Let’s Help a New Writer Out

by James Scott Bell

Got an email from a reader of my craft books, who is finally ready (he says) to complete a novel. He wanted some career advice before taking the plunge. Below are his questions and my answers. Let’s put our heads together and help him out. We can continue the discussion in the comments!

[NOTE: I am assuming the writer is going the self-publishing route, based on question #2. If so, my opening advice is this—put your novel through the same grinding process you would if you were going to submit it to an agent or editor. Being indie is no allowance for being skimpy when it comes to prepping for publication.]

1. You mention learning to love a marketable genre. I’m a mystery and crime fan, but I realize the old school historical noir pieces may not sell. Here’s my plan: write the following sub-genres under a single pen name: (a) Hard-Boiled Police Procedural series a la Michael Connelly, (b) humorous detective/cozy a la Carl Hiaasen/Big Lebowski, and (c) romantic suspense because romance is huge but the crime element makes it interesting for me to write. Does this make sense? Would I spread myself too thin? Am I too far off the commercial mark? For example, should I go whole-hog into Romance and leave crime behind just for the money?

Establish yourself first in a single genre. You need to build up a readership and fan base, and that’s best done when you a) write a crackerjack book in a genre; and b) follow that up with another crackerjack book in the same genre.

The traditional publishers know this. It’s called branding, and they want to keep their money-making authors on brand because that keeps their bottom line in the black. When you start to sell gazillions of copies per book you can convince your publisher to let you try an off-brand novel…before getting back to your basics. See, e.g., John Grisham, James Patterson.

As an “authorpreneur,” you can make the call when you want to try something different. One of the benefits of indie is that you can branch out in short form as an experiment. For example, I write full-length contemporary thrillers, but have a comedic series of novelettes about a vigilante nun. I did some boxing stories for the love of it. But I always return to full-length suspense.

As for going “just for the money,” my advice is that you find the sweet spot where a marketable genre meets your love for the material. As you rightly point out, I believe you can learn to love a genre if you give yourself to the characters and make the stakes death (as explained in my craft books). At this point, ask yourself where you would find the most joy. Joy has a way of translating onto the page in a way that takes competent fiction up another level.

2. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to become discoverable, but is that a long-term solution? Do you plan to eventually “go wide”?

There’s an ongoing debate about this. To boil it down, those indies who favor “going wide” have concerns about the future of Amazon and possible digital disruption to same. Those who are Amazon exclusive are looking at what’s working now.

This is my personal view: since the future is unknowable, I opt for present-moment lettuce. I was wide with my fiction during the first seven or so years of the indie boom. My income via Kobo, Nook and iBooks was steady but not exciting. When I moved to KU, my income experienced a sharp increase. An added bonus is when I land a BookBub deal, my “pages read” (the way an author gets paid in the KU program) go way up for several weeks.

I know many folks have an issue with Amazon’s dominance, but betting against the company has not proved a winning strategy in the past. I recall in the late 90s when Barron’s dubbed the company “Amazon Dot Bomb.” I only wish I’d bought my shares then.

3. I used to be a pantser and, to show for it, as mentioned above, I’ve finished precisely 0 novels. Your books convinced me to outline, but I find some of the beats and plot points vague. Should I start building from the vague outline and drill down in detail until I have a card per specific scene?

Taking your question as a whole, by “vague” you mean you don’t have a sufficient idea in your mind of what the scenes would actually look like, not what the scene should accomplish within structure. That said, the beauty of the “signpost scenes” idea is that you don’t have to “drill down” before you write—unless you want to! As a pantser, you’re not used to summarizing all scenes ahead of time. In the alternative, you can start with the first couple of beats, and when you’ve gone that far look ahead to the next beat or two. You are driving at night with the headlights on, as E. L. Doctorow put it. You can always see ahead to the next signpost.

For both my plotting and pantsing students, I prescribe the “killer scene” brainstorming exercise. Go to your favorite local coffee house with a stack of index cards and start brainstorming scene ideas, not worrying about structure or where they might fit. Come up with 30-40 cards. Go back the next day and shuffle the cards and go through them, selecting the most promising. Figure out in which act—1, 2, or 3–those would logically fit. You’ll be amazed and happy.

4. When do you know to abandon a series or subgenre experiment and move to something more commercially viable?

There is an easy answer to this in the traditional publishing world: when your publisher does not offer you another contract.

Being indie, my view is that after three books in a series you should have a pretty good idea of how it’s going. Look at sales trajectory and reviews. Then ask yourself how wedded you are to the series. It may be that your next book is the one that brings attention to the others.

Or not. Erle Stanley Gardner developed several series characters for the pulps, including Speed Dash, Sidney Zoom and his police dog, and Ed “The Phantom Crook” Jenkins. But when he felt his writing had stalled he tried out a character he named Perry Mason. The rest is publishing history.

5. You studied under Raymond Carver. I’ve read each of his collections and am a huge fan. I’ve loved minimalist prose since I started reading Hemingway as a kid, and Carver’s style to me is a joy to read. Did he share anything specifically with you or your class you could pass on to me as to writing lean?

The main thing I picked up from Carver was his use of the “telling detail.” He was a master at putting a simple image into a scene that illuminated the emotional moment and often blew you away. Hemingway, at his best, did the same.

When a genre writer pulls this off, the effect is glorious. So glorious, in fact, that I am going to make this the subject of my next TKZ post.

Onward, writer. Carpe Typem! Seize the Keyboard!

Over to you, TKZ community. Help this new writer out.

17 thoughts on “Let’s Help a New Writer Out

  1. 1st, thanks for the tip about giving a series about 3 books to determine if you should proceed. That’s something I have wondered too.

    Agree with establishing yourself in one genre of books. What you are “known” for. I know with authors I repeatedly read, they have stuck to one genre, then once established, they try their hand at something else (while continuing on with their ‘known for’ writing). One I can think of wrote a book of poetry. Not something I went for, but they’re established & have the ability to do that. After all, we need to be able to experiment and challenge ourselves in new ways.

    As to writing “just for the money”, I admire anybody who can do this. To spend that many hours writing something you’re not even interested in is something I can’t even begin to imagine!

  2. Be ready to work. Even in today’s publishing world, writing and publishing a novel is hard work, because it also involves promoting the work. As for the writing, it is always a work in progress, that is, you are always working to make your writing better. You might hit a home run your first time up at the plate in the big leagues, but probably not. You’ll probably strike out. A lot. But like those guys who want to stay in the big leagues, be successful and make money, you have to keep working at your craft. If you’re not prepared to work, do something else.

  3. “I used to be a pantser and, to show for it, as mentioned above, I’ve finished precisely 0 novels.”

    The reason you have 0 novels is not about whether you impose an outline on your characters’ story or let them tell their own story (after all, they’re the ones who are living it). The reason you have 0 novels is that you don’t write.

    And you don’t write because you’re frightened. We all were (or are).

    But eventually you have to Just Write the Story.

    You can delay the process longer and drag it out by talking about (reading about, thinking about, researching, considering) writing. Or you can just sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and just write.

    And just so you know, you can’t write a novel. Nobody can. But you can write a sentence. Then you can write the next one and the next one. You can write a scene, trust where the characters are taking you and write the next one. And eventually you will have written a novel.

    But no matter what else, if you want to be a writer, you must write. (Heinlein’s Rule number 1, one nobody can contest.)

    I suggest you might enjoy a series of topics on how to beat the critical voice that I’m posting right now on my website at HEStanbrough.com.

    • “You can delay the process longer and drag it out by talking about (reading about, thinking about, researching, considering) writing.”

      Oh my, so true. I’d probably be thunderstruck if I knew how many total hours I’ve spent doing any of the above. And research, as wonderful as it is, can become a black hole.

      • Research is my rabbit hole. I went to research a little issue once that led me to a what if question. Three days later I had researched a whole different novel, which has an extensive outline’ but hasn’t been written.

    • I am a pantser and when I sat down to try and write that first book, I tried all kinds of techniques and software to describe my story. None of it worked for me as I couldn’t creatively think that far ahead. I thought I wasn’t a professional writer because I couldn’t outline or figure out who my characters were at the start of a story. At last, I sat down and planned to type a page and see what happened. 82,000 words later I had my first book. With a little variation on that theme, I’m working on book 12 at the moment.

      • Bravo! Congrats! “I couldn’t creatively think….” Yep. The creative subconscious doesn’t want to “think.” It just wants to run through the story. The characters know where they’re going, but they see no reason to tell the writer. It’s up to the writer (I see myself as a recorder) to keep up. (grin)

  4. As a former small press traditional gone indie (remaindered books, orphaned, etc.), I am a firm believer in going wide rather than putting all my eggs in one basket, and it’s been working all right for me. Kobo has special promotions for authors and has a much wider international reach than the other channels. I have friends in the UK and Germany who say a Kindle is NOT the device of choice. I have a Samsung/Nook tablet, and although I CAN use all the reader apps, the interface is best with Nook books (and I get a kickback on all my purchases through the B&N Membership), so it’s a rare day I buy a book from Amazon.

    True, my biggest income comes from Amazon, but for me, it’s not about the money; it’s about the readers. I want anyone to be able to find my book anywhere. In fact, back in the day, I had a reader ask me if my book would be available on a now-defunct site, and I said, “It will tomorrow.”
    That being said, I’m retired and do not need to support my family on my writing income. Some years are great, with incomes in the high five figures; others less so.

    JSB has given you some good advice. I’m only chiming in because I have a different approach to being an indie author. I write romantic suspense and mystery, but I had about 8 romantic suspense books out there before I started my mystery series.

  5. Great information. Thank you. Something I’d like to see for indie authors is an article about what to do once you’re ready to put your book up on Kindle, as in a blow-by-blow tutorial using the KISS formula on how to format for Kindle. I’ve seen many articles and wonder if I’m seeing the most up-to-date information. I’m talking about a blueprint for what to expect from the time you’ve formatted to what you’ll see when you open up Kindle. What questions will they ask and what should you do to get the most for your novel. I’m doing my draft on Google Docs and know I need to copy it to a Word document or at least that’s what I think is the first step. Thanks again for another great article.

    • If you are a Mac user, I cannot recommend the program Vellum enough. Well worth the investment. It makes formatting so easy, and corrections (if needed) a breeze. It shows you a preview of what it will look like on any ereading device. If you have a .docx in Word, it will take it from you and format it automatically.

  6. I loved your reply to question 1 about what genre to write. I started out beating my head against the romance wall & always wrote differently than the books being sold traditionally. It wasn’t until I looked at my own bookshelf–anything under the bigger umbrella of crime fiction–that I found my author voice through my comfort reads. Write what you have a passion for.

    When I branched out into young adult books, I didn’t stray from crime fiction. I knew my readership might try my YA books & I was right. I found younger readers who embraced my YAs but also tried my adult crime fiction books. Crossover appeal.

    One caution about stretching out to more than one genre, an author needs to think about marketing/promo. An author may decide to use a different pen name for each genre. My publisher wanted me to use my name (no alternative pen name) since I had a following. (Good advice on my case.) But I had to develop a separate website with a teen focus & the market is very different. Hugely different. I had to educate myself on YA reader groups, librarians, conferences, giveaways, communication methods & websites focused on young readers. It can be costly to set up a whole separate promo support for YA & maintain both.

    When my YA publisher dominated my writing time with more contracts, I found that I missed my adult crime fiction stories. That longing made it harder to mix my genres & I had to make a choice. I chose my first love & never regretted the move back. Splitting your writing time is a challenge few talk about but it becomes a factor if you write more than one genre & a publisher likes what you do.

    Another tip – if you like different genres, try writing stories with cross genres. One of the reasons I wanted to write YA is because that genre is known for being cross genre. (Young readers are open to a story that stretches into several genres.) But even my adult thrillers have elements of romance, police procedural, thriller, paranormal, horror, mystery etc. I love writing with the freedom to tell a story that’s not bound by “rules.”

    Thanks for another thought provoking post, Jim. Happy Sunday.

  7. One thing I didn’t see mentioned was the need to hire a professional editor. I would think that’s a must-have for a new indie author. Although it’s easy to publish a book these days, that doesn’t guarantee that the book is any good. I guess it’s possible for a new novelist to turn out a masterpiece, but I’m betting the book will be much improved if it’s reviewed by a professional before it gets to the marketplace.

    • Yes, that’s what I meant by “grinder.” I’d include beta readers in that. And a truly experienced freelance developmental editor is a solid investment for a new writer. Then there’s proofreading. This is money up front, but you are investing in yourself and your product. First impressions count.

  8. First and foremost, write the dang book.

    Second, edit the dang book yourself.

    Third, get decent beta readers or a critique group who like your genre and listen to their comments. If more than one notes the same problem, rewrite accordingly. Otherwise, if the advice feels right to you, follow it. If none of the advice feels right, you need to rethink your attitude toward your writing. Arrogance has never produced good books.

    Fourth, hire a good content editor to help you fix your book, then a good copy editor to fix those typos and grammar problems. Finally, seek advice on self-publishing. A few early resources are linked below as well as info on critique groups and beta readers.

    A few things not included in these steps. The writing craft is learned in the same way as the skills needed to play a sport. You will not produce a great book without those skills any more than someone who has never played basketball can become an instant professional. Practice your skills, and find good teachers to help you. It will be worth it in the long run.

    Also realize that very few writers produce a salable book the first time. Most are dreck, and the first book you put on the market will define your career, particularly if it is the first book in a series. Your other books may be much better, but, if that first piece is dreck, it will prove costly because readers won’t read them.

    Also, if you don’t read romance, don’t try to write it. It’s the hardest genre to get right, and its readers are very unforgiving if you don’t know the genre or, even worse, write it patronizingly. Read widely in whatever genre you intend to write.



    JANE FRIEDMAN INFO ON SELF-PUBLISHING (Friedman was in traditional publishing for many years and has worked at various writing magazine. So, a good resource.)




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