books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 21, 2014

10 Things that Red-Flag a Newbie Novelist

by Anne R. Allen

Beginning novelists are like Tolstoy's happy families. They tend to be remarkably alike. Certain mistakes are common to almost all beginners. These things aren't necessarily wrong, but they are difficult to do well—and get in the way of smooth storytelling

They also make it easy for professionals—and a lot of readers—to spot the unseasoned newbie.

When I worked as an editor, I ran into the same problems in nearly every new novelist's work—the very things I did when I was starting out. 

I think some of the patterns come from imitating the classics. In the days of Dickens and Tolstoy, novels were written to be savored on long winter nights or languid summer days when there was a lot of time to be filled. Detailed descriptions took readers out of their mundane lives and off to exotic lands or into the homes of the very rich and very poor where they wouldn't be invited otherwise.

Books were expensive, so people wanted them to last as long as possible. They didn't mind flipping back and forth to find out if Razumihin, Dmitri Prokofitch, and Vrazumihin were in fact, all the same person. They were okay with immersing themselves in long descriptions and philosophical digressions before they found out what happened to Little Nell.

The alternative was probably staring at the fire or listening to Aunt Lavinia snore.

But in the electronic age...not so much. Your readers have the world's libraries at their fingertips, and if you bore them or confuse them for even a minute, they're already clicking away to buy the next shiny 99c book.
Whether you're querying agents and editors or you're planning to self-publish, you need to write for the contemporary reader. And that means "leaving out the parts that readers skip" as Elmore Leonard said.

Agents and readers aren't going to want to wade through a practice novel. They want polished work.

All beginners make mistakes. Falling down and making a mess is part of any learning process. But you don’t have to display the mess to the world. Unfortunately easy electronic self-publishing tempts us to do just that.

But don't. As I said two weeks ago, it takes the same amount of time to learn to write as it did before the electronic age.

Here are some tell-tale signs that a writer is still in the learning phase of a career.

I'm not saying these things are "wrong". They're just overdone or tough for a beginner to do well.

1) Show-offy prose

Those long, gorgeous descriptions that got so much praise from your high school English teacher and your critique group can unfortunately be a turn-off for the paying customer who’s digging around for some kind of narrative thread or reason to care.

People read novels to be entertained, not to fulfill the needs of the novelist. If you're writing because you crave admiration, you're in the wrong business. The reader's right to a story—not the novelist's ego—has to come first.

If there's no story, no amount of verbal curleques will keep the reader interested. Give us story first, and then add embellishments. But not too many.

Also, even though it may be really fun to start every chapter with a Latin epigraph from Ovid's Metamorphoses, unless it’s really important to the plot, this will probably annoy rather than impress readers.

Ditto oblique references to Joyce's Ulysses or anything by Marcel Proust. People want to be entertained, not take a World Lit quiz. (And yes, I went there myself. Originally, every chapter title of The Gatsby Game was a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nobody cared.)

2) Head-hopping

Point of view is one of the toughest things for a new writer to master. Omniscient point of view is the hardest to do well, because it leads to confusion for the reader.

But a lot of beginners write in omniscient because they haven't mastered the art of showing multiple characters' actions through the eyes of the protagonist.

But be aware that third-person-limited narration (when you're only privy to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist) is the norm in modern fiction (with first person a close second in YA.) If you use anything else, your writing skills need to be superb or you'll leave the reader confused and annoyed.

And you'll red-flag yourself as a beginner.

3) Episodic storytelling

I think nearly every writer's first novel has this problem. Mine sure did.

I could never end it, because it didn’t actually have a single plot. It was a series of related episodes, like a TV series—the old fashioned kind that didn't have a season story arc.

Critique groups often don’t catch this problem, if each episode has a nice dramatic arc of its own.

Every piece of narrative has to start with an inciting incident that triggers ALL the action in the story, until it reaches a satisfying resolution at the end. It's called a story arc.

If you don't have a story arc, you don't have a novel. You have a series of linked stories or vignettes. But novel readers want one big question to propel them through the story and keep them turning the pages.

The writer who blogs as Mooderino has a great post on why we want to avoid episodic narrative, even though it worked with some classics like Alice in Wonderland.

4) Info-dumps and "As you Know Bob" conversation

When the first five pages of a book are used for exposition—telling us the names of characters, what they look like, what they do for a living, and details of their backstories—before we get into a scene, you know you're not dealing with a professional.

Exposition (background information) needs to be filtered in slowly while we're immersed in scenes that have action and conflict. This takes skill. The kind that comes with lots of practice.

Another big clue is info-dumping in conversation, often called "as-you-know-Bob":

"As you know, Bob, we're here investigating the murder of Mrs. Gilhooley, the 60-year-old librarian at Springfield High School, who may have been poisoned by one Ambrose Wiley, an itinerant preacher who brought her a Diet Dr. Pepper on August third…."

Thing is, Bob knows why he's there. He's a forensics expert, not an Alzheimer's patient. Putting this stuff in dialogue insults the reader's intelligence, since nobody would say this stuff in real life. (In spite of the fact you hear an awful lot of it on those CSI TV shows.)

5) Mundane dialogue and transitional scenes that don't further the action.

All that “hello-how-are-you-fine-and-you-nice-weather” dialogue may be realistic, but it’s also snoozifying.

Readers don’t care about “realism” if it doesn’t further the plot. As James Patterson, the bestselling author in the world says, "realism is overrated." Readers want "just the good parts."

That also means skipping the trip from the police station to the crime scene and the lunch breaks when nothing happens except the MC doing some heavy musing and doughnut chomping.

Ditto the endless meetings or arguments where people come to decisions after tedious deliberation. Those are an exception to the rule of "show don't tell." Let us know the outcome, not the snoozerific details.

Just make a break in the page and plunge us into the next scene.

6) Tom Swifties and too many dialogue tags

The writer who strains to avoid the word “said” can rapidly slide into bad pun territory, as in the archetypal example from the old "Tom Swift" boys' books: "'We must run,' exclaimed Tom swiftly."

They were turned into a silly game in the 1960s, promoted by Time Magazine, which invited the public to submit outrageous Tom Swifties like:

"Careful with that chainsaw," Tom said offhandedly.

"I might as well be dead," Tom croaked.

So we don't want to go there by accident. Bad dialogue tags may have crept into your consciousness at an early age from those Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. The books were great fun—I adored them myself—but they were written by a stable of underpaid hacks and although the characters are classic, the prose is not.

"Said" is invisible to the reader. Almost any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself.

Very often the tag can be eliminated entirely. This allows your characters to speak and THEN act, rather than doing the two simultaneously.

Not so swift:

"We must run," exclaimed Tom swiftly.

Better, but awkward.

"We must run!" said Tom, sprinting ahead."


"We must run!" Tom sprinted ahead.

7) Mary Sues

A Mary Sue is a character who’s a stand-in for the writer’s idealized self, which makes the story a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author, but a snooze for the reader.

Mary Sue is beautiful. Everybody loves her. She always saves the day. She has no faults. Except she’s boring and completely unbelievable. For more on this, check out the post on Mary Sue and her little friends I wrote last month.

8) Imprecise word usage and incorrect spelling and grammar 

Unfortunately, agents and the buying public aren't your third grade teacher; they won’t give you a gold star just to boost your self-esteem.

Spelling and grammar count. Words are your tools. 

If you don’t know the difference between lie and lay or aesthetic and ascetic and you like to sprinkle apostrophes willy-nilly amongst the letters, make sure you find somebody who's got that stuff under control before you self-publish or send off your ms. to an agent.

Nobody is going to "give you a break" because it's your first novel. Practice novels belong in a drawer, not the marketplace. If people are spending their money and time on your book, they deserve to have a professional product.

Electronic grammar checks can only do so much. And they’re often wrong. Buy a grammar book. Take an online course. Not everybody was a good student in elementary school, but you'll need to brush up on your skills if this is going to be your profession. Even a good editor can’t do everything.

9) Clichéd openings

People who read a lot (like agents and editors) have seen some things so often they immediately get turned off. Even if it's a perfectly good idea. The problem comes when a whole bunch of people have had the same good idea before you.

The most common is the “alarm clock” opening—your protagonist waking up—the favorite cliché of all beginning storytellers, whether short story, novel, or script. There’s a hilarious video on this from the comedians at Script Cops They say, “78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off.”

Here are some other openers too many writers have done already:

  • Weather reports: it's fine to give us a sketch of the setting, but not more than a sentence or two.
  • Trains, planes and automobiles: if your character is en route and musing about where he’s been and where he’s going, you’re not into your story yet. Jump ahead to where the story really starts.
  • Funerals: a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement. If you use this opening, make sure you've got a fresh take.
  • Dreams: we're plunged into the middle of a rip-roaring scene, only to find out on page five that it's only a dream. Readers feel cheated.
  • "If only I’d known…" or "If I hadn't been..." starting with the conditional perfect seems so clever—I used to love this one—but unfortunately a lot of other writers do too.
  • Personal introductions: starting with "my name is…" has been overdone, especially in YA.
  • Group activities: don’t overwhelm your reader with too many characters right off the bat. 
  • Internal monologue: don’t muse. Bring in backstory later.
  • The protagonist looking in the mirror describing herself: In fact, you don't need as much physical description of the characters as you think. Just give us one or two strong characteristics that set them apart. Let the reader's imagination fill in the blanks.
  • Too much action: Yes, the experts keep telling us to start with a bang. But if too much banging is going on before we get to know the characters, readers won't care. 
If you use one of these openers in an especially clever and original way, you may get away with it. But be aware they are red flags, and many people won't go on to find out what a great story you have to tell.

For more on this, Jami Gold has a great post this week on how to avoid cliches in your opener.

10) Wordiness

There’s a reason agents and publishers are wary of long books. New writers tend to take 100 words to say what seasoned writers can say in 10. If your prose is weighty with adjectives and adverbs or clogged with details and repetitive scenes, you’ll turn off readers as well.

Remember a novel is a kind of contract between writer and reader. If you are writing to fulfill your own needs, not those of the reader, you're breaking that contract. They'll feel cheated.  And they will probably let you know.

If you’re still doing any of these things, RELAX! Enjoy writing for its own sake a while longer. Read more books on craft. Build inventory. You really do need at least two manuscripts in the hopper before you launch your career.

And hey, you don’t have to become a marketer just yet. Isn’t that good news?

For more on this, Sarah Allen has a great post this week on Top 7 Mistakes that Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional.

How about you, scriveners? What mistakes did you make when you were starting out? As a reader, what amateurish red flags make you start to feel nervous about buying a book?


I have a new boxed set! My three Boomer Books are now available in one boxed set. The intro price is only 99c!
That's 33c a book!
 Available at Amazon USAmazon UK, Amazon CA, Inktera, Nook, Kobo, and Scribd (iTunes coming soon.)

The Boomer Women Trilogy

The Leaders of the Twenty-First Century was the original title for the manuscript that branched into three and became Food of Love, The Lady of the Lakewood Diner and The Gatsby Game. It would be a terrible title, of course, because it sounds too dry and pretentious for a bunch of comedies. 

But the phrase has excellent comic credentials. It comes from Mickey Mouse himself. The original Mickey Mouse Club TV program always signed off with the inspiring proclamation that the show was "dedicated to you, the leaders of the twenty-first century!" 

When my little girlfriends and I giggled in our basement "rec rooms," mesmerized by the addictive new show, it never occurred to us the announcer wasn't talking to us as much as to our brothers. We didn't see any women leaders around us, but somehow, the magic of Disney was going to propel us all to new heights. My best friend planned to be a doctor and I wanted to be a famous writer. Or maybe princess of the world. 

The heroines of these three novels, Congresswoman Rev. Cady Stanton, Princess Regina of San Montinaro, diner owner Dodie Hannigan Codere, rock star Morgan le Fay, and sporting goods CEO Nicky Conway are powerful yet vulnerable (and I hope funny) women who represent those Baby Boomer women who watched the Mickey Mouse Club with me. 

Our mothers, who fought WWII on the home front only to be lured out of the workplace to a life of suburban housewifery, often saw our generation as entitled and self-involved. But as my character Dodie Hannigan said in the first version of the manuscript: 

"We're called Boomers, but it wasn't us that did the booming—that was our parents. We just showed up nine months later and got plunked in front of those brand new TVs." 

We were born at the dawn of the television age to become Madison Avenue's most coveted "target demographic." Advertising campaigns and kid-centric programming made us the first generation to be given a collective identity separate from family or community. 

And for good or ill, they made us who we have become: women who have demanded to be treated as equals by the other half of the human race. 

I know it's still something of a taboo to write novels—especially romantic comedies—about women "of a certain age," but Boomer women have been breaking rules since the Mickey Mouse Club proclaimed our destiny. I hope you'll enjoy their stories.


SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

For NEW WRITERS! THE FICTION DESK NEWCOMER'S PRIZE ENTRY FEE £8. First prize £500, second prize £250. Short fiction from 1,000 - 5,000 words. Writers should not have been previously published by The Fiction Desk, and should not have published a novel or collection of short stories in printed form. Deadline October 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014.

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript. River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Secret to Publishing Success in the Era of Social Media: Teaming with Your Fellow Authors

by Anne R. Allen

Jon Stewart said on the Daily Show on August 27, (with heavy irony, of course) "Everybody uses Social Media as a weapon; that's what it's for."

He was, as usual, uttering spot-on truth disguised as a joke. Lots of people DO seem to use social media as a weapon, whether it's to shame an ex, brag about themselves, gang up on a perceived miscreant, or bully people into action.

But that's not how to use social media if you want to succeed in publishing.

As I have said before, social media should be used for making friends, not direct marketing, bullying, or personal horn-tooting. (A little tooting is okay, but make sure it's sandwiched between lots of helpful stuff.)

I think writers should be making friends with other writers, not just the people they perceive to be their "target reader demographic" (although that is always wise as well.)

This may be the opposite of what you're hearing from some marketing gurus, but hear me out—

I'm not telling you to MARKET to other writers. That's pointless, annoying, and a great way to make enemies.

NOTE: NEVER market through a personal Direct Message or an @ message, ever. And anybody who spams my email with a newsletter I never subscribed to: I WILL remember you. And not in a good way. (I'm sure the spammers don't read this blog. They probably skim my info from FB groups or Goodreads. Do not do this.)

But writer friends can be helpful to you in a lot of more important ways than as one-time customers for a book. 

So get out and meet them. Especially authors in your own genre. Other writers aren't your rivals; they're your colleagues.

I see a lot of pre-published writers talking trash about the stars of their genre, giving them rotten reviews or making disparaging remarks on forums. Oddly, this seems especially true of literary writers, as Stephen Almond wrote recently in Poets and Writers , but I see it in all genres. This is old-school thinking that can backfire, big time.

When you trash superstars, you're also trashing all their fans. That's a whole lot of your potential readers you've just alienated.

Some authors even try to knock another writer off the spot ahead of them on the bestseller list, as if selling books were a contest or a "reality" TV show.

There was a huge scandal a few years ago when a bestselling trad-pubbed author was caught leaving sock-puppet one-star reviews on "rival" authors' books. He seemed to think that by bringing down other authors' books, he would get more readers of his own.

That either/or thinking is ridiculous. If somebody liked one military thriller, they're likely to buy another. They're not going to read one and say, "Okay, I'm done with thrillers. Now I'll go buy me some chick lit."

In response to a recent nasty bit of bullying of an established author by a vicious plagiarist using sock puppets, David Farland wrote a list of "Standards of Excellence for Writers" that's worth a read.

In the era of social media, other writers can contribute a lot to your own marketing, so play nice.

One caveat: There are ways authors should NOT team up for marketing purposes. Beware "author rings" that trade reviews! It's against Amazon's TOS and can get you kicked off the site for life. It is also unethical. As David Farland says, "many people are getting positive reviews by giving positive reviews. I’ve seen them swapping openly on Facebook. This is just as illegal as buying reviews any other way, and it’s just as bad."

But there are lots of ethical ways to team up for book promotion. Here are some:

1) Guest Blogging

I first met Ruth Harris when she made a comment on this blog and I recognized her as a favorite author. I immediately asked her to guest. When I saw she didn't have her own blog yet, I asked her to make her contribution permanent.

I know this blog wouldn't have the success it's enjoying now if I'd tried to do this all on my own. Partnering with a seasoned, bestselling author who also worked behind the scenes at several Big Five houses has made this blog what it is.

When I needed guest posters this summer, I looked for other bloggers who appeal to our readers. Those bloggers almost all have "how to write" and "how to blog" books: books that could be seen as competition for my book HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE.

So do I treat them as rivals? Nope. I invited the authors of HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL, BLOG IT, and PLANNING YOUR NOVEL, to guest for us.

That meant that fans of Janice Hardy, Nathan Bransford, and Molly Greene came over here and discovered this blog. And Janice, Nathan and Molly got introduced to this blog's audience.

We all grew our subscriber lists and increased our book sales.

2) Spotlights and Interviews

I will always be grateful to the many, many author-bloggers who have interviewed me and spotlighted my books. Not all of them are published yet, but they all have valuable blogs that are read by people I want to tell about my books.

And when they are published, you can be sure I'll remember them and do what I can to help their careers.

One interview came up in a Google search a year later and got my book NO PLACE LIKE HOME noticed by the features editor of More magazine, which led to an interview that has done a huge amount to raise my profile with my target readers who may NOT be on social media.

3) Tweeting and sharing book news and blogposts.

If I love another author's books and see they're on sale, I will spread the word on social media. I also always tweet a link to a good blogpost.

And smart authors do the same, no matter how high up they are on the food chain.

Superstar Anne Rice shared a link to this blog on her FB page last week. I haven't read one of her books since Interview with the Vampire. But now, I just may pick up her new LeStat book…

So many of you are wonderful about tweeting and sharing this blog. I know who you are. I stop by your blogs when I have time, and tweet and share them too. And when you get book deals or publish a book, I'll spread the word.

4) Forming a multi-author joint blog, collective or even your own publishing house.

Some of the highest profile writing blogs, like Writer Unboxed, began as joint-author blogs of just two or three aspiring authors. As their careers grow, so do their blogs. Sometimes authors in the same genre who blog together will also join up for an anthology or boxed set, like the Embracing Romance group, who plan a Valentine's historical anthology.

We ran a piece about the international publishing collective Triskele last year. Banding together for cover design, formatting and marketing has worked very well for this group of hardworking, successful authors.

Two veteran trad-pubbed authors who have gone indie made news last week by forming their own crime fiction publishing house, Brash Books

5) Joint Promotions

This is a biggie.

In his bestselling book on marketing, LET'S GET VISIBLE, David Gaughran says the best forms of ebook promotion are:

1. A sale promoted through a bargain newsletter like BookBub, ENT, KNT, EBUK, Fussy Librarian etc.

2. A guest post on a major blog

3. A joint promotion.

#1 can be a gamble—sometimes an expensive one—but #2 and #3 simply involve getting together with your friends you've met on social media. You can put together a joint promotion with dozens of other authors, or just two or three.

It can be an anthology, a multi-author sale, or a boxed set. 


Authors have discovered that if they band together with other authors in their genre, they can offer a sampler that expands readership exponentially.

The first joint promotion I was involved with was the super-successful INDIE CHICKS ANTHOLOGY. Twenty-five women writers contributed short essays about their publishing journeys, and we all included a sample from one of our books that linked to the buy page for the complete novel.

The anthology came out when I was going through my grueling launch-five-novels-in-three months marathon three years ago. I was a little out of my depth, but they were all so kind that many of the "Chicks" have become permanent friends. I know the anthology had a lot to do with my initial success when I re-started my career. 

Multi-Author Sales

My books first started to hit the bestseller lists when I did a joint promo with nine other Rom-Com authors I met in a Chick Lit Facebook group. We all chipped in for an ad and ran 99c sales on our books for a holiday weekend. We all brought in our own fans and they got to know the other writers' work.

We were very lucky to have a tech-savvy member who put up a landing page for us. It linked to our websites and buy pages. We all promoted it on our own social media pages and it was simple and very effective.

Boxed Sets

The joint promo that's having the most spectacular success right now is the limited edition multi-author boxed set.

A nice benefit of ebooks is they can be easily bundled so a set of multiple novels that is as easy to deliver to your ereader as one book. That means boxed sets of complete novels can be sold a give-away prices (they're usually only offered for a limited time.)

Some of the biggest names in indie publishing have collaborated in boxed sets that have made the NYT and USA Today bestseller lists, like the Deadly Dozen that featured some of the biggest names in indie publishing and made the NYT bestseller list. Now every one of those authors can put "NYT Bestseller' on their Web pages and they've all gained thousands of new readers.

For more on boxed sets, there's a great post by Jason Kong at The Book Designer blog, and another by James Moushon at the E-Book Author's Corner.

And I'm very honored to announce that I was invited to join five bestselling comic mystery authors in the SIX PACK OF SLEUTHS boxed set that debuted this month. I'm in awe of all these fantastic authors. Dani Amore/Dan Ames, who's a veteran of this kind of promo, is a big fan of the boxed set. He says they're great because "an author can receive a lot of exposure for little invested money."

More on our boxed set below.

So play nice with your fellow authors. Don't spam or trash-talk. Make friends. It's amazing how being helpful and friendly can have a great influence on your bottom line.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you ever collaborated with other authors on an anthology, joint sale, multi-author blog, or boxed set? Have you collaborated in some other way? What was your experience? Have you ever bought a multi-author boxed set? 



Six Award Winning Bestselling Authors bring you a Six Pack of Sleuths DEATH BY SARCASM by Dan Ames writing as Dani Amore MIAMI MUMMIES by Barbara Silkstone THE PERFECT WEDDING by Sibel Hodge, SADIE’S GUIDE TO CATCHING KILLERS by Zané Sachs (the demented alter-ego of author, Suzanne Tyrpak) BEING LIGHT by Helen Smith, FOOD OF LOVE, by Anne R. Allen

Six Pack of Sleuths is available from:

all the Amazons

Happy Reading!
This set is featured on Kindle Books and Tips


The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. See you there! September 19th-20th

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

For NEW WRITERS! THE FICTION DESK NEWCOMER'S PRIZE ENTRY FEE £8. First prize £500, second prize £250. Short fiction from 1,000 - 5,000 words. Writers should not have been previously published by The Fiction Desk, and should not have published a novel or collection of short stories in printed form. Deadline October 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30th.

Steamy Romance Anthology. No Fee. Fast Foreword is open for submissions for their "Holiday Hot Romance Anthology" Holiday-themed steamy romance or erotica. 3,000-8,000 words long. If the work has been published elsewhere, you must include bibliographic information and hold all publication rights. Deadline September 20th.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Biggest Mistake New Writers Make and 5 Ways to Avoid It

by Anne R. Allen

It's been an exciting week for the blog. Marketing expert Penny Sansevieri named us to the Top 30 Websites for Indies and blog guru Molly Greene named us to her list of must-read "leaders" in self-publishing. (I'm only recently self-published—and most of my work is still with a small pressbut I'll wear the "indie" label proudly.)

We also got some lovely kudos from superstar author Anne Rice, who linked to the blog from her FB page and said her readers were "deeply grateful" for our tips and insights. Very gracious of her.

I also heard from the producer of a new film about The David Whiting Story which is the subject of my novel The Gatsby Game. It's encouraging to know Hollywood is interested in David's case again.

All that, along with getting interviewed by the women's magazine More about my novel No Place Like Home have made me feel pretty good about the way my career is heading.

But no way have I forgotten how it felt to be down at the bottom of the publishing ladder, trapped on the query-go-round, desperately hoping for the smallest bit of encouragement. Sometimes I have nightmares that I'm still there. I'm still the same person with the same insecurities.

The difference: time. It takes way, way more time to learn to be a successful writer than anybody ever tells you.

I recently found some old diaries from fifteen years agoa time when I was about to give up writing. I'd had seven rejections in one dayincluding the return of a full manuscript with no explanation. (I know that still happens, and I wish agents knew how that can throw the most optimistic writer into pit of despair.)

What I didn't realize thenwhich my present self can see so easily, is...I wasn't ready.

Of course I had no idea of that. I thought I was more than ready. I had a degree from a fancy college. I was a voracious reader. I'd worked in bookstores most of my life. I'd also spent years in the theateracting and directingso I knew how to build a character. My grammar skills were excellent. I'd been in writing critique groups for years.

I didn't realize those things had very little to do with writing commercially viable fiction. 

Unfortunately, I'd made a promise to myself that I was going to have a book published by...some birthday or other. I honestly can't remember the number, but I had established an ironclad deadline in my mind. 

The closer I got to that deadline, the more desperate I felt. Sometimes I'd send out ten queries a day. I spent tons of money on conferences, pitching unpolished books to agents and editors who tried to be kind, but I could see by their faces I was doing something wrong.

My mistake?

Trying to start my career too early.

Here's what I didn't understand: nobody wants to read a rough draft. And even your tenth draft is probably rough if you're a newbie. Your story idea may be great, but wading through a beginner's writing vs. reading professional work is the difference between grading a student paper and picking up your favorite author's book for a relaxing evening.

This morning I saw a perplexed FB post from a new writer who had just got a bunch of negative reviews on her new self-published book. A click-through to her Amazon buy page showed a book full of errors, typos and formatting problems. It also had an amateurish cover. On top of this, the author had apparently put out a request for "5-star reviews" on social media, All anybody could tell her was: unpublish, get an editor, and learn about the business.

Here's the thing—even if your writing is polished—you're unlikely to get readership, much less an agent or publisher, unless you know something about the business of getting your work into the marketplace. You don't ask for reviews without offering review copies and you never demand a certain type of review.

So if you've got a "career plan" with ironclad deadlines like mine, make sure it includes the steps of writing several books and educating yourself about the business first. That's true whether you're planning to go the traditional route or self-publish. The rules are a little different, but both paths require business savvy and insider knowledge.

But I sure do relate to the huge pressure you're feeling to get this career on the road, NOW:

Why we rush

         You’ve got the external pressure:

  • From your mom, who thinks the fact you’ve written 80,000 words of anything is so amazing she’s already written up the press releases.
  • From your significant other, who wants to know when exactly his/her years of sharing you with that manuscript are going to start paying a few bills.
  • From your friends, who don't understand how you can spend all that time writing and have nothing to show for it. "How long can it take to write a book anyway? My mom can type 55 words a minute!"
  • From your critiquers and betas, who are so tired of helping you revise that WIP …AGAIN, they’re screaming “Send it! Away! Immediately!”
  • From self-publishing gurus who say "every minute you're not published, you're losing money."

    And the internal pressure:

  • From your battered self-esteem and those eye-rolls you get every time you tell somebody you’re "pre-published," and you’re only working at the cafe until you make it as a writer.
  • From artistic insecurity: you won’t REALLY know you have talent unless you’re validated by having a published book.
  • From financial insecurity: it’s tough to pay off the loans for the MFA when the only paying writing gig you’ve had since you got the degree is updating the menu for your brother-in-law’s food truck.
  • From your muse, who says: "This is pure brilliance. The world totally needs this book!" 

So what do we do to get the pressure to let up?

1) Realize the "rush" is an illusion

If you're feeling pressure to rush, remember it's all in your head, like my "ironclad deadline."

Yes, at the beginning of the e-publishing revolution, some of the biggest self-publishing gurus said stuff like "every day your book isn't published, you're losing money." I think the gurus intended to speak to traditionally-published mid-listers who had out-of-print backlists.

Unfortunately, it became a mantra for all the beginning writers with practice novels in their files.

Whatever the reason for the advice, it's not wise to follow it any more. The "bubble" in which the random amateur's 99-cent self-pubbed ebook could make the big time has deflated.

You're probably making better money working at the coffee place than what most writers make, even if they're traditionally published, so if you're writing because you're pressed for cash, choose another profession. It takes years to build the readership that can provide you with a living wage.

2) Get lots of feedback 

There are many ways to get free feedback before you get to the editing stage, as we detailed in our August posts on editing, critique groups, and beta readers. Most of them didn't exist when I was starting out. There are now online critique groups and beta reader connection sites. There's also self-editing software. Use whatever technique works for you, but don't write in a vacuum.

Another great innovation is story-sharing sites like Wattpad and Readwave. Some of the work on those sites is polished, professional stuff by well-known authors. (Long-time trad-pubbed author Elizabeth S. Craig has taken to Wattpad with good results.) But a lot of the writing on these sites comes from beginning writers who are still learning their craft. It's a way to be read and find fans while you're in that awkward stage I was in for so long.

If you're looking to go the traditional publishing route, preparing your manuscript by using any of these may be all you need to polish your work for an agent. In fact, some agents have picked up books right off Wattpad.

I have to stifle myself when I see comments from new writers who say they won't use a beta reader or editor, and they won't even query an agent because, "I'm not going to change a word of my novel for anybody. I write to please myself, not follow a bunch of phony rules."

Then they lament that agents or reviewers won't "give them a chance."

These people are deliberately choosing to remain amateurs and not enter the professional marketplace. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As I have blogged before, writing can be a wonderful hobby.

But for goodness' sake don't take up the time of agents, acquisitions editors, or reviewers with raw, unedited stuff you're not willing to work on.

I'm not saying you should change your book after every comment you get from a reviewer or critiquer. Far from it: you should ignore most of it. And even professional editors can fail to "get" every kind of writing. But do be aware that readers have expectations, and if you want to be read, you need to write for the contemporary reader, not just your own ego.

Musicians need to learn to master their instruments. Truckers need to learn to drive big rigs. Golfers need to learn to swing a club. Writers need to learn to craft words and sentences into a story. Learning takes time.

3) Practice, practice, practice

Easy self-publishing doesn't mean the learning process has been shortened. Learning to write narrative takes way longer than most people realize. (It took me about a decade longer than I expected.)

Self-publishing guru Kristine Kathryn Rusch put it this way:

 "Do you remember how much work you had to do to learn how to read a novel? It took you years to get to “big” books of more than 20 pages...It’s much easier to read a novel than it is to write one. Why do you think that writing a good one is possible on the very first try? If you want overnight success, this is not the profession for you. If you want a writing career, then learn it... It takes practice, practice, practice, learning, learning, learning, and patience, patience, patience.

And the wonderful Kristen Lamb also reminds us of this a lot. She often points out that Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours equal pretty much the length of time it takes to write three books. (That's how many polished novels I had before I got my first publisher.)

 " ...all you indie/self-pub authors who put your first book up for sale and you haven’t sold enough copies to buy tacos? Keep writing. 10,000 hours. 3 books. Traditional authors? Three books. Rare is the exception."

4) Write and publish short fiction and creative essays

Remember you get great practice from writing short stories, essays, and novellas. They are the best way to get yourself noticed now and they'll be a goldmine later on. One of the biggest regrets of my career is that I spent so much time working on unpublishable novels instead of short pieces that would be valuable to me now.

Short fiction is having a renaissance and we should all be writing more of it. (I have an article on this coming in the November issue of Writer's Digest.)

Short stories and creative nonfiction pieces are easier to get published and you may even get paid or win a money prize. Which can get all those pressuring voices in your head to shut up.

This can include guest blog posts, which will get your name known and make you Googleable: all-important in the digital age.

5) Learn the business

We don't just need to learn to craft book-length narrative, which involves a steep learning curve. We also also need to be savvy about the business we're trying to enter. These days, being an author means not only knowing how to write, but understanding the business of publishing as it exists NOW. (As I say above, this can mean different things depending on how you publish, but every business path has rules.)

For all of you who are screaming "No! No! I just want to write. I'm not going to corrupt my soul with any of that crass commercialism," scroll up to my link to the post on writing as a hobby.

You're choosing to be an amateur. Many happy writers have good reasons for writing for recreation rather than business. Just be clear on your goals.

I wasn't. I queried for years without having a clue about genre or where my books would fit in the marketplace. I was firmly entrenched in the delusion that somebody could "just write" and be a professional author.

I knew you couldn't run a restaurant and "just cook" or a own a dress shop and "just buy pretty clothes." But I didn't want to accept that writing is a business.

So now I'm grateful that all my rotten queries got rejected. Even when I got those seven rejections in one day.

This is the simple truth: we have to become professionals before we join an industry. Any industry.

This post isn't meant to discourage anybody. It's meant to urge you to learn to be the best writer you can be—so you can have that career you've always dreamed of—not one unpolished book languishing in agents' slush piles or on book retail sites, unwanted and unloved.

You owe it to your book to do it right.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you feel pressured to get published? Did you self-publish before you were ready? Have you decided to be a happy amateur and leave all those pressures behind? If you're farther along in your career, what advice do you have for newbies who feel the pressure to publish before they have several books ready to go? 


I got a crash course in the publishing business when my first novel, Food of Love was accepted by a small UK publisher in 2001. Not only did I have to learn about promoting my own books, but I was invited to live and work with the company, which was located in the English Midlands, near the legendary Sherwood Forest. The setting and colorful cast of characters provided the perfect backdrop for a mystery novel. That novel became Sherwood Ltd., published by MWiDP in 2011. It is now available in a brand new e-edition, from Kotu Beach Press.

And it's only 99c for two weeks on AppleNook, Kobo, Inkterra Amazon USAmazon UK, Amazon CA, etc.  
It's also available in paper at Amazon  US and Amazon UK.  

This second book in the Camilla Randall Mysteries follows Camilla's hilarious misadventures with merry band of outlaw indie publishers in the English Midlands. Always a magnet for murder, mischief and Mr. Wrong, she falls for a self-styled Robin Hood who may or may not be trying to kill her. It follows Ghostwriters in the Sky, but can be read as a stand-alone. 

I like this book. I REALLY like this book. It's not yer typical whodunnit, nor is the protagonist anything like a cop. Ms. Allen has crafted a wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills to suspicion of everybody in the book. Good on her! Editorially, the book is also refreshingly well-done and all but devoid of grammatical or other such gaffes. This was obviously written by an intelligent woman who is also a fine story-teller. My congratulations to her...David H. Keith


It's #4 in the Camilla Randall series, but it's easily read as a stand-alone. Set in the gorgeous wine country around San Luis Obispo, it's what one reviewer called 
"A fun, witty and charming novel about the rich and the less so."
It's available on Amazon US and UK in both regular and LARGE PRINT
Amazon has it on sale right now for $10.79 and £5.99


The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. I'll see you there! September 19th-20th

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Steamy Romance Anthology. Fast Foreword is open for submissions for their "Holiday Hot Romance Anthology" Holiday-themed steamy romance or erotica. 3,000-8,000 words long. If the work has been published elsewhere, you must include bibliographic information and hold all publication rights. Deadline September 20th

WRITER'S DIGEST POPULAR FICTION AWARDS. Early Bird fee $20. Stories up to 4000 words in six genres Science Fiction/Fantasy,Thriller,Young Adult, Romance, Crime, Horror. Early Bird Deadline September 15th.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Writing Collaboration: Is it Right for You?

by Ruth Harris

According to the sublime Cole Porter lyric: Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.

Writers do it, too. Often. Collaborate, that is.

  • Peter Staub and Stephen King paired up to write horror and dark fantasy in The Talisman. Their Black House is a Stoker Award winner.
  • Joe Konrath, an Amazon bestseller, is a serial collaborator who works with a number of different co-authors in a variety of genres. He describes his working process and shares his collaboration agreement.
  • A.D. Garrett is the writing collaboration between Dagger Award-winning novelist Margaret Murphy and forensic scientist, Professor Dave Barclay. Together, they write forensic thrillers.

Other pairs of co-authors have also created impressive successes.

  • Vanessa Kelly, known for her Regency Romances, and her husband, Randy, write sports romance as VK Sykes. Vanessa and Randy are the authors of the USA Today Bestselling Philadelphia Patriots Series. Their newest book is Payoff Pitch.
  • Marian Edelman Borden and Rhonda Dossett write together as Evelyn David. Currently they are writing two mystery series: The Sullivan Investigations Mystery series and The Brianna Sullivan Mysteries. Their latest whodunit, Mind Over Murder, is available in ebook formats and trade paperback.

Believe it or not, Marian and Rhonda have never met in person. “We were waiting for a very special Oprah – but that ship seems to have sailed. For the first year, we'd never spoken. All exchanges were by email. Now we talk frequently on the phone.”

Anne R. Allen wrote the nonfiction book How to be a Writer in the E-Age with bestselling novelist, Catherine Ryan Hyde, her friend of long standing.

In order to explore the inner workings of collaboration teams, I reached out to Vanessa and Randy, Marian and Rhonda, Anne and Catherine. Many thanks to each of them for taking the time to answer my questions.

RH: To begin at the beginning, how did you first decide to collaborate?

ARA: We've been friends for a long time, and I helped promote some of Catherine's workshops on this blog early on. Since we were teaching similar subjects—me on the blog and Catherine in workshops—we decided to pool our knowledge in book form.

CRH: I had been wanting to work on a nonfiction book for writers for a long time. But I felt like there was a big hole in my knowledge. I’d been with an agent for so long that I really didn’t know the down-in-the-trenches stuff like submissions in the “right now,” not submissions ten years ago. The fit with Anne’s experience was perfect.

Vanessa: It started out as a marriage survival tactic. When Randy was approaching his early retirement, I asked him what he intended to do with his free time. The answer came back as something like this: “Oh, I’ll just drive you to all your appointments and to shopping and just spend the day with you." O_o. I knew I had to do something, since so much together time would probably drive us both crazy. I think our writing collaboration has really helped keep our marriage healthy!

ED: We met on an Internet writers forum in 2002. We were each posting stories, learning the mechanics of writing fiction. We exchanged emails, offering feedback. Our styles of writing, even at the beginning, were similar and equally important, we shared a similar sense of humor. At some point, we decided that we'd try to collaborate on a story.

RH: How do you plot or are you pantsers? How do you create characters?

ED: Actually plotting styles is the one difference between us. Marian prefers to talk through the plot; Rhonda prefers to let the characters "talk" to her as she writes. So we've developed a general approach: plot but leave plenty of room for talkative characters to change the direction of the story.

Vanessa: We’re pretty anal plotters, especially me. I love to use plot boards, GMC and character charts, and I also write bios of my characters. Randy is a little more streamlined, but he also does tons of pre-writing work. We usually start with the hero and heroine, figuring out who they are and what central problem currently bedevils them (we both often dip into to the Sixteen Master Archetypes book by Cowden, LaFever, and Viders for ideas). From there, we brainstorm the basics.

ARA: We got together at Catherine's house and brainstormed one afternoon (with some help from Catherine's wonderful mom) and came up with the concept. We went home and fleshed out an outline and book proposal and it all seemed to come together pretty easily.

CRH: Anne and I both had a few things we’d written that writers had found especially helpful. That made it a little easier, because we could spread out what we already had (some of it just in my head, like the rejection stories) like a road map. Then it was clear what was needed to form a cohesive whole.

RH: On mechanics—Do you use MS Word, Scrivener, Google Docs? Or something else?

ARA: Funny you should ask. The only real problems we've had stemmed from formatting issues. I write in Word and Catherine writes in Word for Mac. We didn't realize that the two Words don’t mesh unless you save everything to Word 2003 (.doc, not .docx). Otherwise you get glitches in formatting for ebooks that read wrong on some devices.

CRH: Because these were all separate “pieces,” using separate Word docs (at first) for each chapter worked fine.

Vanessa: We just use good old Word. We’re pretty old school in that respect. I’ve tried to use things like Scrivener and Google Docs, but they just seem to mess with my process.

ED: Nothing elaborate. We use MSWord, employ Track Changes, and exchange via email the work-in-progress.

RH: How do you divide the work? Do you alternate chapters or does one person write 1st draft, the other polish, edit, refine? Or something else?

ED: We both write all characters and share the writing of every scene. The WIP goes back and forth constantly, with each of us tweaking and adding, so much so that we couldn't tell you who wrote what.

ARA: With a nonfic book like this, it was a piece of cake. We each wrote separate chapters and didn't do much besides proofread each other's pieces. We first published this with a small press, where they did the final edit.

CRH: It really divided itself, like Anne getting “How To Blog.” We let our experience dictate the work split.

Vanessa: Randy writes the first draft, then I do a major revision. He then does another pass through the document, refining and doing another level of copy edits. We then print out the document and I go through it line by line to catch any little errors or inconsistencies. We basically keep handing the document back and forth until we’re satisfied with it.

RH: How do you resolve disagreements?

Vanessa: We argue about it. Fortunately, we generally feel strongly about different things. Randy is very plot and story focused, and I worry more about emotion and characterization. So it’s usually not as difficult to reach an agreement as it could be, since we tend to defer to each other along those lines of concern.

ED: We don't have that many disagreements. We talk through when we hit a spot that isn't working for one of us. We've never had a turn in a story that we didn't both agree on.

ARA: I can't actually think of any. Is that weird?

CRH: We had none! I swear! I think it was a great example of how collaboration really can work, and doesn’t have to be a minefield.

RH: Are your writing styles similar or do they need to be honed into a single voice at some point in the process?

ED: Our writing styles are similar and have become more so over the years of collaboration. For our Brianna stories, which are set in Oklahoma, Rhonda will tweak when she sees something wrong with a geographic reference or an expression that wouldn't fly in that area. Similarly, Marian, who used to live in Washington, DC, will tweak stories set on the East Coast when necessary.

Vanessa: I’d say our writing styles are fairly similar; we even accuse each other being wordy and occasionally a bit arcane in our writing styles. It’s pretty funny to see how we red-pen each other in a fairly consistent way, but don’t seem to see the problem in our individual work.

ARA: I think we have distinctive voices, but they are similar enough in tone that they meshed very well, or at least our reviewers seem to think so.

CRH: Yes, I agree that our styles are easily distinguished. I think you could cover up the name at the beginning of the chapter and still know who’s writing. But we both like to serve up plenty of humor with lessons like these, so I think the styles meshed well.

RH: What are the biggest upsides of collaborating?

ARA: For me, I got my name linked with one of the bestselling authors on Amazon. I'm not sure what Catherine got out of it, except that she likes to help people and um, "Pay it Forward"

CRH: No, no. I got a lot more. I got a whole different perspective on the industry, especially the most recent changes as they affect the new author. I got a lot.

ED: Collaboration gives us the advantage of having someone to play off ideas. Talking through the plot, throwing out ideas, often with the preface "this may sound crazy," allows us to explore all kinds of possibilities for a story.

Writing is a tough business. Authors, especially in the rapidly changing publishing world, face disappointment on a regular basis. While it's wonderful to have someone with whom to celebrate the triumphs, it's also incredibly helpful to have someone to share the disappointments and frustrations.

Vanessa: It’s fun and also mitigates against the sense of isolation that often afflicts authors. It’s wonderful to have someone that close to you who “gets” what you’re doing. We spend hours talking about our writing and our books, which is a great way to keep our brains active and engaged.

RH: What pitfalls should writers considering collaboration be aware of?

Vanessa: Do NOT collaborate if you can’t let stuff go or you are a grudge holder. You need to be willing to lose an argument occasionally. If you’re not, it won’t be a happy relationship. I also think you need to define your work process before you even set one word down on the page. You want to be collaborating, not competing with each other.

ED: Collaboration means checking your ego at the door. It's not Marian or Rhonda's mystery -- it's Evelyn David's story. Final piece of advice: For a collaboration to work, it helps to have a sense of humor (in fact it's vital).

ARA: I should think collaboration on fiction would have lots of pitfalls, but collaborating on nonfiction is a lot easier. We each had our own chapters and fields of expertise, so we didn't have much to argue about.

CRH: I’m sure there are many pitfalls. Egos, for example. But like any human interaction, honesty, an ability to speak up, and maybe putting some points of the agreement in writing should go a long way.

Now about you.

If you’re thinking of collaborating, here are a few questions to ask yourself first:

  • Did you share when you were a kid?
  • Can you put the book first and your ego second?
  • Is your style compatible with your collaborator’s and easily blended? If not, will one of you act as editor and referee with the ability to make final decisions?
  • Do you both have a sense of humor that will help you through the rough spots, the disagreements, the disappointments?
  • Do you both write at the same speed? A Ferrari and a bicycle will both get you where you want to go but not at the same time.
  • Plotter or pantser?
  • How will you handle finances and bookkeeping?
  • Decide on a marketing/promo budget and how to split the expenses.
  • Is one (or both) of you a competent formatter or will you have to budget for pro formatting?
  • Same applies to cover design. Can you DIY or will you need to hire a designer?
And yes, sometimes the best collaborations run into snags. For a look at how Michael and I resolve our differences, here's a post at my blog on When Collaborators Disagree.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you been thinking about collaborating on a book? Have you ever successfully co-written anything? Do you have any disaster stories? What advice do you have for potential collaborators?


99c Special! Last week!!!

The Chanel Caper by Ruth Harris and The Gatsby Game by Anne R. Allen

It's CHANEL AND GATSBY, a comedy two-fer

Hollywood and Manhattan: it's Bi-Coastal Comedy! A perfect read for those last lazy days of summer.
99c at  NOOKKobo, and Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CA

The Chanel Caper
Nora Ephron meets James Bond. Or is it the other way around? 

The Gatsby Game 
A Hollywood mystery with celebrities, murder and a smart-mouthed nanny. Read it before you see the new film about the same real-life mystery, The David Whiting Story, due later this year.


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 entry fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE  for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript.  River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS NO FEE Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. September 19th-20th

Steamy Romance Anthology. NO FEE Fast Foreword is open for submissions for their "Holiday Hot Romance Anthology" Holiday-themed steamy romance or erotica. 3,000-8,000 words long. If the work has been published elsewhere, you must include bibliographic information and hold all publication rights. Deadline September 20th

Sunday, August 24, 2014

10 Obsolete Beliefs that Can Block Self-Publishing Success

by Anne R. Allen

New writers contact us every day, asking questions about everything from how to start their first short story (answer: butt in chair; hands on keyboard) to how to deal with trolls and bullies (don't respond; walk away; report abuse.)

We answer them allas time permits—but there's one kind of writer we can't help much: self-published writers who ask us to help them become best-sellers.

It's not that we don't empathize. We'd all love to be rocking the bestseller charts.

But unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to make a book a bestseller, whether it's self-published or trad-published.

At least for those of us who left our magic wands at Hogwarts.

The closest thing I know to a magic wand for marketing self-published books is David Gaughran's LET'S GET VISIBLE. And no, I don't know Mr. Gaughran and he's not paying us any kickbacks. He's simply got sensible, up-to-date, no-BS advice for self-publishers.

If you want an overview of publishing in the digital age so you can decide what publishing route is best for you, you'll find it in a book I wrote with #1 Amazon bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde called HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE.

It can help you navigate today's publishing business whether you self-publish, go with a small press as I have, or are holding out for the agent and the Big Five contract.

You can also find a wealth of information on marketing in a post Ruth Harris wrote for this blog in her Writer's Toolkit series: How to Move the Merch.

David's book costs $4.99. Ours costs $3.99. Ruth's post is free. That's under ten bucks for all the information you'll need.

But an amazing number of people say they would rather spend thousands on a professional publicist than spring for that $10.00 or even read a blogpost. 

Needless to say, Harry Potter himself could not help those folks. They are ripe for scammers, and getting ripped off may be the only way they're going to allow themselves to learn what they need to know.

I was once told by a wise friend that "we are all prisoners of our unexamined beliefs."

A lot of writers have fenced in their own careers by hanging onto beliefs about this business that are no longer true.

They are trying to make it as self-publishers while still thinking in terms of traditional publishing routes: bookstores, speaking engagements, and paper books. Some even pay for pricey hardback copies.

If seeing your own hardback books in a store window is the most important thing to you, then you probably shouldn't self-publish. Keep querying agents. Use AgentQuery and QueryTracker and make querying a priority. Authors usually have to send out hundreds these days before they find the right agent. But with persistence, you may become one of the handful of authors who get to debut between those dust-jacketed covers.

If you want to be traditionally published, don't give up on your dream because self-publishing is all the rage. The dream came true for my friend Mary Webber.  (Congrats on the August 19 launch of your YA novel Storm Siren, Mary!) It's the first of a trilogy coming out in hardcover with Thomas Nelson (with great reviews from Kirkus and PW.) Here she talks to Writer's Digest about how she got her book deal.

But if you've decided on self-publishing (or want to go with a small digital press), here are ten pieces of old information you need to erase from your brain's hard-drive if you want a successful career.

1) You're not really published unless you have paper books.

I'm going to write this in the simplest way I can, hoping you guys will spread the word to self-published friends who obsess about selling paper books.


Full stop.

E-Books. Not paper books. Especially not hardback paper books.

The e-book is the new mass market paperback. Even though sales are leveling off in the US, the market is expanding worldwide. Here's a recent Yahoo Finance article, complete with graphs and statistics on how genre writers are getting rich with e-books,

If you don't have an e-reader or tablet, and you're planning to self-publish, get one. You're not going to succeed in e-publishing if you don't read e-books and understand how people use them.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have paper books. Most readers still prefer them. But if you're self-publishing, paper will only represent a fraction of your sales. So you want to concentrate your marketing efforts on selling e-books, which is mostly done online.

I'm also not saying print is irrelevant. I'm totally jazzed to be featured in a print magazine this month. I'm interviewed in the September issue of MORE magazine, where I talk about "bag lady syndrome" and the fear of homelessness that plagues even successful women: the subject of my novel NO PLACE LIKE HOME.

But guess how Laura Sinberg, the features editor of MORE found me? Google Plus. It was a link to a guest blogpost I wrote on "bag lady fears" to promote NO PLACE LIKE HOME that came up when she Googled the phrase. The book only exists as an e-book. (Although it will come out in paper in September: YAY!) But my point is that I made a big national print magazine with an e-book (and a little help from Google Plus.) It can happen.

2) You need books in brick and mortar stores to be successful. 

Paper books cost a lot to produce. And ship. Even when you use CreateSpace, the cheapest, most popular digital printer, and order 25 books at a time, the book's cost to you won't be much less than $7. When a bookstore adds its 40% mark-up, the book will cost the consumer at least $12.

Your profit on that sale? 20c.

But an e-book priced at $2.99 gets a royalty from Amazon of 70%, which comes to $2.09. Other retailers pay a little more or less, but it's safe to say you'll average around two bucks.

Two bucks  vs. twenty cents. You don't need an MBA...

Of course what that means is you should probably charge more than $12 for the paper. Especially if you factor in all the time, money and energy you spend promoting bookselling events.

So you will probably want to price the book at about $15. But that makes it hard to compete with mass market paperbacks, which still sell substantially lower than that.

Then remember that without a Big Five publisher buying the expensive "co-op" real estate at the front of the store for you, your pricey book is probably going to be spine-out on a bottom shelf in the back of the store unless you have a personal friend working there.

That's assuming you can get into bookstores at all: most indie shops will only take self-published books on consignment, and big chain stores won't stock them, period.

See why successful self-publishers focus on online sales?

I know it's sad not to see your book on a shelf in a real store. As readers, we love bookstores. But there's change afoot in retail shopping that is way bigger than the book business. The Wall Street Journal reports shoppers are fleeing the malls and even WalMart is in decline.

So it doesn't make sense for indies to put much energy into in-store book sales. Leave that to the Big Five, who have to take the books back after they don't sell, and pay to ship and pulp them.

3) Personal appearances and book-signings are required of the successful writer.

Book events cost money. Usually quite a lot. Especially if you have to pay for the venue. You're also going to have the cost of your transportation, the de rigeur refreshments, the new outfit, the time spent preparing (and cooking, if you do the refreshments yourself) and all that time taken away from working on your WIP.

The average book signing done on the cheap might cost about $500. Say you sell 50 books (which would be way more than I've ever sold at a book event.) If you're charging $15 a book and you've got cheap CreateSpace books (which many bookstores won't carry, alas) at $8 profit per book, you've made $400.

That's a best-case scenario, and you've lost $100 bucks plus all that time and energy.

I'm not saying you should never have a book party. As I have written before, they can be a fabulous ego boost and a lot of fun. Plus if you're media savvy, you can send out press releases and maybe get it covered by local radio and newspapers, so they're good publicity.

But that's publicity in your hometown only. Great if you live in a large metropolitan area, if you're in little rural town like mine, not so much.

What if you put that $500 into a Bookbub ad instead? If you advertise a 99c sale on your thriller in the Bookbub newsletter, it will reach 1,250,000 targeted readers all over North America. (And other less expensive newsletters like EBookBargainsUK can reach the growing international markets.)

If that 99c sale is on an Amazon countdown, you get to keep most of that 99c on every book sale. And I have yet to hear from an author who didn't make back the cost of a Bookbub ad as well as getting a huge bounce.

This is why most successful self-publishers skip the personal appearances unless they're at the huge national conventions like RWA that raise their profile in the entire industry.

4) Book swag sells books.

I see so many self-publishers begging to give away stuff on their blogs. They've got pens, post-it notes, hats, tote bags, tee-shirts, and even jewelry with their book covers on them.

I know. They're shiny and fun and they're…TOYS!!

But they cost money. And their influence on book sales is minimal. Even if you're at a convention and hand out a ton of them. Thing is, everybody else is doing the same thing.

A cheap, simple bookmark or business card will remind people of your title just as well. (And yes, you need those: take them with you everywhere!)

I got some really cool business cards that advertise my books and this blog for $10 for a hundred from Vistaprint. And I understand some printers are even cheaper. They're all you need.

Toys don't sell books. Word of mouth from readers sells books. Especially word of mouth online, where people can simply click through to a buy page.

5) If you price your books high, you'll show you're the equal of Big Five writers.

I see many self-publishers pricing themselves right out of the market. I was asked to review a book some time ago that I really liked, but I haven't been able to bring myself to recommend it because the author is charging $9.99 for the e-book. I consider that high, even when it's a must-read brand new Big 5 bestseller. For a self-publisher, it's the kiss of death.

The average price for an ebook on Amazon is between $2.99 and $6.99. That's for self-published, small press, and much of the Big 5's backlist. Nearly every day the Bookbub newsletter has a Big 5 classic bestseller for $1.99.

Successful indies usually offer the first book in a series for 99c or even free. The later books are usually priced from $2.99-$4.99. Some price their newest release a little higher, but if you price over $9.99, your Amazon royalty goes down.

The Fussy Librarian provides a  page on his site detailing how to price your ebook for optimum success.

I have heard so many self-publishers claim they "have" to charge top dollar for their book because "I spent years writing it."

We all spent years on our first novels. It's called "learning to write."

Besides, it's better to sell lots of books at a lower price than a few at a higher price. Many indies give away tons of books. That's because they want tons of readers who will come back for more.

Charging over $5 for a self-published e-book  by an unknown shows nothing except the author has no knowledge of the market.

6) Paying a publicist guarantees more income.

Unfortunately, the old ways of selling books don't work very well any more, so even the efforts of the hardest working publicists can be hit or miss.
  • The old book tour/personal appearance route is not cost effective, as I have blogged about before. 
  • Neither is a print ad. Nearly four years ago, Alan Rinzler talked about how a full page ad in the New York Times mostly impresses the author's mother. They're even less effective now.
  • Press releases? Unless you've got a spectacular hook, like you're dating a guy on Duck Dynasty or your baby fell down a well, your press releases are not going to be picked up outside of your hometown.
  • Endless automated Tweets, paying for ads for Facebook "parties" and most of the social media gimmicks don't work either, unless the author is personally engaging with readers. 

As Mary W. Walters said on her blog last month, "…we have traditional book-promotion strategies that no longer work – and people who have been trained in those strategies who are no longer useful."

And the Book Marketing Buzz blog predicts that book promoters will soon become extinct.

I'm not saying all publicists are a waste of time and money. A top-notch publicist can get you interviews and appearances that would be closed to you otherwise, and they can plan a campaign around an issue or something in your bio that you might not be able to think up by yourself.

But most of the successful indies you read about did NOT use publicists.

7) You can start a career with one book

The most effective method successful self-publishers have used to sell their books in the digital age is the liberal use of free and discounted books.

They give away the first book in a series to get people to buy the others. If you don't have any others…um, you can figure it out.

Amazon algorithms also favor authors with more than one title.

In fact, indie superstar Liliana Harte suggests you hold back launching your book until you have five in the hopper, so you can launch one a month. Apparently that's the best way to get noticed by the "also bought" algos.

That's precisely what my publishers did with me in 2011. I won't pretend it wasn't exhausting, but after I re-launched my backlist books with Popcorn Press, MWiDP took on three more books I had in rough draft. Yes, we did some marathon editing, but I launched five books in four months. Plus two anthologies. It worked pretty well.

If I had only launched one a year, I'd probably still be taking on editing work to make ends meet.

8) Self-publishers need to attend lots of book fairs and industry events.

The reason to attend trade fairs is to sell to vendors. But as an indie author, you want to sell direct to customers. Of course readers as well as vendors do attend some of the big book festivals, but they generally don't buy a bunch of books to lug around all day. 

If they're interested, they're more likely to pick up a card or bookmark and order your book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble when they get home. But during the ordering process, they might forget and order something else Amazon suggests to them. And it could very well be a book from an author who didn't just spend thousands of dollars to attend a convention.

Somebody who's at home in her sweats, pounding out that next book.

It's important to remember that a booth at a festival is so expensive you can't get back your investment unless you get a huge contract or sell in tremendous volume. Add to that the price of transportation and a hotel room, and you're spending a large chunk of change you will not be seeing again. 

So only go to a book fair because you want a fun, fabulous vacation, meeting big name authors and schmoozing with industry movers and shakers. If that's why you're going, then by all means book that ticket. Networking in person is always exciting and it can build lasting relationships.

But you can also network and become visible online at no cost.

Book fairs are also used by shady vanity presses to scam newbies. David Gaughran has some hair-raising stories of wildly-overpriced booths and worthless promotion packages sold to newbie authors who are still trapped in this old-publishing-world mindset.

Note: I'm not talking about writers' conferences here. A writer's conference isn't a trade fair. It's a place to get a mini-course in writing craft and marketing as well as network with other writers, agents and editors. They can be a valuable experience, especially for new and pre-published writers. I have the details about our local Central Coast Writers Conference in the "Opportunity Alerts" below. 

9) You need to pay for a lot of advertising to be successful.

I have mentioned BookBub ads, which get results but are pricey. However there are lots of bargain-book newsletters that cost less and are effective. Ruth Harris's post I mentioned earlier has a great run-down of the bargain newsletters and other online ads. We recently had success with The Fussy Librarian.

Set a budget and keep to it. Slpurging doesn't always pay off. When Catherine Ryan Hyde and I put our book HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE on an Amazon countdown a couple of weeks ago, we did no paid advertising at all. For most of the week we were on three Amazon bestseller lists. We often were just behind another writing book. When we were #4, it was #2, and we stayed in the same ratio most of the week.

The difference? The #2 book had an expensive BookBub ad. We spent nothing. So I'm willing to bet our bottom line was higher.

How did that happen? Catherine and I both have a strong social media presence. We spend a little time every day building relationships with our readers. Slow and steady. That's how writers build their audiences these days. Catherine gives away tons of books on her blog and Facebook. And she almost always has a book in the top 20.

We both think the Amazon countdown sale is a good promotion tool, whether or not you pay to promote it. If you're in KDP Select, you get one every 90 days. (See my current countdown sale below.)

Keep in mind the most successful self-publishers, like Hugh Howey, did not make their phenomenal sales by using pricey advertising. They did it by making lots of friends on social media and hand-selling those units one at a time.

10) E-books need to be launched like rockets.

Before the age of the e-book, launches were all-important because print books are given only a few months on valuable book store shelves before they are sent back to the publisher to be remaindered and/or pulped.

All print books are in stores "on consignment" and can be returned at any time for lack of sales. So with the old print/warehouse/bookstore paradigm, you have a very small window in which to get your book noticed. (Even smaller if it isn't one of the lucky few who get "co-op" space at the front of the store purchased by your publisher.)

But e-books are forever. An e-book is just as valuable five years down the road as it is the day you launch it. Retailers don't have to return it in order to make room for new merchandise.

Most Amazon bestsellers I know launched their first e-books quietly (what's called a "soft launch"), then waited for buzz to build. Many bestselling indies didn't sell at all for the first few months—or even years. Here's Dean Wesley Smith on why you don't have to sell a lot of books quickly to be a success.

So what's the best way to launch a book in this new publishing world? Nobody really knows. Sometimes books take off and the author doesn't have a clue why, as Sean Cummings blogged this week.

But there is one thing that will not cost you a penny and is pretty much guaranteed to help sales. Get to work on the next book.

Scriveners, do you think you might have an unexamined belief that's holding you back? Do you still have to see your book in the window of Barnes and Noble to feel successful? What advice do you have for the newly self-published author? 

NEWS: Check out the September issue of MORE magazine, where I talk to Laura Sinberg about "bag lady syndrome" and the fear of homelessness in successful women: the subject of my novel NO PLACE LIKE HOME. It's on newstands now: the issue with the amazing Viola Davis on the cover. 


The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is on a 99c countdown 
from August 24-August 31

 Who shot rock diva Morgan Le Fay? Only her childhood friend Dodie, owner of a seedy small-town diner, can find the culprit before the would-be assassin comes back to finish the job.

Boomers, this one's for you. And for younger people if you want to know what your parents and grandparents were really up to in the days of Woodstock and that old fashioned rock and roll. Plus there's a little Grail mythology for the literary fiction fans.

"A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself."...Kathleen Keena

"I borrowed this book free with my Amazon Prime membership, but I enjoyed it so much that I don't want to give it up. I'm buying a copy to keep."...Linda A. Lange

"In The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, nothing is sacred, nothing is profane. And yet, in the end, love does conquer all. If you're of an age to remember Woodstock and the Moonwalk, don't miss it. If you're not, well, you won't find a better introduction." ...Deborah Eve of the Later Bloomer


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE  for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript.  River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. September 19th-20th

Xchyler Anthologies. Currently taking submissions of FANTASY stories of 5000-1500 words. Royalty-paying. No entry fee. Deadline August 31st.