Are you a writer? Don’t neglect your reading – guest post at Writers Helping Writers

writershelpingIt’s always a struggle to find time to write. If you’ve got a book in progress, it’s tempting to spend all your free moments on it. But don’t sacrifice time that you would usually spend reading. It’s a false economy.

Similarly, don’t fear that your reading is going to influence your work to a detrimental extent, or that you might end up copying ideas. The chances are you won’t. Your book is much bigger in your mind than anything you read, or watch, or any conversation you overhear. Any influence will be minor by comparison with the huge amount of work you’ve already done.

But if you stop reading while you write your book you might lose touch with the way prose tells stories, and you won’t be using your ideas to their maximum potential. We do many things on instinct, and those instincts are learned unconciously. Reading feeds our muse and our technique.

Today I’m at the wonderful Writers Helping Writers site, run by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Emotion Thesaurus fame. They’ve devised a series of writing lectures this year and have invited various coaches to be regular contributors, and I’m honoured to be on their list (note that nice award they have from Writer’s Digest). And because I wrote the piece as the year was turning, my mind was operating in resolution mode. If I was to identify a change that I’d urge writers to make, what should it be? Many of my author clients would do their work a world of good by reading more, but it’s  job to persuade them. So here’s my persuasion. Do hop over.

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Writers’ manifesto for 2017 – take your imagination seriously

A lucky turn of the radio dial this week and I got a real treat: the Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine interviewing Brian Eno. The whole piece is worth listening to, but this exchange particularly caught me.

Vine was trying to pin down what made some of Eno’s collaborators so special – David Bowie, David Byrne, Bryan Ferry. He said this: they all had ‘a different quality of imagination’.

And Eno replied: ‘I think everyone has much more imagination than they give themselves credit for. But the difference is that some people take their imaginations seriously.’

Yes. One thousand per cent.

Today, I’d planned another kind of post. Usually my new year kick-off is publishing options for twenty-whatever. I began to write it. I realised as I did that not much had changed. What I’d say for 2017 is much the same as I’d said in 2016. And when I wrote 2016’s post I referred heavily to 2015’s. I’d lined up some good reference posts – Mark Coker of Smashwords, who looked back at 10 years of ebooks and forward to how the publishing ecosystem will continue to evolve. And to Jane Friedman, who give some great pointers for sizing up a publishing offer from a small imprint.

But lordy, it was a slog. I felt like I was rehashing material I’d already tackled exhaustively. Planet Earth did not need another article about how to publish wisely in 2017.

And then, by chance, out of my radio come Messrs Eno and Vine. Take your imagination seriously.

I thought that’s IT. That’s how I want to go into 2017. While we’re figuring out whether to self-publish or look for a deal, or mix a trad indie cocktail never tasted before, we must not lose sight of this.

What we do is about creation. Listening to what interests us, moves us. Growing as artistic, communicative beings, finding things that seem to peel back something we must say about our world and our lives. This is where the joy of our work comes from, where we make our distinctive contribution.

Eno said more:

‘It’s not just having ideas, but being prepared to push them through and try to make them work. Some people get discouraged very easily, but I think successful artists don’t. They get confidence in what they’re doing and they decide “I want to see how it works; I want to see what happens when I do it”.’

At a time when  we’re all making resolutions, and resolutions to help us keep our resolutions, and tips for success, I’d like to offer this one. Who’s with me?

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Thanks for the pic with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards Rusty Sheriff on Flickr

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In disguise: from ghostwriting to a voice of my own – interview at Slack podcast

Sometimes, the way to find yourself is to start by being someone else. That’s the subject of this podcast by the messaging app Slack. Each episode they interview people who find their identity in the work they do – and this time they’re looking at disguises. So they typed ‘ghostwriting’ into Google and found my grinning face … (Quick mention here of my ghostwriting course in case you’re professionally curious)

We talked about how I got started, the pressure from publishers to carry on writing sure-fire bestsellers, and the struggle to strike out as myself, writing my own fiction on my own terms. Along the way, presenter Lily Ames describes My Memories of a Future Life in a way I’ve never heard before … which proves yet again that someone else is always better at summing up your novel than you are.

The second half is a seasonal tale of a Vietnam veteran who became Santa Claus – and the surprising ways that this red, woolly-bearded disguise has made a genuine story_03difference in people’s lives.

Find it here on iTunes or stream it directly here (they concentrate on the Santa story in the write-up, but I’m on as the warm-up – you are in the right place!).

And merry everything xxxx

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Repost: A writer’s guide to Christmas letters

goldpostboxI’m still working on a hush-hush project, but I think this repost from 2012 might be helpful. On this blog I try to cover all your writing needs. Including the short but painful  requirement to brag about your year’s achievements to your Christmas card list.

If smugness isn’t as natural to you as it is to Nina and Frederik in the picture below, you might need some help.

Let me confess: I’m a fan of round-robin Christmas letters.

It’s fashionable to diss them in the UK, but I disagree. Even if the missive is smug and airbrushed and claims the golden offspring can split the atom, it’s more meaningful than a card that only says ‘from Nina and Frederik’.

But since I approve of Christmas newsletters, that means I must compose one. And I don’t know what to put.

I spent this year writing, rewriting, talking to other writers and, er, working out what to write next. Sure, there was adventure and atom-splitting, but it happened on the page and in my head.

And that’s my update. One paragraph. How can I spread it out?

When in doubt, study the requirements of the genre.

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Boasting

Christmas letters need boasting, with bells on. Your friends will report a mighty throng of promotions, bonuses, and other unceasing achievements. Traditionally published authors can name-drop with the imprints they’ve wooed but indies also have a wealth of impressive material. Deploy the word ‘bestseller’. Normal folks don’t know how niches work or how chart positions soar and dip every hour. If you’re feeling really bold, trot out blog awards. The Happy Candy Sweetness Blogger doesn’t sound that far from the Costa.

Hobbies

Your newsletter-writing friends will list their accomplishments in karate, ballroom dancing, local politics, golf, the PTA. Fortunately as a writer, you are blessed with the ability to acquire unexpected expertise. Pick juicy subjects you’ve been researching but remember it’s family viewing. Please, no ’50 vile ways to murder with a drug overdose’, it’s ‘needlework’.

Holidays

Forget how much strife it took to travel afar. Yes, you had to complete twice as much work first. Yes, the night before, you fell in love with your novel and couldn’t bear to leave it. Despite all this, you must say it was the trip of a lifetime (it certainly felt that long without a manuscript to escape to).

Pets

You can talk about your works in progress if you pretend they are your cats. The newest is adorable. The fat old thing who’s sprawled on your laptop for years has outstayed its welcome. Another has been forcibly stuffed under the bed and won’t be let out until June. Perhaps leave out the news that little Nanowrimo may be euthanased or chopped up to make something better.

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Children and family

Open the study door and check if you have real children, husbands etc. (Hint – you may need to ask their names.) Mention them in the newsletter or the reader may fear disaster. Also, talk about your books that have fled the nest. If your fiction is taking a while to make its mark, report that it is on a gap year while it finds itself. Or finds anyone, really.

Use the Christmas letter as preparation

For a few mad days, there will be socialising. Oh mighty dread. Dialogue will not be editable and we will have to talk to characters we haven’t studied first. Penning a Christmas letter is good practice for your return to earthly form.

Merry Christmas. R x

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Finishing your draft? Don’t open it again until after Christmas

I’m sneaking away from the internet for a little while, so there won’t be any new posts for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile I’ve cued up a few tweets of writing links to keep your muse simmering – which you can follow at Twitter or on the sidebar here if WordPress and the tweetwires are playing nicely. And here’s a post that deals with a timely writing matter… See you soon
R x

Nail Your Novel

On November 30th, or thereabouts, Nanowrimoers typed ‘The End’. Whether you’re a Nano or not, the next thing you must do is put the manuscript away. Close the file, stow the notebooks, do a happy dance. Unless you have a deadline that demands you thrash it into shape straight away, don’t touch it for at least a month. At least.

Become a stranger to your story

We all know how we can read a page over and over and somehow miss the appalling typo in the first sentence. When we’re too tangled in a novel we see what we think is there – not what is actually on the pages.

To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.

Let the flavours marinate

Your manuscript needs to marinate…

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3 ways writers fail to get maximum impact from a story – and what to do instead

13155461724_8107915efc_bNovels in progress will always have rough patches and individual quirks, but there are certain common issues I routinely see that have quite simple fixes. Here are a few – and they can make a big difference.

Crucial event is underplayed or buried

Does an event change a character’s emotional state or world view? Does it make them change what they want, or strengthen their resolve? Make sure you haven’t buried it in a hasty paragraph of background or other explanation. These shifts in priorities are milestones in the story. Try showing them in real time so the reader experiences them. If a key event happens before the story timeline, consider making it a flashback.

Big reveal… falls flat

Is your big reveal a damp squib? I’ve read many climax scenes that fail to ignite, but I can tell the author was hoping they would be a thunderbolt. On some level, they know what they want … but they haven’t clarified it. Often it helps to dig into your ideas about why this moment will be so important. Write a mission statement – what do you want the reader to feel when they read this scene or revelation? Freewrite and brainstorm – you might not have given it much thought before now. Once you know what effect you’re looking for, consider what you should add in the earlier parts of the story to make it happen. Does it give the main character some important answers? What answers? And have you asked the questions earlier on? Is the moment a bigger, thematic connection, a sense of order being restored? Look back in the text – have you established a sense of instability, the world gone wrong?

Plot events make no sense

Are your plot events believable? If not, it may be because you haven’t established a plausible motivation, or given context. If we don’t know why a character does something, their actions  might seem random or even dumb. What happens is important, but why is more important. Sort out the why – and you can make us believe pretty much anything (usually).

Thanks for the aurora borealis pic Patrick Shyu

Have you had to tackle any of these issues in your work? Have you spotted them in someone else’s – or even in published books? Let’s discuss!

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These tips have come from my mentoring work with writers. If you found them useful there are plenty more in my books on character and plot … and let me discreetly mention that a set of Nail Your Novel paperbacks makes a terrific present for other scribblers you know, or even for yourself…

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2 tips for balancing writing and marketing time – Q&A from New Generation Publishing Summit

book-marketing-nail-your-novelLast week I spoke at the New Generation Publishing summit and this thorniest of questions came up: how do you strike a balance between writing books and working on marketing and sales?

toni-jenkinsWe had good examples of two extremes. In the marketing-gone-mad corner, we had debut author Toni Jenkins. She cheerfully confessed that when her first book launched she went to the mattresses, working until late every night, identifying possible audiences, writing emails introducing herself, following up leads. She added that her mentors at NGP, while applauding her energy, reminded her not to lose sight of her writing.

In the other corner, the ‘just-leave-me-alone-to-write’ department, we had staunch representation too. NGP director Daniel Cooke told me he has too many authors who can’t be persuaded to consider marketing at all. Joel Friedlander had a good piece about this recently by Judith Brile – is your plan for success ‘I just want to write my books’?

Clearly neither situation is ideal.

Whether we go it alone or have the backing of publishers or PR agencies, we need to accept that we have to be our books’ ambassadors. But not only is marketing a separate job that takes time to learn, we can’t easily measure what works. (This remains an eternal conundrum even for experienced marketers.) Small wonder that we either get marketing frenzy (like Toni) or cover our ears (Daniel’s authors).

Measuring results

If you’re writing, it’s easy to measure results. More words added to your manuscript, more scenes feeling ‘right’, more research done.

With marketing, you don’t know if you’re wasting a whole heap of time. Some activities give measurable results, but a lot more don’t. Marketing is about presence as much as sales – your Facebook adverts, social media activity, newsletters, guest blogging may not always ring the cash registers. Your shot-in-the-dark letters to book bloggers or other persons of influence might not get a reply, but they might still make an impression. They let people know that you exist; that you produce.

The rewards of marketing are long-long-longterm. Like adopting a healthy lifestyle, the most significant benefits aren’t instant, they’re cumulative. Stick at it, over months and years, and you start to see that people know of you, they’ve heard of your books. (Then you can get embarrassed when they introduce themselves to you at events, and you rack your brains in case they’re a Facebook friend or devoted blog commenter you can’t remember, ahem.)

Can anyone hear me? Anyone?

Can anyone hear me? Anyone?

And the converse of that is …. If you don’t do it, your book launch is like a tree that falls over in a wood with no one to hear.

Time for both

So we must make time for both marketing AND writing.

And we must make sure that one doesn’t swallow the other (barring exceptional circumstances like a book launch, or the final push to polish a book for press).

But so many possibilities…

The trouble is, marketing could drive us bonkers with possibilities. Every week I trip over several new wonderful things I could consider. To evaluate them takes time – and I might end up discarding them because they won’t reach my audience. This is why we get so overwhelmed, because we could do this 24/7 and never, ever get to the end of it. Then we enter a panic cycle of thinking we’re not doing enough, or not doing the right things, or everyone is somewhere we’re not.

But it’s possible to develop a sensible approach.

This is mine. It has two principles.

1 A formal list. Each Friday, I make a to-do list for the next week. It includes the marketing tasks I’ve decided are worth doing, balanced with my writing, editing and mentoring commitments. (This also allows you to audit how much time you’re spending in the marketing and writing camps.)

2 Obey the list. Do not do any task unless you’ve added it to your list. Have you stumbled across a Brilliant New Thing? Do not do it this week if your dance card is already full. That great new gimmick, website, social media platform, hot books blogger will still be there in seven days’ time. It will not leave the planet. So whenever you read about a new wonderful opportunity, resist the urge to do it immediately. Unless it has an urgent deadline – eg a competition – put it on the list for next week. You already have a plan for this week. Continue with that. And remember: you’re working on long-term presence as well as short-term sales.

It’s actually bleeding obvious, isn’t it? Again, I’m going to use the comparison with diets. Diets work if you stick to the rules. They don’t if you don’t. And the great thing about this marketing/writing diet is that you’re allowed as much cake as you like.

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And the other part of the plan, of course, is to have a solid writing process that leaves you free to create. So allow me to discreetly mention Nail Your Novel, a system I developed from the questions I’m most commonly asked by writers, and still use now, with many books behind me. Even more audaciously, allow me to suggest that Nail Your Novel trio make groovy gifts for other scribblers you know.

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Have you hit on a plan to balance marketing and writing? Let’s discuss!

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Help, what’s my genre? Some tips for deciding – guest spot at Anne R Allen

genreWhen we’re writing, we just let our instincts pull us on. But at some point we have to decide who our book’s readers will be, and how to categorise it. Enter the G-word: genre. And the various A-words – young adult, new adult, adult, age. Here’s how to unmuddle yourself. Hop over to Anne R Allen’s blog where I’m attempting to pin down some principles.

nyn3 2ndAnd you’ll find more discussions of genre – including the whole question of literary – in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

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Traditional publishing & selfpublishing … not so different: Q&A from New Generation Publishing summit

yin-yang-14264436247ktSelf-publishing and traditional publishing. What are the differences? Today I’ve been on a panel at the New Generation Publishing summit, and it’s clear there is no longer an absolute divide between the publishing approaches. These days, we have a spectrum.

So that sounds abstract – let’s have concrete examples. This is how the discussion went at the event today – plus some more thoughts I wanted to elaborate on. (Yes, being a typical author, I muster my best lines several hours after the conversation.)

The question: What do you see as the main differences between self and traditional publishing?

My answer was :

  • The solo artist – and who’s in charge
  • Who pays
  • Speed

And here’s where we find ourselves in grey areas.

1 The solo artist – and who’s in charge

When you self-publish there are no gatekeepers. You don’t have to be accepted by anyone. Also, you have the final say about the text, the cover, the way the book looks. When you traditionally publish, you have to be chosen, and your book is filling a publisher’s need to fit a certain market. They will make many of the decisions – including the cover and the title. They might direct certain rewrites. They’re usually unwilling to let you lobby for changes; they don’t regard it as your territory. Some writers are happy with this; after all, they are writers, not publishers. Sometimes it turns out well for all. But plenty of authors end up feeling railroaded or compromised, or with covers that attract the wrong kind of reader (who then respond with negative reviews).

Indie authors shoulder all this responsibility themselves – but that doesn’t mean they’re one-man bands. Indeed, they shouldn’t be. Although they might know how to write, that doesn’t mean they also have the other skills needed to publish well. In the early days of indie, many had a go anyway, and the Kindle shelves were stuffed with unedited, unproofed horrors with unsuitable covers. But indies have wised up, and a well-turned indie book will have creative input from editors, cover designers – and even blurb writers. There’s no change in who the final boss is, but an indie book is now more of a team effort – and editors might even steer the book significantly.

2 Who pays for production!

Here’s where the boundaries start to blur. In traditional self-publishing, you pay all the editorial work, cover and launch. And in traditional traditional publishing, the imprint pays. Plus they pay you an advance or a fee to acquire the book.

Here’s how that’s changing.

Crowdfunding If you’re self-publishing you might be able to crowdfund. There are authors who use Kickstarter or Indigogo, to name just two. Ben Galley has a post about it here.

pub-unboundOn the trad side of the fence, there’s Unbound – an imprint with traditional gatekeeping and commissioning editors, who ask authors to raise the money for the first print run (here’s an interview with several successful Unbounders plus a Q&A with an Unbound editor). You might wonder what the upside is? Prestige – Unbound is developing a reputation for books that are more innovative than the safe-bet choices of purely traditional publishers.

So you might think that if you’re offered a traditional-traditional contract, you don’t pay any of the costs. But here are two ways that trad-trad authors might help fund their book’s journey.

Developmental editing The market is so competitive now that it’s not unusual for first-time authors to work with an editor to give their manuscript the wow factor. Sometimes literary agents will nudge a promising author to seek an editor to iron out some craft problems.

Promotion and marketing A lot of trad-trad releases have a limited budget for promotion and marketing. It’s not unusual now for authors to top up the launch package by hiring a book marketing company or funding a signing tour. (But beware of self-publishing services companies that upsell marketing packages of dubious value. You’re better going to a specialist consultancy that handles traditionally published authors as well as indie authors.)

Who pays? The authors in both camps are edging closer together.

pub-offerAnother ‘beware’. There are companies that contact authors, apparently offering a publishing contract, but really they’re just touting for business. See here for a post on how to spot them. If you get an approach like that, you’re often better shopping around properly. Check what value you’re getting.

By the same token, keep your head if you’re offered a traditional deal. A significant number of indie authors are turning these down because the offers aren’t worth their while – here’s a post that expands on that.

3 Speed

Speed is one of the great advantages of self-publishing. It’s as instant as you like. You can, if you like, pull a Word doc off your computer, whack it up on KDP and voila – instant ebook. An hour or so of tinkering and you can be making a print version on CreateSpace. You shouldn’t, of course, but there are no barriers to stop you. The tools are available.

Traditional publishing, on the other hand, means entering a slow-moving machine. Your contract might be inked in January but the book might not releases until October – or even later.

pub-schedSome of that delay is corporation inertia. But actually, indie publishing, if done properly, should also have a long gestation. It might take you many drafts to finalise your manuscript, and after that, you need other processes. The developmental edit (especially if you’re new to publishing). The copy edit. The proof-read. The cover design. The marketing plan (which shouldn’t be left until the book is about to hit the shelves). (Here’s a post on who to hire and when.)

Some of these checking and polishing stages take a necessary amount of time … And good editors and cover designers might need to be booked several months in advance. Many indies then go straight to press once the book is ready, but if you want to pitch to mainstream reviewers, they need bound copies several months before publication – because that’s when magazines prepare their books pages. And bookshops place their orders three to six months before publication – so if you’re selling into shops, you need finalised copies by that time.

All this means that more indies are setting long-term schedules for their publishing plans –in some cases, the same amount of time that a traditional imprint would take.

The artist working solo. Funding the production. Speed to market. These used to be the defining characteristics of indie versus traditional publishing. Now, we’re discovering how to get the best of both worlds – and I find that encouraging. Which other distinct divisions might disappear? What do you think? What have you noticed already? Let’s chat in the comments.

top-100-literary-badge-high-resForgot to add… This blog just got a rather nice honour, alongside The Paris Review and a number of other writerly boltholes.

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‘There’s something timeless and questing and unique about Talking Heads’ – the Undercover Soundtrack, Stephanie Gangi

redpianoupdate-3My guest this week says her novel is steeped in music – and indeed had a massive Spotify playlist to accompany her drafts and rewrites. But certain tracks stood right out, tracks that seemed to catch her attention from the radio, or stick in her mind with an essential flavour of the characters and story. They’re strong vocals – Van Morrison, Rihanna, The Lumineers, Adele. Powerful, sassy, feisty, rocky, tormented and brimming with humanity – and perfect for her novel of obsessive revenge after love goes wrong. Do drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Stephanie Gangi.

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