Last month, the Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada were incredibly fortunate to welcome bestselling author Marie Force to Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is a wonderful writer – I highly recommend her Fatal series and the new Green Mountain books – and a funny, engaging speaker. Here’s what she had to say:
“No one wants to read about a supermodel.”
Those are the eight words that changed Marie Force’s life. Before she was a self-pub sensation bringing in seven figures a year, she was just a regular suburban mom who worked a day job, cared for her family, and dreamed of making it big in her traditionally published novel-writing career.
The problem was that no one wanted to publish the work that she believed in most. It took six or seven novels before she was traditionally published, and even then, there was no golden ticket to success or creative freedom. After receiving significant interest from agents and editors about True North, the tale of a supermodel who yearns to find true love, the book was ultimately rejected by every single person who had expressed interest in it.
The reason? See above.
So Ms. Force did something incredibly brave – she self-published True North. In 2010. When she was under contract to publishers for other work. This was before everyone and their dog was self-publishing, and there was a very real chance that she would get sued. So she didn’t talk about the book, just quietly put it up for sale, and waited to see what would happen.
The first month, not much happened at all. True North sold 50 copies.
Then Ms. Force put the book on sale for a week, for free. The book sold 10,000 copies that month.
After that, she didn’t look back. After years of writing, modest sales, and numerous rejections – she was once blacklisted from an agency for querying too many times in one year – Ms. Force pressed on with self-publishing. By her measure, it took 25 books to “make it big”, and she had a full time job until 2011 (she was first published traditionally in 2008). Now she has employees of her own, an e-pub formatting business, and is asked to fly all over North America to talk about the business and craft of writing.
It turns out, people did want to read about a supermodel after all.
Aside from being brave enough to go for self-publication, here are a few other things that contributed to Ms. Force’s success:
She isn’t afraid to write what she wants to write. In Marking Time, book two of the Treading Water series, eighteen-year-old Kate moves to Nashville to pursue a singing career and falls in love with her father’s 45-year-old friend. As you can imagine, publishers were not enthusiastic about this – but readers loved it.
She keeps up a constant release schedule. It was no surprise to me to hear that Ms. Force writes 6-7 books per year. Everything I’ve read or heard from “big-name” self-pub authors indicates that one of the major keys to success is substantial, sustained output.
She interacts with fans. With a Facebook group for every series, Ms. Force has given her fans dedicated spaces to discuss her books with other readers. They are free to post spoilers, debate plot points, and they get extra content (such as a free short story only available on the group page). Fans who sign up for a newsletter can also opt in to a mailing list, from which they will sometimes receive actual snail mail from the author (Christmas cards, swag, etc.).
The Life Authorial is a series of posts sharing firsthand tips learned on the journey toward publication.
Throughout the Roaring ’20s, the Algonquin Hotel in New York City was the daily meeting place for “The Algonquin Round Table”, one of the most famous “critique groups” of all time. Composed of writers and critics, its members traded “wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms“, which were published in newspapers across the country (from Wikipedia).
Although they were the founders of The New Yorker magazine, comprised the literary in-crowd of their day, and served as an inspiration to up-and-coming young writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, they were also accused of rehearsing their witticisms in advance, and of being overly concerned with their images and with elaborate practical jokes*. Among themselves, they used the more self-aware moniker of “The Vicious Circle”, and founding member Dorothy Parker later commented that:
“The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them”.**
By comparison, most of us don’t have the luxury of daily hotel luncheons at which we can trade jokes and practice our witticisms, so we do our best with the time and resources that we have – and one of the most important of those resources is feedback from other readers and writers. When starting out, the thought of showing your work to someone can be daunting, but the odds that you will write a masterpiece with no input or advice from others is slim.
So where do you look for critique partners and what do you do when you find them?
In my experience, the best feedback will come from like-minded writers who understand your genre and are at approximately the same level of skill and experience. This isn’t to say that you won’t find exceptions that work – I’m so far unpublished, and one of my partners has published more than half a dozen novels – but there does need to be some common ground. For example, if you’re writing inspirational romance about Amish heroines and I’m writing horror erotica, the odds are good that we won’t be on the same page.
Finding critique partners as a new writer can be frustrating. There are a lot of places on the internet that encourage us all to help each other succeed as part of a “writer’s code”, but it’s hard to tap into that if you don’t actually know any other writers. I’ve found that sites geared toward helping writers collaborate and network are the most fruitful places to look, and my own critique partner relationships have developed as a result of my memberships at Romance Divas and Ladies Who Critique.
Typical critique partner etiquette is to trade a chapter or two with someone whose profile and work looks interesting before committing to an entire manuscript exchange. This way, you can find out if each of you “get” the other’s work, and if your editing styles are a good match.
Once you’ve exchanged chapters, determined that you’re a good fit, and have your new critique partner’s manuscript in hand, the next step is to actually provide feedback. Here are a few tips on how to make sure you and your partner get the most out of your relationship:
1. Accentuate the positive.
There’s more to being a good critique partner than just telling someone what’s wrong with their work – it’s important to let them know what they’re good at, too. As a new writer, it’s hard enough to deal with feelings of self-doubt and self-consciousness without being told that there aren’t any redeeming qualities to your work. Be truthful, but be kind.
2. Recognize your own strengths and weaknesses.
My personal style of critiquing is very micro – I point out issues with plotting and character development if I see them, but I also work on a “line editing” level and make changes to spelling and grammar. I do this for a couple of reasons: 1) I mostly just can’t help myself; and 2) this is the sort of detailed feedback I like to receive. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that this sort of editing is mostly subjective. Proper grammar is proper grammar, but word choice, punctuation, and dialogue are used in different ways for effect, not just technical correctness. Just because I have a personal dislike for semi-colons, it doesn’t make them “wrong”.
3. Be gracious.
This point isn’t about commenting on someone else’s work, but it’s one of the most important things to keep in mind when receiving feedback on your own. Someone else has taken time – often hours – out of their life to help you. To be a good critique partner, you don’t have to agree with all of their suggestions, but you do have to appreciate their efforts. It can be hard to hear that your heroine is “too stupid to live”, but the correct response is not to explain to your critique partner why she is wrong (she’s probably not) or to criticize her. Just smile, say thank you, and move on. Whether you change your work or not is up to you, and you’ll likely get worse reviews when you’re published – everyone does.
For more tips on how to be a great critique partner, check out these other resources:
Karen Henley points out 7 Tips for Receiving Critique. My favorites are numbers 1 and 6 – weigh the critique according to the skill and knowledge of the critiquer, and realize that if you don’t catch your mistakes, the public will.
*from Herrmann, Dorothy (1982). With Malice Toward All: The Quips, Lives and Loves of Some Celebrated 20th-Century American Wits. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. pp. 17–18. ISBN 0-399-12710-0 at p.29, courtesy of Wikipedia.
This is the tagline attached to 2011’s Limitless, a film about struggling writer Eddie Morra, who is able to access 100% of his mental abilities with the help of a mysterious, experimental pill. Predictably, mayhem ensues as the miracle drug turns out to be more than the writer bargained for.
While Morra’s use (or rather, abuse) of the fictional NZT48 enables him to write like a fiend, attract women like Casanova, and speak new languages effortlessly, there is unfortunately no miracle drug in real life that can make us all better, smarter, more productive versions of ourselves.*
So this is where life hacks come in.
Life hacking “refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency” (from Wikipedia), and in the writing context, life hacks can be used by authors to provide motivation, increase output, and improve the quality of that output.
Here, I discuss four major obstacles that commonly prevent authors from meeting their goals, and what to do about them:
1. Manage Your Time
Something that many authors, myself included, struggle with is finding time to just sit down and write. It always seems like there’s some other writing-related task that needs to be done, and sometimes we end up putting our blog updates, social media, and critique partners ahead of our own WIPs (work in progress).
So how do we keep all these demands on our time from interfering with our actual writing?
Schedule writing time into your life – and stick to it. This tip may seem obvious, but many people write when the spirit moves them, rather than as a matter of routine. I’m guilty of this all the time, but it really is an ineffective way to pursue and achieve your writing goals. If you allow yourself to feel overwhelmed by your day job, family obligations, and to-do list, you will end up trying to “sneak in” writing time around everything else. Instead, try scheduling blocks of time into your day or week, and then stick to them. Let your family and friends know that this time is off-limits, but that you will make yourself available to them once your scheduled time is up.
The Pomodoro technique. This method of time management was invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, and takes its name from a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro being the Italian word for tomato). In this technique, you work in set intervals of time, with short breaks between each. Traditionally, intervals of work are 25 minutes long and are used to tackle a specific task. When your timer goes off, you put your work down and take a 3-5 minute break. Every four intervals, you take a longer break (say 15-30 minutes). If you complete a task before an interval is up, you devote the rest of the interval to overlearning – practicing your newly learned skill beyond the point of initial mastery so it becomes automatic. (So if your goal was to finish a chapter, and you’re done early, you might find a writing prompt online and practice writing dialogue, or showing instead of telling).
Use technology to hold yourself accountable. With countless time management apps and programs available, keeping track of where your time goes has never been so easy. I particularly like this Lifehack.org roundup of the Top 15 Time Management Apps and Tools. Just a few of the apps listed include:
Toggl, which lets you know how much time you spend on projects and tasks via graphs, charts, and timers; and
focus@will, which claims to combine neuroscience and music to boost your productivity.
2. Minimize Distractions
One of the biggest obstacles to my writing is a tendency to ignore certain distractions. If the phone rings? I answer it instead of letting it go to voicemail. A new email comes in? I have to check it right away.
So how do I ever get anything done? Here are two things that work for me:
Set yourself up for success. Pick a spot that you find comfortable enough to hang out in for a solid block of time, and gather up all the writing accessories you need. This way, you’re not constantly jumping up for a cup of tea, your power cord, or a snack. Figure out whether you work best facing the window or a wall. Ask yourself if you feel more productive when you get dressed and sit at a desk, or if you’re able to settle in better in your pajamas on the couch. Whatever your ideal routine is, figure it out and then give yourself permission to follow it. Just for fun, here are a few routines used by famous authors, from brainpickings.org:
John Steinbeck kept twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk and used them so heavily, his editor had to send him round pencils to combat the calluses he developed from the traditional hexagonal shape;
Anthony Trollope began every day promptly at 5:30 A.M., and wrote 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch; and
when Victor Hugo was writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he put himself under house arrest and locked away all of his clothing, save a large grey shawl, to avoid the temptation to go outside.
Avoid the internet. Or better yet, just turn it off. Even critically-acclaimed, bestselling authors like Zadie Smith have had to resort to internet applications to – ironically – turn off the internet in order to get anything done. In fact, the UK Daily Mail notes that Smith relied on such apps so heavily in writing her latest novel, she thanked them in the acknowledgements.
3. Increase Your Output
One of the most well known stories on the internet of how to increase your output is that of author Rachel Aron. On her blog, she describes how she went from writing 2,000 words per day to 10,000without increasing the time spent writing. Instead of writing longer, Aron advises, write smarter.
Her number one tip is to know what you’re writing before you write it. This will minimize the time spent – or wasted – trying to think your way out of plot holes and seemingly un-resolvable cliffhangers. For those of us who are natural “pantsers” (authors who write from the “seat of our pants”, rather than planning things out), this advice can be hard to follow. However, I do find that I’m able to write much faster when I have an outline.
Secondly, Aron advocates paying attention to the time – how long it takes to write a certain number of words, and what factors affect that time. You should also pay attention to when you reach peak efficiency, and when it drops off. Aron, for example, found that the longer she wrote, the faster she wrote, up to a point when she would become too “brain fried” to continue.
Finally, Aron points to enthusiasm. While the advice to write every day, no matter what, is often touted online, her practice is only to write on days when she is able to muster enough knowledge, time, and enthusiasm to do justice to what must be written next. To get excited about the day’s work, Aron plays a scene through in her head, looking forward to the parts that work, and getting rid of the ones that don’t. This way, she is always eager to start, and enjoys the added bonus that her work improves from the visualization.
*I include often-abused “study drugs” like Ritalin and Adderall in this statement, as I firmly believe that non-prescribed use of medications will eventually catch up to you in a negative way. (And of course, I am not suggesting that those medications shouldn’t be used by people with legitimate medical concerns who can be helped by them).