Advice for New Writers

A Web Series

I’ve decided to finally get around to writing the blog series I’ve been intending to write since May.  It will be an eight part look at what I wish I had known before I published my first book.  The hope is to help out aspiring writers in their quest to be published by providing some things I’ve learned through my own journey.  Will it all be applicable to everyone’s journey?  Possibly not, but it is a place to start.

The parts will be as follows and will be published each Thursday starting on October 29th.  Mondays will be special announcements, book/writing updates, and guest posts from aspiring or new authors.

Part 1 – It’s Not all About Writing/Opportunities Come out of nowhere

Part 2 – The Contract is not the finish line

Part 3 – On The Editing Process

Part 4 – It is YOUR Story

Part 5 – Conferences and Marketing

Part 6 – Managing your time

Part 7 – Dealing with the emotions associated with being a published author

Part 8 – In the end, keep on Writing

 

Part 1 – It’s not all About Writing

When I started writing seriously again (that’s a different story – I’ll tell that one later) and had completed my first “real” manuscript I, like so many new writers, thought that the greater part of my work was done.  It was a good book, it had excellent characters, and all I needed to do was get the written words in front of some people and they’d love it, savor it, and want nothing more than to publish it.  With that surety buoying me up, I went to a conference, paid some extra money to meet with the editor of my choice in person, and went into my pitch session with utmost confidence.

I came out of the pitch session in tears, ready to quit the writing world for good, and with no hope that anyone, anywhere, would ever want to read a single word I’d ever write again.  A little melodramatic, I know, but I’m a writer.  I’m allowed a little melodrama every now and then.  Anyway, this experience lead me to some serious introspection.  That book was shelved, I started writing something completely different (actually about as different as you can get), and I went back to the grindstone with my preconceptions shattered and a realization that writing alone is not enough.

You have to know how to explain what you’ve written.  You have to pitch stuff correctly to the right people, in the right way, and at the right time.  It’s kind of like trying to ride a pogo stick, on a tight rope, while firing a machinegun at a 10-inch target 100 yards away.  Can you hit the target?  Eventually.  It’s just going to take a lot of bullets for one to hit home.

So I wrote some more, took some classes on how to pitch stuff well and realized that my writing itself needed some additional work.  I finished that manuscript and set it aside and worked on various other projects.  I got a job in sales, which helped me learn how to pitch stuff, how to talk to people, how to fake smile even when I’m nervous or the situation is unpleasant, and even how to be in a really awesome writing group.  I went back to that same conference again the next year, though this time with no illusions as to my writing prowess being better than anyone else’s.  I wasn’t about to try another pitch session (I’m still not, honestly). I didn’t have either the polished manuscript or a good pitch for anything I’d written.

As luck would have it, for me, that was the right place and the right time.  An editor sat down next to me, I made some sarcastic remark – as I frequently do – and a couple months later I had a contract for a book.  I honestly don’t really remember what I said or how the conversation really went.  In fact, I think I pitched a different book than the one that actually got accepted for publication.  But what I realized is that it’s the conversations, the ability to speak and relate to people that was the key factor I’d been missing the first time.

There is no magical formula for how to say the right thing at the right time outside of just to talk.  Editors, agents, authors, fans, and everyone else for that matter, are all just people.  If you can make a connection with them, they’ll listen to your tagline for your book.  Writing (and life in general) is about the connections you make.  Don’t get so focused on writing the book that you forget that becoming published and, honestly, becoming an author in any form, is about making connections and learning to explain what you’ve written as part of who you are.  You never know when opportunity will knock.  Don’t miss it.

Part 2 – The Publishing Contract Isn’t the Finish Line

Note:  This post was also recent featured on the Authors’ Think Tank Blog, Forever Writers.  You can check it out there along with posts by dozens of other amazing authors.

All writers have a dream.  They want to GET PUBLISHED.  We type away day after day, sitting there with that dream staring us in the face.  We fight for it, enduring rejection, ridicule, loneliness, despair, depression, and pain as we slog through the long, arduous road to publishing.  Our entire lives (to one extent or another) are devoted to that objective, but until we actually attain it we don’t realize that getting published isn’t the finish line.

Let me explain.  So you get that big, shiny publishing contract.  Someone wants to publish the book baby you’ve slaved away at for months or even years.  You’re excited, you celebrate, you dance a little jig, and then go eat some Buffalo Wild Wings (or pizza, or BOTH).  You should.  You’re going to be published!!!!  That is awesome, wonderful, and AMAZING! Also, you’ll need that energy.  Because now the real work begins.

First you’ll start off with all the edits.  Even a great book is going to get changed.  Don’t worry, they’ll be for the better in the long run.  But you have to do that work.  It’s long, painful, and arduous.  You’ll have long, sometimes tumultuous conversations with your editor or editors discussing everything from big-picture items down to the minutia of detail.  You’ll question every decision you ever made and then come out stronger for it, but it’s a lot of hard work.  Behind the scenes, someone will be working on cover art, which is awesome, but sometimes will not be exactly what you’d imagined.  It will still be awesome though.  Trust me.

Now the book is ready.  You have it in your hands.  Your part is done, right?

Nope.  Now comes the part many of us introverts dread.  Marketing.  Yes, you’ll have a marketing team doing promotions and setting up events behind the scenes at your publisher, but you wrote the book.  No one knows more about it than you.  In the end, even NYT Bestselling authors have to sell their own books.  In my opinion, we should be spending as much time learning how to pitch our books, tell people about it, and how to market in general as we do on the actual writing of the book.  It is HARD.  For some of us, it’s not just hard, it’s terrifying.

You’ll be in front of people at signings.  You’ll be in front of people at conferences, conventions, and symposiums, all of whom will be watching you because you’re now published.  You have a book.  You have that Holy Grail all the unpublished writers are questing for.  All of them will want to know your secret, what you did to get where you’re at now and you need something better to say than “I HAZ WURDS!”  You need to be comfortable speaking with people, even when you’re secretly nervous and wondering when someone smarter at you, a “real” writer is going to come along and call you on your bluff.  You need to be comfortable handling situations where you’ll run into “trolls” who just want to harass you.  You need to know how to think quickly, act professionally, and get books sold.

How?

The same way you worked toward getting that book out there.  Practice, study, learn, and apply.  Go to conferences and listen to the panels on marketing, branding, and pitching.  Go home and read a book on marketing and sales.  Take notes.  Practice some of it.  Get another book with different advice.  Talk to people who are good at it.  Take more notes.  Practice some more. Maybe even get a job in sales and actually pay attention to the trainings they provide there. Do this BEFORE you publish your book if you can.

Once the book is out, practice, practice, practice. Take notes on what works FOR YOU.  Everyone does things differently.  Find what works for you and keep doing it.  Try new things.  Keep honing the craft of marketing as you write.  Don’t forget that being a successful author isn’t just about getting published.  It isn’t the finish line.  It is the start of a new journey.

Part 3 – The Editing/Revising Process

Shannon Hale has said that writing is like throwing a bunch of sand into a sandbox.  Editing and revising are like building castles out of that sand.  I like the metaphor.  It is nice and pretty.

But sometimes the process of editing and revising simply isn’t pretty.  It can be, but sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes it is more like getting buried by ten tons of the sand and then being told to dig yourself out.  Especially the first time.  There’s a lot of talk about killing off book babies, murdering characters, and cutting things.  It sounds violent because, in all reality, sometimes it is.  Sometimes it is brutal.  It feels that way at least.

But it is ALWAYS worth it.

For me, there are 3 types of editing I go through as part of my publisher’s editing and revision process.  These are not cannon or industry standard, but it will give you an idea.  They are developmental, substantive, and copy editing.  Each one comes with its own positives and negatives and I will address each one in turn.

Developmental Edits/Revisions – these deal with plot, story structure, and characters.  These create the largest revisions to the manuscript as you, as the author, work on the areas the editors have pointed out.  While I was working on these revisions for  my first novel, Sands, this was the part where some of my personal favorite characters got the ax, a few chapters were condensed into a single scene, and I most felt like tearing my hair out.  Why was it hard?  Because I’d grown attached to characters and things within my novel and having someone tell me that those sections and/or people simply weren’t important enough to the actual story was a hard pill to swallow.  It is every time an editor suggests something be removed/changed/tweaked/condensed.

But let me make something clear.  They may be right.  In fact, they’re probably right.  They have a vested interest in making sure your novel flows well, works well as a story, and is the best it can be.  They’re not being vindictive or mean.  In fact, your developmental editor is on your side.  They’re trying to help you.  The two I’ve worked with have made my novels 100 times better than I could have done without them.

After your plot works well and the holes are patched, shored up, and streamlined, the manuscript makes it over to the substantive editors.  Again, these are relative to my experience with the process at Future House Publishing and are not necessarily industry standard, though most of the same concepts apply.

Substantive Edits/Revisions – these deal less with what you say as opposed to how you say it.  Are you using passive voice instead of active?  Is your sentence so convoluted no one will ever understand it?  Do you show AND tell and then repeat yourself again?  Do you say someone has black hair in one scene then give them red hair in a different scene without giving a reason for the change?  Your substantive editor will find all these places and help you fix them.

The substantive editor I’ve worked with is the most detailed person I’ve ever met.  She is meticulous, organized, and finds inconsistencies in my manuscript that I don’t even realize are there.  Sometimes we don’t see eye to eye on exactly how to change them, but we always figure something out that works well for the both of us and – even more importantly – for the story itself.  That being said if your developmental editor is your friend, your substantive editor is probably your best friend.  They keep you from being stupid.  Mine in particular has taught me more about writing mechanics than a lifetime of English classes (sorry Gilbert Public School English teachers).

Finally, it moves from there to the Copy Editor(s)

Copy Edits – these deal with grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  They’re pretty straightforward.  They can make or break your manuscript.

In the end, what I want to say about the editing/revision process is that although it is sometimes hard and painful, sometimes mildly depressing, in the end, it makes your manuscript better.  In the end, it is worth it.  In the end, you come out stronger than you were before.  Your editors (and beta readers/writing group/critique partners) are on your side.

When doing repairs, you frequently have to tear something apart in order to fix it and put it back together again.  Sometimes you have to pull it apart several times before it works when you put it back together again.  Sometimes it doesn’t look the same as it did before.  Sometimes you have to knock down that sand castle and start over.  But – in the end – it works.  And that’s the goal. In the end, all of it helps you have a real book.  Your book.

Part 4 – It’s YOUR Story

Last time we talked about the editing and revision process.  Editors are awesome.  They help you out with so much.  So do your beta readers, alpha readers, friends, fans, and everyone else involved in the process.  They are all integral and important.

But it’s still YOUR story.

You came up with the concept.  You put in the hours to get the story down on paper.  You subjected yourself to criticism, suggestions, and outside opinions to make the story better.  You did the work.  It is YOUR story.  It isn’t anyone else’s but yours.

While it is extremely important to give your fans and readers what they want – they’re the ones buying it after all – you started this process for you.  While your editors have brilliant suggestions and ultimately a massive part in the final product sent to print, you’re not out to please them – not entirely at least.  Writing is something that you do.  Your own personal happiness and satisfaction with the story is your most important goal because why would someone buy something you yourself aren’t proud of?

In many respects, your story is you and you are that story.  You have to represent it, market it, talk about it, dream about it, and – most importantly – convince people to buy it.  People will come to associate that novel with you and you with the story.  Do you want that association with something you aren’t happy with?  You can’t rely on just your editors to make it perfect – you have to make it the perfect story too.

At this point, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Well, duh – it’s my story.  Why is this important?  How would I ever forget that?”  That’s a good question.  The answer to that is simple.

There will be so many different people throughout the process who will look at, edit, and provide suggestions on the text itself that that beacon of though “this is your story,” will get a little hazy.  You’ll have cover artists trying to capture the essence of your story into a single, overarching image that simultaneously draws people in AND gives them a glimpse into the heart of the novel itself.  You’ll have editors suggest changes to wording, phrasing, details, characters, first lines, and every minutia of detail that you’ll have moments where you think you have to please everyone and compromise your own personal opinions of what you’d like in the story.  You’ll get a manuscript back from someone (editor/beta reader/writing group) so full of suggestions/comments/criticisms that it will hit all the feels.  Your opinions of what needs to happen in each of these situations will sometimes differ greatly from those providing the suggestions.  Sometimes you won’t know they’re suggestions at all.

There will be times where you forget that THIS IS YOUR STORY.

But don’t.

This is YOUR story.  After all the editing, after all the suggestions, changes, critiques, and tweak this is still your story.  You make it what you want it to be.  Yes, your editors and other critique partners are helping you make it better, but in the end, the changes are yours, the revisions are yours, and the ultimate responsibility for the manuscript is yours.  If there’s something you don’t like, change it.  If it’s not something you can change yourself (like cover art or back blurbs or marketing campaigns) talk to the appropriate party and voice your concerns.

YOU have invested the time.  YOU have come up with the amazing novel that everyone will want to read.  YOU did the worldbuilding.  YOU brought life to the characters.  YOU took the time, put words to a page, and wrote the book.  It is YOUR story.

Enjoy it.  It is your story.

Part 5 – On Conference & Marketing

Something you’re going to need to get used to doing as a published author (or as a writer in general) is marketing yourself.  It’s hard because a lot of us writer types are introverts.  Crowds make us uncomfortable.  Direct questions make us squirm.  And compliments about what we write…don’t even ask.

But that’s really the bread and butter of being an author.

In order to sell books, people have to first, know that you’ve written one, and second, have a reason to pay money to read it.  Neither of those two things happen in a vacuum.  Neither of them happen without an interaction on the part of the author.  True, publishing companies have marketing and publicity teams.  You can hire either a publicist or a marketing person (or both) to do a lot of that for you.

Here’s the thing though.

They’re not you.  They didn’t write the book.  They didn’t have the insights, inspiration, tenacity, and grit to actually write the book.  While they may be passionate, they’re not as passionate as you.  While they could sell the book, they really can’t effectively sell you as an author.  Only you can do that.

One of the best ways to do that is by going to conferences and meeting people face to face.  They are the best place to meet other authors, agents, editors, and cool people like James Dashner, Paul Genesse, Shelly Brown, Michaelbrent Collings, or Johnny Worthen.  And, more importantly, they’re the best places to meet other people who have a similar taste in books and expand your readership.

My first experience with writing conferences was the 2014 LTUE Symposium. I had a blast, despite blowing my pitch session with an editor in the first 15 seconds of walking through the door. I met tons of awesome people, most notably the people who would become my writing group, Team Unleashed. I learned more in those three days and became more motivated to continue writing no matter what came of it than during the 10 years of learning on my own and self-motivating put together. It was a singularly important even in my writing journey. I highly recommend the conference and will be attending it every year that I am able for as long as I am able to go.

Due to some life events, I wasn’t able to make it to another conference until the 2015 LTUE the following year. The experience, however, was worth the wait. I met dozens of new people and made connections with authors, agents, and friends from around the country. I was able to speak to published authors about their craft and I was spoken to like I was a normal person. Authors as famous as Larry Correia, David Farland (Wolverton), and Tracy Hickman chatted with me as if I was a peer, rather than an unpublished nobody. And, through judicious wearing of a purple shirt and some sarcastic responses to polite inquiries, I also landed a full manuscript request that lead to my first publishing contract.

Conferences, conventions, and symposiums are where the magic happens. You talk with people, converse, and gain both fans and friends.  I’ve bought more books at conventions after meeting the authors there than I can possibly imagine (in the several hundred).  I’ve sold more books at conventions and conferences than anywhere else too.  At this past Salt Lake Comic Con, I sold almost a hundred physical copies of my one book – and thoughts not counting how many people saw me there and then went home and bought the ebook.

I will go to as many as I can as often as I can. If you haven’t gone to one yet, GO! If you don’t know if you’re ready yet, YOU ARE. If you’re sitting on the fence about a particular conference or convention in your area or are curious if they are worth the money, time, and effort – get off the fence and go. They are worth every penny. They are worth all the time. They are worth every ounce of effort. Go to a convention. You never know what could happen.

AND DON’T FORGET TO TALK TO PEOPLE.  Yes, marketing and being in a social setting is hard for us.  I still get uncomfortable with groups larger than 2-3 people.  But I’ve practiced and I can do it now.  I’ve been on TV and talked before a crowd on panel.  It can be done.

Part 6 – Managing Your Time

The hardest part of being a writer – for me at least – isn’t coming up with new ideas.  It isn’t working out a really cool plot of trying to decide which conferences to go to or how to best market the product you’ve created.  Trust me, those ARE hard.  They’re extremely hard.  But they’re not the hardest part.

No, the hardest part if figuring out how to manage your time.

My life is pretty busy without adding anything book related.  I work a full time day job where I have to leave the house by 7:30am and I get back home around 5:45pm.  I am married and have two wonderful – if oftentimes demanding – children.  They’re both young and stubborn which means that sometimes bedtime is a chore which requires a lot of patience, an understanding wife, and a lot of luck.  There are nights were the battle isn’t won until 9-10pm.  Anyone with small children can probably relate.

That really only leaves me two options to get writing time in.  Either before I leave in the morning OR after the kids are in bed.  Usually, I go with after.  In fact, I always go with after since I really don’t like getting out of bed in the morning.  Go figure, right?  So it’s well after midnight when I got to bed and well before 6 when I wake up to get ready and go to the day job.

Now that I’m a published author though, I can’t just devote my time only to writing.  There are marketing tasks to be completed, social media pages to update, emails to be read and responded to, meeting with editors and others from my publisher, interviews, podcasts, and a million and one other things that now take MORE time away from actually writing, not less.  It seems like there’s never enough time.  So I just get less sleep.

It’s unhealthy, I know.  My wife gets after me about it all the time.  The book tour manager at my publishing company gets after me about it.  My editors get after me about it.  My parents get after me about it.  I get after me about it.  My four year old son gives me lectures about dying all the time.  But it’s what works so that I can get writing and other stuff done.  I’ll be honest though, sometimes it gets to be a little much and I have to take a break.  These last few weeks I’ve just done some light editing/revising and a final read-through.  I haven’t been doing a lot of other series writing or marketing.  I should be, but I haven’t been.  I will start up again soon.

But the point is that the system works for me.  I can get in both marketing (and other stuff) and writing.  At an LTUE convention Michaelbrent Collings gave a 1:3 ratio for this “other stuff.”  He said that for every 2 hours you spend writing, you have to spend AT LEAST 1 hour doing this “other stuff.”  He went on to explain that sometimes it ends up the other way around – 2 hours doing “other stuff” and 1 hour actually writing.  I didn’t believe him at first.  Really, that’s how much time you have to spend doing “other stuff?”  I had this grandiose idea that a published author had more time to write that before because he had a readership and that offered some sense of security.

I was wrong.

However, I developed a system that works for me to get it done.  That’s essentially what I’m trying to say.  Writing is a job as well as an artistic endeavor.  You have to find the time it needs to devote to it and then consistently do it in a manner that works for you.  Brandon Sanderson has often been touted a prolific writer.  People assume that he writes quickly and a lot.  That’s not really the case.  He writes consistently using his own system to get stuff done.  That’s how he manages to write so much so well.  Consistent use of his system to get the job done.

So, if you get nothing else out of this blog series, get this.  You have to figure out how to manage your time.  Each person does it differently, so find what works for you and stick with it.  Plug away.  Do it.  That’s all there is to it.

Part 7 – Dealing with the Emotions of Being an Author – It’s what you do.

In an earlier post, I talked about how writing it hard work.  It is.  It takes a lot of dedicated effort, diligence, and persistence, even in the face of failure and resistance.  Every author will tell you that they invest bits of themselves into their writing.  They’re invested in the product they are creating and the characters, people, places, and situations they are crafting.

Because of that, there are deep, abiding emotions involved in this craft that we call writing.

I’m not going to list them all, but there are so many different emotions authors face every day, every time they turn on their computer to write, or open a file from an alpha or beta reader.  We all want what we write to be appreciated and enjoyed.  We all want for the stuff we’ve worked so hard on to actually mean something.  We all have the fear that we’ll get rejected and we’ll fail.  We need to recognize these emotions within ourselves and learn how to deal with them because, simply put, they’re not going away.

Michaelbrent Collings, bestselling horror author and all around purveyor and starlight champion of indie authors everywhere, said it this way:

“Every time I write a book – and I mean EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. – there’s a point where I realize I’m not going to be able to figure the story out, where I know that this is the one where I write total crap and everyone realizes how badly I really suck. Where I understand that THIS is the book that will make me a failure.

I push on. And so far I’ve managed to beat that feeling back long enough to make a liar out of it. But it is among the worst feelings of all, because it is the feeling that I’m not only doomed to fail, and I know it, but I also know that I will fail in a worthless endeavor.

And then, when I’m done, I go and do it again. On purpose.

Sigh. Apparently Momma raised at least one dumb kid.”

He’s right – and he has written literally dozens of bestsellers.  It’s an emotional, difficult process for all of us.  Every time.  And it doesn’t get any easier the more books you write.  I’m only up to 2 published books and 1 on the way and I’m probably more nervous now than I was with my first book.  Why?  Because I’ve set my own bar and I have to be better than that bar the next time around.  I have to raise the bar each time.  And I am my own worst critic.

J. Scott Savage recently said the following. He is the author of several middle grade fantasy novels and recently launched his Mysteries of Cove series.

“Just a reminder that there will always be better writers than you. I will never have James Dashner’s crazy imagination, Brandon Sanderson’s world building, or Annette Luthy Lyon’s prose. But I will always be able to write the best J Scott Savage books. And that’s completely okay. People read your stories precisely because they are YOUR stories. Spend less time worrying about whether or not you are as good as someone else, and instead focus on being the best you.”

So keep writing.  Yes, you’ll be terrified, nervous, scared, nauseated, frightened, and insecure.  You’ll have days, moments, weeks, or even months where you’re convinced that nothing you do will work out.  You’ll have projects that you think will get the best of you.  There will be days where your crippling social anxiety will live up to its name.

But you’ll get through it.  You will overcome it.  You will keep writing and getting better and improving.  You will do it.  Because you are an author.  That’s what you do.

Part 8 – In the end, keep writing

So, you’ve published a book, done some good marketing, and you’re feeling good about yourself and your future as a writer.  What now?  Write another book.  It will probably be better than your first one.  Go to some conferences and learn how to be a better writer.  Write some more.

Writing, unfortunately, isn’t like riding a bike.  If you aren’t constantly honing your craft and striving to become better, your skill will diminish and your ability stagnate.  Writing is a tool of self-expression and – like any tool – if you don’t give it the proper care and maintenance, it won’t perform adequately when you need it to.

Hopefully, you never stopped writing.  Even when pitching your novel, even when editing something else, you should be be thinking of new story ideas, new ways of expressing characterization, and how to better improve yourself and your craft.  That’s the real key to being a writer.  Be a writer.  It’s not something you can turn on and off.  Be it.  Live it.  Breathe it.  Consistency is the key.  Keep writing.

Consistent improved practice makes perfect.

Keep at it.  You can do it. You will.

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