Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A History Lesson and Advice for Aspiring Writers

I really expected the nerves and excitement to diminish as I published more novels, but I can honestly say that I felt like vomiting and chewing my fingertips off just as much with my fourth book as I did with my first. I kind of like that about writing. Not so much the temporary insanity and nausea, but the excitement that is still full-throttle with every new project. 

Lately, I’ve been getting more requests for writing and publishing advice. With four books out, you’d think I would feel like a pro by this point, but I’m still learning new and wonderful things about writing and publishing every day. It’s amazing and humbling. I definitely don’t consider myself a pro, but I do feel like I finally have something worth sharing with aspiring writers out there. I could probably write a novel about my (mis)adventures in publishing, but I’m going to try to condense it down to a blog post instead. This definitely won’t cover all the bases, but it might give you a helpful nudge in the write (I just can’t resist a bad pun) direction. 

A brief history lesson about me… 

I knew that I wanted to be a writer when I was sixteen. Before that, I was determined to be a cartoon animator. I was constantly doodling and coming up with storyboard ideas, and I would write out scripts to go with them. My English teacher during my junior year of high school read one of my scripts and said that she thought it would make a great novel. That was the first time I considered turning my stories into books rather than scripts for cartoon shows. 

From the time I was seventeen until I was twenty, I started half a dozen novels that I never finished. Life was chaos. I moved out on my own at seventeen, so there was work and bills that took precedence over writing. (My very first tip to young writers would be to stay with your parents as long as possible. Trust me. It’s much more conductive to writing than working double shifts and remembering to change the furnace filter.) When I was twenty-one, I finally completed a full length novel. It was YA high fantasy, and it wasn't very good. I didn't know that at the time though. I also didn't know what to do with it once it was finished. 

So I dug around online and found out that the next step for most writers was to find an agent. I bought a copy of the most recent Writer’s Market and read loads of books on how to solicit agents and editors. I sent out a dozen query letters to various agents and got rejected by all of them, which is pretty common in the traditional publishing realm. Lots of great authors were repeatedly rejected before eventually being published. Even J. K. Rowling got a nice heap of rejections before someone decided Harry Potter was a good idea. I also found out, in the process of my research, that my novel was twice the length that most publishers preferred for an author's debut. They wanted something between 70,000 and 80,000 words, and mine weighed in at 140,000. 

I sadly set aside my novel and wrote another one that was shorter and urban fantasy rather than high fantasy. The new novel was set in a very diverse afterlife where all the religions were right and the gods of every faith had to coexist. It made for a TON of research. It was worth it though. I sent out more letters, and I got more rejections. I did get a phone call from one agent though, and I was completely over the moon about it, since she had represented two of my favorite authors. She requested my whole manuscript, read it, and called me back within a week. She suggested that I make a few changes, so I did. She deemed it worthy, said she would be my agent, and then told me that she would be in touch once she submitted my novel to a few publishing houses. I waited six months. I emailed her and didn't get a reply. Then I went to a book signing for one of her past clients that I adored, and I mentioned to him that I was working with his former agent. He gave me a funny look and said that he thought that she had retired. : ( Heart. Stake. I’m sure you can imagine. 

So when I got home, I emailed her again and waited a few more months. I did more research in the meantime, and that's how I discovered the budding world of self-publishing. I wasn't sure about it at first, but the more research I did, the better it sounded. I'm still rather artsy, so I really liked the idea of designing my own book covers. I was also able to release my books much sooner than I would if I went through a traditional publisher, which usually takes a year or longer from the time they accept a manuscript. The royalties were also much higher and they paid out more regularly than traditional publishers could. I thought about trying to find another agent, but I had already wasted a year at this point on an agent who had suddenly dropped off the grid. 

In October of 2009, I published GRAVEYARD SHIFT, the first novel in my Lana Harvey, Reapers Inc. series. Since then, I have published POCKET FULL OF POSIES and FOR THE BIRDS, the second and third books in the series. And just recently, a Lana short story was published in an anthology, OFF THE BEATEN PATH, with several other indie authors. Also, in the last few weeks, I published CRAZY EX-GHOULFRIEND, a YA zombie comedy. Next year, I'll be publishing the fourth Lana book, and I'm also coauthoring a novel with my husband. We're going to New Orleans in May to present a marketing panel at the RT Booklovers Convention. Things are going well, and I couldn’t be happier. Well, okay, I guess selling movie rights for my novels might make me a little happier. But I am pretty content regardless. : ) 

It might be nice to work with an agent and a traditional publisher someday. There are some fair benefits to traditional publishing. Brick-and-mortar distribution is easier, some of the promotional duties are handed over, the editing, formatting, and design are taken care of, though I actually enjoy the design work. Literary agents are also more in the know about book conventions and worthwhile publicity ventures. They have connections that most indie authors just plain don’t. Now that I have a few books under my belt, I am feeling more confident and patient these days, and the query letters aren't as stress-inducing.

So there’s the quick rundown on how I got here. Point A to point B, as my dad would say. There are lots of fun little stories in between, editing mishaps (like shiny back hair that should have been black hair), and book signing tour faux-pas (sometimes you can’t always tell an ‘adult’ bookstore by their name), but I’ll save those for another day. 

Onward, to the cliché advice aspiring writers are tired of hearing… 

I know. You’re probably feeling psychic about now. 

You guessed it: READ and WRITE. All that you can. Seriously. You hear it all the time, because it is sound advice. The first and only detention I was ever awarded was in fifth grade. I was caught reading a novel tucked inside my ENGLISH book. Ironic, wouldn’t you say? When I discovered Francine Pascal’s FEARLESS series, I sometimes read two of them a day. I think there is a lot to absorb, even subconsciously, when you’re reading. There is a lot to learn about rhythm and style, dialog and setting, structure and plot. 

Okay. I can give you a little more than that. Here are a few additional things that I would recommend to aspiring writers… 

Read outside of your comfort zone. Read the kind of books you want to write, but don't stop there. I love Jim Butcher and MaryJanice Davidson, but I also read a book picked by my book club each month. I try to read nonfiction books too, because there is some great inspiration to found in them. Many fiction stories blossom from science, history, and mythology. Mary Roach has a book called Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. It's creepy and fascinating, and I try to read it again every few years. There is also a book by Ray Kurzweil called The Age of Spiritual Machines, and one by Daniel Quinn called Ishmael. These are all books that I normally wouldn't have read, since I like to maintain a steady diet of vampires, werewolves, and zombies. But once I read these books, I fell in love with them. They inspired me in ways that my typical urban fantasy books couldn't. Also, read books on writing. Stephen King has a popular one, simply titled On Writing. There are many, many more out there, covering everything from breaking through writer’s block to outlining a novel. One of the best books on writing I’ve come across is The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. It changed everything about how I began a novel. In fact, I rewrote the first three chapters of my last novel twice, all because of this book. Another good read on writing is 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost

Go to a book signing. There is nothing more inspiring or motivating than seeing an author shining in the moments after releasing a novel. Get a book or two signed, ask questions, get your picture taken with them. Imagine what it might be like to be in their shoes one day. Most authors and bookstores have a calendar of events posted on their website. Look up a bookstore near you and check out who’s visiting soon. 

Join or start a writing group. If you can’t find a group, you can create one through various sites like Facebook or Meetup.com. Feedback is crucial when you’re a writer, and sometimes, loved ones tend to be biased. Band together with a few other writers (4-6 seems to be ideal), and seriously critic each other’s work. Be tactful, but honest. Be constructive, not destructive. “You might want to work on this some more,” not “Are you sure you didn’t hire a chimp to write this?” 

Subscribe to Writer’s Digest magazine. No, I don’t work for them. No, they’re not paying me to solicit new subscribers. They’re just awesome. It’s the best writing magazine ever. EVER. They have great articles on improving your writing and on the business of writing. They also have multiple contests for multiple genres. They have writing prompts, and they advertise for some of the best writing conventions. They also interview authors, agents, and editors. 

Butt in chair. Fingers on keyboard. I’m coming back to this, because it’s kind of the writer's mantra. Writers write. Forget writer’s block. Forget your tight schedule. If you can find time to watch television, then you can find time to write. Even if it’s only for ten minutes. Even if you have nothing to write about. Just do eet. Look out your window, let something catch your eye, and imagine what if… Let it be sweet. Let it be ridiculous. Let it be boring. But whatever you do, let it be on the page. Practice makes perfect, and a million other clichés that you will continue to hear for the rest of your life. 

I hope some of that was new and helpful for you hopeful aspiring writers out there. I'm sure I'll have more to contribute on this subject in years to come, and if you plan on attending the RT Convention in New Orleans next May, come by and check out the marketing panel I'm on! We'll be going over some of the finer points of self-promotion, with several authors who have taken different approaches. Until next time, good luck with your wordsmithing!

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