Note from Jodie: I’m busy packing to move to another city next week, so bestselling – and prolific! – author Allison Brennan has kindly consented to share some valuable advice for aspiring authors today. Welcome, Allison!
In 2002, I finished my first full-length novel, a masterful romantic suspense. It had everything … and I mean everything … that a romantic suspense novel could have.
A Heroine … beautiful, smart, sweet. And a virgin. She was a computer expert who worked from home.
A Hero … tough, dedicated, handsome. And a cop.
A Chance Encounter … the heroine thought the hero was an intruder in her apartment building. An old house converted into three flats. How was she to know the landlord had rented the vacant unit?
A Villain … he worked at the coffee shop where the heroine bought her morning coffee after her daily run. He loved her. He was certain she felt the same way, but he couldn’t talk to her, so he stalked her.
A Victim (or five) … the villain, unable to share his feelings for the heroine, rapes women who look like her. Of course my hero catches the serial rape case.
The Ex-Girlfriend … the hero has a psycho ex-girlfriend who is none too happy when she sees the hero kissing the heroine. At some point, she trashes the Heroine’s apartment.
The Ex-Fiancé … yes, the heroine had been engaged. She broke it off for some reason I don’t remember (but I’m sure it was a very good reason), and then she learned that her ex was selling company secrets to a rival. So of course she turned him in.
The Heroine’s Brother. A priest. Well, a former Marine turned priest. (Why? I don’t know. It sounded good at the time.)
Danger. The Heroine’s ex-fiancé, furious that he was fired, plots to embezzle money from the company. But he needs the Very Smart Heroine to hack into the system and steal the payroll before it’s direct-deposited into employee accounts. To force her to help him, he and his gang hold her brother (the former Marine turned priest) hostage, shooting him in the leg when she refuses to help.
Of course, the hero comes in to save the day!
But lest you forget Stalker Boy, he was just as upset as Ex-Girlfriend that Heroine and Hero were kissing. Around this point, Hero realizes that the rape victims (and he’s escalating, because one died) all look like our Heroine. He gets all Alpha Hero wanting to protect her. But because Villain is a psycho, he kills Ex-Girlfriend and frames our Hero. While our Hero is in jail, our Stalker kidnaps the Heroine and takes her to the Cascade Mountains where he forces her to wear his mother’s wedding dress in a mock ceremony so that they can “legally” consummate their marriage.
Of course, the hero comes in to save the day … again.
Did I mention that Villain also killed his mother and kept her decomposing body in her house?
Yes, Hot Latte had it all. Literally.
(Stop laughing. Yes, I called it Hot Latte. Because that was the heroine’s preferred beverage at the coffeehouse.)
Alas, Hot Latte has never been—and never will be—published. Truly, I had at least six good books crammed into that one novel! I’ve used some of the plot twists in future books, and I still have more to spare.
My first book taught me a lot about writing. In fact, writing Hot Latte was essentially a crash course in fiction writing. What to do … and, mostly, what not to do.
I sold my fifth completed manuscript, The Prey, to Ballantine in 2004. My first four books aren’t publishable, but I truly believe my career depended on me writing them. Through the process of writing those books, I learned how to structure, pace and plot a story. (I use the word “plot” loosely because I don’t plot, per se.) I learned about character, backstory, conflict, and self-editing.
My first book isn’t salvageable. I would also argue that ten years ago, I didn’t have the skill to completely rewrite anything into something that was the same core story … but different. Better.
I owe more than I can say to my former editor at Ballantine for helping me learn how to see the big picture. In fact, I still hire her to edit my indie books because, even after twenty-five traditionally published novels, I crave editing. I also insist on revisions for every traditional book I write. I don’t consider it a failure to get a long revision letter—to me, that external guidance makes a good book great. While I’m a better writer today than I was ten years ago, but that doesn’t mean my books don’t benefit from a thoughtful developmental editor. (I’m not talking about copyediting and proofreading – those are a given. I’m talking about someone who looks at the big picture and helps make it clearer.)
I thank God that self-publishing was not a viable option in 2002 when I wrote Hot Latte. Because I honestly thought that it was a good book. My best friend read it and she liked it, too. (Ahem. See tongue in cheek?) It was clean – meaning there were few, if any, grammatical or spelling errors. Who wouldn’t love it? I mean it had everything in it! Literally!
But all the agents and editors who rejected it were right. When I found an old copy of the manuscript a few years ago, I cringed. It was that bad. Every cliché in romantic suspense found a home in my book.
I recognize that the publishing world is different today than ten years ago. Yet … there are some truths that remain the same. The primary truth is that you should only put your best work forward.
Just because the new climate has allowed everyone to publish doesn’t mean that everyone should publish their first … or second … or fifth book.
I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they were rejected by “New York” and obviously “New York” doesn’t know what’s good, so they’re going to self-publish.
Or how many people have said they can’t afford an editor, but their daughter/mother/best friend is a good proofreader. (Proofreading is NOT editing.) One person actually told me that once they start making money selling their books on Amazon, then they can afford to hire an editor.
Or how many people feel they have written the perfect book and any editorial input would make it less perfect. That they don’t want to change anything in the story because it’s exactly the way they want it.
Or how many people tell me they don’t really care whether they make money or not, they want to “get their story out there” and since it’s free to do so, they don’t want to spend any money on editing or cover design. These people actually make me angry – because I take my career seriously, I take books seriously, and I don’t think that “just getting something out there because you can” respects authors or readers.
New York rejects books for two primary reasons: either the book is total crap or they have no idea how to market the book (meaning, it doesn’t fit into one of their pre-defined genres.) It’s much easier to sell a thriller to New York because they know how to market a thriller, they can look at the book and see exactly who the audience might be. It’s much harder (not impossible) to sell a book that doesn’t neatly fit into one of the pre-established genre shelves at Barnes and Noble.
I’m certainly not opposed to self-publishing. There are many authors who have chosen self-publishing to great personal and professional success. Sometimes it’s because they’ve tried New York and couldn’t break out, but had built a solid readership who then moved with them into the digital world where they were able to grow and thrive. Some were successful in New York, but for one reason or another felt they would be more successful in the indie world. Others don’t fit neatly into the mold, but readers simply like good stories and therefore they found a readership because they told good stories.
But with the glut of books available digitally, and so many of them really not publishable, readers are having a harder time picking the wheat from the chaff.
I am disheartened that so many aspiring writers have completely forsaken the process in the rush to be published. It’s your name on the book. You’ve spent hundreds of hours writing a book—usually while working at another job or raising a family. You wrote that book in your free time, meaning it had value to you—you sacrificed doing other things in order to write. Respect yourself! Respect your time! You deserve to invest in that book, to make it as strong as it can be.
If you want a career as an author, if you want to build a readership and grow your audience, the process is important—whether you walk down the traditional path or the indie path or, like many, a combination of both.
If I was starting today, I would have self-published Hot Latte and, in effect, lowered the bar for myself. It was a complete story, it had great characters, and it was cleanly written. Yet … it wasn’t a good book. I didn’t see the flaws because I didn’t know what to look for. It took me many books before I could see the flaws in my own work. Even now, I don’t always see the problems and am grateful to my editor because there is always something I can do better.
And that’s my goal: to make every book better than the last.
I’ll pop in and out today to talk about anything you want or answer questions! I’m easy that way 🙂
Oh, and for my BSP … COMPULSION, book two in the Max Revere investigative reporter series, is on sale now in hardcover, digital, and audio. RT Book Reviews gave COMPULSION a Top Pick: “Brennan really pulls out all the stops in this intense, terrifying thriller!” and Catherine Coulter says, “Don’t miss Max Revere’s roller-coaster new thriller. Talk about grit and courage—Max never gives up.”
You can check it out on my website, allisonbrennan.com.
Allison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of romantic thrillers and mysteries. She’s currently writing the Max Revere investigative reporter series (COMPULSION, April 2015) and the Lucy Kincaid romantic suspense series (upcoming: BEST LAID PLANS, August 2015.) She lives in Northern California with her husband, five kids, and assorted pets.
Good morning, Allison, thanks for visiting.
You credit your former editor at Ballantine for helping you see the big picture in your novels, but how did you get the attention of Ballantine? Did you have an agent at that time, and do you still have the same agent?
Hi Amanda! Yes, I found an editor in 2004. My first two books I queried 50 agents each, and was soundly rejected (though, my second book garnered a few full requests and then agents who asked me to send them something else.) By the time I wrote my fifth book, I had a feeling it would sell … and I queried 12 agents and had 7 requests. I signed with an agent who, 3 weeks later, sold the book to Ballantine in a 3 book deal.
I’m no longer with that agent … I’m on my second (and hopefully last) agent.
I still believe that most authors who want to break into traditional NY publishing need an agent, or at a minimum a literary lawyer. There are too many clauses that can screw authors in contracts. I also think that having an agent (a good agent, mind you!) helps get you read by the right editors for your project.
Hey Allison. I can relate. I trunked a several novels because they weren’t solid enough. I didn’t want to keep stirring the same pile over and over so I just moved on. Every book has better than the previous one and this will be the year for my debut novel. Thanks all around here
David — I remember Sue Grafton was interviewed once (Writer’s Digest maybe, I don’t remember) and she said no writer is good until the fifth book. Something like that 🙂 … I think some authors might take longer. I consider that I’ve also improved over the 25 books I’ve published, that there are some books that I think are a giant step forward — better written, better stories, better all around.
“Trunked” them! That’s a good one. I’m the kind of person who saves wood scraps and old fence boards to reuse in other projects. It’s hard not to keep from doing that with writing projects that are still on the table, like dead fish. Guess I should trunk ’em and move on.
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I wrote six books before one sold to Dorchester back in the day. That started my career as a published author, but I needed all those previous steps. And the learning didn’t stop with publication. My editors taught me most of what I know today (along with other seasoned authors whose workshops I attended). No matter what stage you’re in, we always have something new to learn. And I definitely agree that anyone considering indie publishing must invest in hiring editors as well as professional formatters and cover designers.
Hi Nancy! Yes, I learned immensely from my editor and Ballantine. We worked on 17 books together before I changed houses. And I’ve learned with my new Minotaur editor. I’m a far better writer today because of both of them. I’ve taken workshops, both in person and on line, after I published especially in areas where I felt I needed help.
When I switched houses, one of the things I told my agent was that I wanted an editor who edits. I recognize that some editors don’t do developmental editing, at least no the depth I want. So when I signed with Minotaur, my editor knew from the beginning that I expected a revision letter with every book. 25 books later and I’ve had a revision letter on all of them — some lighter than others, but some substantial.
There’s simply no substitute for experience. I’ve learned a great deal from those editors thoughtful enough to comment on my ms. It’s painful, but the experience sharpens your craft.
I remember my first revision letter. I almost cried. I thought the book was great … and they bought it! I was scared to death to touch the book for fear of screwing everything up. But … once I started, I realized how much better her comments made my story. I ended up rewriting the last 100 pages because I had a plot point she thought was contrived … and it was. Something happened for the sole purpose of setting up the climax. I changed it, but de facto everything after that had to change.
Hi Allison, thanks for subbing for Jodie and sharing your outstanding tips and advice. When I was a kid, my mother told me that when you cook pancakes, always throw the first one out. Little did I realize that so many years later that tip would be solid advice for beginning writers.
Today, indie publishing has proven to be a blessing for hybrid authors like me and a curse for those just starting out. And it’s become painfully obvious that today, you can judge a book by its cover. Thanks again for dropping by TKZ. Hope to see you in NYC.
I’ll definitely be in NY for Thrillerfest! Wouldn’t miss it 🙂
Your mother was very smart. I do the same thing.
Oh, yeah. Sooo many pancakes… Good to have a dog who loves them.
Great website, Allison.
Welcome to TKZ, Allison! Thanks for sharing your well-earned tips on the road to becoming a successful author! Your creativity, hard work, dedication, and openness to suggestions for improvement have taken you to bestselling status. Kudos to you!
I hope you had a wonderful birthday! And safe moving … I hate moving, but I love being in a new place 🙂
Yes, looking forward to my new city, closer to my sister, and my new digs on the 7th floor, with a view! 🙂
I can appreciate what you’re saying. I’m working on a piece now which draws on a number of elements from earlier projects I have abandoned. I spent hundreds of hours and wrote tens of thousands of words for those abandoned pieces, but in the end, each of them either fizzled or turned out to be unpublishable. At least I’ve been able to salvage two characters and a portion of the setting for the story I’m writing.
Exactly — knowing what’s working and what isn’t can be difficult, especially when we’re still new to this whole business. I easily wrote over a million words in the four books I never sold. (writing, rewriting, and rewriting …)
However, book #3 which was total garbage had a great set-up and premise and heroine. But it wasn’t a strong enough story for a full-length book. So I salvaged the concept and opening scene and rewrote it into a long novella and self-published it. (Murder in the River City.) So far, it’s my best selling indie title. Book #2 was very poorly executed (the writing was mediocre and with lots of boring scenes that didn’t move the story forward) but the inciting incident was one of the best I’ve come up with (attempted assassination of the lieutenant governor of California.) And I loved my heroine. But the story needed tweaking … and so I kept the first couple chapters (totally rewritten) and then wrote the rest new. It’s SOO much better, and is not a long novella (novellette? 50K words) in an upcoming charity anthology SWEET DREAMS. “Aim to Kill.” In fact, it’s probably my favorite novella to date.
I had the opposite problem with my first manuscript. Over 140,000 words (more book for one’s buck, I thought) but not enough going on. I kept adding reasons cop hero couldn’t solve victim heroine’s crime, but there wasn’t enough depth. Agents asked if I’d considered writing category romance. Eventually, I did learn enough to revise and get some more characters and more conflict in there, and it was published as a romantic suspense (but nowhere near that original word count).
I’ve only had one epically long book …
One thing I noticed in some of the unpublished contests I’ve judged is that some writers don’t want to make their characters suffer, or they come up with contrived conflict and resolve it immediately. I remember in my second published book, my editor gave me a very nice, scathing revision letter (yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction!) … one thing she said was that I included all the boring bits that should have been off-page. I couldn’t see it, because I thought that these points HAD to be on-page … but they were totally boring. I rewrote most of that book and it’s still one of my favorites. (THE HUNT)
Hear, hear! This is so true. I find it very interesting that so many authors are now publishing those first books that should be sitting in boxes under the bed. Writing is a process and it takes time to learn craft. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Now I’m very excited to read the novellas/short novels. I like how you took previous elements from your first books and managed to reuse them. That make so much more sense than just publishing those learning activities.
I will never publish Hot Latte. I don’t even have a digital copy of the file, it got lost at some point. Or deleted. I would love to write a good frame story, though … that might happen at some point.
Thanks for stopping by Alison. I’m a little unusual in that my first novel published was the first novel I’d ever written – that being said, I had a lot to learn and was just lucky I had an agent and editor willing to work with me. I’m sure my penance is to now have to write many, many other books that will undoubtedly have issues with them that make them hard to publish! The work is still the work:)
You’re not the first person I know who published their first book 🙂
I loved reading about your first novel, Allison. It gives me hope. I wrote my first novel when I was thirteen (more like a novella really). It was…well, let’s be kind to the kid and say it was less than perfect 🙄 I can still remember parts of it fifty-four years later and cringe. It was a cliched smulch fest — bad smulch at that. I’ve learnt a lot in those fifty-four years, and started on my first real novel seven years ago. It was a runner-up and then a finalist in an unpublished MS competition in 2012 and I’m currently doing a final edit before it goes to a real editor. Let’s hope slow and steady really is a true adage 😀
Good luck with your submission, Lyn!
I wrote a lot as a teen-ager … never finished anything … and every story was essentially like Nancy Drew, if Nancy had ten brothers and sisters! I’d set it all up, but then never finish it … I was an only child, and I think I liked writing about big families (of which I knew next to nothing!)
I totally agree, but there are some circles where I wouldn’t dare utter those words. My first novel will NEVER see the light of day. It’s that bad. But, like you, it was a learning experience, one I wouldn’t trade for the world. I, too, have stolen pieces for other books. Honing the craft of writing takes time. I’ve written four novels and feel like I’m just scratching the surface. And apparently, NY agrees. 🙂 However, now I’m revisiting some of those books and applying what I’ve learned about story architecture and, I have to say, I’m glad agents passed on them because they are so much stronger now. Onward!
Exactly. We learn as we write. That’s the truth in everything — athletes may have some natural talent and desire, but without the endurance and love to work HARD to improve by practicing every day, they’ll never play in the big leagues.
I’m not afraid to talk about this because I see a glut of first books or unedited books being self-published without a plan, without focus, without the quality. There are many wonderful indie books out there … but far more would benefit HUGE from a thorough editing — put developmental editing and line editing. I don’t like the mentality that it’s “good enough.” Though I believe I write better now than I did 10 years ago, every book I published was the best it could be at the time I published it. My older titles may not be “as good” as my current titles, but at the time that was my maximum. Ditto for Hot Latte — I couldn’t write it better at that time. Doesn’t mean I want to publish it. That’s the way it should be.
Hi Allison. I agree completely with the value of rejection letters. Sometimes they mean, “Not for me,” but often they’re saying, “It’s not good enough.” Real writers go out and make it better.
I was contacted by someone recently who I hadn’t seen in decades. She was thrilled to talk “writing” with me as her first book was about to come out. Yep, self-published. I read it and it did nothing but confirm my biggest gripe with self-published books; with no house putting their money on the line, you answer to no one. If you get an editor who’ll tell you the writing isn’t good, you don’t have to listen. I remember the feeling of giving up minor plot lines that I thought were brilliant when I wrote them, and the lights going on when I realized they bogged things down. It was liberating and delicious. I still love that feeling of recognizing I’m in a ditch somewhere and have to make my way out.
This writer is waiting for a review from me. I can’t do it. If she’d asked my opinion before publishing, I’d have advised her on many fronts, but once it’s done and out there, there’s no point. I’m not a fan of giving negative reviews, but I can’t lie and say its good. Not fair to people who rely on reviews before putting their money down.
So she’s published. I’m not. I just parted ways (amicably) with my agent. I have to find another one, which can be harder than writing the book.
Thanks for the article. It can be hard reliving our dusty manuscripts.