Thursday, December 25, 2008

Resolutions For Writers 2009

Every December I do a post about resolutions for writers, and every year I add more of them.


Newbie Writer Resolutions
  • I will start/finish the damn book
  • I will always have at least three stories on submission, while working on a fourth
  • I will attend at least one writer's conference, and introduce myself to agents, editors, and other writers
  • I will subscribe to the magazines I submit to
  • I will join a critique group. If one doesn't exist, I will start one at the local bookstore or library
  • I will finish every story I start
  • I will listen to criticism
  • I will create/update my website
  • I will master the query process and find an agent
  • I'll quit procrastinating in the form of research, outlines, synopses, taking classes, reading how-to books, talking about writing, and actually write something
  • I will refuse to get discouraged, because I know JA Konrath wrote 9 novels, received almost 500 rejections, and penned over 1 million words before he sold a thing--and I'm a lot more talented than that guy

Professional Writer Resolutions

  • I will keep my website updated
  • I will keep up with my blog
  • I will schedule bookstore signings, and while at the bookstore I'll meet and greet the customers rather than sit dejected in the corner
  • I will send out a newsletter, emphasizing what I have to offer rather than what I have for sale, and I won't send out more than four a year
  • I will learn to speak in public, even if I think I already know how
  • I will make selling my books my responsibility, not my publisher's
  • I will stay in touch with my fans
  • I will contact local libraries, and tell them I'm available for speaking engagements
  • I will attend as many writing conferences as I can afford
  • I will spend a large portion of my advance on self-promotion
  • I will help out other writers
  • I will not get jealous, will never compare myself to my peers, and will cleanse my soul of envy
  • I will be accessible, amiable, and enthusiastic
  • I will do one thing every day to self-promote
  • I will always remember where I came from


  • Keep an Open Mind. It's easier to defend your position than seriously consider new ways of thinking. But there is no innovation, no evolution, no "next big thing" unless someone thinks differently. Be that someone.

  • Look Inward. We tend to write for ourselves. But for some reason we don't market for ourselves. Figure out what sort of marketing works on you; that's the type of marketing you should be trying. You should always know why you're doing what you're doing, and what results are acceptable to you.

  • Find Your Own Way. Advice is cheap, and the Internet abounds with people telling you how to do things. Question everything. The only advice you should take is the advice that makes sense to you. And if it doesn't work, don't be afraid to ditch it.

  • Set Attainable Goals. Saying you'll find an agent, or sell 30,000 books, isn't attainable, because it involves things out of your control. Saying you'll query 50 agents next month, or do signings at 20 bookstores, is within your power and fully attainable.

  • Enjoy the Ride. John Lennon said that life is what happens while you're busy planning other things. Writing isn't about the destination; it's about the journey. If you aren't enjoying the process, why are you doing it?

  • Help Each Other. One hand should always be reaching up for your next goal. The other should be reaching down to help others get where you're at. We're all in the same boat. Start passing out oars.


I Will Use Anger As Fuel.
We all know that this is a hard business. Luck plays a huge part. Rejection is part of the job. Things happen beyond our control, and we can get screwed.

It's impossible not to dwell on it when we're wronged. But rather than vent or stew or rage against the world and everyone in it, we should use that anger and the energy it provides for productive things.

The next time you get bad news, resolve to use that pain to drive your work. Show fate that when it pushes you, you push right back. By writing. By querying. By marketing.

I Will Abandon My Comfort Zone. The only difference between routine and rut is spelling.

As a writer, you are part artist and part businessman.

Great artists take chances.

Successful businessmen take chances.

This means doing things you're afraid of, and things you hate, and things you've never tried before.

If, in 2008, you don't fail at something, you weren't trying hard enough.

I Will Feed My Addiction. Life is busy. There are always things you can and should be doing, and your writing career often comes second.

So make it come first.

Right now, you're reading A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. Not A Newbie's Guide to Leading a Content and Balanced Life.

You want to get published and stay published? That means making writing a priority. That means making sacrifices. A sacrifice involves choosing one thing over another.

If you can't devote the time, energy, and money it takes to pursue this career, go do something else.

I Will Never Be Satisfied. Think the last resolution was extreme? This one really separates the die-hards from the hobbyists.

While an overwhelming sense of peace and enlightenment sounds pretty nice, I wouldn't want to hire a bunch of Zen masters to build an addition on my house.

Satisfaction and contentment are great for your personal life. In your professional life, once you start accepting the way things are, you stop trying.

No one is going to hand you anything in this business. You have to be smart, be good, work hard, and get lucky.

Every time you get published, you got lucky. Don't take it for granted.

When something bad happens, it should make you work harder. But when something good happens, you can't believe you earned it. Because it isn't true. You aren't entitled to this career. No one is.

Yes, you should celebrate successes. Sure, you should enjoy good things when they happen. Smile and laugh and feel warm and fuzzy whenever you finish a story or make a sale or reach a goal.

But remember that happiness isn't productive. Mankind's greatest accomplishments are all tales of struggle, hardship, sacrifice, work, and effort. You won't do any of those things if you're satisfied with the status quo.

Who do you want on your team? The kid who plays for fun? Or the kid who plays to win?

If you want this to be your year, you know which kid you have to be.


This year I'm only going to add one resolution to this growing list, but if you're writing for a living, or trying to write for a living, it's an important one.

I won't blame anyone for anything.

It's tempting to look at the many problems that arise in this business and start pointing fingers. This is a slippery slope, and no good can come from it.

Do agents, editors, and publishers make mistakes? Of course.

You make mistakes too.

Hindsight is 20/20, so we can all look at things that didn't go our way and fantasize about how things should have gone.

But blaming others, or yourself, is dwelling on the past. What's done is done, and being bitter isn't going to help your career.

So try to learn from misfortune, forgive yourself and others, and make 2009 a blameless year.

Now quit reading blogs and get some writing done.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Writing: The Temporary Career

I'm not going to name names in this post. Partly because it would be mean. Partly because I'm only speculating on the reasons why, and have no real proof.

But I still wanted to talk about something that's rampant in the word of publishing. It's also rampant in other media like radio, TV, movies, and music.

It's Where Are They Now Syndrome.

The scariest thing about WATNS is how quickly it seems to occur. When my first novel, Whiskey Sour, was published in 2004, I did as much self-promotion as I could. Going to writing conventions, signing at bookstores and libraries, I met dozens of writers who also had new books out. Some were debut authors, like me. Some were veterans who seemed like they'd be around forever.

But here it is, a scant four and a half years later, and I can name more than thirty of these authors who didn't publish anything in the past year, and in some cases the past two years.

This boggles my mind.

While everyone is aware of the transitory nature of fame (it's particularly noticeable in Hollywood where A list actors fade into B list actors, and B list actors sometimes have a huge hit that makes them A list) I actually never thought it applied to writers as well.

Well, it does. With one major difference. When you're considered a B list author, you can't even give your work away. There's no straight-to-DVD or movie-of-the-week option like there is for actors who used to be Somebody. There are some smaller presses, yes. And while a lot of them are terrific, their lack of major distribution dollars means even smaller numbers for writers who once were published by the major houses, which means the major houses will be even less likely to give these writers another shot.

In thinking about this phenomenon, I was tempted to rationalize why so-and-so hasn't had a book deal in a while. Yes, numbers follow authors. But maybe there are other reasons too.

Perhaps some authors decided they just didn't want to write anymore. Perhaps some veered off into different territory and couldn't find a home for it. Perhaps some wanted to write, but were out of ideas. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances like sickness, or some personal or family tragedy. Perhaps some simply take a very long time to write a book. Perhaps work or some other aspect of real life got in the way.


And yet, knowing what a struggle it is to find an agent and get published, it seems odd that so many writers--writers I did signings with only four years ago--would let anything prevent them from writing. This profession requires dedication and sticktoitivness, and the lessons learned early on in the career when rejections are plentiful tend to make a person battle-hardened. Writers, as a species, don't tend to give up easily.

Which makes WATNS all the more troubling.

There are writers who had the brass ring, and want to have it again, but for whatever reason can't seem to grasp it.

Battle-hardened does not equal bullet-proof.

It's tempting to blame the industry, which is flawed for many reasons. A book's success is often a self-fulfilling prophecy; big promotional dollars leads to more orders leads to more sales. Do bestsellers really sell so well because of name recognition, or because when you're at an airport or drugstore and want to buy a book you only have the choice of a dozen titles? If a lessor name writer was given wider distribution, naturally they would sell more books. Yet few are given this push.

But I also personally know a few authors who did get that big push. In some cases, six and seven figure advances and corresponding marketing dollars. And here it is, a few years later, and those books are already out of print.

It's tempting to blame the writer, for producing lackluster work, or failing to self-promote, or being difficult to work with. And yet I've read many out-of-print novels that I believe are just as good or even better than books in their thirtieth printing by name authors who do very little self-promotion. I also know a few successful authors who are real jerks, and that hasn't seemed to hurt their careers.

There's a mentality that once you land a deal with a major house, you're set. But the fact is (and get ready for the kick in the groin) the majority of people who get a major deal wind up as WATHS statistics.

I can look at my extensive personal library, and 90% of those books are out of print, and 60% of those authors haven't published anything in years.

Landing a major deal, in most cases, doesn't signal the start of a longtime career. For many, it's the beginning of the end.

I can guess what many regular readers of my blog are thinking. Okay Joe, now that you've presented the problem, tell us what we can do to fix it like you always do.

Well, frightening as it is, this is one problem I can't fix.

I'd love to be able to point a finger and conclusively say, "This is why she's still being published, and this is why he isn't." But I can't. There are no traits or commonalities that can accurately predict success or failure.

After a certain level of competency is reached, who gets published and who doesn't is pretty much based on luck. This is true for newbies, and remains true for writers who have been in the biz for years.

All we can do is persevere, and keep writing and self-promoting and doing our damnedest to survive. Because, depressingly enough, this career is more about survival than success.

But, as I've been saying for years, the harder you try, the luckier you seem to get.

So if anyone with WATNS is reading this, remember that giving up isn't an option. Yes, you've gotten some bad breaks. Yes, this business is woefully unfair. Yes, it doesn't make any sense at all. But the same dedication that got you published that first time must be used to get you published again.

I know we all believe that once you "make it" there is no longer any struggle, the fears go away, and the opportunities are boundless.

But the truth is the struggle never ends, the fears are always there, and every opportunity that comes along should be appreciated as the gift it actually is.

So the rules, for newbie and pro alike, are the same.

1. Write the best book you can.

2. Try your best to get it into the hands of as many people as possible.

3. Repeat.

That's all we can do. Beyond that, it's all luck.

Just don't forget rule 3. The longer I'm in this business, the more I think it's the one that separates the haves from the have nots.

Now quit your whining and get to work.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Just Plotting Along

Whenever I teach I'm asked by newbies how to write that boring middle section of the book, the part between the electrifying opening and the dramatic conclusion.

"You mean the plot?" I always reply.

Sayings and axioms abound about plotting, and I'll paraphrase a few here. Elmore Leonard said the famous "Don't write the parts people skip."

Other oft-heard quotes are, "Write a great beginning and a great ending and string them as close together as possible" and "Chase your characters up a tree, then throw rocks at them."

Ellery Queen and Raymond Chandler are credited with variations on "When things get boring toward the middle, kill somebody" and "When it slows down have two men burst into the room with guns."

All of these sort of touch on the central idea of plotting, namely, conflict. But none are really helpful except in the most general sense.

So here's what I do.

1. Give the characters at least two goals. A story goal, and a personal goal.

In my Jack Daniels series, the story goal is for Jack to catch the bad guy. Her personal goals are fixing her relationships and getting a good night's sleep.

There's something inherent in the human brain that desires order and completion. We want to fit all the puzzle pieces together and live happily ever after. So the first step on this journey is deciding where to go. This is the first stitch on the way to completing the quilt, and it gets the reader's attention and makes them subconsciously want to see it through to the satisfying conclusion.

2. Don't reveal everything at once.

It's natural, once you have a great idea, to want to spill everything immediately. But suspense, and reader interest, is piqued by the opposite--only give a little at a time. Ask questions, but don't answer them until later.

Questions keep the pages turning. The obvious question, "What happens next?" is what both your characters and your readers should be thinking.

In my book Afraid, both the reader and the main characters have no idea what is attacking the town until the second act; all they get are glimpses and pieces. Figuring things out is a lot more satisfying than being spoon fed.

3. Prevent the characters from reaching their goals.

The boring middle part of the book shouldn't be boring at all. This is the part where the author really gets to antagonize his main characters, heaping more and more conflict on them.

What is the absolute worst thing that can happen to your character? Make it happen. What will be impossible for them to overcome? Do it.

Along with being genetically wired to desire completion and order, we also like there to be a struggle before all is well. Adversity, conflict, and tragedy allow for admirable human attributes such as courage, love, and perseverance to blossom. We like winners, especially underdog winners. So heap on the abuse.

4. Subtext is subtext.

Sure, you may have an important theme to the work. Yes, you may love the written word and want to be as eloquent as possible. Of course you want to explore human nature, make the reader think about deep issues, and create realistic characters with complex motivations.

But don't do any of that at the expense of the story, dammit.

A story, in it's purest form, is: "Here's a mess, clean it up."

We're storytellers. Not charactertellers. Not themetellers. Not poets. The goal of a story is to present a problem, then solve the problem.

Are there exceptions? Sure.

But don't base your career on an exception.

We've been a species of storytellers as long as we've had a written history, and probably longer. The Epic of Gilgamesh is over 5000 years old, but the basic formula still remains the same.

Here's a mess, clean it up.

But Joe, you want me to follow a formula? Aren't formulas cliche and derivative and the work of hacks?

Not if you do a good job.

My wife hates going to the movies with me, because I always whisper to her what is going to happen next. It's not that the movies are the work of hacks. It's just that the more you understand about the storytelling process, the better you can predict it.

Of course, once you're able to predict it, you can do the unpredictable.

This isn't about muses or inspiration or magic or creativity. It's more like architecture than art. Yes, you can be dynamic and expressive and imaginative, but there are still rules.

Learn the rules.

Monday, December 01, 2008


If you're a writer, there are many hurdles to overcome.

You have to commit to writing whenever you can, and then bludgeoning that prose into the best it can be.

Then you have to diligently search for an agent, and for a publisher (or several agents and publishers, as few writers stick with one.)

You must seek out new markets while maintaining relationships with old ones.

You have to keep in touch with the public through online social networks and face-to-face.

You must battle criticism, self-doubt, and apathy, and stay current with industry happenings.

And all the while, your only true boss is you.

So unless you have a great deal of self-control and determination, you will undoubtedly slack off once and a while.

A few weeks probably won't hurt. A few months won't help. A year or longer and you'll be rebuilding your career from the ground up.

Not an easy task for writers. There are so many failures for so few successes, and not many ways to truly measure the impact of your efforts. This means that success or failure is largely arbitrary, based on your personal goals, And those goals can change. This can result in lesser efforts, which almost always yield lesser results.

So how do you maintain the discipline required to succeed? Especially when success seems so elusive?

1. Set Goals. The only goals worth setting are those you have control over. Getting published or becoming a bestseller are not goals. Those are dreams. Goals are sending out ten queries in December and writing five pages a day. These are doable, and the first step to keeping on track.

2. Make Time. All the goals in the world won't mean anything unless your prioritize them. That will probably mean sacrificing other things to devote yourself to your goals.

3. Regiment. Any long-term goal requires determination, implementation, and repetition. We don't have to force ourselves to do things we love. And while we may love some aspects of writing, there are certainly things we don't enjoy. You are your own boss, and your boss has to be a hard-ass.

4. Reward. The more realistic goals you make and shoot for, the more productive you'll become. When you do reach a goal, celebrate by rewarding yourself. It might be with something simple, like a cup of coffee when you finish two pages, or something big, like a trip to Paris when you finish the book. But all work and no play is a sure way to burn out.

5. Heal. You'll have setbacks, guaranteed. And these setbacks may make you want to ditch your goals, your regimen, and the whole silly business. There are many ways to overcome adversity, such as ignoring it, working through it, commiserating with friends, mourning, reflecting, and reinventing yourself. But, ultimately, the only thing that heals wounds is time, so forgive yourself if it takes a while to get back on the horse. And if you never do get back on, this wasn't the career for you in the first place.

If you choose to write (or if writing chose you) then you have to be relentless in the pursuit of your goals. If you settle for less, your expectations will be met. Demand more from yourself.

The winners are the ones who never gave up. Be a winner.

Now get back to work.