Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How To Be A Successful Writer

We see articles every day on the things you can do to be successful in the business of publishing. Some articles rave about the uses of social media. Others go on and on about marketing strategies and book placement. Then there are those that take the approach of using specific writing tools and structures. Let's face it, there seems to be an expert at writing around every corner. What I find is interesting is that most of these articles seem to think that if you use "their approach" you will suddenly find yourself making a living at writing.

I am sorry to say this, but the odds are it isn't going to happen that way.

I started thinking about the authors out there that seem to be doing really well as writers. There are many out there that seem to ignore all of those strategies we hear people proclaiming as being the only way you can make it in this business. For these people, they are often successful because of their attitude about this business. They are doing what all writers should be doing - they place the "skill of writing" and their craft ahead of "the business of writing."

Even in workshops and at conferences, there seems to be this implied message that "If you do X you will find yourself being a published author." What all of these things seem to miss is that success is not just selling one book, it is the ability to keep doing what you are doing. We all know there are a ton of "one hit wonders" out there. It happens in everything around us. Hey, VH-1 runs shows pretty frequently about the one-hit-wonders in music (Remember Dexys Midnight Runners and Come on Eileen?). We see them in sports. These are the people that everyone turns their attention to because of one hot season, and then they disappear. What happened?

For many, it wasn't the talent. It came down to those other skills that we don't talk about. It was attitude. These aren't necessarily skills that can be taught, but individuals do have the ability to make these changes on a personal level to be successful. As I made this list this morning, it really narrowed down to 5 traits. What you will find is that all of these traits look at the individual. They aren't looking at how they stack up against other writers. It is all about the self.

1. A Constant Commitment To Learning
Success comes with an ability to always want to learn to get better. Successful writers are not going to be happy with finding that one niche and then simply saying they have it. They know there can be ways to improve and figure out stronger tools to make their writing better. These writers are dedicated enough to want to read up on what other people are doing. They continue to take classes and explore new techniques with their writing.

I think it is easy for writers to say they are all about wanting to learn, but the learning seems to be more about those skills to sell the book, and not so much about the skills to be a better writer. Socrates once described learning this way. If you draw a circle, everything inside of the circle is what you know. Everything touching the edge of the circle are the things you know of but don't understand. Everything on the outside of the circle are things that you don't even know yet. Now when you learn those things touching the outside of the circle, what happens to the circle? It gets bigger and the surface area on the outside of the circle increases. In other words, the more we learn, the more we find that we have to now learn. Successful writers don't just limit themselves to the information inside that circle. They focus always on the outside of that circle.

2. A Willingness To Change And Grow
This is a big one for editors and agents when we sign on new authors. We are not looking for just someone who can write well, but someone who understands the need to change and grow. Successful writers find ways to constantly evolve over time. They can change when the climate and readers change. They can change when they find themselves with new publishers, agencies and editors.

Success is again, not a matter of saying you are good at something, but being able to say, I can and will change if something is not working right.

At the recent Grand Prix Swim Meet in Irvine, we saw a great example of this. I am a big fan of the swimmers here and I certainly don't this to come across as a slam, but a learning moment. Michael Phelps had an OK meet, but it certainly wasn't his best. In fact, one of the first events he was in, he ended up taking 7th and getting his clocks cleaned. It seemed his turns weren't what they were supposed to be. Apparently, the coaches were saying that due to the conditions of the water, it was important to get out there and practice the turns to make sure they got them right. He decided to work on something else.

Now I don't know the reason for this, but he knows, as well as the rest of the world, that his turns are pretty dang amazing. But sometimes, what you are doing is not always going to work and you have to change and grow. In fact, that is part of the reason we saw a rise in the quality of swims by Ryan Lochte. He saw what he was doing and was willing to change his approach to swimming and grow in a new way.

3. A Sense Of Humility
I looked this definition up today because I think it said a lot more than I could say. According to one of those great online dictionaries, humility is "the quality or condition of being humble; opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank, etc."

I do think there are far too many authors who, after making that first sale, suddenly struggle with finding a hat that will fit their head. They have reached a status that, "only those as talented as they are could ever hope to achieve." Do you get a sense that I really don't like their attitude here? They take the word DIVA to an all new level. You know who these people are. They are at every writer's conference and walk around with their own entourage that seems to wait on them hand and foot.

I know most national writing groups out there have a designated group like this. In the Romance Writers of America, we have PAN or the Published Author's Network. Now don't get me wrong here. We do need groups of people that are at the same common level in terms of their progress. However, when the individuals within one of those similar groups starts to think they are somehow more special than everyone
else, they have missed the point. Let me give you another example of this one and I think you will understand the point. Can you say Sneeches?

But start to think of those writers (or any of those other people successful in other sports and activities). It isn't just about the money, it is about knowing who they are and being comfortable with their own success. In romance, I like to always toss out a couple of names that I believe truly exemplify this - Brenda Novak, Cherry Adair, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nicola Cornick, Cathy Clamp, just to name a few.

4. Being A Listener
This one goes back to that learning aspect of things. These people are willing to listen to other people. They listen to their editors, they listen to their agents, they listen to their readers. You never see these people wandering around telling you what they think. Sure, if you ask, they will tell you, but it is always in the context of following it up with, "but what are your thoughts?"

Being a listener means you are someone thinking outside and not inside. We learn through listening. We grow from hearing other's perspectives and opinions. We can see new ways of doing things.

Isn't it interesting when we see individuals leaving one group to form a new group? Often times, it is not a pretty break up and more often than not, the reason is always "the previous group didn't do what we wanted them to do for me." Do you hear how self focused this is.

5. An Ability To Look At Your Writing Objectively
This is probably one of the toughest things to do. You will also notice that this is really one of the only areas I speak of in these traits that looks at the actual skill of writing. We have to be able to look at our own writing from an objective and unbiased view. We cannot look at it as our pride and joy. We have to look at what we do with a clear perspective.

What makes this skill so difficult is to be able to say that there is truly something wrong with our writing and then to objectively think about ways to make the improvements. We cannot make excuses because it is "our writing". No one else put those words on the page.

If the writing is not strong then we have to accept it and then move on. Now I do know there are some people out there that I believe feed on telling the world how bad their writing is (or whatever they are doing) in the hopes of getting someone to say it is really not that bad. I don't think they do this intentionally, but it has become something they have to do. My daughter rides with a young lady who is always doing this. Don't get me wrong, she's a great person, but hearing constantly how she struggled on that last ride, or how she almost fell off gets tiring after a while. But she does it and sure enough, people around her will always follow up with "Oh, you are really a good rider, there was just (insert an excuse) that caused the problem."

But this is not just a matter of saying your writing is good. We can also look at our writing objectively and say this is the best damn thing we have ever written. If it is objective and true, then say it.

There is an implied message here that we need to understand and it relates to a line from Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare: "Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. And other's have greatness thrust upon them." Being successful is really something that the first two clauses in Malvolio's comment connect with directly. Some people are naturally born with the right attitude and brain for being successful. The skills of writing are just a way to express that success. As far as the second element, some achieve that success through leaning more about who they are as a person. They learn to be successful and the writing skills just follow.  The last clause, really describes, unfortunately, so many out there who find immediate "success" but never go on to be successful.

This is all a matter of looking at yourself. We cannot blame Amazon for our sales. We cannot blame the publishers for not putting the right cover on our book, or marketing our books the right way. We cannot blame our families for getting in the way of our writing. We can only look at what we do. We have the control over our success.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Submit One Story At A Time

There isn't a week that goes by when I receive multiple submissions of different projects from the same author. I do believe the author is trying to demonstrate he or she has a lot to offer an agent or editor, but unfortunately, this is probably hurting the author more in the long run. In simple terms, when submitting projects to editors or agents, submit only one at a time.

Consider this.

Editors and agents have a lot to read already. They are working with their current authors, authors just starting out, other editors and agents, marketing departments and so forth. In other words, there is a lot they are doing. Flooding their emails with a lot of submissions is not going to get them to read the projects any faster. On a second level, the odds are they will respond to the first one they see of you, and then assume you accidentally hit the "Send" button several times like we have all done. The assumption is they have already answered you so they won't see those other projects. Now this is just a small point. There is a stronger point here that benefits you as an author.

If you send just one project at a time, if the agent or editor passes on the project and hopefully gives you reasons why, you can make sure your later projects are fitting those guidelines as well. Let's say you submit a project to me and I respond back saying the balance of narration to dialogue is just not working. As I see it, the story is all dialogue and it lacks the depth I need. Now you go back to your second story and find you are doing the same thing. Had you sent them both to me, I would have rejected two stories for the same reason and the door is now closed. However, had you just sent one, gone back to the second one and made those changes, AND THEN in the query letter tell me what you learned from the first book and how you have made those changes in the second, I will likely take more notice. This tells us you can learn from your mistakes. Seeing this also means that maybe, if I sign the second book, we can always go back to the first one if that is all it took to fix it.

As I said earlier, I know a lot of authors do this to show us what else they have. There is nothing wrong with this but do it in a different fashion. You can simply state in the closing part of the query letter that you have additional books and then give us a log line that gives us a sense of the book. If you want to do a bit more, you can certainly provide a single page that gives us a 1 paragraph blurb (I'm talking 4 sentences roughly) for each of the books and the state they are in (Complete, 1/2 finished, outlined, etc.).

I say this often when it comes to query letter, or for that matter, any writing. You have to think of your writing from the perspective of the person reading it. What are they thinking? How would they respond?

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Campaign To Get Books To The Readers - A Challenge!

If you're like me, it has been pretty dang frustrating being able to get my hands on a book to read. Where I live, it was great because there was a Borders just 5 minutes from my house. If I wanted a book, I could just buzz in and pick one up.

And then they were gone.

So I turned to my local stores such as Walmart and the local grocery store. I could almost always find something there. But now, the stores are replacing the book shelves with "seasonal items". Instead of reading, I can now pick up a 12th Man Banner to stick someplace and celebrate the start of the NFL season.

For many of us, we are stuck with either ordering a book online. But now we run into two issues. The first is for those of us who still like to read a REAL book with REAL pages. Now we have to wait for it to show up. Look, if I want a book to read, I don't want to wait 5-7 Business days for it to arrive. So I can try the second approach and order an e-book, but now I am forced to  read it on a Kindle, Nook or other e-reader. While this is certainly convenient, it doesn't replace that great feel of a book.

I am tired of hearing all of the excuses of why the books are not there for the readers. In publishing, the readers are our lifeline. If they aren't reading because the books are not there, we lose out as writers, agents and publishers. Our product is just not selling.

I started thinking about this last weekend and the gears started to turn. We simply need to convince those book sellers (the stores, the book stores and so forth) to get those books back on the shelf. This isn't going to be something a single person can do. It will take a massive effort. I figure if ALS can create a huge campaign of raising money with people dumping ice water on their heads, we can do the same things with getting books back on the shelf. This needs to go viral if we want it to work.

So here's the thought...

I say we start getting letters to the stores around us. Demand the books are put back on the shelf. I don't care where they get them from, just get the dang things back on the shelf. I've even drafted a small note (see below) that can probably be copied and put on 5x8 note cards for even more mass distribution.

But wait, we can do even more. I say we start to push Barnes and Noble and the book stores to open up more stores. Barnes and Noble could easily do this. We don't need the full size stores offering a gift section or coffee shop - these can be "extension stores". Heck, call them Barnes and Noble Mini. What do they sell? Books!

As someone in the publishing business, we have to be more proactive about getting our products sold to the consumers. I think we have all (writers, publishers and agents) taken a too passive approach to selling the books. We tossed them out there in the hopes people would buy them. That has to change.

So let's make that change!

Feel free to take this letter below and copy it off. Carry these around with you all of the time and hand them out. Let's get this to go viral!

Dear Store Manager,

I am a reader. I like to read books and unfortunately, your store has either eliminated the books from being available to readers, or have significantly reduced the supply of books to make way for other things that may sell quicker. Consumers are often told to just ask the store manager if they want to get a particular item and the store can "special order" it. So I am asking.

I want books!

Reading is not just something people do when they are bored. Reading promotes learning, discussion and a sense of community. By decreasing or eliminating books from your store, what is it that you are promoting.

I am therefore requesting my "special order". I don't just want one book, I want books to choose from. I can promise you there are readers out there. They will buy the books if they are available. This is very much like the line from A FIELD OF DREAMS. "If you build it, they will come."


A Concerned Reader

Friday, August 22, 2014

Some Thoughts On Inspirational Romance

I went back and took a look at some of the posts I had in the past on this and thought I would bring this one up again. We're talking inspirational romance today.

This is a genre I do like to read if it is done well but also one that makes me completely cringe when I see it done poorly. This is also a very competitive market right now so if you want to write in this genre, you have to be dang good at it. Writers can be extremely successful with inspirational stories if they know what they are doing. Too often, when I see inspirationals come across my desk (which up until recently were accidents) I see stories that are really forced and lack that "umph" necessary to really be competitive in this market. Let me explain.

Writing inspirationals involves much more than simply having the characters pray about everything, remind themselves what they are doing by throwing scripture out every now and then, and eliminating the sex. Writing inspirationals really goes back to the same things I keep screaming about time and time again - what is the theme and thesis of your story? Out of all of the genres out there, the theme is beyond important with inspirational writing. In many ways you have to think of these stories as being fables with a single message you want the reader to walk away with.

Let's first talk about what an inspirational romance is. When we look at the basic elements of this genre, we are looking at how one or more of the characters are transformed over time through inspiration and religion. Because it is also a romance, along the way, we are watching the growing attraction and emotion occurring between the characters. All of the plot and character development through the story is guided by a single theme or idea that you want the reader to walk away with.

If, for example, you wanted to build a story around John 4:48 "Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe," you might set up the story where the heroine, involved in say an underprivileged education program has to bring the corporate hero down to her level just to see where the money is going to. Basic, straightforward but a theme that can guide the entire story. Because it is a theme, the author is not going to come right out and say this is what the person is teaching. Instead, the actions, tone and certainly the plot elements will always circle back around and give us one more piece of information to understand the theme.

Think of it this way. In the Bible, Jesus speaks of 6 parables that are really designed for the general public. Each of the parables adds an element to the over-all message/theme he is sending to the people. These would include:

  • The Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13: 3-9)
  • The Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13: 24-30)
  • The Lamp Under the Bushel (Mark 4: 21-25)
  • The Mustard Seed (Matt. 13: 31-32)
  • The Kingdom Like Leaven (Matt. 13: 33)
  • The Seed Cast Into The Ground (Mark 4: 26-29)

In this case, each of the parables, although telling a different story and a different aspect of the Kingdom of God through the eyes of Jesus, is set up to provide one small piece of the bigger story. With inspirational romance, we see the characters doing the same thing as they encounter new conflicts and complications throughout the story.

We come to the next element of inspirational romances - Bible quoting. Because these are themes that just melt into the story, does this mean that the characters can't quote scripture or pray? Quoting scripture is fine, if this is something the character would do naturally. I do think, however, that far too many authors force the scripture quoting into the story and then things sound a bit forced. What we should be seeing in the story is very similar to the ideas that the Apostle Paul talks about with his idea of "justification by faith." The thing that comes first is the faith and then the actions follow, not the reverse.

One of the inspirational romances that I remember really doing a great job of getting a message across to the readers was Carla Capshaw's The Protector and I believe this does a great job with showing how the
inspirational message is really guiding the characters. Why does it works so well here? It is set in ancient Rome so the characters are really lacking the ability to run around and quote Bible passages. It is strictly the faith issues that are guiding the characters.

Now there are certainly restrictions of things that can or cannot be included in inspirational romances, but most of this is because of the book sellers and who their market is. Sex, language, alcohol usage and so forth are issues that need to be addressed when writing in these genres. Please note however, that just eliminating the characters having sex or cursing does not make a story an inspirational romance.

The key to all of this is to be subtle. Use the Scripture and use the message as the theme to build the story around. It takes talent but you have to trust yourself to do it. Don't force the story.

This is an exciting genre to write in but one that does require A LOT of research on the part of an author to be successful. This is also a genre that you need to have the right agent for to help you. Some of the agents out there really understand this genre well. As for me at Greyhaus, the only area of inspirational romances that I will work with are the Love Inspired Lines of Harlequin -  Love InspiredLove Inspired Historical, and Love Inspired Suspense. I am going to leave the navigation of the larger single title inspirational presses to my esteemed colleagues.