Lessons from Novelists, Part II

The introduction to “The Secrets: The Podcast for Writers” bills it as “the podcast for anyone who’s serious about writing,” and despite the focus on fiction in general and sci-fi/fantasy in particular, there’s a wealth of useful information for nonfiction writers and authors as well.

“The Secrets” is the brainchild of Michael A. Stackpole, a science fiction and fantasy author with about 40 published novels to his name, many of them set in the Star Wars® universe. Even though I’m an avid reader of genre fiction, I hadn’t heard of him before I started listening to his podcast, so I started checking his books out of the library to see whether he was as good in practice as his theory sounded. And yes, he is, or as close as anyone is likely to get.

Here are just a few of the useful tips in the ten regular and fourteen special editions of the podcast so far, broken down into tips for writing, tips for editing, and tips for marketing.

Writing/Subject Matter

The ability to use language well spans genres, but many of the techniques discussed under this heading pertain primarily to fiction, such as story arcs and character development. Still, if you write memoirs, biography, or “dramatic nonfiction,” these are skills you need to develop. Others apply to any kind of writing, definitely including business books.

Read Widely

And that means widely. Read outside your area of specialty. Read outside your own areas of interest. Even the tabloids have something to teach you—about human nature, and about crafting effective headlines. These insights are essential for character development if you’re a novelist, but popular magazines also show you what readers are hungry for if you’re writing how-to and self-help books.

Separate Evergreens from Fads

Going back to those tabloids—if you look at them over a period of time, you can easily find out what sells year in and year out, season after season, as opposed to what’s trendy for a few months or a year and passé ever after.

Right now, for instance, podcasting is hot, and everyone and his brother (funny how it’s mostly men) is publishing a book about it. By now the publishers are saturated, and not likely to take another book on the subject unless it’s got a really unusual twist.

Communication, on the other hand, is an essential part of human existence and business. The principles of good communication are important whether you’re sending smoke signals or bit streams.

Never “Phone it in”

Whether you’re writing your own book or a chapter in someone else’s, give it your best. The people who are paying for the book your work appears in deserve your best—and you want to encourage them to seek you out elsewhere.

What to Write Next

While you’re shopping book number 1 to the agents and publishers, or waiting for it to come off the press, what do you work on next? Unless the publisher has signed you up for a series, you might be better off not writing the sequel to the first book. If the first one doesn’t sell, the publisher isn’t likely to buy the second. Instead, work on something different which has a good chance of succeeding. If nothing else, it will get you a reputation for versatility.

Editing

Editing your own work is hard. As a freelance editor, I naturally incline to advising people against even attempting it. On the other hand, I do it all the time for my own articles, so it would be wildly hypocritical not to pass on these very useful tips for editing your own work, especially in an era when publishers provide far less editorial support than they used to.

Don’t Revise While Writing

This is a tough one, at least for me, but if you start revising every sentence while writing it, you’ll get to the end of the day and have nothing done at all. Write first, edit later. If necessary, make a note to yourself about changes you need to make (if, for instance, you realize several chapters into a book that you have to add something to Chapter 1 in order for Chapter 5 to make sense). This is also the key to writing quickly.

Edit in Hard Copy

Retention goes up enormously when reading print on paper rather than on the screen. Print your manuscript so you can catch the little mistakes you wouldn’t see when reading on the screen. Having a hard copy printout is also a prerequisite for the next technique.

Don’t Edit at Your Desk

Dividing your mindset between author and editor is challenging. Help your brain by giving it cues. When you’re at your desk, you’re writing. When you’re away from your desk, you’re editing. Pick up that red (or blue, or purple, or whatever you want so long as it’s easy to distinguish from black) pen and make your corrections sitting in an armchair, on the sofa, or at the dining room table—but safely away from your computer.

Always do a 2nd and 3rd draft

No matter how smoothly it flows when you write it the first time, rewrite it. Once you’ve set it aside for a few days, printed it, and edited it, you’ll have a much easier time rewriting than if you tried to start over again immediately after finishing the last sentence.

Spelling and Grammar Count

This warmed my pedant’s heart, but it’s true. Whatever you write, wherever you write it, you look more professional if you use correct spelling and don’t make glaring grammatical errors. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your word processor’s spelling checker will fix everything, either. Get a human being to do it.

Marketing

One of the most important things to know when preparing to sell a book to a publisher is what already-successful book it resembles. (This is the “competing and complementary books” section of your proposal.) Find several people who are familiar with the genre/field in which your book is written and ask them to read your manuscript and complete the following phrase: “In the tradition of…” Whether your book is in the tradition of Alan Weiss or of Stephen King, that phrase will tell publishers who is most likely to buy your book.

Signings

While straightforward book signings are not necessarily an author’s best marketing tool, there are ways to improve your success. One is to time your signings to tie-ins, such as holidays or local events relating to your book’s subject. Another technique is the “drive-by signing,” where you stop by a bookstore and offer to sign their stock of your works. This encourages the store to put up a special display and add little “signed copy” stickers to your books, and it doesn’t take very long.

Keep a Bookstore Mailing List

Instead of spending a fortune sending postcards to thousands of individual readers, put bookstores on your print mailing list and stick to electronic announcements for your readership at large. Particularly if you’re published by a major house, it’s the bookstores you need to sell to in order for readers to have a chance to discover your new book when strolling down the aisles of Barnes and Noble, Borders, or the local independent bookstore. It’s also bookstores and libraries which have author-events like readings and signings.

Free Sample=Obligation

If you give away part of your book in the form of blog posts, PDF chapters, or as a “podiobook” recording, it will promote your sales, not cut into them. People who get a free gift feel a sense of obligation. Not everyone who reads the sample chapter or listens to an episode or two of the podiobook will buy a brand-new hardcover, but chances are that even if they don’t, they’ll mention it to someone who will, or at least buy the paperback or ask the library to stock it. Most people don’t want to read a full-length book sitting at a computer—and printing it out will cost as much as and be more trouble than ordering it from Amazon or stopping by the local bookshop.

For more information about Michael A. Stackpole’s writing, including his “Secrets” newsletter, visit www.stormwolf.com.

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