We invited Kate Albus, J.C. Davis,T.P.Jagger, Jules Machias, and Jocelyn Rish to offer up their thoughts on Favorite Writing Advice. Each question below is followed by the participants’ answers. In reading through them, we hope you’ll find some advice that resonates and helps you with your own work. There should be something here for everyone!
Kate: Drafting is my favorite. And yet, I’m not sure I’ve got any great advice about how to do it. As an inveterate pantser, I love just sitting down and letting the story happen. Even if (when!) huge chunks of the writing are ultimately destined for the cutting room floor, there’s something magical about that place where you’re simply acting as a sort of a conduit, letting the story flow onto the page. I’m a big believer in enjoying those moments when they’re available to you, then going back and refining things later.
J.C.: One of my critique partners early only was great about reminding me that first drafts are allowed to suck. Just write it. I tend to be my own worst enemy and my inner-editor is a jerk who will keep me running on the rewrite treadmill endlessly on my first three chapters. In order to get anywhere I have to let myself write terrible prose and just keep going. Magic happens in revisions but you have to have something to revise in the first place. Finishing that messy first draft has always been my biggest hurdle.
T. P.: The best drafting advice I’ve been given is also the drafting advice I have the hardest time following: Write drafts from BIG to SMALL. In other words, focus on the big picture in early drafts (i.e., creating a coherent plot) and put off the smaller details (writing crisp dialogue, polishing word choice, creating strong chapter hooks, etc.) until later drafts. This big-to-small approach to drafting helps get early drafts written more quickly because you avoid getting bogged down in minutiae that may end up cut as a story’s plot gets ironed out. Unfortunately for me, I’ve always been a detail-oriented, read-and-reread, hyper-analyze, polish-as-I-go writer, so . . . I can offer the big-to-small drafting advice while also being someone who all too often falls short of that ideal approach.
Jules: : I’m one of those writers who has far more ideas than time to execute them. I used to be a pantser, jumping into a story with a few concrete ideas about plot and character development but still doing a lot of writing to see what happens. After this led me into six or seven completed novels that went nowhere but the graveyards of outdated hard drives, I realized I needed to get smart about how I was spending my limited art-making time. So I built myself a graduate-level masterclass on crafting effective fiction, reading and taking notes on every how-to-write book I could find. I learned how to craft snappy dialogue, how to build a plot from the ground up, how to use setting to amplify theme, the best ways to hook readers, the importance of the three-act structure in western fiction, what kinds of concepts could fill an entire book and which ones should be relegated to short stories, and more. After a year of intensive reading and note-taking, the best advice I have to give on drafting is:
Plan everything before you write!
You’ll save so much time by doing this, and your work will be far more effective. No longer will you wind up with scenes that are super-fun to write but hit a dead end. No longer will you spend four pages in chapter one describing a character who falls out of the story in chapter three. No longer will your climactic moment faceplant into ineffectiveness with no discernable cause. Your character arcs will become your plot, your theme will leap off the page without you having to explain it to the reader, and you might even make your readers cry (in that good way).
Jocelyn: While drafting, be like Elsa from Frozen and “Let it go, let it go!” When you’re in the groove, don’t let anything stop the words from flowing.
Can’t remember if a character has blue eyes or brown? Highlight it with a bright color and keep typing.
Not sure about that comma rule? Add a footnote and keep pouring out your new words.
Need to know if Big Ben was already built in a certain year? Add a comment for what you need to look up or else you risk falling down a research rabbit hole that an hour later results in you cooing over pictures of English bulldog puppies.
Getting the details correct is extremely important, but that is for later drafts. It can be tough to slip into a drafting mode where words pour from your fingers, so protect that headspace with whatever flagging/notation/reminder works best for you. Don’t get derailed by productive procrastination!
Kate: I really try (with varying degrees of success) to look at revisions as a gift. An opportunity to reconnect with characters you’ve (hopefully) come to love in the process of spending a year or more with them. Revisions are a chance to get to know them better, to really sit down and have a chat with them, to see what makes them tick and where they need to go. Enjoy that chat.
J.C.: Martha Alderson’s Plot Whisperer book was a game changer for me when approaching revisions. It helped me focus on structure and character arcs in ways I hadn’t previously. I also love using Scrivener’s corkboard view to color code my chapters by act so I can visually see how they’re balanced and where my pivot points are falling. I use Scrivener’s Revision Mode, comments, and highlight features as well when revising to keep track of changes, add notes, and flag areas I need to work on more.
T. P.: Once, as I was polishing a manuscript, I realized I kept a lot of characters busy by having them stare at stuff. They stared at phones. At shiny, uncomfortable shoes. And even at a rather peculiar tattoo of a sheep. Basically, it seemed that every person, place, and thing in my story was in danger of being stared to death. So I decided to use Word’s “find” function (CTRL+F) to see how bad the problem really was. I hunted for STARE. I searched for STARING. And . . . ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?! Do I really need characters to stare sixty different times in under one hundred and fifty pages? Won’t their eyes get dry? Delete. Revise. Administer eye drops.
Suddenly, I had to wonder: What other overused words and descriptions had infiltrated my writing? My hunt continued. I checked characters’ heads. CTRL+F. NOD. Thirty-one times!?!? Delete. Revise. Send characters to chiropractor. CTRL+F. SMILE and GRIN. Hold it. No way. Three characters combine for five smiles on a single page!?!? That’s too much baring of teeth. Delete. Revise. Floss.
So the advice? Beware of overused words and descriptions. Then hunt them down and ruthlessly trim them from your manuscript.
Jules: A checklist can be a great tool to help determine whether your draft has hit all the marks you aimed for when you started writing. There are a million and twelve available online, but it’s important to customize your checklist for each book you write so it’s relevant to your audience, genre, and intention.
The best way I’ve found to do this is to determine both your personal success metrics and the current market’s success metrics for the following elements:
• Target market: What specific audience are you writing for?
• Effectiveness of premise: What’s the hook and why will your audience care?
• Plot: What opposes your main character? Does this opposition create dramatic tension in every scene?
• Character development: What’s at stake for them? Do they get what they want? What they need? Are those two things in opposition?
• Pacing: Are there peaks and valleys in the journey?
• Conflict/tension development: In what unexpected ways does the antagonistic force cause the main character to change?
• Setting: How do the details of each setting impart additional layers of meaning?
• World-building: Have you explained each important element?
• Point of view: Why did you choose what you did? How would your story be different with another choice?
• Voice: Is it distinct?
• Theme: How does your plot bring your message to life?
• Dialogue: Do your characters mean what they say? Are they too on the nose?
• Mechanics: Is your grammar and punctuation as clean as you can make it?
Jocelyn: I learned this revision tip years ago, and it’s been so helpful for me. For each book I write, I have a “Holding” document. As I revise and need to edit out chunks, instead of hitting the delete key (ouch!), I cut and paste them into the holding document. That way I’m not killing my darlings, I’m just relocating them. The relocation might be temporary (although usually it’s not) so it helps me get past the feeling of destroying my beautiful, glorious words (which are not actually that beautiful or glorious) and get on with the business of improving my manuscript.
This can be used for entire chapters that don’t drive the plot or sentences that are truly lovely but don’t fit the story or even a character that isn’t adding anything and can be combined with another.
Moving these words rather than deleting them can ease the tough “stay or go” decisions. And if it turns out these chapters or sentences are really needed, they are simple to retrieve. Another bonus—if you have the type of audience that enjoys extras about your writing process, you can always share these deleted scenes.
Kate: I’ve never been much of a craft book reader; however, I read George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain this year and have been shouting about it ever since. So I’ll shout about it some more, here. It’s sort of a distillation of a class Saunders has been teaching for the past two decades . . . on Russian short stories. But much more than a Russian lit class (or any sort of lit class), it’s a moving and life-affirming book about what makes stories work, and how we, as writers, need to trust that we have what it takes to tell them. Which is about the best craft advice I’ve ever heard.
J.C. : There are tons of articles, seminars, and books about writing in the world. Not all of them are right for any given writer. I’m always wary of anyone who says there are hard and fast rules because what works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another. Find the tips that work for you and ignore the others. We don’t all have to be plotters or pantsers and writing every day isn’t for everyone. Be willing to try various advice, but know that the only hard and fast rules are there are no hard and fast rules.
T. P. : Over the years, there are countless elements of craft I’ve learned (and continue to learn!), so it’s tough to pick a favorite. But . . . one bit of key craft advice I’ve picked up is this: Dialogue should always include some level of conflict. Sure, in everyday life we have all sorts of conversations in which there’s no conflict whatsoever. We could discuss the weather, my family’s new dog, or even what you ate for dinner last night, and we could probably do that without getting into a single argument or feeling the need to lie or evade. (Well, at least I hope so!) But in a story, those everyday, conflict-free conversations drag a story’s pace and bore readers. Instead, dialogue should provide a source of tension that pushes a scene—and the reader!— forward.
Jocelyn: The thing that has improved my craft the most is experimenting with various formats, categories, and genres. Since screenplays are primarily dialogue, writing scripts helped me make the conversations in my novels stronger. Writing flash fiction helped me create stronger plot arcs. Crafting picture books helped me appreciate the power of every single word, since you get so few of them to tell a story.
Trying other genres is also helpful. If you write a thriller short story, you might see ways to up the tension in your romance. Writing a romance short can help you make the characters in your comedy more emotionally rounded rather than walking joke machines. Writing a short comedy might help you punch up your dialogue to bring moments of levity to your horror novel.
We need all kinds of skills to be well-rounded writers, so try out different ways and kinds of writing to hone these various skills to a fine edge.
Kate: I once went to a talk by one of my all-time favorite writers—Mary Doria Russell. When asked about her characters, she said something to the effect of, “If I’m going to spend a year or more with a person, I’ve got to fall in love with them.” That advice has stayed with me ever since. In fact, when I saw the title of this roundtable, it was the first thing I thought of.
T. P. : Over the years, I’ve received a lot of great advice about creating characters, including this: When possible, combine characters and make connections in order to shrink your story’s cast. An example from my own work is when I was writing my first draft of The Treasure Test (Hide and GEEK #2). Late in the story, the group of four friends—the GEEKs—think they’ve solved the final clue in a treasure hunt but don’t have enough time left to ride their bikes to where they need to go. As they stand along the side of the road, trying to decide what to do, a car pulls over, and the driver offers the GEEKs a ride. Originally, the driver of the car was simply going to be a friend of one of the GEEKs’ grandmothers. However, the brief cameo would have been the only appearance of that friend in the story; she had no other role to play. It didn’t take me long to determine that it didn’t make much sense to take this approach. Instead, I made the driver be a gruff-but-kind security guard whom the GEEKs have encounters with at multiple times in the book and series. Not only did I avoid the needless addition of a brand-new character late in the story, but the ride offer matched well with the security guard’s established personality. A definite character combo win-win!
Jules: Before I read K.M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs, I thought I had a good grasp of how to create compelling characters. Then I read the book and realized that instead of painting the Sistine Chapel, I was smooshing Play-Doh into lumpy balls and calling it art. Weiland defines and explains how to effectively use essential character components like
• The lie the character believes and the truth they must learn
• The character’s external want vs. their internal need and why effective fiction pits these against one another
• The ghost in their past that caused them to believe the lie
• The contrast between the character’s normal world at the start of the story and the new world at the end, and how to tie them together so you clearly show your reader the contrast without hitting them over the head with it
It also breaks a story framework into critical pieces and explains the milestones a character will go through. These include
• The first plot point, which kicks the character out of their normal world and makes them start reacting
• The midpoint, which wakes them out of their reactions and guides them into taking action
• The third plot point, which forces the character to take a brutally honest look at their situation
• The climax, when the character rises from the ashes of their mistakes and does battle from a place of inner wholeness
So my favorite advice on characters: Read Weiland’s book! I used it to build the character arcs and plots for Both Can Be True and Fight + Flight, and it didn’t steer me wrong once.
Jocelyn: In real life, every person is the star of their own story, so your supporting characters should be their own stars as well. You don’t have to share the details of their starring roles on the page, but you should understand their wants and needs and wounds and what drives them, so that the parts of them you do share create someone who feels real.
You don’t want a character who just delivers jokes to provide a brief laugh; you want a character whose parents constantly fought and the only way she thought she could stop the fighting was by distracting them with a corny joke, so now she deals with every tense moment in her life with a groan-worthy joke. Hint at the meaning behind your character’s actions to bring them to life on the page.
You should view all of your characters as fully realized people so readers will, too. That way we will cheer for (or against!) everyone in your story and not just the main character.
Kate: Read nonfiction. As a writer of historical fiction, this is utterly invaluable to me, but I’m guessing it has value for fiction writing of any kind. Getting a sense of the day-to-day experience of the people who really lived in the time you’re writing about (even if it’s an imaginary time) is not only critical for worldbuilding, it makes the process so much more interesting. What weird things did they eat? Were their clothes uncomfortable? What did it smell like where they lived? I love firsthand accounts, especially memoirs, diaries, any sort of first-person narrative. They’re a sort of primary source for worldbuilding.
J.C. : The worldbuilding visible in a book should be like the tip of an iceberg. You may know every tiny piece of data about your world, but the reader only needs to know those elements that set the scene, give a sense of the world, and ultimately progress the plot. Don’t drown your reader in details—leave room for their imaginations.
T. P. : In worldbuilding—what I’ll refer to as setting—there are plenty of factors to consider, such as the time period, the culture, the landscape, and the language. But whether you’re writing a contemporary, realistic story or constructing an entire fantasy realm one plant and one creature and one lava pit at a time, the key piece of advice I’ve been given is that the world I’m constructing for my story matters. Or at least it should.
And I was given a simple, one-question test to help analyze the importance of the setting. Here’s what I was asked: If the events of your story were plucked from their current setting and transplanted somewhere completely different, how would the plot be affected? If your answer is “Not much” or “I’m not sure” or “You’d have to ask my dog,” then you need to reexamine your worldbuilding.
For example, in my middle-grade debut, Hide and GEEK, the four friends known as the GEEKs learn that their small, New Hampshire town’s primary employer—Van Houten Toys—is shutting down. The GEEKs then undertake a treasure-hunting quest to save the town. The smalltown aspect of the setting is vital because every little change in the town has an outsized effect on the whole, tightknit community. If the setting shifted to someplace larger—such as to New York City or Chicago—the story’s underlying premise would need revision as well, because the shuttering of a single employer in a large city wouldn’t have the same community-wide impact it has in the GEEKs’ hometown of Elmwood. With this foundation, I was able to shape Elmwood like another character in the story, full of its own unique quirks and idiosyncrasies. By making a small town vital to the plot, I made the setting matter.
Jules: This can be intimidating as hell, or it can be the spark of inspiration that leads you to write a ten-volume series—or it can be both! All novels and stories require it, not just fantasy and sci-fi. Before you start writing, nail down at least the basics of these elements:
• Location/geography: the world the book inhabits
• Culture: popular, underground, fringe, subcultures
• Religion: Are conflicting systems in play in the book?
• Political system: Monarchy? Theocracy? Democratic socialism? Dictatorship?
• History: What events led to circumstances as they are when the story starts?
• Magic: Hard magic? Soft magic? No magic?
• Technology: What is it in relation to the 2022 world we inhabit?
Once you have a framework in place, you can flesh out the details as you write.
Jocelyn: My advice for worldbuilding is to figure out if you’re good at it or not. I’m terrible at it. One mentor said a story of mine was like everything was happening in a white bubble, and she was right! In real life, I hardly ever notice the furniture or what people are wearing or what buildings look like, so those details don’t get naturally incorporated into my writing—I have to work to add it later.
Since I know I’m weak at worldbuilding, I purposely set all my stories in the current day in settings familiar to me (or that I can easily access reference pictures of online). I can’t imagine coming up with a money system or weather patterns or a culture’s fashion or the other details that go into books with lots of worldbuilding. I also dedicate at least one revision pass to focusing completely on filling in the details of the world around the characters.
Actually, my best advice for anyone hoping to improve their worldbuilding skills is to go learn it from someone better at worldbuilding than me!
Kate: I feel like plot is the hardest part for me, because I’m very much a pantser. I sit down to try and write an outline, and my brain just goes . . . nope. So, for this one, I’m going to paraphrase some advice from the great Stephen King. All you need is a premise. From there, sit back and listen and let your characters tell you where they need to go.
T. P. : Some useful plotting advice I picked up is that each scene of a story should produce either PROGRESS or IMPEDIMENT for the protagonist. In other words, as a protagonist works toward his external goal and/or his internal emotional growth, each scene either takes him closer to his goal/growth (PROGRESS) or something gets in the way of his goal/growth (IMPEDIMENT). This makes it so every scene helps move the story forward; each has something to add to the overall plot.
Jules: In all of my favorite books and stories, plot is inextricably linked to character arc. While a plot that centers around a character with a flat arc can be a great deal of fun—witness Wonder Woman, Indiana Jones, etc.—change is how we learn and grow, and a good dynamic character arc generally includes a huge change.
Once I figured out how strong the link is between plot and character, and that because of this, the three-act structure can play out in infinite ways, crafting my plots became much easier. Here’s a template that works great for me:
1. Opening: Follow the newspaper lede-writing rule and show your reader who, what, when, where, why, and how as soon as you can. Context is everything.
2. Hook: What’s happening in this story that’s unusual or interesting? What goal is the character trying to meet in the first scene?
3. Inciting incident: What event, either caused by the main character or not, kicks off the plot? If this sort of thing has happened before, why are things different this time?
4: First plot point: How does the character respond to the inciting incident?
5: Pinch point: In what way is that response challenged?
6: Midpoint: How does the context shift? What does the character learn or figure out here that changes their approach?
7: Pinch point two: How is the changed approach challenged?
8: Second plot point: How do the character’s best efforts fail?
9: Climax: The big bada-boom! Does the character get what they want? What they need? Do they figure out the difference between these two things?
10: Resolution: How is their world now different? How are they different?
Jocelyn: As a diehard pantser, I sometimes feel like I should not give advice about plotting, but even though I don’t outline or predetermine my plot points, I hardly ever change any of the beats after I finish my drafts in a frenzy of wild-flying words. That’s not to say plotting is an innate skill (or that my plots are perfect!), it’s just that the “standard” beats have been ingrained in me from years of reading and watching movies. So my advice is to absorb all the stories you can in various ways. Read short stories and picture books. Listen to novels via audiobooks. Watch movies and short films and plays. The rhythms of effective plotting will sink into your subconscious and guide your writing whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.
Kate: Remind yourself, again and again, that a HUGE part of connecting with any reader—maybe even the biggest part—is just finding the right person at the right time. Your stuff is good. Somebody will see that. It’s a question of your words crossing the right agent’s desk at that magical moment when they just happen to be in the mood for exactly the story you’ve come to tell.
J.C. : AFinding the right agent is more important than just signing with the first agent who offers. Know what kind of agent you want before you begin querying and do your research. Pay for a one-month subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace so you can find agents that are selling books to imprints you want to work with in the categories and/or genres you want to write. Use services like Query Tracker and agency websites to see what other authors an agent represents and check out their books to get a sense for what that agent likes and if your writing would be a good fit. Make three different lists of agents: dream agents, top agents you’d like to work with, agents you’d be happy to work with but that might be newer or not quite as great a fit. When you query, don’t query every agent on your list all at once. Pick a few from each of those three lists and wait for their responses. That way if you need to tweak your query or first pages, you haven’t already sent it to every agent on your list and you still have options.
T. P. : My favorite querying advice is simple: While querying one project, KEEP WRITING—move on with something fresh. Not only does this help you maintain sanity as you wait weeks and months to hear back from agents and/or editors, but it also makes it so regardless of the outcome of your queries, you’re always moving forward in your writing; you’re being creative and improving in your craft.
Jules: It’s easy to overcomplicate this, because simplicity is so wildly difficult to achieve. It seems easier to write a whole freaking book than to write two hundred words of jacket copy for it. It’s the same with query letters, with the additional layer of having loads of emotional weight attached: you want your book baby to find acceptance, love, and a place in the world, and the first hurdle between you and that dream is the perfect query letter that will land you your dream agent.
The best advice I can give here is to do your research. Spray and pray is not the way. Look up agents’ MSWLs. Know what market segments they work in. Read and adhere to their querying guidelines. Follow them on Twitter. And for the love of all that’s holy, spell their name right!
Jocelyn: Okay, this might get me roasted by any agents reading this, but . . . don’t spend too much time personalizing queries. When I queried my first book, I spent hours and hours and HOURS looking for every interview the agent had done, reading books they repped, and checking out their tweets so I could come up with a personalized sentence or two for every query I sent.* For my second book, I didn’t do as much personalization research—I tried to find something I could reference in the query, but it was more generic rather than detailed. For my third book, I didn’t do any personalization. All the agents got the same query with the names replaced. Can you guess which one resulted in multiple offers?
The request/rejection stats were about the same for all three books, and I got multiple full requests for all three, but the offers didn’t arrive until the third one. So it wasn’t about the hours I spent searching for a detail that would create the perfect connection with the agent, it was about finally having a manuscript that was ready for the market at the right time. Use the time you’d spend on personalizing queries for writing something new!**
* You should still carefully research agents to make sure they are a good fit for you and your book! Just don’t stress yourself out looking for that perfect bit of personalization.
** If your dream agent says they prefer personalized queries, then definitely personalize their query! For me, it just wasn’t time well spent doing it for all of them.
8. Debut year
Kate: Find your people! The friends you make during your debut year will be with you for life, because you’ve shared a time of extraordinary excitement and vulnerability. Read their stuff, and shout about it. Share what you learn, and thank them for sharing what they’ve learned. The writing community is endlessly generous and kind. Enjoying the wild ride of the debut year with other bookish souls makes it that much better.
J.C. : Savor each milestone, but try not to put a ton of pressure on yourself. Get involved with other debut authors and support each other. For my release day, I visited local bookstores to sign stock, but in the afternoon I scheduled a massage and some chill time. Take care of yourself and have fun.
T. P. : ENJOY IT!!!!
Jules: Long before I was published, my author friend Jean Meltzer told me, “No one will ever care about your career as an author as much as you do.” While it might sound harsh, it’s hella true. Yes, my agent cares; my editor cares; my publishing house cares; my family cares. But they don’t care as much as I do.
Knowing this truth going into my debut year helped me keep my expectations realistic, and helped me keep in mind that while my books are deeply important to me, publishing is a business and my book is a product—making me a cog in a machine built to turn a profit. The real measures of impact, to me, are the messages I get from readers telling me my book made a positive difference for them. At the end of the day, that’s my single most important success metric, and it’s good to know that I’ve succeeded.
Jocelyn: Find a debut/promo group to go through this wild adventure with together! So many things about publishing are weird. Really weird. And you see everyone’s happy social media posts, so you think all debuts are having a fantastic experience, while you want to cry about your latest publishing email. And you have friends who are still in the query trenches, so you think you should just be grateful that your book is getting published and how dare you complain?
Having a group where all of you are going through this at about the same time will keep you grounded. Will help you figure out what is normal weird publishing and no-that’s-really-weird weird publishing. Will keep you from tearing your hair out in frustration. Will give you ideas when you’re floundering. Will shout about your book on social media. Will be the first to review your book on Goodreads and Amazon. Might be the only people to show up at your virtual book launch besides your family members. Will console disappointments and celebrate milestones.
Make sure you are just as giving and supportive to others in the group! The connections you make will last beyond your debut year and become wonderful friends and cheerleaders in the years to come.
Kate: A wise writer friend reminded me repeatedly during our debut year that it isn’t our job to sell books. Only to write them. I suppose that’s anti-marketing advice more than marketing advice, but as somebody who is profoundly uncomfortable with self-promo, that’s the advice I’m going with, here.
J.C. : Swag is awesome and fun, but you can spend your entire advance on pre-order campaign items that don’t really end up driving sales if you aren’t careful. Bookmarks are almost always a good investment. Beyond that, choose one or two things that you really want but try not to go overboard and always set a limit on how many pre-order items you’ll be sending out.
T. P. : Put your time and energy into marketing tasks that take advantage of your abilities and that you’ll genuinely enjoy. Sure, if you’ve been wanting to branch out and try something new—Twitter or TikTok or whatever—do that. But don’t just jump onto a social media platform or other marketing bandwagon because you think that’s what everyone does. If your heart’s not in it, it will be difficult to remain authentic and engaged, and your audience won’t be engaged either.
Jules: Reading what published authors have to say about marketing is a good way to determine what works, what doesn’t, and whether your efforts are worth it. From just about everything I’ve read, there isn’t much you can do as a traditionally published author to significantly move the needle on your sales, other than to write the best book you can and then cross all your fingers and toes. Your publisher’s marketing budget for your book is far more likely to determine your book’s sales than your individual efforts.
On the other hand, it can be wildly fun to jump into social promotions. I’ve run quite a few giveaways on my author Instagram, and people are always SO excited when they win a copy of one of my novels. If you’re looking to spread the word about your book, “Tag a friend to enter” promoted giveaways can be a great method. And you can use ShipStation from PayPal for cheap, easy shipping without a trip to the post office!
Jocelyn: Even though I’m an introvert, I actually like a lot of the aspects of marketing. Guest blogging is fun! I’ve enjoyed podcasts waaaay more than I thought I would. I have a blast coming up with graphics for social media, like my #PetPosterior posts. However, I still loathe being on camera, so I’m struggling with the Reels/Stories/TikTok aspect.
In the time leading up to my book launch, I kept reading/hearing to only do what you enjoy. And I was like, “NO! I MUST DO IT ALL!!!” I felt like I had to be everywhere at all times to do whatever I could to push my book.
Nope, I was wrong and should have heeded all the warnings. In the end, the only thing that really moves the needle is the money your publisher puts behind your book. Yes, you can sell some copies with your social media and other outreach, but not enough to make a huge difference, and you risk burning yourself out, so again—ONLY DO WHAT YOU ENJOY!!!
If you’re having fun with it, then it doesn’t feel like work. You’re just doing cool stuff to share your book. If you hate it, then it’s a chore, and then it feels even worse when you discover that YouTube video you spent ten painful hours filming and editing only sold one book (maybe—you never actually know where sales come from!).
So play around with different marketing outreach types, see what you enjoy, and stick with that. Please, please give yourself permission to not do everything!
10. Writing in general
Kate: Allow yourself fallow periods. I know a lot of people say that a real writer writes every day, and if that works for you, by all means do it! But I’ve never found it works especially well for me. Just the opposite, in fact. I find that there are times when I need to be soaking up the world, whether it’s other people’s words, life experiences that have nothing to do with writing, or even just some mindless TV. I think those fallow periods are what allow us to fill our wells so we can sit down and start putting something out into the world. Once we’re ready.
J.C. : Years ago, I was at a writing conference where Charlaine Harris was the featured author. Her best advice for being successful as a writer: be persistent. Successful writers keep writing and don’t give up. Whenever there’s a setback or even a success, always be working on your next book.
T. P. : As a fiction writer, I’ll keep it simple and give Mark Twain the final word. Well, at least I’ll use a quote that’s often attributed to him: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Jules: We all have different learning styles, so figure out yours—whether that’s in-person instruction, reading books, watching videos, working one-on-one with a developmental editor, combing through websites, finding a writing group, and/or something else entirely—and absorb as much information as you can via that method.
I’m a visual learner who learns best by writing things down, so for me it was reading all the craft books I could get my hands on and taking copious notes. I have a file on my laptop called “Turn Down the Suck” that contains my notes from twelve craft books and a handful of websites. Spending a year reading these books and rewriting the authors’ points in my own words did more for my authorial skills than thirty years of writing stories from my gut.
It was also cool to see patterns emerging as I read. What Lisa Cron has to say about why humans tell stories, the lessons Robert McKee shares from his decades of experience teaching craft, and K.M. Weiland’s brilliant guides to creating character arcs coalesced in wonderful ways that sparked a ton of inspiration. My process also tightened significantly; I went from spending three to five years writing books that didn’t sell to spending six months writing ones that did.
It’s also important to read, read, and read some more—especially outside your own experience. My local library does a great job of curating monthly collections for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Autism Awareness Month, Mental Health Awareness Month and AAPI Heritage Month, LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, etc. These collections have helped expand my horizons and enriched my life experience and my writing.
TL;DR: You’re never too old to learn something new!
Jocelyn: Experiment! Think outside the box! Step out of your comfort zone! Play around! Lose your security blanket! Broaden your horizons! Color outside the lines!
Whatever you call it—explore different options!
I’ve been writing on and off for twenty years. For all that time, I really, really wanted to publish a book, specifically a young adult novel. I’ve written several YA novels but had no luck with them.
In the meantime, I wrote a bunch of short stories and won several contests and awards (with cash prizes!).
I wrote a bunch of screenplays and won several grants to produce my scripts—two shorts that won awards at film festivals and a feature that secured distribution and is available on Amazon and other streaming services. (https://www.graveintentionsanthology.com/)
I was thrilled and excited about those, but a book deal remained elusive. So in my biggest leap of faith, I tried (gasp!) nonfiction. I’ve always been a fiction writer. Always. But then I ran across a fact about farting manatees, and in learning more about it, I found more fanny facts. And I thought, “There might be an idea for a nonfiction picture book here.” But my brain argued, “You don’t write picture books. And you DEFINITELY don’t write nonfiction.” But I decided to give it a go, which resulted in finally realizing my dream of publishing a book with Battle of the Butts. And building on the success of that, Battle of the Brains is coming this fall.
Yeah, it’s not the YA novel I dreamed of for so long, but it might be even better because I’ve found a niche I love—interesting science facts for young kids. And now that I have my foot in the door, who knows? Maybe publishing that YA novel is just around the corner.
So don’t get stuck in a rut! Stretch your writing wings and try new things!