Writing: you cross lots of finish lines to reach the Derby

My husband and I just finished watching the Kentucky Derby, and when it was finished, he said, “It’s sort of like writing, isn’t it?” “How?” I asked. “It takes picking the right horse, tons of training, and crossing lots of finish lines to be a contender.”

After I thought about, he’s right. A writer has to find a niche for himself–whether it’s writing fantasy, romance, mystery, or literary–and then he has to find a way to be unique from the other writers in that niche. I write urban fantasy, and that means readers expect certain elements when they pick up my books, but each writer puts a unique twist on those elements to make the genre their own. Ilona Andrews is different than Patricia Briggs, who’s different from Jennifer Estep, who’s different from Faith Hunter. And once a writer has found how to follow the rules of the genre in his own way, he’s found a niche. It’s the horse he’s going to ride to the finish line, if he’s lucky. Of course, sometimes the niche becomes glutted or half-dead, and then a writer has to find a new horse or decide to hope for the best and stick it out.

The only way to be a good writer is to write. A person has to master the craft of writing–plotting and pacing, varying sentence structure and writing dialogue, grammar and spelling, etc–as well as finding his own voice and style. That’s where the training comes in. And it’s not just the actual act of writing he needs to learn. There’s a fine line between listening to criticism to make his writing better and listening to criticism to the point that he tries to please everyone and loses his own voice. I’ve met writers who won’t listen to anyone and they never fix their mistakes. I’ve also met writers who listen to everyone and end up with a homogenized nothing. Too far one way or the other does a writer no favors.

The last part of horse racing is crossing the finishing line. But to reach the Kentucky Derby, most horses have raced in lots of others races to hone their skills. Writers, hoping to have a career, have to cross lots of finish lines, too. First, they have to decide on their niche. Then they have to find a way for their story/book to be unique. Then they have to FINISH their story–
and that’s an accomplishment, in itself, but it’s only one finish line. Next, they have to DO something with their books. They can try for an agent, an editor, or self-publish. Whichever way they go, once they accomplish that, they’ve crossed one more finish line–a substantial one, but there are more races to go.

Even published writers have to market themselves anymore. Most authors write blogs or have webpages. A lot of them tweet and have Facebook pages. They advertise and promote. They work to “brand” themselves, so that when a reader hears their name, they think of a product. These days, marketing is a finish line almost every author needs to cross.

Not every horse reaches the Kentucky Derby. Only one horse wins it. The same is true for writers. Some of us are still working to win small races. A few have won more races and sold enough books to have earned a name and a career. Fewer still hit the jackpot. But a writer can’t win if he doesn’t race. The odds are against winning the Derby, but there are smaller victories along the way.

My big dream? Someday, I want to go to the Romantic Times convention, not as a fan, but as an author who might have fans stand in line for me to sign my books. But I have a few more finish lines to cross before that ever happens. So I’m going to keep busy until it’s off to the races! You should, too.

P.S. I put a new post on my webpage for May. http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

Writing–random thoughts

I’m not an especially social person.  I like people, but as a spice that accents my more ordinary, sit-in-front-of-my-computer habits.  A sprinkle here, a dash there, but nothing overpowering.  I like my alone time–a lot.  My husband wanders in and out during the day, but he gives me plenty of writing time.  So it’s really unusual when I fill my calendar with social events.

Last week, we had my daughter from Florida, John’s brother from Oakland, and Tyler from college at Bloomington, come to stay with us for five days.  And I enjoyed every minute of it.  Then on Thursday night, John and I took my sister, Mary, to see So You Think You Can Dance at the beautiful, restored Embassy Theater downtown.  (We used to grab Mary and go to Chicago once a year to see dance shows.  Now we hope something comes to us.)  On Saturday, I had my sisters over for an afternoon tea.  We’d planned it before everything else filled up our time, and I’ve been dying to use the blue glass, luncheon plates I snagged at an antiques store, so we decided not to reschedule.  And today, Sunday, my sister and I went to see the Parade of Homes on the far, far north side of our city.  We walked through homes neither of us will ever be able to afford, but they’re fun to visit to see the latest trends.   Everything was wonderful and fun, but now, I’m ready to hibernate and hide in my office and write.

I’m still working on plotting my new book.  I’ve been adding scene ideas sporadically.  And it’s occurred to me, as I go, that there are other reasons to do at least a smidgeon of plotting before you start your book.  One, I’d have never realized that some of the scenes in my head would have a lot more punch if they were told from Angel’s (the 10-year-old’s) POV instead of Enoch’s.  In my head, I “saw” the scenes, but I couldn’t see that Enoch would just be a distant bystander, where Angel would be a particant.  And the scenes would be a lot more vivid and powerful if SHE told them.  I also couldn’t see where the VERY slow building romance between Ulrich and Scarlet would sag if told by Enoch, but might sizzle if told through Ulrich’s POV.  (That vampire has no patience).  And the romantic tension between the two of them just wasn’t going to be enough, in and of itself, so I needed an extra oomph going on between them somehow.  Scarlet needed a big problem of her own that she’s trying to overcome.  When I hit a wall in the plot points, I knew I didn’t have enough to carry the story.  That’s a lot easier to fix when I’m doodling with plot points than when I hit page 100 of my novel and don’t have enough threads to keep the tension going.

I also tried to do a little bit of marketing last week.  And for any new, indie authors out there, I can only say that my numbers go up when I market and they fall when I don’t.  Readers don’t find your books if you don’t help them.  And if they don’t like your book covers, none of it makes any difference.  I paid $10 to be on http://awesomegang.com/advertising-on-awesomegang/ last week.  I also tweeted about my new novella bundles three times.  And my rankings rose on a few of the novellas/novels I have online.  Nothing has worked as well as Bookbub, but that was $90, and it’s hard to get them to take you now.  But for $10, I was happy.

So, all in all, I spent a lot of time socializing last week, but I squeezed some writing stuff in.  And the more I do plot points, the more I’m convinced they save me time later on when I’m hitting the keys and the story’s flowing.

And last, for Unikorna, a fellow author and blog friend (www.unikorna.blogspot.com) –she asked to see a picture of the boys since I talk about them a lot.  This is for you:  P1030036




Writing–Before Your Book Goes Online

I’m mostly an indie author.  Not exactly, because I have an agent, who’s wonderful.  And an agency, which is awesome.  So I get to skip some of the steps that 100% indie authors do.  Which is fine by me.  So I can’t tell you how to format, because Sharon–who’s an e-book wizard–does it for me.  And I can’t tell you about working with a publisher, if you have a book coming out in hardback or paperback, because I’ve never done that.  All I can share with you is what I know or what I’ve tried.  But here are the steps I go through to get a novel/novella online:

1.  People keep saying it, but they’re right.  Write the best book you possibly can, because there are a LOT of books out there–some good, some bad, but you want yours to be the best it can be.  So don’t slap words on a hard drive and share them with the world.  Edit them.  Have a few beta readers (who don’t tell you you’re wonderful and shouldn’t change a word) critique them for you.  Then decide what you could do better and fix it.  Now, I’ve had several friends who would be happy to NEVER send their book out into the cold, cruel world because they’re never going to be satisfied with it.  They can always see one more thing to fix, one more thing that will make it shine.  You have to find a happy medium here.  But don’t rush your book either.  When you send it out, make sure it’s good.

2.  Have someone who knows his/her stuff copy edit your work.  I notice misspellings, bad grammar, and the “sprinkle method” of adding commas.  (I had a friend once who told me that she didn’t understand commas, so she just “sprinkled” them on the page so that they looked good).  Aaargh.  Grammar and spelling are the basic tools of writing, but none of us finish writing a manuscript with no mistakes.  And we can’t always see our own mess-ups.  Make sure your manuscript is clean before you offer it to the world.  (My biggest weakness is hyphens.  Hope one belongs in mess-up???)

3.  Once your manuscript is ready to go, it’s time to format it for whatever site you’re going to load it on.  Most of my writer friends pay someone to do this for them.  A few take the time and effort to do it themselves.  I’m lucky.  (And I know it).  Sharon does it for me.

4.  Books need a cover.  I’ve been lucky enough to work with Michael Prete.  I love the covers he’s created for my novels and novellas.  (And for the first time, he’s told me he’d like to do more covers, so I can share his name and web page: http://vertex10.com/.  He usually designs web pages, so his site only shows his professional work as a web designer, but if you like any of the covers on my work, he’s done all of them, and his prices are reasonable!!).  He’s also been kind enough to let me find images that I think fit the story/tone that I’m trying to create.  Sometimes, I only use one image for a cover.  Sometimes, I combine them.  I just copy the links of what I like and send them to him, and he works his magic.  But whatever you decide to do, your book cover is what makes people notice your novel.  Don’t kid yourself.  People DO judge books by their covers.  Here are my two favorite sites to find images for Michael to work with: http://www.canstockphoto.com/  and  http://www.shutterstock.com/.  Be warned, though, once you start flipping through all of the images, you can lose a few hours without noticing.

5.  And last, but not least, once your book is ready to go, how are you going to market/promote it?  What have you got in place to help people find it?  I’ve already shared a few great marketing sites in previous blogs.  A good one is http://www.lindsayburoker.com/.  Another is https://twitter.com/BadRedheadMedia.  I had great luck with Book Bub ($90), but it’s getting harder and harder to get your book listed there.  I had okay luck with http://www.ebookbooster.com/ ($40).  By okay, I mean I had over 3,000 downloads of my free book with ebookbooster.  Not bad, but nothing compared to the 18,000+ downloads I got from Book Bub.  Later this month, I’m going to try out the parajunkee site to see how that works for the release of my 2 new novella bundles.  I’m experimenting, looking for a mix of sites that help readers discover my work.  I’ve been lucky enough to have several bloggers feature my books.  I still haven’t been brave enough to try a blog tour.  Twitter makes a difference when I tweet about a new release.  So does Goodreads when I self-promote in Making Connections or Nexus.  But an occasional paid ad has proven pretty effective, worth the money, (but only because I have more than one book online).  All that I’m saying is that not many people are going to stumble on your book amid the thousands or millions of novels on amazon and Nook unless you help them find it.  You can twitter (but do it right.  Don’t just list your book over and over again.  People stop reading your tweets).  You can join Goodreads or Facebook.  Or start a blog.  But whatever you do, do something!

P.S.  Just because I LOVE this cover and I mentioned Michael, this is the cover he created for the first Babet/Prosper bundle that’s going online Sept. 23–and this one happens to be FREE when it goes up.


My facebook page (but it’s mostly the blogs you’ve already read): https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/JudithPostsurbanfantasy

Writing–Enjoy the Words

I love my writing group, Summit City Scribes.  We get together twice a month and critique each others’  manuscripts.  We mention what we find strong and wondrous in each piece and what we think might make it better.  We bully and encourage each other, and eventually, most of us end up being pretty darned good writers.

And then it’s time to figure out what to do with what we wrote.  This isn’t a how-to about selling books.  It’s not practical advice, but from the heart.  Some of us in Scribes have been writing for a long time.  I remember the days when a writer could send a query letter directly to an editor at a publishing house.  True, the editor might never look at it, but some poor underling or slush pile reader trudged through each submission, and if it was deemed worthy enough, a writer could get a reply from the editor. These were  considered “good” rejections.

A few of us at Scribes have managed to survive “almost” deals, where an editor asked for a manuscript, held it to publish, and then the deal fell through.  Twice, editors held novels I wrote for future lines their companies meant to start, and then, for whatever reason, decided against trying.   Frustrating?  Yes.  But not nearly as frustrating as today’s world of traditional publishing where no editors or slush pile readers even accept unsolicited manuscripts.  In today’s world, an author has to find an agent, and only an agent can submit manuscripts to editors.  In the “old days,” publishers had a strong stable of midlist authors who might never reach the Top Ten lists, but sold consistently.  There were lots of places to submit and sell short stories.  A new writer could “cut her teeth” and learn as she got better and better at her craft.

Things have changed.  I have a writer friend who claims that finding an agent is easy.  It is for him.  He’s well known in the publishing world.  For the rest of us?  It’s blood, pain, and tears.  I was lucky enough to get an agent who’s anything and everything that I’d ever hope for an agent to be, but I still didn’t have any luck selling my books. I have a habit of writing cross-genre that I find exhilarating, but publishers aren’t so fond of.  I also have a tendency to write for markets that are already full or starting to sag.  So I bugged Lauren to let me put my writing online.  She warned me that sticking a novel on amazon and Barnes and Noble, etc., would be no trip to overnight success.  And boy, was she right!

Before she’d even put my work online, she had a list of to-dos I had to complete.  I needed 50 followers on Twitter, I needed to start a blog and join some kind of internet group–I chose Goodreads and love it–and I needed to be on Facebook.  None of these are any best kept secrets.  There are lots of posts on how to create a “brand” as a writer these days.  But what Lauren was making sure of was that I’d at least TRY to market myself and promote my work.  No one does it for you these days, unless you’re a big name author who will make a publisher lots of money.

Writing is hard work.  So is marketing.  And what’s frustrating to me is when a new author shows tons of potential in our group, and she asks, “What should I do now?,” more often than not, the answer is, “If you want to try to find an agent and publisher, go for it.  But if it takes forever and it doesn’t look good, put your work online.”  Thankfully, Scribes has Melissa, our computer guru, who can whip up a book cover, format a book, and put it on Kindle in the blink of an eye.

The sad news, to me, is that it’s so hard to get a traditional publisher to take on a new writer these days.  The good news?  E-books have taken the place of midlist author slots and pulp fiction magazines that used to serve as practice grounds that gave writers time to learn and grow.  But going the e-book route, an author has to market and promote to get her work any attention.  The only exception that I can think of, off the top of my head, is Harlequin romance.  Editors there still welcome writers and work with them.  A writer doesn’t have to have an agent to submit to one of their lines.  More places might exist, but I can’t think of them.

In a way, it’s so easy to put a book online these days that there’s no filter to assure quality of writing.  There are so many books online that it’s hard to stand out.  So my advice to writers?  Enjoy putting words on paper (or computer screens) and write the best books you can, because that, for me, is the luxury part of the job.  The business part is necessary, and I’m not saying it’s not without its joys, but it takes a new set of skills.

Writers and Stray Cats

My husband (bless him) buried one of my stray cats this morning.  A neighbor called last night and said she saw one on the side of the road.  We scooped him into a trash bag and dug his grave this morning.  He wasn’t really mine.  I tried to woo him with tuna and milk, but he’d eat, and then leave.  Mostly wild, but wonderful. There used to be nine of them.  Now I’m down to five.

I’d like to think Midnight found a home.  He was the most affectionate, loved to zip into the house when the door was open and wanted petted under his chin.  Our chihuahua annoyed him.  Maybe he found a home with no dog.  The kitten with the cutest face left next.  He, too, loved kitchens, so maybe someone served him salmon instead of canned tuna and lured him to be theirs.  Glados, their mother, would glare at me as she begged for food.  I had to admire her prickly independence, but I can’t believe anyone could make her a pet.

It’s odd, but the strays made me think of fellow writers I know.  And maybe myself.  The strays come to me when I call, will wind around my ankles, but bolt if I try to touch them.  They value their independence more than they value a warm room and soft cushion.  Not many writers can claim that they’re putting words on paper to be rich.  They might start out thinking that, but that fantasy evaporates pretty quickly.  But we still write.  When we lose money, we write.  Just like the cats, we’re skittish about success.  We want it, but we want to do things our own way.

Experts give advice on how to use a formula to sell books.  Most writers aren’t interested.  We read books on how to plot, how to pace, even how to market.  We cozy up to the experts, but insist on doing it our way.  We purr about following the rules, but break the ones we decide not to follow.  For good reason.  Each writer needs to be fresh, to bring something unique to the market, and to have an individual voice.  We don’t want to play it too safe.

Just like everything else in writing, balance is the key.  There are rules that define the basics of good writing, but there are exceptions that make each story our own.  And who knows?  Maybe some day, my novels or novellas will find a big audience, and I can stretch out on a velvet sofa, secure in my sells numbers.  But in the meantime, I have to beg for scraps of attention, twittering “read me, read me,” and sauntering through the perils of no publisher, no home.   A stray.




What Makes You Write

This blog might meander more than most.  And be a bit longer, so be warned.  But people write for different reasons.  I belong to a writers’ group, Summit City Scribes, an eclectic mix of people whose main focus is to make our writing better.  After we discuss active and passive verbs, repetition, characterization, or pacing..etc., we might discuss a market for whatever was read.  The point is, we put writing first, marketing a dismal second.   I’ve gone to other groups that flip the two.  Selling is the major focus, and what to write that sells is the main discussion.  They talk about writing too, but it’s more about making the perfect product that will catch an editor’s eye.  And to be honest, I think more people sell in those groups than in ours.  Why?  Because they’re better writers?  No, because they’re more realistic.  They don’t just sit down and write whatever strikes their fancy.  They look at the market, study it, and write for a specific publisher.  They write smart.  Does that mean I wish our group would change?  No, because our group encourages writers, whether they’ll ever sell or not.  But if you want to sell, you should know the markets.  Study them and tailor your novel or short story or article to them.

I’ve said before in this blog that I never thought about writing until my husband enrolled me in a class called Writing For Fun and Profit.  My girls were still in diapers, and it was a gift from him (he babysat each week so that I could go), a time for me to get out of the house and away from being a Mommy.  The teacher liked one of my articles enough to encourage me to try to sell it.  She even suggested a market for it, Byline magazine.  So I sent it with a little note and didn’t expect much.  I got a letter a month later offering me $25 for it.  And I remember being thrilled and telling my husband, “I think I’ll write more.  This is easy.”  And I wrote and I wrote, and discovered that NOTHING about writing is easy.  I’d had beginner’s luck, and the rest of the process was tricky business.  But by then, I was hooked–an addict, so I wrote anyway.  Writing for some, like it was for me back then, (probably is even now), is an outlet–a spigot that offers release when too many thoughts and energies build up and gush forth on paper.  Only I couldn’t just stop at journaling or scribbling in a diary, I wanted to control those words and jostle them into stories.  And then I wanted those stories to be more powerful, and I began to take writing very seriously.

I’ve known people who read hundreds of romances, sit down and KNOW the rhythm and internal rules of romance enough, to whip off a forty, sixty, or eighty thousand word manuscript and sell it on the first, second, or third try.  I am not one of those people.  I’ve never thought of myself as a race horse or thoroughbred.  I’m more like a pack mule or a work horse–the tortoise instead of the hare.  I’m the type who dips my toes in the water, works my way up to my knees, then my shoulders before I take the plunge.  Some people dive right in.  They start by writing novels, gong to conferences, making connections.  I started with short stories, sold some to small anthologies and got paid in copies, before I sold to major magazines and anthologies.  Then I started thinking about novels.  And I had a unique knack for writing what no one wanted to buy.  “Sorry, cozies are a glutted market right now.  Good writing.  If you write something else, please keep us in mind.”  And did I take the hint?  Stop writing cozies?  No, not me.  I thought the pendulum would surely swing back, and then I’d be sitting on a treasure house of the stupid things.  See what I mean?  Marketing matters.  I was a slow learner.

A person joined our group once, came for a short while, and then quit coming because he told us, “I don’t want to waste my time writing unless I’m going to be paid big money for it.”  And we told him, “Good luck.”  If you think you’ll get rich by writing, I hope you ARE one of the lucky ones.  It still hasn’t happened for me and most of my friends.  I do have a friend, who writes romances for Harlequin, who’s selling like crazy.  But she’s also a marketing whiz, one of those rare writers who’s good at writing AND good at selling herself.  Another friend put her book on amazon and was at the right time with the right thing and sold lots of copies.  But the general rule?  It takes a lot of work and time to make a name for yourself.  The writers I know who write for money do nonfiction and are regular contributors to magazines, work for businesses, or write “how to” books, or teach classes on how to write.  They write fiction on the side.  I’d be living on the streets if I had to live off of my writing.  Right now, I’ve spent more money putting my stories online than I’ve made off of them.  My agency doesn’t pay for them, I do.  But when my agent sent out each novel, it took a year before I heard back from big publishers, all rejecting it, and my agent wasn’t interested in small publishers…and I got restless.  I wanted to try e-books.  I think of it as an investment.  Hopefully, someday, people will discover them and buy more of them.  But that hasn’t happened yet.  Many, many writers’ blogs say that it takes time to be an “overnight” sensation.  I can’t tell you.  It hasn’t happened to me yet.

Anyway, the good news is that Lauren just approved four more of my novellas that I can put online.  I love writing them.  I love urban fantasy.  I have all kinds of freedom to try new things.  I hope one or more of them strikes a chord with readers.  Once they’re up, then I need to start marketing them, because marketing IS a part of writing these days.  You need to blog.  You need to twitter.  I made an author’s Facebook page and joined Goodreads.  You should too.

I didn’t write this blog to discourage anyone.   I love writing, but a few people have asked me questions about marketing and selling, and a few new people have joined Scribes, and I can tell their expectations aren’t very realistic.  So I hope you guys are smarter than I was.  But if you’re not, I hope you enjoy every part of writing as much as I do.  And good luck to you.