One of my favorite parts of writing conferences is sitting out in the hotel lobby or hallway, or in the green room (where presenters hang out and consume mass quantities of snacks and caffeinated beverages) talking shop.
It’s kind of like those scenes in war movies where the fresh recruits are getting advice from the veterans. You have the cranky old soldier who tells everyone they’re going to die, the guy who has cheated death too many times to count because of his lucky charm, the religious guy, the drunk guy (might be one and the same), and a few guys that actually give advice that might be helpful.
Among the new guys you have the guy who believes everything, the guy who won’t listen to anything, the guy who thinks he knows it all, and the guy who has no idea how he got here and is trying not to pee his pants.
I love hearing publishing war stories, sharing my experiences, watching the faces of the newbies fill with terror as they realize half of what they think they know is wrong. But most of all, I love that moment when I share a hard-earned lesson, and the person i am talking to really gets it. You can see the light going on and you realize you might have actually helped someone.
Since I haven’t shared a writing tip in a while, I’m between projects, it’s a Sunday and I’m sick, I won’t be attending another conference until the end of this month, and it’s a new year, I thought I’d share some of what I think are the most valuable things I’ve learned over the past 13 years and 14 books worth of writing. (I have no idea at the moment whether I’ll come up with 3 things or 13, so I’ll write the title of this post when I am done.)
Warning, this will probably be long, and at least a little rambling, so if you decide to come with me, you might want to pretend you’re in the green room and grab some snacks and a tasty drink.
Okay, here we go.
1) Beware of advice that comes down to, “This is what worked for me.”
War stories are great; we can learn from both the successes and the failures of others. Early in my writing journey, I took the word of famous authors as gospel. I was looking for the secret of success, and they had succeeded, ergo, their secret was worth following.
The problem is that what worked for one person, especially a person who might have been publishing at a different time or under different circumstances, might not work for you at all. Because one author self-published erotic fan fiction and signed a multi-million dollar contract doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Because one person quit their job as soon as they sold their first book and never looked back doesn’t mean you won’t end up broke or massively in debt if you try the same thing. Remember, the stories that are the most interesting and get passed around the most are usually the ones that are the exceptions to the rule. That’s what makes them interesting.
I always feel like I am getting the best advice when someone lays out all of the options they know and explains how each of them have worked or not worked. Especially if they tell me what they’ve learned from other people’s experience, I think I have a better shot at deciding what is best for me. If you want to learn about queries, go to a dozen different sources. If you want to decide whether to self-publish a book or go traditional, don’t limit your reading to the advice of people preaching one thing or the other, regardless of how much success they might have experienced themselves.
2) Kind of tied to point one, no sales or marketing technique works forever.
When I first started writing middle grade books, school visits were new and cool. Schools were excited to have authors do assemblies. In the past five years, so many authors have decided that they need to do tons of school visits to sell their books, that many schools are burned out on having authors visit and try to sell their latest project. When I launched Water Keep, I’d heard about this kind of virtual book tour called a Blog Tour. I contacted 200 MG book blogs and set up interviews and reviews. I think it worked pretty well. But now blog tours are not nearly as effective.
What are things that have worked well in the past? Pricing your books at $0.99. Publishing tons of books every year to get your name out there. Virtual book launch parties. Those are things that authors have used to good effect in the past. Are they as effective now? I am definitely not an expert here, but from what I have been reading by people who appear to be experts, they have lost their appeal. When everyone is pricing their books at 99 cents or doing blog tours or giving away their books for free, that no longer stands out.
This doesn’t mean that because something has been around for a long time, it won’t work. There are plenty of things that have been around for a long time for a reason. Hard work, perseverance, patience, good solid writing. And you may have a great virtual launch party or great success selling your books for under a buck. If you do, it will probably be because you found a new angle or because you have a great book in the first place. But gimmicks and tricks that promise guaranteed success go out of style pretty quickly.
3) I don’t want this post to be all about marketing, but let me make one other point about marketing. Be really careful about spending a lot of money on your own marketing.
Recently I had someone ask me if Facebook ads are successful in selling books. I could have gone into a lot of detail about what kind of ad, what kind of success, etc. But there was a really quick and easy answer. I asked him how many profitable publishers he had seen running Facbook ads for their clients’ books. If Facebook ads sold enough books to pay for the ads, wouldn’t publishers place lots of ads? If billboards sold lots of books, wouldn’t you see lots of ads for books on the side of the road? If movie trailers sold enough books to cover their costs, wouldn’t you see them all over?
Let’s separate a couple of things here. First, there are things that make sense for a self-published author that might not make as much sense for a traditional publisher. You might make enough profit per book that selling your books at your local festival is worthwhile. It might not be profitable for a publisher to buy a booth there. That’s really a kind of trial and error thing, but try to keep your costs down initially.
Likewise, there are things that a publisher finds successful for an author who already has a big name, that won’t work for you. A billboard for a new Stephen King book might pay for itself (although, again, if it did, you would see more book ads on billboards.) An ad in Publisher’s Weekly might be part of a larger campaign. But even then, many of the ads you see have more to do with stroking an author’s ego than actually paying for themselves. Those things may work for a big name, but you’d be wasting your money to buy a PW ad yourself.
I call this the snowball effect. A big name author has a snowball of readers, so they are making the snowball bigger with a billboard or a big tour. They are building on what is already there. You, on the other hand, are trying to create a snowball, so a billboard or movie ad has nothing to build on. There is no easy way to jump to success. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and then it would stop working.
I’m not saying don’t market. Often, your marketing is the only marketing your book will get, and a book with no marketing is almost guaranteed not to sell. What I am saying is that you can’t buy your way to success. You could purchase ads in all the trade publications, buy billboards, finance your own tour, and in the end find yourself in a whole bunch of debt. Instead do the things that are harder, take more time, and that hopefully you enjoy.
4) You have a much better chance of success by writing something that stands out than writing something that fits in.
One of the biggest myths I keep hearing is that publishers only want things that there are already tons of. If that were the case, you would have publishers begging more more fairy tale adaptations, more YA paranormal, more kids with superpowers, more mysteries about retried detectives looking for one last shot at redemption. More of what they already get tons of.
That. Is. Not. What. They. Are. Looking. For. I have a conversation with my agent and editors at least every month or two where I discuss what my next project should be. And you know what my agent is telling me not to write? Look up at the last paragraph. You know what gets my agent excited? Stories that stand out. Ideas that he hasn’t heard before.
On the one hand, it’s never been easier to get a book out in the market. On the other hand, there have never been more book in the market. If you are looking to get noticed in the middle grade market, don’t start with a story about a kid who discovers he is the chosen one and has to travel to a new land. Look for a different angle, a different setting, a different plot. If there is one thing I would change about Water Keep, my first book in the Farworld series, it would be the kid who discovers he is the one. If there is one thing I would keep it is a boy in a wheelchair and a girl who is immune to magic. The kids (and Riph Raph) make that story.
Mette Ivie Harrison has a great new mystery series that is getting attention all over the country. You know what it’s called? The Bishop’s Wife. It’s a mainstream mystery series written for a national audience about a Mormon bishop’s wife solving crimes in Draper, Utah. That stands out. It isn’t like all the other mysteries out there.
Amazing writing can sell a story that’s been done a hundred times. But if you start with a story that sounds like a hundred other stories it will be harder for you to sell, harder for your agent to sell, harder for your editor to sell, and harder for you readers to want to buy. Ask yourself what makes your story stand out.
James Dashner and I will be teaching a class this year where we take audience ideas and come up with a plot. I promise you will hear over and over how important it is to both of us to have a story idea that makes you desperate to read the book.
5) Pacing is so, so important.
There are lots of great plot tools to figure out what should happen in your story. But knowing when to make things happen is maybe even more important, and so many writers do it poorly. Today a facebook friend blogged about a book they really loved called All Our Yesterdays. What was the first thing I did? I downloaded a sample to check it out. I gave the author a couple of pages to hold my interest, and two chapters tops to convince me to buy the book.
Is it fair that I only gave a book that someone highly recommended two chapters? What if it started out slowly? There were lots of positive reviews. Shouldn’t that have been enough? Maybe, if it was free. Even then, maybe not. But the fact is, that before I spend my time and money, I want to know if there is a click between me and the writer. Do I like the main character? Does the story pull me in? Is the concept unique and cool? I’ll give you one minute of my time to win a second minute. I’ll give you, maybe five minutes to win the hours it will take me to finish the book. That’s the world we live in. It’s really hard to get a chance in the first place, so don’t blow it with a boring beginning.
What is important in pacing? Number one, the beginning has to hook me. Anyone who has taken one of my writing classes knows that the biggest thing I demand is a story that pulls me in. I don’t need to know the main conflict in the first chapter, but I must have some conflict. Don’t give me backstory, flashbacks, infodumps, scene setting, world building. All of that can come later. GIve me something that makes me want to read more.
The second thing is understanding what you are trying to accomplish in each section of your book. I’ll be teaching a class on this at Storymakers, but in general I want to see four things:
a) A setup that pulls me in and gets the story going.
b) Misdirection. Make me think the story is going one direction, only to let me realize midway through the book that something else is really going on.
c) The twist that reveals where things are really going and sets me on the right path.
d) An ending that is not rushed, that is satisfying (this doesn’t have to mean happy, but I can’t feel like it is a cop out), and that leaves me wishing I could continue to follow the characters into later adventures.
Different genres have different ways of doing this, but it is key, and I can’t tell you how much poor pacing I see. Just off the top of my head, let’s take a popular romance movie, You’ve Got Mail. I love Meg Ryan right off the bat and I want to see her save her store. For part of the movie I think this story will be about how the little bookstore on the corner defeats the giant competitor. Then I realize it is actually a love story between Meg and Tom. But they are competitors. How will it work out. By the end, I am desperate to see them together, and the ending is absolutely perfect. Meg doesn’t save her store, but we see a future for her. And Tom has learned a lot in the process. We’d love to see where each of them go from there.
I should always, always, always, want to read just one more chapter. And when I get to the exciting climax of the story, I should not want to put the book down for a single second.
6) People know more about you as an author than you think they do. About a year ago, an editor at a national publisher I have never worked with asked my agent if I would blurb her client’s book. I was quite surprised, and honored to be asked, but I had no clue why she would ask me. I said to my agent, “How does she even know who I am?” His answer was something I have thought a lot about. “You’re better known than you think you are.”
I think that is true for all of us–and not just writers. You are constantly making impressions on people for better or worse. You have no idea how many people believe certain things about you based on what you’ve written, what you’ve taught, comments you make on social media, what kinds of books and movies you like, classes you teach, how helpful or not helpful you are to other writers. There is an entire network of webs that stretch from you to others, and from those people to people beyond them.
The impressions that you make are going to follow you for a long time. And those impressions will have a much bigger impact on others than you know. I’ll give one example here, but there are many more I could give. Mikey Brooks is a guy who I’ve only known for a few years. He hasn’t signed with an agent, hasn’t sold a book traditionally that I am aware of, hasn’t made a million dollars. There are no movies of his books. He hasn’t been a keynote speaker at a huge conference. And yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into people who know, like, and respect him as an author and as a person.
He teaches classes at conferences all over, he volunteers to help people, he has done cover art, self-published his own books, was part of a set of books with other authors, is actively involved in the writing community. I don’t know if he intentionally set out one day to create a platform, but he is building up a really nice following that is going to really help him as he breaks into the industry.
I’m not saying you have to spend all of your time saying yes. There are only so many classes you can teach, so many blurbs you can do, so much time you can offer. I’ve had to say no a lot more than I’d like to over the last few years. And sometimes I’ve said yes, only to realize I shouldn’t have and was unable to do what I hoped to.
But before you make back-biting comments about another author, before you publish a manuscript that isn’t quite ready because it might make a few bucks, before you turn down a chance to teach at a conference because it won’t pay for itself or decide not to help another writer because you don’t have time, remember that invisible web you are building.
That’s probably way more than you wanted to hear, and again, remember number one, it’s all my opinion. But hopefully at least some of my thoughts helped some of the people that will read this. Let me know if there are any other questions you’d like to see answered here.