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?

New Possibilities for a New Year

Empty road to upcoming 2017 at sunrise

The sunrise of a new year.

  1. Your future is not limited by the past. While past successes and experiences can inspire the future, as I wrote about in my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, the future does not need to be limited by the past. New scientific discoveries can build on past knowledge, but they also can disrupt old paradigms. For example, the microprocessor made computing available to nearly everyone, with a modern laptop more powerful that a computer that once took up an entire room. Thanks to this invention, most writers prepare their manuscripts using convenient word processors instead of typewriters, and keep their contact list of agents, editors, and publishers on their smartphone in place of their Rolodex. In the not-so-distant future, writers might conference with editors and other writers in virtual reality, skipping the long lines at airports and time spent traveling. As a writer, your next fresh idea can define the future. Your past projects may influence your future goals, but feel free to try something new and even disruptive. Progress happens when people dream new dreams. Let the start of the New Year serve as your excuse to pursue a great new project.
  2. New friendships are waiting to be discovered by you. Writers quickly learn the value of relationships in their profession. After all, writing is all about communicating and collaborating. Even when writers spent quiet hours alone putting their thoughts on the page, the needs and interests of their readers shape their work. The audience of readers is always present when a writer expresses ideas with words. By the time a book reaches the shelves of a bookstore or the warehouse of an online retailer, the writer has collaborated with many people – literary agents, editors, illustrators, cover designers, copy editors, reviewers, publicists, and marketing directors. These colleagues as well as radio interviewers, blog readers, online reviewers, customers, and conference coordinators become new friends in the life of a writer. Resolve to maintain the friendships you have formed as a writer in years past, while staying open to the possibilities of accepting the input, advice, and encouragement of new friendships in the year to come.
  3. To accomplish your goal, break it down into discrete, doable steps. Whether you are planning to write a blog post in one evening or a book in six months, if you have a plan divided into measurable and actionable steps, you are well on your way to getting the job done. Fit your plan into your lifestyle and your current schedule to keep it realistic and achievable. Can you envision setting aside two hours every evening to complete a new manuscript? Should you schedule a vacation in a secluded and beautiful setting surrounded by nature in order to disconnect from everything and make your writing deadline? Having a plan that matches your working habits and the needs of your family and other responsibilities increases the likelihood of reaching your goal. Great new projects need to-do lists and new friendships need time set aside to develop the relationships. Make a plan that fits your life so your dreams can come to fruition in the New Year.

What do you plan to do to prepare for the new possibilities awaiting you in the New Year?

Celebrating a Book Birthday

Not only is today MY birthday, but my debut novel came out six years ago this month. It’s my book’s birthday!

We could eat cake and ice cream in celebration, I could tell you about all the labor I went through to push this baby out, or we could look at pictures of my baby and coo. But really, what I want to talk about is dedicating my baby.

Go ahead and coo first…

love-finds-you-in-sun-valley

Feel free to grab cake and ice cream, too, if you want.

Now back to the dedication.

I love dedicating my books. They are a little piece of me, but I couldn’t have created them on my own. Seeing them come to life is a humbling experience. And I am so grateful. Unbelievably grateful.

I cry every time I write my acknowledgments. Happy tears. Giggling-all-by-myself-though-I-know-God-must-be-looking-down-and-laughing-too tears. The kind of tears we were created to cry.

My first book I dedicated to an amazing couple in my life. The book was a romance, as you probably guessed from the pic above since the model is wearing a wedding dress. But I was crying lots of sad tears at this time I sold this book because my own marriage was falling apart. I was living in Kevin and Rebecca’s basement with my three children. I learned a lot from them while I lived there. I remember Kevin coming home and Rebecca telling him, “The kitchen drawer is broken.” Kevin said, “Okay, I’ll fix it,” instead of getting angry at her. I was like, “Oh. That’s what love is supposed to look like.”

I was so thankful God let me write a book about love even though I’d obviously failed at it. And I was thankful for Kevin and Rebecca’s love for me. At the time, the only thing I could give them in return was my book dedication. I meant every single heartfelt word.

Since then, I’ve remarried, and I rereleased that first novel.

Here’s my baby all grown up:

sun-valley-cover

This time it’s dedicated to my husband who has also shown me what love is. The first time he told me he loved me, I said, “I don’t know what that means.” He said, “I will show you with everything that I am.” He puts my heroes to shame.

Here I go talking about love again, when I’m supposed to be talking about dedications, but maybe they are one and the same. They are an expression of my affection for the people in my own life story.

I loved writing my children’s series with my kids and dedicating the books to them.

I loved writing the story of a pastor’s daughter (who can’t forgive her dad for running off with the church secretary until she falls for her own pastor) and dedicating it to my parents who are THE most merciful people in the world.

I loved dedicating my Christmas romance to my best friend who was “a gift from heaven” at a time when I felt like I had nothing left. This year she invited me to speak at a Mother’s Day brunch at the old folk’s home where she works as activities director. I got to announce in front of all her residents and coworkers that I was dedicating the book to her.

charla-mothers-day

Sometimes it’s fun to make other people cry happy tears, too.

Most recently I created a new baby with Love Inspired Suspense. This one I couldn’t have finished without the inspiration of my oldest stepdaughter. So I dedicated it to my step-kids. I was hoping to give  a copy to my stepdaughter when she was here for Thanksgiving, but the package missed her by a day. I just had to send them all a photo.

presumed-dead-selfie

I kinda wanted to make them cry happy tears, but I probably cried enough for all of us.

Dedication means both “self-sacrificing devotion” as well as “a name prefixed to a literary production in tribute to a person.” I’m able to prefix all these names to the front of my stories because of their self-sacrificing devotion to me. And there’s nothing else I’d rather celebrate on my birthday.

Though cake is good, too.

book-birthday

 

Pitching an agent? Read these query letter tips…

student-849825_960_720In my work at WordServe, I read a lot of query letters and book proposals (sometimes more than 100 in a week!) that come into our agency. And in my work as a freelance editor, I often help clients develop their proposals and queries before they submit them. After reading hundreds of pitches across every conceivable genre and topic, I’ve come to notice a few significant Do’s and Don’ts that can make or break whether an agent is going to read any further. If you’re newer to the world of publishing and hoping to get your book noticed, perhaps a few of these will be helpful to you the next time you’re putting together your pitch to an agent or editor.

When sending a query to a literary agency…

  1. Don’t claim that your book is going to be a huge bestseller. The fact of the matter is that only a teeny, tiny percentage of books end up at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list—and much of it depends on things outside of an author’s control. If you claim that you’ve written the next Harry Potter, the agent reading your pitch is probably going to assume that you don’t understand the publishing industry very well; have unrealistic expectations; and/or haven’t done your homework. A better way to emphasize your book’s potential is to try something a little less grand that focuses instead on who is realistically going to buy your book: “I’ve written a book about women in the workplace that will resonate with young working mothers across the country.”
  2. Do your homework on the agents and agency you’re submitting to. If you can find out the name of a specific agent at the firm who represents books in your genre, send the proposal to their attention. Mention why you’ve chosen them. Perhaps comment on another author they’ve represented whose work has similarities to your own. If you can’t submit the proposal to a specific agent, send it to the general agency, but make sure you’ve read up on what kinds of books the agency represents. WordServe represents primarily faith-based books; when I get submissions for romance books with risqué content or nonfiction books that argue against our values, I delete without reading any further.
  3. Don’t claim that your book will make a great feature film. Even fewer books end up as movies than end up on the bestseller list (see #1, above) – and agents who see this in your pitch will know your expectations are overblown and be far less likely to work with you.
  4. Do write your pitch in polished prose that reflects your writing style. You’ve got 30 seconds to get an agent’s attention, so represent your writing well. If your book is humorous, inject some levity in your query. If it’s a thriller, create tension with your first line. If it’s literary fiction, elegant sentences that mirror the book’s style are a must. In every circumstance, ensure that there are absolutely no typos; this is your first impression, and it needs to be 100 percent perfect. Seriously: a few typos in a pitch letter is enough to get an immediate rejection.
  5. Do highlight why you are the right person to write this book; but don’t claim that nothing like this has ever been done before. Chances are, it has—and the agent has already seen it. Instead, focus on what sets your project apart, what new angle or new research or new understanding you bring to a topic—and why you’re the best person to tell readers about it. Focusing on your prior experience, personal connection to the topic, research you’ve conducted, or a dedicated audience you’ve built up are all great ways to convince an agent that you’re worth taking a chance on—and that doesn’t require the claim that no one else has ever thought of anything like this. It just requires you to show me why you’re the best person for the job.
  6. Do read the requirements for submission for every agency you send to. Different agencies have different submission requirements, and it’s essential that you provide them with exactly what they want—or your query will likely be deleted without even being read. If an agent doesn’t want attachments, make sure you include everything in the body of the email. Do they want to see five pages of sample material or fifty—or none at all? Do you need to include a full proposal, or just send a query and wait for a response? Following the specific instructions for each agency, while tedious, will result in a much better response rate, as agents will see that you’ve done your research, are taking this process seriously, and have respect for an agent’s time and wishes.
  7. Last, but not least, do show courtesy and respect to the agents you’re submitting to. Thank them for their time (they really are busy), and don’t pester them if you don’t hear back immediately. While it’s appropriate to follow up with an agent if you don’t hear from them within the time frame they list on their website, do not write to them before this window has elapsed. If they say that they aren’t able to respond to every query, accept that you simply may not hear back. With so many queries coming in, agents aren’t always able to give a personal response to each project they see. It’s unfortunate, but a reality of the industry. And finally, if you do receive a rejection, don’t pester an agent to explain themselves or try to argue for reconsideration. Graciously accept the response, and move on. There are many good agents out there, and you want to find one who connects with your work and is excited to partner with you.

Pitching agents is a difficult process—trust me, I get it! But by spending time polishing your query and making sure to send it to just the right places, you’ll increase your chance of finding the perfect person to represent your work. Above all, don’t be discouraged! It takes time, and often lots of rejections, before you find the right agent—but it does happen. For the most part, agents are in this business because we love books as much as you do; and we’re always hoping that the next query letter we open is going to be the perfect one for us.

Bad News for Good Writers

audience

Dear Gifted Not-Yet-Published Writer Who Has a Timely Message Audiences Need,

I think your writing is fantastic. You’ve allowed me to peek and I think that you have an important message and that you can deliver it well. I wish that was enough. It should be, right?!

It’s not enough.

In today’s publishing world, publishers who want nothing more than to publish great writing aren’t able to say “yes” to every book with a great message that’s written well if the writer has not worked diligently to build an audience. Some publishers do take that risk on a book they believe in, knowing that it might not pay out for them.

And if you’re like me—with way more confidence than might be merited—you believe that your awesome book will be the rare shining exception. Once the first reader reads it and tells all her friends, you figure, it’ll start selling like…a bestseller. And possibly it will. Much more likely, though, you’ll not find an audience for your writing unless you work to build one.

So—momentarily abandoning my signature irrational optimism—I’m just going to outline the bad news so that you have access to the facts you need.

1. Agents and publishers need to sell books.

Every agent and publisher I know loves great writing. In order to stay in business, though, they must publish and sell books that sell. It would be great if these two were synonymous, and sometimes they are. Not always.

2. Writers with audiences sell books.

Whether you publish with a traditional publisher or decide to self-publish, you must have access to an audience that trusts you in order to sell books.

3. Demonstrating an audience is requisite to securing an agent or publisher.

For an agent or publisher to consider representing you or publishing your work, you need to demonstrate that you’re reaching an audience.

4. Building an audience takes hard work.

Occasionally someone will build an audience with seemingly little effort—because they win an Olympic gold or are elected as President of the United States. (Okay…there was some effort.) The rest of us have to work REALLY HARD to grow an audience. Smarties, like @jeffgoins, with much more experience than I have can teach you how to do this. (Mention other smarties in the comments, below.)

5. Selling books is really hard.

Whether you publish with a traditional publisher or self-publish, selling books takes work.

Now start at the top of the list and read them all again. Congratulations, you now have a handle on the bad news.

The Good News

The good news is that there’s always something you can be doing to build your audience:

  • Pitch article after article to editors.
  • Speak to audiences, for free at first, about your subject.
  • Offer a freebie download at your site to build your mailing list.
  • Guest post on blogs of folks you know.
  • Make friends online by sharing their great stuff. (They will love you for this. And owe you.)

If you were bummed out by all the bad news, do one thing today to build your audience.

Cheering you on,

Margot

This post first appeared on Margot’s blog, http://wordmelonblog.blogspot.com/.

Overachieving Your Platform: Best of the Water Cooler Series Book #2!

overachieving-your-platform-coverMany years ago, a good friend went into a coma after giving birth. She was on life support for nearly four months. We all prayed and wondered if she would pull through to see her baby girl and live a full life.

By her side was her husband. Every day he was at the hospital talking with doctors and nurses, making sure medication was properly being administered, asking questions . . . basically, being every doctor’s worst nightmare when it came to patient care. But you know, on several occasions, he insisted on something that actually saved his wife’s life. The third leading cause of death in America is medical care accidents and misdiagnoses. He needed to care for his wife because if he didn’t, the worst could happen.

I mention this story because I think it can be illustrative of some of the realities of book publishing today. Sometimes, your book is the one on life support, often from the moment of publication. Standing by are publishers and PR folks who are tasked and paid to keep your book alive. They’re busy, they have other patients (authors), and are generally overworked and understaffed.

The point is you cannot leave your book’s marketing and PR ONLY in the hands of publishers. They’ll do their best (usually), but they’re not perfect. And sadly, they have the 80/20 principle that is always screaming at them from the higher-ups. In publishing, it’s true: 80 percent of the money goes to 20 percent of the books. It’s a reality that won’t change, so we have to learn to deal with it.

So what should you do, then, as the author standing by your baby, trying to keep it alive?

You’ve got to tend to it diligently.

With your publisher: ask questions, say thank you a lot (gift cards and flowers are nice) when they do a job well done, give them ideas, don’t mention a problem unless you have a solution, tell them what you’ll do to help, keep track of everyone who helps (radio stations, bloggers, author friends). Work WITH them as much as they will let you.

What else can you do?

Well, we at the Water Cooler have just released a book that will help answer that question. Overachieving Your Platform: 95 Ideas to Embrace Your Inner Sales Marketing Genius is now available from FaithHappenings Publishers, and it offers the tools you need to break out and connect with large audiences. Adapted from the best writing of the WordServe Water Cooler, these doable, practical and affordable ideas will transform your platform and expand your audience if you put them into practice. No, you can’t do them all. But you can certainly go through this book with your highlighter and mark everything you actually could do. Then make a plan. What will you do during your first month from publication, second month, third? Write the plan out . . . and then work it.

Publishers, agents, and retailers agree: you’re only as good as your last book. So if your last book flops in the marketplace, it may very well indeed be your last book!

Don’t let that happen. Stay on guard by your book for the first six months to a year after launch, and you’re far more likely to get that second book contract. You may even get a royalty check.

I’m so proud of all of the authors who contributed to Overachieving Your Platform. They’ve done the hard work in the trenches and have learned from their successes and failures. All they know they’ve shared with you.

Grab a copy today—and take that first step toward creating a platform and brand that will serve you for the rest of your writing career.

Excelling-at-the-Craft-of-Writing-CoverAnd if you haven’t checked out the first book in the series, Excelling at the Craft of Writing: 101 Ways to Move Your Prose to the Next Level, make sure to do that as well. Craft and marketing go hand in hand when it comes to a writing career—you won’t find success unless you’ve got both!

This post was adapted from the Introduction of Overachieving Your Platform: 95 Ideas to Embrace Your Inner Sales Marketing Genius (available now!).

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.