Category Archives: Authors

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

Standard

laurence_outside_low-res

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.

 

 

History Unboxed: An Interview with YA Author Stacey Lee

Standard

It has been far too long since I featured an author interview, but I think you’ll agree once you read this one that it was worth the wait! Today I’m very excited to share a conversation with Stacey Lee, whose debut YA historical fiction novel UNDER A PAINTED SKY debuted last month from Penguin Putnam. It’s the story of two teenage girls in 1849 who escape their grim circumstances by disguising themselves as boys pursuing the Gold Rush via the Oregon Trail. It’s intense, gorgeously written, and has already garnered some amazing praise, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

I4wfy9XvrOoDnSzWDaZBh8KzeVfGhe9G4qEeAEJ_qKcAbout Stacey: Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys.  She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul.  A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall.  After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain.  She plays classical piano, wrangles children, and writes YA fiction. You can read more about her work at www.staceyhlee.com, on her Facebook page, or on Twitter @staceyleeauthor.

AM: Welcome, Stacey! I first read your novel under a different title (GOLDEN BOYS), in my slush pile days at Nelson Literary Agency. It has been a huge thrill to see it debut, and to garner such well-deserved praise. Congratulations!

To start off, can you tell us a little about where the inspiration for this story and its characters came from?

My parents inspired me!  My mother’s people came to the US in the late 1800’s, but due to the Chinese Exclusion Laws, Chinese people were not allowed to stay permanently.   I always wondered what it would have been like for the first Chinese people in the US.  My main character, Samantha, is born in New York, and has a toe-hold in both cultures, American and Chinese.  I chose the vehicle of the western for my dad, who came to the US in the 1950’s when he was eleven, when the western was at its heyday.  My father loved John Wayne movies, and would often play cowboy music for my sisters and I, so that was essentially the music of our childhood.  I think, like many emigrants of that generation, the western appealed to him because in westerns, the hero is faced with an often-hostile country, and must go it alone.

UAPS_coverAM: What do you feel are the greatest pleasures and challenges of writing YA?

I love both the awkwardness and the extreme-ness of that age.  The teen years offer such a rich well of emotions to draw from, everything from anger and disappointment in parental figures, crushes, heartache, and it all feels SO devastatingly important and immediate.  The challenges are to keep up the pace, not only to hook reluctant readers, but also because teens may not have the patience of adult readers who may stick with a slow starting book because they’ve heard the book got good reviews, etc.

AM: As an editor, one of my favorite challenges is helping writers find the right place to start their story, and to make those opening pages as dynamic and engaging as they can be. Do you have any advice about this based on your own writing experiences?

It’s important to get into the story as soon as possible.  By the first paragraph, we should have a sense of time and place.  By the end of the first chapter, we should have an idea of what the main conflict is (even if turns out to be something different).  When I read, I always pay attention to how the author pulls us into the story, and I shamelessly incorporate those techniques into my own writing.

AM: I love that advice. It’s not shameless, it’s savvy!

You’re one of the team members at the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, which makes me an even bigger fan! Could you give our readers a glimpse of the project’s mission and your role in it?

Absolutely.  WNDB was created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature.  We believe that embracing diversity will lead to more empathy, understanding, and ultimately, equality.  We have a ton of awesome projects we are working on; we’ve established the Walter Award, which will be given to the diverse author of a diverse book every year in honor of visionary Walter Dean Myers, we’ve partnered with major organizations like National Education Association to bring diverse authors to classrooms, we’re establishing an internship program at major publisher for diverse folks who want to go into publishing, we’re planning a huge Diversity Festival in 2016.  So much good stuff ahead.  I am the legal director, as well as the panels director; we all wear many hats at WNDB.

diverselogoAM: What can readers and writers do to help support We Need Diverse Books’ goals?

You can be involved directly by volunteering. If you want to support diverse books and diverse authors, there are lots of ways to do this, including buying diverse books, requesting them at libraries, and telling your friends/families about the diverse books that you love.  If you loved a diverse book, you should absolutely let your bookseller, and even the publisher know.  They value and need this feedback.  Take the time to review the book on Goodreads or Amazon.  It doesn’t take too much time to rate a book, or to add it to your GR list.

AM: Can you give us any teasers about your next project(s)?

My second YA historical fiction will be out in 2016 and is called THE UNSINKABLE MERCY WONG: a spirited Chinese-American girl pretends to be an heiress from China to get entry into an all-white boarding school, but more than her future plans are shaken up when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hits.

AM: That sounds amazing! I’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you for sharing this news and all of your wonderful insight.

Thank you so much for having me, Anita!

Bestselling Author Sherry Thomas: Creativity & Innovation in a Writing Career

Standard

I can’t help doing a happy dance over today’s post—an interview with author Sherry Thomas! She’s an award-winning, bestselling author famous in two genres. She collects starred reviews like most people collect souvenirs. And she’s one of the nicest people you could spend an afternoon with (cue image of us cavorting in New York at RWA). Today she’ll share about writing across genres, juggling multiple projects, and how combining traditional and indie publishing has enhanced her career.

Sherry_Thomas_Author_Photo_72dpi-2 A little more about Sherry:

Sherry Thomas is one of the most acclaimed romance authors working today. Her books regularly receive starred reviews from trade publications and are frequently found on best-of-the-year lists. She is also a two-time winner of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA Award. English is Sherry’s second language—she has come a long way from the days when she made her laborious way through Rosemary Roger’s Sweet Savage Love with an English-Chinese dictionary. She enjoys digging down to the emotional core of stories. And when she is not writing, she thinks about the zen and zaniness of her profession, plays computer games with her sons, and reads as many fabulous books as she can find. You can read more about her work at www.sherrythomas.com.

Anita: Thanks so much for visiting Word Cafe, Sherry! So excited to have you. I know you have deadlines looming, so I’ll cut to the chase!

Writers are often advised to pick a genre and focus on it exclusively. How and why did you make the transition to writing in two very different genres (romance and YA), and what advice do you have for writers who hope to do that?

Sherry Thomas: I’d always intended to write in other genres. Over the years, Kristin [Nelson, my agent] has fielded various partial and complete manuscripts from me, from science fiction, to contemporary romance, to YA fantasy. She sent them all back as not being ready. The only difference was that I kept working on the YA fantasy and sending it back to her and she finally agreed to take it out on submission after five rounds of revisions!

My view on the matter is that I should be able to write whatever I want, provided that I am fully aware of both the benefits and the costs of publishing in multiple genres. Writing in another genre affords me access to a different readership and is good for my creativity. On the other hand, there is far greater demand on my time and I will probably grow my readership in a given genre at a slower rate, since I am not producing as many books in that genre.

What’s the best part about writing romance? How about YA?

ST: The best part of writing YA fantasy is that it’s plot-driven. The best part about writing romance is that it’s character-driven. And the best part of doing both is that I can flex different writing muscles as I move from one to the other and back again. : )

Your titles come to us through major traditional publishing houses and you also indie publish. Could you tell us a little about the benefits of a “hybrid” career?

mybeautifulenemy250ST: I don’t indie publish much: two frontlist novellas and some overseas editions of a few books to which I hold the English rights outside North America. And most of what I have done is via my agent’s self-publishing platform. So I really can’t speak from any position of expertise to what it is like being a hybrid author, except that whatever income I derive now from self-pubbing is probably due largely to the readership I’d built via traditional publishing.

But I will say this: I very much appreciate the greater freedom that authors now enjoy. Many years ago, I wrote something of a genre-confused martial arts epic. It spanned twenty years in time, took place 1/3 in imperial Peking, 1/3 in Chinese Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang, and 1/3 in London. There was a romance in it, but it wasn’t the core of the story. There was history in it, but that also wasn’t the core of the story. Basically, it was my take on the wuxia novels that I had read growing up, except I did not set my story in ancient China, but all over the place at the end of the 19th century, and centered it around a half-Chinese, half-English heroine who is quite deadly with a sword.

This August, Berkley will be publishing my 9th historical romance, My Beautiful Enemy, which is the romance part of the martial arts epic. But what about the other half of the story, the half that isn’t centered around the romance? That I will self-publish. So the whole story will be a hybrid, half self-pubbed, half trad-pubbed, and all kick-ass. : )

That sounds amazing! And it shows the level of creativity and savviness you bring to your career. Love it.

You’ve said that you first read American romance novels with an English-Chinese dictionary after moving to the U.S. as a teenager. Now you are a two-time RITA winner, the industry’s highest award. Could you talk about what set you on this amazing career path and how your multicultural background influences your work? 

ST: I did indeed read lots of romances with an English-Chinese dictionary by my side—the library was my main source of entertainment. Also, at that time, non-traditional outlets like Wal-Mart and K-Mart carried a pretty big selection of romances. Every Saturday night, my mom would spend a couple of hours at one of those big-box stores, and I, who had no interest in shopping, would sit in the book aisle and read. It is a pretty effective way to learn the language, reading. : )

And lol, I chose this amazing career because I read a book that sucked hugely and said to myself, surely I could do better. And guess what? I couldn’t for many years. It is tough to write a book, even a bad one. : )

BurningSkyOne of the more interesting ways my background has influenced my writing is that I believe it is easier for me to recreate Regency/Victorian England than it is for many American historical romance writers, because the sexual mores of the Communist China of my childhood is much closer to that of the Victorian era than anything my American contemporaries are likely to have lived through. And the formality of conduct that I grew up around is also much closer to the rules of etiquette of the 1880s and 1890s than the casualness that typically characterize social interaction in the U.S.

What an interesting parallel— I hadn’t thought of it when reading your books but it makes a lot of sense. It also explains why your characters and stories feel so authentic!

You write multiple books at once, you manage social media, you travel to conferences and signings, you are a wife and a mother of two adolescent boys. You obviously have superpowers, but any practical advice for us mortals? How do you get all of this done and stay sane?

ST: I have no life? : )

Although I have a social media presence, I am not at all active. I try to go to as few conferences and signings as I can—and when I do, I do so mainly for fun, as no one’s career was ever made or unmade by conferences and signings.

As for superpowers, my only superpower lies in time-wasting, especially when I have to write a lot of emotional stuff and can’t sink into the manuscript to cry or feel the way I need to. Days like that you will find me frantically playing casual games, which makes me feel busy, even though nothing is getting done!

Mainly my productivity is deadline-driven. I have an abhorence of not meeting contractual obligations—or just any kind of time-sensitive agreement. When deadlines draw near, I basically work around the clock, stopping just long enough to feed myself and the children. It also helps to have a supportive husband who is really good at picking up the slack!

Thanks again for being here, Sherry, and for all your advice and insight!