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?

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.