DRAWN Haunt – Just Because You Can

Edinburgh - Writer's museumThe DRAWN Haunt party continues today with a post about how to tame all those big ideas into one tightly written book.

The DRAWN Haunt is a month-long celebration for my award-winning novel DRAWN‘s 5th anniversary. All October you’ll find here book-related posts about writing, romance, ghosts, time travel and more. To catch all the spooky DRAWN Haunt posts, explore the blog, and check back often or subscribe to this site (see bottom of this post for how).  And for more about my novel DRAWN, click here. 

DRAWN was a complicated novel for me to write, but it definitely taught me a lot. So here’s the most important thing I learned…

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN

Fiction writers can create a story out of anything, and every character they put down on paper can have their own conflict, their own story line. This is both a blessing and a curse.

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In DRAWN, Marie Lamba deftly entwines romance and mystery, past and present, into a page-turning adventure. Buy it today and I promise you’ll be finished reading far too quickly! — Joy Nash, USA Today bestselling author

When writing my ghostly time-travel novel DRAWN, I knew I was creating what, for me, was a “big book.” Up to that point I’d been writing novels that took place within a tight one month time frame. My plots revolved around my town and were populated by people very familiar to me. “Write what you know,” they say, and I knew the worlds of my first two young adult novels WHAT I MEANT… and OVER MY HEAD very well. But DRAWN was a different sort of story.

Time is slippery in this time-travel book, involving a month-long time frame in the present, but also an eight-month long time frame in the past. The setting is present day AND 1460 England. I’m a bit familiar with modern England, having lived there for a semester and visited numerous times, but the past? Not so much. Intensive research was required. My characters in this new novel range from Italian-Americans, to British citizens, medieval lords and courtiers and servants. Add into this mix a plot line where the past and the future continues to be altered as our heroine travels back and forth in time and, well, you have a big book indeed.

And I struggled a bit to make sure it didn’t turn into one big mess. Which gets us to the heart of this post: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I can’t tell you how many characters I spun out into entire story lines with their own scenes and character arcs…and some of these characters don’t even appear in the book anymore. You might think the solution is an outline, but even when using an outline it can be hard to tell just how far to go with a character’s story or to know which scenes might be important.

Sometimes the only solution is to write it through and then cut cut cut! Sure, you are doing a ton of character research by writing those extra scenes. But when the character ends up being barely a minor one, it becomes a case of TMI. You don’t need all, or sometimes any of that stuff. And by heading off here and there on wild plot chases, you are wasting time, wasting your energy, and muddying your own clear view of things.

In DRAWN, I’d created this character Guncha, who quickly became one of Michelle’s friends after Michelle moved to England. Guncha was gossipy and romantic-minded, so she was the perfect person to give Michelle the scoop on things, and to nudge her in matters of romance when Michelle finds herself stalked by an unknown guy who also, by the way, mysteriously appears in Michelle’s sketches. But when it came to Guncha, I didn’t stop there. Before I knew it, Michelle was visiting Guncha’s house, sleeping over, meeting her family, learning of Guncha’s conflicts with her traditional family. And Guncha was planning an escape with a secret and unsuitable boyfriend, etc. etc. etc. Nearly one hundred pages later, I realized that my story had naturally strayed far from its central focus: Michelle and her encounters with Christopher Newman, the hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.

So, refocus and cut cut cut! In the final book we only see Guncha at school and at a carnival. There is no secret boyfriend. No family to speak of. And Michelle wishes she felt closer to her, but realizes that she just can’t share her own secrets with Guncha. How would Guncha ever understand that Michelle’s budding new relationship just might be with a ghost? As Guncha implores Michelle to tell, but secrets continue to build, the reader is in on the gossip instead of Guncha, which is fun. So in this case, I would have saved a ton of time if I could have decided up front not only that Guncha was going to be a minor character, but also what her true function in the plot would be. This is a biggie, because if I knew this I could have smacked my own hand every time I deviated from this mission.

Sounds good, right? But what if your extra character’s story parallels and weaves into the main plot, adding intrigue and mystery? Why wouldn’t you stray into that storyline?  DRAWN involves an ancient murder, and a chilling curse that still lingers in the town’s castle. In the book, the Wallingford Papers (based on the real Paston Letters…look ‘em up if you’re curious) are a series of preserved family letters dating back to the 1400s. They detail the history of the murder, and the heroism of the Wallingford ancestors. But are all the letters actually in the public record? And are they to be believed? This plot is essential to the book, involving the fate of the ghost and pretty much everyone in the story.

Okay, so doesn’t it seem obvious that a scholar could be at the heart of rooting out this mystery? Since the Wallingford family reputation (and much of their success) hinges on their heroic background, wouldn’t you expect that family to do anything to keep their family name clean? So, is it that crazy that I created a scholar who in the ‘50s uncovered their secrets and was about to go public with it, before an untimely death? Flash forward to the present, and I also created Mr. Llywelyn, a history teacher at Wallingford Academy (Michelle’s new school) who was related to this very scholar and who is also fighting to uncover the truth of the murder, the papers and the death of the scholar, and…

Cut cut CUT!!! Jeesh. Do you see how the fiction writer’s mind can spin and weave and deviate from the main story path, even while she is following that very same path? Yikes, it’s like entrapment I tell you. In the end I had to give a long hard look at the story elements that were most essential. Yes, I wanted a scholar who was silenced, but I decided that this scholar would have absolutely nothing to do with the history teacher. The scholar now has merely a mention, just enough to add to the danger and the gravity of the treacherous ancient secrets being kept. As for Mr. Llywelyn? Well, he’s Michelle’s history teacher, instructing the class about the very era Christopher the ghost inhabits. The teacher’s role is now limited to occasionally adding in a fact about the Wallingford Papers, about the dangers of living at that time, etc., thereby ramping up the tension for Michelle when she realizes what these facts mean to a ghost she’s starting to have spooky good feelings for. I had to focus on Michelle as the hero, as the person who solves the mystery and makes things happen. No way should this be relegated to another character.

So again, a supposed major-player was reduced to a few lines. Lines that were necessary and served the plot. And beyond that? Well, this just wasn’t his story.

Sometimes writing a book is a process, sometimes it’s an ordeal, but it’s only successful if we give our draft a hard look and decide if scenes are moving us forward, and if our deviations are truly creating the book we’d set out to write.

As I get further along in my writing career, I’m training myself to create a clearer story line and to force myself to stick to that path. If the story is complex enough, like DRAWN is, there is no need to deviate and take elaborate side trips into other character paths. It’s enough, while plotting, to stick to the main issues and simply ask myself: And then what? And then? And then?

The answers, surprisingly, can equal a rich and complex novel.

 

*Marie is a Literary Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site.

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Agent Monday: 3 Things I’m Searching for in Fiction

Businesswoman standing on a ladder looking through binocularsHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  With last week’s blizzard a distant icy memory, it’s time to dig into my submission inbox – hoping for some hot fiction I can represent. Often, though, submissions look so promising on one front, but don’t deliver on another. So I thought I’d share what I’m looking for in that “total package,” in case it’ll help you amp up your own fiction into that coveted must read for agents and readers alike. So here are the 3 things I’m searching for in submissions…

1. An Intriguing Idea

I know, duh, right? But this is essential. When I read what the book is about, I want to think: Oooo, that’s interesting! Not: Oh, THAT again? Or: And? I care because? If your idea is ho-hum, this presents a huge challenge for you the writer. Also, your idea should be handled in a fresh way that only you will show me.

2. Skill

Double duh. BUT, so very often I find that intriguing idea and think, “Yes!  This is something I’d love to read. So excited!” Then I start to read the manuscript and find the writer’s craft is lacking. They have a great idea, but can’t carry it off.

3. Follow Through

Writer’s that have an intriguing idea, and demonstrate skillful craft, must still be able to take that idea, and, with skill, develop it into a satisfying read to the very end. Too often, manuscripts start off well, and then plateau and disappoint. A great manuscript must promise something great to the reader, show skill, and then, and here’s the real key, deliver even more than what the reader had anticipated.

So a great manuscript grows that intriguing idea. The writer’s style and personality works perfectly with that idea to truly create a world and show us something even more insightful, moving, and or unique than we’d ever anticipated. That writer has truly taken us on a journey. We end the read more than satisfied. We are amazed.

What I’m often seeing are manuscripts that give me #1, but not #2. Or #2 but not #1. And when #1 and #2 are in place, #3 is missing. As an agent and a reader, I need all three elements in place. And when I find them, it’s reading magic.

Need some examples of projects that snagged my attention on all three fronts? Here are just a few from our client list:

Adult fiction:
DAUGHTER OF AUSTRALIA by Harmony Verna (releasing through Kensington this March)

Young adult fiction:
MENDING HORSES by M.P. Barker (Holiday House)

Middle grade fiction:
ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG FAT QUITTER by Carmella Van Vleet (Holiday House)
THE JUMBIES by Tracey Baptiste (Algonquin Books for Young Readers)
THE FRIENDSHIP EXPERIMENT by Erin Teagan (releasing through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Fall 2016)

Picture book:
TO THE STARS! by Carmella Van Vleet and Dr. Kathy Sullivan (Charlesbridge)

As a writer myself, I strive for those 3 elements in my own fiction, and work hard to hold myself to those standards whenever I dive into my own fictional worlds. If you want to check out my YA novels, here are the links:

DRAWN by Marie Lamba
OVER MY HEAD by Marie Lamba
WHAT I MEANT… by Marie Lamba (Random House)

And coming in 2017, is my picture book:

GREEN GREEN (Farrar Straus Giroux) by Marie Lamba and Baldev Lamba, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

 

 

 

 

Writer Wednesday: Just Because You Can…

*This post originally appeared on Janice Gable Bashman’s site as part of my Drawn Blog Ghost Tour.

Fiction writers can create a story out of anything, and every character they put down on paper can have their own conflict, their own story line. This is both a blessing and a curse.

When writing my new paranormal novel DRAWN, I knew I was creating what, for me, was a “big book.” Up to that point I’d been writing novels that took place within a tight one month time frame. My plots revolved around my town and were populated by people very familiar to me. “Write what you know,” they say, and I knew the worlds of my first two young adult novels WHAT I MEANT… and OVER MY HEAD very well. But DRAWN was a different sort of story.

Time is slippery in this time-travel book, involving a month-long timeframe in the present, but also an eight-month long timeframe in the past. The setting is present day AND 1460 England. I’m a bit familiar with modern England, having lived there for a semester and visited numerous times, but the past? Not so much. Intensive research was required. My characters in this new novel range from Italian-Americans, to British citizens, medieval lords and courtiers and servants. Add into this mix a plot line where the past and the future continues to be altered as our heroine travels back and forth in time and, well, you have a big book indeed.

And I struggled a bit to make sure it didn’t turn into one big mess. Which gets us to the heart of this post: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I can’t tell you how many characters I spun out into entire storylines with their own scenes and character arcs…and some of these characters don’t even appear in the book anymore. You might think the solution is an outline, but even when using an outline it can be hard to tell just how far to go with a character’s story or to know which scenes might be important.

Sometimes the only solution is to write it through and then cut cut cut! Sure, you are doing a ton of character research by writing those extra scenes. But when the character ends up being barely a minor one, it becomes a case of TMI. You don’t need all, or sometimes any of that stuff. And by heading off here and there on wild plot chases, you are wasting time, wasting your energy, and muddying your own clear view of things.

In DRAWN, I’d created this character Guncha, who quickly became one of Michelle’s friends after Michelle moved to England. Guncha was gossipy and romantic-minded, so she was the perfect person to give Michelle the scoop on things, and to nudge her in matters of romance when Michelle finds herself stalked by an unknown guy who also, by the way, mysteriously appears in Michelle’s sketches. But when it came to Guncha, I didn’t stop there. Before I knew it, Michelle was visiting Guncha’s house, sleeping over, meeting her family, learning of Guncha’s conflicts with her traditional family. And Guncha was planning an escape with a secret and unsuitable boyfriend, etc. etc. etc. Nearly one hundred pages later, I realized that my story had naturally strayed far from its central focus: Michelle and her encounters with Christopher Newman, the hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.

So, refocus and cut cut cut! In the final book we only see Guncha at school and at a carnival. There is no secret boyfriend. No family to speak of. And Michelle wishes she felt closer to her, but realizes that she just can’t share her own secrets with Guncha. How would Guncha ever understand that Michelle’s budding new relationship just might be with a ghost? As Guncha implores Michelle to tell, but secrets continue to build, the reader is in on the gossip instead of Guncha, which is fun. So in this case, I would have saved a ton of time if I could have decided up front not only that Guncha was going to be a minor character, but also what her true function in the plot would be. This is a biggie, because if I knew this I could have smacked my own hand every time I deviated from this mission.

Sounds good, right? But what if your extra character’s story parallels and weaves into the main plot, adding intrigue and mystery? Why wouldn’t you stray into that storyline?  DRAWN involves an ancient murder, and a chilling curse that still lingers in the town’s castle. In the book, the Wallingford Papers (based on the real Paston Letters…look ‘em up if you’re curious) are a series of preserved family letters dating back to the 1400s. They detail the history of the murder, and the heroism of the Wallingford ancestors. But are all the letters actually in the public record? And are they to be believed? This plot is essential to the book, involving the fate of the ghost and pretty much everyone in the story.

Okay, so doesn’t it seem obvious that a scholar could be at the heart of rooting out this mystery? Since the Wallingford family reputation (and much of their success) hinges on their heroic background, wouldn’t you expect that family to do anything to keep their family name clean? So, is it that crazy that I created a scholar who in the ‘50s uncovered their secrets and was about to go public with it, before an untimely death? Flash forward to the present, and I also created Mr. Llywelyn, a history teacher at Wallingford Academy (Michelle’s new school) who was related to this very scholar and who is also fighting to uncover the truth of the murder, the papers and the death of the scholar, and…

Cut cut CUT!!! Jeesh. Do you see how the fiction writer’s mind can spin and weave and deviate from the main story path, even while she is following that very same path? Yikes, it’s like entrapment I tell you. In the end I had to give a long hard look at the story elements that were most essential. Yes, I wanted a scholar who was silenced, but I decided that this scholar would have absolutely nothing to do with the history teacher. The scholar now has merely a mention, just enough to add to the danger and the gravity of the treacherous ancient secrets being kept. As for Mr. Llywelyn? Well, he’s Michelle’s history teacher, instructing the class about the very era Christopher the ghost inhabits. The teacher’s role is now limited to occasionally adding in a fact about the Wallingford Papers, about the dangers of living at that time, etc., thereby ramping up the tension for Michelle when she realizes what these facts mean to a ghost she’s starting to have spooky good feelings for. I had to focus on Michelle as the hero, as the person who solves the mystery and makes things happen. No way should this be relegated to another character and, since this is a YA title, especially not to an adult.

So again, a supposed major-player was reduced to a few lines. Lines that were necessary and served the plot. And beyond that? Well, this just wasn’t his story.

Sometimes writing a book is a process, sometimes it’s an ordeal, but it’s only successful if we give our draft a hard look and decide if scenes are moving us forward, and if our deviations are truly creating the book we’d set out to write.

As I get further along in my writing career, I’m training myself to create a clearer storyline and to force myself to stick to that path. If the story is complex enough, like DRAWN is, there is no need to deviate and take elaborate side trips into other character paths. It’s enough, while plotting, to stick to the main issues and simply ask myself: And then what? And then? And then?

The answers, surprisingly, can equal a rich and complex novel.

Writer Wednesday: YA Writers Can Learn from “Easy A”

I loved the movie Easy A, not only because it was hysterical, but also because there is a lot YA writers can learn from this movie.  A lot, in fact, that many writers can learn from it.

Here is a flick where they pull from an old classic (The Scarlet Letter), and toy with all sorts of clichés, all while creating something entirely new and fresh. And if there’s something the world of YA needs, it’s new and fresh.

This post kinda ties into my Agent Monday post on originality. From the writer’s point of view, I’m always trying to think original. It’s tough. There’s a ton of stuff that’s been done and overdone.

In the world of contemporary YA, that includes stuff like high school with its hot jocks, snotty cheerleaders, cafeteria tables divided up by cliques, gossip and reputations ruined, distant parents, dead parents, crazy parents, loss of virginity, finding your self-worth, the ditzy best friend, the sweet nerdy guy who comes to your rescue in the end. Etc. etc. etc. (as Yul Brenner would have said).

So what do you do? Ignore it all? For me, it was important to have bits of these elements thread into my novels but to approach the subject of a teen coming into their own in a unique way, in a world that I made real.  In What I Meant… that meant that the Indian-American family dynamic added its own humor, pathos and heart and that it wasn’t the daughter’s virginity that was in question, but the history of an adult’s… In Over My Head, it meant that the snotty girl was a threat, but also was complex. And that a college aged guy brought into question what was mature, what was real love, and when did we truly grow up. In Drawn, it meant pitting a normal teen existence against a backdrop of abnormal and even psychic occurrences, and having my heroine find meaning in a world where nothing makes sense anymore.

So what’s Easy A got to do with it?  Here’s a movie that acknowledges every cliché “in the book” and makes fun of it, even runs with it.  It starts off with the heroine talking about her sad existence and then saying, “Blah, blah, blah. So original.” And you know you are in for some fun. Lots of familiar stuff. You’ve got rumors (that she’s a slut sleeping with all the guys in the school). You’ve got mean girls (the snotty super religious chick who is out to “save” her, but really just wants to take her down). You’ve got the gay student who is being bullied. You’ve got the nerdy guy who helps her save the day in end (Lobster Todd – who wears a stuffed lobster on his head in his restaurant job, and sings the longest birthday song EVER, with lots of hep-hep-heps in it). There are references to cheesy 80’s flicks…and a dance number is included. But it all works.

They even make fun of product placement in movies.  For some bizarre reason, a Quiznos restaurant mascot is in the midst of the zealot anti-slut mob amid all the hateful posters being waved. He yells, “Eat at Quiznos!” Our heroine says with disgust, “Not now, Quiznos Man.” And he shouts back, “You’re a slut!”

Okay, can I just say that every time I walk by a Quiznos, I now mutter, “You’re a slut!”?

See, the heroine isn’t really sleeping with anyone, she just gets roped into lying about it.  First she jokingly says she did to appease her ditzy best friend. Then the mean girl overhears and spreads the word. Our heroine is labeled as a slut and starts being treated differently (she’s reading The Scarlet Letter in English, BTW).  So, what the heck, she starts dressing the part. She’s mad. Then she gets roped in to lying about having sex with a gay friend to protect him from homophobes who have been hassling him, and before you know it, it’s open shop. Every tortured nerd is appealing to her kindness to help their sad images through lying.

It’s poignant. And it’s hysterical too. And the religious group creates a lynch mob, and it all spins out of control… Here’s a flick that uses every cliché, makes fun of them, and also gives us a fresh look too.  At how girls are viewed. At how that overweight kid really feels. At how being kind to someone can actually hurt yourself.

And I appreciate how some clichés are avoided, and how some characters can run deep. Her parents are kooky and original and funny, but they are there and they are supportive and they love our heroine. They don’t pry too deeply, and they tell her, “you’re going to be just fine.” In YA lit, that’s something you don’t see enough of.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that we writers need to know our genre clichés. We need to know how avoid clichés, how to spin them, and even how to make fun of them. It’s about keeping it fresh.

Hep hep hep!

Reinvent Yourself

How many times in your life do you get to reinvent yourself? To leave behind your past and become the person you really want to be?

For some of us, it can happen when we move to a new place or switch schools. Sometimes it’s a goal we set for ourselves, like by the end of this summer you’d like to eat healthier, spend more time with those you love, learn a new skill, be happier. For writers, sometimes we want to create a novel with an entirely different voice, or in a new genre…like I did when I wrote my newest novel Drawn, a paranormal about an artist who channels a hot ghost with a sketchy past.  Pretty different from my earlier contemporary YA novels What I Meant… and Over My Head.  Writing aside, when it comes to do overs in your own life, maybe you simply decide that this is the moment when you will make a BIG change. To alter the course of your future. Yet sometimes that seems impossible. Sometimes your past gets in the way.

In Drawn, Michelle longs to escape her past and have a fresh start. As she says in this early scene from the book:

The two of us have only been in England for a few days, yet I’m already convinced it’s the best place in the universe. Not because of the quaint little shops or everyone’s adorable English accent, or even because of this supposedly grand castle on the edge of town. No. This place is perfect because here no one knows that back in New Jersey my family, the De Freccio’s, are called the De Freak-o’s.

Back in New Jersey, Michelle’s mother was an eccentric psychic who suddenly up and left the family without a trace. And her brother was a diagnosed schizophrenic. And Michelle had been friendless, an outcast. But in England, she hopes for a new life. A normal one.

Honestly, while writing Drawn I could really identify with Michelle’s do over moment. In elementary school a bunch of snotty girls used to push me around during recess, and it crushed my spirit.  So in middle school, where lots of new kids filled the classrooms, it looked like a clear do-over moment to me.

But reputations tend to cling to a person, so it was pretty rocky for me at first.  Those nasty kids still were in my school, even though their power was now diluted. Still I was too self-conscious and too worried about what I said and wore and how people looked at me.

Now looking back I can see the real problem wasn’t those girls, it was what I carried inside myself: the loser image I wanted to ditch, but that on some level I’d bought into.  What if they were right about me?

In the novel, Michelle may have left her past behind, but her insecurities have come along for the ride:

I get that familiar hot burn of humiliation. I always felt it whenever someone back in New Jersey would pull a trick on me, convincing me that I really was invited to a party, or that science class was actually meeting out near the woods on the edge of school grounds. I discovered I was an easy mark. Too trusting, too eager for friends.

I’d promised myself that those days were over. But here, an ocean away from New Jersey, it’s starting all over again. It’s like I’ve got a permanent “KICK ME” note stuck on my back.

Luckily for me, by the end of middle school I did have friends. I was liked. I remember wondering, why? It mystified me. Wasn’t I the same person who was so looked down on earlier?

In the novel, when things start looking up for Michelle, it mystifies her too:

I sigh, realizing I’ve disappointed my friends. I blink a few times, as this all sinks in. I’ve just turned down an “in” with the popular kids. And I actually have friends. It seems that by simply moving to a new place, I’ve somehow climbed out of my social wasteland. I think of all the high school kids in the world who are teased and shunned. They should all have the chance to move and start over—kind of like a witness protection program, but for outcasts.

Actually, I believe there is a sort of relocation program for anyone who needs it. And you don’t need an airline ticket to England to get there. It’s not a place, but a state of mind deep within ourselves. Michelle started to have friends not because she moved but because she had already begun to change inside. To trust others and have more faith in herself. She truly wasn’t that same person anymore.  And that’s what happened to me, too, in a way.  I’d started to genuinely feel good about myself and to open up to people more and that made all the difference.

Of course nothing is simple, and real change doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just wake up one morning and DING! Everything is all butterflies and happy songs.  It takes time to gain inner strength and for those better choices in what you do and who you hang out with to all gel and reshape your days into the life you truly want.  For me, it was a process of feeling better about myself and discovering what was most important to me. It did take time, but by the end of high school I felt like really strong, really happy.

In the book, not all Michelle’s new friends are good ones. And her life is NOT easy, especially after the appearance of Christopher who is either a delusion or a ghost.  This definitely spells trouble for a girl trying very hard to blend in. And it forces her to wonder about who she really wants to be. And what she should truly believe in.

She comes to learn she can’t control how others feel, only how she feels. And in the end she must choose whether or not to believe in Christopher, a spirit who may or may not be a murderer. Who may or may not love her back. His life, their love, and Michelle’s hope all hang in the balance.

Michelle does a lot of incredibly brave things in the book, but to me, she is most courageous when she owns up to this:

Maybe I am a fool. Maybe Christopher doesn’t love me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not in love with him…

It’s a huge risk, trusting that this is enough. And it propels Michelle into a life threatening struggle where she puts everything on the line. But in the end, trusting her own feelings opens Michelle up to true friendship and to true love.

Taking risks and believing in yourself.  It’s the bravest thing you can ever do, and what do overs are all about. So believe!

Why Writers Win III: Four Things Writers Can Do RIGHT NOW!

If you’ve been following this blog, then you know I believe the Age of the Author is upon us. Are you taking advantage of all the positive changes? In this post I’ll delineate four things I believe all writers should do right now to advance their writing careers and benefit from the current publishing revolution…

This is the last post in my 3-part series on WHY WRITERS WIN.  In this series, which is taken from a talk I gave at the Write Stuff Conference, I look at the current industry changes through both my author and my associate agent (at Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency) spectacles, and I like much of what I see.

In my first post, I talked about the publishing revolution and the scary changes it is stirring up for writers, plus the many positive opportunities these changes are bringing to us creative folk. My second post delved into the great opportunities that self-publishing is presenting to us authors, as well as the many terrific changes big publishers are now making to improve their relationships and partnerships with authors.

So here are four things you should do to make this YOUR Age of the Author.

1. Get writing!

Simply put: write the best book you can, and work your butt off to learn your craft and perfect your writing.  Sounds simple, but it is the most complex of the four recommendations.  Don’t lose sight of this goal. No matter what changes are afoot, this is still the most important thing for you to focus on in your career.

2. Get smart

Plug into what’s really going on now.  You’ll discover even more opportunities, ways to take advantage of trends and avoid career missteps as this revolution rolls along.  To do this, you simply must attend writers conferences and workshops, and connect with fellow writers and editors and agents to learn from their experiences. I got my first book deal with Random House for my novel What I Meant… by making contact with editors and agents entirely through conferences.  You can see how I used these conferences to make it all happen by checking out my article Why Conferences: Or How I Got My Agent and Editor.

Also, please DO consider subscribing to Publishersmarketplace.com.  You can share the subscription with other writers, you can subscribe for only a month or two at a time, whatever works for you.  It’s a phenomenal resource.  There’s a free daily newsletter you can get without a subscription, but it’s nothing compared to the site. Thinking about writing a novel about serfs during the end of the dark ages? Before you dip your toe into years of research and toil, type in some key words into Publishersmarketplace and you’ll quickly know all the major books on your topic that have come out in the past 10 years, you’ll know what overlapping books have recently been purchased but not yet come out on the same subject, and you’ll be able to craft your novel to be unique.  You’ll also know all the publishers, editors and agents who dealt with those books…perfect info for submissions.  So why aren’t you subscribing to this again???

Another way to stay plugged in is to subscribe to the relevant free newsletters that publishersweekly.com emails out.  I always get their general PWDaily newsletter along with their Children’s Bookshelf newsletter, but there are others related to religious books, cook books and comics.  Subscribe to whatever you want here.

Also, you simply must join and participate in writing organizations relevant to what you write in order to make important connections and learn! Organizations like The Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America, etc. not only focus on an area that interests you, but also offer phenomenal local conferences, workshops and meetings bringing editors and agents and writers together in an accessible environment.  They also have wonderful online communities where you can ask questions, and share your concerns with others in the know. Search for the organizations that encompass your writing interests, and dig deeper to find your fit.

I know, I know.  It all sounds like SO MUCH WORK AND TIME.  But you will actually be saving time in the long run.  You can use all the info you glean to focus your queries, to write books that are best placed for your market, and to move yourself ahead in your career while becoming part of a supportive community.  I’d like you to take on the challenge to get plugged in to your business side, and I’d like you to look back five years from now…even one year from now…and see a huge difference in your knowledge and your connections!

Finally, if you are looking for an agent, find one who is right for YOU, and who will keep abreast on all the shifts in the business, in rights, and in the best options for your future career.  You want an agent that will represent your CAREER, not just your book.  In these shifting times, you need someone with vision, who will also have eyes wide open to all the opportunities the changing publishing landscape presents.

3. Get Found!

Yeah, this is about all that online “stuff.” At the minimum, you should buy a domain in your name (not in your book’s name…titles get changed…you’ll write more than one book…etc.), and set up a webpage that will represent you.  I have a paid domain, but this website is free (wordpress.com) and I easily handle all the layout and content myself.  No dominatrix webmistress required, and I have complete control, which means I can update whenever I like.

Make creating your website a priority. Think of it as your virtual business card.  Yes, you need one even if you haven’t published yet.  Here’s what it can include: 1. What sort of writing you do.  2. Your bio and author pic. 3. Brief excerpt of your work (very brief). 4. Later on you can add links to buy your works, and appropriate listings of appearances, etc. 5. Book trailers, videos/vlogs are all fun and cheap to do if right for you and your work.  So, with your virtual business card (a.k.a. your website) in place, you can link back to it in posts elsewhere, in your email signature line, etc.

You also want to create a facebook page, and point it back to your website, plus a Twitter account that has a profile which points back to your website, and a LinkedIn page that…oh, you get the idea.  And go to goodreads.com to create a profile as a reader.  If you’ve pubbed a book, then get that author account, and use it!

Not sure any of this is worth your time?  I’m crossing my arms and sending you my most severe scowl right now (which, considering I’m only 5’2″, isn’t all that intimidating, but still…)  Google your name in quotes right now and see what comes up.  Now Google “Marie Lamba” and check out what pops up.  Much of what you’ll see stems from me taking the above steps to “get found.”  And when I get submissions from authors and I’m interested in them, guess what I do?  Yup. I Google em.  Wouldn’t you love for what pops up to be something positive and professional?

I know, I KNOW!  Oh the TIME involved in this.  Time that should be SPENT WRITING.  But it is a business too.  Think of all this as free advertising.  Think of just how many thousands of dollars you would have had to spend on ads just 20 years ago to reach even a fraction of the people who you could with all this new cool FREE stuff.  And once you set it all up, you can just spend 15 minutes per day checking in and updating if needed, or commenting.  But remember that whatever you put out there is getting found by a future reader, or editor, or agent, and act accordingly.

4. Get Read

Take advantage of digital and self publishing options to boost your readership for existing and to-be-released novels, and boost your success as a writer! I touched on this a little bit in the second post in this series. I must remind you of two important caveats. Caveat 1: only put out your very best work that is as good as anything that a big NYC publisher would print. Caveat 2: be aware of pre-existing contracts and rights that you are involved in, and keep your editor and agent in the loop.

So…how can self-publishing (let’s call it by its hipper name “indie publishing”) be used as a career building/reader building tool?

Well, you can, of course, release a book yourself to begin to build your fan base.  This can work well with genre writing, especially with a series.  You can write short stories related to your book, and release these in ebook free or cheap, with a link to your full novel (which will, of course, be at a higher price). You can offer through your website extras like downloadable outtakes from your novel. If you have a niche market, you can indie publish your title and reach the right folk.

So, with the groundswell of change going on, indie publishing is now a cool way to reach readers, which is kinda the reason why we write in the first place. BUT don’t indie-publish a book expecting to get an agent to then take it on and sell it to a big publisher. You need huge sales to do this (we’re talking in the 10,000 range), and you still need to make the agent and then a publisher fall in love with that book.  Your rights on that book will be muddied. HOWEVER, say you have an indie pubbed novel that is praised and doing fairly well.  Then you approach an agent with a different novel.  Well, it can show you have been well-received and have already begun building an audience.  I see that as a definite plus.

Determined to go 100% traditional publishing? Cool.  But why not have a few related short stories on hand in reserve to help with your traditional book’s promotion? Or some other extras you can offer online as bonus material.  Very cool, right?  Big publishers are already seeing the wisdom of this, doing stuff like offering 99 cent prequels, 99 cent short stories with a 45 page preview of a related book included…and they are doing these in advance of print releases.  It’s advertising, baby.

So open your mind to the possibilities…possibilities to reach readers that we never had before. In the olden days, a print ARC (advance reader copy) cost big bucks to print and mail to advance readers in order to generate buzz.  Today? Ebooks cost next to nothing.  One FLUX author Linda Joy Singleton gave away close to 70,000 ebooks of a first novel in a series of 5.  The rest of her series sold HUGE since so many readers were invested in finding out what happened next.

What can we writers learn from this? Would a free novella ebook be the right way to build your audience?  Every author/book is different, but it is worth considering the options. Options that are now at our fingertips.

Yup, boundaries between traditional and indie, between writer and reader are blurring all around us.  I see it as a good thing.  I want my authors to succeed, to be read.  Today there are more ways to publish, to promote…more opportunities to reach readers and communicate with fans, too.  Now we can each create books that will come alive for readers, and never ever die.

In wrapping up this 3-part WHY WRITERS WIN series, I want you to fully understand what all of this means.  This means you as a writer will never again have to have a brilliant manuscript sitting on your bookshelf never to be seen by readers. People who say that the reason a book isn’t accepted by big publishers is because it isn’t good enough are not 100% correct.  Many books are passed over because of the marketplace, because of past sales figures, because they are too niche for a big press, etc. etc. etc. Some of these rejected books are actually fabulous.

Now you have many tools to shape your career. Now you can promote your writing for next to nothing. Now you can write what you LOVE and know that readers will get a chance to see it.  So take these four steps.  And CELEBRATE folks, for THE AGE OF THE AUTHOR is here.

Happy writing,
Marie 

Why Writers Win: Take II

In an earlier post titled Why Writers Win: The Age of the Author, I shared some of my thoughts about today’s publishing revolution. This is all from a talk called Claim Your Victory in Today’s Publishing Revolution that I recently presented at The Write Stuff Conference. Yes, there are some confusing and even upsetting things going on, but there are also tons of great changes that are actually helping authors.  That first post set out some of our darkest fears, and then pointed to some truly positive twists for writers.

So here, in Take II, I’d like to explore even more of the positive stuff floating around.  And one of those things is the rise of self-publishing, which shall forevermore be known by its far cooler name: indie publishing.  Think of indie music, and you’ll get the right vibe.

Yeah, self-publishing was painted with a heavy brush stroke of horrible by folks who thought of it as the land of the unaccomplished. But in case you’ve been living in a cave over the past year or so, let me break it to you: things are changing.  Tons of great authors are indie publishing their work, and now writers can put their own work out there in a high quality form at a low cost.  Readers benefit. Writers benefit.

Two years ago I would have been shocked to think that indie publishing would have been GOOD for an author’s career. And today?  Today I’m a traditionally published author (What I Meant…, Random House) with two indie published titles (Over My Head and Drawn), and I’m also an Associate Literary Agent for Jennifer DeChiara Literary in NYC.  If that doesn’t tell you how much this industry is changing, I don’t know what does!

Indie publishing can be a disaster for an author who doesn’t take their own work seriously, though. If someone puts out their first draft, or doesn’t have their work edited, then it’ll definitely hurt that writer. BUT, for the writer who does hold their own work to the very highest of standards, indie publishing equals opportunity. Today, as long as you put out superb work, you are building your reputation, and can garner great reviews from readers and from respected book bloggers too.

Many authors are also using indie publishing to keep their out of print books alive.  In the past, when your publisher declared your book out of print, it was forever lost to readers.  This is heartbreaking to a writer.  Imagine a book you’ve lovingly labored on for over two years, getting its time in the sun for a mere few months before disappearing forever!  But today that writer can get their rights back from their publisher and indie publish their title as a print and/or ebook.  It’ll live forever, new readers can discover this book, and the writer continues to earn money on books sold.  No downside there, folks.

Indie publishing can also be a smart option for areas big publishers usually don’t handle, such as short stories, novellas, anthologies, poetry by unknowns, etc.  It’s also great for a book with a narrow niche focus.  If you know of a small but dedicated audience for your book and you know how to reach them, then this could be the smart way to go.

All in all, indie publishing can be another way for you to build your brand, your reputation and your readership. But let me throw in two caveats. 1. Only publish things that are AS GOOD AS what the big publishers are doing!!! You want your name to be associated with high quality writing.  And 2. If you have an agent and/or editor, keep them in the loop to be sure that whatever you are indie pubbing is not infringing on any existing contracts you may have. Work in partnership with your agent so he or she gets the full picture of your career.

Indie publishing is definitely changing the landscape of the publishing field.  Writers have more options. They are seeing that they can have more control of their careers and more input.  And now that authors do have more options, major publishers are responding to make clear about why writers should go to them!

In the past, publishers were very slow in sharing with authors info about sales figures, about promotion, etc.  But things are changing, folks. In a recent Publisher’s Weekly article, Little Brown exec Michael Pietsch said, “Publisher’s must treat authors as equal partners.” And Random House’s Madeleine MacIntosh said, “If authors are confused about what we do, we need to make it clear.”

Now Simon & Schuster offers to its authors online info about up-to-date sales figures, and just a few weeks ago Random House authors (myself included) received info about their brand new author portal.  The portal gives us sales figures about our own titles, info on rights sold, current news about publishing, and a slew of promotional tools.  This is huge!

In the future, I see we writers having more communication and input with publishers, better partnerships, services, and overall, more control over our careers.

Age of the author, baby!

Are there still challenges for writers today? Absolutely. But now there is so much more we can do to build our audience and expand our careers.   We have opportunities we never had before at low or no cost!  So get excited about this publishing revolution, gang.

In my final Why Writers Win post, I’ll detail the four things I think we writers can be doing right now to take control of our creative future.

Stay tuned!