, faster, and a little better each day—if you keep learning, reaching out to other authors, diving into materials, and connecting with the community, you’re going to get there. If you keep pushing, muscling through the heartbreak, disappointment, and mountains of rejections, you will reach your goal.

I can’t say how. I can’t say when. But you will. The question is whether or not you can persevere until it happens.

A large part of this business is being kind to yourself. I tend to self-depreciate with every new “no” in my inbox, but if I keep beating myself up like this, the other guy won’t have to throw a single punch. Rejections are inevitable. Learn to see them as the single step they are. Feel free to sit with the disappointment as long as you’d like, knowing it’s there for as long as you keep it.

Then get up and hit back.

Resiliency is the name of the game. Knowing how to take a hit is just as important as knowing how to dish one out.

For the record, you don’t need to churn out a new novel every month or put yourself on a crazy deadline. I’m a fast writer. It’s just what I do. Working on a new project during my querying/submissions process has been vital for me because it allows me to see beyond a temporal moment of sadness and disappointment.

One project didn’t work out? You can write another. One person said no? There are many, many people to ask.

I haven’t been at this for a long time, but I have learned this. Whether you’re rejected, chosen, selected, answered, telephoned, dropped, signed, agented—

Keep swinging. Connect. Get involved. Write. Read. Expand. Explore.

The next time I step into a boxing ring as a contender, I’m likely going to be punched in the face. The next time you and I send a query, it’s even more likely we’ll receive some form of rejection. All we can do is stay in the ring.

Maybe we’ll lose…

But maybe we won’t.

You’ve got to stick around long enough to see.

Why does my book suck?

OR

WHERE DID I GO WRONG? 

I’ve heard countless people ask this question, and I’ve voiced it a few times myself. When I’m frustrated, struggling with edits, or reeling from a rejection, this question inevitably rears its ugly head.

But this is the wrong question to ask.

Amy McCaw—author, blogger, critique partner, and fantastic friend of mine—poses a better one:

Why would a reader stop reading?

There are infinite answers, but let’s delve into a few common ones.

Cliches

Does your character wake up for his first day at a new school? Does he startle from a frightening, yet forbiddingly-prophetic nightmare? Does he happen to glance in a mirror and catch a glimpse of his thin frame, brown tussled hair, and strikingly violet eyes? Does he run into run-of-the-mill ugly bully? Join up with his sassy-yet-slightly-less-good-looking best friend to lament about it?

No, no, no, and no.

We’ve read all of these (plus many more) a thousand times before, and, unlike a fine cheese, they aren’t getting any better with age. Aim for original. The story doesn’t necessarily start where the character’s day starts. Frankly, I don’t care what Brooding YA Hero had for breakfast.

Info Dumps

Far too often, especially in genres involving complex world-building like science fiction and high fantasy, I see authors inundating the reader with bucketfuls of secondary details before getting to the main conflict.

Notice I said secondary, not inconsequential. Sure, Gandalf tells Frodo all about how the rings were forged in the dark fires of Mordor, but the opening passage of The Fellowship of the Ring draws the reader in by introducing Bilbo Baggins, a peculiar hobbit who doesn’t seem to age and swaggered back to the Shire, filthy rich with plunder, after a mysterious adventure. The rest of Middle Earth—it’s deities, currencies, countries, races, etc.—are parceled out throughout the story organically, and that’s what we mean when we say that’s some darned good world-building.

Reading your spy thriller shouldn’t be like reading a textbook or a biography. We’re here to hear a story, not to run down a list of facts. Think about your setting as a movie set. Yes, that movie set needs to be spectacular. Details must be in place, inconsistencies ironed out, and the tone and colors should be as vivid as they are exciting. But no one goes to a movie just to watch the set.[1] They’re watching what happens to a character in that set.

As soon as I see long chunks of info dump, I’m out.

Telling, Not Showing

This goes hand-in-hand with my last point. Regurgitating a grocery list of happenings is usually quite dull.[2] Reading about someone’s experiences, however, tends to be much more riveting.

Consider this:

“Lucy walked into the living room, missing her mother, who’d been mauled by feral cats only six months ago.”

You’ve just told me all about Lucy and her feline trauma. How does that compare to this?

“Lucy slipped into the living room, the pang of memory tightening her chest. There was Mom’s needlepoint, and there were her dirty dishes—chipped and moldering, as if marking the calendar date six months earlier. There were her shoes, ripped and shredded, still stained dark where the blood had pooled around her ankles. Lucy imagined she caught the faintest whiff of cat hair, and she shuddered.”

The second example doesn’t give us much information as the first, but it shows us more about Lucy—how’s she’s thinking, feeling, and coping with the traumatic ordeal. Unless I’m studying thermonuclear engineering, I’m not reading a book for someone to prattle off a description. I want the author to paint me a picture.

It’s Boring

Your first responsibility as an author is to make us care. So you’ve created this fictional character doing fictional things. So what? Plenty of other people do that, and if I’ve got the imagination, I can probably do it myself.

Why should I connect with your character? Why do I care whether or not she reaches her goal? Let’s take Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. Why do I care that overweight Willowdean wins a beauty pageant and actualizes her self-esteem? Because, from the very beginning, I liked Willowdean. I connected with her struggles and admired her character.

Conversely, let’s look at The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, which begins with the man Jack murdering all three members of the main character’s family. For the record, I don’t like Jack. I don’t admire his character, and I don’t connect with his murderous appetite. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued because I immediately know the stakes—life and death. If something miraculous doesn’t happen, Jack is going to kill the protagonist.

Whether your book is character or plot-driven,[3] you have to make me care.

In Medias Res

“In medias res” simply means “in the middle of the narrative.” It’s when the curtain opens and we’re suddenly in the middle of a bloody battle or warping to the dark side of the moon.

Movies and TV shows do this all the time, but our craft works a bit differently. Why I’d never blatantly tell you never to use in medias res, I would caution about how you use it. If done poorly, this technique can be a disaster. Often, I see authors launch whole-hog into a fight scene, then never explain who was fighting and why they were dueling with fondue forks. Prologues and immediate action sequences aren’t evil in themselves, so long as you ensure they have direction, purpose, and a coherent role in the overall story.

The Sorcerer’s Stone begins with an in medias res prologue, but the grander saga of the wizarding world never halts Harry’s personal narrative. Additionally, Rowling doesn’t drag her feet about demystifying all the strangeness in the first chapter—that in medias res prologue that entices us with a twinkle of magic—as soon as Hagrid shows up.

Weirdo Names

This point doesn’t have anything to do with actual weird names. Feel free to name your character Tinderwit Bunnysniffer, if you feel so inclined. This is just how I address world-building.

World-building is the subtle, yet inescapable art of weaving structure into story-telling. What is your world, how does it work, and what are the rules? Science fiction and high fantasy tend to be the lowest genres on my list because world-building is such a tricky skill to master. Don’t get me wrong, I want something new—something fresh, original, and imaginative—but if you dump a bucket of “Baltholomew”’s and “Ribbondale”’s and “quad-atomic-piggy-blaster”’s at me without any sort of context, I get overwhelmed and jump ship. I don’t have time to study the handbook on how your world works. I was counting on you, the author, to do that for me in the form of a story.

Parceling out finer details within an engaging plot is crucial, but it can be a hard balance to strike. Like I said before, these things must bloom organically.

Not to My Taste

This is the most common thing I hear in rejections, and, unfortunately, it’s the most frustrating. You will never write a book that everyone will love. Ever. No matter what you do, some readers will stop reading because they simply don’t like the book.

This is where you have to grin and bear it and take every ounce of feedback for what it’s worth. Personally, I didn’t like The Name of the Wind, but that didn’t stop it from being a best-seller and winning multiple awards, now did it?

What should we take from this?

Continue reading “Why does my book suck?”

WELCOME TO THE DEADPOOL

Hello, rising #WriteMentor stars!

I’m so honored to join the team as a #WM mentor this year. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the program, #WM summer program matches unagented authors with mentors to help them prepare a manuscript for the 2019 AGENT SYMPOSIUM! 

 

To learn more about the program, how to apply, what agents will be there, and all sorts of other cool stuff, visit the #WM site. (Mentee applications open April 15, by the by.)

If you haven’t heard the news, allow me to explain it via this blog post that you can also find on my BRAND NEW WEBSITE

hannah deadpool

As a mentee from the program’s launch, I’ve been participating on both sides of the process for almost a year. In 2018, I was mentored by the incredible Marisa Noelle and wrote an entire book in one summer. After many tears, countless rejections, and two more full rewrites, I ended up signing with Lynnette Novak of the Seymour Agency. I’ve written nine novels (finishing up the tenth), have one book on submission (soon to be two), and have sent hundreds of queries. If you’re looking for pluck, spirit, and an indefatigable cheerleader, I’m your gal.

I’m offering a FULL MENTORING package this year.

That’s right, folks. One mentee, one book, and all my attention. Need help with your query? I’ll check out that query. Need synopsis doctoring? I do that, too. Beta reading, critiquing, and editing? Psyah. Having a bad day and need someone to send you funny GIFs? Consider me spunky your literary sidekick. 

What I’m looking for:

I’m only taking one project this year, so I need to fall in love with it. I hate it when people say that, but it really is true. If there were five more of me, I’d be able to do more, but please trust me when I say you don’t want five more of me. 

I’ve written both MG and YA, but I tend to lean toward the MG side of things. If you have a YA and feel like you’re a good fit, don’t be afraid to send it my way! I’m laying out parameters, but I’ve never been one for setting boundaries.

My specialty is horror and dark fantasy, so if you have anything creepy, crawly, eldritch, or spooky, I want it. I’m talking the uncanniness of Coraline, the insidious realism of The Tulip Touch, the chilling twists of The Ink Drinker, or the wicked charm of Splendors and Glooms. I love MG horrors that take on the classic Grimm model, stories with a conclusive moral that show character development with just a pinch of whimsy. Retellings are okay, but I’d rather see something original. No haunted dolls, please. If you have ghosts, I’m going to hesitate, so make sure your pitch your “ghostess with the mostest.” There are a lot of ghost stories on the market right now, and I’m a bit of a spirit snob. (I used to work in the most haunted house in America and spent a lot of time as a part-time ghost.)

I also love funny books, especially in the MG realm. Gallows humor is my absolute fav. Campy is a go, particularly if it has to do with monster tropes. Goosebumps are classics, but I also love the intricate irony of stories like Holes, eerie laughs like Sideways Stories from Wayside School, and the madcap horror of In the Land of the Lawn Weenies. If you’ve got a sarcastically self-aware paranormal hero like Warm Bodies, send me your sweet little murder muffins. No sparkly vampires, please.

At the end of all things, I’m a sucker for good writing. If you’re a pro with prose, send me your genius. By no means is this list exhaustive. If you’ve got a darn tootin’ good book, don’t be afraid to submit just because it doesn’t fit neatly into these descriptions. I have certain genres I prefer over others, but I love getting gems that make me change my mind.

Books I LOVE: 

All the books aforementioned, and anything Neil Gaiman or Stephen King. The Graveyard Book is my all-time favorite, but I’m also in love with The Tale of DespereauxThe Thief Lord, The Wide WindowThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. I devour Mary Downing Hahn, Chuck Palahniuk, Carl Hiaasen, and Louis Sachar. I also LOVE graphic novels. Nimona, Preacher, and Doctor McNinja are some of my favorites.

What am I watching? 

Kill BillThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Pan’s Labyrinth, Deadpool, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Babadook top my movie list. I love Van HelsingAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and any campy horror movie like Plan 9 From Outer Space. What We Do in the Shadows and Your Name stand out as my recent favorites.

I’m an anime nerd. Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo reign supreme. I’m an insatiable fan of Preacher and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I’ll also binge nine episodes of The Office, if you’re up for itNetflix’s Castlevaniarocked my socks.

Who the heck am I? 

Good question. Here’s a rundown:

I was born and raised in the middle of a cornfield. At the age of eighteen, I joined the Navy and traveled the world. I enjoy ultramarathoning, playing honky-tonk piano, writing music, and snooping around in graveyards/haunted houses. I get cranky if I don’t get my coffee. While I am Yankee, I’ve spent the last few years living back-and-forth from France. I’m a bit of a Francophile, but I still drink wine out of a box.

I have a rambunctious, eight-month-old corgi named Bilbo Handsomepants.

What’s my mentoring style? 

I learned a lot working with #WM last year, but my defining moment was when I had to decide if I was doing this for validation or to improve my craft. My mentor encouraged me to make editorial changes that pushed me out of my comfort zone, and my book became infinitely better for it.

If we’re going to work together, please warm up to the idea of killing your darlings. I’m not an editorial ax murderer, but if you ask for my feedback, I’ll give it to you straight.

You’re a great writer. You know that, and so do I. I’m here to help you. If I didn’t believe in your potential, I wouldn’t be volunteering my time. If I don’t have an answer, we’ll find someone who does. If we run into a roadblock, we’ll work our way through it. I can’t promise you a silver bullet, but I can promise the next-best thing—an astounding community of friendly, dedicated writing professionals who will do everything in their power to help you succeed.

So bring it on, you wondrous wordsmiths! I can’t wait to bask in your brilliance. ❤

STRATEGIC READING

OR

READ TO SUCCEED

 

In order to write good books, you have to read good books. I’m a firm believer in that. Oftentimes, I’m so caught up in my own projects, I don’t make time to improve my craft. Practicing my own prose is helpful, but I notice a stark difference in voice, creative ability, and insight when I’m just as serious about reading as I am writing.

If you’re an insurance agent, you’re bound to do timely research into the ever-changing, number-crunching world of modern policies. If you’re a naval officer, you’ll find yourself at daily (speaking from experience) briefs updating you all about the world stage, current strategic positioning, and the latest weaponry tactics.

In any modern career field, a worker is expected to be learning and developing—researching, innovating, and accumulating acumen in their area of expertise.

Why is writing any different?

If you are what you eat, you’ll write as well as you read.

These days, I diversify my TBR (“to be read” pile) depending on what I’m doing. I alternate between all types of books, and I’ve taken the time to break down the different categories based off what I deem helpful.

Now, I can’t make you read. I can’t force you, wheedle you, or shanghai you into a book club, nor is it within my authority to tell you how to succeed. However, I can tell you that my own writing has improved exponentially after making reading a purposeful discipline. Here’s why.

WHAT SHOULD YOU BE READING?

A CURSORY OVERVIEW

Books in your genre

Since I’m spreading my wings in middle grade horror, I asked my agent to email me a list of the big hitters in the genre. K.R. Alexander, R.L. Stine, Mary Downing Hahn, Betty Ren Wright—I bought them all and devoured them, averaging one a day, until I could make a coherent list of themes, plot points, and character arcs.

The truth of the matter is most books in a given genre will have similarities. (That’s what ropes them into a genre, mais non?) Middle grade horror usually stars a protagonist in junior high and is told through that character’s eyes, orbiting a threat more insidious than violent in nature that intensifies when the protagonist is spurned by adult or authority figures. These are often told in deep, third person POV.

Contrast that with young adult fantasy, a (usually) mature teenager working against an older, more powerful authority figure while discovering his/her magical abilities and how they empower him/her to cause greater social change.

Very different genres. Very different prose, very different voices. Reading in your genre familiarizes you with how successful books of the ilk are usually written.

There are always exceptions. Don’t take this to mean you have to plot out every single NYT Best-Seller and Frankenstein your novel based off prefabricated plot points. No one, especially the industry, has the right to tell you how your book should be written. Plenty of zany, genre-bending books have triumphed throughout the years, but it can do you a bit of good to do some research into what’s broadly accepted.

Middle grade horror doesn’t involve gratuitous amounts of violence, gore, cursing, or graphic images. If you wrote a scary story for children that described, in gruesome detail, Little Timmy getting his guts shoveled out with an ice cream spoon…

Well, parents (the ones who usually buy middle grade books for kids) might have a problem with that. Middle grade horror has different boundaries than adult horror.[1] A savvy author will know that.

Reading in your genre also gives you a good idea of what’s been done before. No idea is ever completely original (There are plenty of books about elves, magical wizard boys, and/or predatory houseplants.), but doing your research can help guide your creative direction. When I dove into MG horror, I noticed there were already tons of stories about dolls, puppets, ghosts, and drowning victims. I’d planned for my next story to star a vengeful spirit, but I decided to make the antagonist human instead. It was an easy fix, and it was a little thing to make my idea stand out in a spook-saturated market.

Selling a book that “fits” into a publisher’s lineup is a fine balance of creating something original, but marketable at the same time. If it’s completely alien to the genre, you can potentially alienate your target audience. However, if you just copy/paste what everyone else has already done,[2] your pitch may come across as trite and pedestrian.

My recommendation? Before you frolic into the fields of open creativity, get the lay of the land. Nothing feels worse than putting in hours of work only to find someone else has done something too similar. In hindsight, I wish I would have studied YA a lot more closely before I penned my latest draft of Sweetblood.

Books above your writing level

Want improve your writing? Perfect your prose? Sharpen your voice? Expand your vocabulary? Sharpen your dialogue?

Read authors who are better than you.

King and Gaiman are my go-tos, but I could name countless others. DiCamillo for depth, Jacques for lush description… Heck, J.D. Salinger can tell a compelling story using only characters and dialogue.

I read a lot more slowly than I used to, but that’s usually because I’m taking time to take notes. I’ve been buying my books used off Amazon ($3-$5, if I’m lucky) so I can mark, highlight, and annotate in them without incurring the wrath of vindictive librarians. Any book on my desk has likely been colored, marked, and starred—tattooed with notes and brimming with post-its.

book notes

When I’m writing, I keep a stack of “reference books” on my desk. Maybe that author coined a great turn of phrase, or maybe they described a salacious fight scene perfectly. By taking notes and mining into experienced, more skillful craftsmen’s material, I can guide my own development.

Books below your writing level

Q: If you read books above your writing letter to get better, reading books below your writing level will make you worse.

A: False.

If you start reading a manuscript and begin noting edits (inconsistencies, POV breaks, telling and not showing, poor pacing, flat characters, etc.), that’s a telltale sign you’re beginning to understand those things yourself. I’ve been told the true mark of comprehension is being able to teach something. If you’re reading something that just doesn’t sound right, then you identify why, you’re probably not going to make that mistake in your own writing.

Beta reading and critiquing for writers at or below your level is just as useful as reading above your level. I’ve noticed that in pointing out my CPs’ bad habits, I’m much more persnickety when weeding out my own. There’s only so many times you can comment “redundantly redundant” before axing your own unneeded adverb.

So get involved. Find beta readers and critique partners. Reading for other writers is always homing your own skills.

Research books

I just finished The Psychopathy Test by Jon Ronson. The book (excellent, by the way) is a nonfiction account of a journalist’s misadventures through the realm of psychiatry and his conclusions regarding the misdiagnoses of mental illness.

My newest book isn’t about Scientologists, nor is it about high-security psychiatric hospitals, but The Psychopathy Test did give me excellent information about the history, behavior, and diagnostics of psychopathy. When your antagonist is a twelve-year-old serial killer, that can be handy information.

They say write what you know, and if you read out of your comfort zone, you’re bound to “know” things on a much broader scale. Do you want to write about a pirate? Moby Dick has a great descriptive breakdown of a ship. Maybe you’re writing an alternate-Victorian history about a mad, murderous queen. The Faithful Executioner is full of fascinating information about torture and execution.

Even if the subject doesn’t directly correlate to your writing, anything you read adds to your creative wellspring. As it turns out, my podcast on ancient Babylon ended up inspiring a major part of Skin and Bones—a modern, Alpine horror that takes place halfway across the world, 2500 years later.

Put those useless trivia facts to work. You never know when they might prove useful.

Inspirational books

Read something. Read anything. Magazines, comic books, romantic tragedy, diaries, newspaper stories, manga—whatever. Everything is something, and something may very well blossom into anything.

Don’t read because you have to. Read because you love it. Read what inspires you, what tickles your fancy, what scares you, saddens you, or keeps you up at night. Read what you treasure. Read what matters.

Just read.

If reading is important to you, you immediately put yourself into your client’s shoes. And if reading isn’t important to you, how can you ever place a value on your own writing?

My brain works like a vending machine. If I’m not feeding it anything, I honestly can’t expect any output. Movies, Netflix, and other non-literary storytelling mediums are valuable sources—as is any story—but I’d still argue any day that the best way to get better at writing books is by reading them.

 

[1] This is why IT, while starring child protagonists, is considered adult horror. Content, people. Content.
[2] As a side note, this does work very well for romance novels.
Image credit: @Krasimiranevenova

WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

OR 

Just where do you think you’ve been for the last seven months?   

OR

Carmilla, CASTLEVANIA S2E6

 

June 25. June 25.

             If you’re reading this—congratulations—you passed some sort of proverbial test of perseverance. Honestly, I didn’t think it’d been that long since I’ve written in this blog, but after checking the stats five minutes ago, I now realize my last entry was June 25.

Seven months. That’s not bad, right?

Now, I know the next thing to come is a barrage of questions:

                Where have you been?

                Have you given up on this blog?

                Did you fail as a newbie author?

                Were you kidnapped by gorillas?

                What happened?

                Do you not love us anymore?

                To which I reply, respectively:

                A variety of different places. Mostly at my computer screen.

                No. Case in point: this new entry.

                Impossible to do so.

                No.

                A myriad of things I will cover in due time.

                Don’t be ridiculous.

Many things happened—good things, bad things, and everything-in-between. Life happened, and let me reassure you that there has been ample blood and tears shed in the process.[1] I know I’ve been a heinously awful blogger, but I also defect to the caveat I posted sometime (A long time?) ago:

               My blog, my timeline.

               Now, don’t let this undermine how much I appreciate your readership and fidelity. If you’ve stuck with me for this long, rest assured that I appreciate you from the bottom of my heart. However, as sometimes life can be a bit sticky, my blogging does come secondary to other things in my life, ie, writing, reading, travelling, caring for my corgi puppy, and my professional goals.

With that much being said, I suppose the big news is I’m now agented and on submission for one book, soon to be two. I’ve written three more manuscripts and was selected as a contestant in a major British writing showcase.

               I said was neglectful. Not idle.

               Wait a darn-tootin minute, Hannah, you say. Now, after all that discussion about publishing methods, you’re agented? Who, what, when, where, and why?

                In the interest of keeping these posts short and resuscitating my material, I’ll give you an overview and then dive into some of the individual sections in later posts. Thus, I present:

                JUST WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED

                An Outline of the Last Seven Months

                By Hannah Kates

  • March, 2018—I’m selected for and entered into the #WriteMentor showcase under the tutelage of author Marisa Noelle
  • June, 2018—I write my last fated blog post
  • Summer, 2018—I Frankenstein-together the first draft of SWEETBLOOD, a YA dark fantasy loosely based off the Patel multiverse
  • September, 2018—I enter SWEETBLOOD in the #WriteMentor showcase. I receive a few requests, but these turn out “meh.”
  • October, 2018—I pine over SWEETBLOOD and its apparent hopelessness
  • Fall (ish?) 2018—I receive multiple requests from pitching contests, including a few from small publishers
  • November, 2018—I decide to write a middle grade horror and complete my first draft of SKIN AND BONES in twenty days
  • Fall (Ish?) 2018—I start pitching SKIN AND BONES in various pitching contests before it’s actually finished, thereby breaking my own sacred rule[2]
  • Still Fall-ish, 2018—Two small publishers make offers on SWEETBLOOD. An agent asks for a revise and resend.
  • December, 2018—An agent asks for THE CALL regarding SKIN AND BONES. Shortly after, a second agent asks to CALL the very same week.
  • 28 December, 2018—I take both calls and end up signing with Lynnette Novak of the Seymour Agency. She signs me for SKIN AND BONES, and I sheepishly inform her about my offers for SWEETBLOOD.
  • 1 January, 2019—While everyone is out drinking champagne and watching fireworks, I realize in frozen panic that SWEETBLOOD must be rewritten before we put it out on submission. I ask for two months. Lynnette gives me one.
  • 14 January, 2019—I finish the SWEETBLOOD rewrite and go on submission shortly after
  • JanuFebrary[3]—I begin revising SKIN AND BONES

Clear as mud. At any rate, these calamitous events have been rife with both triumph and despair, laughter and tears, celebration and discouragement. If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re well-aware you’ve boarded a runaway train to unpredictability.

What do any of us have to lose?

As I get back into the rhythm of my weekly blog posts, I’m plan on shifting my direction and addressing the events I loosely outlined above. I’d like to cover subjects including (but not limited to):

  • Mentor programs
  • Pitching contests (Part 3)
  • Summaries
  • Branding
  • THE CALL
  • Revise and resends (R&R)
  • Rewrites
  • Cross-genre work
  • Querying strategies
  • Reading strategies
  • Your Genre and You
  • Patronage and Outsourcing

So on and so forth. These topics may be a bit flighty, so please always feel free to contact me via the CONTACT tab if there are other topics you’d like to see covered.

And, as always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns about anything else, my virtual inbox door is always open.

A lot of you have already reached out to me regarding communities, query letters, summaries, and baby pandas. If I can’t help you,[4] you’d better be darned sure I’ll find someone who can.

Thanks for sticking along for the ride. ❤

 

[1] Not to worry, dear reader—my silence was not without suffering.
[2] But, in all truthfulness, don’t do what I did. Just… Please. I know I’m the hypocrite telling you to do as I say, not as I do, but ignore the ultimate result and listen to me for a second: DON’T PITCH YOUR UNFINISHED MANUSCRIPT.
[3] The new month I just invented including the latter half of January and the earlier half of February.
[4] Full disclosure: Pandas are far beyond the realm of my experience.

ARE YOU SURE YOU’RE CUT OUT FOR THIS?

Thoughts on critique. 

I am well-aware that this weekly blog has atrophied into something of a bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly (?) sort of deal, but if you recall one of my recent (?) posts, it’s my blog, so I’m going to write when I damn well feel like it.

That much being said, it’s about time I wrote something.

Several things have been occupying my time these past several weeks, and they include moving halfway across the world, exploring my new murder attic, and being chosen as a candidate for the #WriteMentor competition this September.

As exciting as the two former are, I can only speculate that you, newbie author, are perking your ears at the latter. What is Write Mentor? Well, I hardly knew until I saw the application on Twitter days before it was due. Basically, unpublished authors fill out this big, long application about what they’re doing and why they need help (Think of it as a literary scholarship application.). Published authors then peruse these applicants and decide who they think they can help and who they will work best with, then choose mentees to help polish a manuscript to submit before a panel of agents at the end of the summer.

Swanky, non?

On a whim, I went ahead and submitted my Was-Going-To-Be-Published-But-Now-Isn’t middle grade fantasy-adventure, Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key.

Like I said, this was a whim. I didn’t expect to be chosen. And I certainly didn’t expect to be writing young adult fiction.

But Fate never seems to care about what we want or imagine. I was announced to be paired with the fabulous Marisa Noelle, YA/MG author-extraordinaire who has been through two literary agents and has five publishing deals sitting on her desk.

She’s a pretty big deal. Check out her website.

As gobsmacked as I was, joy soon wrenched into indigestion at her first suggestion: Your manuscript is too long. 75k needs to go to 50k. Or you need to up the age group. Take your main character from 12 to 17.

As much as you must kill your darlings, there are certain things that just can’t be done. Chopping off one third of the book, for instance. Now, I technically could have gutted the story and given Patel a good dose of hormones, but I really didn’t want to. I felt that would make it an entirely different story—something it just wasn’t meant to be.

But I did have another story. A prequel. A prequel in which Patel’s Eccentric Aunt Gilly must team up with an undead guitarist to take down a murderous cult. Beta readers were telling me it read like YA. Why not throw it in the ring?

That’s how I ended up rewriting my MG horror as a YA gothic comedy. Go ahead and laugh at me. I sure am.

Huge honor, right? Feeling super fly and extra writer-licious, losing myself in dreams of instant agent deals and signing for a three-book series.

Until I submit the story to Marisa and start getting feedback.

The prologue has to go, she says. (For the record, I’m paraphrasing all of this. She’s much more well-spoken and British than I’m writing her to be.) YA’s focus on the protagonist. You need to begin in real time, and not in the perspective of two fruit bats.

I gasped. I reeled. I tried unsuccessfully to do a handstand and shook my fist at the sky. “No fruit bats? Why, the fruit bats are the crème de la crème of this story—the metaphysical glue that holds this tale together! Does this lady have no respect for my dreams? My artistic vision? My lifelong personal goal to narrate a double-murder through tiny, fuzz-rimmed eyes?

I proceeded to write a long, wheedling email about why the prologue worked and why the fruit bats needed to stay. Marisa then proceeded to answer my email with a curt, kind explanation of why I was wrong.

I was floored. Disheartened. Disillusioned and lost in a literary vortex. No fruit bats? How would I ever do this without fruit bats?

Instead of replying and arguing back, I sat on it. Drove on it. Moved into an apartment on it. Drank too much bourbon on it. I had an idea. Then I started writing. Then, lo and behold…

The book got better.

I wrote Marisa an apology. She was right. I had asked her for help, then shoved that effort back in her face. I was feeling very icky about all of this, trying to sift through my feelings on the matter, when I had a great discussion with a group of writing friends in Jacksonville. One of them, a highly prolific and astute short story craftsman, recalled going through the same thing with one of her mentors. “You have to decide,” she said. “Are you looking for help or affirmation?”

What a question. What a horribly hard, truth-seeking question. This was a question I had to ask my honest self—a question I now ask myself every day.

                Am I writing to get better, or am I writing for everyone to tell me I’m good at writing?

When I first submitted to Marisa, I was bent on impressing her. I was cocky, still pooping rainbows from the selection, and frankly a little starstruck. When things didn’t go as I planned, I immediately went defensive, as if trying to assure her that, “Yes, I am super good at writing, and you meant to give me praise, but you just didn’t realize you should have.”

Wowzers.

I had to take a step back. Here I am, an unpublished author who has only been professionally contracted for a middle grade book. I’ve been at this for about three years. Marisa, who has been doing this for twice as long as I have, has written nineteen books in both MG and YA and now holds five publishing contracts. I’m sitting here trying to argue with my mentor, the woman who has volunteered her time to guide me, about a genre I’ve never written before. I really did have to stop and question myself.

Why am I doing this?

Critique can be hard to take, especially if you’re like me and foster extreme Gryffindor tendencies and/or an undiscovered genius complex. This experience has been extremely humbling for me, and I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my own journey and the state of my attitude. I know I’ve written about taking critique before, but this subject has touched me so personally, I wanted to write about it again.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Process feedback before you take the time to respond to it.

Seriously. Don’t do what I did. DON’T REPLY TO THAT EMAIL.

Back up. Go do something else. Come back and reread the critique. Muse on it. Brainstorm. Try to incorporate what the critic suggests, and then and only then may you come back to argue.

Have you ever tried to reason with a toddler? It’s a funny thing to do. Toddlers don’t really employ reason, nor do they consider the reasonability of the other person’s argument. Look, Jimmy, I know you want ice cream from the stand, but if you’ll only wait thirty minutes, I’ll go get ice cream at the store, and you can have ice cream for an entire week instead of just one day.

But all Little Jimmy hears is, I don’t love you and you’ll never get ice cream. I’m not going to give you what you want because I HATE YOU and you smell bad.

Don’t be a toddler. Consider other people’s opinions before you respond to them. Why are they giving you this critique? Is it truly because they hate you and think you smell bad? Or is it because they want to help you?

Critique arouses emotions, and that’s ok…

…so long as you don’t let those emotions control you. Someone just commented on how you’re raising your child. The gall—the nerve of some people! You have every right to be hurt, bamboozled, or even downright angry.

However, those are feelings, and while feelings may inform your reaction, they must never dictate it. I would suggest letting those feelings drain before you respond with angry/indignant emails.

You can (and should) take time to brainstorm.

You aren’t patching a firehose or defusing a ticking bomb. You’re writing a 90,000-word novel. With that being said, breathe. If someone brings you back a critique or a suggestion, you really don’t have to tear apart the entire cannon. Things work much better if you give yourself the time and space to explore your options and try new things.

If you don’t want your work critiqued, don’t write.

We are humans. We choose things. We form opinions. I choose what I want to wear in the morning and assess why I like peanut butter choco pops more than spinach salad. No matter what it is or what you do, someone, somewhere, is going to form an opinion about it. This is what’s called a closed loop system—an input-feedback process that governs how we process our environment and react to it. We do it naturally; we are teaching robots to do it autonomously and call it AI.

With all this in mind, you cannot logically or anatomically expect a human being (or a robot, for that matter) to read your work and not form an opinion about it. You can’t escape critique. Ever. I was walking down the street the other day when a group of men pulled up to me and decided to inform me all about what they thought about my outfit. What a world.

You will never write something perfect.

Deal with it. If that’s what you’re looking for—the perfect manuscript with perfect ratings and no criticism whatsoever—don’t publish. Write the story in invisible ink, fold it into a 68-pointed origami puzzle, wrap it in duct tape, lock it in a safe, attach that safe to a concrete block, then go ahead and paddle that sucker all the way out into the middle of the Atlantic and let it drop.

Then. Then your manuscript shall never be critiqued.

Your manuscript will never be finished.

Nope. Never. There will always be typos. Always something you missed or could have done better. Someone, somewhere will ALWAYS be able to come up with a way your manuscript could be improved.

Does every one of Stephen King’s books have a five-star rating? Heck, I’m a newbie author and I have an opinion on what he could have done better. (IT is too meandering, Joyland is too slow, and now I’m going to stop before I get too blasphemous.)

Eventually, you have to let it go. Only you know when that time comes, but it will come, and your book won’t be perfect. Even Jesus Christ had critics. How do you get more perfect than that?

No one wants to read your unedited/unpublished manuscript for fun.

Sorry. Here’s the truth: Authors are serious people. Authors are professional people. Respect their time.

I will read my friends’ books when they have been edited and released (Hooray! I’ll buy it on Amazon!), but I have a line of dedicated, hungry writers in my inbox who have submitted me work because they genuinely want to improve. That’s what being a beta/CP means.

If these are not your goals, don’t enlist betas and don’t reach out for a critique partner. I’m not going to spend hours on hours meticulously evaluating a manuscript (Ok—honest moment, here. Unedited manuscripts are NOT FUN to slog through. Sure, I enjoy them, but it’s WORK.) if you’re going to question/argue every point or listen to nothing I say.

You have no idea how infuriating it is to spend hours reading someone’s work only to receive a resubmission and find that they’ve taken no time to correct simple, blatant mistakes.

Now, I’m not right about everything, and I certainly would never canonize my opinion, but let’s break it down to this:

Don’t ask for someone’s critique unless you’re going to do something with it.

Not all feedback is valid feedback.

Really. Some people have no idea what they’re talking about or may just be wrong. However, it’s up to you to be able to discern the good feedback from the bad, and that’s a skill that can only be acquired with practice.

If you’re looking for someone to tell you how awesome you are, go find your mom.

I’m serious. Go find your mom. If you’re feeling down, hesitant, or unsure if you’re cut out for this, go call up your mom and ask her to tell you how great you are. That’s your mother’s job. Not other writers’.

Writing groups can and should be a major source of support. They should guide you, be there to catch your tears, and spur you on when you feel like quitting. However, don’t expect that group to be okay with you shoving an unedited piece before them and demanding a positive response. That’s not real. That’s a waste of time.

When you bring something to a writing group, you should bring the piece to make it better. That’s what we (hopefully) are all there to do. Improve. If your ego is bruised, maybe that’s the night you don’t bring anything. Maybe that’s the night you ask for a hug or maybe go back and reread some compliments you received in another piece of work.

Have you ever read the story of the emperor’s new clothes? Take it like that. Pillowing your ego with false praise or (worse) insisting that no one comments at all is as silly as making anything different of a naked king.

If you’re not being critiqued, you’re not improving.

What do ballerinas do in ballet studios? Get corrected. What do new recruits do at boot camp? Get corrected. What were you doing for twelve years of your life getting a high school degree? Being corrected.

How are you learning if you’re not receiving feedback? Correction? Guidance? How can you fix problems you don’t know you have? If you’re not taking critique, you’re probably stagnating, and that really is a tragedy.

If you’re overwhelmed by feedback, stop asking for it.

This is completely human, and I’d assert that it’s valid. Sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed. There’s too much to correct—too much to jigger, finagle, and tinker with—and the task seems insurmountable. These are the days I have to step back. Take a break. NOT OPEN the feedback one of my betas just sent me.

You know how they say it takes five compliments to make up for every diss? You’ve got to keep a close eye on that ratio. Sometimes, it’s just too much and that’s okay. Put it down. Take a break. Write for yourself until you’re happy. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ll never write your best when you’re doing so from obligation rather than joy.  

Writing is a process. Books are things. Opinions are ephemeral, and “author” is simply a title.

How has this Write Mentor experience changed me? Well, I’m actually listening, for one. I’m taking the time to absorb feedback, process it, and then strategize my response instead of immediately going into damage control mode.

You want to know something else?

The book is getting better.

It may be the best thing I’ve ever written. This new writing group is stretching me to heights I’ve never reached before, and I’m both amazed and delighted with how much I’ve grown in such a short amount of time.

Is every piece of everybody’s feedback valid? Probably not. Is there oodles to be learned by dedicated, caring professionals who have already been through exactly what you’re going through now? Most certainly.

YOU HAVE SEPARATION ANXIETY

Newbie authors often suffer from separation anxiety with their first book. I speak from experience because I am a newbie author and have been utterly twitterpated by my first masterwork. Imbrum, my 300k post-apocalyptic noir, was it. It was the book that was going to boost me to the stars, hook me all the agents, land me a three-book, multi-million-dollar deal and then a Netflix series.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. (If it had, do you think I’d be writing this blog?) All the effort I put into that behemoth came crashing down on my wide-eyed, slack-jawed face, and I learned a very cold, cruel lesson:

                You are the only one who cares about your baby.

And that’s just it. Or, to quote, Joanna Penn, “Nobody cares that you wrote a book.” You can sweat, strive, and strain—rage, scream, and edit until your fingers bleed—but most authors write multiple books before they see a cupcake sprinkle of success.

If you’re a newbie author, this is not what you want to hear. If you’re a newbie author sitting on an unfinished, unedited manuscript, you can’t even begin to imagine what it’s going to be like to write the next two, three, or even five books in the series. But this post isn’t about leaving babies in the snow; it’s about taking a wider view.

If you’re anything like me, you are fiercely attached to that first manuscript. After all, that’s what started everything—the spark that kindled the fire. I understand, and I certainly don’t want to diminish the preciousness and importance of that first book, but here are a few reasons why you should really consider moving on.

Separating yourself from your darlings gives you room to kill them.

Admit it. You’re a helicopter parent. The moment that chapter concludes, you’re convinced it’s the best thing ever written and bound for a Pulitzer.

Let’s get real.

As brilliant as your first draft may be, seldom (if ever) will it be the final draft. Often, we get so tangled in our own heads we start filling in words and forget to finish our

Writing take so much time and soul, looking at a freshly-birthed excerpt with anything but pride and lovingkindness can be far too much effort. Chop it up? Holy guacamole, I just brought it to life! You want me to change this scene? Restructure my whole plot? Change it to YA?!? It’s only a child!

This is why I recommend letting the book sit, completely untouched, for at least six weeks before you start the editing process. Six weeks is about the time you need to forget what you’ve written—to really detach yourself. When you come back, you’ll do so with fresh eyes, and it will be so much easier to see where the story needs improving.

The prize goes to the prolific.

Big authors rarely boast one book. Of course, there are the exceptions, but just look at the majority of household names/series and tell me I’m wrong. There’s a reason for this, and it really is two-fold. Firstly, an author who writes more than one book has more than one chance of succeeding. Maybe the right agent isn’t open for queries. Maybe the market just isn’t quite there. Whatever the case, writing a second book essentially doubles your chances of hooking an agent, finding a publisher, or making a sale.

Take Stephen King. The man is a living typewriter. He writes for four hours a day, has published hundreds of short stories (He has a collection of tales that he sells to film students for $1. They’re called his “Dollar Babies.”) and more novels than I can name. He’s one of the greatest writers currently living because he’s put in the time to get where he’s at. He didn’t do that by obsessively clinging to his debut novel. He kept writing.

And if you’re an independent author your back catalogue is even more important. The self-published authors who are making bank have 20-30+ novels available, and they’re cashing in on one very important fact: Human beings are creatures of habit. When we find something we like, we go back for more of that something. Again. Again. And again.

To summarize the second of that two-fold factor? In a world of Netflix binge-watchers, more books = more $.

An author’s first book is rarely what starts their career.

The statistics and facts are out there. Ask. I dare you—go on Twitter, Facebook, to your local coffee shop—just ask. “Was your first book the book that ended up being published? Was your first book the one that hit it big? How many years were you writing before you finally found traction?”

I think you’ll be shocked by the responses. I won’t be because I’ve already done the research.

This is not the only book you will ever write.

And do you really want it to be? It may take some time (mourning) and some space (acceptance), but if you are serious about this career, another idea will come to you. Perhaps you need to get over your first book to let yourself move on.

You’re showing that you’re serious.

Do you think there would be any success for an actor who said, “My role is Captain Kirk. I will play Captain Kirk, and that is the only role I will ever play. I can and must only be cast as Captain James Tiberius Kirk.”

Perhaps.

But which actors do we celebrate? The ones who get pigeonholed or the ones who give meaningful, lifelong performances in diverse and challenging roles, daring themselves and defying their audience’s expectations—truly embracing the art of emulsifying character and refusing to be limited by one finite perspective?

Or, put more simply: How many roles did Leo have to play before he got his Oscar?

As an author, I have far more respect for those who dare to be diversified. By coming out for that second punch, you’re showing everyone that you’re not just in this for the book—you’re serious about a career. If an agent asks me to rewrite a book, I don’t mind doing it. If he or she ends up passing on one of my works, it’s really not the end of the world. When you’re more than a one-trick pony, you have confidence and assurance beyond one project. You start to believe in yourself as an author.

You will get better as you go.

Oh, and you will. Start reading authors chronologically and you should be able to see it. Every time you write something, you’re practicing. Every moment you practice is a moment spent improving your craft. So your first book was good. Let me get you in on a little secret: The second will probably be better. And the third. And the fourth. And so on.

I can’t even begin to describe the progress I’ve made from that first draft of Imbrum. The difference is night and day—a dabbling tenderfoot to a dedicated, armored contender. I just started my seventh full-length novel (Three chapters in! Woot-woot!) and could sit here and write you a list of everything I’ve learned from the first six.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert in something. I highly doubt that you want to spend all that time on just one project. The more you write (And read, for that matter. Make sure you’re also reading good writing!), the better you are going to get at writing—ergo your chances at achieving your goal (being agented, published, a multi-millionaire) will also be better. Nothing written is ever a waste of time. It’s simply an hour stacked up to your 10,000.   

You need something else to work on while you query.

One of the first things my mentor told me was to work on another book while I was querying. I wish I could print that on a t-shirt and mail it to all of you.

Querying is a long process. A heart-wrenching process. But if you’re working on another project, you may be able to peel your eyes from your inbox for at least a few hours to hack at your work in progress (WIP). If your first book is met with a long line of rejection, it can be comforting to look down and your computer and say, “Yea, this is rough, but it’s not the only card up my sleeve.” You trim that baby up, draft another query, then hit back with a harder, stronger pitch.

At the very least, you’ll feel like you’re moving forward. I may have lost my publishing deal, but I am writing my seventh book. Gold sticker for me, right?

If you give yourself the chance to grow, you can always come back stronger.

Fortunately, books are not like children insomuch as you can completely abandon them then return later on with little to no consequences. After you’ve left your darling to simmer for a bit, you’ll come back fresh and maybe even wiser. Have you ever gone back and read your old high school essays? Go ahead and try it. It’s a laugh. In two or three years, after you’ve written and read and learned and honed your craft, don’t you think you’ll be in for another good chuckle? I highly doubt that you’re a perfect author,[1] and the odds are that you just don’t know what you don’t know. I know that back in the day, I had neither the skill nor the experience to acknowledge the weaknesses in my story. I couldn’t accurately assess it because I hadn’t learned how. Certainly, I’m still learning, but at least I can look back at that first book and say, “Well, Hannah. It’s something, but you’re going to need a lot more under your belt before you tackle this kind of subject matter.”


Starting another project can feel an awful lot like bringing home a second baby. Your firstborn will probably be hurt. Jealous. Not understand why he/she is being replaced by this pink, jabbering little idiot draft. However, having multiple babies is simply good biological practice because we live by the Laws of the Jungle. To put things rather harshly, not every one of your babies may make it.

Looking back at my first book, I’m wrenched with shame, pride, and a twinge of hope. Shame because it’s absolutely not what it should be—and that I defended it so fiercely not knowing that. Pride because I can look back at how far I’ve come and take comfort in the potential. Hope because I know I’m a much better author now than I was then—and still getting better.

That first book is going to be special to you; it’s special to everyone. However, don’t let a helicopter parent mentality hobble your writing venture. Go. Dare. Write—and keep writing until something hits. No effort is ever a waste, for it is through those words that we learn and grow. When you begin to see this as a long game rather than a one-and-done, you’ll begin to appreciate writing for what it actually is: an art.

Stephen King is still writing. J. K. Rowling still hits up the books. Neil Gaiman, Rick Riordan—heck, Dan Brown just cranked out another symbology thriller. That’s the cool thing about this gig…

You’re never the best writer that you can be, and you get to keep doing what you love until you get there.

So take a leap of faith. Let go. I think you’ll be glad you did.

 

 

[1] If you are, send me a note and let’s have a coffee sometime.

An Interview with Christopher Schmitz

I ran into Christopher Schmitz upon asking him for an advanced reader copy (ARC) review. He was inadvertently introduced to me as a book blogger, but upon some social media stalking (Because, my dear readers, if you’re going to ask anyone for anything, it is prudent to do some research on that someone.), I discovered that he is also a prolific blogger, a bagpiper, and an ambitious writer/swashbuckler of rules who turns a finger to “the way things ought to be.”

I’ve learned a lot from Christopher’s blog, and so I asked him for an interview—to which he graciously agreed. He’s published traditionally and independently, and he has quite a lot to say about the courageous path he’s taken.

Want to learn more about what it really takes to be a published author? Read on.

Let’s rewind the clock for a minute. You’re an author-entrepreneur/blogger/book reviewer/bagpiper. How did this begin?

I have always been a storyteller, ever since my school days. I wrote a few pieces of short fiction even back then, though none of it really survived in a format worth publishing…although I do have one piece that I intend to put in a humor anthology whenever I eventually release it. (It was an old high school assignment where we had to rewrite a famous poem… I Did A Visit From Saint Nicholas/T’was the Night Before Christmas… except Santa was going down Grendel’s chimney to finish what Beowulf started—it did not go well for Santa and his reindeer.) Anyways, I had several stories completed and one novel traditionally published when I really began looking into Indie publishing in earnest—mainly as a way to avoid scammers. I just started where I was and kept learning…and I still am! In addition to writing I have a full-time job, own some rental properties, freelance for my local newspaper, and travel as a gigging bagpiper. I have a superhero complex. I see stuff I like and think, “I can do that.” And then I feel like I have to prove it. Yeah… I don’t really sleep a lot.

I can only imagine. I struggle to match my socks in the morning. Can you tell us a little bit about your day? How do you manage everything?  

I actually start my mornings off in the gym. Sometimes I’ll write in the mornings, but it’s usually at night and a little at lunch time. I set my writing goals for the week rather than for a day and it seems to work for me…but goal-setting and putting reminders on my calendar works for me. I also keep a long-term and short-term to-do list so I can cross items off and see the whole picture. I’m goal-oriented so it helps; I need to see all of the pieces in an operation in order to really have a handle on it (which is also why I like writing from an outline).

You casually mentioned in our email exchanges that you write 3-5 books a year. What? and HOW?

I aspire to write like Stephen King. I set goals and write even if I don’t feel like it. After a few paragraphs of garbage, I usually find my groove. Part of it is also how I keep a long-term plan of the books I want to write. By mid-February of this year I’d already written detailed outlines for all 5 books in the series I’m working on and completed one novel. I finished my second with almost a week left in April. Of course, that doesn’t account for editing and publishing work on my indie titles, plus all the promo and everything. I could certainly hit 5 this year, and I think I could write 6 if I pushed it; but I’m probably going to relax and work on some short fiction stories that are burning up my insides. Find a time, protect it, and write. Writers write, right? So write.

Yea. *chuckles to self* That sounds super “relaxing.” What can you tell us about being an independent author and your own publishing journey?

I began with a traditional house that was eventually bought by a different publisher, and it eventually closed. I kind of sat on my manuscripts for several years after that, too shy to move forward after some of the worst offenders tried to scam me (Tate, Publish America, etc.), which is perhaps why my blog is so pro-author and is particularly vicious against vanity/scam presses. I waded in slowly as a poor broke author. Luckily, I was working on post-grad studies at the time and so I wasn’t feeling the compulsion to do anything at that moment. I was also writing a ton of nonfiction, which is what eventually brought me back into publishing in earnest…publishing a nonfiction book. Once I was familiar with the tools I’d been researching, I started revisiting older manuscripts, cleaning them up, and publishing (plus querying for new fiction I’d begun to write).

You’ve also published nineteen books over several genres—both fiction and nonfiction. How important is it for an author to be diverse, and how important is it to have a sizable catalogue?

I think it’s important to have at least one book in your back catalogue. It shows genuine fans that there is more out there that you’ve written and adds credibility. It tells your new fan, “this is a legitimate author worth following.” That makes them more likely to follow you, sign up for a mailing list, etc. If you don’t have anything else on the back end, write a novella and publish it as an ebook on Kindle. Do it correctly and with high quality, but get some filler out there so that you have more than one item on your Amazon Author Profile. Splitting across genres, however, is often discouraged by the pros. I did it, and it demands more mental energy. I am a very eclectic author already, but most literary professionals would tell you to be the best you can be in your preferred genre. I’m a rebel I guess, but I think they are right: Unless you absolutely must write in multiple genres as I felt… But it really can slow the growth of your platform since the net you are casting is broader.

The more specific your niche, the easier it is to find success.

You write a lot of “how to” articles for independent authors, and as a newbie, I’m a huge fan of them. Are these lessons you’ve learned yourself or knowledge you’ve aggregated from other people?  

Haha…most of these are lumps I learned the hard way. I do include occasional articles that I’ve scavenged from others when I think “this is saving me from future perils.” The nice thing about the indie scene is that most questions out there have been asked already and so it’s nice to know where to go for help. I follow several blogs that often have good nuggets for me to glean wisdom from. I try to be that kind of blog for others.

You also have a budding social media platform on Twitter and Facebook. Has this been helpful in your author career? How much time and effort do you put into it?

I think it would be much bigger if I invested more time and energy into it. When I first started I had a daily to-do list which included making a post on each of the different platforms (one author friend has a publishing contract that obligates him to tweet three times per day). I still post frequently, and I have automated many things! When my blog publishes (I schedule them well in advance), it copies itself to my Twitter and my Twitter pushes to my Facebook. The blog also mirrors via RSS feeds to my Goodreads and Amazon Authors profile after about a day and my last 5 Goodreads reviews post to the sidebar of my blog. Once you figure out how to set those things up, it drastically reduces the amount of time spent copy/pasting links and posts.

Social media is a MUST HAVE in order to maintain a platform. It’s no longer a suggestion for success… It’s mandatory.

But, Christopher… I’m just starting. I don’t even have a book out. Should I be building my author platform?

Yes! Start talking about things that interest you or interest others that have things loosely in common with your book (and then focus in and target a niche). You should only rarely blog about your books. I can’t even remember when the last time was that I blogged about my own… probably two months ago (but I have two new ones coming out, so it’s about time to change that). Platform building IS NOT ADVERTISING. I have unfollowed/unfriended more than one person who posted three times daily with a book blurb and buy link. We’ve all had that one friend who sold Amway, Scentsy, Young Living, or whatever multilevel/pyramid sales program is vogue. The key word in the sentence is HAD.

Always be making friends rather than “always be selling.” If you try the latter, you’ll be shouting in an empty room.

So much wisdom in one small paragraph. I’m scribbling down notes as fast as I can. Can you give us a pro tip on how to start all this effort?

I started blogging knowing that nobody would see my initial posts, and so I began writing articles about things that I always needed to know. I occasionally share them with places online but tried to grow organically by using topics with keywords and phrases that people would be searching for. Some of my articles (after about 2 years of writing at least 3 articles a week) got reblogged by some well-known authors including the Writers Beware blog (especially my article about the Readers Magnet scam since I kind of broke that story with detailed information). Just start writing. Use some of the tips from above and put your own spin on it—

above all, either be useful or entertaining.

Ask blogs and sites if you can contribute content. Review other authors! Add many as friends and then follow up with a positive comment. Platform building is infuriatingly slow, so hurry up a wait. Work on your next book while you’re writing for your platform.

I’m young and hungry, but I’m also pretty nervous about starting out my own venture. What if I do everything wrong?

Fix it. Seriously. Every error anyone has ever pointed out in a book has been corrected (the beauty of the indie tools we have available). Every time I’ve done an event I’ve either learned something that I could improve or have been able to teach someone else how to have more success. You won’t arrive until you’ve faked it for a while. I’ll let you know if I ever make it. If you’re an introvert, pretend you’re not. Honestly, none of this is easy, but sometimes you’ve just got to get in the water.

If you’re faking it, you’re doing a pretty darned good job. I’ve read some of your nonfiction, but can you give me a plug for one of your fiction books? Your favorite, perhaps? I love self-promotion!

College student Claire Jones is investigating a series of strange murders when a handsome werewolf kidnaps her. He claims he’s rescuing her from the clutches of an evil sorcerer and that nothing is as it seems. Claire can’t run forever and if she and her companions can’t reclaim an arcane artifact capable of ending the warlock’s reign of terror, he will unleash the dark god Sh’logath’s cataclysmic power upon the universe, shattering dimensional barriers, and devouring all reality.

(The sequel to Wolf of the Tesseract, the above, is about to drop on this, and it will be available by June!)

Oooh! Beefy werewolves and a mysterious string of murderers? Count me in. Before I let you get back to your writing frenzy, give me one more answer: If you could give one piece of advice to newbie authors, what would it be?

Buy my book, lol. Most everything in the book is on my blog…and I learned the stuff in my blog from others. That’s my advice: be open to feedback and advice from others—not when it is given to you (cuz that happens when you’re really screwing it up). Go looking for voices that will encourage and guide you (and be critical when you need it). Attend cons, read blogs, and forever strive to improve your craft. The single best thing I did was spend about 4 years writing short fiction instead of novels. It made me learn to edit, learn to begin, end, and cut sections. It is hard to get people to commit hours of their life to reading your 100,000-word rough draft, but a 4,500 word short story? That’s more appropriate and short fiction allows you to hone your craft (verb choice, tenses, and learning what NOT to say). Keep writing!


So there you have it, folks! To learn more about Christopher’s work or cash in on all the work he’s already done for you, follow him at Inside the Inkwell or just go ahead and check out The Indie Author’s Bible. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, or his super-snazzy website

Remember what I said about making connections? This is a great place to start.

 

Photo by congerdesign

Decisions

There are good things and bad things about being a newbie author. The bad things may or may not include the crippling void of uncertainty—that is, you have nothing, are striving for everything, and can lose just as much with the click of a “send” button. However, in the vast array of “good things” comes a wide range of options. You ain’t signed to nobody and don’t owe nuthin’ to no man. Having nothing is truly the potential to have anything.

I’m trying to look at things that way. After losing my publishing deal, I’ve been left in a bit of a pickle. Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key is ready to go. It’s edited, will soon be formatted, and is dressed in a kickin’ cover… But those are just words on a page if I don’t decide where to print.

Fortunately (and terrifyingly), I’ve got options. This blog post is going to be a bit of a discussion about what’s running through my head as well as the pros and cons of each publishing method. If you missed my first post on the various types of publishers and the pros and cons of each, you should go back and read the posts. However, I thought it might also be beneficial to hash out my logic now that I’m dealing with a real-time situation—a voyage of discovery for you and a psychological brake check for me.

If you do read this post, please consider leaving a comment or sending me a message. I want to know what YOU think about this analysis and what YOU think would be the best choice for me given my current circumstances. If you were me, what would you do?

Here’s the situation:

 I have an edited, formatted book that was supposed to come out in October. My publisher recently announced they are closing, leaving me with the manuscript, all my rights, a cover, and a marketing plan.

At this point in the juncture, I’ve got three options: traditional publishing, indie publishing with a small publisher, or indie publishing on my own (self-publishing). Let’s take a look at each of these in depth.

Traditional Publishing: Cons

Let’s start out talking about a timeline. Let’s say that I magically hook an agent in the next month. That agent will probably take me through at least six months of editing and preparing my manuscript. That puts us at January 2019. Let’s say the book rapidly sells to a big publisher within three months. (For the record, this hypothetical situation is completely ridiculous.) That publisher will spend about a year with edits, then perhaps another year with proofreading, marketing, and behind-the-scenes witchcraft. That puts us at 2020. If I happen to find a four-leafed clover and am kissed beneath a full moon by the seventh son of a seventh son.

That is, if I’m the luckiest girl alive.

In reality, authors spend years trying to find literary agents, and even when they do, that doesn’t guarantee that the book will sell. It takes some agents years to sell the book. Others can’t sell the book and try to sell the author’s next work. In this large span of time, the agent may retire, quit, or move to another agency. Your access to big publishers is completely dependent on another person. If your agent is suddenly run over by a tractor, where does that leave you?

I have a completed book that’s ready to go. Is trying to hook a big publisher worth the time and the tears?

The second big factor is control. You’re signing a way a big chunk of your profit to an agent as is (15-20%), then an even bigger chunk of it to a publisher. Odds are, unless your name is King, Rowling, or Gaiman, you won’t be getting a multi-million-dollar advance. In fact, most authors make less than $1,000 a year.

I’m also signing away my rights. I don’t get to control what gets put on the cover of my book, how the book is sold, where it is sold, and how it is marketed. I don’t control the blurb, the Amazon keywords, the taglines, or any other subtle factor that leads to stellar salesmanship. If I feel my publisher isn’t doing enough or isn’t doing the right thing, that’s really tough tooties for me. It’s not my book anymore. When the publisher says the book is finished, the effort is done.

Odds are, my book will flop. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here—I’m just being practical. Over one million books are published in the U.S. alone every single year. How many of those can you name? How many of them do you think make multi-million-dollar movie deals? If the book doesn’t sell well (“well” is considered to be 15,000 copies), it is doubtful that the publisher is going to take a chance at my already-written sequel.

Traditional Publishing: Pros

“Holy guacamole!” you say. “Hannah, that’s bleak. Why would anyone ever go traditional?”

Obviously, there’s a reason or people wouldn’t be slaving away for years trying to get it done. The greatest thing about traditional publishers is that they have branding security. We’re talking big names—Penguin. Random House. Disney. These guys have ruled the roost for quite some time, and it really doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere soon. They know what they’re doing, know how to market (they’ve been doing it for decades), and will use a multifaceted team of professionals with years of experience.

The other great thing about traditional publishing is the prestige. As egregiously erroneous as it is, there is still a stigma attached to indie authors and their “trashy self-published novels.” There is something to be said for the pomp and circumstance of having an agent, going through a traditional publisher, and doing things the traditional way. Legacy publishers already have methods and connections. They know how to get into books stores, reach libraries, sell in book orders, garner prestigious reviews, and all the other trappings of boosting a book into the public consciousness.

Largely, it is traditional authors who score things like theatrical adaptations, movie deals, and action figures. Of course, there are exceptions (The Martian was self-published before it got picked up for the movie.), but those exceptions are few and far-in-between. Arguably, you access more than just a print factory with a big publisher. You also glean access to their access points.

But this is all delusions of grandeur, isn’t it? Let’s take a quick detour back to reality.

Let’s talk about the ease. So you’ve got an agent. The agent got the publisher. The publisher is publishing, and you….

Well, you’re working on your next book.

If you want to write and only write books, traditional publishing is the best option. You’re not worried about marketing, formatting, or any other aspect of the publishing process. All of your time can be devoted to the craft.

A bigger publisher is also likely to have oodles and oodles of money. It’s questionable whether or not they will be spending that money on a debut author, but having a sizable marketing budget and a professional cover is a happy little dream.

Small Publisher: Cons

I was signed to a small publisher for about a year, and a year was a good amount of time to assess their limitations. While smaller publishers do have many of the benefits of larger publishers, it’s important to keep in mind their pitfalls as well. The first of these (obviously) is security. With self-publishing on the rise and traditional publishers scrambling to keep up with an ever-changing industry, small publishers are slowly but steadily getting squeezed out of the picture. Blaze closing wasn’t an omen; it’s a reality. The game is changing so drastically, even some of the bigger publishers have been forced to merge. If you sign with a smaller publisher, you are lashing yourself to the fate of that publishing house. Are they managing their finances well? Will they exist in 5-10 years?

Can you really know for sure?

Hooking a smaller publisher may also take time. While many of these indie houses do take unagented queries, you still must query and be accepted. I have two small publishers interested in Patel at the moment, but even if I signed with the most promising one, the earliest I would be debuting Patel would be April 2019—after more edits, more revisions, and no guarantee that I could keep my cover, my tag lines, or any of the work I’ve already done.

Even though a smaller publisher is a publisher, there can be a bit of money involved. Of course, this absolutely depends on the publisher. If you’re thinking about signing with a smaller house, be sure that you discuss whether or not there will be any cost to you, whether that be marketing ads, conferences, a release party, etc.

By signing your book to a small publisher, you are also signing away your rights. Blaze was extremely gracious to return everything to me, but while I was signed to them, they did have the right to make any edits they thought necessary, reject my suggestions, use any cover they wished, and sell my book with any strategy they saw fit. Of course, working with a smaller publisher did mean that I had better access to the publishing team (Blaze was wonderful about respecting my wishes and taking my suggestions to heart.), but at the end of the day, they still had the right to do whatever they pleased with Patel and take 50% of the profits.

This begs a very important question:

What can a smaller publisher do for me that I can’t do for myself, and are the benefits of the association worth that much of my profit?

Small Publisher: Pros

I’m very happy that I signed with Blaze, and knowing what I know now, I would do the same thing if given the chance. I learned more in a year than I ever would have on my own, and the support and friendship of my Blaze fam still lives on.

The greatest thing about a small publisher is that you get the best of both worlds: you have experts supporting you every step of the way, but you’re likely to get more time and attention if they’re not publishing 3,000 books a year. Now, a “small publisher” can be anything from Bloomsbury (the house that published Harry Potter) to a woman running things out of her basement, so it really pays to talk to other authors in the house and gauge the publisher’s expertise before signing.

If the house is good, they will have an enthusiastic and capable team with plenty of market and technical experience. You don’t need to worry about formatting, editing, and putting together a marketing strategy because your publishing house will be doing that for you. As a newbie author, it’s comforting to be able to fall back on a veteran’s experience.

If you are a considering a small publisher, I wouldn’t sign unless that house is offering to pay for editing, the cover, and part of the marketing budget. That way, if you do become strapped for cash, nothing is stopping the book’s release. If I were to sign with one of these guys, I wouldn’t be doing everything myself.

The second greatest thing about small publishers is that, for many of them, you don’t need an agent to query. This can save a lot of time and heartbreak. Getting an agent is a long, arduous process, and even thinking about going back to the query slush churns my stomach. (I’ve been slogging through slowly and painfully.) The idea of a more direct route is tempting.

The third greatest thing about small publishers is that you aren’t doing everything yourself. Sure, you’re going to share a big chunk of the marketing, editing, and overall showmanship of the book (This can be a good or a bad thing depending on your personality.), but you don’t have to learn how to format, don’t have to deal with printers, and avoid a lot of the time and backbreaking labor it takes to self-publish a book. This clears up more writing time and leaves the technical details to the experts who can (and will) do it way better than you can.

Even with a smaller name, a publisher (any publisher) does provide branding. “Self-publishing” is a dirty word in certain circles, and there are many reviewers, distributors, and industry professionals who will not touch a book unless it bears the insignia of a reputable house. No matter how small the house is, indie publishers still allow you to say, “I’m signed with a publisher,” and that in itself can open doors. There is an air of legitimacy to it, if only in kindling your own ego.

I really loved writing for Blaze because of the flexibility. They were working with many authors over a myriad of genres, but I could always email my editor/media manager/formatter/artist or hit anyone up on a Google Chat just about anytime I wished. When the marketing plan came out, we all had a meeting to discuss it, and I was able to provide feedback and suggestions to reform to a strategy that I found more feasible. Very few publishers allow you to give feedback on your cover, give your two cents on strategies, or even complain about something you think could be done better. Smaller publishers allow you to be much more involved in the publishing process.

Self-Publishing: Cons

Before we go spitting all over self-publishing as being “second-rate” and the “option when there are no options,” let’s just look at the pragmatic struggles that independent authors face. (Because, let’s be honest, there’s nothing “self” about self-publishing. If you’re doing it RIGHT, you’re outsourcing a lot.)

The biggest hesitation I have is that self-publishing lacks branding. Do you think your self-published book is going to be in a Scholastic book order? Willingly carried by bookstores or met with enthusiasm by literary gatekeepers? Think again.

There are many self-published books that are the picture of professionalism. They are professionally edited, formatted, free from airs, and wear kick-butt covers that could compete with any other tome in the industry. However, for as many stellar indie books that exist, there are probably twice as many crappy ones. This gives independent publishing a bad name—and why shouldn’t it? If the knockoff brand isn’t as good as the name brand, why shouldn’t it be labeled as cheap, shoddy, and poorly done?

The biggest challenge to self-published authors is self-publishing the right way. Meticulously. Professionally. In such a way that makes you nigh indistinguishable from your traditional competitors. If you’re going to survive as a small fish in a big pond, you’d better ensure that those who give your unknown brand a chance are rewarded for doing so.

With this being said, some genres work better than others. The “self-publishing boom” is centered primarily on adult thrillers, romance, nonfiction, and young adult novels. I can write an entirely separate blog post on why this is, but that’s for another day. Other genres such as picture books and children’s literature are much more difficult to crack.

I write middle grade fantasy-adventure—that is, Percy Jackson or Artemis Fowl-y books. Self-publishing would be tricky because I would not only be handling my own marketing, but marketing to two vastly different audiences: the children (of course) and the gatekeepers (teachers, librarians, and parents).

If I self-published, I wouldn’t be coming from a known brand. Why should teachers trust me in their schools? Librarians spend their money on my book? Why should parents give me a chance when books from Scholastic are coming from a household name and are much easier to access? Even if I do earn their trust, how are they going to hear about me at all?

Visibility, marketing, and competition are all sobering questions for the middle grade independent author. There’s a reason there are no six-figure-earning middle grade dynamos offering publishing classes like Mark Dawson and Joanna Penn: No independent author has cracked the middle grade code.

This is either the tip of the spear or the cusp of madness. I’m not quite sure which.

Self-publishing does come with an initial cost. That can vary according to the quality of services you hire (and EVERYONE suggests you make them QUALITY), but Mark Dawson estimated it to be about $1,200 per book. That includes editing,[1] proofreading, cover, and formatting. And this is the skinny: If you’re going to do well, you’re also going to pay for marketing.   

I don’t think I need to tell you that the workload spikes exponentially. You’re not just an author—you’re an entrepreneur running your own company. To do as well, if not better than a traditional publisher, you need to be doing most of the things traditional publishers do with a whole army of people. This excursion is not for the faint of heart. Of course, you can outsource some of these things (PA’s, marketing managers, blog tour hosts, etc.), but these services cost money, and money isn’t something I have a lot of.

We haven’t even addressed the learning curve. What do you know about keyword optimization? Copyediting? Landing pages? How books are published, what paper they should be published on (white for nonfiction, cream for fiction), and the ROI of NetGalley?

If you’re anything like me, you have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you’re going to self-publish, you need to learn. Fast.

The great thing about this is that all this information can be found online through classes, free materials, forums, and blogs.

The not-so-great thing is that once you learn something, seven more unknowns pop up on your research list. The information is out there, but what kind of treasure hunt does it take to find it?

This begs another question: How can I know what I don’t know I don’t know? The lack of experience is another harrowing factor. When you’re with a publisher, you have a team of experienced professionals behind you. I can read and research all I want, but I’ve never actually done the thing.

Big-name independent authors usually have 20+ books on their backlist. How long do you think it took them to learn the system? To gain marketing traction? To start making money? There are so many independent authors making out like bandits from the “self-publishing gold rush,” but we’re talking about years of trail, error, time, and temper.

Do I have the time to learn? The patience for an independent career to unfold?[2] The results could be incredible, but do I have the faith and the stamina to make it to that point?

Self-Publishing Pros:

Enough doom and gloom. Independent publishing is a completely viable option, so let’s talk about the pros. The first of these is time. Arguably, I could still publish Patel in October if I chose to do so. I could publish it next year, the year after that, or any year I wished. Self-publishing would give me wiggle room to do my research and then debut my book when I feel ready. I wouldn’t have to depend on an agent or a publisher.

Control is another very lovely thing about self-publishing. I not only control the timeline, but every other aspect of the book as well. Sure, everything is on my shoulders, but that also means that I can do whatever I want. Arguably, I know my book better than anyone else, and my vision of its lifespan is the absolute purest. I’m not tied to anyone else’s fate. I own all my rights, keep all my profits, and can do anything I want shy of racketeering.

The military told me plain and simple: “Nobody cares about your career as much as you do.” The same thing applies to your book: Nobody will ever care as much as you do. Period. It is completely up to you to develop your own marketing strategy and push it as far as you want to go. Now, this takes a lot of time, dedicated study, and perhaps a bit of upfront investment, but no one on this earth can sell your book better than you can, and you have completely free reign to do that.  

Additionally, you can learn and adapt faster than publishers can. The literary world is tumultuous right now because publishing has changed more in the past twenty years than it has in the past 200 years, and traditional publishers can’t keep up with that. Do you think they can overhaul millions of books into an online strategy? Do you think they’re frightened that 70% of book sales are made online? For the entrepreneur-author, this new world is bursting with opportunity—but only for those who have the courage and the fortitude to crack the code.

So let’s say I debut with a traditional publisher and sell 3,000 copies with my first run of Patel. Not bad, right?

WRONG.

It is doubtful that the publisher would be willing to take a chance on another one of my books after that, even if the sequel is already written. (And, for the record, it is.) Let’s look at the math: A publisher invests (on average) $10,000 on every book. That book sells 3,000 copies at $7.99 a piece and they’re making 50% of the profit. That puts them at $12,000—a $2,000 profit.

Not bad. Not good, either. If the publisher isn’t happy with those returns (and 3,000 copies sold is a pretty good for a newbie), that publisher has every right to shake my hand and send me on my way.

Contrarywise, if I self-publish, I can invest as much or as little as I want. The average “new release” is only on a bookstore display for three months. What if it takes Patel a bit longer to pick up steam? What if I’m getting better traction with a long-term marketing strategy? While a traditional publisher may give up when the numbers don’t add up, self-publishing gives me the freedom to play a longer, grander game—to see my career as a marathon rather than a series of rapid-fire sprints. Big self-publishing successes will tell you that it took them anywhere from four (Mark Dawson) to seven (Joanna Penn) years to find their feet. However, once they did, they were looking at millions of dollars in profits.

One mustn’t see self-publishing as a go-for-broke option. When done correctly, independent authorship is an entrepreneurial endeavor. You’re constantly learning, researching, testing, and marketing; your independence gives you freedom to make mistakes. So this bit of online advertising didn’t work for you. So what? You go out and try another—again and again until something sticks. If I self-publish, I don’t need to worry about Patel being a silver bullet. I’ll learn a lot, then I’ll learn even more from the next book. By the time I have 20-25 books on the shelf,[3] I’ll be a guru.   

I’d like to close this discussion by talking about who I am as a person. Some people just aren’t meant for self-publishing. They don’t like trying new things, don’t want to get into marketing, and have no interest in being a part of the process. I, however, am cut from a peculiar type of cloth. I love socializing, networking, and making connections in the literary world. I graduated in the top 3% of my class from the most prestigious military academy in the world, I finished my studies as an honors literary major, and commissioned as a nuclear engineer. I’m a furious researcher, an indefatigably diligent worker, and a go-getting doer.

However, I am also easily discouraged, pessimistic, and have a tendency to catastrophize. I fear the unknown, and I hate not having a checklist to success. I am prone to depression, ruminate over past mistakes, and agonize over everything that could possibly go wrong.

There are certain parts of my personality that are well-suited to independent publishing. There are other parts that could be lethally adverse. One of my colleges at Blaze gave me this piece of advice: “You can do very well at this (self-publishing) if you don’t let it get to your head.” 


So there you go. This is the long and short version of everything capering through my brain, snickering and burbling in the wee hours of the morning.

What do YOU think is the best option?

What do YOU think I should do?

Please, please, please leave me a comment or a message. I absolutely love getting advice from friends.

 

[1] Yes, you MUST get professional editing!

[2] We’re talking 4-7 years, if not more. But this is for the big $$$.

[3] I write my 90,000-word books in about 6 weeks. This is feasible.

Photo credit to Taha Ajmi.

CRUSHED

Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key is not going to be published 9 October, 2018. Blaze Publishing has recently announced that they are closing, and they will do so without publishing Patel.

The world is hard for small publishers right now. This game is ever-evolving, and as traditional publishers cling to their empires and indie authors charge forward, the gap in the middle squeezes tighter and tighter.

“Crushed” is an ambiguous adjective.

“Heartbroken,” “reeling,” and “dazed” don’t really tell you much, either. To work on a project for three years—querying and editing and stressing and striving—is not an easy feat. It’s hard not to feel like I’ve been thwacked back to that loathsome Square One. I took a gamble on a small publisher, and I lost my publishing deal.

But did I really lose at all?

Throughout all of this, Blaze Publishing has been incredibly gracious and helpful. The company is giving me back all my rights, my cover image (It’s a knockout! Can’t wait to show you.), plus a fully-edited and formatted manuscript. This kind of generosity is unheard of. Blaze isn’t just setting me free—they’re setting me up for future success wherever I decide to go.

Was signing with Blaze a mistake? Absolutely not. I entered with an unpolished manuscript. I’m leaving with an edited, significantly stronger story, a marketing plan, and a whole lot of knowledge about the industry. I’m smarter than I was when I started. Stronger. Better-equipped.

Every endeavor, even the ones that don’t turn out the way we’d like, is an opportunity to grow.

If you’re not looking for that opportunity, you’re missing out.

So now I find myself kind of… Well, homeless, for lack of a better word. The French say SDF, or sans domicile fixe. It’s painful to imagine Patel out in the cold, but it also brings out the momma bear in me. I haven’t been posting much lately, and part of that is due to the effort of retaliation.

What am I doing in response to this? 

You’d better bet I’m not sitting around crying. Well, I am sitting around crying, but I can type through tears. Right now, I’m back in the query pool. I’m sending out proposals, querying agents and other small publishers, and looking ahead at pitch contests. (I already did all the work. I just have to copy/paste.)

I’m reaching out to my connections.

Believe it or not, I’m not the only author who has been through this, and I won’t be the last. My author mentors (check out Erin Straza and K. B. Hoyle) have been incredible through all of this, rallying around me with love, support, and advice.

I’ve also been reaching out quite a bit on Twitter and Facebook. The legion of online communities is a wellspring of information, and I’ve been blown away by the wisdom, advice, and compassion I’ve received from other writers. Connections are invaluable, and just because I lost my publishing house doesn’t mean I’ve lost this project or my author platform.

Right now, networking is more important than ever.

I’m hitting the books.

I haven’t posted in a hot minute, and part of this is because I’ve been knee-deep in research. Podcasts, books, blogs, online courses, videos, forums—you name it, I’m there. Now that I have full control of this project, I want to do everything I can to give this book justice, and that involves being knowledgeable about the industry. Joanna Penn, Mark Dawson, Bryan Cohen, and Gary Vaynerchuk have been occupying my time.

I’ve said this once, and I’ll say it again: Even if you’re traditionally published, you should be researching like a self-published author.

It pays to be knowledgeable in the market you’re competing in.


“That’s all fine and dandy,” you say. “but self-help books and training montages do not a book sign.” So let’s get down to the real question.

What’s going to happen to Patel?

I’ll tell you what’s going to happen to Patel:

Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key is going to be published.

It won’t be 9 October. It won’t be November, December, or even January. I’m in negotiations with two publishers right now, and all signs seem to point to April 2019 for the new release date.

So the release is delayed a few months. So what? I’ve worked on this book for the last three years, and most authors work even longer.

I don’t look at this as a loss. If anything, it’s a gain. I have a year more to grow—to build, research, explore, and adjust my marketing plan. A year is a whole lotta’ time to get smart. This also gives me the time I need to prepare the next two books in the series (already written, of course) for rapid-fire releases.

What did you learn from this?

Well, I couldn’t possibly phrase it better than Blaze did: “As the world changes, we must adapt.”

If you want to get in this game, you need to be plucky. This world is constantly changing, and you really don’t know if you’ll wake up to an email saying that your entire project has crumbled.

But the great part about being an author is the infinite hope—hope in your colleges, hope for the future, and hope in the power of a good story. As painful as this has been, I look to the sky and thank God that I’m young and struggling and hungry. My life won’t always be like this, and I’m trying to learn to treasure each and every moment.

As always, your love and support mean the world to me. I can’t thank you enough for the “likes,” “shares,” and kind words in your messages.

The world needs stories like Patel’s—stories of hope and pain, loss and triumph. I’ll do everything I can to keep those stories alive.

blue room

Photo credit to Klara Avsenik and Josie Rodriguez.