The Dreaded Silence: How I Nearly Gave Up Writing

I’m delighted to welcome Jenny Elliott to In Cold Ink. Jenny is the author of SAVE ME, a delightful blend of paranormal and romance. She’s also a lovely person and, I’m proud to say, a former student of mine. Jenny’s first book sold to Macmillan and came out last month to terrific reviews: a very happy ending to a long journey that almost didn’t happen. But I’ll let Jenny tell the story, and I’m guessing quite a few readers of this blog will relate.

Jenny ElliotOn January 6th, 2015, Macmillan published my debut paranormal romance novel, SAVE ME, under its Swoon Reads imprint. Swoon Reads is a crowd-sourced publishing model, so I landed that contract without an agent. And Macmillan also has an option on my next novel. Needless to say, I’m glad I picked up writing fiction again, after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus.

I’m not proud of myself for giving up my fiction-writing passion for so long, especially one that ultimately rewarded me with a Big 5 publishing deal. But I hope that my story will prevent others from quitting like I did. I’m confident that it can, because I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s sensitive about her writing. It’s a scary thing to send our creative “babies” into the world, even if only to trusted readers, for feedback.

From the beginning, fear of feedback wasn’t my biggest concern, though. I welcomed constructive criticism. What I got instead, unfortunately, was what I deemed, “the dreaded silence.”

At age eighteen, I’d written 200 rough pages of a novel. I shared an excerpt with family and friends, then waited for feedback. No one said a word. I heard a message all the same, though: “Your writing is so bad that we don’t want to hurt you by saying so.” Sadly, I felt plenty hurt by their lack of response.

I didn’t write another word of fiction again until I was twenty-three, when I decided to edit the novel I’d begun when I was eighteen. Again, I gave an excerpt to a few trusted friends. Again, I suffered the dreaded silence. This time, I turned to studying non-fiction, which I also appreciate, but don’t enjoy as much as fiction.

One marriage, two property purchases, three children, and a full kitchen and flooring remodel later, I was losing my mind. I credit my impending insanity at the time for my escape into fictional worlds. I became an avid fiction reader, and one particular story idea brimmed in my mind and coalesced into a full outline that demanded to be put to the page in novel format.

I was incredibly pleased to have completed my first rough draft of a full novel. Now that I was in my thirties, I figured my age, at least, would garner respect, and therefore feedback, from readers. I sent my entire manuscript to a handful of family members and friends. To my dismay, the dreaded silence once again loomed.

In defense of my solicited readers, 250 pp. is a huge reading commitment. I should have shared an excerpt. All the same, I sank into the biggest funk yet over my writing. I desperately wanted honest, and preferably helpful, feedback.

I turned to Google and found Barbara, who would become my mentor. At the time, she was offering a special for a critique of a writer’s first 10 to 20 pages of a work of fiction. Finally, I received thorough, thoughtful, honest, and professional feedback. I had a lot to learn, but Barbara saw potential in my writing. I was elated.

writing classThe first of Barbara’s Next Level  courses I took was One Good Scene, in which I began to learn to hone my craft. Next, Barbara invited me to her Revising Fiction course, where I worked to shape and sharpen my novel. Then I queried agents.

Actually, like many beginning writers, I started querying way too early, with what was essentially a spruced up first draft. Not surprisingly, there were no takers. After Barbara’s Revising Fiction course, however, I received four full requests. Each agent took months to review my story and ultimately passed. Nearly a year had gone by.

In addition to the critique partners I became involved with in Barbara’s courses, I also joined CritiqueCircle.com. One of my critique partners from that site encouraged me to submit my novel to SwoonReads.com. Needless to say, I’m glad I did so. Readers and writers, as well as several editors on the Swoon Reads staff, including the sales director, were impressed with my novel. Ultimately, I landed a Big 5 publishing contract through Macmillan, who also has an option on my second novel. Because of that, I’m looking for an agent to work with me on future projects. At the end of the day, I can’t do much else but be grateful for such blessings. My story is a happy one to share.

Save MeOf course, my story could have been a lot less happy on the writing front if I hadn’t come back to the fiction-writing craft. And if I hadn’t found a mentor like Barbara. Or if I hadn’t developed critiquing relationships with other writers. Those things have hugely contributed to my success. I hope my example will also contribute to yours.

 

Thanks, Jenny, and congratulations!

To my writer friends: I’m going to be offering classes again very soon, starting with ONE GOOD SCENE, and as always the first notice will go out to folks on my emailing list. I keep these classes very small in order to provide lots of personal feedback, and I don’t offer many of them; so they tend to fill up fast. If you’re interested, drop me a line at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put you on the list to be notified when the course opens for registration.

 

An Overnight Success In Four Years

 

 It’s been a while since my last post, due to a combination of issues. I had a “quick, easy” medical procedure that turned out to be quick and easy for the doctor, while carving a month out of my life.

sick person

Since recovering, I’ve been immersed in the sequel to A DANGEROUS FICTION, which exerts a strong gravitational pull.

But I’m back now, with one of my favorite sort of posts. As some of you may know, I offer this evaluation service to writers who want thorough, stringent feedback on the openings to their novels. The cost is minimal, and I don’t advertise the service for fear of being swamped, but word gets around; I probably evaluate 18 to 20 novel openings each year. When Janie Chodosh’s pages came in, I sat up and took notice, big time. The writing was polished and accomplished, and the pages did just about everything one wants in the opening to a novel, including making me care about the protagonist and want to read more.

Janie and I ended up working together on an edit of the full book, a YA thriller called DEATH SPIRAL. It’s the first in a series about Faith Flores, a Philadelphia teenager who, when the story opens, is reeling from the recent death of her heroin-addicted mother. By the time we finished, I knew she had a very strong prospect in hand; so it was no surprise, but a very great pleasure, when Janie informed me that her book had sold. The offer came from The Poisoned Pencil, a new YA imprint created by the venerable Poison Pen Press, and it will be out on April 1—no fooling! I recommend the book whole-heartedly, and PW gave it a splendid review as well.

Janie was kind enough to share her publishing adventure with readers of this blog, many of whom are also aspiring writers. I’ll let you read it for yourselves, and I hope you’ll notice one salient aspect of her journey. She didn’t dash the book off in a month or two, then rush to put it out on Kindle. Instead, she worked it, revised it, workshopped it, submitted it to a stringent editorial review (that would be me), and revised some more. That, ladies and gents, is how it’s done if you’re serious about getting published.

And now, without further ado, here’s Janie’s account:

 

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             April 2013 and I’m in a hotel room in Hawaii, four flights up, overlooking the Pacific—a brief siesta after a day of snorkeling and exploring with my family. My daughter and stepson are happily checked out in front of cable, (a novel experience, not having TV at home), and neither one is whining about seconds on ice cream or who gets to pick the show. My husband and I are relaxed. All is quiet, and I do the unthinkable: check my email.

I am not normally a compulsive email checker, but three days before we left for Hawaii the main water line at the top of our driveway burst and flooded our home (another story entirely). So being in touch with the mainland was somewhat of a necessity: Had the driveway been grated? Had all the furniture been put in storage? Had the remediation crew gotten in…

I scroll through various spam, junk, non-important, and not interesting emails, causally pressing delete as I go. Not a word from the contractor about drywall or mold. I’m about to turn off my phone when something catches my attention. The words ‘Poisoned Pencil Press’ (the young adult imprint of the Poisoned Pen Press, one of the largest independent publishers of mysteries in the world) are in my inbox. My finger lingers over the trashcan icon. Two months ago I’d submitted the manuscript for my YA mystery to the Poisoned Pencil. I am in no mood to ruin the day with a rejection.

Again, something catches my eye. The usual rejection, shown in the first line of the email goes something like this: ‘thank you, but…’  This email starts with thank you, however, there is no ‘but.’ In fact, after ‘thank you’ I see the word ‘loved.’ Loved? This does not sound like a rejection.

I open the email to find something akin to the following: Dear Janie. I loved your manuscript and would be thrilled to publish it.

I scream. I jump up and down. I shout my husband’s name. He wakes from his nap, notes my enthusiasm, and groggily says, “What, the house didn’t really flood?” (I picture time-lapse animation in reverse, the water going back up the hill.)

“No. Better! The editor at The Poisoned Pencil Press loves my book and wants to publish it!”

index The acceptance of my manuscript did not happen overnight. I started writing my young adult novel, Death Spiral, A Faith Flores Science Mystery, four years before landing a publisher.  I must’ve written three thousand pages of notes, revisions, edits, scribbles, thoughts, and scratches. I diligently listened to the generous feedback offered to me by my writing group peers. I asked anyone who’d ever read a book if they’d be willing read my manuscript and comment. I worked with Barbara Rogan and absorbed her every suggestion. (Her feedback was some of the best I received, and I don’t just say this because I am writing on her blog!)

Eventually I got to the place where I trusted my story and I became more protective of my work. At this stage if I asked for feedback, I was specific on what I was looking for. I learned to trust my work, to stand behind a scene or a passage even when someone else had a critique. Then I started to submit. After a handful of rejections, I got the contract with The Poisoned Pencil, and despite four years of hard work, my editing was far from done.

I started working with Ellen Larson, the editor of the press. We talked about the characters in the story as if they were real people. She “got” and loved what I was doing. She showed me where in the story I could expand, where I could go deeper, what I could cut, and what I could develop. We went through three rounds of edits together. Even when, on the last round of edits, she said something along the lines of, “You’re going to hate me” (referring to all her markups) my reaction was just opposite. What Ellen gave me was the most valuable thing a writer could ask for: someone who believes in what you’re doing and wants to push you to make it better.

I am now working on the second book in the series, though I am taking a different approach to getting the task done. I want book two on the shelves before readers have totally forgotten about Faith Flores, the protagonist. In order to accomplish this goal, I cannot take four years and three thousand more pages of musings, notes, and scribbles. These days I go for mileage. I try to tap into the part of my brain that doesn’t edit every word and just get the plot on the page. Once I’m confident the plot works, the clues are in place, Faith has encountered sufficient obstacles and overcome them in her own particular way, then I will obsess, edit, ask for feedback, and turn my baby over to the gifted eyes of my editor.

 

Thanks, Janie, and congratulations! For lots more publishing stories, writing tips, and interviews with industry figures, subscribe to this blog via the link on the right.

 

An Unorthodox Path to Publication

I love it when my students go forth and publish. They do all the work, and I claim all the credit.

Well, almost all. All except part where they work their butts off and never give up and spend years learning the craft every way they can, until publishers are clamoring to publish them and agents to represent them.

On that note, allow me to introduce my guest blogger, Amara Royce, whose first novel, NEVER TOO LATE, was published in May 2013 by eKensington, and whose second is under contract to the same publisher.  It’s a pleasure to welcome her to In Cold Ink.

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First, thanks so much, Barbara, for inviting me to be a guest on your wonderful blog! I always find your posts valuable, and I hope I can provide even a fraction of your insightfulness from my newbie-ish perspective in the publishing industry!

Note: I took one of Barbara’s fiction writing courses online through Writer’s Digest a few years ago. She’s an amazing teacher, as well as a fabulous author!

Never Too Late e bookI readily admit that my experience in publishing thus far probably doesn’t appear typical. My historical romance, NEVER TOO LATE, was my first completed novel. In June of 2012, I began querying agents for NEVER TOO LATE. By September, a mere three months later, I’d obtained both a two-book deal with eKensington and three offers for agent representation. It was quite a whirlwind. In fact, I still haven’t really recovered.

But as we writers know, the devil is in the details. Taking a look at my own writer’s journey thus far, I’ve arrived at three observations that are not especially new or *cough* novel but that I think are important for me and perhaps for other writers to keep in mind on the road to getting published.

Writing is hard work

hard laborWhile it’s true that my first completed novel garnered a book deal, I actually began writing in 2006 in a completely different genre. Learning to be a good writer is hard work! And it’s not a linear process. I’ve had a lot of false starts and done a lot of writing just to learn the craft of writing. And knowing about the craft of writing isn’t the same as actually doing the writing part well. For instance, I now know that some newbie writers tend to start their story in the wrong spot, with backstory that would really fit better later in the story, if at all. In some cases, writers could cut the first three chapters of their manuscript and find that the event in chapter 4 is really a more compelling place to open the story, a much more engaging draw for readers. Still, knowing that tip is very different from writing the story. I’ve had to cut and restart more stories than I want to recall!

And, as a learning process, it never really ends. I look back on some of my early efforts and have to laugh at their roughness. Frankly, I look back on something I wrote last month and know I’m going to have to fix it! And I know that everything I write, as unfinished and raw as it might be, helps me improve as a writer. Sure, I had to shelve that short story or gut this chapter or set aside that stale idea for my next novel, but that’s all part of the process.

There’s a heck of a lot to learn about the craft of writing and even more to learn about the way publishing works. Learning to write query letters, for example, is a whole different process than learning to write fiction. That subject would require a whole separate post!

Writing makes me vulnerable

shameAt every step of the writing and publishing process, fear and doubt have been my constant companions. I teach English at a community college so getting published actually strengthened my sympathy for my students. Whenever they submit essays and other writing projects, they leave themselves open to judgment, to grading. Even if they aren’t writing something personal, they are subjecting themselves to criticism (which I try to do as gently as I can). The querying process crystallized that vulnerability for me in new ways. Thanks to querytracker.net, I now know that I had a 30% request rate from agents so I know exactly how much rejection I received along the way (28 rejections from 41 queries). Do I have a compelling story? Is my writing any good? Is my story sell-able? Am I just deluding myself? Oh, so many self-doubts reared their ugly heads as those rejections rolled in.

Moreover, sharing my manuscripts with beta readers, with my agent, with my editor, and finally with the reading public lays that work out for judgment over and over and over again. (I use the present tense here very deliberately. I continue to face this judgment daily.)

I thought the self-doubt during the query process was bad, but having my work out there for readers to *buy*…is absolutely terrifying!  Even after all the editing and feedback, I can’t help but wonder what I missed, what I did wrong, what I should have done better. People who know me are inclined to be gentle with their criticism; readers who are spending their hard-earned money and reviewers whose job is to serve those readers and not to mind author’s egos have no such compunction about gentleness. Nor should they. NEVER TOO LATE has received some really lovely reviews that I treasure; it’s also received some harsh reviews that are painful, that cut to the heart of my worst fears as a writer, but that will help me continue to grow as a writer. All the self-doubt, the vulnerability, is just part of the experience of being published that I have to manage for myself.

Writing is worth the effort

VictoryAs difficult as the journey to publication may be, I have to say that, for me, it’s worth every second. Every stage of publication has been wondrously surreal for me.

Note: What I did is generally not recommended. After querying agents for a couple of months, I got a teensy bit impatient and queried some publishers that accept unagented submissions. I still don’t recommend it. Yes, it’s a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you want an agent to represent your work and to strive to sell it to the best publisher possible, focus on that first. I just happened to go a slightly different route.

My “The Call” story is a little unusual in that I got “The Call” from my editor at Kensington with a two-book offer for their eKensington imprint before I had agent representation. In fact, when Kensington’s editor-in-chief, John Scognamiglio first called me, my mother was coming to visit my family for a week and I was on my way to pick her up at the station. Yes, I was driving. I know, I know. My only excuse for picking up is that I thought maybe it was my mother with an important travel update. When it turned out to be John, I must have sounded like total stammering flibbertigibbet, one who had to get off the phone immediately because I’d answered while driving. Fortunately, John was kind and understanding, and we scheduled a phone call for the following day. As an avid list-maker, I had lots of questions about the deal, and John patiently answered all of them.

This was during the week prior to Labor Day and John needed an answer in time for the next editorial meeting, so I had a short time in which to update agents who had requested my manuscript with the news that I had an “offer in hand.” Sure, I could have taken the deal without an agent. I could have just had a literary attorney review the contract for me. But I’d started querying agents for a reason: I wanted agent representation to guide me in my writing future. So, after sending out updates, I received emails from three agents to schedule “The Call.” That was a stunning and hectic couple of days! Again, I had a long list of questions, and each agent patiently responded and gave me detailed information about their agencies and their practices. To say it was difficult to choose from them is an understatement.They each had their strengths and appeals, and they each talked not just about the deal in hand but about helping to foster my career. In addition to the nitty-gritty provided in these conversations, two additional things in man reading contractparticular helped me decide: (1) looking over their sample contracts, which two of them provided without hesitation (the third doesn’t use contracts—which isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker—it’s just how some agents work), and (2) talking with other authors they represent, who generously shared with me their time, experiences, and perspectives. I’m sure I would have been in good, competent hands with any of these agents, but based on all of the information, my scale ultimately tipped in favor of my agent, Jessica Alvarez of BookEnds, LLC. Everything about her, about BookEnds, and about the authors Jessica represents, conveyed a sense of generosity and support and togetherness that really spoke to me, reinforcing the all the data I’d gathered. Those aren’t necessarily qualities everyone dreams of in their literary agent, but they were the key to the “right fit” for me. And I’ve been thrilled to work with Jessica and BookEnds ever since!

Looking back, it’s hard to believe all of that happened within, essentially, a week. And it’s been a dream ever since.  Working on edits; reviewing page proofs; seeing NEVER TOO LATE listed on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other e-booksellers; getting my first royalties statement—it’s all been breathtaking.

And it starts all over again with my next book, ALWAYS A STRANGER, for which I will likely receive edits this month! Wheeeeee!

This is the part that makes writing—all the hard work and fear and doubt—worth every second.

 

Thanks, Amara, and congratulations!

You can learn more about Amara Royce and her books on her website.  For more on my classes, please visit my Next Level website; and don’t forget to subscribe to this blog for irregular updates, writing tips, and real life stories from the publishing world. If you enjoyed this interview, there are lots more here, including chats with OUTLANDER author Diana Gabaldon, Simon & Schuster president Marysue Rucci, and literary agent Gail Hochman.

The Inside Scoop: A Publicist’s Take on Book Marketing

 

No one writes for his desk drawer. Books are a means of transmitting stories, ideas, history, experience, and emotion; and that transmission can only succeed when the books are read. But to be read they must first be discovered by readers, and therein lies the rub. Books need publicity the way lungs need oxygen, but with so many competing for attention, how can writers attain their moment in the sun?

Ben CameronRecently I had the chance to pick the brains of Ben Cameron, founder of the London-based Cameron Publicity and Marketing. (Rather a violent metaphor, when you think about it, but I promise no publicists were injured in the production of this post.) We talked about what sells books, how writers can help (and hurt) themselves, the role of independent publicists and what to watch out for, and much more. Have a read, then tell me what you think.

 

Barbara:  Tell me a bit about yourself and your company. What made you decide to focus on publicity and marketing for books?

Ben: I always loved books so when I finished university in the US and moved to the UK 20 years ago it was always my intention to work in publishing in some way. My first job in the industry was with a book wholesaler and it was there that I discovered marketing and publicity – I love the strategy and to creatively think my way around problems (marketing), and I’m a pretty decent talker (publicity). I was there for a few years before moving to a publishing company and then setting up my own agency.

 

Barbara:  Once, at a publishing party, I heard one well-known publisher admit that he really had no idea what sells books, while others at the table nodded. Do you know? Has anyone studied the question?

Ben: Great question!  There is no one answer. What we do is push books toward people and push people toward books and to a large degree we can influence sales. But for a big seller there is also an element of luck and magic that has to happen. The spark that made Harry Potter a phenomenon was awards, a marketing and publicity thing, but there was also a kindling of goodwill and great writing that needed to be there as well. Why did 50 Shades of Grey become a hit? I have no idea – erotica was certainly nothing new but it seems like its time had come and that book was in the right place at the right time. It was lucky, but a publicist did get it in the position that it needed to be in to become THAT book.

Barbara:  Can you give an example of a publicity/marketing campaign that elevated a previously unknown or little-known writer to the bestseller lists? What do you think made it so successful?

Thinking fast and slowBen: A good example is the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is a big publisher book (Penguin) but an interesting example of how to position a book for the market. This is a very academic psychology book that was promoted as popular science/business like Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell books. There were great little examples and excerpts from the book that were used for publicity to get it into the media in places that would not normally be interested in such and an in-depth and difficult to read book. A lot of what publicists do is to emphasize the more popular aspects of a book.

Barbara:  Effective publicity services don’t come cheap. Are they a good investment for all writers? If not, what sort of writer should consider hiring a publicity and/or marketing firm?

Ben: They aren’t cheap because it takes a huge amount of time and finesse to run an effective publicity campaign. A very academic book or a poetry book, for example, is not going to benefit much from a campaign – there just aren’t enough media outlets that will cover them – while something that can capture the imagination of a wide audience can pay back the cost many times over. Genre fiction is great for a shorter campaign, say 4-6 weeks, as that is enough time to reach its audience. Non-fiction often suits a longer campaign depending on the author and topic.  The important thing is to have a publicist explain why they think a certain style of campaign will suit the book and to feel comfortable with that explanation.

Barbara: Your company represents both published and self-published writers. Are there barriers to self-published writers getting reviews and coverage in mainstream media? If so, how do you overcome or sidestep them?

overcoming barriersBen: Yes, there are barriers but they are getting less significant every day. Getting reviews in the big newspapers is almost impossible still for obviously self-published books, but a lot of self-published books actually slip past the gatekeepers because they look as good as books from traditional publishers. To my mind feature articles and interviews are much more important than reviews anyway, and the journalists who do them care less about where a book came from than telling a good story. Most media understand that they need to include self-published books now but have difficulty knowing which books are worth consideration. That is where a good publicity pitch can go a long way.

Barbara: Has the consolidation of retail outlets (i.e. Amazon) affected your publicity and marketing strategy, and if so, how?

Ben: It isn’t good in many ways, but Amazon has been great for marketing. A customer can read about a book and instantly purchase it online. That is incredibly powerful for sales. Ebooks play into that as well – I myself will often read a review, buy the book immediately on my Kindle and start reading it within a minute. All that said, I personally love nothing more than going through the shelves in a good bookshop and placement of bookshops and bookshop events are helpful as well.

Barbara: What are the most effective ways for writers, both published and self-published, to help their own books and careers?

Ben: If you can afford a campaign it can really give you a long-term boost, but if not you can also buy-in the tools that you need to do the job yourself. You can pay only for a professionally written press release or a media mailing list or a listing on NetGalley (a website that showcases books to journalists, bloggers and reviewers) and it won’t cost an arm and a leg.

Barbara:  What are the biggest mistakes you see writers make in promoting their own work?

sales pitchBen: Not following up. Just sending out emails, review copies of books or press releases will get you almost nowhere. There needs to be a proper sales pitch made to the journalist explaining, in no uncertain terms, why the book is important. The author needs to be persistent and not get discouraged if they get no initial response. It takes a lot of time and effort and many people give up before they have really made the case for their book.

Barbara: A great many publicity and marketing services have sprung up to service the boom in self-published books, and some of them seem sketchy to me, offering expensive services that are unlikely to prove effective. What questions should writers ask prospective service providers? What should they beware of?

Ben: Like every part of self-publishing, the sharks are out there and there are plenty of poor services on offer. Do your research, talk to someone at the company or meet them in person and make sure that you are comfortable that they understand you and you book. Be wary of anyone who “guarantees” results – those results may well be on their own blog or podcast with very little audience, and publicity just doesn’t work in that way. Go for experience, a campaign designed specifically for you, a company that will regularly give you feedback and someone who “gets” your book.

 

Many thanks to Ben Cameron for sharing his time and expertise with IN COLD INK.  He can be reached on Facebook and on Twitter at @CameronPMtweets .

You might also enjoy these interviews with leading literary agent Gail Hochman, Simon & Schuster publisher Marysue Rucci, and publishing specialist Elizabeth Lyon. There are lots more to come, too, so do consider subscribing to IN COLD INK through links on the right.

Completing the Circle: From Idea to Book to Audience

ElizabethLyon-fIf you’ve ever gone to a writers’ conference, chances are you’ve met Elizabeth Lyon. As the author of half a dozen widely-read guides to the craft and business of writing, including The Sell Your Novel Took Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, and Breaking In and Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write: How to Get a Contract and Advance Before Writing Your Book, she is in great demand as a workshop leader and presenter. I had the pleasure of getting to know her at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference near Vancouver, where we were both presenters, and having many interests and pursuits in common, we’ve stayed in touch and followed each other’s careers ever since.

Many of her books are about breaking into the publishing market. As a freelance editor, she  works hard to find agents for her editing clients. Her own books have been published by Perigree/Penguin.  So I was surprised to hear from Elizabeth recently that she’d self-published her latest book, WRITING SUBTEXT. In this interview, Elizabeth talks about why she made the switch. She also has some really smart, sensible advice for writers contemplating their options.

 

BR: After a career spent helping other writers get published, and having been commercially published yourself, you have now taken the plunge into self-publishing.  What led you to that decision?

EL: Actually, self-publishing is a homecoming. In 1980, I published my first book, Mabel: The Story of One Midwife, about a Ghana-born woman who “caught” my two children when I was doing the baby boom in Corvallis, Oregon. Handling all aspects of the book—interviewing, writing, editing, book production, and promotion gave me the publishing bug. It’s immensely satisfying to make all the decisions, feel all the responsibility, and earn all the rewards—or lack thereof.

No doubt, having a book accepted by a publisher is heady. When my agent, Meredith Bernstein, called with a four-book contract for writing books from Perigee/Penguin, I thought I had “arrived.”

“For everything there is a season.” When friends began “going indie,” with their e-books and POD (print on demand) books, they became my Sirens, calling me back to my roots.

 

BR: Many aspiring writers imagine doing what you’ve done, publishing multiple books with a major house like Penguin, as the height of aspiration. Why change a good thing?

EL: My editors at Penguin were and are highly skilled and lovely people. Yet, I’ve always been uncomfortable with corporate publishing policies that put most books on a conveyer belt. Most have a short life. Others, like my own, become slow backlist sellers.

While publishers don’t make giant profits, except from the mega bestselling authors, the standard publishing contract sucks. They are not written for fairness; they’re rigged for the publisher—in money and in rights.

The royalty in the contract is seldom what one receives. Almost all books are heavily discounted pushing the royalty rate to 5% of retail or even less. That’s 64 cents on a $14.95 paperback, subtracting my agent’s 15%. Publishers don’t promote non-best-selling books, and bookstores can’t possibly have midlist instructional books that span decades taking up shelf space.

I am grateful that I had that experience. I gained prestige and support for my teaching and editing work. My best publishing experience, however, was with Blue Heron Publishing, my first publisher. The owners, Linny and Dennis Stovall, nurtured writers and their careers and their publishing contract was modeled after one recommended by the National Writers Union.

 

BR: What have you learned from your venture into self-publishing that might be helpful to others contemplating that route?

EL: With “Writing Subtext,” my first booklet in a new series, I feel the weight of responsibility, which I’m also happy to have. I’m hyper-aware of accuracy, quality of content, and proofreading. That’s a good thing. I rely upon my critique group’s suggestions and corrections, perhaps even more so than in the past.

As I learned with my first book in 1980, there is a daunting number of skills to master when you DIY—“do it yourself,” including knowing when to job something out. I turned book cover design and digital formatting over to others who do those tasks well. With just a few hiccups requiring advice, I was able to upload my digital files and cover image files to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, for sale as e-books and to Amazon’s CreateSpace for print-on-demand.

pink elephantThe big pink elephant in the room for all writers who publish is promotion—reaching the targeted audience. If a writer is content with selling (or giving away) books to a circle of friends or family, that’s easy. But if a writer wants to build a name and following, and even make a part-time or full-time living, then book promotion skills will require as much time as writing and revising the book, and maybe more. Writers with money can hire publicists, and these days that means someone who knows how to use the Internet for book promotion in addition to more traditional publicity.

 

BR: If an aspiring writer asked for your advice on whether to self-publish or to seek an agent and try to get published commercially, what would you answer and why? Would your advice differ for fiction and non-fiction writers?

EL: My answer is the same for fiction or nonfiction writers: What is your dream? Most writers I know, and who come to me for editing, would like to see their books published in a traditional way, whether with a large publisher or a small press. I call this Plan A. The possibility of acceptance is slim. My job, however, is to support, help, and encourage any writer with a Plan A dream. Some do succeed. Realistically, novelists (and memoir writers) typically underestimate the amount of revision needed to reach a polished and professional book. Often it will be a 3rd or 4th novel that will be well enough written to succeed with Plan A.

Writers of other forms of nonfiction may reach the high bar of outstanding writing and a unique book that contributes to the literature. However, to fulfill Plan A, these writers face expectations of a strong author platform. Platform refers to how broadly a writer is known and whether he or she can guarantee strong sales through ambitious actions such as speeches, workshops, interviews, book signings, blogging, and other Internet-related promotion. Most nonfiction book writers either have to stop marketing and build that platform or move to Plan B.

Plan B recalibrates the GPS to a small, specialty, or regional press. For instance, I’ve had one editing client whose novel was published by an LGBT press. A health and medical press published a client’s nonfiction book. But all too many unpublished writers receive offers of publication from companies that are essentially print-on-demand publishers who, like the vanity publishers of old, make the writer feel as if the book is “acquired.” I always caution about these offers because there may be smoke and mirrors. In these situations, the writer can self-publish with more rewards in all ways.

Plan C is self-publishing. The long-ago stigma over “vanity publishing” is mostly gone. Producing a book with new technologies is now easy and inexpensive. For some writers, Plan C is their Plan A.

I’ve always believed that all writers deserve to complete the circle—from idea to book to audience.

 

BR: Positing a reasonable facility for writing, what other abilities does a writer need to make a success of self-publishing?

EL: Every self-published writer has to decide how to quantify or qualify success. I’ve worked with writers for whom a dozen copies given to friends and family constitutes success. Memoir writers, for instance, may be writing to leave a legacy as well as to reach other people who have experienced something similar to what they have.

When a book is well-written, it stands a chance of word-of-mouth recommendation, which is the most potent form of sales. Readers buy books that are recommended and books written by authors they have heard of. For the self-published author, there is typically no access to distribution, to bookstores, beyond being listed or having a page in an online bookstore. The good news is that online book sales continue to expand.

Writers seeking a large audience must devote regular time to promotion, and to the degree the writer is comfortable, learning the ropes of the Internet, and pursuing opportunities for talks, book fairs, and any face-to-face sales.

I should have said earlier that most self-published books could have benefited from more development and revision. And everyone who self-publishes should seek professional line editing or memorize The Chicago Manual of Style. I also recommend asking three eagle-eye, grammar- and punctuation- smart friends to do final proofreading.

 

BR: The e-book revolution has already changed publishing profoundly, in part by leveling the distribution playing field for self-publishers. Would you venture an informed guess on the future of publishing as we know it?Crystal_Ball

EL: People will continue to buy books for their e-readers or tablets, in ever-greater numbers. Instant gratification, the impulse buy, is not only going to increase readers but it favors the self-publisher. Our price points are typically lower, much lower, than traditional publishers. In that sense we are more competitive.

Many types of books are not presently suited for electronic format, although that hurdle is sure to be overcome. Even so, I can’t envision books featuring art and photography, for instance, offering sustained pleasure in any other form but paper. Any book that invites consideration, a chance to grasp a whole, to flip pages back and forth should if not will be preferred in paper.

Yet, my opinions may be a function of living six decades plus. When books owned in most households are few, libraries are Red Box outlets, or an aisle of Office Depot, the mega conglomerate publishing industry may no longer exist as it is.

 

BR: What is your new book about, and where can readers find it?

WritingSubtext-variation21AFINALEL: My newest work is “Writing Subtext,” a booklet of 50 pages available in paper at CreateSpace/Amazon and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. “Writing Subtext” is the first booklet in a series that features one technique or topic at a time. Subtext is a subtle, often confusing concept and technique. Writing it, developing it in revision, makes all the difference in boosting suspense, deepening characterization, and supporting theme. I consider it one of the “super techniques.”

My next booklet will be “Crafting Titles.” On first blush, choosing a title for a book seems easy. I’ve seldom had an editing client or writing friend who hasn’t struggled to find the best title. So much goes into the choice.

 

Thanks so much for a really informative interview, Elizabeth.  With so much hyperbole on both sides of the publish/self-publish divide, it’s a pleasure hearing and sharing your balanced  take on the topic. Writers looking for a first-rate editor can contact Elizabeth through her website.

 

If you enjoyed this interview and want more like it, please subscribe through the link on the top right. Lately In Cold Ink has been overrun with news about my new release with Viking Books, A DANGEROUS FICTION,  and I guess that’s forgivable, seeing as my new books come around as often as cicadas. But as you can see, I’m slowly getting back to my usual subjects:  writing and publishing.  

That said, I do want to thank  Book Page for its wonderful review of A DANGEROUS FICTION, which they pronounced “a thoroughly entertaining and engaging mystery,” and to Zan Marie Steadham for the interview on her engaging blog.  If you’re looking for little frisson in the last hot days of summer, I hope you’ll give it a read.

 

Happy Birthday, In Cold Ink!

It’s been just over a year since I started In Cold Ink. Like most anniversaries, this seems like a good time to reflect on the experience.  As you can see in my first post, I started out with some trepidation. I juggle a lot of jobs, and when I write I’m prone to obsession.  I worried that a blog, in my hands, would become just one more thing to neglect. And you can’t neglect a blog.  It’s like babysitting the neighbor’s kid, except that you can’t plop the blog down in front of the t.v. and expect it to amuse itself.

But I had things to say, as a writer but also as a longtime publishing professional. Before I gave it all up to write my own books,  I was an editor in a large New York publisher and a literary agent. My career path has given me a multifaceted perspective on the industry, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned and demystify an industry that from the outside can seem remote, strange in its ways and potentially hostile.  I also wanted to learn from others. Publishing is an industry in turmoil, on the cusp of profound change, and I wanted to explore that evolving world.

The results have exceeded my expectations. A surprising number of readers found their way to the blog: nearly 24,000 visitors last time I checked. Many left comments, and I’ve met some smart, interesting people through the blog. I’ve had the opportunity to interview some publishing pros, who’ve shared valuable insights and perspectives, including literary agent Gail Hochman,  Viking editor Tara Singh, and Editor-in-Chief of S&S, Marysue Rucci. Among the writers who’ve graced my doors are Diana Gabaldon, Tiffany Allee, Lorraine Bartlett and Mika Ashley-Hollinger.

dianagabaldonIt was interesting to see what posts attracted the most reads. The most popular by far is my two-part interview with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon, of Outlander fame…and I do mean fame. Her fans would follow her anywhere, and they followed her to my blog.  Second in popularity is my interview with literary agent Gail Hochman, also a two-parter, and very meaty in terms of how agents work, what they look for in new writers and what they avoid. Third is a post called “Ten Things Writers Should Expect from Literary Agents,” which I wrote because, while lots of writers are busy hunting for agents, few know what to expect once they nab one.

Looking over the list of posts also reminded me of some of my favorites, which I’ll mention just in case you missed them. “What if J.K. Rowling Had Self-Published?” is one. It’s my fullest answer to a question I hear frequently: “If I have a choice, am I better off seeking an agent who will then seek a publisher or self-publishing?”

Medicalert: The Scourge of Premature Submission” is a comical piece with a serious message. “Digging up Blurbs” shares some of the Dickensamazing blurbs my latest book received posthumously, from writers like Jane Austen, Hemingway, and Dickens. (I thought it was funny, anyway, even if one reader took it way too seriously and accused me of literary grave-robbing. )  “Too Much Body Language, She Said, Frowning” focues on the essential matter of craft in writing. Finally, this one has nothing to do with writing but is so worth reading: “A Former Slave Writes to His Master.

The last year has been a momentous one for me, with a new book on the way and five (five!!!) earlier books reissued. Happy events; but like other Happy Events, very time-consuming. If it weren’t for the support and engagement of this blog’s readers, I would never have been able to keep it going, but now the blog is a part of my life.  I look forward to an exciting year ahead, with lots more interviews with publishing insiders, writing advice, and reflections on our changing industry. I also look forward to sharing with you all the events surrounding the publication of my new novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, coming out in less than a month with Viking Books… including all the fun stuff that goes on behind the scenes.

Thanks for reading.

Interview with Marysue Rucci of S&S

I was rummaging through some old files the other day and came across an interview I conducted with Marysue Rucci, now editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster. Marysue was kind enough to answer my questions back in 2002, when she was my editor at S&S, in aid of a keynote speech I was giving at a writers’ conference. Bear in mind that her answers represent her thinking at that time, which may have changed in the interim. Nevertheless I think it’s an extraordinarily  useful piece in showing an editor’s insights and  priorities, as well as what writers can do to help themselves and their books.  I hope you’ll find it as helpful as I did.

Q:  What can writers do to help their editors publish their books successfully?

A: Join writers’ groups, make friends with their local booksellers, create a website (and develop mailing lists), and publish “off the page” pieces, ideally just before or when their book is publishing – in magazines, newspapers, etc.

Q: How important is the personal relationship between editor and writer?

A: Respect is extremely important, in both directions.  The book will always have the author’s name on it, and is the author’s baby, and I acknowledge that.  It’s a waste of time, though, if the author doesn’t respect the editor’s ideas (or they simply don’t see eye to eye), for both author and editor.

Q: Describe  the ideal writer, from the editor’s POV.

A: Timely, original, open to guidance but with a firm knowledge of the five W’s of his/her book (W’s being, who, what, where, when, why).  And always generating ancillary article ideas/publishing stories to keep his/her name in the public eye.

Q: Describe the writer from hell, from the editor’s POV.

slush A: Personally affronted by edits; argumentative, evasive and lazy when it comes to deadlines.  The author who drags his/her feet makes an editor’s life hell, because the editor is the conduit to all other areas of the publishing house.  The production, marketing, publicity, teams are hammering on your editor’s door.

Q:  What are the questions you most dislike getting from writers?

A: How many cities will I be touring?  Will you run ads?

Q:  How does an editor balance the sometimes conflicting interests of writer and publisher?

A: Delicately.  Your editor is your advocate in-house, which is another reason a good working relationship is important. The editor is supposed to gracefully navigate the publishing process and agitate for the author and the author’s interest while still understanding financial and/or other publishing limitations.

Q:  What fallacies do writers harbor  about editors?

A: That editors want to receive your manuscript before the editor goes on vacation; or before holidays; or at home.  Also, that we speed-read.  A normal manuscript should take at least a week to read; far longer to edit (well).

Q:  To what extent are your decisions based on publishing trends and to what extent on personal taste?

A: Personal taste rules the day.  It’s pointless to buy a book you don’t love.

Q: What do you see as the editor’s primary mission (apart from making money, which goes without saying.)?

A: Understanding an author’s vision and helping the author best realize that vision.  Delivering a great manuscript to the in-house people so they can sell it well.  Attempting to get quotes, and buzz.

Q: Are there agents you won’t work with? Why? What are their names? (Just kidding about that one.)

A: There are agents I’ve vowed not to work with, but I’ve gone back on my vow. Either because the agent is impossible to converse with in a realistic manner or because he/she did something underhanded (like shop an offer that shouldn’t have been shopped).  When you’ve been burned by an agent, it takes an extraordinarily special project to make you come back to her/him.

Q:  What makes editors stick to the job despite the ridiculous hours and notoriously low pay?child reading

A: Love of reading, of course.  The thrill of discovery, or potential thereof.

Thanks once again, Marysue!

 

News update: Lots of excitement as A DANGEROUS FICTION heads into the final stretch before pub date, July 25. Publishers Weekly gave the book a terrific review, and on May 20 they featured an interview with me. (Here’s the  link, but unfortunately you have to be a subscriber to read the whole piece.) Viking’s wonderful PR department has set up several talks and signings in New York and Long Island venues. If you’re in the area, please put it on your calendars and stop by.  If by chance you plan to buy a copy, you can save 35% on the hardcovers by preordering on Amazon, B&N  or your online bookstore  of choice.  Viking recently gave away 100 galley copies in a sweepstakes.  If you’re one of the winners, congratulations, and I hope you enjoy the book! If you weren’t, keep on eye on this blog. There will be other opportunities.

Diana Gabaldon Interview Part 2

I promised you the second half of my interview with Diana Gabaldon, the internationally bestselling author of the Outlander series, and you shall have it in just a moment. First, though, I have some exciting news of my own to share, and a confession to make.

The confession is this: I used to envy Diana. Not her work—I love her books, but they are hers and I have my own. No, what I envied was the fact that they were all in print, all the time. Readers who aren’t also writers may not realize how rare that is. Publishing is a bottom-line business, and shelf space is valuable; books that don’t sell very well are quickly replaced by new books. Just a few years ago, there were only a handful of living writers whose entire body of work could be found on the shelves of bookstores, even virtual ones. For the rest, the most one could hope for was to have a new book in hardcover while the one before it was still available in paperback. Once the stores started returning copies, the books were essentially dead, except for copies circulating in libraries and used-book stores. They’d be remaindered and declared officially out of print. Writers could then get their rights back, but there was nothing much they could do with them.

The explosion of ebooks has changed all that. Now it costs nothing for publishers to keep every book they’ve ever published in print perpetually, so long as they own the rights. And writers who have regained the rights to their old work can reissue it with an ebook publisher or on their own: the literary equivalent to the elixir of life.  One year ago, Simon & Schuster published ebook editions of my last three books, SUSPICION, HINDSIGHT, and ROWING IN EDEN, and since then I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them out in the world, making friends and finding readers.

And now for the news I promised. Two of my earliest books, CAFÉ NEVO and SAVING GRACE, have just come out in e-book editions with E-Reads. Print editions will be available within a week. I’m quite proud of those books, and when they first came out other people seemed to like them too. Saving-Grace510x680p

cafe-nevo-510x680pKirkus called CAFÉ NEVO “An inspired, passionate work of fiction…a near-magical novel,” and Madeleine L’Engle praised it as “a wonderful novel…with richly developed characters acting and interacting…the café and its clients will long remain in memory.”

Library Journal wrote of SAVING GRACE: “Readers are quickly enmeshed and will be staying up all hours to see what happens next…what BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES tried to be.”

I know you’re all waiting for MOBY, as I am. In the interim, may I commend SAVING GRACE and CAFÉ NEVO to your attention?

And now, back to my interview with the delightful Diana Gabaldon, whom I no longer envy but admire as much as ever. If you haven’t already read Part 1, you can find it here. In Part 2, the second half of the interview,  Diana talks about her life as an international literary star, her relationship with her fans, the book industry’s attitude toward women writers, and lots, lots more. Enjoy!

Q: I read some time ago about certain fanatical GAME OF THRONES readers who were furious that George Martin doesn’t churn the books out faster, ignoring any possible link between quality, time and effort.  They seemed to feel he was holding the books hostage and could release them in the blink of an eye if he chose.  The Outlander series inspires equal devotion among its readers. Have you ever had to deal with overzealous or irrational fans?

A: Deal with them?   Well, they’re there, certainly.  Most people have no idea how writers work, and many of them seem to feel that a writer is a sort of artistic Pez dispenser:  all the stories are stacked up inside, one on top of the other, and all you have to do is bonk the writer on the head hard enough to make them spit one out.

(In re which, James Patterson and his marketing machine have done a lot to promote this injurious notion.   For the record, folks—when the cover says, “by JAMES PATTERSON and someotherperson”,  it was someotherperson who wrote the book.  Don’t believe me?  Google “James Patterson ghost writer.”)

That is, of course, not how it works. <cough>  I explain, periodically, how it does work, and most of my readers are intelligent, well-meaning people who are happy to direct new readers to the places where I’ve explained my working methods.

dianagabaldonBut as for dealing with people who clamor for the next book, all I can be is honest.  I.e., it’s my name on the front of the book, and with luck, said book will be out there for a long time.  Ergo, it’s going to be as good as I can make it before I send it to the publisher.

 

Barbara: Would you like to have lived in the world you created?

Diana: To a point. <g>  That point stopping well short of life-threatening disease, warfare, injury, extremes of temperature or gross poverty.

Barbara: Lord John Gray is one of my favorite characters of your invention. What made you choose a gay man in particular as a series character?

Diana: Well, that was an accident. Some years ago, I was invited to write a short story for a British anthology: historical crime stories.  “Well,” I said to the editor, “it would be an interesting technical challenge, to see whether I can write anything under 300,000 words.  Sure, why not?”

The obvious first question was—what or whom to write about?  I didn’t want to use the main characters from the OUTLANDER series for this story, because—owing to the peculiar way I write—if I were to incorporate some significant event in this story (and it would need to be, to be a good story)—that would make the event a stumbling block in the growth of the next novel.

“But,” I said to myself, “there’s Lord John, isn’t there?”  Lord John Grey is an important character in the OUTLANDER series, but he isn’t onstage all the time.  And when he isn’t…well, plainly he’s off leading his life and having adventures elsewhere, and I could write about any of those adventures without causing complications for future novels.   Beyond that obvious advantage, Lord John is a fascinating character.  He’s what I call a “mushroom”—one of those unplanned people who pops up out of nowhere and walks off with any scene he’s in—and he talks to me easily (and wittily).

He’s also a gay man, in a time when to be homosexual was a capital offense, and Lord John has more than most to lose by discovery.  He belongs to a noble family, he’s an officer in His Majesty’s Army, and loves both his family and his regiment; to have his private life discovered would damage—if not destroy—both.   Consequently, he lives constantly with conflict, which makes him both deeply entertaining and easy to write about.  So I wrote the short story—titled, “Lord John and the Hell-Fire Club”—for the British anthology.

Well, it was a good story; people liked it.  But just as word was spreading into the US about it, the anthology went out of print (it was called PAST POISONS, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, for those bibliophiles who are curious).  People kept asking me about the story, though, and I thought, “Well, I enjoyed writing it—maybe I should write two or three more short pieces about Lord John, just as time an inspiration allow…and when I have a handful, we could publish them as a book, and all the Lord John fans could get the stories easily.”

So I did that.  I began writing the second Lord John story after returning from a book-tour, as a way of easing back into my writing routine, and continued working on it, picking away with one hand whilst picking up the threads of my novel with the other…and six months later, I’d just about finished it.  Well, at this point, I left for another book-tour, in the UK, and stopped in New York on the way, to have lunch with my two literary agents.

I was telling them all about what I’d been doing, and casually mentioned that I’d nearly finished the second Lord John short story.  “Oh?” said they.  “How long’s this one?”

“Well, I knew you’d ask,” I said.  “So I checked last night.  It’s about 85,000 words; I need maybe another 5000 to wrap it up.”

The agents looked at each other, then looked at me, and with one voice said, “That’s the size normal books are!”

“I thought it was a short story,” I said.

“Well, it’s not,” they said—and proceeded to take it off and sell it all over the place.  Publishers were thrilled.  “It’s a Gabaldon book we weren’t expecting—and it’s short!  Can she do that again?” they asked eagerly.  To which my agents—being Very Good agents—replied, “Of course she can,” and emerged with a contract for three Lord John Grey novels.

scottish-prisoner-3wide-200x300Now, the Lord John books and novellas are in fact an integral part of the larger OUTLANDER series.  However, they’re focused (not unreasonably) on the character of John Grey, and—Lord John not being a time-traveler—tend not to include time-travel as an element.  They’re structured more or less as historical mystery, but do (like anything else I write) include the occasional supernatural bit or other off-the-wall elements.  (Yes, they do have sex, though I don’t consider that really unusual, myself.)  And they do reference events, characters (particularly Jamie Fraser) and situations from the OUTLANDER novels.

In terms of chronology, the Lord John books fall during the period covered in VOYAGER, while Jamie Fraser was a prisoner at Helwater.  So if you’re wondering where to read the Lord John books in conjunction with the larger series—you can read them anytime after VOYAGER.

In terms of further chronology:  As well as the three Lord John novels under contract, I’ve also written several novellas for various anthologies.  Three novellas (two previously published and one written specifically for the volume) are included in a book titled LORD JOHN AND THE HAND OF DEVILS, while two further novellas have appeared or will shortly appear in anthologies.   The original short story (“Hell-Fire Club”) preceded the first novel, and—just to be confusing—the novellas fall between the novels.

The books and novellas do stand alone, and can be read separately in any order.  If you do want to read them in strict order, though, here it is:

“Hell-Fire Club” [short story. Originally published in PAST POISONS, ed. Maxim Jakubowski.  Collected in HAND OF DEVILS]

LORD JOHN AND THE PRIVATE MATTER [novel]

“Lord John and the Succubus” [novella, originally published in LEGENDS II: Short novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy, edited by Robert Silverberg.  Collected in HAND OF DEVILS]

LORD JOHN AND THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE [novel]

“Lord John and the Haunted Soldier” [novella.  Published only in HAND OF DEVILS]

LORD JOHN AND THE HAND OF DEVILS [book-length collections of three novellas: “Hell-Fire Club,” “Succubus,” and “Haunted Soldier”]

“Lord John and the Custom of the Army” [novella, originally published in WARRIORS, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.]

LORD JOHN AND THE SCOTTISH PRISONER [novel.  This one is actually a hybrid, as it’s half John, half Jamie.]Gabaldon-Outlander-220x322b

“Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” [novella.  Published in DOWN THESE STRANGE STREETS, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois,  2011.]

NB:  “The Custom of the Army” and “A Plague of Zombies” are both available (in the US and Canada) as standalone ebooks (as are a couple of other non-Lord John novellas).

Barbara: Was his sexuality or your portrayal of it an issue for any of your publishers, domestic or foreign?

Diana: I think some of the foreign publishers may have boggled slightly at it, but no one’s ever said anything directly to me about it, no.

Barbara: The upside of great literary success is plain to see: millions of books sold, legions of devoted fans, awards, invitations to the White House, the opportunity to inhabit a wider world full of interesting accomplished people. Is there a downside?

Diana: The major drawback is the sheer amount of travel and appearances (both in person and online) associated with being very popular in a lot of different places.  I really like to talk to readers and sign books—but I could do without the enormously time-consuming (and energy-sapping) travel involved in getting to them.

Then there are the constant demands for “content”—updates to websites, phone interviews, interviews for blogs <g>, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  (though I know how to deal with Twitter and Facebook; I spend an average of 10-15 minutes a day on each, and that’s It.  I have no Friends <g>, and I don’t follow anybody).

And there are the readers who think they’re entitled to dictate when and what a favorite writer writes, and yap at me in public about why am I writing all this Other Stuff, when THEY only want Jamie and Claire?  And why am I gallivanting all over the place, when I should be home WORKING?   These people are, of course, sadly mistaken about the importance of their opinions, but can be a little annoying.  Luckily most of my readers are very intelligent and have beautiful manners.

Barbara: What do you know now about writing that would have helped you when you first started out?

Diana: I’m not sure I actually know anything more about writing now than I did when I started—though I like to hope that I improve with experience.  Most of the novel (sic) things I do, in terms of ambitious structure, time-juggling, and playing with literary devices, are things that are the result of experience; I couldn’t have done them when I was first writing, whether I knew about them or not.

Barbara: What do you know now about publishing that you wish you’d known earlier?

Diana: Just who has the power in various situations.  For example, it took me eight years of hassling with Barnes and Noble in an attempt to make them move my novels out of the Romance section—until I finally got fed up and wrote a rude letter to Steve Riggio, then the CEO.  Twenty-four hours later, I got a call from the B&N VP of Marketing, telling me they were moving the books to Fiction, where they’d belonged all along.  Had I know that Mr. Riggio was the only person in that company who could change the diktat on where books went, I’d have started with him.

Barbara: Do you think women writers are taken as seriously as men by the literary/critical establishment?

Diana: Of course not.

Barbara: What’s the most common misconception readers have about you? (Here’s your chance to correct it!)

Diana: Well, they all seem to think I’m much taller than I actually am, and they can’t pronounce my name, but neither of those misapprehensions is actually offensive. <g>  (For the record:  I’m five-foot-two-and-a-half.  And my name has two pronunciations, both accurate:  If you’re speaking Spanish (it is a Spanish name, and it is my own, not my husband’s), it’s pronounced “gaah-vahl-DOHN” (rhymes with stone).  If you’re speaking English, it’s “GAH-bull-dohn” (still rhymes with stone).

That’s it, folks. Thank you, Diana!

Looking for something good to read between Outlander titles? Diana Gabaldon recommends A DANGEROUS FICTION: “A terrific read! A thriller with a psychological heart of mystery, a double-ended love story, and a fascinating look at the world of high-stakes publishing.”

Diana Gabaldon Interview, Part I

Diana Gabaldon is the author of the award-winning, #1 NYT-bestselling OUTLANDER novels, described by Salon magazine as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting “Scrooge McDuck” comics.” The series is published in 26 countries and 23 languages, with more than nineteen million copies in print worldwide and a miniseries in the works.

dianagabaldon

I’ve known Diana for fifteen years or so, ever since we met on the Compuserve Book and Author forum. For several years we both served as presenters at the Surrey International Writers Conference and had the opportunity to hang out in real life. Everyone who’s read her work knows Diana is a spellbinding storyteller. What you may not know, unless you’ve met her, is that she’s as delightful a person as she is a writer. She does a great deal for others that never gets talked about or reported, and I’m not going to out her here, except to say that she ministers to those who most need it and she goes out of her way to help fellow writers, as I know from personal experience.  (See Diana’s comment on my forthcoming thriller, A DANGEROUS FICTION.)

Back when that book was just beginning its journey into print, I asked some friends to brainstorm titles. Diana came up with  “In Cold Ink.” In the end it didn’t quite fit as the book’s title, but I loved it so much I adopted it as the name of my blog, making Diana its godmother.  Now she has graciously paid us a visit and bestowed an interview, which I’m delighted to share with you here in several parts. In this first segment, we talk about Diana’s origins as a writer, her taxonomy of character types, and her own writing process. Along the way she punctures a few misconceptions.

Q: Were you a great reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

A: Yes.  My mother taught me to read at the age of three; I can’t remember not being able to read.  I do remember turning up on the first day of kindergarten, flipping critically through DICK AND JANE and dropping it, remarking, “That’s a stupid book.  Is there anything else to  read?”   (I was not a tactful child.)child reading

I read—and still do read—just about anything.   I read my way through the entire children’s section of the Flagstaff Public Library by the third grade, at which point I went on to the adult section (my mother having assured the librarian—who was Very Dubious about this—that I could take out anything I wanted to).   Among the things I read repeatedly, though, were ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, the Oz books, all the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, the entire series of biographies of famous people for children, and any Walt Disney comic I could get my hands on.

Q: Do you recall a specific moment when you realized that you’d like to write stories yourself?

A:  Yeah.  I was about eight, and coming back in the car from a family outing to the cinder hills near Flagstaff (we often went out there on Sundays when the weather was nice).  It was summer and the daily thunderstorm was shaping up overhead.  I remember  looking up into the clouds and talking to God—I wasn’t praying, just talking to Him—and saying, “I want to write books.  I think I’m supposed to write books.”  Mind—at this point, the notion of WRITING A BOOK was the most far-fetched, impossible thing I could imagine.  I might as well have said, “I think I want to fly to Mars.”

I didn’t have the slightest idea how books were written, let alone how they got onto the library shelves (didn’t know people got paid for writing books, either; when I found that out, it seemed like an amazing bonus).

Anyway, God said (more or less), “Yes, that’s right.  You should.”

Q: First novels are often autobiographical in some fashion or another. You haven’t got a drop of Scottish blood in you, you were never a nurse and you haven’t (as far as I know) time-traveled. Is there anything in OUTLANDER that did draw upon your own life experience and/or passions?

Gabaldon-Outlander-220x322A: If you write an honest book, most of it is you, regardless of setting, time period, or the external aspects of your characters. And the idiotic assumption that one can only write about one’s own life experience—if widely adopted—would have prevented most of the world’s great books being written.  (Not saying you’re an idiot, mind you <g>.)  It’s just that that stupid, “Write what you know” axiom has been propagated so much that people don’t stop to question it, and thus don’t realize that it’s backward.  It’s not that you should limit yourself to using your own life as material; it’s that you shouldn’t write what you don’t know—but you can find out anything you need to know.

There’s also this little item called “imagination,” which I think is given remarkably short shrift these days.   As a novelist, I can be Anybody.  Anytime, Any place, in any condition of body or mind.   Why should I just be me?  How boring.

(Not even going to touch the equally prevalent attitude that a writer should for some reason be strongly drawn to write about his or her ethnic background—but only if s/he isn’t white.  People keep pestering me to “write about your heritage,” by which they mean the New Mexican/Hispanic side.  Why don’t they pester me to write about the English or German side, assuming I wanted to write about my heritage in the first place, which I don’t?)

But returning to what you actually asked <g>:  Sure.  Owing to a series of academic accidents, I taught classes in Human Anatomy and Physiology in several different institutions, including Temple University’s School of Nursing.   Now, this had nothing whatever to do with my own scientific interests, background, or research specialties—they just paid me for doing it.  But the material was undeniably interesting—and it gave me the broad but shallow grasp of clinical medicine that is the core of Claire’s work as a healer and physician.

Now, I was a field ecologist for some time.  Which means I naturally look at what’s going on around me when I’m outdoors.  I know what the basic features of a given ecosystem type are—which means that whether I’m looking at the Scottish Highlands or the North Carolina mountains, I know that there will birds species doing X, and plant species that fill Y niche, and so on.   Beyond that, it’s just a matter of looking up the specific plants and animals, and that’s a matter of very simple research.

I’m sixty-one.  I’ve been in love, been married, borne children, had people near me die.  Naturally bits and pieces of all these experiences filter through into the books I write.  Be strange if they didn’t, wouldn’t it?

Q: You have many readers who are passionate about your books and personally invested in the characters. Putting all modesty aside, why do you think readers connect so deeply with your characters?

A: I do write honest books, so far as it lies in my power to do so.  People recognize reality (in terms of character and situation and emotion) when they see it, and it’s natural for them to empathize with people they see as real.

(The Washington Post recently asked me for “a few sentences” describing what I did for Valentine’s Day, for a column in which such bits from a dozen (female) authors were quoted.  Most of the other participants went on about going out for a romantic dinner with their husband and toasting each other with pink champagne, or…well…take this one:

“I love seeing the glowing pyres of fat, deep red-red roses in full cry, displays of pink Champagne and boxes of chocolates that spring up all over London, and hope that a glorious bunch might find its way to me. Yet, if I was giving roses to a man on this particular day (and why not, for all sensual men love them), I’d buy flame orange, rich yellow or creamy, pink-tinged white; and pretend — because I’m old fashioned — that it was merely joie de vivre, or exuberance, or entirely accidental….”  

And then there was what I said (the absolute un—er—varnished <g> truth:

“We’re having the saltillo tile floors resealed. This means having to move all the furniture, send the dogs to my son’s house for a sleepover, and walk around in our socks for two days. Our bed is disassembled and hidden in the closet, so I’m sleeping in a daughter’s room, and my husband is nesting somewhere in the living room (where all the furniture is). On the other hand, romance is not dead; he gave me a bathrobe and a card with a singing bug, and I gave him a jar of white anchovy filets and a tube of wasabi paste.”

Now, clearly one would like to escape now and then and wallow in thoughts of accidental roses…but which author do you think you might feel more connected with, on the basis of these brief snips?)

Q: It’s hard for readers to imagine characters in their embryonic state, when we experience them as fully-developed, complicated human beings. But characters don’t spring to life that way. Can you talk a bit about how you go about growing characters from stick figures into people?

A: But I don’t do that.  I know there are a lot of popular assumptions about how writers work, and the notion that one decides that a specific character is needed, equips him or her with a name, and then sets to work collecting pictures of actors and drawing up index cards with the character’s taste in peanut-butter is certainly one of them.  It’s possible that some writers really do do that, and God help them, if so—whatever works, you know?

For me, characters are pretty organic.   I don’t plot a story and insert characters; the story exists because these particular people have needs and desires and motivations, and finding themselves in a particular situation, act upon them.

You hear about “plot-driven” stories vs. “character-driven” stories (and why always “versus,” I wonder?  There’s nothing antithetical between plot and character)—but in fact, the plot is simply what the characters do.  They may do what they do in part because of the situation and circumstances in which they find themselves—but they do what they do mostly because they are who they are.

For me, characters tend to fall into one of three main types: mushrooms, onions, and hard nuts.  (That’s not a description of their personalities, btw, but rather of the way in which I work with them, and them with me.)

Mushrooms are the delightful people who spring into life unexpectedly and walk right off with any scene they’re in.  Lord John Grey is a mushroom, as is Mr. mushroomWilloughby, the Chinese poet with a notable foot fetish, and Mrs. Figg, Lord John’s redoubtable housekeeper (“Mrs. Figg was smoothly spherical, gleamingly black, and inclined to glide silently up behind one like a menacing ball-bearing.”).  They talk to me freely, and I never have to stop and wonder what they’d do in any given situation—they just do it.

onionOnions are the ones whose innermost essence I apprehend immediately—but the longer I work with them, the more layers they develop, and thus the more well-rounded and pungent they become.  Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall are both onions.

Hard nuts are pretty much what they sound like.  These are the people who  “come with” a story by default, rather than developing organically  by popping out of the mental compost.  Historical figures, for instance, who were necessarily there, and have to be animated in a satisfying way, or people who exist only because another character was pregnant, leaving me with an unknown child to deal with.  These, I just research (for the historical people) or live with (for the unknowns), and gradually, I begin to have a sense of them.  But as with everyone else, they truly “develop” only in the context of their own situation and circumstance.

End of Part 1.

Go to Part 2.

In part 2 of the interview, Diana goes on to talk about her relationship with her readers, some controversial choices, and the demands that literary success imposes on the writer’s personal life. Sign up for the blog’s email or RSS feed so you won’t miss it!

Thanks, Diana!

 

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.   Diana Gabaldon called A DANGEROUS FICTION “a terrific read–A thriller with a psychological heart of mystery, a double-ended love story, and a fascinating look at the world of high-stakes publishing,”  and NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

Publish AND Self-Publish: an Interview with Bestselling Author Lorraine Bartlett

I’ve got a delightful surprise today: an interview with one of the savviest writers I know, Lorraine Bartlett. Lorraine writes fiction under several names, including Lorna Barrett. If you don’t already know her work, waste no time! The immensely popular Booktown Mystery series is what put Lorraine Bartlett’s pen name, Lorna Barrett, on the New York Times Bestseller list, but it’s her talent — whether writing as Lorna, or L.L. Bartlett, or Lorraine Bartlett — that keeps her there. This multi-published, Agatha-nominated author pens the exciting Jeff Resnick Mysteries as well as the acclaimed Victoria Square Mystery series, and now the Tales of Telenia saga, and has many short stories and novellas to her name(s). Check out the links to all her works here.

A lot of writers agonize over publishing vs. self-publishing. Lorraine does both very successfully. I’m delighted to pass along some of her insights into the advantages of having the best of both worlds.

Q: When did you first know you wanted to write? Was that realization prompted by any particular book you read?

A: As a teenager, I discovered Star Trek fanzines.  Regular people were writing fan stories that were good—and expanded the boundaries of the series.  I though t to myself, “I could do that, too.”  And so I did … although not very well.  It took many years to get where I am now. I never thought I’d have a career as a writer.

Q: Earlier in your career, you wrote stories for romance magazines. Did that contribute to selling your first novel?

A: No, but it got me the professional sales I needed to join Mystery Writers of America.  I wanted that kind of credibility. At the time, I felt it was necessary in order to get noticed by literary agents.

Q: How did that first book sale come about? Did you go through the traditional agent search?

A: I was rejected by literally hundreds of agents (and only tossed all those rejection letters last year).  It was my third agent who finally sold my first book to a small press where it failed abysmally.  Currently, thanks to self-publishing, that book (and series) is my best seller.

Q: What made you choose mystery as your genre?

THRESHOLD-sm A: I knew I’d never be able to write sexy romances, and mystery seemed the next best genre.  Although now I’m trying my hand at what I call “fantasy lite” with the Tales of Telenia novels. (They are THRESHOLD and JOURNEY … and I’m plotting a third now.)  I write character-driven stories, and I like strong women with an entrepreneurial flair.

Q: You’ve published under three names: Lorraine Bartlett, Lorna Barrett, and LL Bartlett. Why is that, and will you continue to write new books under each name?

A: When I sold the Jeff Resnick series, my agent suggested I write under the name L.L. Bartlett as she felt (and was right at the time) that men wouldn’t buy a book written by a woman.  I’m happy to say that things have changed in the last decade and that I’m finding more and more male readers every day—even for my cozy mysteries.  It just goes to prove that people like character driven stories—be the protagonist male or female.

As psychological suspense and cozy mysteries are quite different, I was asked by my publisher to take a pseudonym for the Booktown Mysteries.  By the time I sold the Victoria Square Mysteries, I wanted people to know (okay—all the kids in my high school graduating class who thought I was some kind of geek) that I could be successful under my own name.  Two of the three books under that name have hit the New York Times bestsellers list, but my Lorraine Bartlett website gets far less hits than the other two.

If I had it to do over, I’d only write under one name.

Q: You’ve written several different series and they’ve all done well. What do you think are the key elements to a successful series? And a related question: What mystery series (plural), past or present, do you particularly admire?

A: Character-driven stories.  The reader must be able to relate to or feel something for the characters.  I get letters from readers telling me they can’t stand Angelica Miles because she’s a bossy, opinionated person. In other words, she’s a big sister and acts like it.  Despite the fact I never had a sister, I’ve somehow managed to capture that love-hate relationship sisters often have.  I’ve had many more letters from readers telling me the relationship between Angelica and Tricia mirrors the relationship they have with their own sisters.  I also write about brothers in the Jeff Resnick Mysteries.  Brothers I understand.  I’ve got two of them.

Gee, I don’t think I have a favorite mystery series, though I’ve read a lot of them.

Q: I’m fascinated by your combining of mainstream publishing and self-publishing, and would like to pursue that subject a bit. You’ve had multiple books hit the New York Times bestseller list, most recently One Hot Murder, so it would One-Hot-Murder.large_seem that your publishers have done well by your books. And yet you have chosen to self-publish some of your work. What led you to that decision?

A: See above.  My small press experience was a disaster.  I had faith in my characters.  My friend Sandra Parshall (author of the award-winning Rachel Goddard mysteries) once told me that I’d be best known for my Jeff Resnick characters.  I don’t know if that’s true, because being successful as a self-published author is far different than success with traditional publishing, but I sell a LOT more copies of those books.  Oddly, the crossover audience is small.  I’ve had better luck convincing my cozy readers to try the darker Resnick stories than having the Resnick readers try the lighter cozy mysteries.  Price is also a factor.  My Resnick books sell for $4.99 as opposed to $7.99 for my traditionally published books  in e format.  The price difference gives them more of an incentive to try the books.  My Resnick mysteries are also available as trade paperbacks, but don’t have the kind of distribution the cozies have.  Still, the royalty for self-published books is far greater than an author gets with a traditional publisher.  But the most important thing an author needs to be successful in self-publishing is experience.  One really does need to write millions of words, figure out structure, plotting, and characterization, and present the best story they can write before readers will buy their work.  Have there been flukes?  Sure.  J.K. Rowling may not be the best writer in the world, but there’s no doubt she is a spellbinding storyteller.

Q: As a writer with a major publishing house, you have the support of professionals in all sorts of areas, including editing, proofreading, marketing, sales, promotion, publicity, and design. How do you replicate all the work they do for your self-published books?

A: You can buy the same services as a one-shot  deal and you’re not an indentured servant to a publisher or an agent.  The profit margin is all yours, and is often recovered in a surprisingly fast time period.

Q: What are the best methods you found for promoting your self-published work?

A: Social networking.  I rarely do face-to-face promotion anymore because it’s just not worth the time and effort.  I had some very lovely signings for the earlier books, but people don’t show up any more.  It’s not good for the author or the bookseller.

Q: Have your publishers encouraged your forays into self-publishing?

A: No. But when I offered my editor my Jeff Resnick series, I was turned down because he felt it would only garner a niche audience.  I’m happy to say he was wrong.  They haven’t discouraged me, either.  I suspect that’s because I’m making money for them and they want to keep me happy.  Should I be presented with a contract that says I can only write for them, I wouldn’t sign it.  I write other things besides cozy mysteries, if only for my own entertainment.  I wrote the fantasy novels while on vacation cruises.  It was fun.  I don’t want someone telling me what I can and cannot write.

Q: How does your self-published work sell in comparison to your published work? Or are we comparing apples to oranges?

A:  It is apples and oranges.  But I also make a lot more money with my self-published titles.  Why not?  I’ve got 30 of them, although the majority of them are short stories.  Some were projects that were rejected by traditional publishers.  It’s gratifying to be able to say, and have the numbers to back it up, that editors and agents were wrong.  I believed in my characters and my work when others didn’t.  I worked hard to make this happen.

Q:  There’s a lot of controversy in the blogosphere about pricing of e-books. Some people feel that pricing books at ninety-nine cents makes a joke of the author’s work. Others complain that pricing them above ten dollars, as mainstream publishers do, arouses furious buyer resistance. What do you think? Is there a sweet spot for self-published books?

A: No doubt about it, a 99 cent book by an unknown writer has a better shot at selling than a $7.99 book by yet another unknown writer.  I do have 99 cent titles, but they’re for short stories.  My first was an Amazon short.  I liked the idea of being able to sell a short story for 49 cents.  When Kindle took off, they abandoned that program and made the minimum price 99 cents.  I worried no one would buy short stories, but they do.  Not in huge quantities, but doesn’t take long to earn out the cost of production.

A good starting place is $2.99.  It rather depends on length.  My shorter novels go for $2.99.  The longer ones for $4.99.  That seems reasonable to me.  I think traditional publisher shoot themselves in the foot by charging the same price for an e book and a mass market paperback. (I haven’t really investigated the price relationship between e books and trade paperbacks.)  They argue there are costs for formatting a manuscript for an e book, but that’s also called overhead.  They’d do far better selling a high volume at a lower price than a lower volume at a higher price.

Often 99 cents is a loss leader.  Price the first in a series at that price (or free) and if readers like it, they’ll try the rest of the series.  It works well for grocery stores selling milk, etc.  It also works well for authors.

Q: What does the advent of low-cost self-publishing mean for writers and publishers today? I used to see publishing and self-publishing as two completely separate tracks. More and more, though, we are seeing writers cross from one track to the other or, like you, straddle both. Can you venture an opinion about where this is heading?

A: I have no idea.  But I like the freedom of writing what I want and that work finding an audience.  Publishing used to nurture authors.  They don’t do much of that any more.  I don’t have to sell 100,000 copies of any given book to be successful as self-published author, simply because the royalty structure is so different.  Authors who never earned out with their work now can earn a living wage from the titles that “failed” when traditionally published.  Genres that were said to be dead (such as Regency Romance and horror) are finding plenty of new readers via e books.

Q: Would you advise a first-time novelist to pursue mainstream publication or to self-publish? Why?

A: It would depend on how well they wrote.  Tossing a book up on Kindle and hoping it will fly is a crapshoot.  What makes self-published authors successful is backlist, and putting out new material on a regular basis.  When you’re tied to a traditional publisher, you’re often in the one-book a year trap.  Stephen King and Nora Roberts were far too prolific for their traditional publishers and had to take pseudonyms.  These days, they wouldn’t have had to.  Traditional publishing still has a lot of old-fashioned ideas they’re holding onto for dear life … like if you saturate the market with your work, it won’t sell.  I’m happy to prove that old saw wrong.

Q: What’s the most useful advice about writing you ever got? Who gave it to you?

A: Rewrite. A lot of people said it over and over again.  And one of the beautiful things about self-publishing … you can rewrite a story and put out a new version.  As technology changes, so do my books.  I just refreshed one a couple of weeks ago—keeping it relevant.  I like having that ability.  Younger readers are going to be better able to relate to the story if it doesn’t read like history.

Q: What’s the most important advice you have for aspiring writers?

A: Read a lot. Write a lot.  Rewrite a lot.

Q: Thanks so much for visiting, Lorraine.  What’s next on your agenda?

A: After my next contract works…I have no idea.  But no matter what I write, I’m sure I’m going to enjoy the journey.

 

I hope you found Lorraine’s remarks as interesting as I did. She’s a busy lady, but if possible she will drop by and respond to comments and questions, so please feel free to join the conversation. 

Some exciting developments on my end, too, with A DANGEROUS FICTION coming out in July with Viking Books. The one I can share now is that we’ve scheduled two appearances in the NY area. I’ll be reading and signing books at the Barnes and Noble in Carle Place, NY, on July 29, 2013 at 7 PM and at the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, NYC. I’m hoping Lorraine is wrong in this one thing at least, and that lots of people do come, because I love meeting readers face to face. See you there!