The other day I stumbled across a great Facebook thread in which a new author asked for advice: she wanted to know what kinds of newbie mistakes to avoid as a first-time author.
True to form, the writing community, including myself, chimed in with a number of excellent points. Afterward, it dawned on me this would make an awesome blog post, and here we are.
So here’s my ‘I wish someone had told me’ advice.
In no particular order:
1.Google your pen name before you start using it. I had this awesome pen name in mind, but when I Googled it, I found out it belonged to a Hungarian stripper. What are the odds, right? I was tempted to use it anyway, only I just knew every time someone did a search for my books, the stripper’s website would come up. Seriously. Google your pen name. You really don’t want the same pen name as a serial killer. Also, be careful of having a ‘unique’ spelling. If people can’t remember how to spell your name, they aren’t likely to find you on a web search. It’s easy. It takes less than thirty seconds, for Pete’s sake. Just do it. You won’t regret it.
Whether or not you need a pen name is another discussion altogether. I personally think if you write in wildly divergent genres, such as ‘sweet’ romances and dinosaur porn, you’d better have two pen names. But that’s just me.
Do yourself a favor: if you have a pen name, use a different browser for your author activities and keep everything separate from your real name. It will make life MUCH simpler when doing business as your author persona and save time and energy by eliminating the need to log in and out of different accounts.
2.Platform and promotion. Yes, you have to have it. No, no one likes promoting themselves, but it is a necessary evil.
In order for promotion to work, you already have to have a platform and internet presence in place. A website (more on that later), Facebook page, and Twitter account are probably considered the bare minimums, but most writers have pages on Pinterest, Tumblr, Goodreads, Amazon, Instagram, G+… well, you name it. Many writers have pages on sites geared toward their genre, too. It’s a lot to keep up with. My rules for platform and social media: pick the two or three sites where you are the most comfortable and spend time there. If a site makes you unhappy, you won’t be your best there. Learn how to cross post from your main sites to other sites. I rarely spend time on Goodreads or Tumblr–they just aren’t my kind of places, but other people hang out there, so when I post a blog entry like this, I make sure it automatically cross posts to those other media platforms.
Worry less about your ‘brand’ when starting out. Be friendly. Share other people’s announcements. Interact with people in a manner that does not always center around your books or writing. For heaven’s sake DO NOT auto-post tweets or private message people with BUY MY BOOK spiels within seconds of them friending or following you.
There are some great books on social media out there. I happen to like Kristen Lamb’s We Are Not Alone:The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. I might not agree with everything Ms. Lamb says (she is very much against pen names, for example) but she has some good points to make. One of which is that your name should be easy to find–it should be part of your website, your Twitter name, etc. Having a cute Twitter handle might be fun, but what if no one remembers that @AwesomeWombat is really McKenna Dean? Don’t make it hard for your readers to find you.
3.Websites: Your website is your home base. It is going to be the main way readers find you. Make it easy for them! You have roughly two seconds to make a good first impression when people land on your page. If your site is too hard to navigate, too difficult to read, has too many moving gifs or images that roll by too rapidly to read, you’ve lost a perspective reader right there. They will move on to the next site, to look for some other author whose home page doesn’t make their eyes bleed. Whether you have a static home page or not is up to you. But the most important thing is that your site is crisp, clear, and easy to navigate. Your social media links should all be in one place. Your backlist and buy links should be easy to find. You should update your blog on a regular basis. If you have a newsletter or a way for readers to follow your blog, it should be easy to find and sign up. Two seconds. Otherwise, your viewer will click away.
4.Reviews: if I had put these in any kind of order, reviews probably should have gone at the top. EVERYONE had a lot to say about reviews. For the most part, I tend not to read my reviews unless I’ve been sent the link from a trusted review site or a friend has discovered a glowing review and they want to share it with me.
Everyone gets bad reviews.
Don’t believe me? Look up your all-time favorite book. I guarantee that you will find someone who utterly loathed it and flamed it royally in their review. Any time I stumble upon a review I wish I hadn’t seen, I perform this very task and it is amazing how therapeutic it is. Because if someone can hate the book you adore, then it puts things in perspective for you. Over and over again, authors gave DON’T ENGAGE A NEGATIVE REVIEW as their number one advice. Just. Don’t. The author *always* comes out looking like the bad guy here, and nothing will alienate fans faster.
There are some people who’d suggest not responding to any review on Goodreads, as it is a site primarily for readers, not authors. I know many authors who interact with their fans quite happily on Goodreads, but I confess, it feels like an abandoned mine field to me. One false step and BOOM. But that’s just me.
The point is, don’t let one bad review negate the twenty good ones you’ve received. Don’t let a ‘meh’ review derail you from your planned story arc, or shut down your writing mojo.
When I first began sharing my stories, feedback was the crack that kept me writing. It was addictive, getting the kind of praise that made you giddy with delight. When I made the jump from fanfiction to original fiction, feedback was much harder to come by and not nearly as inclined to be kind. A negative review had the power to negate fifty glowing ones. I’ve let past reviews shake my confidence and alter my proposed projects. There is only one time that I think you should pay attention to negative reviews, and that’s when the same thing keeps being said over and over by different people. That usually means you either failed to make your point clearly or you failed to understand what your audience wants.
The longer I’ve been at this, the less impact reviews have on me. Don’t get me wrong—I adore an awesome review! And excellent reviews—especially in large numbers—will definitely drive sales. But I no longer let bad reviews upset me.
Look at it this way: those really nasty reviews? The ones that go beyond ‘this is why this book didn’t work for me’ and seem to intend deliberate wounding?
Yeah, there are only two reasons someone writes a review like that. The first is because they have a following, and people read their reviews for the flaming zingers. You can’t take something like that personally. It’s not about your book as much as it is about entertaining a cadre of like-minded readers who enjoy the burn.
The second is because this unknown reader really does want to burn you. They want you to hurt so badly over their comments that you seriously consider never typing another word. You know what? SCREW THAT. They don’t get to decide that.
Don’t write for reviews. It will only make you bitterly unhappy. Ditto if you’re hoping that your next story will somehow launch you into J.K. Rowling fame. Write because you can’t imagine not writing any more than you can imagine not breathing.
5.Beta readers versus Editors (and what they bring to the table): first of all, these people are invaluable to you as a writer. As authors, particularly new authors, we have to be willing to accept the input of others, especially if we keep getting similar feedback from multiple sources: that’s your biggest indication something is wrong with your story or your writing style and it needs fixing. At the same time, it can be difficult not to let a strong-minded person take on more credit for the shaping of your story than they really deserve–or should have. Beta readers are not editors, either. Yes, they will catch typos, but their primary function is to tell you if the story is working or not.
Different people catch different things, so I think it is very important to have more than one beta reader. But my main reason for having multiple readers is two-fold: not only do you not want to overwhelm a single person if you are a prolific writer, but it is much harder for someone to claim a larger share of the credit when there is more than one person involved. A beta reader who claims to ‘make or break’ you is like someone who helped you set the table expecting credit for cooking the banquet. A good beta reader is worth their weight in gold. They will help you produce the cleanest copy possible for submission to a publisher or an editor, if you self-publish. They are cheerleaders and problem-spotters. But once the story moves on to editing, their role is usually done. Beta-readers are often friends, which can make it very painful to sever the relationship if it is no longer working for you. But if your beta-reader is acting like a gatekeeper between you and publishing, it is definitely time to end the relationship.
Editors will clean up and tighten your prose, point out that you have used the same phrase thirty-seven times, correct your somewhat loose interpretation of the Chicago Manual of Style, and identify where things need to be explained in greater detail or a weak plot point that needs fixing. But they should not be altering your style to match their own. It is your story. They are polishing the finish on the sports car, not re-building the engine.
Editors can (and should) point out major plot holes and weaknesses of presentation. If you are writing in a specific genre and your story isn’t meeting genre expectations, a good editor will let you know. If the car breaks down halfway around the track, it doesn’t matter how shiny it is. But they aren’t there to re-write the story for you.
You know what they say about people who act as their own lawyers during a trial? “You have a fool for a client.” Well, that applies to attempting to edit your own work as well. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but the chances are very good you’re going to overlook something important by sheer proximity to the work.
6. Don’t game the system. There’s a big difference between recognizing and taking advantage of market trends (something I’m not very good at, but I know people who are) and writing simply to make a buck. Face it, if you want to make money, there are far easier ways of doing so. By gaming the system, I mean deciding you’re going to write serials, or short cliffhangers, or dinosaur porn, filling Kindle Unlimited with them because you can churn those babies out to match the current best deal Amazon offers, and the instant the algorithm changes, so does your storytelling. Look, I have nothing against dino porn, but if you want to write it, do so because you enjoy it, okay? And no sockpuppets singing your praises or slinging mud at the competition. No buying reviews. I really shouldn’t have to say this, right? Pricing your story so that it sells well, or making the first book in a series free? That’s not gaming the system. Buying your way onto the bestseller lists is.
The best way to make writing pay for you? Write. Write a lot. Be working on your next story while you are launching your previous one. Be thinking about the next one, too. Readers are like stray cats. If you feed them, they will come.
Most of us go through a post-story blues, where it is hard to move on to the next project. Get over yourself. I once figured out that it took me nearly a year from the time I conceived of a story idea, to writing it, to submitting it, to having it published before I saw royalties trickle in. Which means that for writing to pay the bills, I have to have a new story coming out at minimum every quarter. It’s one of the reasons self-publishing has become more popular as writers realize they can shorten this time. Which brings me to the next point…
7. Don’t quit your day job. Seriously. Writing a runaway bestseller like 50 Shades of Grey is like winning the lottery. It rarely happens, and certainly not to you and me. The rest of us have to slog out a minimum of something on the order of 60-80K words every 2-3 months in order to even hope of quitting the day job. I don’t know about you, but putting that kind of pressure on myself really puts a damper on my writing mojo. Writing is something I do that makes me happy in order to make other people happy. But I don’t ever want to look back on my life twenty years from now and wish I’d spent more time walking the dogs or doing things with the family. And I don’t want to take something I love and turn it into something I hate because I can’t turn out a completed product I can take pride in.
But hey, maybe you can be incredibly prolific while still working a full-time job. Or maybe you’re currently jobless, and now is the sink or swim moment. It is possible to make a living as a writer. Just expect to work hard, write a lot, make a lot of personal sacrifices regarding how you spend your time, and don’t expect Hollywood to come knocking at your door with a movie deal in hand. It means writing when you don’t feel like it. It means there is no such thing as ‘your muse’, only the need to put words to paper because that’s your job.
You’re going to hear a lot about how to be a successful author. But by trying to please everyone, you’ll wind up pleasing no one. You don’t really need a ton of fans, anyway. You need a thousand die-hard fans that will buy everything you write and tell all their friends about you too.
8. Piracy: it happens. There is no use giving yourself ulcers about it. Don’t try counting up the money in lost revenue it represents, either. It will only make you cry. Some people don’t fight it. Personally, I do. Piracy means the difference between my paying the mortgage some months, or whether I have to wait another year to replace the glasses with the $400 lenses. Piracy is the difference between having to choose between dental work or going to a writer’s convention. Don’t just bitch about it, though. Every couple of weeks, do a search of your name and book titles (I find that Google Alerts tends not to pick up many illegal downloads–it’s better for notifying you of reviews). If you have a publisher, report it to them–they are losing money as well. Draft DMCA and takedown notices to send to pirate sites. Make sure that people know that many of these sites are just phishing to steal credit card information. In my case, my stories frequently show up on torrents (someone seems to keep uploading a bundle of four of my stories–it’s infuriating to see the same bundle appear again and again…). Appealing to the torrent is usually futile, but you can report the link to Google, which will block it in a title search on their browser. Given that almost everyone uses Google, having them block the illegal site in a search is a good thing. Searching the internet and preparing takedown notices is time-consuming and frustrating, but I do it. Sure, I realize that the vast majority of people downloading illegal copies would never buy from me in the first place. That doesn’t mean I have to make it easy for them to pick my pocket.
There are also some new services cropping up like Blasty, which streamlines the reporting process to Google, making it nearly painless. That said, remember they are ONLY blocking the links on a search, they are not taking them down. Also, while services such as Blasty streamline the reporting process, they don’t do anything you can’t do yourself. I used Blasty when it was in beta mode, and ran into issues with it. Now that it’s a paid service, I’ve heard rumblings of other issues as well, so make sure you talk with your fellow authors before paying for something like this.
9. Don’t ever diss another author. That’s just plain stupid. Unless you are among unimpeachable friends that you trust with your whole heart, giving a frank opinion of someone’s work or personality is fraught with the potential to have your words come back and bite you. Keep it to yourself, even if you feel completely justified, or if someone approaches you, encouraging you to vent. Be a professional and keep your mouth shut and your fingers off the keyboard. That applies in general to most internet kerfuffles and dramas. Remember the great proverb: Not my circus, not my monkeys. This is a corollary to not responding to negative reviews. People talk. And if you malign someone’s writing or themselves as a person, the chances are it will get back to them.
On the other hand, sometimes it is impossible not to have someone get angry with you through no fault of your own. Apologize for inadvertently upsetting them, try to correct or prevent the circumstances that led to the misunderstanding, but if they won’t grow up and get over it, let it go. Don’t talk about it, however. Be the bigger person here. Apologize, move on, and never refer to it again. If they keep bringing it up in the face of your silence, they wind up looking petty and small for holding grudges.
10. And last but not least: write what makes you happy. Don’t write to market pressures. If you have no interest in the latest fad, your lack of enthusiasm will show. If you want to write about chefs, or the horse-racing industry, or US Marines, or WW2 flying aces, or dragons, you can. Just make sure you’ve done your homework, or in the case of fantasy, you’ve created a world with believable rules that make sense. Don’t worry about finding an audience. Chances are if you love what you’re writing, others will too. And they are the readers that count the most.