How to Make Writing Your Career: An Interview with Author Laurence MacNaughton

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Today I’m delighted to feature an interview with multi-talented author Laurence MacNaughton. I’ve known Laurence since I worked with him through Nelson Literary Agency, and it’s been such a thrill to follow his success. He’s here with some excellent advice about making a living as a full-time writer, how to make the most of a hybrid writing career, and how to combat writer’s block.

AM: Thanks for being here, Laurence. You have built a full-time career around writing, as a novelist and a copywriter. That is WAY cool! What does a copywriter do, exactly? Do you find that these two different kinds of writing complement each other?

A copywriter writes marketing and advertising materials for business clients. (“Copy” is just fancy ad agency shorthand for “words that sell stuff.”)

There have been innumerable examples of copywriters who also successfully wrote fiction. James Patterson, Salman Rushdie, Joseph Heller, and Dorothy Sayers, to name a few.

I’m not saying that I’m remotely in the same class as them. But I have written for hundreds of businesses, from little tech startups to big names like Home Depot and Saks Fifth Avenue.

I write copy for all sorts of things: company websites, blog posts, articles, case studies, sales letters, newsletters, landing pages, sales emails, pay-per-click ads, direct mail, brochures, you name it.

Writing copy requires quite a bit of discipline, research, and the willingness to develop specific skills. It will absolutely improve anyone’s storytelling abilities.

It will make your writing punchier, better researched and more emotionally resonant. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

 

Your first traditionally published novel, IT HAPPENED ONE DOOMSDAY, came out in July from Prometheus Books. Could you tell us a little about your journey to publication?

Believe it or not, IT HAPPENED ONE DOOMSDAY started out as a short story. I was struggling with another novel, so I switched gears and wrote a fun little story about this awkward wannabe sorceress who ends up breaking the evil curse on a bad-boy hero with a muscle car.

It was half scary, half funny, and people seemed to really get a kick out of it. They kept asking me what happens next. And I had to say, “There is no next. This is it.”

But I really got hooked on writing these characters, so I expanded it into a novella. My critique group was extraordinarily supportive. I kept bringing them new pages of rough draft as I wrote it, and we tossed all sorts of crazy ideas around.

it-happened-one-doomsday-cover-artI just kept expanding the story until it became a novel. The day I finished it, I called my wife to tell her, and she asked, “How does it end?”

And I said, “Guess.”

She said, “You know what would be really cool?” And she sketched out a completely different ending from the one I had just written.

Not just different. It was better, and ultimately it meant expanding the book into a series.

So with a sigh, I went back and changed the ending. And at that moment, everything clicked. I had the feeling that I was really onto something.

This ended up being the first book I’ve ever written that received offers from multiple publishers. My literary agent, Kristin Nelson, sold it in a multi-book deal.

I’ve already written Book 2, A KISS BEFORE DOOMSDAY, which should come out in the summer of 2017, and I have plenty more planned. It’s really exciting.

 

You’re also an indie author with several titles under your belt, including a standalone thriller,  CONSPIRACY OF ANGELS, and a four-part series called THE SPIDER THIEF. What are the benefits of being a hybrid author (both traditionally published and self-published)? Are there any drawbacks?

There are benefits and drawbacks to both self-publishing and traditional publishing.

If you’re a hands-on, DIY type of person with an entrepreneurial mindset, then you might be better suited to self-publishing. If you’d rather focus on the writing and not deal with the rest of it, you might prefer traditional publishing.

Self-publishing means doing things your own way. You can hire your own editors and artists. You call the shots. It sounds perfect, but the truth is that it can be grueling. For one thing, it’s difficult to get any attention as a self-published author.

conspiracy_of_angels_laurence_macnaughtonWhen you work with a publisher, the reverse is true. Someone else has control over the process, and you don’t. They might make crucial creative and business decisions without even consulting you.

Yet at the same time, a traditional publisher can open doors that would otherwise remain closed. For example, you have the opportunity to get reviews from places like Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Kirkus.

I believe that the best approach is to embrace both avenues. Come up with a career strategy that leverages the advantages (and minimizes the drawbacks) of both traditional and self-publishing. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

 

What does your fiction writing process look like? Are you an outliner or a pantser? How many drafts do you typically go through before you send a book out into the world?

I always start with the basics first: who are the good guys, what are they trying to do (and especially why), who are the bad guys, and where does this take place?

Then I boil all of that down into a strong core idea. For example: a bookish crystal shop owner has to save the world from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – who drive possessed muscle cars.

The idea has to work at the core level, it has to really grab me, before I start writing it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Then I figure out how to make the whole book work, beginning to end, in a short synopsis. Maybe one page. That takes time. And even once I have that figured out, I don’t start writing it yet.

I go through a process of breaking the entire book down into smaller and smaller chunks, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. There’s always a certain amount of stuff that you have to throw out or change. There are gaps that you need to fill in.

After a considerable amount of work, I get to the point where I have a complete list of scenes, and a description of what happens in each scene. Once that’s done, I can start writing the book.

But nothing is set in stone. Any of this stuff could change at any time. I’m not a slave to the outline. If I come up with a better idea on the fly, I’ll go with it. I can always change the outline later to smooth things out again.

I think of it like a weather forecast: this is what will probably happen. But bring an umbrella, just in case.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a book that ended exactly the way I thought it would. And that’s okay. The outline is just a tool that helps you get the book done.

I’ll go into all of this in a lot more detail in my upcoming ebook Instant Plot: Plan Your Novel the Easy Way. But I also offer plenty of writing tips for free on my website at http://www.LaurenceMacNaughton.com.

 

Do you ever get writer’s block? What the heck do you do about it?

I’ve certainly had days where I feel like I don’t know what to write, or I worry that everything I write is terrible.

Some people call that writer’s block. I call it “Monday.” 😉

a-kiss-before-doomsday-cover-revealBut seriously, what most people call “writer’s block” is an insidious combination of those two problems: not knowing what to write, and/or loss of faith in your writing skills. The good news is that both of those problems can be methodically solved. Here’s how.

If you don’t know what to write, you need to figure it out. If you’re writing fiction, that means nailing down who your story is really about, what they really want (and why), and what’s in the way. This article can help.

If you feel like everything you write is awful, that probably means you’re trying to write something and edit it at the same time. It doesn’t work that way. You need to write it all out first, as fast as you can. Get it all down on paper. And don’t change a thing until after you finish. No matter how bad it is (and it’s probably better than you think), at least it’s done, and you can fix it later.

If you can do those two things – figure out what to write, and then write it without stopping – then you’ll never suffer writer’s block.

 

What is your top piece of advice for authors who self-publish?

Every self-published writer I’ve ever talked to always wants to achieve more. (Even Hugh Howey.) They all want to reach more readers, sell more books, write better stories, and so on. The question is, how?

I believe the secret to improving anything in life is to keep trying new things. And then – this is crucial, this is where most people drop the ball – actually measure your results.

Write them down. Compare. See if they’re working. If something isn’t giving you the results you want, drop it and move on.

Same thing applies to self-published authors. You have a million choices and opportunities headed your way. You can’t embrace them all. Which ones will you take on?

Never give up. Just keep trying new things and measuring the results. If something works, do more of it. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it and move on.

That’s pretty broad advice, but it works.

 

Thanks for having me on your website! I’d like to invite everyone to get more free writing tips, advice, members-only bonus materials and more when you subscribe to my author newsletter at www.LaurenceMacNaughton.com.

About Laurence MacNaughton

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of It Happened One Doomsday, The Spider Thief, and Conspiracy of Angels. Try his books free at www.LaurenceMacNaughton.com.

 

 

Editor’s Tips: 3 Pitfalls to Avoid in Character Development

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pitfallIt’s no secret that strong characters are a key to bestselling fiction. Trouble is, there’s so much that can go wrong on the way to crafting that unforgettable protagonist. Over the years, as an editor and a slush pile reader I’ve seen the same pitfalls crop up again and again. Here are three of the most common ones to watch for in your writing.

1) The “floating character.” This is what I call a character who does plenty of things, but lacks personality or depth to give context to those actions; he or she floats through the story but are not grounded or connected in the way real people are. Even the most dynamic plot can fall flat without a clear sense of the protagonist’s back story, motives and emotional landscape; readers will spend time trying to piece together who the character is, instead of paying attention to the plot flow. In your opening chapters and as you move the story forward, be aware of questions your readers will be asking: What is the character’s family background (parents, siblings, children; does s/he come from a rowdy clan or is s/he alone in the world)? Any romantic history or current interests? Things that happened in childhood that affected who the character became as an adult? Greatest fears/hopes/challenges/triumphs? Likes and dislikes (interesting hobbies, unusual pet peeves)?

This applies not only to the protagonist, but also to the villain/antagonist, side kick, and other relevant characters. Once you have fleshed out your main character, be sure to spend time on your supporting cast to avoid a feeling of lopsidedness.

 

2) The question of likability. One of the top reasons agents or other readers stop reading a novel is that they “just couldn’t connect with the main character.” Does that mean a protagonist must always be charming and likeable? Not necessarily. In fact, characters that seems too perfect will come off flat and unrealistic. At the very least, they need a few flaws to make them come alive. Think of your closest friends in real life: would they be the same people without those (sometimes annoying) little quirks that make you love them all the more?

Even unlikable characters can work, as long as they’re compelling. These are the ones we love to hate; we’d stop reading right now, if only they weren’t so darn fascinating! An example is Benedict Cumberbach’s portrayal of scientist/mathematician Alan Turing in the recent box office hit The Imitation Game. Despite his arrogant and often unapproachable demeanor, Turing is a compelling character because we know something his peers do not—that he really is the genius he claims to be, and that he will succeed in spite of the challenges and detractors he faces. The other thing that saves this character is that we see glimpses of his difficult childhood and the social challenges he has faced throughout his life; it’s enough to make him sympathetic in spite of his glaring flaws. I won’t add any spoilers, but ultimately Cumberbatch builds this character into a figure that haunts you long after the film ends.

 

3) Voices that trigger reader pet peeves. Finally, there are a couple of voice issues that I saw frequently in the slush pile and that almost always led to a rejection letter. One is the excessively whiny or angsty first-person voice. It’s okay for your protagonist to complain now and then about the lousy hand fate has dealt him, or for your teen character to be a little antisocial thanks to pressure at home and school. Just be careful not to take it too far; readers don’t enjoy being hit with a wall of negativity in fiction, any more than in real life, and they also don’t want to feel like a stand-in for the character’s therapist. As mentioned in #2, if you are deliberately creating a protagonist that is difficult or prickly, make sure you show a glimpse of how she came to be this way, so that readers can sympathize. Then still go ahead and turn down the angst a notch. : )

Another major turn-off is “the rambler.” It’s a voice that constantly veers into musing, ruminating or philosophizing, at the expense of plot movement. If a story spends most of its time trapped in the protagonist’s head, you’ll lose readers fast. Keep characters’ thoughts and observations relevant and balance them with plenty of outside action.

 

By avoiding these three potential problems, you’ll be on your way to creating the kinds of characters readers want to spend an entire novel or series with—and that’s a giant leap forward for your novel.

 

Hot Titles & Upcoming Trends: A Look at BookExpo America 2016

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2016-05-13 16.32.19Last week I attended BookExpo America—the largest annual publishing industry trade fair in the U.S. With an attendance of nearly 20,000, it’s a monumental gathering of publishers, editors, agents, book sellers, librarians, authors, and others in the industry. BookExpo runs Wednesday through Friday, and then on Saturday the show opens to the public through Book Con, which gives book lovers a chance to meet their favorite authors, attend panels, and go home with a suitcase full of free advance reader copies (ARCs). What could be better?

One of my favorite things about BEA is that it’s an opportunity to preview the titles publishers, agents, and booksellers are most excited about for the coming year. In this post, I’ll share a glimpse of those hot new trends.

This year’s Expo took place in Chicago, after more than a decade at the Javits Center in New York. Reactions to the new location were mixed; some attendees pointed out that attendance was down slightly and that East Coast publishers sent fewer staff members and 2016-05-13 16.04.07threw fewer parties (boo!). Others saw the new venue as a plus, since it drew larger numbers of attendees from other parts of the country than usual and brought in many first-time attendees (yes!). Personally, I love New York, but I enjoyed the energy and freshness of this year’s Windy City BEA just as much.

Among the most popular events are the “Buzz Panels,” where editors from top publishing houses gush about a book they can’t wait to see debut. There is a panel for each of three
categories: Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Adult titles. This year’s Buzz Books in YA fiction featured an eclectic mix, from high stakes fantasy, to a dark satirical tale of modern high school, to the story of a girl who finds power through rap music after experiencing sexual abuse. Here is the complete list from the YA Buzz Panel:

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CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber

STALKING JACK THE RIPPER by Kerri Maniscalco

RANI PATEL IN FULL EFFECT by Sonia Patel

SPONTANEOUS by Aaron Starmer

THIEVING WEASELS by Billy Taylor
I have to admit I’m particularly excited about that first title because I had the great fortune to work on it with Stephanie as she prepared to submit it to agents and publishers. Watch for its hardcover debut in January!

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Stephanie Garber and I get excited about her beautiful Caraval ARCs

Other upcoming YA titles that generated major excitement were Sabaa Tahir’s A TORCH AGAINST THE NIGHT (sequel to AN EMBER IN THE ASHES) and Laini Taylor’s STRANGE THE DREAMER.

In Middle Grade, the focus was on classic adventure stories with a fresh twist. Here are the titles to watch for this fall from the Buzz Book Panel:

GERTIE’S LEAP TO GREATNESS by Kate Beasley

THE LOST PROPERTY OFFICE by James R. Hannibal

FRAZZLED by Booki Vivat

TIME TRAVELING WITH A HAMSTER by Ross Welford

THE ADVENTURER’S GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL ESCAPES by Albert White

In adult fiction, a few of the hot titles featured were Coleson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, which he describes as historical fiction with “one degree of magic realism,” Jodi Picoult’s latest work SMALL GREAT THINGS, and Louise Penny’s A GREAT RECKONING, the latest in her Armand Gamache mystery series. Another title that caused a stir among booksellers was THE GIRLS, author Emma Cline’s debut about a teenage girl’s disastrous experience in a cult in the 1960s.

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YA Buzz panel author Sonia Patel rapping a song inspired by her protagonist in Rani Patel in Full Effect

Here are the titles from the Adult Buzz Book Panel:

 

THE MOTHERS by Britt Bennett

LITTLE DEATHS by Emma Flint

A HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

THE NIX by Nathan Hill

DARKTOWN by Thomas Mullen

ANOTHER DAY IN THE DEATH OF AMERICA by Gary Younge

 

Don’t miss your chance to download FREE excerpts from some of the titles mentioned here, and many other hot upcoming releases, in the Publishers Marketplace Buzz Book collections.

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Publicist Vanessa Lloyd-Sgambati, agent Regina Brooks, marketing expert Ken Smikle, and African-American Lit Book Club founder Troy D. Johnson talk about how to hook readers and drive book sales

A thread that connected many of this year’s panels and sessions was the continued need to bring diversity into our literature and the industry as a whole; yet great strides have been made. The team from We Need Diverse Books put on another fantastic panel about progress and continuing challenges (e.g. using terminology like “marginalized groups,” which connotes separation, not inclusion). In the panel “In Search of A Book Buyer: African American Women Top the List,” speakers addressed research that shows African American women represent the highest percentage of readers in the country, and how to authors can get their books into the hands of this audience. Regina Brooks, panelist and president of Serendipity Literary Agency, said, “My mantra is that as much as we need diverse books, we need people to market diverse books” (Publishers Weekly Show Daily: Day 2). One idea that come forth was the importance of getting books into community gathering places e.g. community centers, churches, and salons.

tribeBookExpo features a huge number of exciting new titles in nonfiction as well. Two must-reads that I came across focused on sociological aspects of life in the modern world: TRIBE: ON HOMECOMING & BELONGING by Sebastian Junger (May 24/Harper Collins) and THE FOUR DIMENSIONAL HUMAN: WAYS OF BEING IN THE DIGITAL WORLD by Laurence Scott. Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, spoke at Thursday’s Adult Author Breakfast, where he shared his belief that books “actually are kind of sacred…. It means that every phase of the book-making process and the bookselling process is sacred to some extent in my belief.” Expressing his gratitude to booksellers, he said, “It’s one of the most profound and important things I think that a person can do; that a society can do. The hands need the books and the books need the hands.”

Another exciting aspect of BEA is its spotlight on indie authors through the UPublishU conference, held concurrently at the same location (McCormick Center). Speakers from Ingram Spark, Kirkus Indie, the Editorial Freelancers Association, and many others shared tips and best practices. Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, presented his “Top 10 Trends Shaping the Future of Publishing” (visit the Smashwords website for Mark’s industry insights and resources).

Want to see more fun shots of BEA? Visit my Word Cafe album on Facebook.