Seven Essential Tips Every Successful Writer Must Apply

Fresh StartsI think every published author wishes they could go back in time to whisper in their younger self’s ear. Doing so would certainly save volumes of time and energy. I’m sure five years from now, I’d wish for the opportunity to tell today’s me something I need to know right now.

These are the thoughts rolling through my mind this new year, clean with the possibility of fresh starts. I think it’s important to slow down sometimes.

We need to reflect on the past in order to improve on the future. So I’m reminding myself of the tips I’d give my younger self, knowing I’ve let some slack, and resolving to begin again. I believe the seven following tips are essential, things every writer must know.

  1. Ray BradburyRead as much as you can. Phrases such as, “Great writers are great readers,” hold a wealth of truth. The more we study, the more prepared we are to succeed. Reading teaches us the subliminal art of sentence flow, heart tugs, and scene staging. It also shows us what to avoid, as we learn from the mistakes of others. It’s the best motivator I know.
  2. Eavesdrop. Most of my best dialogue came from listening in on someone else’s conversation in restaurants, conferences, stores, airplanes, etc. I write non-fiction, and I tell true stories or compilations based on real people, but even if I wrote fiction, I would use this technique for writing believable and fascinating statements.
  3. Listen to outsiders. The more detached someone is from you, the more objective their writing feedback is going to be. Family and friends tend to fall into two camps: they either gush over everything you write, even your sloppy first drafts, or they nitpick, make digs, or outright blast anything you pen. Make it your mission to interact with people on social media, critique groups, or professional advance readers who are willing to respond honestly.
  4. Pull on your thick skin. You might want to consider whale shark skin for this one, (estimated at 6″ thick). Just like “there’s no crying in baseball,” professional writers soon learn, no one’s handing out Kleenex around here either. When rejection stings, stiffen your spine, and pitch again.
  5. Douse distractions. It’s going to happen. Ten people want five different things from you at once. You’re working on one project, when the siren call of another beckons. But professionals know the power of tenacity — grinding your behind into the seat, tuning out the voices trying to break your focus, and writing through to the finish line.
  6. motivational quotesSet time-stamped writing goals. I’ve really let this one slip lately, and my work is showing it. But my One Word is Reset, so I am resetting my goals. The difference between a dream and a goal is a measurement. So my refreshed writing goals include a minimum of 5,000 words per week. This reasonable number allows for flexibility, while pushing me beyond a normal comfort zone. It’s doable.
  7. Touch your own heart. If I’m not passionate about what I’m writing on, why would anyone else be interested? If I’m bored, my readers will feel boredom. If I’m thrilled, my readers will feel a flutter of excitement driving them to turn the page.

The more I write, the more I question myself at times, and yet, when I go back to the basics, I find the truth, the way, and a successful writer’s life. Which brings me to a bonus secret.

Pages in a Thousand BooksI can write until my fingers are numb. I can start writing at dawn’s break, pushing until the wee hours of the next morn, but if I am not inspired, it’s all for nothing. My personal inspiration come from prayer, provision, and praise for my Maker. He’s the one who gifted and called me. This is my most powerful secret.

What inspires you to write? Do you have any tips you would whisper to your younger self?

Why you should write backstory you won’t use

cross-out-wordsA few years ago, I got the oddest suggestion I’d ever heard from an editor: write a few scenes between my novel’s characters that I wasn’t going to include in my final manuscript.

Say what?

I should deliberately spend time crafting scenes I was NOT going to use? How was that going to improve my book, writing scenes I wasn’t going to include in the final version?

Being the people-pleaser/non-confrontational  soul that I am, I didn’t question the editor’s wisdom, even though I thought it was nuts and a clear waste of time.  She was the editor, after all. She had to know what she was doing. So I sighed a great sigh of resignation and set to work writing scenes I wasn’t going to use in my book.

And lo! Before I even finished writing the first ‘unnecessary’ scene, I understood the point of the exercise: by creating more interactions between my characters, I was getting deeper into their heads and personalities. I was basically giving them a more complete personal history and backstory that would more accurately inform and motivate their actions on the pages of my novel. In other words, I was giving them life beyond the book, which would, in turn, make them very real within the book.

Crazy, huh?

Let me give you an example.

“This late-night conversation between Rafe and his mother doesn’t sound natural,” the editor said about a scene in my book. “Try writing another conversation between them that focuses on a different aspect of their relationship. Something from their past.”

So I did. I wrote a scene from Rafe’s high school football years, some 20 years prior to my book’s time frame. As I wrote, I imagined what this man might have been like before he matured, and how his relationship with his mother evolved. He was a headstrong teen then, and while he dutifully respected his mother, he couldn’t appreciate her wisdom at the time; that insight alone helped me revise the dialogue my editor had questioned in my book. It also changed the way I described the interaction between those two characters, and it influenced how I then changed Rafe’s interactions with his female colleague to better reflect his attitude towards women as learned from his mother.

Writing that little piece of personal history for Rafe was like shading in another part of a portrait or adding important information to a personality profile; because I knew his backstory better, I was then able to strengthen another scene in which he confronts a female assassin with conflicted respect, rather than brute force. My ‘unnecessary’ scene that I knew I wasn’t going to use actually helped me produce a more realistic hero.

What can I say? If ‘crazy’ works, I’ll take it. Especially when it improves my writing.

How about you? Have you found some crazy ways to improve what you write?

How to survive the book review blues

roses I have a love-hate relationship with book reviews.

Every time I get a good review, I’m happy. When I get a stellar review, I’m ecstatic. I feel like I’ve done what I hoped to do: I’ve connected with a reader and given them a journey they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. When dog-lovers tell me they laughed, cried, and were inspired by my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God, I feel blessed that my story reached and touched them. When reviewers rave that my supernatural thriller Heaven’s Gate: Archangels Book I made them want to stand up and cheer, I get goosebumps of joy.

All those multi-starred reviews on my books’ pages at amazon.com, Goodreads, or barnesandnoble.com reassure me that the hours I pour into my writing are worth it: my books entertain, educate, and illuminate, and, gosh darn, people like them.

wilted-roseAnd then there is the flip side of my love-hate relationship with book reviews.

When I get a review that says “this book wasn’t what I thought it would be about, so I stopped reading it after the first two chapters,” and therefore receives the lowest rating possible, I want to bang my head against a wall. “Then why did you bother to post a review?” I want to ask the disappointed reader, and then explain that because she mistook the book for something it wasn’t, my overall rating has plummeted, which will dissuade some readers from even reading the synopsis, let alone buying and reading the whole book.

I’ve also seen reviews that rate books poorly because the author’s basic premise contradicts what a particular reader-reviewer believes. Again, those low ratings may prevent the book from reaching the hands of readers who would appreciate and greatly benefit from it; because many people (and I’m one of them!) choose books based on others’ reviews, authors are at the mercy of those published reviews, even when they make no sense at all, or are based on the personal bias of the reviewer.

So what’s an author to do about that oh-so-necessary-but-can-be-disastrous need for reviews?

My answer can be summed up in one word: relax.

Then remind yourself of these three things:

  1. You wrote a book! So many people say they want to write a book, but you actually did it! AND it got published. Congratulations! Celebrate your accomplishment!
  2. You can’t please all the people all the time, and that’s especially true of readers. Some people just won’t ‘get’ it; others won’t like your writing style or your treatment of plot or subject. Some readers might be experiencing difficult life situations while they were reading your book and some of that negativity gets transferred to their reviewing. Bottom line: reviews are subjective, even when they intend to be objective.
  3. Your words will reach at least some of the people who need to read them, and they will bless you for it, whether or not you ever know it.

What do you do when you get the review blues?

Crowd Source Marketing

finger-769300_1280There’s an old adage in marketing that says in order to get a consumer to pull the trigger and buy something, they have to hear about the product three times. There was a time when the blueprint to accomplish that was pretty straightforward. Get reviews from newspapers or magazines and get interviewed on television or radio. Then, go make public appearances at bookstores or book fairs or local meetings, and don’t forget to keep writing.

None of those were easy to accomplish and they all took a lot of work to hit the magic three, but at least there was a path to follow that thousands of authors from decades past had taken with some success.

Times have changed. Not only have they changed, they keep changing at an ever-increasing pace.

The internet opened up the world and made it so much easier for authors to reach the public directly. That’s the good news. The flip side is there are hundreds of different ways to do it and a lot of them are really good, but may not be right for you.

So, the goal becomes finding the right tools for your genre and your personality and staying up to date about everything that’s new, while still finding time to write, and then have a life.

This is where just a little organization can funnel the hive mind of social media down to the essentials. Look for groups, particularly on Facebook, that are not only devoted to marketing books but are also in your genre. If you’re in traditional publishing, include that on your checklist. If you’re going the indie route, make sure the group is too.

A few other things to add to your checklist are:

  • The group is devoted most of the time to marketing – not selling, not writing
  • It’s invitation-only, so that it’s a safe place to share and there’s some control over the postings
  • There’s a monitor who shows trolls (people who complain or bully) the door and kicks them out of the group
  • Active members who are sharing information and are willing to answer questions – lots of questions
  • Be one of those people and share when you can – admit when you don’t know enough to add to the conversation. In other words, participate.

Some of the benefits you can reap from joining together are:

  • Doing cross-promotions with others in your genre. There’s power in numbers.
  • Getting a heads up about a new site that’s working for someone. And getting a thumbs down for a site that would only waste your time and your dollars.
  • Sharing each other’s ads or promotions on each other’s social media sites. Again, it’s that power in numbers.
  • Gaining a realistic view of how well you’re doing. It’s the equivalent of your water cooler.
  • Getting applause when things go well and getting some inspirational chitchat when they don’t.
  • Testing out new blurbs for your book or, if you’re indie, testing out new covers and getting early feedback.

Everything is easier when we work in cooperation with others and come together as a team, building on the information, adding in a post to what’s already there. That’s the definition of crowd sourcing.

Since I’ve found my own peeps I’ve been able to course correct a lot of mistakes I didn’t know I was even making and I’ve come up with a streamlined ad campaign that is even more in line with my budget. Best of all, though, I’m having a lot more fun sharing ideas and cheering on my fellow authors.

Are We Ready?

My latest romantic suspense novel released yesterday. The Morning Star Rises is the third book in The Seven Trilogy, after The End Begins and The Dragon Roars. In a recent interview, I was asked if I thought I had accomplished the purpose I’d had for the series when I set out to write it.

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It was a great question because it made me stop and ask myself what that purpose had actually been, something every author should probably do. Had I wanted to tell a strong, compelling story? Yes. Did I want to be obedient and write the story God had given me to the best of my ability? Always. But what was my unique, specific purpose for this particular trilogy?

Thankfully, I knew the answer. My hope and purpose in writing The Seven Trilogy was to pose the question, “Are We Ready?” to the North American church, the body of Christ, in the twenty-first century.

Times are changing. There is a shift in society that can be felt in the air and seen and heard in the public square in both written and spoken form. Hostility toward Christianity and the Bible is growing. If, as a society, we continue on our current trajectory, the very real possibility of persecution of believers could soon exist, not just in other countries around the world, but right here, in the west.

Are we ready?

In writing The Seven Trilogy, I created a world, forty years in the future, in which such persecution is not a rumour, not a distant, far-off possibility, but reality. With Canada under martial law after a radical group calling itself Christian blows up several mosques across the country, the military is sent in to oppress and keep an eye on believers. Basic rights such as owning a Bible, teaching Christian principles to children, and receiving a fair trial are stripped away. Punishments are meted out swiftly and ruthlessly.

Army Captain Jesse Christenson and believer Meryn O’Reilly find themselves on opposite sides of a ideological chasm that seems impossible to bridge. Can they find a way to be together?

In the midst of the chaos and confusion of this time, when everything they believed in when it was easy to believe is put to the test, the Christians in the story cling to two truths: God is still on his throne, and he has not abandoned them.

A common thread among reviews of the first two novels is that the story made readers stop and think about what they really did believe, how much they were willing to sacrifice for those beliefs, and whether or not they would be able to withstand the threat of severe persecution.

So we’re thinking about whether or not we’re ready. And we’re talking about it, me as much as anyone. Because I didn’t write the books as someone who had it all figured out and wanted to impart my great wisdom on the subject to everyone else. I wrote them as someone deeply concerned, not only about whether the church as a whole is ready for what is to come, but about whether I am ready.

I still don’t know. There is no way to know, really, until what is coming actually arrives. But we can take steps to prepare ourselves.

The believers in these novels wish they had read more, studied more, committed more Scripture to memory before it was taken from them. We still have time to do that.

They regret not doing more to share the gospel with their children and with everyone else in their lives before they had to risk their lives to do so. We can still talk freely about the gospel and expect to receive openness and interest at best, or mocking and dismissal at worst.

After all churches are closed, they agree to continue to meet in secret, risking imprisonment if they are caught. We are still able to meet and worship openly without fear of reprisal.

There is still time, but time does appear to be running out. If The Seven Trilogy inspires believers (including me) to ask ourselves if we are ready, if it generates discussion and gets us thinking about the best way to use the time, resources, and freedoms we have left wisely and effectively, if it drives us to our knees to ask God to help us prepare ourselves and our families for whatever the future brings, then yes, its purpose will have been served.

The Good Editor

typewriter-584696_640 Every writer needs a good editor. There are no exceptions. Typing away at the computer may be a solitary adventure, but bringing a well-rounded story to readers is a collaborative effort with a lot of players on the team. One of the most necessary players is a good editor. This is so much more than catching a typo or fixing a sentence that ends in a preposition or realizing you meant effect and not affect. It’s more than knowing what AP Style or Chicago Style is and when to use what, where.

Keely Boeving, a freelance editor who has worked with me on one of my novels, said, “I consider myself an advocate for the reader. My goal is not to change a writer’s style or intent, but rather to draw it out—to help them say what they truly want to say in a way that resonates with readers. Translating what a writer conceives in their creative mind into words on a page can be tricky, and an external observer—an editor—can help facilitate the translation in order to help writers achieve their intent.”

A good editor gets you and can see where the story is going without the need to add in their own two cents’ worth. The really good ones are part fan who write notes about the parts they really like, part brave hero who can tell a writer they need to take out that beloved chapter, and part mind reader who can ask just the right question about that part you thought was clear.

Taking the time and investing the money in an editor can help you get an agent or a publisher to read past that first page. Not taking that step may mean a lot of rejections for a good story that just needed a little more work.

Some tips when looking for the right editor:

  1. Gather information. Ask for the editor’s background and do they specialize in your type of work. Ask them for names/emails of writers they’ve worked with before. Write a short email to the writers asking them about their experience. See if the editor has ever worked with your genre. Keely worked in New York for over four years and is now a part of the WordServe family, as well as working as a freelance editor.
  2. Be clear about your expectations. Talk about cost and when payment is expected. Be true to your budget and keep searching if someone is out of your price range. Talk about your timeline and whether the fee includes second or third rounds of edits. If you have a deadline that can’t be missed, say so up front and take no for an answer if you hear ‘maybe’.
  3. Talk about how you expect to receive the edits. Some editors and some writers still use the printed page. I prefer Track Changes and comments but I still run into people who don’t and prefer mailing that manuscript back and forth.
  4. When you get the edits back, read over them briefly and put the manuscript down. Go find something fun to do and let it go for a day. On my initial read there’s always one or two things that I don’t agree with at all… until the next day. Often, those are the changes that fixed something that would have tripped up a lot of readers but was pretty easy to fix. Don’t let that become the reason you don’t sell a work.
  5. Take what you like and be willing to leave the rest. There will be moments when a suggested edit changes the intention of a scene or the voice of a character. Have some confidence in your idea and know when to say no. Reason it out with the editor, as well. It could also be that the setup isn’t fully there but with some tweaking, your story gets stronger. If you don’t feel like you’re being heard, you have the wrong editor.

One last thing. Celebrate every part of the journey as a writer, including this one. You took an idea from your mind and put it down on paper. That’s a big accomplishment. Now on to the next step.

How I boosted my book to 30x more people

ebookI finally bit the bullet. I boosted a post on Facebook.

For years, I’ve seen that annoying little message you get on your author page about paying to boost your posts. Because I’m cheap (and still suspicious of social media’s REAL intent, i.e. who needs to know what I buy, who I connect with, and what I like? Creepy…), I refused to give it a try. If my books can’t make it on their own merits, so be it – I’ll be content with small audiences, extremely limited financial reward, and the personal gratification that I haven’t caved to crass commercialism.

And then last month after I started getting consistent raves about my new thriller “Heaven’s Gate,” I thought, “What the heck. It’s only $20.”

Actually, it ended up being $60, since I decided if I was going to experiment, I wanted to see what a week of boosted posts could do rather than one day, which is what $20 will buy. Knowing that most buyers need to be exposed to a product seven times before they buy (do you know the Rule of Seven?), I figured one day of boosting was throwing away cash, but seven days might just convert into some sales. I can now tell you, without reservation, that $60 worth of boosting on Facebook can go a long way in giving your book exposure and building your audience, and now I can’t wait to give my other books the same treatment.

Here are the numbers from my week-long experiment:

  1. Organic reach peaked at 305 on Day 7, while paid reach was 9045. That’s 30x more people reached than my normal posting! Not only that, but thanks to my OCD tendencies, I checked one last time on Day 10 (remember I only paid for 7 days of boosting) and was happy to see a new total of 9432. The post was still being shared after my paid boosting! Score!
  2. I monitored my book’s print and ebook rankings on my amazon Author Central page (you do have one of these, right?) for the boosting’s duration. By Day 6, my ebook ranking had reached 924 in the Paranormal category after starting on Day 1 at 3366; the biggest jump was from Day 1 to Day 2, which tells me that first burst of posting made an impact that powered the rest of the week. Recalling the Rule of Seven and the impact of repeated impressions, though, I looked again on Day 18, only to find my ebook ranking better than ever at 831!
  3. As for print, my book moved from its initial 76,331 ranking to 8535 on Day 5. Clearly, somebody was paying attention.

Even knowing that rankings are a superficial measure (rankings don’t equal sale units), I decided that post boosting may not be such a bad idea for marketing after all. While the actual sales numbers are still in question, I know for a fact that more people have seen my book’s cover thanks to post boosting than would have otherwise. And that’s one step closer to buying my book.

Have you tried Facebook post boosting? What was your experience?