The 3 step cure for writer’s block

http://20px.com/blog/2013/02/09/the-curious-case-of-rainbow-pooping-unicorns/#.U1qtMvldXE0I know that it may seem insensitive to say that writer’s block isn’t real. If you’re on my blog right now because you’ve been up all night desperately trying to Google your way out of a crippling fit of writerly inertia, you’d probably like to reach through the World Wide Web and poke me in the eye with a freshly-sharpened pencil. But when I say it isn’t “real” what I mean is that it isn’t hardwired into anybody’s biology and it isn’t the inevitable lot of creative minds. To me, the thing called writer’s block can only happen when we think of writing as some sort of conjuring trick that certain Illuminati-like geniuses can spew forth from their star-dusted fingertips. I don’t think of writing that way. Instead, I think of it more like digging a really long ditch. And so, I want to share a 3-step no-nonsense, ditch-digging guide to demystifying the writing process.

Step 1: Realize that writing isn’t hard

I know that we all have heard stories about tortured authors who spend each miserable day trying to wring little word droplets out of their husk-dry brains. One day, if they’re lucky, they experience a downpour of inspiration and the reservoir of their creativity fills. They write like demons until the well once again runs dry. Then it’s a return to waiting — days of lamenting, opium taking, and a slow descent into madness. Or whatever.

But writing just shouldn’t be that hard. For Pete’s sake, my 7-year-old can do it. You know why? Because she doesn’t stress about whether what she writes is good enough to win the Booker Prize. She just sits down and writes because she enjoys it. I’ve never understood people who are tortured by the writing process. I know we all have dreams of becoming successful, but for the vast, overwhelming lot of us, writing will always be a hobby. Or at best, a sideline that brings in a bit of spending money. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, you’re probably not going to get rich off of what you write. So enjoy the process. Or find another hobby that you do enjoy, like bass fishing.

Step 2: L’ego your Ego

The fact that writing isn’t hard doesn’t mean that it isn’t work. It’s easy to sit down and barf forth a jumble of ill-conceived ideas and poorly-delineated characters. If you’re going to have any shot at winning that Booker Prize, or even bringing in enough money to fund the occasional Joss and Main shopping spree, you need to be willing to admit that sometimes you just waste a lot of time writing something that has the literary merit of a 13-year-old girl’s love notes to Harry Styles. Give yourself permission to write badly. Become friends with the delete button. To return to my ditch metaphor, if you were digging a ditch and realized that the path you’d initially laid out would take you straight off the edge of a rather steep cliff, would you keep digging along that same course? No, ma’am. Or if part of your ditch caved in, would you give up the whole project and go home? Your answer should be a resounding nope!

Letting go of your ego also requires that you get honest input on your work from people who did not give birth to you and who do not owe you money or a kidney. Find a reliable writing group (electronically or otherwise) and solicit honest opinions. Be willing to have skilled ditch constructors say that your ditch sucks.

Step 3: Write the damn book

Many of us work or have young children. Our days are sliced into units of time as wafer-thin as supermarket deli meat. But writing something, especially something as long and intricate as a novel, takes time. Each little chunk of time you devote to your writing project is another shovelful of dirt, another rock removed, another…thingy that you do when you’re digging a very long ditch. (Okay, I’m realizing that I know very little about the process of digging ditches).

If this doesn’t work for you, then buy my book A Murder in Mount Moriah. Included with each copy is a complimentary visit from the Magical Writing Unicorn. The MW Unicorn will visit you while you’re sleeping and bestow extra special writing powers on you. This is the secret that all great writers know — forget MFA programs and endless revisions — it’s all about the damn unicorn. I can guarantee that if you look on Sue Monk Kidd’s bedroom floor, you’ll find it marked with glittery unicorn hoof-prints.

A writer and his money are soon parted.

I recently got a message via Goodreads from a “fan” of my work, offering me a discount code for an advertising service for authors. Although I was flattered, I immediately caught a whiff of something seafood-y. A quick Google search showed me that this kind of scam had been perpetrated on a number of indie authors via blogs and websites. I reported the “fan”, who was subsequently given the boot from Goodreads. This reminded me of some advice that David Gaughran gives in his marketing guide for indie authors, Let’s Get Visible. He points out that there are a TON of services that claim to provide exposure/publicity/instant fame and fortune to writers, but only a handful have any kind of track record for delivering results. (I’ll save you a bit of time and just tell you that Bookbub, ereadernewstoday, and Pixel of Ink are the top ones). Having never paid for publicity myself, I can’t personally vouch for any particular service, but other writers can. Watch out, though. Bookbub, in particular, is hella expensive, and we all know that just because something is outrageously expensive, doesn’t mean it can deliver (my cable internet is a perfect example of this).

All I can tell you is that I’ve been approached by people offering to Tweet about my book, to blog about my book, to create an interpretive dance about my book, or whatever. Some people, like the awesome 52booksorbust, do it out of the kindness of their hearts or to generate traffic for their own sites or because I dated them in high school. But whenever one of these services want money, I know that something’s up. The better sites and services don’t need to try to find authors–the authors find them, in droves. I know it’s frustrating to try to gain exposure for your book. Actually, frustrating isn’t the word. It sucks like a medieval leech doctor. But unfortunately, that’s the lot of the indie author. If you want to be a trailblazer, you’ve gotta be willing to wade through knee-deep muck with a machete in your hand. There are no shortcuts. If you want ideas for marketing, look to the Kindle Community. Whatever crazy marketing scheme you are considering, our fellow authors have probably been there, tried that.

scam alertOne more resource that I’ll mention is the blog Writer Beware. This mostly relates to scams involving vanity presses, shady agents, and ersatz publishing houses, but it’s definitely worth checking out for indie writers.

Remember that, as an indie author, your profit margins are slim. Since I started trying to monetize my writing in July of last year, I’ve made coffee money, but not a great deal more. Unless a marketing opportunity has a good chance of netting you a big return, do not part with your hard-earned coffee money. You’ll need it to fuel your next literary endeavor.

Paging Chaplain Barbie

I came across this great blog post today, written by a young, attractive female hospital chaplain: Paging Chaplain Barbie. “Chaplain Barbie” relates this experience:

Patient: “You don’t look like a chaplain.”
Me: “What does a chaplain look like?” 
Patient: “An old man with wrinkles and white hair.” 

There is a scene almost exactly like this in A Murder in Mount Moriah! I know this happens to women in a lot of professions (engineering, math, and science are obvious examples), but there is something about a young female religious professional that can be particularly difficult for folks to get their heads around.  Hooray for the real Reverend Lindsay Hardings out there!

Why write murder mysteries? And why have a chaplain solve them?!

One of my writing heroes, the fabulous novelist Ann Patchett, was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air recently. She said that all of her books are fundamentally about groups of strangers who are thrown together in unusual circumstances. Patchett reckons that all writers have a similar “thing”–the theme that underpins almost all of their writing. Jack London? Man against nature. Hemingway? Strength and the loss of strength.

My writing buddy, Charlotte Morgan, heard the Patchett interview, too, and asked me what my theme was. It may not be entirely obvious to those who’ve only read A Murder in Mount Moriah. In fact, it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about. Yet, I was able to answer Charlotte’s question immediately. My theme is death. Or perhaps more accurately, my own fear of death and my exploration of other people’s attitudes towards death. That may seem an odd answer given that most of what I write is (or tries to be!) funny. But I’ve never seen any incompatibility between humor and death. Indeed, one of my first literary ventures was writing an original comedy piece for my forensics team when I was a freshman in high school. The story I wrote began with the death of an old woman who was “rammed by a ewe”. All these years later, I’m still pretty proud of that pun.

So death is my theme. But why have a main character who is a hospital chaplain? I suppose that my protagonist, Lindsay Harding, is my shield. Her wisdom and humor protect me from the aspects of death that I would otherwise find too scary to confront. Because hospital chaplains see death so often and in so many forms, they are often able to find moments of levity, beauty, poignancy, and transcendence within the processes of dying and grieving. I think a lot of us feel, or want to feel, this way about death–that it would be better to treat it as another part of life rather than as “that which cannot be named”. To that end, I commend to you the heartbreaking and hilarious series of tweets recently put out by comedy writer Laurie Kilmartin, whose father passed away a few days ago. Check it out. If you don’t laugh AND cry, I will eat my hat.

p.s. This post is dedicated to my friend, Ida Jarron, who passed away late last week. I went to visit her recently in the nursing home she moved to after her condition took a turn for the worse. As ever, she offered me a gin and tonic, which (as ever) she poured with a very heavy hand and almost no mixer. I suspect that I am one of the few people who can say that they’ve walked out of a nursing home at 4 o’clock in the afternoon steaming drunk. RIP, Miss Ida.

What does it take to make it as an indie author? Interview with Kindle bestselling author Nicole Loughan, Part 3

Read part 1 of MFM’s interview with Nicole Loughan
Read part 2 of MFM’s interview with Nicole Loughan

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Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): I’ve heard it said that to be a successful writer nowadays, you need a PR person more than you need an agent. Do you think that’s true?

Nicole Loughan (NL): I have a friend who is a social media representative at a big company and acts as my PR consultant. She has been essential in teaching me about twitter and Facebook marketing, shout out to her Alyson Komyanek. Though in the beginning I recommend writers do their own marketing, especially when you don’t know how well your book will be received. You can spend a fortune on all the little doodads out there like PR and ads and the return on investment might never come. You have to be a pioneer and do a lot yourself. If I hadn’t known Alyson I probably would have spent another 100 hours learning about social media and marketing. Anybody just starting out can learn basic marketing from the already established advice of J.A. Konrath and David Gaughran. I read Konrath’s blog and Gaughran’s book “Let’s Get Visible.”

MFM: There are so many websites and services catering to indie authors. Many offer to make you a best-seller…often for a hefty fee. What has your experience of these services been? Which ones work and which would you steer clear of?

NL: I did not use any web services, eek, no. If you could see me you would know that I am holding up my hands like the sign of the cross trying to fight off a vampire. It’s not a good idea to use an online publishing service or most services catering to indie authors. The websites do not deliver enough to warrant the cost. I did not spend a dime on advertising for the first six months and still sold like hotcakes. I spent all of my money on editing and graphic design in the beginning, great investments. When I finally did decide to try an ad I did so after careful research. I learned there were essentially two places worth the money to advertise your indie book, Bookbub and Ereadernewstoday. I have now used both. Both times my books hit the bestseller lists. BookBub was the big time I hit the top of all of my categories with Bookbub and I am still feeling residual effects. It was pricey, around $180 but it was more than worth it. Here is the caveat; you have to already be very successful to advertise with either of these places. By very successful I mean you have to have a large number of reviews, which are favorable. To get a lot of reviews you have to have a lot of sales.

MFM: Thanks for these great tips, Nicole!

What does it take to make it as an indie author? Interview with Kindle bestselling author Nicole Loughan, Part 2

Read part 1 of MFM’s interview with Nicole Loughan

Minty Fresh Mysteries: What three qualities do you think it takes to become a successful indie writer?

Nicole Loughan: 1. Honesty – Publishing on your own means that nobody has yet put their stamp of approval on your work. You have to do that for yourself. You have to be honest with yourself about your writing and how good it is. I have been writing fiction for about ten years, a lot of it sits in a drawer collecting dust. Some of it I sent to my sister or friends. The response to other stories was typically, “it was good but I just don’t have time to finish it.” Clue: If your friends didn’t like it enough to finish it, chances are it wasn’t good enough. If the people who like you personally don’t have time to finish your book you will be hard pressed to sell it to strangers for $2.99.

2. Be willing to learn – I can’t stress that enough. In the beginning I learned how to do everything myself. I created my website www.littlespotforstories.com. I learned to write code, insert widgets that were functional. I learned basic design and html. I learned interior book formatting and mobi pocket conversions. I have probably banked more than 100 hours of reading time about how to self-publish.

3. Have a thick skin – Negative reviews and negative reactions are all part of the game. There are people who look down on self-publishing and they will make themselves known at dinner parties. My plan of attack is to have a plate of olives nearby to eat when they start talking about it. Then there is the negative book reviews. I got my first one within 10 days of publication. It hurt at the time, but I later realized how lucky I was to have a genuine review so quickly. A friend of mine gave me great advice that I will share here. She said never respond to a review. Even if a reviewer says “I don’t like Times New Roman Font and your book is in Times New Roman” perhaps another person will come along who doesn’t like Times New Roman and say “Thank you for the review. I can’t read another book with that terrible font,” and that review will have been a help to them.

MFM: Amen, sister. I look forward to hearing more from you next week in the third and final part of our interview!

Why write books about chaplains?

I came across an inspiring blog post today: Life as a queer chaplain by Laura Arnold. I’m at a particularly thorny stage of writing the next Reverend Lindsay Harding book, and I’ve been a bit discouraged. This post really helped reconnect me with my “mission”–to entertain and engage, while reminding people that we are all children of God*. We all need love. We all seek truth. We all crave meaning and connection. Chaplains, whatever their personal stories, come into our lives at critical moments and do their best to help us walk through to the other side. But chaplains are just like the rest of us–struggling with their own inner turmoil and trying to make their own way in this world.

*Note: Please substitute The Universe or Humanity if the idea of God doesn’t speak to you.

What does it take to make it as an indie author? Interview with Kindle bestselling author Nicole Loughan, Part 1

Do you have what it takes to make it as an indie author? Kindle best-selling author of the Saints Mystery series, Nicole Loughan, shares details about her journey to indie author success.

Image of Nicole LoughanAuthor Interview, Part 1: The Road to Indie Authordom

Nicole Loughan has written two murder mysteries she swears are magic. Not that they have any mystical properties written within the pages, but the success has been close to supernatural. Her first mystery, To Murder a Saint became the #70 best-selling book on Amazon in January, topping the best-selling Mystery and Women’s Sleuth charts. The book has sold thousands of copies since publication in May of last year. She realized what an astronomical feat that was when she learned that most self-published books only ever sell 100 copies. Nicole has not left her day job. Instead she continues to write as the humor columnist “The Starter Mom” and food and features for two Philadelphia daily newspapers. 

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): I know you write a syndicated humor column, “The Starter Mom.” How did you make the transition from breezy humor to the darker themes you explore in your Amazon best-selling Saints’ Mysteries?

Nicole Loughan (NL): The humor column is harder for me than writing mysteries. I started as a “real” journalist 15 years ago. I covered community, politics and crime. Occasionally, in those early days I would write features and fun stuff like the column. I evolved overtime and became strictly a features writer, but I still had to follow the rules of journalism: a catchy lead, using inverted pyramid style, heavy on facts and telling the story with quotes. I was looking for a challenge when the opportunity to become “The Starter Mom” came along and boy did I get it. I did not realize I was so used to journalism that I would have a hard time putting myself into the story and adding opinion. It was hard to not follow the structure of a news story. I think the first starter mom was 700 words and took me about six days to write it.

MFM: How did you get started in indie publishing?

NL: I am not against the traditional publishing establishment. In fact I am represented as a newspaper and magazine writer. I like having representation. They take care of the cash, tax forms and technical problems. When I wrote “To Murder a Saint” I did not know where to start. It was a novella and I could not find any agents who were looking for novellas. After exhaustive searching I found three publishers taking novella submissions. One was Random House. I got a personal and very encouraging rejection from their Alibi division. The two other places I sent the story to took more than four months to give me a response. I am not very patient so I was constantly googling things like, “how long do queries take” and “is it a good or bad sign that my query has been out for half a year?” Eventually this googling led me to the site of J.A. Konrath and I learned about the new way to self-publish, digitally. Konrath talked about the importance of a good story, a good editor and a good graphic designer. I had a good editor I had been working with on other projects, Erin McNelis and a fabulous graphic designer friend, Geneveive LaVO. These were people that already had good industry reputations and were hired by large organizations for their skills. I pulled my queries from the other two publishing houses and hired my friends. I feel fortunate in a way. I have only ever queried three places and had one query rejection. I can say my manuscript was only rejected once prior to publication.

Read part 2 of MFM’s interview with Nicole Loughan
Read part 3 of MFM’s interview with Nicole Loughan

The Literary Blog Hop

My bodacious blogging buddy at 52booksorbust.com is featuring A Murder in Mount Moriah as part of the first Literary Blog Hop of 2014. This will be the tenth Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (there are 3 per year). So far, they have been a great success, with between 30 and 70 participating blogs every time. So, if you like free books (and who doesn’t?), hop along to the participating blogs between now and February 12th, 2014. The nice thing about these giveaways, as opposed to Goodreads, etc., is that they are “curated” by expert book review bloggers, who certify the quality of the books they are giving away. Good luck, and happy hopping!

Is writer’s block real?

I was tempted to make this a one-word post. That word? Nope

But on further consideration, that nope might need a little bit of explanation. Writer’s block is, after all, so enmeshed in the popular imagination that even my 7-year-old has claimed to suffer from it. I have never believed in it myself. Sure, there are days when almost every word that appears on my screen is utter garbage. Sure, there are times when I’ve painted myself into a plot corner so tight that only a major rewrite can get me free. And of course, there are days when the prospect of writing seems so utterly horrifying or painful that I’d rather be doing almost anything than sitting down to write.

Fundamentally, though, I agree with the great Ann Patchett, who thinks that writer’s block is a form of procrastination. Patchett recently published a wonderful collection of short stories titled, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. My favorite is “The Getaway Car”, in which she describes how she came to be a writer. In it, Patchett describes people’s incredulity when she says that she never suffers from writer’s block, as well as their extreme defensiveness when she says that she thinks it’s a myth. 

Her secret is similar to the wisdom of the late Tom Clancy. When he was asked how to go about writing a novel, he would famously advise, “Just write the damn book.” You will encounter roadblocks, set backs, whole chapters that need to be scrapped. Your first draft will probably suck. Your second will probably suck, too. But fundamentally, the only way to get a book written is to sit down and write it.

There are those who would take issue with my argument; they would say that writer’s block is a very real, diagnosed form of anxiety. There are those, like Samuel Coleridge, who wait for the muse of inspiration to alight on their pen (or keyboard), and claim that once the muse departs, they are rendered incapable. 

I have great sympathy for these positions. However, I’ve always thought of writing like anything else. You may or may not have a natural talent, but either way, if you don’t put in the work, you’re gonna end up with nothing, or with junk. Did Martin Luther King start off delivering world-changing oratory? Probably not. Bill Gates probably spent a lot of time tinkering before he built his first computer. Did Dominique Dawes spring from her mother’s womb doing triple flips? For her mother’s sake, I certainly hope not. 

Anyway, you get the idea. You want to be a writer? Do the work. Even if it’s hard. Even if the first draft makes your eyeballs throw up. Just find a way to put words onto paper. 

Enough procrastinating for me! If you need me, I’ll be back at the grindstone, writing my damn book.