Tag: writing

Birthing books, birthing babies, and cuddling with all kinds of feedback

Writer, reviewer, and book blogger Judy Nickles featured an interview with me on her blog yesterday. Check out an excerpt here:

If you’ve written more than one book, what have you learned between the first one and the new release? I’ve learned to greet critiques from my beta readers with wide open arms. The prospect of doing major rewrites (or even minor ones!) can be daunting, but it’s a necessary part of improving the final product. I owe it to my readers to put polished, entertaining work out there for them. Odds are high that anyone’s first draft is going to suck. The more comprehensive the feedback you receive and incorporate, the more you diminish those odds in subsequent drafts!

I’ve also learned that there’s a reason most writers don’t achieve success at a young age. Writing well, for me, involves a deepening of wisdom, a broadening of life experience, a honing of the skills of observation and concision, and a hell of a lot of practice. A few very gifted, very lucky individuals write fantastic first books at an early age, but obviously those people are freaks of nature who should be isolated from society to keep the rest of us from looking bad.

Read the entire interview on The Word Place blog.

Solving a bunch of murders would probably ruin my life.

I’m a pretty normal gal. I have a part-time job running the clinical research center at the Virginia Tech vet school. I’m a mom who shops at Kroger, walks the dog, and makes pasta salad. I do yoga, volunteer, and have Friday-night drinks with the neighbors. One thing I don’t do is solve murders.

Readers of the traditional or “cozy” mystery genres will know that one of the criterion often used for defining these books is that the protagonist should be an amateur sleuth. (There are notable exceptions to this, but it generally holds true). In other words, the person who solves the mystery is just a regular Joe or Josephine. Hence, my Reverend Lindsay Harding Mysteries fit the bill. Lindsay is a hospital chaplain. She’s not a police officer, a member of the armed forces, or even a private investigator. She’s a normal person, thrown into murder investigations by chance (actually by me, but don’t tell her that!).

I’ve been working on the third book in the series, and I find myself wondering — what would it mean for Lindsay, as a normal person, to be confronted frequently by the horror that accompanies the sudden, violent taking of a life? How might it change her as a person? Some mystery writers have addressed these questions with considerable skill. My religious-based mystery-writing hero, Julia Spencer-Fleming, is one of these. As personal tragedies pile on top of repeated exposures to the darker shades of human nature, Spencer-Fleming’s Reverend Clare Fergusson character grows, changes, and becomes more complex. And, crucially, Rev. Clare buys a new car. You read that right. She begins the series owning an impractical sports car, but at some point she realizes that she needs something that handles better in the snow. So she gets a Suburu. I know this may seem an odd thing to fixate on, but this exemplifies what’s right about Spencer-Fleming and wrong with so many other mystery series.

Way too many books, especially in the cozy genre, fail to recognize the deep wounds that would accumulate if a person were constantly confronting life-threatening (and life-ending) situations. Experiences, especially traumatic ones, change people. But some authors seem to take their characters and plots in the opposite direction — as their series progresses, they write about murders with all the the gravity and emotional depth of a game of Uno. Their characters’ quirks become like the pun-heavy jokes your weird old uncle trots out every Christmas — they may have been amusing the first few times, but now they make you want to stab yourself in the neck with a shrimp fork. By way of example, I’ll pick on two of the most successful series is the genre (the writers of which are both conveniently deceased, and therefore unable to argue with me): Lilian Jackson-Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. In these books, bodies stack up, but the equilibrium of the main character is totally undisturbed. Miss Marple might give a little frown or an exclamation of surprise as she steps over yet another corpse, but then she calmly returns to sipping her Earl Grey. In the last few installments of “The Cat Who…” murders roll in and out of the pages like buses out of a Greyhound station. They might occasion a quick-witted quip, but they don’t “stick” to the characters.

What’s a writer to do? Part of the charm of traditional mysteries, and cozies in particular, is that they provide an easy, often funny, read, free of the kind of gruesome violence that so many of us find overly disturbing. I love the humorous elements of these books, as they remind us that there is light to be found in even the darkest of places. But I personally can’t stand to read a character who remains static while the world around her repeatedly throws dead bodies at her feet.

Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean that the Lindsay Harding series is suddenly going to change from being fun beach reads to being a meditation on the hopelessness of existence. But it does mean that, if I achieve what I set out to do, that Lindsay will evolve.

Amazon, 650. Traditional Publishing, 0.

Since the beginning of January, I’ve made about $650 in royalties from my novel, A Murder in Mount Moriah. That’s a little over $100/month, on average, for the arithmetically challenged. While that’s not exactly “quit your day job” money, I’m proud of it. It represented hundreds of sales (at $2.99 or .99 cents each for the Kindle title, which represents the vast majority of purchases). This doesn’t, of course, include the many thousands (10,000+) of free downloads via Amazon marketing schemes. I’m hopeful that once I have two or three more titles in the Reverend Lindsay Harding series, my writing income stream will grow considerably and provide a little contribution toward my daughter’s college fund/bail money.

In addition to deriving satisfaction from gaining an audience from my book, I feel that this income bolsters my belief that I made the right choice by aligning myself with Little Spot for Stories. Little Spot is essentially a platform for self-publishing. The editor, Nicole Loughan, is herself a successful indie author whose “Saints” series became an Amazon bestseller. Nicole vets the books she publishes under her imprint and provides marketing advice. What she does not do is play the dysfunctional game that most literary agents and book publishers do.

Why do I call it a dysfunctional game? The best-selling indie writer Hillary Rettig explained this beautifully in her recent article about the current Amazon vs. Hachette standoff. She explains how, for her, me, and many others, there is no contest between Amazon and traditional publishing. Amazon has giving writers all the tools they need to reach audiences, and they compensate writers at a reasonable rate for their efforts. Writers have control of the quality of their work, and control over marketing decisions. Meanwhile, traditional publishing is, for a writer, frequently fraught with peril and disappointment.

Here’s my experience with the world of traditional publishing, as an illustration. I finished writing A Murder in Mount Moriah about three years ago. Hopeful little author that I was, I duly submitted query letters, using the wonderful website Query Tracker, to the major agents representing my genre (cozy mystery).  I was overjoyed when my very first letter, to a BIG TIME AGENT, yielded an immediate request for a full manuscript and a period of exclusivity. After months of nervous waiting, the BIG TIME AGENT came back with a “thanks, but no thanks.” My next round of letters (and I sent multiple this time, because that whole exclusivity thing is a load of bullocks), scored me my very own BIG TIME AGENT, someone with several titles on bestseller lists and an impressive client list. Now, this agent knows her stuff and has all the right (write?) connections. She was excited about my manuscript, and I was over the moon.

Then began another round of waiting. She sent the book to the Big 5 publishers (e.g. Penguin, Kensington, Minotaur, etc.). The responses, when they eventually came after many, many months, were positive, but no one wanted to take on the series. Here’s a snippet from one:

“I thought the writing was very strong and I greatly enjoyed Lindsay’s character-she has a wonderful voice for a protagonist-funny, down to earth, and instantly endearing. I had a few second reads and the overall feeling was that the hospital setting was just too difficult to make work for our line.”

I also had editors say it wasn’t “cute” enough, wasn’t “crafty” enough (lots of cozies involve baking, knitting, etc.), or that their marketing team couldn’t figure out how to “visually convey” hospital chaplaincy.

Ultimately, my agent strongly encouraged me to give up on the hospital chaplain book and write something grittier and more hard-boiled. I don’t blame her for giving up. Publishing is a business, and the sooner a writer understands that, the better. The problem is, though, that I don’t want to write about some latter-day Josef Mengele psycho killer who spends his days stroking a cruel-eyed Persian cat while plotting out the details of his next gruesome rape or murder. (He is, obviously, laughing maniacally all the while). I don’t want to describe how this killer then wove a macramé owl out of the intestines of his unfortunate victim and fed the victim’s toes, one by one, to the cat (who is also laughing maniacally all the while).

Self-publishing has given me the freedom to tell the stories that I want to tell, and to try to find an audience that wants to hear them.

All of this is not to say that I wouldn’t consider traditional publishing. I’d still love to do that. But self publishing on Amazon has given me a basis for negotiation. I don’t have to take any old offer that I get. If traditional publishing can score me better than $100/month, I’m all ears.

 

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.

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!

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

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.