There are a lot of writing blogs out there, and many offer great advice. However, most of the ones I’ve seen are geared toward nonfiction writers. As novel writers, we have different goals and needs. We’re storytellers. We write to entertain.
This blog is about helping you write a better novel as I pass along what I’ve learned about this crazy business. So please, pull up a chair and make yourselves comfortable. And if you see something you like, please be sure to post a comment.
Years ago, a fellow writer contacted me about including me in a book she was writing. I’d met her at a few events where I was promoting my Luke and Jenny book series. Her book was about honoring people who helped to preserve the history or promote the culture of the old west. It would feature many prominent Arizonans, as well as a few Hollywood actors.
Needless to say, I felt both honored and excited to be included in this very distinguished group. One member had been the host of a kid’s TV show in Phoenix which ran for over thirty-five years. He may not have been as famous as the Hollywood actors, but I grew up watching him on TV. I was especially excited to be in the same group he was, and I really looked forward to reading her book once it was published.
A few years went by. I checked her website from time to time. There was no new information, but I wasn’t concerned. Writing a book doesn’t happen overnight, so this was not uncommon.
It’s now been more than a decade since she first contacted me, and her website has since been taken down. It wasn’t a good sign, and I wondered if something might have happened to her. A number of people she included in her book have since passed away, including the kid’s TV show host. Then the other day I saw one of her posts on Facebook. It was the first I’d seen or heard of her in years.
I commented on her post and asked her how she was doing. I also asked her about her book. Her response was totally unexpected. She changed her mind and she wasn’t going to do her book after all. It was too much work and she didn’t have the time. Seriously?
We’ve all had ideas for books which we may have started, but, for whatever reason, we were unable to finish. The issue here is her having contacted and interviewed people before she changed her mind. At the very least, she should have reached out us, along with the families of those who had passed away, to thank us for our time and to apologize for not being able to complete the book. It would have also been nice if she had returned whatever materials I may have sent her. Where I come from this is called common courtesy.
Things happen, but it never ends well when you don’t deliver on the promises you make. I honestly feel like I’ve been duped, and whatever respect I may have had for this woman evaporated the minute I read her comment. I take my profession seriously, and I’ve worked hard to build a good reputation. If something beyond my control comes up and prevents me from keeping a promise I let the other party know, as soon as I possibly can. My reputation depends on it.
As authors we’ve all been told social media is our best marketing tool, and it is. However, the Internet is always changing. Nowadays, at least by my observation, social media seems to be waning in popularity. My main social media accounts are Facebook and Twitter. I’ve been using both for years. A few months ago I started using Instagram, but so far I’m giving it a big, fat, meh.
I’ve spent most of my social media time on Facebook. It used to be a lot of fun, and, for a time, Facebook was a popular fad. Everyone was on Facebook. Those who weren’t just weren’t cool. People posted photos of their kids and grandkids and talked about their hobbies and interests. I shared my book covers on Facebook and I’d post about the current book I was writing. I also started a business page under my pen name, Marina Martindale, which has hundreds of followers. So, what changed?
For me, social media started changing when people began posting their politics. It created an us vs them atmosphere, which was both divisive and hostile. As an author and artist, I keep my politics out of social media because I don’t want to alienate my fans. Facebook and Twitter however added their own fuel to the proverbial fire when they took sides and started censoring people on one side but not the other. Strange business model. I’ve never understood the concept of pissing off half of your customer base. But hey, that’s just me.
The Covid pandemic has made the one-sidedness, and the censorship, so much worse. Here’s a fact for you. Doctors don’t always agree. Remember the old ad jingle about four out of five dentists agree? So where was the fifth dentist? Don’t ask on Facebook or Twitter. They will censor you just for asking. Nowadays Facebook will put you in “Facebook jail,” if you so much as say, “boo!”
Well, here’s the thing. We Americans are accustomed to speaking our minds, and everyone has the right to have their own opinion. We don’t take kindly to censorship, and many walking away from social media as a result.
By my own observation, I’m seeing fewer posts on Facebook from friends who used to post frequently. Others have closed out their accounts entirely. I’m seeing less traffic on my business pages. I’ve also stopped advertising on Facebook because my ads no longer have the reach they once had. Now in case you’re wondering, I’m not alone. My marketing guru tells me she’s seeing the same thing with other clients. Like any other fad, Facebook, along with other social media platforms, has apparently run its course. What was once new and exciting has become, “Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, and you can stick your censorship where the sun doesn’t shine.”
So, here’s how I see it. Once a customer walks away from a business, they’re gone. They don’t come back. I’m also seeing people forming new social networks, such as Parler, but they’re niche networks. While I make no claims of being a social network expert, I think smaller, niche social networks may be the trend in the future. Yes, Facebook and Twitter will still be around. MySpace is still around. However, I think their popularity has peaked, and somehow I doubt they’ll ever regain the following they had before.
So, where does this leave us as authors? I have no plans for closing out my social media accounts, but I’m now focusing more of my marketing on email newsletters and blogs.
As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, every author, regardless of experience or genre, needs an editor. There are no exceptions. However, finding the right editor for your book may be daunting. Particularly if you’re a new author working on your first book.
The best way to find an editor is to ask for referrals through writers groups, forums and associations. Then, once you have a few names, the next step is to reach out to them to see if they would be a good fit for you.
Your editor is your writing partner, so chances are you’ll be working closely together. He or she will also be working for you. So, as with any job, you’ll need to conduct a job interview. The following questions are a guide to help you determine if your prospective editor would be the best fit for you.
Do you edit books in my genre?
Do you charge be the hour, or by the word count?
How much will you charge?
Do you offer manuscript evaluations?
How long is your turnaround time?
Would you have any issues if my manuscript should contain graphic violence, sexual content, or harsh language?
I found Cynthia, my current editor, at a writer’s association meeting. We were both surprised to see one another as both of us were, at the time, also performers in Tombstone, Arizona. Because we already knew one another we knew we would be a great fit as we shared other interests besides writing. We also have the same twisted sense of humor. Never underestimate having a good sense of humor. The relationship between author and editor can be intense at times, so being able to crack a joke relieves a lot of tension.
Many newbie authors don’t understand how basic retailing works. I sometimes see posts on author’s forums from people who are most upset because Amazon is selling their books below THEIR price.
Let’s Take a Short Course in Business 101
You write a book. You then want to sell your book. (And who doesn’t?) There are different way to accomplish this, depending on the book format. These days most authors sell an ebook and a print edition. I’m now going to explain the differences in how they are distributed.
For ebook editions distribution is pretty simple. You upload your file to Amazon or Smashwords. You determine your retail price. Amazon asks you what percentage of that price do you want them to pay you as a royalty. You make you selection, submit your file, and viola! You ebook is now available for purchase, at your price.
So, how are you able to do this? Well, simply put, ebooks are intangible. They’re an electronic file. Amazon didn’t purchase tangible, printed copies of your book for resale.
Print editions are different. They are a tangible product. It costs money to have them printed and distributed to booksellers. So, how does this work?
Most small press and independent authors will usually use Print on Demand. POD for short. Here’s how POD works. Once your book is typeset and your cover is designed, you upload the file to the distributor, which, oftentimes, is Ingram. You include your retail price, along with a discount, typically 55%. That discounted price is your wholesale price. Your retail price is, essentially, the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price, or the MSRP.
So what’s a wholesale price?
Your wholesale price is what resellers, or retailers, you know, book stores, pay for your book. They then stock your books in their store.
So why aren’t they selling your book for your price?
The retail price is what the consumer, in this case, the person who wants to read your book, pays to purchase it from the bookseller.
The bookseller has overhead expenses, such as rent, the electric bill, and so forth. Therefore, he or she has to factor in their overhead and sell the book at a price so that they can make a profit. That price may be the same as your MSRP, or it may be less. If they can sell it for less, the consumer is more likely to buy. If they are having a sale, they may drop the price even lower. Either way, the final retail price is determined by the bookseller, not the author. The author’s price, which is printed on the book cover, is the suggested price only. There is no written agreement between the author and the bookseller.
Your other option–print and distribute it yourself
If you’re not happy with the way books are printed and distributed you can print and distribute your book yourself. Some authors choose to do this, and there is certainly nothing wrong with it. However, there are some disadvantages. First, you’ll have to find a book printer and pay for a print run, which is typically 500 or 1000 books. That’s a lot of books, so you’ll need a place to store them.
Once you have your print books in hand, you can sell them directly from your own website at your MSRP. Again, some authors do this, quite successfully, but it’s also a lot of work. Once a book is sold you’re responsible for the shipping, so plan on spending time waiting in line at the Post Office. You can also sell the book yourself on Amazon as a third party seller. However, you’re still responsible for fulfilling the order, which means you’re still the one who has to go to the Post Office.
So there you have it. If you want total control of the MSRP, and you don’t want anyone selling your book for anything less, then you’ll have assume responsibility for the printing and distribution, and well as fulfilling the orders. Again, some authors do this successfully, while others do not.
“I have this really great idea for a book that I think you should write.”
This has to be the most infuriating thing anyone could ever say to an author. While the person saying it may have thought they meant well, they’ve just told you how to do your job. Then there’s the other implication. Somehow you’re not capable of coming up with your own ideas for your books. Good grief! I never thought that I would actually hear this, but sure enough, someone said this to me. It was a real jaw dropping moment.
My response was firm, but polite. I told him I write contemporary romance novels, and that I ONLY write contemporary romance novels. Period. In other words, I set my boundaries before the conversation went any further. Had he said, “Yes, I know. I just wanted to tell you about my crazy ex girlfriend,” I would have listened. When he finished his story, I would have thanked him for his time time. I would have also let him know that I couldn’t guarantee I would ever use his story for a future book.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with people sharing their stories. Other people’s stories can be great inspiration for a novel, and oftentimes they are. However, adding the words, “I really think you should write this,” changes the dynamics of the conversation rather quickly, and not in a good way. I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job. Any decision to use anyone’s story, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, is mine and mine alone, and it’s subject to my own interpretation.
Once I firmly set my boundaries the gentleman didn’t elaborate any further. I had a funny feeling that romance novels weren’t his thing. He never got around to telling me what his great idea was, and I didn’t ask.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer working from home, it’s having to set my boundaries.
Working at home is certainly convenient. The commute time is less than a minute. You don’t have to worry about who used the restroom before you. You can work in your sweats, assuming you don’t have a Zoom meeting. If you do, then wear a nice top with your slippers and sweatpants. Going to lunch is easy too. It’s only a short walk to the kitchen.
Convenience, however, has it’s drawbacks. You miss out on watercooler conversations. There’s no coworker saying it’s five o’clock so let’s go grab a beer. It gets lonely at times, and you can easily put in sixty or eighty hours a week. Sometimes it’s necessary. Especially when you have a deadline. However, if you’re not careful, you could easily burn out. And for creative people, burnout can be a career killer.
If took me a while to figure it out, but I eventually came to realize that I had to set boundaries for myself.
Learn to Set Boundaries
Family time, and time for yourself, is as important as the time you put into your work. Perhaps even more so. Kids grow up fast. You don’t want to miss school plays or soccer games or other family time because you were too busy working. You also need to give your creative mind time to recharge itself.
I set my first boundary when I decided to get my nails done every week. A little pampering does wonders for your self-esteem, and a manicure isn’t that expensive. Now every Wednesday afternoon is my time for me, and in spite of it all, I still get things done.
Another boundary is ending my workday at five o’clock. I define a workday as doing paying gigs and activities related marketing and promoting my creative work. However, writing contemporary romance novels is one of my greatest joys in life. I live for my creative writing time, so I don’t set time limits on that.
Weekends are another boundary. I don’t open my business email account on weekends or holidays. If brick and mortar offices are closed on weekends and holidays, then my home office can be closed on weekends and holidays too.
How and when to set your boundaries is entirely up to you. What’s matters is keeping things in balance, and making the time to do the things you enjoy doing.
There is nothing quite like the thrill of finishing your very first manuscript. If you’re like most new authors, you probably can’t wait to see your book in print. However, there are a number of steps you need to take before you’re ready to publish. The following checklist will help you determine if you are indeed ready.
Have you determined if there is a viable market for your book?
The old adage that there’s an audience for every book is generally true, but some genres are more popular than others. That said, some niche authors do very well. I know a gay man who writes romance novels for gay readers, and he built a following rather quickly
Have you completed your research and listed all your sources in a bibliography?
This mostly applies to nonfiction works, although I included bibliographies in my Luke and Jenny series of historical novels for young readers. The series was written to teach actual historic events in an interesting and entertaining way, and it was geared toward educators.
Have you gotten two to four manuscript reviews to use for your back cover blurbs?
It’s an important step which many new authors miss. Having a back cover blurb gives you more credibility. I’ll ask other authors for reviews and let them know there’s some free publicity for them, as their name and book title appears on my cover. Authors associations and online forums are a great way to connect with other authors.
Have you obtained written permission for all the visual references you’re including, such as photographs or charts?
This is a biggie, and never assume it’s public domain because it’s a historic image or it’s royalty free. Copyright laws changed dramatically in the 1970s, and some museums own the rights to images in their collections. Also royalty free doesn’t mean copyright free, so read the terms and conditions carefully when purchasing stock images. When in doubt, ask. Better yet, create it yourself if you can.
Have you used your spellchecker?
Seriously. Even the best of us make silly mistakes, and double checking your spelling will make your editor’s job a little easier.
Have you decided how to publish your book?
Gone are the days when big publishing houses dominated the market. Today’s authors have many options. Please refer to my post, The Three Options for Book Publishing, for more specific information.
Are you prepared to deal with the possibility of rejection letters or receiving bad reviews?
Not everyone is going to like your book, and those who choose to find an agent or go the traditional publishing route will have to deal with rejection letters. However, you needn’t fear an occasional bad review. It means that you are real.
Are you willing to accept editorial changes?
This is another biggie. Your editor is a fresh pair of eyes who goes over your manuscript to give it the polish it needs to help it become successful. They can and will make changes. Therefore, it’s important that you find someone you feel comfortable working with. Once again, author’s associations and online forums are good places to ask for referrals.
Have you planned a budget to cover expenses such as software, editors, and other out-of-pocket costs?
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, writing a book is a business venture, and you will have some out-of-pocket expenses. Even traditionally published authors have overhead expenses, such as computers and software. Grants, endowments or crowd funding may be available for those authors in need of financial assistance.
Do you have a plan for marketing and promoting your book?
Marketing the book is the author’s responsibility, even if you are traditionally published. Thankfully, there are many how-to books out there to help you with your marketing plan.
If you answered no any of these questions then you’re not ready to be published. However, this checklist may be a handy guide for doing what you need to be ready.
Remember, book publishing is a team effort. So for best results, you must be willing to work with others and be willing to consider whatever suggestions or advice they may offer you.
Every once in awhile I’ll come across someone who thinks intellectual property should never be copyrighted. Or they believe that everything on the Internet is public domain. Most of them understand copyright law. They just think they’re entitled. According to them, the movie studios, record companies and book publishers have plenty of money. Therefore, they shouldn’t have to pay for the music or book, and they see nothing wrong with pirating an artist’s work.
No matter how many times you try to explain to these people that pirating an artist’s work is actually stealing from the artist, they don’t care. Their argument is that books, music, and other creative works are merely ideas and nothing more. To them, it’s simply wrong to put a copyright on an idea. Creative works, however, are more than just an idea. They are the result of someone’s unique interpretation of an idea, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into creating it. This is why creative works are considered intellectual property.
I’m not an attorney, nor am I giving legal advice. However, it’s common knowledge that a creative work belongs to the person, or persons, who created it. I’m also going to explain, in layman’s terms, what pirating, and plagiarism actually are.
Pirating means you are obtaining a copy of someone else’s creative work in such a way as to circumvent having to pay for it. A perfect example would be borrowing a friend’s CD and copying the music onto your computer. And yes, pirating is also illegal. Making copies of someone else’s creative work without their permission is illegal too. This is why, for example, a church cannot photocopy songs from a single songbook so that each choir member has a copy. If they were to get caught they could end up with a hefty fine. They would, instead, have to provide a songbook to each choir member.
Regardless of how the work is pirated, the end result is the artist who created the work it isn’t paid by the person using it. Pirating is stealing. Period.
Plagiarism is another way of stealing. It’s taking someone else’s work, putting your name on it, and then claiming the work as your own. This is why scholarly works include footnotes and bibliographies. It’s also why our teachers and professors would gave us failing grades on term papers if we didn’t properly credit our sources. There have also been cases of plagiarism in music when a riff used in one song may have sounded too much like a riff used in another published song.
For more specific information on copyrights, fair use, and other intellectual property law, or if someone has used your work without your authorization, please consult a copyright attorney.
One of the perks of being a novel writer is learning new skills, and one of the new skills I learned was video production. Book videos are a must-have tool for building your brand and marketing your book(s). They’re like a TV commercial or a movie trailer and they’re used on websites, blogs, and social media. There are several different ways to go about producing a book video. The most common are slideshows, author readings, and book trailers
Back in the mid 2000s, when I wrote my Luke and Jenny series of historical novels for young readers, Internet videos were a new technology. Video editing software was expensive and difficult to use. So, back then, many authors produced video slideshows, which were easy to create in Powerpoint. My first two book videos were simple PowerPoint presentations that I produced myself for very little money.
Even today, you can still create a nice video slideshow without having to spend a lot of money. Powerpoint has come a long way, and nowadays you can animate slides, record voice overs, and add music tracks to your presentation. Or you can take it to the next level and produce your slideshow in iMovie or one of its Windows counterparts. Whatever approach you take is entirely up to you.
Thanks for smartphones, we all have a camcorder in our pocket. Those authors who wish to make a more personal connection with their readers may opt to read a portion of their book to their readers. Such videos are inexpensive and easy to produce. All you need is a smartphone, a tripod, and some basic video editing software, such as iMovie.
Lighting, however, may be a challenge, so you should definitely take some test shots of your set before you begin shooting. If you have the means, consider hiring someone to shoot the video for you. A professional will know how to light the scene and can determine which camera angles are the most flattering. Either way, be sure to read a sample that’s interesting and action packed, but don’t give too much of your story away.
Book trailers are like movie trailers. You shoot a few scenes from your book, but like the author reading, you don’t want to give too much of your story away. The idea is to entice a potential reader.
Unlike slideshows and author readings, book trailers are more expensive to create, and in most cases you’ll need to hire a professional to produce the video for you. Be sure to read their contract carefully before you sign. You may also need to hire actors. If so, they will need to sign a release form, granting you their permission to use their image. There are many release form templates available for download on the Internet, and oftentimes they are free.
Whether you are creating your video yourself or hiring a pro, there are a few things you need to be aware of when it comes to producing a video.
Royalty Free Doesn’t Mean Copyright Free
Some people think royalty free means copyright free. However, this isn’t the case at all. Royalty free is a term for a particular type of licensing agreement. Simply put, it means you don’t have to pay the right holder each time their image or music is used. You still have to pay a one time licensing fee up front to use the footage or music. There may also be limits on how the footage or music can be used. For example, it may be limited to editorial or non-commercial use only, so be sure to read the fine print carefully.
Pond5 is my go-to company for video production. You name it, they probably have it. Stock footage, music, photos, and whatever else you may need. Shutterstock and Can Stock Photo are also good sources. All of these companies will charge a fee, so you may want to shop around. Be sure to read the licensing agreement before you buy, and be wary of any website giving you “free” stuff. The quality may not be that great, and you may be buying pirated materials.
Whether you’re doing a simple slideshow video, or hiring a professional and doing a full board production, it’s important to remember that content is king. You want viewers to take an interest in your books, but you don’t want to give them too much information either.
I’ve posted one of my book trailers below. It’s for my Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Deception. I’ve come a long way since I created my first book video. Instead of a simple Powerpoint slideshow, I’m now producing book trailers.
Filmmakers have certain advantages over novel writers. They get to use musical scores to help build the tension. We’ve seen it dozens of times. The unsuspecting protagonist goes into the seemingly deserted mansion, unaware that the villain is lurking inside. As he or she gets closer, the music builds to a crescendo. “Dum dum-ta-dum–BOOM.” The bad guy leaps out of nowhere, confronting the protagonist, who either has to fight or run for dear life.
Unfortunately, novel writers don’t have the luxury of having background music. We have to come up with alternative ways to build the tension. This may create the temptation to use exclamation points. After all, putting a plain old period after, he leaped out of the closet at Joe, looks kind of boring on the printed page. Therefore, he leaped out of the closet at Joe!!, would look a whole lot better. Right?
Well, not necessarily.
What an exclamation point actually means
An exclamation point in the narrative means you’re shouting at your readers, which they may find annoying. A better way to build the tension would be to use more effective verbs and modifiers.
For example, instead of saying, he heard the footsteps and waited until the time was right. Then he leaped out of the closet at of Joe, try using, He heard Joe’s footsteps coming closer. He held his breath, not wanting to give himself away. The footsteps grew louder. He could make out the dark shadow of a human form as it entered the room. He stood by, unable to move. The footsteps thumped louder as they came closer. Beads of sweat popped out across his forehead. It was time. He leaped out of the closet at Joe.
By using effective verbs and modifiers in your narrative to build the tension exclamation points becomes unnecessary. Bottom line. Never use exclamation points in the narrative.
But what about the dialog?
An exclamation point in the dialog indicates that someone is shouting. People shout when they are excited, unexpectedly surprised, under stress, or angry. Therefore, exclamation points should be rarely used in dialog, and only when absolutely necessary.
For example, someone might shout, Look out! if they see someone else is about to step into the street, unaware that a bus is barreling toward them. This sets the stage for a number of outcomes. The first character pulls the second character back onto the sidewalk in the nick of time. The person stepping into the street sees the bus coming and takes evasive action. The second character looks back and replies, “What?” Or the second character ignores the warning and ends up being hit by the bus. Whatever option you take, no further exclamation points are necessary. The crisis has passed. Any further exclamation points would be redundant
I think of exclamation points as hot chili peppers. A little bit goes a long way.