Writing Advice and Tips

The Query Letter Experiment - Week One


I love self-publishing and the freedom to publish your books to your audience. But, I also see the value in traditional publishing. So, after I wrote my novel, The Photograph, I decided to try the traditional route of publishing first.

For those unfamiliar with the publishing world, the traditional publishing process is long and arduous. For fiction, the first step is to write a query letter. I think of a query letter as a cover letter introducing your book to a potential agent who represents your genre. If the agent likes what he or she reads, they will contact you to read the entire manuscript. If the agent likes the manuscript, then he or she will sign you as one of their clients. This process can take three weeks or three months. At that point, writers do a little dance, take a deep breath, and settle in for another round of waiting.

An author's literary agent (with help from the author) will shop the novel to publishing companies. Agents usually have relationships with publishers which helps this process. And hopefully, a publisher will decide to publish the novel. More contracts are signed and editors enter the picture. Roughly a year or so after you sign with a publisher, your novel is published.

I am excited to announce I started this process a few weeks ago. I partnered with Candace of Change It Up Editing on my query letter. The final version of my query letter is fantastic. I can't thank Candace enough.

Last week, I sent out my first query letter. I plan to send a few more this week to potential agents. And now, I wait.

I am cautiously optimistic about the process- hopeful to receive responses, even if they are a no. I want to learn from this process so the worst outcome is no communication or response from agents. We will see what happens and as always, you are invited to follow along with me.

Have you ever submitted query letters? Was it successful? What did you learn?

From One Writer to Another - Some Thoughts on Self-Publishing

Today's post is the third in a writing tips and advice series called From One Writer to Another. First, I tackled some general advice, then I told the truth about blogging, and I gave a few tips to write fiction faster. Today's post tackles self-publishing. About a year ago, I wrote a post called the Ins and Outs of Self-Publishing talking about the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing. I still agree with what I wrote then, but I wanted to add a few more notes about what I've learned about self-publishing after releasing another book.

First, self-publishing is pretty easy to do for someone with reasonable skills on a computer. The actual formatting for both my paperback and ebook versions of The Adventures of Zelda were relatively painless. The ebook versions maybe took 2 hours to format and polish with another couple hours for the paperback format for Createspace. (If my old version of Microsoft Word wasn't so terrible, the Createspace format would be even quicker!)

All of this is to say it is true anybody can self-publish. Even if you can't figure out the formatting, someone will do it for you for a nominal fee. And that my friends is what is amazing about self-publishing. There is a way to put your words out in a format for others to read. I love it. I am able to pass out books and spread the word about my writing through self-publishing. I am building a name for myself. It's great.

But, the road to self-publishing success is long. Unless you are the lucky one of one million writers, your first book isn't going to sell enough to pay your bills, even if it's a great book. Success in the self-publishing arena takes dedication, patience, and consistency.

And so, if you want to be a successful self-published author, write a book, publish it, and then immediately start writing another. Realize your success will come down the road when you have several books out for readers. So keep writing and get a critical mass of books published. Focus on writing good books first.

When you have published three to five good books, it is time to start the serious marketing. Start looking for ways to advertise and reach new readers whether that's paid advertising, blog interviews, book signings, etc. Then when you find new readers, they have another book to buy, and your name to pass on to other readers.

If you look at the majority of successful indie authors (Lindsay Buroker, Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, J.F. Penn, David Wood, Hugh Howey), they have several books out, usually in the double digits. When you have 5, 8, or 10 books out, it becomes much easier to market and spread the word about your writing.

So that's my strategy, especially in the next nine months. I'm focusing hard on writing fiction, less on workshops, marketing, and even blogging (although I still will do it). The plan is to have at least two more fiction books out by next summer and then market my name. I believe in self-publishing and making a career of writing. But, I understand the time and commitment of doing it, and I'm willing to make the sacrifice.

What do you like about self-publishing?  What don't you like about self-publishing?

From One Writer to Another: 5 Tips for Writing Better Fiction Faster

'Book' photo (c) 2012, Sam Howzit - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Today's post is another in the From One Writer to Another series. So far, I've written advice for newbie writers to get started and the truth about blogging. This week, I am sharing what I've learned about writing fiction in the past couple of years.

I think writing fiction is much more difficult than writing nonfiction. You need to create characters, timelines, settings, and details within an overarching narrative. And then, you need to make sure it works, meaning there are no plot holes or discrepancies in the details.

My first piece of advice for fiction writers is to read for pleasure. Pick up a book and read every day. But, don't dissect every sentence or chapter. Instead, read the book for the story and enjoy it. When you finish a book, think about what you liked and disliked about the story. Doing this will help you become a better storyteller, which helps you writer better fiction. On a side note, I now write short book reviews for every book I read on Goodreads and post the reviews every month. The book review process takes very little time, but really has centered my focus on what I like in a story.

My second piece of advice is to outline your story before you start writing. When I say outline, I don't mean write out every single thing which will happen in your novel or short story. I do mean write a rough outline of the major plot points and conflicts. This allows room for creativity as you write without getting stuck in the tenth chapter because you wrote yourself into a corner. I started off as a pantser, but have moved on to outlining, which is a more efficient method of writing.

My third piece of advice is to use character timelines. If you are writing a novel, I am sure you have a complex storyline with many characters. The timelines between these characters must add up and make sense. So I use timelines for the major characters to help sort through ages, dates for major story events, and backstory. It has helped me tremendously.

When you are writing, put yourself in the story. Visualize the scene and the characters and write what you see. I can see my protagonist in my novel, Rachel, and her reactions to tough moments because I remember my reaction and others' reactions to tough moments. Put yourself in the story and write.

Finally, carry a small notebook with you (or use an app) to take notes about life everyday. If you meet an interesting person, write a small note about what made he or she interesting. Story ideas and new characters pop into my head often when I am not sitting at my computer writing. If I didn't write them down when they came to me, the ideas might get lost in the shuffle. Watch the world. Observe. Take notes.

Honestly, I wish someone told me these five pieces of advice (especially 2 &3) before I started writing my first novel. I probably would have finished the project six months earlier!

What advice do you have for fiction writers?

From One Writer to Another - The Truth about Blogging

Today's post is the second in the series "From One Writer to Another." The series is tips, advice, and encouragement for fiction writers. You can read the first post in the series here. I have been blogging for roughly five years. My first blog was youth ministry centered and primarily for the youth and families of my church. I enjoyed blogging so much I decided to start a second blog in June of 2010 called Break the Mold. Break the Mold was about living differently. I wrote about changing your life through simplicity. After about two years, I stopped writing at Break the Mold. The blog was mildly successful, but I grew tired of writing about those topics.  Finally, in September of 2012, I launched my current website with a target of readers and writers of fiction.

Through this tangled web of blogging, I've learned two important truths about blogging.

First, blogging is one way to build an audience for your writing. Many writers read that you need to blog to gain traction for your fiction writing. But, blogging is not the only way to find readers for your writing. I use my blog and website as a landing page for new readers. The blogging is secondary and I find more readers through leading workshops and personal connections. I know this isn't true for everyone, but finding readers in a crowded blogging world is tough.

Second, I've learned blogging can easily become a waste of a fiction writer's time. If you want to write fiction, spend 20 hours a week writing fiction, not blogging. Blogging will not get your books finished, but devoting time to writing will.

So my advice for newbie writers is to blog and set up a web home for your work. However, if you are spending more than a couple hours a week on your blog, you aren't doing it right. Make writing the novel and getting published the first priority. Blogging is second.

From One Writer to Another: Advice to Get You Started

The other day I was hitting a blank for what to write for my next blog post. So I asked twitter for some help. Luckily, my twitter friend Lydia came to the rescue and gave some great suggestions for posts. But, my favorite was the first suggestion: What advice would you give to less experienced writers? My initial response to Lydia: am I an experienced writer? I don't feel like an experienced writer many days. But, after three years of blogging and three self-published books, I guess she is right. And in the past three years, I've learned so much about writing, publishing, and myself. And so, I've decided to write a few posts on advice and tips for fiction writers- especially those who are getting started or have hit a roadblock. Today's post deals with the basics, but in future posts I will dive more into specifics on marketing, writing, blogging, and more.

My first tip is to figure out what you want to write. Not what is popular today or the latest fad in writing, fiction, or blogging.  I spent the first year or so blogging about topics which were popular at the moment, but I wasn't passionate about those topics and I quickly burned out. However, when I decided to write short stories about a pug named Zelda, the words jumped onto the page. Find the stories you want to share, the story that you are itching to put into words and write that, not what's popular at the moment.

Second, make a time slot for writing into your schedule. For me, I try to write for a few hours a day five days a week. The days and times vary from week to week because of my irregular schedule due to my job. But, I know I can't ever be a successful author without writing, so I make time for it. Honestly, I could make more time for writing, but then I lose time with my husband or friends. And both of those are important for me (and keep me sane). But, I still write as much as I can.

Finally, very few writers have immediate success. The path to a writing career is slow and arduous. Be patient. Keep writing. Keep your spirits up. Don't let a flop or rejection letter keep you down. Surround yourself with those who encourage you and plow forward.

What basic advice do you have for new writers?

Thanks for reading. The next post in this advice series "From One Writer to Another" goes up next week!

The Character Timeline

In the middle of writing my first novel, I ran into a significant problem. I had no concept of my character's timeline. For example, I didn't know how old Rachel was when her father died, the age difference between Rachel, her aunt, and her father, or when she moved in with her grandparents. Without knowing the timeline, my story didn't make sense. The story had plot holes. To remedy the problem, I took a break from writing and created a timeline for my story. The timeline listed major and minor events in the life of my character and the ages of each character during each event. I wasn't sure all the events would make it into the novel, but I needed to know the timeline for the character's backstory and my understanding as I wrote the story.

The experience taught me the importance of character timelines. When I start my next novel, I plan to create a character timeline before I start writing. The writing process will be faster and smoother with a timeline.

I also use character timelines during my Discover Your Story workshop. During the workshop, participants identify key moments in their lives: the moments after which they are forever changed in a minor or may way. I call those moments life shifts. After they identify the life shifts, they rate the life shifts on a scale of -10 to +10 (0 is neutral). Next, we plot the shifts on a timeline according to chronological order and the rating. The timeline ends up looking like this picture below.


From this timeline, participants can identify patterns and find connections between life events. They learn about who they are and their past can help others. It's a fun exercise in a  small group.

This timeline can also be created for your fiction characters. I haven't used it yet, but I might give it a whirl on my next novel project.

How do you plan your character's timeline?
Have you completed a timeline exercise for your life? What did you learn?