Warts and All (Why You Should be Real with Your Readers)

BooksWe’ve all experienced it: posting something on social media, and receiving a comment along the lines of ‘great pic, check out my profile’. Sometimes it’s painfully clear that they’ve not read your post, or even looked at the image, they’ve simply addressed you because of your hashtags and content. It’s not engaging, it’s not interesting, and it certainly doesn’t inspire you to check out their content, let alone buy their services or products.

And the reason is simple: people like to be treated as people. They like to be spoken to as a person, by a person. And you are a person, don’t let that get lost under marketing.

Imagine meeting someone for the first time, and the conversation going like this:

“Hello, it’s nice to meet you.”
“Buy my book.”
“Oh, so you’re an author are you?”
“Buy my book.”
“That must be an interesting job.”
“Buy my book.”

You’d give up on that pretty quickly, wouldn’t you? It’s annoying, it’s intrusive, and it shows your readers one thing; that you don’t care about them.

When I was young, the only way I could find out about my idols was interviews in magazines. But we live in an amazing time now that we can chat with the people we admire. They’re no longer out of reach, so far above us on their pedestals that they can neither hear nor see us. It’s amazing for fans, but it’s amazing for writers too. We can connect with our readers, and engage with them on a friendship-like level.

I know a lot of writers struggle with what to post on social media. Set your rules. Whether that be no pictures of my children, no pictures to identify where I live. That’s fine, we all have a right to our privacy and security. But beyond that, go for it. Show your readers who you are. Show them you doing yoga in the morning. I bet some of your readers do yoga too. Show them you walking your dog. I bet several of them have dogs. Show them you browsing books in a library, finding a charity shop bargain, eating fish and chips from the wrapper, your favourite reading chair, a miserable rainy afternoon, your huge coffee mug, your fluffy slippers, your secret chocolate stash. These are the things your readers will relate to.

Show yourself as someone they want to be friends with.

Because, if they like you, if they’re interested in you, when you say, “by the way, I have a new book out if you want to take a look”, they actually will. And it’s not hard, there’s no big secret. All you have to do is be your own wonderful self.

Remember to Take Care of Yourself

ReaderWhen I first started to take writing seriously, I was weighed down by a lot of advice I read from professional writers that I admired. Advice along the lines of ‘you have to write every day’, ‘make daily writing a habit’, and ‘you have to treat it like a job: show up every day’.

I was so disheartened every day that I didn’t write, I got so bogged down by feelings of futility and failure that I almost gave up writing altogether.

It took me some time to realise that not every bit of advice, even if it was, fundamentally, good advice, was going to work for me. You have to find your own way, and it may be different to everyone else’s, but if it gets words on the page, stick with it.

I recently came across another guilt-inducing quote online, something like ‘a professional is someone who does it even when he doesn’t feel like it’. I can see the truth in it, and the admirable commitment, but also the finger pointing, the presumption, and the potential harmfulness. I say a professional is someone who finds their own way, and then totally rocks it.

Writing is so involved, we all know that. Your head, your heart, your soul, it’s all poured in. And it can be exhausting, and draining, and confusing, and heavy-going. And you do need to take a break sometimes. Because you need to look after yourself.

If you need a day off writing, do it. If you want to go for a walk, or watch trashy TV, or read a book, or eat cake, or whatever you need to sort your head out, do it. Your writing will still be there tomorrow. And don’t feel guilty for it, don’t feel like you’ve failed. Because your writing needs you to be healthy. If you want to write well, you need to look after yourself as well as the words.

Often, a day off will bring you back to writing refreshed and ready to go. Do what you need to get words on the page, and if that means the odd day off to recharge, to clear your head, do it. And don’t feel bad for it.

How to Turn a NaNoWriMo Loss into a Long-Term Win

NaNoWriMo Participant 2017So here we are in November, and a whole load of overly optimistic (or overly crazy) writers around the world are heads down writing like mad for NaNoWriMo. Chances are you know lots of people doing it, but if you don’t know what it is, National Novel Writing Month challenges you to write a 50k word novel in just 30 days. Yes, you have to be a little bit crazy to try it.

I’ve been that crazy six times already. But I’ve only hit that magical 50k three times (since having children, I’ve not managed to come anywhere close!)

As many people as you know doing NaNoWriMo, you’ll probably know just as many who decry it as a joke. An event that promotes terrible writing (by encouraging quantity of words over quality). And they’re right. It is more than likely that your NaNo novel will be terrible. As all first drafts usually are (especially when written in a caffeine-fuelled blur of just 30 days). But what does that matter? Your first draft never sees the light of day.

Many, probably most, NaNo novels will never find their way through to publication, and are destined to languish on hard drives, abandoned and forgotten. But there is light at the end of the literary tunnel here. Let me tell you about one of my NaNo stories.

In 2011, I hit NaNoWriMo with a story called The Bottle Stopper. It was about a little girl, eight years old, living in the care of her abusive uncle. She was blind, because he had blinded her. She worked in the back of his apothecary shop, bottling his ‘miracle medicine’, which was, in actual fact, nothing more than river water and a sprig of lavender. I won that year, penned 50k words. 50k awful words. 50k words that sat on my hard drive for years.

In October 2015, I published The Bottle Stopper. It certainly wasn’t the 2011 version, nor was it any of the other three versions that had followed. It’s still about a girl, but she’s 17 now, and she can see perfectly well. The abusive uncle is still there, and she still bottles his medicine. Beyond that, it bears very little relation to the original.

But that idea, those characters, and that conflict carried through to the book as it is today. It may have taken another four years, but that book was finished, and published. It also contained a whole supporting cast of characters rescued from other unfinished books (some of which were written for NaNo). The Bottle Stopper is the first book of The Paper Duchess quadrilogy.

So what I’m saying is this: a good idea never dies. Even if your NaNo novel is utter trash, the ideas are salvageable. The characters can be resurrected. And the story can still be played out. Some day. And my terrible NaNo novel evolved into an entire series. So a loss at NaNo doesn’t need to be a loss forever. It can, in time, become a great big win.

Insecure Writer's Support GroupThis post was written as part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group blog hop. If you want to visit the other IWSG member blogs, or sign up yourself, you can do so here.

There Let Us Wallow (How to Accept Criticism)

EditingIt’s a scary moment when you send your writing out into the world. This thing you’ve created from part of your own soul, this thing you dreamt up and gave life to, your baby. You want to protect it from everything, want to keep it safe. But you can’t. Once it’s out there, it’s up for scrutiny, and not everyone will love it like you do.

So how do you cope when you receive criticism?

There will be a lot of people jumping in to tell you to ignore it, to learn from it, and not to dwell on it. “Learn to shrug it off”, they’ll say. “You’ll need to grow a thicker skin if you want to be a writer.” And it’s fantastic advice, it really is, but remember this too: your initial feelings are not only completely valid, but they can be healthy too.

So feel free to wallow, or cry, or shout, or swear you’ll never write again. Feel free to binge eat ice cream, chocolate, or cake. Get drunk. Shout obscenities. Climb under your duvet and hide there. Stamp your feet, thump a pillow, scream at the sky. Do what you have to do to get those feelings out.

Then go to bed.

There’s a reason people say that things will look better in the morning. It’s because they usually do.

So feel free to wallow today, but tomorrow, wake up ready to kick some butt. Wake up ready to prove your critics wrong by bettering yourself, improving your work, strengthening your weaknesses, and accepting feedback with grace and self respect.

Feel free to wallow, but tomorrow’s another day, and if you feel like you lost today, get up and march for victory in the morning.

Insecure Writer's Support GroupThis post was written as part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group blog hop. If you want to visit the other IWSG member blogs, or sign up yourself, you can do so here.

Lessons I Learnt from Writing my First Book Series

BooksComing to the end of my first series, and starting on my second got me thinking about what I wanted to do differently. About the mistakes I made, and the lessons I learnt.

Start Your Series Bible While You’re Plotting

I definitely learnt this the hard way. I started my series bible while I was writing book 3. I’ve never finished it. I spent much of my writing time flicking through the previous books looking up character names and fact checking. Having my series bible would have been so much easier.

You won’t remember side character names, or which side of your main character’s nose has the scar, or what they ate for breakfast that morning. Start your series bible right at the beginning, and keep it up to date throughout.

Plot Subsequent Books Before Writing the First

One word: foreshadowing. I had a lot of happy accidents with my first series, but it would have been great to have been able to purposefully place things that would be used in subsequent books. It links them together (and makes you look clever).

Knowing how the series ends before you start writing it allows you to place hints and little reveals along the way. It keeps you focussed, and keeps your characters focussed, and just makes for a tighter, more coherent series.

Release in Quick Succession (no one cares about an unfinished series)

Marketing your books is tough when your series is unfinished. There’s so much I’ve put off until the last book’s released. And I really feel for those quick readers, the ones reading a book a day, unable to complete the story. I worry that I might lose them in the wait between books. Many readers won’t even start a series until it’s finished.

I’m not the fastest writer, and I’ve managed to get the time it takes to produce a book, from plotting to release, down to around six to nine months, but I’d like to get it down even more. Pre-plotting all the books is a good start, allowing me to jump into writing book 2 the second book 1 goes off to betas.

Retain Your Beta Readers (but accept that you’ll likely lose some)

Picking up new beta readers part way through a series brings its own issues: do you send them the previous books and wait that much longer while they read them all, or get their opinion of it as a standalone? It could give an interesting perspective, but where do you find beta readers happy to read a random book from the middle of a series they don’t know?

Far better to recruit a good number at the start, understanding that you’re likely to lose some along the way, and keep hold of them throughout. After all, good beta readers are like gold dust, and you should be keeping them close regardless.

Outsource What You Can (and use the same suppliers)

Writing and publishing a whole series is a huge undertaking, and if you are aiming to publish in rapid succession, there’s a load of stuff you can outsource to save yourself the time and effort: editing, proofreading, formatting, blurb writing, cover design, marketing. Of course, we don’t all have endless budgets for this, so outsource what you can’t do yourself.

With a series, consistency is key. You want loyal readers to know at a glance which books are in the same series. Just as you wouldn’t change the main character’s name after book 2, where you can, use the same suppliers. You know what you’re getting, and, hopefully, there won’t be any surprises to deal with.

Story Worms (When You Don’t Have Plot Bunnies to Play With)

Wellington BootsMany writers talk about plot bunnies; when you get one little idea, and then it multiplies and multiplies, and very soon you’re overrun with baby plot bunnies. Sometimes too many ideas coming too quickly. It can be easy to get overwhelmed.

I, on the other hand, don’t get plot bunnies. I get story worms.

Out of the blue, I’ll become aware of one, buried deep in my brain. Sometimes I’ll glimpse its little head poking out, other times just evidence of its presence: holes, worm poo. I know it’s there, but I can’t get to it.

Far from being rapid multipliers like plot bunnies, my story worms need to be charmed out. It’s a gentle process requiring skill, patience, a little luck, and the ability to not care if you look a bit silly doing it.

I’ll do what it takes to get those worms out: worm grunting, worm fiddling, twanging, music, dance, or simply stamping my feet. And when a head finally breaks the surface, I have to grab it, pull it, and hope it comes out intact.

So while some writers are rounding up wayward plot bunnies, I’ll be in my wellies doing a rain dance. Because that’s the great thing about writing; we all have our own special ways of doing it, but it always helps to be a little bit crazy.