Monday, February 9, 2015

Finding Happiness as a Writer: CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN

New to the series? Check it out from the beginning. You’ll have to start at the bottom and scroll upward if you want to read the posts in order.

Okay so last week I told you (or reinforced) all the terrible truths of publishing and I know you might hate me a little. This week I’ll try to win you back with actual strategies to combat those issues. It’s all about seizing control (or perceived control) where you can. If control is not your thing because you’re totally comfortable with the plan God has for you, or you trust the universe implicitly, or you’re fine if you never sell another book, etc. you might want to skip this post. [And since this is the interwebz where things get misinterpreted, let me clarify: I mean that previous sentence completely seriously. I’m not snarking on anyone’s religion, faith in destiny, or writing goals.]

Low control authors should probably just keep on keeping on—living life, writing more books. Man, I wish I were low control because that sounds pretty awesome ;-) But if that’s not you, let me take you back through last week’s points with strategies on how to make them hurt less.

If only it were that easy, Janet.

Writing isn’t fair.

The first way to deal with this is just to figure out if you can accept it. Are you okay with the idea that you might never achieve your personal definition of success? Are you okay with the idea that you might spend your whole life trying to be traditionally published and never even get a book deal at all? You're either someone who will think "Hey, at least I never quit fighting for my dream" or someone who will think "I wish I hadn't wasted so much time." It's best to figure that out sooner rather than later.

The second way is to realize that money and marketing don’t guarantee anything. Plenty of shiny debuts with six-figure marketing budgets and all the publisher bling you could dream of never become bestsellers. And then other books break out against the odds. ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, CODE NAME VERITY, and ELEANOR & PARK, to name a few, all achieved huge success despite not selling in massive deals. Barry Lyga and Rachel Harris both put out several books before becoming bestsellers. Someone told me Charlaine Harris sold the first Sookie Stackhouse book for a few thousand dollars. I'm sure at that time no one imagined it would become an international sensation and the TV series True Blood. And just last week I read a post where Victoria Scott mentioned how she started with a small publisher and her first royalty check was for $21. Now, four books later, she's with a major publisher and her latest royalty check just bought her husband a fancy new car. Great things can happen when you don't give up.

The third way to deal with this is to work your ass off. If you’re not getting print advertising or a national book tour or a commercial to run before the last Hunger Games movie (and 95% of books don’t get these things), make sure everything you do get is as good as it can be. Thing #1: YOUR BOOK. Don’t run out of gas during copy-edits and say “Yeah, okay, whatever.” Make sure the story is the best it can be. You’ll thank yourself later. Work with your editor to hone your flap copy to perfection. Make sure your Amazon and B&N pages are typo-free and display your positive trade reviews. Set-up online promotional opps like contests or blog tours and try to come up with something fun or different to promote your book. There is a lot you can do for free or on the cheap. Does it help sales? I don’t know, but it feels like it might, and sometimes that's comforting.

Publishing is a business.

Again, first, recognize. If you just want to write without doing any of the other work, um…marry rich? ;) Seriously though, there are ways to make this more palatable. Budget your time. I try to spend one day a week on administrative and promo things, five days a week writing, and one day a week off. You can do that same schedule even if you work full-time, you’ll just be spending fewer hours each day. Use technology to your advantage. I am all about Google forms and spreadsheets to stay organized. Limit the amount of time you spend on social media. Choose your promotional opportunities wisely. I love bloggers but before I commit to guest posts, I drop by websites to see if they look professional. And by that I don’t mean the wording of the reviews, but just is the page readable? Does it appear well-maintained, etc. If you take the time to write a guest post or set-up a giveaway, be sure to promote it. You can use tweetdeck to schedule tweets that promote your posts.

Some people will hate your work.

Dealing with book-loathing is tough. I remember seeing all the anger over the end of the DIVERGENT trilogy and thinking: Why are we so mad about a book when there are egregious human rights violations being committed all over the place? Where’s the outrage for that? Thing is, people have a right to get mad about whatever they want. People have a right to hate what you’ve written or misinterpret your words—purposely or intentionally—and then write scathing reviews. The alternative, a world with only positive reviews, would be like having no reviews at all, since no one would believe them. And no reviews at all would be bad for books.

Recognize that since you like some books and dislike other books, it’s kind of arrogant to think everyone will like your books. Go to your favorite books and read some of their scathing one-star reviews. Re-read the reviews of the people who love your books and remind yourself that their opinions are just as valid as those of your detractors. Realize that people bring their own histories, prejudices and feelings to each book they read and just because your book triggered a negative response in them doesn’t mean it’s bad. “Good” and “bad” are meaningless terms for the most part when it comes to fiction—as far as I know, no one is the high priest or priestess of book judgment. Bad reviews are something that will always kind of sting, but they do get easier with time. And you can always opt to seize the ultimate control over them by not to reading them.

You are not the boss of your book.

You, your agent, your editor, and your publisher all have the same end goal: for your book to be the best it can. Before you sign a contract, make sure you’re open to other people pushing you to improve upon your work. If you disagree with an edit suggestion your editor has pitched, that’s fine. When an editor pitches a revision idea, it’s because he/she thinks something in the story didn’t work as well as it could have. You can fix the area with your own solution if you want. Your editor just wants you to either address the problem or justify why it’s not a problem. Don’t be afraid to communicate. Remember, you’re all on the same team.

Can I play too?

Also, make sure your editor is aware upfront that you’d like to be consulted in matters like cover design. Don’t assume she knows this. If you have specific ideas, you can definitely feel free to send them along to her. If there’s anything you really don’t want, it’s okay to mention this too. Just realize that the design team might come up with something completely different from what you've envisioned.

When you are emailed a cover, try not to look at it like “That’s not what I wanted.” Look at it like: “Is it appealing in a way that will stand out on shelves and webpages? Does it accurately convey the story I wrote?” If you have legit concerns about either of these points, talk it over with your agent. If you don’t have an agent you can politely mention these concerns to your editor to see what she thinks. It’s also totally fine to ask for tweaks like changing someone’s shirt color or eye color to match the book, so don't be shy.

Success is somewhat out of your control.

I could write thousands of words about things that might help you hang onto partial control of your writing success, but I’ll try to keep this brief and give you a few overarching ideas. They’re all “best guess,” because like I said in the first post, it’s all about the perception of control—none of us really knows for sure what works. I just know I feel better when I’m working toward a goal, not just sitting back and hoping for the best.

Promote like a boss, like your new book is the best book ever. This is adapted from a tip from Sara Raasch, the kind of thing we all should know but might need reminding. You have to have faith in your work. Even if you have doubts, you can’t sit around biting your nails and thinking your book isn’t good enough because readers pick up on that sort of thing. Also, theme your contests and posts to match your books whenever possible. I have a #MysteryTwitterTheater event happening in March that should be super-fun for everyone involved and will hopefully reach mystery lovers across Twitter that might not have heard of LIARS, INC. Promote on and offline. I sent out postcards promoting LIARS to 100 indie bookstore buyers and a few found me online to tell me they were ordering the book. At least one read it and wrote a review for IndieNext. Sure, they might have ordered it anyway, but like one buyer told me: "You're smart to remind us because we see hundreds of new books every month." And if more of them read it then maybe more of them will recommend it to readers.

Diversify your writing portfolio. Loyalty is awesome. Loyalty to a publisher or editor is a beautiful thing. But your editor is not your spouse. If he or she gets a better job offer, they’re probably going to leave you. And that’s okay, because we all have to look out for ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with trying a new genre or going for a second publisher (as long as your contract allows—talk to your agent if uncertain.) There’s nothing wrong with branching out from YA to MG or NA or adult. There’s nothing wrong with doing a work-for-hire novel, a collaborative book with a friend, or self-pubbing. Maybe none of these alternate paths lead where you want to go, but you’re still allowed to explore them, and doing so—or at least embracing the possibilities—is another thing that might make you feel a little bit more in control.

Keep writing forward. Maybe you think it was total crap for me to talk about how some authors struggle to sell a second book when I sold four books last year. What you might not know is I sold them all before THE ART OF LAINEY came out. LAINEY’s sales are okay, but she’s definitely one of those “middle of the pack” horses. If had waited until LAINEY released to shop more books/proposals, there’s no guarantee I’d be in the same place I am now. If you want to do this long-term, you should always try to write forward. And writing forward has the added benefit of taking the pressure off your debut or most recent novel. Once you see the possibilities in a new story, you’ll realize that even if things don’t work out with one book, that doesn’t mean they won’t with your next.

There’s one more major thing we moderate to high control people should strive for in our writing pursuits, and that is to control OURSELVES—our anxiety, our negative thoughts, our self-destructive impulses. And that’s next week’s topic. In the meantime, have a happy week :-)


  1. Another awesome post, Paula!
    Not only this is full of fantastic advice for writers but I'm pretty sure that I can adapt a few things to personal life for me, for sure! ;)

    1. Thanks, as always, for reading Pili :) And know that I am always wishing you all the happiness in the world <3


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