When It Comes to Selling Books, Be a Planner

The hard truth is that when it comes to selling your books, regardless of whether you are independently or traditionally published, your success or failure is in your hands. It’s totally on you.

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When it comes to craft, the subject of “planner” vs. “pantser” comes up when discussing the best strategy for plotting or mapping your story. Planners tend to meticulously (or perhaps even loosely) outline or create a story arc before writing a single word. Pantsers, on the other hand, write as they go, trusting that the story will come to them along the way, perhaps having a general idea of its direction. There’s no right or wrong way, and one is not better than the other. I’m all pantser—I tend to at least know what the next scene will be. I feel more constrained if I try to plot or plan beforehand.

I like being a pantser.

However…

What I have learned this past month—and forgive me if this is a well, duh revelation—is that the pantser strategy doesn’t work when it comes to selling books.

In The Writer’s Habit book, I talked about the importance of knowing what you want and then making a plan to attain it. I used such examples as whether you wanted to independently publish as opposed to finding a literary agent and seeking a contract with one of the Big Five, or setting a goal to write a dystopian series that would be so popular they’d get movie and merchandising deals.

In some ways I think I missed the obvious. Because once the desire to “get there” is fulfilled, a new desire takes its place: stay there.

I think it’s long been understood that the work of an author doesn’t end when the book is written and published. In fact, the work has just begun, because now comes the marketing, promoting, and networking, and it never ends. I have known this. I have lived this.

What I have learned upon reflection, however, is that I haven’t done it very well.

I could chalk it up to my pantser nature. I could also chalk it up to underestimating the scope of what’s truly involved in staying on the mountain after you’ve gotten there. One thing I had taken for granted is that indie authors are ferocious when it comes to this work. And I bow down to them for that. I think I had been once. And I think complacency set in after I had a run of good fortune, first as an indie, and then as a contracted author. It’s not that I thought the work was done; it’s that I thought more of it would be on autopilot.

Man, was I wrong.

The hard truth is that when it comes to selling your books, regardless of whether you are independently or traditionally published, your success or failure is in your hands. It’s totally on you. And if you want success (in this case, I mean if you want your books to sell, and sell well), then you’ve got to make a plan. Plot it out. Outline. Use your calendar. Set goals.

I feel foolish for having realized this so late, but the good news is that it’s never too late to start.

Everyone’s plan is different of course because everyone’s goals and desires differ. But here are three areas in which you can begin to assess what you want or need and plan from there:

 

Your mailing list

I’m going to be writing about this more extensively in the near future, but your mailing list is like a valuable piece of real estate that needs to be used properly. Think if you owned a corner lot and built a store on it but then didn’t stock it, or stocked it with the wrong kind of product, used the wrong signage… you get the idea. It took me way too long to realize how much of an asset a mailing list is, and it’s only these past few weeks that I’m learning how to make it work for me. It’s not enough to have a list and send out messages here and there with no consistency or purpose or strategy. As I start to apply the tools I’m learning and am able to measure results, I’ll share them with you.

 

Your launches

In my early years as an author, I had thought a bunch of social media blasts and bookstore readings/signings were enough to drive a successful launch. When my novel The Second First Time launched, I had completely dropped the ball and focused solely on setting up and promoting in-store appearances. Part of my thinking was that, as a new Montana resident, I wanted to cultivate relationships with the local independent bookstores and community. On that level, my strategy was successful. However, I ignored the ebook side of things, which is where 98% of my readership and sales are. There were also personal factors involved in my failure to properly plan, which I mention not as justification, but explanation. I take responsibility for the consequences of that launch’s many shortcomings and disappointments.

 

Your maintenance

We put so much time and effort into launches that we sometimes forget about our back catalogue day in and day out, mentioning them only if there’s a price break. A successful marriage is all about the maintenance. The same can be said for a successful author career. It’s important to plan strategies for maintaining a healthy sales quota of your catalogue that don’t involve pushy selling (a goal to aspire to no matter where your book is in its life cycle). I hope to be sharing some ideas in the near future.

 

Discussion: What has worked for you in any/all of these areas? What do you struggle with? I would love to hear from you.

 

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Same Habit, New Focus

I’m a writer. I’m also a teacher.

So far 2018 has been a series of challenges. Some have been invigorating, such as getting back into the university classroom and teaching a course in business writing. Others have been butt-kicking, such as moving three rooms of furniture into one while we get new carpets installed throughout the house.

Throughout it all, I’m doing my best to maintain a sense of humor, revel in the discomfort of it (it’s a learning experience, dammit!), and keep writing.

I’ve been reflecting on what I want The Writer’s Habit blog to be moving forward, and seeking feedback from others. One of the things I keep coming back to is playing to my strengths.

I’m a writer. I’m also a teacher.

Even when I’m not in a classroom with whiteboards and overhead projectors, I share what I know with others. I learn, and then I teach. I make mistakes, and then I teach. I finally get it right, and then I teach. In fact, I wrote The Writer’s Habit book for those readers who wrote to me and said they wished they could take a class with me.

I wanted this blog to be the same. Still do.

So I’m going to try to be more focused in achieving that goal.

For starters, I wrote a new Welcome post.

Second, beginning in February I aim to schedule specific subjects/topics in conjunction with the “Habit” components:

  • First Wednesday of the month: Knowledge
  • Second Wednesday of the month: Skill
  • Third Wednesday of the month: Desire
  • Fourth Wednesday of the month: Marketing and Promotion

I’ll do my best to remain consistent.

Is there a specific subject or topic you’d like me to address?

Please let me know in the comments, or contact me.

I hope you’ll like the new focus.

It’s 2018: Time to Take Stock

I have ideas about what I want this blog and site to be moving forward. But first, I want to hear from you.

My last blog post was about setting writing goals that you could actually keep. In the same way you take stock of your life at the end of one year and the beginning of another, I have been taking stock of The Writer’s Habit blog and site, and intend to set some goals accordingly.

In a broad sense, the concept and practice of The Writer’s Habit has always been the culmination of knowledge plus skill plus desire. I wanted this blog to highlight those aspects in the form of topics ranging from the craft of revision or storytelling to audience or purpose to dealing with writer’s block or rejection. As my tagline states: It’s not just about being a better writer. It’s about living a better life.

I’m not sure I’m achieving that, however. So I have ideas about what I want this blog and site to be moving forward.

But first, I want to hear from you.

After all, this site is meant to serve you, not me. Please leave a comment—here, on Facebook or Twitter, or even contact me, and share your answers and/or ideas to any/all of these questions:

What are you struggling with most as a writer and/or author?

What are you most interested in?

What, specifically, do you want from this blog and site?

What would keep you engaged?

I look forward to your responses. Thank you for being here.

Elisa

 

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How to Set Writing Goals You’ll Actually Keep in 2018

Every day is an opportunity to do things better and/or differently. And with a new year ahead of us, the possibilities are endless.

2017 is almost over, and while I’ve had some major accomplishments—including publishing The Writer’s Habit book and starting this blog, the launch of my eighth novel, completing and submitting a manuscript to my agent, and being interviewed for the Winter issue of the Montana Quarterly magazine—I also look back with some writing regrets. In many ways I felt as if my attentions were scattered. I felt as if I spent too much time procrastinating, allowing myself to be consumed by distractions, and I’m still chasing the ritual of setting and committing to a time-block in which I do nothing else but write.

But every day is an opportunity to do things better and/or differently. And with a new year ahead of us, the possibilities are endless.

Like so many people, I’d set some goals for 2017, and some fizzled out before March. Last week I sat in on Michael Hyatt’s webinar for “Navigating Your Way to Success in 2018,” and his tips for setting and achieving goals were realistic and completely doable, while also challenging and motivating. I want to share them with you, and add my own spin to customize them for writing.

 

1. Begin with the end in mind.

This never gets old. I first learned this trick from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People (whose definition of habit I applied to The Writer’s Habit: Knowledge + Skill + Desire), and I’ve applied it in so many different scenarios. When you begin with the end in mind, you visualize yourself attaining what it is you want, such as planning a course curriculum, buying a house or meeting Duran Duran, or publishing a book. See and feel every aspect of it. Once you’ve done that, begin to work your way back to the present moment. What do you need to do to attain it? How long will it take? What resources do you need? And so on.

In this case, imagine it’s December 31, 2018. Where are you on that day? What are you doing? What have you accomplished? How does it feel? Maybe you’re celebrating your book that hit the Kindle Top Ten. Maybe you redesigned your author website and actively built your mailing list to 10,000 subscribers. Maybe you completed the memoir you’ve been wanting to write for years, or attended Bouchercon for the first time. Don’t be afraid to think big. Just think clearly.

Here’s the advantage you have as a writer—you can write the story of what December 31, 2018 looks like! You can use vivid descriptions, a strong narrative voice, even dialogue! And the hero of your story is you. The most important aspect of the exercise is capturing the feeling and retaining that as you begin to manifest your goals one by one.

 

 2. Be specific with your goals and visualizations.

Many people, myself included, make the mistake of not being specific enough when they set goals. For example, “write more” or “get healthy” or “sleep better” are goals, but they’re so generalized that it’s easy to put them off or give up on them. Even setting a goal like write 2,000 words a day sounds specific, but what are those 2,000 words applied to? I can write 2,000 words every day in my diary, for example. This is one of the reasons why thinking from the end is so beneficial—it encourages you to think specifically. How much more do you want to write—enough to produce three new novels by the end of the year? Two blog posts per week for 52 weeks? A collection of 15 short stories?

Being specific also helps you form an action plan. If you want to write and/or publish three novels by the end of 2018, for example, and each novel is approximately 75,000 words, how much time and/or word count do you need to put in to accomplish that? Are you self-publishing or submitting to an agent and/or traditional publisher? If so, how do you make time in your schedule for that? Will you need editors? Beta readers? A cover designer? How will you pay for them?

Hyatt also recommends you limit the number of goals to 7-10 for one year, so that you’re not overwhelmed and wind up achieving none. With a reasonable number of goals, you can still think big and manage them by dividing the year into quarters, and making action plans for each quarter.

Oh, and keep your goals where you can see them! Post-its on bathroom mirrors and car dashboards, vision boards with affirmations in your office or cubicle, an app on your phone—anywhere you can see them on a regular basis. I’ve been guilty of not following through on this one. I write them in a journal, and then never look at the journal. Or I look for one week and then never again. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a saying for a reason. Don’t let that be the case with your goals.

 

3. Get support.

Writing is mostly a solitary act; but depending on your goals, you can enlist emotional, financial, or physical support. For example, maybe you want to crowd-fund the science fiction trilogy you plan to write and self-publish. Maybe you need to take an additional part-time job to pay for a good copyeditor or cover designer. Maybe you’ve got all the resources you need and just need someone to cheerlead on the sidelines, or you want an accountability partner (something I initiated this year, and it was very encouraging). Maybe you need a babysitter for the kids twice a week for an hour while you write. Whatever you need in the form of support, seek it out. It’s there. Seek it out. Welcome it.

That said… you want to limit sharing your goals to that inner circle of support. I’ve said this from day one, and I was happy to see Hyatt supported it (and there’s even research to support it too!). So while you can still post your word counts on social media (I do!), sharing your outlines or your goal list will, in the end, sap your motivation and productivity.

 

4. Go out of your comfort zone.

This may be the most crucial component of achieving your goals. Big goals require big risks. Writing a novel can sometimes require you to leave your comfort zone. So can a new workout routine, or changing a job. When Hyatt discussed the need to leave your comfort zone, I found myself nodding in agreement. Much of what I didn’t accomplish this year was the result of my being afraid to leave my comfort zone. So for 2018, gaining the courage to leave my comfort zone is going to be built into every goal.

 

5. Know your “why”

Finally, you need to have an understanding of why you’re setting these particular goals in the first place. Do you want to challenge yourself to go beyond your limits? Do you want fame and fortune? Do you want to make a certain amount of money so that you can, in turn, give it to others? There are no right or wrong reasons for your wanting to achieve or attain what you want. However, in a recent post about energy management, I discussed the importance of “putting values into action.” For example, if you value education, then maybe you’re setting a goal of writing a book to teach teenagers how to write fantasy novels. Maybe you want to foster a love of reading and writing for kids, so you’re writing your own YA fantasy novels in addition to wanting to teach them how to write their own. You can choose from a list of values, see which ones you most align with (select three), and then shape your goals based on how you want to put those values into action.

For example, earlier this year I stopped making conscious efforts to lose weight because the goal of “being thin” didn’t seem to align with the value I place on self-love and acceptance. Thus, I changed the goal to “love and accept my body at any size, shape, and weight.” And when walking the track at the Y stopped being in service of trying to lose weight loss and instead became about the benefits to my emotional and mental well being, it stopped being something to dread and instantly became something I look forward to on the mornings I know I’m going to be there.

 

Many thanks for Michael Hyatt for his webinar and tips. I hope you’re looking forward to 2018 as much as I am. Write yourself a fabulous year!

For Reflection: What are some writing or life goals you want to set for 2018?

I’ll be on holiday break next week. Happy holidays–see you in 2018!

 

 

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9 Key Points of Revision

Revision is where the magic happens.

The following is an excerpt from The Writer’s Habit. It also appeared this past spring on the Lancarello Enterprises site, the freelance business my husband and I co-manage.

We have arrived at my favorite part of the writing process: revision. It’s what I call the blood, sweat, and tears of writing. It is simultaneously the sandbox and the mudpit.

Revision is where the magic happens. Revision is, literally, re-seeing. It’s the opportunity to see your manuscript with new eyes and to make it better. Like a piece of clay that’s been molded into the basic shape, revision is where you take a step back, look at your writing from different angles, and use all your tools to reshape, refine, and add the intricate details that bring your story to life.

Writing is rewriting.

Whereas drafting can be somewhat carefree, revision is more methodical, although recursive. Some rewrite as they go along, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, even sentence by sentence. With each one they stop, read, and rewrite, reread and rewrite again. There’s no wrong approach to revision, but a writer who doesn’t revise is selling the writing short.

Revision is where the decision-making gets done. Have I chosen the best words? Should I begin a new paragraph? Does the fragment achieve a rhetorical effect, or is it just bad grammar? Do I have enough description? Is there too much telling and not enough showing? Is the dialogue authentic and fluent? Does the action move too slowly? Too quickly? Are the stakes high enough? Am I telling the truth? Have I persuaded my reader to care? To laugh? To respond? To keep reading? Revision gives us the opportunity to keep making it better, to hone our craft and sharpen our skills, and to keep writing.

The number of revised drafts are limitless. Some revise a couple of times, others get into ten or more revised drafts. Revision is never really finished—in just about every book I’ve published, I’ve since found something that I wish I could tweak a little bit more, make a little bit better, be it one word or one sentence or even a scene. But if you’re a contracted author, a weekly television series writer, a student, or a journalist, you have a deadline. At that point, you have to call it finished. Even if you don’t have a deadline, at some point you have to call your book finished, otherwise you’ll never get it published or write another one.

What follows is a sample of revision choices to take into consideration. They don’t have to be addressed in order or one at a time. Chances are some of these are always in the back of your mind at any stage of the process. Some writers even make a checklist (see Nathan Bransford’s revision checklist in How to Write a Novel). Do whatever works best for you.

 

Revise for Meaning

I often don’t know what my novel or memoir is about until after I print out the manuscript, sit down with a pen, and begin to read, making notes in the margins usually in the form of questions or insights. Sure, I’ve just drafted a 55,000-word story. But I still find myself asking, What is this really about? Sometimes that question doesn’t apply to the entire manuscript, but a scene or character’s behavior. I may ask questions like: What does she want? Why is she so afraid? Why are they fighting? Sometimes the answers come right away, and other times I need to dig deeper. Revising for meaning isn’t about explicitly spelling out everything your characters say and do and why. It’s about keeping your reader invested in their journey. Above all, you want to respond to the reader’s foremost question—Why should I care?—with a story that engages the reader through dialogue, description, and all the other ingredients of storytelling we discussed. It’s about getting to the heart of the matter.

 

Revise for Audience

Earlier I said that I don’t think about audience when I’m the drafting stage. However, when it comes to revision, audience plays a role because once your book is out in the world, it’s no longer yours. It’s theirs.

When Duran Duran wrote the theme song for the James Bond movie “A View to a Kill” in the mid-80s, singer Simon LeBon said, “It had to be a James Bond theme. It also had to be a Duran Duran song.” In other words, there were two audiences to consider. (This example also applies to style. And interestingly, the popularity of the song well exceeded the popularity of its namesake.) If you’ve already established a readership, you might have an idea of what those readers love and expect from you. Does that mean you have to give it to them every time? No. But in many cases what they love aligns with what you love. If you haven’t yet built a readership, then I recommend you take a cue from Mr. Rogers and imagine one reader. Stephen King’s one reader is his wife. Mine varies, but I choose one and then stick with him or her. Thus, when you’re revising, read your story through their lens. Will they find this character likable? Will they understand what’s happening? Will they react emotionally? You also need to keep readers in mind when it comes to sentence structure. Long, eloquently worded sentences may be beautiful, but will too many of them interfere with your reader’s ability to process what they actually mean? Likewise, will a succession of short, choppy sentences be too blunt?

Also, keep in mind that you’re not going to be able to please everyone, so don’t try. My mom reads all my novels, but she doesn’t like my use of profanity. Some might think your love scenes are too explicit; others may think they’re not explicit enough. Beta readers help you gauge all of this, which is why it’s important to enlist their help, or the services of a developmental editor.

 

Revise for Genre

Every genre—mystery, science fiction, romance, horror, suspense, action/adventure—has certain distinguishable traits. And although you don’t want to be too formulaic in your application of those traits, you don’t want to stray too far from them either. I remember a writer who branded his novella as a romantic comedy. When I read it, I thought it was well-written and I liked the story. But I saw none of the characteristics of a rom-com—no overt chemistry, especially in a dueling way; no humorous situations spurred on by character flaws; no witty dialogue or banter; no high concept. In his case, rather than rewrite the story, I would simply rebrand it as contemporary or literary fiction.

Genres can be combined—paranormal romance, mystery horror, science fiction fantasy—and those can be quite fun to write, if not to market. Above all, you want to best serve the story and not the genre. If you’re writing mysteries because you think mysteries are trending or will sell better than, say, science fiction, most readers will see through the insincerity of that. However, if you write mysteries because you can’t get enough of reading them yourself, or you have an idea that won’t let go of you, or you simply want to try it for fun, then your reader is likely to join you.

I say it again: write the novel you want to read. Sometimes it’s not so much about finding readers as it is about them finding you.

 

Revise for Organization

In just about every draft of this book, I’ve re-organized either in terms of dividing and classifying the book into sections, determining which chapter comes first, second, third, and even at the paragraph level of individual chapters. (I even rearranged this list of revision choices.) In my latest novel, Big Skye Littleton, I made a big revision at the beginning: Whereas I had originally started with Skye stranded at the Denver airport, recalling a conversation she had on the plane, I revised to begin the story midflight, the conversation taking place in real time, and moved the Denver airport scene to another chapter.

Whether it’s at the paragraph level, chapter level, or scene level, make sure your readers can follow the sequence of thoughts and/or action.

 

Revise for Detail

Have you provided enough or too much? Have you given readers glimpses into the characters’ inner lives, or are they left needing more (something my developmental editor always flags me for not doing enough)? Have you painted a clear picture or is it murky? Did you change a character’s name mid-story without realizing it? (Yes. I’ve done that. Several times.) Check all of these things. Your reader will thank you.

 

Revise for Voice

Regardless of whether you’re writing novels or nonfiction, there must be a distinct voice, be it a character’s, narrator’s, or writer’s. It is equally important to consider tone, especially if you’re writing something like a letter seeking support or action. Tone can be easily misinterpreted in electronic communication, such as a text, social media comment, or email. Even something meant to be friendly can be interpreted as belligerent.

 

Revise for Clarity

Clear, concise, fluent—that’s what I encouraged my students to achieve at the stylistic level. The first one, clarity, is making sure your sentences are properly constructed—no dangling modifiers, bad fragments (as opposed to the good ones that add emphasis or lend to voice), or endless prepositional phrases (another flaw of mine, as are too many parenthetical phrases). Clarity also applies to the story you’re telling, whether a plot point or a conversation between two characters or just the complexity of the story in general. That’s not to say that stories can’t be complex. Stories may have puzzle pieces that readers attempt to put together along the way. However, if your reader has to stop reading, go back to the beginning of a sentence or someplace else in the paragraph, chapter, or book to gain clarity, you’ve taken that reader out of the story. You’ve disengaged them. You’ve made them work harder. And you’ve undermined the story you’re trying to tell.

Reading out loud will help you quite a bit with revising for clarity. A sentence that looked perfectly fine on the screen may be a mouthful out loud or not make any sense at all.

 

Revise for Pacing and Direction

Is your story dragging in some places and racing in others? Are there too many things happening at once? Does the climax come too soon? (No one likes that.) Is your story anti-climactic? Is your timeline accurate? Your beta readers will be essential in determining whether your story’s pacing and direction work. So will reading out loud.

 

Revise for Style

I have to be careful with co-opting someone’s style if I’ve been reading their books or watching their movies or TV shows while I’m working on a novel. For example, I watched a lot of The West Wing at the time I was writing Faking It. I got into Gilmore Girls while I wrote Why I Love Singlehood. And at the time of this writing, I’ve been reading Nora Ephron’s columns and articles from her journalism career.

Revising for style is about making sure every word belongs. My ultimate goal would be to read a final draft of my manuscript and say: “It’s perfect. Every word that needs to be there is there. Every word is the right word. The best word. Every sentence is the perfect length. The perfect depth. The perfect rhythm. Every word, sentence, paragraph, and the sequence of dialogue fulfills its purpose.”

Until then, I’ll keep re-reading and re-writing.

 

revision is where the magic happens

Are You a Mid-Career Writer? (If Yes, Here’s a Survey for You!)

I’ve created a survey that attempts to gather some data regarding topics of interest for mid-career writers.

A few weeks ago, a fellow author and I were discussing on Twitter a dilemma of mid-career writers: many resources tend to focus on beginning writers.

We brainstormed topics we would want to see at a conference specifically targeted toward mid-career writers, and the topic got me thinking about what kind of source book or classes could come out of that as well. When I wrote The Writer’s Habit, I focused mostly on beginning writers, but the rhetorical approach I presented throughout can be adopted by any writer at any stage of their writing and career. That said, the notion of a specific resource for this specific target group has intrigued me.

What is a mid-career writer?

This is by no means an operational definition (not yet; that can certainly come out of this survey and discussion), but I characterize a mid-career writer as someone who, as an author, as published 3 or more books, as a freelance writer, has been working in the field for at least five years, or individuals who have devoted a significant portion of their lives writing, regardless of their place or level in the professional realm.

I’ve created a survey that attempts to gather some data regarding topics of interest for mid-career writers.

I’ve left out typical items such as age and sex because I know more women writers than men (and this survey will likely see a majority of familiar faces) and because I’m not sure if age can be quantified when it comes to career length (many authors, myself included, didn’t begin their professional writing careers until their mid-thirties, for example; my husband’s journalism career spanned 20 years, which meant he was “mid-career” at age 28). There are four questions, multiple choice (you can check more than one item in each question), and you can add in your own responses if there’s something missing from the list.

Also, please provide feedback in the Comments section if you think the survey can be improved.

Finally, please share this survey with as many of your fellow writers as you can. And thank you for your participation.

 

 

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The Writer’s Habit “Introduction”: Read It Here for Free!

Here is the Introduction to my book The Writer’s Habit, on which this blog and website is based.

Here is the Introduction to my book The Writer’s Habit, on which this blog and website is based. I hope it will make you want to read more. You can buy it here. You can also go to elisalorello.com to learn more about me as well as my other books.

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