Category Archives: Fiction

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.

 

 

On Endings…Novels, That Is (What makes a good one?)

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shutterstock_90341185HAPPY NEW YEAR!

As we get ready to say goodbye to 2014, naturally, I’ve been thinking about endings. In this case, novel endings. The final stretch of a novel is probably the single most difficult part of a story to pull off, and it’s one of the areas where I see the most problems in my editing work. If you think about it, that makes a lot of sense: you’ve spent hundreds of pages building a complex fictional world and developing interesting, true-to-life characters to inhabit it. Readers have invested their time, emotions, and even a little cash, in your endeavor. After all that, there’s nothing more disappointing than a lackluster finish to the journey! So what is it that makes an ending satisfying—or not?

There are many elements to consider here, but here, I’ll focus on three that I think are among the most important:

Characters must remain true to themselves (and thus, reader expectations). In my view, this is the most vital ingredient of a satisfying ending. By the end of a full-length novel, readers have come to know your characters on the level of intimacy you find with a lover (remember that feeling of heartache when you read the final page of your favorite novel and had to say goodbye—now do I exaggerate? 🙂 ) A great deal of reader disappointment results when the protagonist suddenly does something, well, out of character. This is a serious problem because, to the reader, it feels like a betrayal. It often happens because the author had a destination in mind that did not bend and develop during the course of the novel; the characters grew, but the idea for the ending did not. To avoid it, ask yourself: is this what my characters would do, or is it simply what I want them to do in keeping with the schnazzy ending I’ve been dying to put in a novel? Am I trying to stuff them into a shoe that doesn’t fit?

Don’t let it get messy. This is a problem I see most often in epic fantasies, but it can strike in any genre. It happens for a couple of reasons. One is that you have built a big, complex story with multiple plot threads and are now trying to tie all of them off. If you don’t find a way to bring them together neatly, using connections built throughout the story, you end up trying to put out a whole bunch of separate fires in the space of a few pages. And there just aren’t enough firemen for that—even in romance! Another reason it happens is that you may be trying to close the story before it is truly finished—you’re rushing. In both cases, the best advice is to take a deep breath and step back far enough to see the big picture. Is every one of the story threads indispensible? Or could one or two be trimmed to make for a tighter, more cohesive plot? Have you pursued each thread fully, so that they are ready to contribute to the ending?

It must steer clear of the generic or cliché. A third issue that often comes up is a lack of originality. Have you ever read a book that was strong through the beginning and middle, then suddenly lost steam and became a derivative of every famous novel in its genre? It’s understandable—I think this one comes as a result of writing fatigue, deadline pressure, or a combination of both. In the end, though, it’s vital to keep that creative energy flowing all the way to the end. Ask yourself: have I seen this ending before? If the answer is yes, your readers probably have, too.

May 2015 bring success and abundant blessings to your writing life…and heck, to life in general! Cheers!

Writing for Young Adults: A Conversation with Author Sarah Skilton

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If you’ve ever tried to write for a YA audience, you know there’s a particular brand of alchemy needed: complex characters, a convincing teen voice (without echoes of parent or teacher), and a plot that moves faster than teenage attention spans. No easy feat! That’s why it’s a treat to feature someone who gets it so very right: Sarah Skilton, author of the YA contemporary BRUISED (Amulet/Abrams, March 2013).

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About Sarah:  After growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduating with a TV/Radio degree from Ithaca College in upstate New York, Sarah Skilton moved to sunny Los Angeles, where her blood promptly thinned out, preventing her from returning to either location. Kicking around Hollywood for ten years, Sarah worked as a movie-of-the-week production assistant, a TV extra, a freelance writer, a film reviewer, and a blogger at a Japanese marketing group. She currently reads TV and film scripts for a company that streamlines the casting process for agents and actors. She and her husband, a magician, live in Santa Clarita, California, with their young son. Sarah’s a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a fact that came in handy while she was writing her martial arts-themed debut YA novel, BRUISED. You can read more about her work at www.sarahskilton.com .

AM: Welcome, Sarah! So what made you decide to write Young Adult novels? Do you write for other ages, too?

SS: Thanks so much for having me at your blog, Anita. I’m really excited to be here.

I joined a Young Adult book club in 2009 and read some phenomenal novels by authors such as Judy Blundell, Patrick Ness, Coe Booth, Angela Johnson, Rebecca Stead, Natalie Standiford, and MT Anderson that jumpstarted my interest in a big way. YA books tend to be fairly fast-paced and dialogue focused, and that format appeals to me as a writer and a reader.

For BRUISED in particular, the story couldn’t have been about anyone other than a teenage girl or it wouldn’t have worked, I don’t think. I always envisioned my protagonist as someone who didn’t have a ton of life experience yet; I like the emotional highs and lows inherent in teen life, and the sense of identities formed and lost during that time.

I have written for adults in the past but I’m currently focusing on YA.

Your main character, Imogen, is a teenage girl with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do who struggles with guilt over a life she couldn’t save. What do you hope readers will connect with most in this character?

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I hope they’ll connect with the dichotomy of her strengths and weaknesses, since we all have them. In some parts of her life—such as her

dedication to martial arts—Imogen is very mature, but in other parts of her life—her relationships with friends, family members, and Ricky (her love interest)—she’s immature, even vulnerable, and I hope readers see her as a “whole” person because of it.

Critics love BRUISEDyou got a starred review from Publishers Weekly and tough-crowd Kirkus called it “a distinctive debut.” Howdoes that affect your current writing—is it energizing or do you feel the pressure? 

A little of both! I’m flattered and happy that people seem to like the book, and hopeful that they’ll like my next story, which is very different from BRUISED in terms of narrator and style (and plot, obviously, ha ha). One of my favorite BRUISED reviews came from Goodreads. The reader said something along the lines of, “The only thing I didn’t love was that the doom and gloom began affecting me.” I find it cool that something I wrote depressed a stranger!

What’s your top piece of advice for aspiring and debut authors?

For aspiring authors: Write the book you would most want to read, but also make sure to read outside the genre you’re writing. Inspiration may hit from unexpected sources.

For debut authors: Celebrate every single moment, big or small, from your edit letter, to seeing your jacket copy, to relatives’ reactions, to getting your ARCs, to seeing the book online or in stores. Don’t deny yourself any amount of excitement.

Last but not least, what’s up next for you as a writer?

HIGH AND DRY, my next YA, comes out Spring 2014 through Amulet Books. It’s a desert-set mystery about a high school soccer player, a boy this time, who’s framed for a stranger’s near-fatal overdose, blackmailed into uncovering a missing flash drive, and pressured to throw the big game, all while trying to win back the girl of his dreams.

That sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to see it hit shelves! Thanks again very much, Sarah.