A Writer’s Learning Curve

I’m pleased to welcome TKZ alumna Nancy Cohen today, as she talks about the Writer’s Learning Curve. That’s Nancy in the hot pink suit. — Elaine Viets

By Nancy J. Cohen

As we go through our journey as writers, we move from one set of learning goals to another. These may evolve over time but there’s never a lack of new things to conquer. Always needing to stay ahead in this game, we must keep up with trends in the marketplace, writing styles and marketing strategies.

When you’re starting out, you’ll devour articles on character, plot, setting and other basic elements of a novel. Once you hone your skills, you’ll narrow down your focus to a particular genre. This can take years, along with many unpublished books, notes from critique partners and rejections from editors. Eventually, if you persist, you’ll get published. With professional editorial input, your skills will keep improving until you look back on those earlier books with dismay. Now that you’re a seasoned author, what’s next?

Writing styles change as pressures from the real world influence our tastes as readers. Before technology infused recreational pursuits, people had plenty of time to read for pleasure. Long, descriptive passages and poetic prose were common. Remember those long tomes by authors such as James Michener? How many of us would pick up one to read now?

These days, readers lack the patience for long expository passages. They want white space, short paragraphs and even shorter chapters. Fast-paced stories with lots of dialogue and action will win readers over sooner than lengthy descriptions that make your eyes glaze. What was that famous line about cutting out the parts readers tend to skim past?

The advent of e-book readers has reinforced this shorter, breezy writing style. So has the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon. You need to grab a reader’s attention within the first few pages. Never mind spending several paragraphs describing the luscious sunrise and seguing into backstory about how the heroine came to be there. Cut to the heart of the story and get things moving from the start. Listen to what readers want and adapt your style if you want to attract more fans.

This also applies to the marketplace. Are cozies popular because the outside world is scary and rife with tension these days? Or are darker tales and thrillers in vogue? Do we need to steer clear of certain topics? Or can we address these issues in a timely manner in our work? Supposedly our books reflect what’s going on in society. In a pandemic, does this mean writing our lifestyle changes into our stories or carrying on as though things are normal? That would depend upon your readers’ expectations, so again, consider your audience.

By now, you’ve produced a number of published books and have learned how to manage your promotional efforts. Back in the day, this meant booksignings inside malls at B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Then it became independent bookstores. Now it’s online events and ZOOM presentations. You have to keep up with the times in terms of marketing efforts. And when you think you have it down pat, you decide to go hybrid or indie and have to learn a whole new skill set. Nor does it ever end. Audiobook production, box sets, sales promotions, social media campaigns…the opportunities to try new things can be overwhelming. It helps to focus on one item at a time. What is it you want to learn next?

As authors, we’re on a journey that will keep taking us to new places. We always have more to learn and to achieve. Be grateful, because it keeps our minds sharp and gives us a sense of purpose each day. In this, we share a unique mindset that connects us to each other.

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

14 thoughts on “A Writer’s Learning Curve

  1. Welcome back, Nancy!

    You are so very right, the learning never stops for us as writers and authors. I certainly tried out genres, spent lots of time in critique groups before embarking on the “path of writing craft” twelve years ago. Now I have seven novels published, along with short stories and flash fiction. My writer’s journey has taken me now to mysteries even as I continue to write my mystery-oriented urban fantasies.

    Readers tastes have changed, as you note, and growing and adapting as writers is another never ending part of our journeys.

    Thanks for an inspiring post!

    • Dale, it sounds as though you are doing very well. Yes, we experiment with genres and have to adapt to changing market conditions. It’s a never-ending challenge. And we never quite know what’s down the road, either.

  2. You nailed it, Nancy. Keeping up with new writing and book marketing trends is a daunting but necessary task. In fact, I’m having one of “those” days today. *sigh*

  3. Nice to see you here, Nancy.
    I think I’m ‘lucky’ that I got into this whole writing gig late in life, with no lifelong aspirations to be a writer, so I got into what was out there at the time, which was the dawn of digital publishing (pre-Amazon, with actual digital publishers). Less to unlearn, fewer expectations. I just finished uploading my next release to the major digital channels and to Amazon’s print store. I’m self-taught in all aspects of writing, although I still dread the marketing aspects of the career.

    • I’ve learned a lot from you, Terry. It’s mostly other authors who’ve taught me what I know about the marketing aspects. And now I am about to try something totally new. We both have changed paths, from trad published to indie author. That was a steep learning curve in itself, but I think it’s benefited us in many ways.

  4. So much to learn. I’ve been writing for about ten years and like you said, I spent a lot of those years learning the craft skills (still learning, in reality, but hopefully better than I used to be). Last year I decided to go indie. I self-pubbed one of my shorter adventure books. I sat back and I waited for the cash to start rolling in. As you might guess, that didn’t happen.
    There is so much to learn as an indie it blows my mind. It’s a science. I’m studying Amazon algorithms, marketing strategies based on genre and the time of year, optimization of color coordination for book covers, how to separate good editors from folks who run work through Grammarly and charge $300, things like that. It’s tough. But nothing worth doing is easy, right?
    I appreciated your post. I read your book, Permed to Death, a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Not my usual genre, but I liked it nonetheless.
    Thank you.

  5. Hi Carl. Yes, there’s a steep learning curve to being an indie author. But it’s worth the effort to take control of your career. The constant need for marketing and the pressure to produce are two of the downsides but we do what’s best for each of us. And we keep learning because we can experiment and try new things. Or not. I don’t understand the ads with click-per-whatever. We also have to decide when to hire out.

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