I've been writing about twelve years now and have indie published seven novels and multiple shorter works and a couple of magazine articles, so I know a thing or two about the indie publishing world and writing in general. I still have a bunch to learn, but I wanted to share a few bigger things I've discovered over the years, especially since this is my last post as a regular blogger for Lands Uncharted. I have a busy publishing schedule and life changes that made it advisable to step away. I've loved the blog and look forward to keeping up with it. If you'd like to keep up with me and learn about my new releases, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter here (note this is for my fiction books, not for writing advice).
But on to advice and references. I've chosen twelve things to talk about, one for each year of my writing journey.
Advice for Writers
1. Be wary of advice.
Yes, I get the irony of this statement, but I also know how much wasted time and frustration I've endured due to listening to poor advice. Or advice that didn't fit my genre. Unless you write romance, don't listen to romance authors. Seriously. Or be very careful about what you do listen to. The expectations are widely different. Literary agent Steve Laube likes to tell a story of an outstanding speculative fiction book proposal he received, but when the author sent the requested full manuscript, it was awful, even the initial chapters that Mr. Laube considered brilliant had been rewritten. Guess what? The author's romance-writing critique partners had advised him on how to "improve" the male MC, and it didn't work, not for the genre he was writing. Also be wary of people who adhere to strict rules rather than principles (rules are guidelines to help you follow principles derived from studying what works). Be wary of those who don't have credentials. Remember that those who spend a lot of time on social media giving advice may not be the ones actively publishing and finding success. Some are, but many successful authors are too focused on writing and publishing to hang out on social media, except with their fans.
So when considering advice, ask if it fits your genre and if the person giving it has credentials or an agenda. They may have a product they want you to buy, and that's fine. Just be aware. Do they sell advice and books, or just advice on how to write? And consider whether the advice resonates with you. I've wasted a lot of time and energy following "authors should have/do such and such" advice that didn't feel right at the time. For example, trying to build fans through social media. My instinct was why waste time on Twitter when I have nothing to say? But I tried anyway. It stressed me out and failed miserably. If I haven't a reason to be on a social media site unrelated to selling books, I shouldn't be there. I should love the site and have more to say than "Buy my book." Do you know what helps me sell books? It's not Twitter or Instagram. It's writing more books (especially in popular genres like fairytale retellings), connecting with other authors in author groups and newsletter swaps, doing sales and using promo sites, and using reader magnets. Readers first want great books. That should be your goal.
2. Understand the principles behind the rules and ignore the rules as needed.
It's easier to follow a rule than it is to understand and apply a principle. Find writing teachers who talk about principles of great writing rather than merely preach rules. Principles were derived from studying great stories, and rules were developed to make following the principles easier. So rules come from good stories, not good stories from rules. Study good stories for yourself and understand the principles of good storytelling.
3. Remember your readers.
Readers have nothing to read from you if you're chasing followers on every new social media platform. Think about them when choosing how to spend your time and in what to write in your books and in your newsletters, etc. As I said earlier, readers first want great books. That should be your goal.
4. Don't give up learning and reading.
5. Don't be afraid to give your characters real traits, flaws, and struggles.
Ever watch a Hallmark movie? Do you even need to to know what's going to happen? Big city person gives up job for simple life and/or picturesque little town. What about Disney? Depending on the era, there's likely a busy or undependable parent involved. Dad must get straightened out.
Sometimes, it feels like there's only a handful or character flaws and arcs in the movies and books, and that the issue must be a huge part of the story. There must be a huge moment--with the appropriate music--where Dad realizes he really loves his kids after all, etc. Go a little deeper for your characters than what's easy or is commonly portrayed in most movies and books. What have you dealt with or been influenced by? Can you redeem those struggles by using them in your writing? I used a lot of my own struggles in one of my male MCs. He wasn't a near-perfect hero. He was messy, but he was working through his struggles. I was afraid readers would be dissatisfied to have a less-than-handsome hero dealing with non-typical hero weaknesses, but a few readers told me they'd never connected so much with a character before.
It does depend on your genre and style how much the flaws and character arc influence the story, however. Some stories don't need to delve into a hero's insecurities, for instance, even if they are evident in him.
6. Keep writing.
Even if you have to schedule it. Even if it's hard. There may be seasons when you have to give it up, but before you do that, take a hard look at your schedule and see if you're trading doing something with what God gave you (imagination and writing skill) for extra hours of Netflix and CandyCrush. Allen Arnold reminds us that we are called to be co-creators with God. Even if you don't publish what you create, you're creating with God when you write or paint or sing or whatever else gives you joy. Don't give that up for a life of absorbing what others are creating or simply wasting time scrolling through social media. What do you want to have done with your life when you are old?
7. Study the successful. And the failures.
Do you love someone's book? That makes them a success. Ask yourself what you like about the book, the cover, the blurb, and if those things should be applied to your own books. Also, recognize what you don't like in books and movies and avoid those things in your own work. And just because you like something in someone else's book doesn't mean it has to be in yours, but ask that of enough books and you might find what fits you.
Does someone have lots of a great reviews and lots of books out and seem to be doing all the things you want to do? Study them. Do they run ads? Chase followers on social media platforms or quietly cultivate their own tribe of readers? Publish often or slowly, letting anticipation build? But you need to ask, is their genre comparable to yours? The numbers of reviews, downloads, etc. for romance books and fantasy books should not be compared, for instance. Even the hosts of the Six Figure Authors Podcast will tell you that and they're obviously doing well for themselves. Romance tends to sell a lot more, like it or not, so don't get discouraged when you see posts on how some newbie romance author broke six figures on their one book.
8. Find a great critique group or beta-readers.
The qualifier "great" is extremely important here (see Advice #1). Critique partners and beta-readers are essential to improving your craft and catching things in your novels (at all stages, when new and even when you have the craft down pat) that you might be too close to to see. And some beta-readers are just super wise and experienced in things you aren't and so serve as sage counsels and topic experts.
9. Avoid lotteries.
A lot of people push social media for authors and tell them to chase fans on every platform that pops up. It may work for a few, especially those who got on early or just love the medium. To me, trying to grow a following on social media sites is like trying to win the lottery. It costs a lot in terms of time, energy, and creativity for very little, if any, results. Even if you get fans on social media, are they also readers? Your readers? Are they looking for free entertainment or are they willing to put aside the phone to purchase a book?
If connecting with people and influencing them whether or not they buy your book is your goal, that's great. If you enjoy social media itself (the content you produce, not getting followers or likes), that's also great. But if you feel pressured to get on social media to sell books--because books are how you influence people or hope to support yourself--please realize you don't have to do social media. Maybe connect with the fans you have in a private group (or set up a group so they can interact with one another and you occasionally pop in). But you don't have to be on every platform. My fans on social media are people who liked my books before they sought me out. The people I follow are those whose books I liked first. Do you know where most readers are? Amazon. That's right. They are at the places where they can buy books, and also on Goodreads and book review sites.
Readers might play around on the other sites, but they most likely go to stores or review sites to find books to buy. You can reach them by writing more books, asking for reviews, and doing ads. Readers are also on or reachable through sites like Bookfunnel, MyBookCave, StoryOrigin, BookBub, ENT, and other newsletter swap, reader magnet, and book promotion sites. If social media is not your thing, rejoice! It doesn't have to be. Write great books first and foremost, then network with other authors with similar genres to reach each others' fans (because your readers want to know about other books they'd like while you are writing your next novel), and use the reader-focused sites I mentioned. It might be less daunting to hang out on social media than do the hard work of writing a book, but do consider how you steward your time and your gift.
You might not want to hear "write to market," but if you're an indie trying to break in, you might consider writing a few books in a popular niche genre, one where it's easier for readers to find you. But only do this if you also like that genre. I like clean fairytale retellings. I've written several and loved it, but it's not what I want to write the rest of my career. But writing the standard "girl in a pretty dress" fairytale retelling (again, a genre I enjoy) has helped me gain readers who have (at least some have) followed me into other genres. If they learn to trust you as an author in a beloved, easy-to-categorize genre, then they'll follow you into other worlds. For me, this is clean girl-in-a-pretty-dress fairytale retellings to "Jane Austen romance meets fantasy adventure" and epic fantasy fairytale retellings and steampunk.