Sweating Your Way to Writerly Greatness

shutterstock_123855541When an athletes are wildly successful, no one questions that in addition to talent, they have put in countless hours practicing, relentlessly drilling themselves on specific maneuvers and training their bodies to be in prime condition. When a writer is wildly successful, the reverse is true. Most people assume that great writers achieve success because of their talent, and of course, they probably honed their craft a bit too.

It isn’t only readers who have this assumption. Authors themselves (myself included) often underestimate the amount of time, effort and practice needed to make their writing good. I am a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and I loved the part of Outliers where he discusses the 10,000 hour rule. Basically, Gladwell studied extremely successful people and proposed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in a field. This is both incredibly encouraging and incredibly daunting. The encouraging part is that almost anyone can become good at something if they put in their 10,000 hours. The daunting part is that it takes that much time to get good. But throw in some talent as well, and you can really make a mark.

Even though studies have argued that Gladwell’s theory is only partly true, and practice can only take you so far, as authors I think we all to often undervalue putting the time in to hone our craft. It isn’t 10,000 hours including writing grocery lists, or even sporadically writing stories since you were a kid. I think putting in the time means concentrated effort over a continuous period of time. Like any muscle, your writing can weaken when you neglect it, and it will take additional time to strengthen it after a period away.

If you look at famous authors, the truth of the 10,000 hour rule often plays out. It took J.K. Rowling six years to write the first book in the Harry Potter series. Suzanne Collins of Hunger Games fame has been doing scriptwriting for almost three decades and book writing for over a decade. The Hunger Games isn’t even her first series – she wrote The Underland Chronicles first. The list goes on.

I’m finishing up my fourth full-length novel, and I’ve also written three screenplays. I don’t know if I’ve logged 10,000 hours writing, or if that matters. But I do know that my writing is better now than it’s ever been. I think about my craft more now than before, and my approach has evolved. So even if The Conjurors Series never makes me money, I could never consider it time wasted. I loved the writing of it, and it has fundamentally changed me as a writer. Looking at it this way, I could give the series away and consider it a success.

Soon I’ll be on to the next challenge, but I’ll take all that I’ve learned with me.

 

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When the First Book in Your Self-Published Series Is the Weakest

shutterstock_186735257Once upon a time I decided to write a young adult fantasy novel. I spent hours plotting, writing, editing, rewriting. There were dozens of beta readers, five major rewrites of the entire story (and countless minor rewrites), and the help of a professional editor. The result was a decent book that I’m proud of, the first book in The Conjurors Series.

I’m now writing the fourth (and last) book in the series, and to say that my writing has evolved would be an understatement. Reading the first book makes me shake my head and sigh at how naïve I was. I’m not claiming to be Shakespeare now, but the act of spending hundreds of hours writing thousands of words has made me a better writer.

The only problem is that readers’ introduction to my writing is the first book of the series – which is the weakest. Below are some of the ways I’ve seen this problem tackled.

Give your first book away for free.
I’m a follower of Lindsay Buroker’s blog, and she was one of the early self-publishers to make the first book in her series, permanently free. She feels that it was a great way to build her fan base and gain the significant following that her writing now has. In my opinion, though, the first book in her series is actually pretty great – her writing just gets that much better. So this option works if your first book is at least good enough to hook readers and get them to continue to read an become more invested in your writing. Also, with so many freebies out there now, having a free book doesn’t have the same impact that it did in the past.

Give your series away for free.
This may sound crazy, but it’s a bolder move. Lots of people give away a book, but an entire series? If you already have your next set of books in the works, it can be an aggressive way to build a fan base. If you’re in the self-publishing route for the long haul and are a fairly prolific writer, consider giving a huge incentive to readers for trying your writing.

Rewrite your first book.
Rewriting (yet again) your first book will be acute torture, take it from someone who has been there, done that. I had limited success with rewriting the book to bring it up to par with the rest of the series, because too many plot points were already embedded through the series. Any changes I made had to be threaded through the rest of the books, and it was exhausting. The end result was a story that was marginally better, but still not as good as the rest of the series. However, if your first book is freestanding, bite the bullet and rewrite it. If there are scenes you can rewrite, go for it. I also recommend cutting as much as you can to make the story short and sweet.

Cut your losses and start a new series.
I considered pulling my books off Amazon, abandoning my heroine and starting a new series, but something is compelling me to finish telling the story that I started. Even if this series never amounts to anything more than a lot of my time and sweat, and a few readers who enjoyed it (thanks, Mom!) Valerie’s journey must be completed. I’ve learned a lot, and as excited as I am to start the next series, it feels right to close this chapter first. But if you are less attached to your story, keep in mind the idea of sunk costs – sometimes it’s better to look forward at what you could be accomplishing instead of investing more time in a series that isn’t going to benefit your writing or your career.

Is anyone else in the same boat, with a series that has gotten progressively better, but is held back by a weak first book?

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How Important Is a Cover Reveal for Your Self-Published Novel?

Guardians-of-the-Boundary-300x200Later this month I will be publishing the third book in The Conjurors Series, Guardians of the Boundary. As part of my pre-launch activities, I considered doing a major cover reveal. I’ve seen self-published authors execute cover reveals with success, generating interest from their fan bases and even eliciting some pre-orders of their books.

On the other hand, if you’re like me and have only so much time to devote to writing and marketing your books, it’s important to consider where you want to invest your time. As a result, I decided not to do a big cover reveal for Guardians of the Boundary (other than this article).

Here are some questions you should ask yourself to determine whether it’s worth your time to have a cover reveal for your novel.

Do you have a large existing fan base?
If you do, then a cover reveal is a great way to keep your name and book top-of-mind for your readers. No matter how fast we write, there are bound to be gaps in time as we’re writing the next book, and a cover reveal can keep the buzz going around your name. But if you’re still developing your platform, like I am, there may not be many people who really care about your book, never mind your cover. It will take reviews, giveaways and word-of-mouth to generate interest in your book.

Are you writing a series that has garnered a following?
One of the reasons I seriously considered a cover reveal is because I’m writing a series, and I know my readers will be interested in hearing what’s coming next. It’s also a great way to reassure readers that your series hasn’t been dropped. In my case, however, my series and my personal brand as an author is still a fledgling, so I think I’ll put in the work required to execute a great cover reveal in after I’ve proven myself as an author who consistently puts out high-quality writing.

Do you have existing relationships with bloggers who sponsor cover reveals?
Many self-published authors have worked with bloggers to have their books reviewed or promoted. Some of those bloggers also publish cover reveals, as long as your cover art and blurb are high-quality. If you’ve been working with bloggers for other marketing activities, leveraging those contacts for a cover reveal may be a relatively quick way to generate interest in your book.

Are you willing to pay to have your cover reveal publicized?
There are some excellent companies that offer services to have your book reviewed or your cover reveal published on reputable blogging sites. If you are willing and able to pay a fee, your cover reveal doesn’t have to be a lot of work – someone else can line up the promotional activities for you. However, if your funds are limited, like mine, you might want to leverage this service after your book has been published, so readers can link to your book if it sounds interesting and check it out.

However, if you are interested in the next book in The Conjurors Series, below is the blurb for Guardians of the Boundary, which will be published on Amazon at the end of the month.

The battle is over. Now it’s war.

Valerie’s entire life has been spent fighting for survival. But now, the stakes have never been higher, and her enemies have never been more powerful.

The Fractus have proven that they won’t hesitate to kill those who stand in their way, including the people Valerie loves. And their path of destruction is growing—on Earth and the Globe. With Reaper always one step ahead, Valerie must find a way to change the game, or risk never catching up to an enemy with the conviction and power to upset the delicate balance that protects those without magic from being exploited.

As the Fractus grow in number and strength, can Valerie convince enough Conjurors to fight by her side against a menace that could upend the universe?

In the third novel of The Conjurors Series, Valerie has the life she’s always dreamed of—a family, a budding romance, and powerful magic that she is finally learning to harness. She also has an enemy determined to rip it all away from her.

 

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How to Keep the Lovers in Your YA Novel Apart

shutterstock_217031539I’m not going to try to deny it. I love a great love story. Romeo and Juliet, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Katniss and Peeta. The problem as a YA writer, though, is that there are only so many good reasons that an author has to keep the lovers in the story apart. One of my favorite love obstacles was on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If Buffy and her love, Angel, were “together”, Angel becomes an evil vampire hellbent on killing her due to an ancient curse placed on him. It made for pretty intense viewing, but it could only last a few seasons before the options fizzled out.

As I continue to noodle on my next series, which will have a fairly weighty romance element woven in, I wanted to consider some of the options for making love difficult for my protagonist (poor thing – not a word written and I’m already trying to sabotage her). Here are some of the classic romantic obstacles and examples of how they’ve been handled by YA writing pros.

The Love Triangle
Sure, it’s overplayed. For a good reason. A well-written love triangle gives readers the exhilaration of true love and the pathos of heartbreak in one neat package. A really cool twist on the love triangle that I recently enjoyed was Timebound (The Chronos Files Book 1) by Rysa Walker. The heroine has the ability to travel in time, and making changes to history affects the world as she knows it. As a result, she has two soul mates from different timelines – but she only remembers one. Too bad he doesn’t remember her… Some prominent voices in traditional publishing are saying that love triangles are really overplayed right now, but I think there is still a place for them. However, it has to be tackled with care – three likable characters are a must and a unique twist is even better.

Somebody’s Already Taken
There’s nothing like falling in love with someone who’s already in love with someone else to create high drama. I thought Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins did a good job of evolving friendship into love without being cliché. In this case, it wasn’t the protagonist who was taken, but the boy she likes. It brought me back to the days of watching Joey pine for Dawson on Dawson’s Creek. So relatable and the drama carried me through for this super quick read.

They Hate Each Other…Until They Don’t
This is a staple of a lot of romance novels, and I’ve seen it work for YA fiction as well. The key to doing it well is having the lovers have a compelling reason to hate each other (think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth hates what a snotty brat Mr. Darcy is, and Mr. Darcy is appalled by her trashy family, rather than a Harlequin romance). Where it falls apart is when the reason the characters don’t like each other is flimsy to begin with, because the conflict in the story feels artificial, or there simply isn’t enough of it.

They’re From Two Groups Who Hate Each Other
The classic example is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but for a more recent example, check out The Selection series by Kiera Cass. The author uses a caste system in the series. The heroine is from a low caste, and the hero is a prince. It leads to lots of conflict because there are many people invested in seeing their relationship fail. One reason I think this device works well is because the hero and heroine don’t have to lose faith in each other, cheat, or doubt their feelings, which can make a reader’s interest fizzle. They’re on the same team, battling forces outside their control.

It’s Too Dangerous to Be Together
Especially in YA fantasy and dystopian books, this is a popular theme. The Twilight series famously combined this with the love triangle and was spectacularly popular. I have to hand it to Stephanie Meyer, the idea that your soul mate might kill you at any time was a twist I hadn’t seen a lot of in YA fantasy before she wrote her series. But other books have been successful here too – I enjoyed the Under the Never Sky series by Veronica Rossi. The world is toxic and on the brink of war, so the main characters have to put aside their love for each other to battle the bleak realities of their lives.

Something No One’s Seen Before
This is the hardest and best option. The devices listed above are tried and true, but as a reader there is nothing that hooks me more than a love that is too nuanced to be shoved into one category. I recently read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, and the hero and heroine are kept apart by lots of things – their age, insecurities, and personal tormentors, to name a few. But the depth of and sweetness of the feeling couldn’t be denied. In the end, good writing trumps all.

I’m on the hunt for YA books that handle romance skillfully as inspiration for my next series. Any recommendations?

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The Pros and Cons of Cursing in Young Adult Literature

expletiveAfter six books that were curse free, I’ll never forget my surprise near the end of the final Harry Potter book, when Mrs. Weasley calls the woman who killed her son a bitch. I remember wondering – can she do that? Of course, she can and she did. But that’s J. K. Rowling. Should you, in your self-published young adult novel, take the same risk?

The general consensus is that there is no consensus. Some parents (and even YA readers) are completely offended by profanity of any sort in literature aimed at readers who are not technically considered adults.

There are ways around this, of course. Authors like John Green, in addition to the occasional real swear word, also invent their own (like “douchepants” in The Fault in our Stars). Personally, I think that made up curse words rarely  have the same impact as the real thing, and, at worst, come off a little silly. Occasionally there’s a word like “frak” from the Battlestar Gallactica TV show that resonates, but often it feels like what it is – a bit of a cop out.

In general, using a few well-chosen curse words in YA literature seems like a pretty safe bet. Most people are comfortable with it in specific situations, especially if the words chosen aren’t the really forbidden ones. (You know what they are.) YA authors who use some cursing  are in good company – a 2012 Brigham Young study reported that 88% of the top 40 YA books contained at least some profanity.

Of course, there’s always the option to stay completely clean, although I can’t imagine a scenario where a young adult says, “Aw, pickles!” when he’s really frustrated. That might inspire my laughter, but there is no universe in which that character can be considered anything approaching cool.

I’m considering, for my next series, writing from the perspective of a character who would swear A LOT. It feels like it would be true to her voice to never hold back. Have you ever known someone who curses less in anger, but more as a matter of course? I have, and it’s funny and refreshing. But then again, I was raised in a house where cursing was okay as long as we didn’t do it in public. I don’t think that’s rare – teens are exposed to swearing much more today than a few decades ago, and it doesn’t have the same power to offend that it did in the past.

I would really value some advice on this one. Do you think that considerable cursing in YA literature is acceptable, or should I tone down how my character talks so as not to offend?

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How to Kill the Villian in Your YA Fantasy Series (with Style)

shutterstock_96012164The time has come, now that I’m wrapping up my YA/Middle Grade fantasy series, The Conjurors, to say goodbye to my favorite character – the villain. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that he’s going to get the axe. Unfortunately, his actions have been so unforgivable that I can’t risk leaving him alive in a jail cell somewhere. He’d always be at the back of my mind, and I’d worry that he’d get loose and hurt the characters in my story who have earned their happily-ever-afters.

So what should be my weapon of choice? A simple thrust through the heart, perhaps? Or something more complicated, like when Voldemort’s own killing curse is reflected back on him and he technically dies by his own hand? If you sense that I’m morbidly excited to off him, you’d be absolutely right.

As I plot my own villain’s demise, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from all-star YA fantasy authors who have axed their villains with flair.

Make it personal.
Dark Triumph, His Fair Assassin Trilogy by Robin LaFevers
In order for readers to truly relish the demise of a villain, the protagonist needs to have a profound connection with her nemesis. In many cases she has spent years or even decades battling this foe, with a string of defeats behind her. That’s why it’s so sweet when the villain is slain at last – it makes the world better, yes, but it also fundamentally changes the protagonist for the better. When the heroine in Dark Triumph, Sybella, kills the truly horrible villain of the first two books, d’Albret, it isn’t abstract or at a distance. Raised as his daughter and tormented by him her entire life, the demise of d’Albret can be at no hand but her own for the reader to find it satisfying. And LaFevers doesn’t disappoint. Sybella personally plunges her dagger into his belly and damages as many organs as she can. Both the personal connection Sybella has with the villain and the personal nature of how she destroys him makes his demise gory but intensely satisfying.

Let your hero win the day but share the glory.
The Last Olympian, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Rick Riordan
There is a cathartic enjoyment watching a protagonist ride into the sunset in a blaze of glory and recognition, but there is a deeper, more profound satisfaction from watching him give the credit away, giving up the fame and being the quiet, unsung hero. Riordan does a great job of executing this in the final battle of the Percy Jackson series. Percy is fighting a friend, Luke, who betrayed him and is now possessed by the villain of the series, Kronos. For a moment Luke manages to regain control of himself, and Percy gives him a knife and Luke kills himself, delivering the final blow to Kronos at the same time. Luke’s sacrifice makes him the hero. But Percy is a hero too, choosing to trust Luke to make the right choice and not to insist that he be the one to deliver the killing blow. As a reader, I never liked Percy more than at that powerful moment.

Have your protagonist tap into new strength/power/mental toughness.
Clockwork Princess, The Infernal Devices Trilogy by Cassandra Clare
If you’re writing a series and are finally coming to a point where it’s time to kill the villain of the series, your protagonist has likely had some successes. She has tapped into new powers, learned new skills, and grown as a human in every book. But now you have to top yourself one last time, and let her tap into something truly amazing within herself in order to finally emerge victorious. In Clockwork Princess, Tessa does just that. She has the power to change her form and become anyone, as long as she has an object that belongs to them. In the climax of the series, she turns into an angel who is trapped within a necklace, and destroys the villain, Mortmain, in a blaze of power. He dies scorched in her grip. I also like that Cassandra Clare makes Tessa pay a price for tapping in to so much power, and she nearly dies. Destroying your arch nemesis shouldn’t be easy.

Give your protagonist a positive motivator to destroy the villain (rather than being driven by hate).
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
It can sound counterintuitive to say that your protagonist shouldn’t be fueled by hate for the villain, but I’ve found again and again that the best protagonists grow to be motivated by a positive emotion, like love, rather than a negative one, like revenge or hatred. Warm Bodies is an unusual example of this, but bear with me. In this story, the true villain is a plague that turns people into zombies. That plague is really apathy and giving up on life, and the hero of the book, R, fights back, even though he has succumbed to the plague. When R chooses life and love, risking everything for his soul mate, Julie, he defeats this enemy by coming back from the dead, returning to life.

 

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On Using Story Cartel to Get Reviews for Your Self-Published Book

Story-Cartel-logo-300x284For self-published authors, establishing credibility with a substantial number of honest reviews is crucial in order to sell books. In an effort to get more reviews of the first book in The Conjurors Series, I tried a website called Story Cartel. For $30, you are allowed to list your book on the site, where readers can download your book for free. Readers who write reviews of the books they download are entered into contests for various prizes, like gift cards or a new Kindle. During my promotion and I received 8 reviews (four4-star, four 5-star).

Ultimately I’m happy that I decided to use Story Cartel. I kept my expectations reasonable. There are some folks who received 50 reviews using Story Cartel, but most of my research prepared me that I’d be lucky to get more than five. I now have seven more positive reviews of The Society of Imaginary Friends than I did before, which will hopefully make the next promotion of my book more powerful.

Pros:

  1. Story Cartel has a built-in network of readers who have probably never seen your book before, so you have the chance to get new, honest reviews. You are guaranteed to get at least one new review or you get a refund.
  2. After the promotion, Story Cartel gives you a list of the names and email addresses of everyone who downloaded your book. This provides you the ability to politely reach out after your promotion to see if they are interested in reading other work by you.
  3. It’s a great opportunity to get some honest feedback about your book. Especially if you’ve only had a friendly audience reviewing your story, even a few new reviews can help you understand if there are major changes that you need to make before you continue to promote your book.

Cons:

  1. It isn’t free, and you only get your money back if you get no reviews at all. Story Cartel charges $30 for their service, which is money they use for prizes that they give to readers who post reviews.
  2. It’s up to you to promote your giveaway on Story Cartel if you want more than a few reviews. I made a couple of posts on Twitter and Facebook, and that seemed to help get a few extra readers of my book.
  3. Some reviewers don’t post genuine reviews. I had one reviewer who writes generic reviews and posts them for a whole bunch of books in order to be entered into the Story Cartel prize drawing multiple times. She didn’t actually read my book and provide an honest review.

Has anyone else used Story Cartel? What was your experience like?

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