Category Archives: Publishing Advice

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.

 

 

To Send or Not to Send—Timing Your Query Letter Right

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snowflakeSeason’s greetings, everyone!

The month of December always gets away much faster than I’d like, and this year is no exception—especially since it means my stint in India is drawing to a close. I’ve been here in Dharamsala for the past three months working for a cause that’s close to my heart (teaching at a school for refugees). If you’d like to see some pictures, you can check out my India album on Facebook, or visit the school’s website. It has been an incredible experience, but I’m also looking forward to getting home to Colorado. With that in mind, I hope you’ll forgive me for going off the grid for the next couple of weeks: first to do a little exploring in other parts of India and then to spend the holidays with friends and family. I’ll be back with fresh content and lots of energy after that!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some advice about timing. Writers often ask, “Should I shoot my query letter off to agents before the holidays or wait till the New Year?”

My advice: definitely hold your horses. Like almost every company, literary agencies are very hectic during late November and December, as agents and staff try to tie up all their loose ends before going on break. In fact, most of the publishing industry shuts down (or slows to a crawl) for a couple of weeks over the holidays. So while you might be tempted to clear your plate and check a huge item off your to-do list, sending your query this time of year means you’ll likely (a) end up in slush pile limbo indefinitely, or (b) get an auto-response saying please try again after the holidays. Save yourself the disappointment!

My other piece of advice is not to send your query first thing after New Year’s. While a few agents might applaud your gumption, most will simply be too swamped with post-holiday catch up to give your query the attention it deserves. When I was reading for Nelson Literary we always got a huge spike in the number of queries during the month of January. A flood of New Year’s resolutions! It’s best to wait till at least the middle of the month—by that time agents will have settled in and be thinking about landing their next big project.

So give yourself one less thing to worry about during this busy time of year, and come January, you’ll have some fresh perspective for putting the finishing touches on your query letter.

Happy holidays and best wishes to all!

Should Writers Worry About Trends in the Publishing Market?

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Today I’m delving into my archive of guest posts to share some advice I gave at this year’s WriteOnCon. If you’re not familiar with it, WOC is a yearly online conference for YA/MG writers and I highly recommend it. Whether you write for adults or children, you’ll find lots of relevant content from authors, agents, and editors in their 2013 archive.

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Should Writers Worry About Trends on the Market?

trendsVanillaIceTwo pieces of advice you often hear in the writing business are “Agents love a savvy writer who knows what’s hot on the market,” and “Don’t write to fit the trends.” But aren’t those contradictory?

Not necessarily. It’s all about your frame of reference. Are you sitting down to begin a novel? Or putting the finishing touches on it? Where you are in the process determines whether you need to think about trends and marketing and the like.

Publishing trends have no place in the beginning stages of your writing process. One reason is that by the time you finish your book, the trend will either have died down, or agents and publishers will already have seen a hundred similar pitches. So many hopeful writers will have jumped on the Hunger Games/Twilight/Game of Thrones bandwagon that the chances of your novel standing out are slim. Another reason not to chase trends is that your heart probably won’t be in it, and readers will smell a rat. It’s one thing to sit down and force yourself to do a writing exercise—that can be a great way to generate ideas or power through writer’s block. But pounding out a story just because you think it will sell is like turning your entire novel into a writing exercise. Sounds exhausting!

So my advice is this: write the novel that has been percolating in your head for years, or that came to you in a mind-blowing dream last night, or that was sparked by an obscure headline at the back of last week’s paper. These are the stories that come from that mysterious realm of inspiration that has nothing to do with logic or planning or marketing. And they’re also the novels that break out, because readers can feel the spark.

You’ve done that? Great. Now you can start thinking about the market. Does your novel have something in common with a brand new bestseller? Great—you just might be poised to catch that wave. The trick will be to show how your novel appeals to the same readership and yet stands apart—how is it unique?

Or let’s say your novel is not like anything you’ve seen in a book store or online. If you’ve mastered your craft and you have a big story to tell, you could be the one setting the next trend. But it’s best not to tell agents that (arrogance is not considered a virtue in query letters!). Instead, show your knowledge of the market by outlining how you will help promote your book once it is published. Nowadays, no matter how “big” a publisher feels your book is going to be, you’ll still be expected to do a fair share of self-marketing.

In the end, the thing to remember is that most agents don’t want writers who methodically churn out simply “marketable” work—that’s a recipe for average books with average sales. Every agent I know is looking for something quite different: clients who write with passion and originality, and who know the industry well enough to promote their work effectively when the time comes. If there’s a “secret” recipe for success, I’d say that’s it.