Seven Steps to Guaranteed Success as a Writer

Every author seems to have a different idea of what “success” in their field means to him or her. For some, selling at least five thousand (in Canada) or ten thousand (in the States) books, thereby qualifying them to claim the lofty title of “Bestselling Author” is the goal on which they set their sights. For others, maybe it’s a hundred thousand copies, or a million.

For some, it isn’t about the numbers, but about awards. But which award is the one that will make them feel as though they have finally arrived? Is it the Carol? The Christie? The Pulitzer? I’ve noticed several big-name authors who have won awards in the past entering the contests again, so maybe one award isn’t enough. What, then, is the magic number?

Or maybe it’s a certain amount of positive feedback, a sufficient number of glowing reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, recognition at conferences or even on the streets, enough followers on social media.

You see the problem. Success is a wildly ambiguous and deeply personal concept. Chasing that elusive label can be and, I suspect, is in most cases, a discouraging, disheartening, and depressing endeavor. The intended audience for our work can be mind-numbingly uncooperative when it comes to providing us with the accolades, reviews, purchases, and general awestruck-ness in our presence that would finally push us up to that mountain peak we are continually scrambling to reach. So too, for that matter, can agents, publishers, editors, and judges of contests.

Success1

A month ago I posted on this site about my love-hate relationship with Christian writing awards. I have to admit I am coming down a little harder on the side of love these days as my books are currently finalists for five awards. Am I encouraged? Definitely. Am I grateful, honored, and excited? Absolutely. Am I able to bring myself to claim that I am now a successful author as a result of these affirmations? Not even close.

So what is the solution? To continue to blindly stumble along, attempting to achieve some random number of readers or books sold or reviews in order to feel that I am now a success? Or is it possible that I, as a Christian author, need to look at the whole success thing from an entirely different perspective? If so, the perspective that is inevitably the best one to try to view things from is that of Jesus. During his time on earth, Jesus said some radical, countercultural things about success. He suggested that “making it to the top” in the eyes of the world was not only a poor measure of success, but could, in fact, be considered spiritually detrimental because it is those who are the least in the eyes of the world who are the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

Not that we should refuse to work hard or strive for excellence. Quite the contrary. Working diligently and doing our best honors God. The difference is in the motivation. The Bible teachers that everything we do should be done as to the Lord, and not unto man. By that standard, our success cannot truly be measured by sales, awards, or accolades bestowed on us by other human beings.

For an author who believes, then, success can only be defined by whether or not our work accomplishes the purpose God has for it. So here, in my humble opinion, are seven steps to follow in order to be guaranteed success in your writing:

1)      Listen for and receive the words God has for you to write

2)      Study the craft so that you can write those words in a way that honors the one who gave them to you

3)      Humbly accept feedback and editing that makes the work better and stronger

4)      Pray about the best platform for your work to appear on

5)      When the story or teaching God has given you does come out in written form and become available to others, seek His guidance as to the best way to use the resources of time, money, and connections he has gifted you with in order to market and promote that work

6)      Pray that God’s will may be done through the words you have written

7)      Leave the results to him

If I follow the above steps and don’t find success in the eyes of the world—however I or other people may define that—I can still trust that the plans God has for my work have been or will be fulfilled, whether or not he ever reveals those plans to me. And I can let go of all my strivings, and rest in the sure and certain knowledge that my work is a resounding success.

Perfect Pitch

Last month, I spent a day at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference in Estes Park. It was a beautiful setting, and I got to hear a wide range of pitches from new and accomplished authors. Some of them really impressed me, leaving me eager to hear more. Some of them… weren’t quite as successful.

What accounts for the difference between a good pitch and a bad pitch? Well, some of it simply depends on the project, but I found that I was willing to listen to a pitch for just about any kind of book if it was done well. The difference between pitches really came down to a few things: preparation; knowledge; engagement with the agent; enthusiasm for your project; and avoiding a few simple mistakes. Let me elaborate.

1. Preparation

When you’ve only got 15 minutes to pitch your book to an agent and convince them they need to know more, preparation is king. You have to know what you want to say, how you’re going to say it, and have all the necessary materials at hand. Now, I’m not saying you won’t forget some of it or flub a few things because you’re nervous—everyone is!—but preparing beforehand what you want to say and how will really help ensure that your pitch is smooth, organized, and leaves the agent with a clear idea of the project.

This doesn’t mean that you have to memorize a script, but write down a few bullet points. Do you want to lead with the book’s hook? Do you want to establish your credentials? The conversation may take a different path once you and the agent start chatting, but having some points in the back of your mind that you know you want to cover will help you to steer the conversation if it flags.

I’d also recommend having a one-sheet to hand to the agent at the beginning of the pitch. This includes information such as the book’s one-line hook, a brief synopsis, word count,  intended audience, and a brief biography of your writing credentials. Having a full proposal is great, but by starting with a one-sheet you can give the agent a quick overview of the project without losing too much time. I’d rather hear you talk about the project and then review the proposal on my own time than spend the whole 15 minutes wading through a 50-page proposal.

2. Knowledge

It may seem obvious, but you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. You need to know your project back to front. If it’s fiction, be able to explain the plot in a few sentences. Have a ready answer for the important themes and what you want the reader to take away. And be able to demonstrate knowledge about the world of the book—if it’s a medical thriller, have you researched the medical topics involved, interviewed a nurse, done background reading? If it’s a non-fiction book, be able to demonstrate your expertise on the topic. Point to the research you’ve done, experts you’ve consulted with. Be prepared for the kinds of questions a novice might ask about the topic. And don’t be afraid to show your smarts—that’s what we want to see.

3. Engagement with the Agent

You need to be able to set yourself apart from the tens or even hundreds of other pitches, and one way of doing that is by making a connection with the agent. Know who you’re pitching to before you approach them. Explain why you wanted to pitch to them—“I know you’re interested in historical fiction” or “I see that your agency represents So-and-So, and I’m writing in the same field.” By demonstrating that you’ve put in the time to prepare for this meeting and that you respect the agent’s time, you’ll make a great impression and start things off on the right note. That personal connection may make them more likely to remember your project among the many others they heard, and increases the chance that they’ll see you as someone they’d like to work with.

4. Enthusiasm for Your Project

I’m not saying go over the top here—you can be too enthusiastic about your work—but it’s important to show that you care deeply about your book. Agents want to see commitment: someone who believes in what they’re doing and who is willing to work really hard to get their message out there. Emphasize why you’re so passionate about this project, and explain to the agent what you’re willing to do in order to see it in print. Enthusiasm is infectious. If an agent can see how dedicated you are to a topic—that you eat, breathe, and sleep it—they’ll realize that you’re an author worth getting behind. We want high-energy, motivated, excited people who won’t let the difficulties of the publishing industry dissuade them from seeing their project all the way through.

5. Mistakes to Avoid

I’d rather focus on dos than don’ts, but there are a few tips that I’d recommend avoiding when you’re pitching your work.

  • Don’t give an overly lengthy, extremely descriptive synopsis of your novel that includes every event that occurs in every chapter. You’ve got 15 minutes; at the most, five of those should be spent talking about the plot.
  • Don’t begin by asking the agent what they want to hear about. Take control of the meeting, deliver your opening line, and be active in steering the conversation.
  • Don’t show up without materials. You’ve got to have at least a one-sheet to hand over, if not a full proposal.
  • Don’t take it personally if the agent expresses that they’re not interested. You are not your work, and each agent is looking for something different. It’s a better use of both of your time if agents are upfront about projects that simply aren’t a fit for them.
  • Don’t forget to thank the agent for their consideration, leave your business card, and if they’ve asked you to, follow up with them afterwards. The onus may be on you to get in touch; make sure you do so within the week if they express interest!

There are a lot of things that go into a good pitch, but perhaps the most important is this: don’t be afraid. Agents are excited to hear about new projects, and they want you to succeed as much as you do. We wouldn’t be in this industry if we didn’t love authors and books, and we really are on your side. Our greatest hope is that these pitches turn into lasting client relationships, exciting new projects, and great book deals. So keep ‘em coming!

How to make your publisher happy!

Hurray! You’ve got a publisher for your book! Congratulations! Cross another task off your writing to-do list!

And add another one: Make your publisher happy.

Turning in your manuscript is just the beginning of your relationship with your publisher, and if you hope to make it a long and happy connection, you need to nurture and nourish it, just as you would with any important relationship in your life. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from my experience with regional, national, and international publishers:

  1. Give your publisher priority. If she says she needs you to come up with back cover copy, send it to her by the end of the day. If she needs a revision, put everything else on hold to meet her deadline. Your prompt response to her requests makes her job easier, and she will appreciate you as a team player she can count on.
  2. Keep your publisher informed about what you’re doing to market your book in real time. Yes, in your book proposal, you listed marketing tasks you would do, but be sure to let your publisher know as you complete them. Keeping your publisher updated assures him that you are holding up your end of the project (and it reminds you to be accountable for your marketing responsibility). If you add marketing opportunities to your original plan, be sure to share those with your publisher, too, as they occur. The fact that you’re investing more time and effort than you initially proposed will impress your publisher and maybe even encourage him to extend additional marketing support/resources.
  3. Send a thank-you note, flowers, or small gift to express your gratitude for your publisher’s confidence in you. Everyone likes to feel appreciated, even your publisher. (Maybe ESPECIALLY your publisher!)
  4. Ask yourself how you can help your publisher be successful. Of course, you want your book to become an overnight bestseller, which would go a long way towards making your publisher both successful and happy, but chances are slim that’s going to happen. Instead, consider other ways you can contribute to your publisher’s success, like promoting the company’s other authors’ books on your social networks, posting your reviews of those books, and sharing promotion strategies that have worked for you.
  5. Ask your publisher how you can help her meet her goals. Offer to contact bookstores and set up your own signings and events. Many small or regional publishers don’t have the staff to manage marketing projects, so whatever you can do will be appreciated. Offer to share your publisher’s book list with shops you frequent either as a customer or an author and encourage the store buyer to review the list for ‘finds’ of books they might want to add to inventory.
  6. Always include the name of your publisher in any press release or promotional pieces you produce. You’re giving your publisher free publicity they might not otherwise get.

Do you have any tips for making your publisher happy?

Get Your Work Seen: Tips on Successfully Placing Articles

by Bonnie Kristian

As a writer whose current gigs include weekend editor at The Week and contributing writer at Rare, I was recently asked for tips on how to successfully place articles with publications when you are in the early stages of your writing career. Let me preface this by saying this process will no doubt be different for you depending on your background, professional connections, target publications, and more, but here are some general ideas:

+ As you start writing, think about where you’d like to publish. Pay attention to how those outlets work. What is their tone? How do they structure their headlines? Are they publishing freelance contributors or mostly staff writers? How long are their pieces? Do they have people regularly covering the topics of your own expertise? (Speaking of, don’t try to be an expert on everything. Narrow it down.) What is their turnaround time on time-sensitive stories (i.e. if Trump says something Monday at 10 a.m., are all their op-eds on it published by that afternoon, or will they still be commenting on it through the end of the week?), and will your schedule permit you to match it?

+ Once you’ve done that, make a list of the publications that you like but also that would be a good fit for your writing style and schedule. Find the submission guidelines for those outlets and start sending pitches tailored to their shtick. Nothing will make an editor dismiss you faster than submitting an idea that is obviously a bad fit for their brand. You don’t need to write the full article to send a pitch; just a paragraph with a headline will do. Once you get your foot in the door, this process will become easier, both in terms of returning to editors you know and in pitching to new editors who will be happy to see your publication credits from other credible outlets.

+ Your blog can be useful for developing your own writing style and ideas, but it’s not strictly necessary for your goals as they’re described here. (Personal platform is hugely important for nonfiction book publishing, but many journalists/commentators don’t bother to maintain anything beyond a basic bio page because they do not need to do so.) Magazine and website editors typically do not want to read your blog. You may want to get a couple good posts up which you can link to in your very early pitch emails so editors can get a taste of your writing style if they prefer, but usually they won’t bother. They are much more likely to respond based on the quality of your pitch, because they are under no obligation to publish/pay for the completed piece if it turns out to be crappy.

+ Finally, on the subject of money: Political commentators (as well as those in other arenas) are a dime a dozen. I have been immensely fortunate in working with editors at Rare and The Week alike who are conscientious about paying in a timely and fair manner. That is far from universal. Many major publications will happily take your stuff for free and say your “payment” is the exposure they offer. (Pro-tip: You cannot pay bills with exposure.) At the very beginning, you might have to give your content away to build up your credentials, but be very careful. It is difficult to transform a non-paying relationship into a paying one. My best suggestion is to aim for permalancing gigs, where you are not an employee proper but have an agreement to contribute a given number of pieces per week or month and are paid for them on a set schedule.

This first appeared on Bonnie’s blog, www.bonniekrisitan.com.

Bonnie Kristian recently joined WordServe Literary as a client. A writer who lives in the Twin Cities, she is weekend editor at The Week, fellow at Defense Priorities, and contributing writer at Rare. Her writing has also appeared in Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine, The American Conservative, and more. To find out more, visit www.bonniekristian.com.

5 Things Aspiring Writers Might Be Surprised to Know

Your DreamsI remember when my pulse quickened and my heart thumped at the thought of “making it” as a writer. The first time I gingerly brushed the soft cover of my first book, flicked through its pristine pages, I felt awed. The young girl inside of me, who’d always dreamed of seeing her name on a book, shed a happy tear.

Now that I’ve succeeded in publishing multiple books, with more on the way, I’ve found myself in a reflective mood. Recently, I pondered some of the more surprising things publishing success has taught me — boiling them down to my top five.

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5. Your need to learn will never diminish. Culture shifts, technology advances, headline focuses, and global changes necessitate a writer’s dedication to ongoing education. Solid research and investigation are bedrock pieces in the foundation of any great written work. New information equals fresh content. 

4. Fear will not subside — although fear can change as your writing career progresses. Early on, many aspiring writers fall prey to the paralysis of fear, while professionals know that fear can prove a driving motivator. When you consider the greater loss of missing potential success, the emotion of fear propels you to action. If you fail to try, your failure is guaranteed. 

best thing you don't write3. The writing life is not a solitary endeavor. It takes a team to successfully publish. Critique groups, writing peers, or advance readers help us delve deeper into our subject matter, and pick up on flaws we often miss. Agents, publishers, and editors polish our projects and help promote them to reach a bigger audience. Readers become fans who sometimes become friends — if we are so blessed.

A wise writer intentionally and consistently builds their audience. When much in the world changes, one thing does not: word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing machine.

2. Story, whether written in the entirety of a book, or a short paragraph to example a point, draws readers deeper into your world. Few people appreciate being talked at, while most love being drawn into a good story. Whether they author novels or non-fiction, the skillful writer paints pictures with their words.

1. Human curiosity is king. Write cliff-hangers, page-turners, and chapter-leads to keep your reader wanting more. As you resolve or answer each inquisitive sentence you craft, replace it with another, until ultimately, you tie it all together at the end. A satisfying conclusion after creating ongoing curiosity makes a reader say, “I wish this book hadn’t ended.”

Motivational MantraI’m still working on all of these areas in my own writing, and anticipate the need to keep them in mind until the day I type my very last word. I don’t simply want to write, I want to use my words well.

Most writers I know would agree — we start out writing for ourselves — until we discover the real gift is in writing for others. The dream we live is the dream we share.

Stepping Stones to Writing Success

Stepping stones

Along the journey from staring out the window thinking of a marketable idea for a new book to unpacking the box of freshly printed books sent by the publisher, a writer needs to set small goals to serve as stepping stones to writing success. While each person will have a unique approach to setting project milestones, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Conduct market research: Stroll through several local bookstores, flip through the pages of catalogs, and browse the websites of online book retailers to see what books are on the market now in the category of your book proposal. You will need to find about five comparable books to discuss in the Comparable Titles section of your book proposal. However, marketing research is helpful for you as you define what you hope to accomplish and cover within the pages of your potential book. You do not want to duplicate the work of another author. By reading what has been said by other writers about your topic, you can better understand what you have to contribute to the topic. Do not be discouraged from writing a book in a popular category. The existence of many books on the topic indicates a market for that subject.
  2. Set realistic deadlines: As you prepare to publish your book, you will encounter many deadlines. Within your book proposal, you will specify how long it will take you from signing a new contract with your publisher to handing in the first draft of the manuscript to the editor. A time period between five to six months is a good goal for completing a nonfiction manuscript. Make sure that you are confident you can complete the manuscript on time. Once you sign the book contract, break down the goal of writing the book content into smaller deadlines for yourself. Be sure to allow some margin for the interruptions and distractions that arise in the life of all writers. The sooner you finish your first draft, the sooner you can move on to the other tasks necessary for publishing your book. Set ambitious but achievable deadlines.
  3. Connect with key influencers: As I wrote about in an earlier post, “Finding Champions for Your Book,” many people will contribute to the future success of your book. Hopefully, you already have strong relationships with many of these key influencers. Use the time from the beginning stages of book proposal preparation to the completion of the manuscript to strengthen existing relationships with champions for your book and forge new ones. Connecting with people will provide a welcome break from the tedium of writing. You will remember the purpose for your pursuit of your writing goals. You can sharpen your ideas by discussing them with a few trusted advisors. You will prepare yourself for the upcoming transition from writer to marketer of your own book. The sooner you prepare to connect with potential readers, the better for everyone involved in publishing your book.

What do you consider as important stepping stones to writing success?

How to make Amazon work for you

grand-central-stationAre you using your Amazon Author Page to increase your visibility and grow your audience?

You DO have a page, right?

If not, then drop everything else this very minute, and set up your free Author Page by visiting https://authorcentral.amazon.com. Seriously, you need to do this. It’s easy. It’s good publicity. And did I mention it’s FREE?

Basically, your Author Page is like a personal Grand Central Station that showcases your work and acts as a hub for your writing, providing links for fans to follow. Here’s a short list of some of the key benefits you’ll get from your Author Page:

  1. You can link to your blog here, making it readily available to a browsing reader who may have never heard about you or your blog before. In fact, you can enter multiple blog feeds for even more exposure; I link to my website blog and my Goodreads blog, for example.
  2. You can post videos in the Author Updates section. I’ve used it for a place to run book trailers and interviews. There’s no limit on how long you keep material on the page, so that means you get forever use from the marketing pieces you’ve created.
  3. You can list every book you’ve written, and all your book covers will show up on your page, along with links to each book’s buying page on amazon.com. It’s like having your own little store.
  4. Readers can ‘follow’ you right on the page and they’ll get notice whenever you post a blog or update or add a book. In addition, Amazon offers a variety of marketing options for authors if you’ve got a small budget; one example is here at http://indie.kindlenationdaily.com/?page_id=5460
  5. You can list your events schedule to maximize exposure.

Like every social media site, your Author Page also has a spot for your bio and photos. This is a prime place to list your other social media contact information for your website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. In fact, be sure to update this bio (and your book listings) on a regular basis, since Amazon won’t automatically add your new books to your page as they are published.  You are the curator for this little store, so be sure your material is current. In fact, after checking on my own Amazon Author page just now, I realized my newest release Heart and Soul (Archangels #2) wasn’t included. You can be sure that from now on, I’m doing a monthly check-in to see what needs to be updated or revised!

A final cool feature of your Author Page is that you can click on the Sales Info tab to get a feel for how your book is selling. My favorite BookScan data on the page is the Sales by Geography item; by studying that map, I can tell where my books have sold and it gives me ideas for localized sale pushes or event planning.

Are you using your Amazon Author Page for smart marketing?