How-to writing guide buyers: beware

Today, in my twitter feed, I read a comment that “The biggest lesson most writers need to learn is to avoid editing as you write.”

Now, I consider myself an edit-as-I-go writer, so this made me curious. I clicked on the link and read this woman’s advice on writing. I see she’s qualified that the statement is for most writers, but this just makes me wonder where she gets her data from. Was there a study? Perhaps she explains that in one of the several how-to books she’s selling on the subject.

Here’s the thing: writing advice is so valuable. I love to listen to different writers share their different approaches for what works for them. It’s inspiring and it always reminds me how many different paths there are to a similar goal.

The problem with writing advice is that often it’s delivered as if it’s coming from an expert who is letting you in on an absolute secret about the definitive correct way to do it.

My advice is that before you take advice (even mine), do two things: 1. consider the source and 2. decide if the advice rings true for you.

If you’re a big fan of Stephen King and you’re interested in learning how to write the kind of books he writes in the way he writes them, you might want to read On Writing. There are other helpful manuals written by other kinds of writers. Find one that’s right for you.

Not everyone writes like Stephen King or Charles Bukowski or Earnest Hemingway or Anne Lamott or Ray Bradbury or Sol Stein. Not everyone wants to. I’m sure each one of those authors has helpful nuggets of wisdom to share and I think new writers should be open to all of it, but skeptical when it doesn’t resonate.

The one-size-fits-all advice is something I see more and more as writers are pressured to create content for blogs that will strengthen their “platform”. I don’t think it’s helpful and I’m especially dismayed by how-to book writers claiming to be experts so they can make money off newbie writers. I think it’s exploitative.

Writers who make it through the gauntlet to publishing should absolutely share what worked for them with writers coming up after them. The stories are as fascinating as they are diverse. Some writers get an MFA while others are self-taught. Some writers plot everything out on color-coded note cards while others begin writing without any idea where their characters will take them. Some writers work in seclusion while others rely on supportive writers groups. Some edit only when their first draft is complete while others edit as they’re writing.

The more of these stories you hear, the clearer it becomes that there are many different ways to do it.  I think, especially for new writers, the biggest lesson to learn is which advice to take and which advice to ignore.

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The importance of being prepared for success

After 5 years of judging and editing anthologies of short stories for a variety of organisations and causes, I’d like to share a few home truths, in the hope that it makes the next competition an easier and more pleasant experience for both entrant and judge.

This is not an article intended to pump you full of hot air and preempt motivation, but rather a croaky plea from a weary editor and judge of short stories to competitors of all experiences to pick up your game and to be prepared once the judging has finished.

It aught to go without saying that the rules are there for reason. It astounds me how many times word count, genre and profanity rules are ignored. It doesn’t matter how good the story is, if its over the word count or not in the right genre required, it will get cut immediately.

Proofread your entry. Please. Have more than just your mum read it and give feedback on it.

When you enter a competition, your precious words are being judged. Every. Single. Word. Choose and edit them wisely.

Your title will either turn on or turn off the judges in a heartbeat. Put a great deal of thought into it, without being too clever or vague or (I’ve seen this so many times) giving away the twist in the end!

Unless the competition specifically calls for political, racial, sexual or religious extremist views, don’t use competitions as soap box for your passionate views. Passionate writing is wonderful, but no-one wants to feel they are being preached at while reading a story in a competition.

When you enter a competition, you aught to have a small hope your story will be chosen. If it is chosen 99.999999% of the time, you need to have a writers bio AND a publicity shot to send to the publisher. Be prepared for this and send it immediately back. Your publicity shot should be available in both black and white and in colour and be of high resolution. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have had to google a writers name and try and find a half decent photo of them from another site and write to ask permission to use it, because the writer sends low resolution photos, or forgets to do so. Your writers Bio should be 40 – 50 words, brief, not robotic and quirky enough to reflect your style.  I have 5 main bios on hand, depending on the publication and audience of the piece of work I have submitted.

I could write a book on boring bios. Whilst I understand that not everyone has a pet giraffe and is currently researching medieval pigeon taming in a Polish castle, we each have something that sets us apart from others. You are a writer. Explore that.

Although It may sound simple, your publicity shot aught to be one that is flattering, yet up to date. You aught to update it every 2 years. Your publicity shot is possibly best one that doesn’t include you holding a drink ( unless you are a reviewer for wine or beer magazine, if so; well done you) You aught to be the only one in the shot, with the exception in rare cases of a dog or cat ( if this is the warm, homely feeling your writing reflects) Ensure the background is blank or neutral. Shots against a bookcase filled with books always sends a good message.

This may sound elementary, but make sure the photo is predominantly your face. These photos are used in a number of ways and the shot of you sitting in your garden, though lovely on a big screen, will be dwarfed if viewed on an iphone or printed on the back of a book. Authors love the wistful staring to one side shots or the head resting on the curled hand shots. Don’t knock them. They work. They make you look alot more intelligent or wise than you may feel.  Another favourite (and cheeky) one is the author peeping over a book; which happens to be their own.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on professional shots as technology now allows a simple iphone to take excellent photographs. do a little research on others profile shots. Walk into a book store and turn over the books. Get a feel for the types of shots you feel will flatter you. Practice selfies. Ask your teenage relatives to teach you to do selfies.  With digital photography you can take a thousand shots in an afternoon. They has got to be at least one there you can use.

No-one likes self promotion. Suck it up, it’s part of being a writer who wants their work to be read by people other than their mothers. Get your teenage relatives to make you a Facebook page at least, so that your (soon to be) adoring fans can feel connected to you. Promotion is all about relationships and connection. If you are going to ‘make it’ as a widely read writer, you need at least some exposure on the internet. Your information can either be managed and controlled by yourself, or someone else. Do you really want a stranger to write your bio or post photos or information about your writing? Learn about the other networking platforms out there and choose something that will suit your lifestyle and outlook. There is no need to have profiles on 50 platforms, just one or two solid ones which you check in on at least fortnightly.

When you answer interview questions about your story, no one really wants to hear that it took you ten minutes to write, or that the characters are ones you’ll never use again, or that you don’t even like your story. Emerging writers hang on the words and advice of those who have made it to the next step. Allow some mysticism, some magic within the process. Always have a project in the wings, always be excited about the prospects ahead. If you aren’t, no-one else will be.  Promotion is about selling the sizzle and not the sausage.

It is common courtesy to respond to the editor and publisher in a timely fashion. Its a pretty small circle in some genres, and you’ve no idea who knows who at any one time. Remain professional and prompt with your replies.

Have a basic contract prepared for the release of your story. You can download copies from your state or national writers society or group. Ensure you read it and understand the clauses. Your publisher will most likely have their own and will send to you; however, it is completely within your rights to counter this with your own. It is fairly normal in most countries to agree to the rights of your story being exclusive (i.e. you can’t publish or enter it anywhere else) for 1 or 2 years and then to roll over to non-exclusivity.

There is so much emphasis on getting to the selection process, with little said about the “afterwards”. When you enter a competition, EXPECT to win! With that expectation, prepare yourself for the interviews, photos and biographies which are required for any normal media promotional distribution. If you see yourself as a winner, then so will others. (OK, maybe that was a bit of “fluffy motivation hype” speak!)

The Writers Circle: Remodeling Your Blog

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

How often do you change the look-and-feel of your writing blog? What happens to make you think or know it’s time to update the look, or do you just do so every so often whether it needs it or not? How much time and effort do you put into maintaining the way your blog looks versus how much time you put into providing content for it?

 

Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.

Follow your heart?

Not long ago, I had a three book deal with a traditional publisher. Even though sales for the first book were great, they didn’t do anything to promote my second book and I decided to get out of my contract with them.

In the months since I launched A Long Thaw on my own, I’ve wondered whether that was the smartest way to go. Some writers I knew told me I was crazy to walk away and I wasn’t sure if they weren’t right. Other people encouraged me to “go with my gut” or “follow my heart”. I might have rolled my eyes at the platitude but ultimately, that’s what I did and I’ve been second guessing myself ever since. I wanted control over how my work was marketed but I didn’t really know if I could do it by myself. Back in March, I proclaimed to my blog audience that I was going to: “rerelease the book my publisher didn’t promote and see if I can do a better job.”

I’ve spent these months working. I got book reviews and beefed up my Amazon page and did guest blogs and ran twitter contests and facebook promotions and deals on kindle. I was never sure if any of it was working. But I just counted up my sales and the reports are in: I’ve already sold more books in the past four months than the publisher managed to sell in an entire year. I guess I’m done wondering if I made the right decision. This is turning me into someone who gives the annoying “follow your heart” advice. It can be hard, but sometimes it’s all you have to go by.

If you’d like to take a look at my debut, Monsoon Season, it’s being sold by Hachette. My next book, Finding Charlie, will be out in the coming months.

The Writers Circle: Why Do We Write?

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Do you remember the first time you wrote something without it being an assignment from school?  Why did you write it and what made you start thinking of yourself as someone who could write for pleasure?  Now think about your writing today. Why do you continue writing and what keeps you motivated to keep going?

 

Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.

The Writers Circle: Traveling

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Traveling can be extremely rewarding on many levels, but it can present some unique challenges for writers.  Whether it’s a business trip or a family vacation, writing schedules can be disturbed, privacy can be limited and available time can be hard to find.  How do you handle writing while traveling? Do you continue to work on your work-in-progress? Do you work on side projects? Do you write about your travels? Do you do something else?

 

Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.

The Writers Circle: Hand-me-down Stories

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Have you taken over a creative project from a fellow writer who either had given up on the idea or who had no intention to write it in the first place? How carefully did you try to stay true to the idea as it was handed down to you?  Did you try to continue the story from where the original author left off, or did you start over and make it entirely your own? What are some of the benefits or pitfalls of writing a project such as this?

 

Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.

The Writers Circle: Show, Don’t Tell

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

“Show, don’t tell.”  Writers give and receive that advice all the time, yet we rarely hear advice as to how best to accomplish this. Today let’s discuss the hallmarks of “showing” and how these differ from “telling”.  What are some of the techniques you employ in your own writing which you feel help you to achieve success with this standard piece of advice?

 

Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.

Preparing a Novel for Publication – Preparation, Pre-orders, and Promotions, oh my!

Professional publication isn’t easy. Whether you’re traditionally published or self-publishing, you need to present yourself professionally. How your book looks, on the inside and out matters. How you promote your book also matters. Today, I’m going to walk you through how I, a self-publishing author, navigate the murky waters of publication while attempting to be as professional as I possibly can be.

I’m going to draw your attention to one important thing: If you act like a professional, treat yourself and others in a professional fashion, and treat your work like it is a professionally produced product, at the end of the day, you are a professional. It doesn’t matter if you spend $1,500 to produce a novel (like I do) or if you spend $0.00. Professionalism isn’t about budget. It’s about behavior, planning, and executing your publishing plans.

Having a budget helps, though.

I’m going to walk you through how I’ve been working on my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf, from start to finish, including tidbits and tips for a smooth release.

My Process:

  1. Outlining
  2. Drafting
  3. Editing
  4. Cover Art and back-of-cover copy
  5. Pre-Orders
  6. Promotions
  7. Formatting
  8. Publication

1: Outlining, 2: Drafting, 3: Editing

This is pretty self explanatory, so I’m not going to waste a lot of words on it and will instead jump straight to my unasked-for advice: Write your book, and make it as professional as you can. I hired two editors to help me whip Winter Wolf into shape. I’m working like some professional publishing houses do: the publication date is set when the book isn’t completed yet. Unless you are an experienced professional, do not do this. Deadlines like this are serious, and cannot be missed.

  • For most people, the pre-order and promotions phases will not begin until after the editing phase is completed. Your mileage may vary.
  • In this phase, professionalism is really important. Listen to your editors. Let them be picky. They’re improving your novel. Leave your ego at the front door, and always be polite.
  • If you aren’t using editors (not recommended!) then you should take extreme care and caution with your work. Use your word processor’s grammar checker, and confirm each and every rule. If you’re breaking a rule, you need to know the rule and why it’s acceptable to break it.
  • Use a synonym checker and master list of commonly misused words. Their and there are two different words! So are where, were, and ware.

Fun Fact: My outline for Winter Wolf was so detailed it was pretty much a first draft, which in turn makes the drafting and editing process much smoother. It took well over a week to completely detail the novel, make corrections, and do my developmental editing chores. As a result, the drafting and editing phase is well ahead of schedule.

4: Cover Art and Back-of-Cover Copy

Winter Wolf by RJ Blain This is the finished cover for my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf. Due to the importance of the cover art, I actually ordered the cover art from my artist, Chris Howard, in the very early stages of production. Once Chris started working on the cover, it took approximately a month to finish. The texting, commonly referred to as typography, was done independently with a different graphic designer.

A professional cover artist can help you create an attractive, compelling cover. But also remember that not all cover artists are graphic designers, and you want a graphic designer handling your typography.

Since the cover should tie to the novel, I did the back-of-cover blurb shortly after the cover art was completed. It took me about five hours to come up with my blurb, and I didn’t finalize it until I gauged the interest from some fans and readers.

Here’s the blurb I’m using:

The Hunted Wizard

When Nicole dabbled in the occult, she lost it all: Her voice, her family, and her name. Now on the run from the Inquisition, she must prove to herself—and the world—that not all wizards are too dangerous to let live.

The savage murder of a bookstore employee throws Nicole into the middle of Inquisition business, like it or not. Driven by her inability to save the young man’s life, she decides to hunt the killer on her own. Using forbidden magic to investigate the past, she learns that the murderer is in fact a disease that could kill the entire werewolf race.

Forced to choose between saving lives and preserving her own, Nicole embraces the magic that sent her into exile. Without werewolves, the power of the Inquisition would dwindle, and she could live without being hunted.

Nicole’s only hope for success lies in the hands of the werewolves she hates and the Inquisition she fears, but finding someone to trust is only the beginning of her problems. There are those who want to ensure that the werewolves go extinct and that the Inquisition falls.

But, if she fails to find a cure, her family—including her twin sister—will perish…

Why did I choose this blurb? I feel it has the important elements of a good blurb: It has a character who has a problem to solve. It tells a bit of what the story is about–but not too much. Finally, it hints at the consequences of the character’s failure, and what she gains should she succeed.

These are the types of blurbs that appeal to me, which is why I asked friends and fans for their opinions. I settled on this blurb because it resonates with me, and it’s also appealing to others who like the type of stories I write. That’s important–you want to write a blurb which attracts readers who enjoy the types of stories you write.

These were all marketing decisions, as the blurb is one of many weapons in my publication arsenal.

Tip: Professionals don’t insult the tastes of readers in their blurbs. The blurb is about the book, not you, your opinions, and whether or not you think books of whatever sub genre are boring. Exceptions may apply, especially in parody works.

5: Pre-order

Amazon recently opened pre-order functionality to self-publishing authors. Winter Wolf is my initial experience into the pre-ordering system. Here’s a very brief walkthrough of how it works from a writer’s perspective, and how to set it up:

1: Fill in the book data as normal.

However, this time, you have the option of marking a ‘finalized file’ or a ‘draft manuscript.’ For Winter Wolf, I am using a dummy manuscript of the approximate length of the actual book. The manuscript isn’t ready to be finalized, nor will it be ready until mid October. Most authors should not do this. I’m good at meeting my deadlines, and I’m experienced with doing so. If you are not the same way, absolutely do not start a pre-order unless you are 100% certain you can have the finalized manuscript ready on time. Amazon will ban those who fail to have their manuscripts ready from the pre-order system for one full year.

You do not want this.

Tip: Professionals meet their deadlines.

2: Select a date

Amazon and other pre-order services require the finalized manuscript two complete weeks prior to the novel’s official release date. Most services will ban you from pre-ordering if you fail to have the manuscript prepared on time. Yes, I’m repeating myself, but it’s really that important.

Buyers will be able to see your pre-order approximately 24 hours after submission, where they can click “pre-order” to buy the book. They’ll be charged for the book on the day of the novel’s release.

6: Promotions

Armed with your pre-order links, you can arrange any promotions you want without having the stress of doing a soft launch or needing to get links to your bloggers at the last minute. This is a huge relief, as someone who had to do this. My previous novel’s release was beyond hectic, as I didn’t have buy links until the last minute.

  • Research your promotion companies–there are great ones, and there are scams. Research, and don’t accept the first site you find as the final say. The hours you spend researching may save you a lot of grief and heartache later.
  • Many promotion firms require at least six to eight weeks to prepare for a tour or single-day blast promotion.
  • I’m using six different groups for promotion of Winter Wolf. I’m really proud of this novel, and I feel it is worth the investment.

Tips on Professionalism: When working with promotion groups, stay polite, if you’re asked for something, deal with it as soon as possible, and have patience. A single advertising campaign may take you hours to properly prepare.

7: Formatting

Sometime between the editing phase and the publication date, formatting the novel is necessary. You’ll need to format twice; once for the ARC, and once for the production copy. You may need to format three times, if you’re doing a print manuscript. From past experience, it takes me several hours to format a novel for publication, and I’m experienced enough to have streamlined the process.

  • The interior of your novel matters. Do it right. If you can’t, hire someone to do it right for you. If you don’t know how to do it right, learn–do not publish until you’ve mastered your formatting. Always check for errors if you’re converting files.
  • As with many things, plans included, ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ applies–the simpler your formatting is, the less likely there will be problems over different devices.
  • My first formatting run is done a month prior to the novel’s release so I can send the book to reviewers. The second formatting run is for the finalized version, which will be done several days before my deadline for submission.

8: Publication

Two weeks prior to the official publication date, the finalized manuscript goes into all systems. At this stage, I’ll be completely done. On publication day, all I’ll have to do is sit back and watch.

That’s how my novel is being dealt with this time–a very drastic difference compared to how my other books were produced. This method won’t work for everyone. However, the basic principles of professionalism still apply, no matter how you approach completing your novel.

In short, these are the things I’d suggest to you if you want to carry yourself as a professional:

  1. Swallow your ego and correct your mistakes.
  2. Don’t argue with people helping you. Either use their advice or don’t, but listen and keep quiet unless you have a question.
  3. Always be polite–even if it means gaining a reputation of being old fashioned from saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ so much.
  4. If you can’t be kind to a reviewer of your book, don’t say a word.
  5. If you say you’ll do something, do it.
  6. Don’t miss your deadlines. (Excuses won’t get Amazon to overturn the 1 year ban from pre-ordering.)
  7. Edit your novel.
  8. Proofread your novel.
  9. Proofread your novel again. People are paying you for your book. You don’t want basic mistakes! (All books have them, just fix them when someone finds one.)
  10. Yet again, proofread your novel.

Good luck.

The Writers Circle: Advice

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

How do your friends and fellow writers influence your WIP? Do you run sections by them or read out loud to a selected group of nearby writers? Do you ask for critiques from writers outside of your normal writing group?  What guides your decisions about who you choose to trust with their advice?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

 

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