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I’ve been thinking a lot about marketing. Every week, I get emails offering guest posts, articles, contests, programs, services, etc. The well-meaning writer always says that they’re offering me an opportunity. My blog is pretty humble, but I do get a fair amount of beautiful, wise, talented readers. I’ve been around a long time. It’s not surprising that I come up on search engines and in rankings for people who are looking to market their whatever.

On principle, I turn their offers down. I don’t want to use this blog to sell stuff. (Other than the occasional reminder about my book and services, of course. A girl’s gotta eat!) I don’t want to feature someone’s guest post, unless they’re someone I know personally or professionally and I like their idea. I don’t want to flood my readers with a product or app when I know the average writer struggles with the very idea of scraping together enough focus to practice their craft.

The last thing I want to do is sell my website out. I don’t want to give people guest post slots (with a few notable exceptions over the years). This is my blog, and you come here for my articles. I’m not going to dilute my voice or credibility by letting John Doe publish his “101 Tips for Classroom Success” article (more on this example later). I’m not going to muck up my Resources page by putting any product or service that comes my way. Those are resources I found and loved on my own. They are tried and true, in my eyes. That space can’t be bought.

It’s not an “opportunity” for me. It’s marketing people doing their marketing thing. I get it. How do you get attention for your goods or services? This game has changed completely with the advent of the Internet, and the advent of analytics for said Internet. Now, in addition to trying to score hits in traditional media, people with something to sell are contacting tastemakers with lots of followers. All in the hopes of a mention, a link, and a boost.

I’m not against this practice at all. I sent hundreds of emails when my book came out. I market my editorial services once or twice a year to my mailing list. But I think that the focus of any good marketing piece is, “What’s in it for me?” That’s the question I’m always asking as someone with a blog that gets a certain number of eyeballs. Because I want to always deliver value to my readers. I want them to come here for information, not marketing and sponsored posts and all sorts of other garbage.

And THIS, ladies and gentlemen, this is what makes book marketing so damn difficult!

I’ve just spoken as a person turning down a lot of solicitations. Now, it’s true that I get requests to market people’s individual book projects. When someone writes to me and says, “I wrote this book, I’d like for you to help get the message out,” in my head, I ask, “What’s in it for me?” The answer, again, in my head, is always, “Um, a good…book?” And 99% of the time, that’s just not compelling enough for me to amplify your message. The one exception is the recent guest post I did about a book that was published via a crowdfunding platform. Why? Because I found the process compelling, the writer is a client of mine, and I wanted to hear how it was going.

I wanted to hear how it was really going, mind you. When she sent her first guest post draft, it was full of hearts and unicorns about how great everything was. I wrote back and pushed her to give me the peaks and valleys, the obstacles, the real story. Because I owe you more than a fluff piece. You’ll notice that the article in question wasn’t about the book at all. It had something for my audience about a new publishing platform.

As the curator (major cringe for that word now that everything is “curated” and “artisanal”) of this site, I was asking, “What’s in it for me…and my readers?” That particular guest post passed the test. As did another series about a Kickstarter funded graphic novel that didn’t make it.

There is, I believe, a lesson here for those of you who are looking to market your own work. Because the hard truth is, even once you’ve achieved the major milestone of being published, your work is not done. You have to become a marketing person. And almost everyone will give you the advice of finding people who are tastemakers in your respective subject area, and reaching out to them to pitch your work.

I have the biases I’ve expressed above. I happen to have high standards for featuring stuff. If you want to succeed with someone like me (and believe me, it’s a bigger success to place your story with someone who has standards than with someone who loves free shit and will blog about anything), you need to ask yourself, as if you were the tastemaker, “What’s in it for me? What’s in it for my readers?”

Usually, it’s not going to be just your story. But something interesting about your story. You wrote it entirely on a train. It’s the first novel written by AI. You were declared medically dead and it came to you while you were out. What is interesting about it? What is something I can blog about and find exciting? What is something my readers might like? Pitch from that angle.

And here’s a second bonus tip. Remember how my example article, above, was something about the classroom? Well, my blog is Kidlit.com, and my search terms are (among other things) children’s books. You might be totally justified in thinking that this blog is a resource for children, or about children’s books themselves (like a review site), or about children’s reading habits, or whatever. But you would be wrong.

My site’s audience consists of passionate writers who aspire to write or are actively involved in writing children’s books for publication. It’s a very specific audience. So if you don’t do your research on my site, see the words “kid” and “lit,” and email me a great opportunity to hawk your children’s educational resource for you, you will fall flat.

Marketing is a numbers game. You have to send X emails to get something from even 1% of your targets. It’s discouraging. But if you approach it from the angle of pretending to be the site owner and asking, “What’s in it for me?” AND if you target specific sites which have an audience in common with you, you will have more luck.

AND A THIRD BONUS TIP. As writers for babies, children, tweens, and teens, your marketing audience (most likely) isn’t actual children. There are very few places where children under 13 can legally be online. Your marketing audience is the people buying stuff for those children, and the educators and librarians of those children.

Want more marketing stuff? I recently wrote a somewhat related post about agents and editors who are writers themselves marketing their own work.

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I was recently working on a novel outline, helping the writer flesh the idea out so that they had the strongest possible “road map” to work from when writing their story. It’s a service that I really like because I push writers to consider all aspects of their story before they invest the time and energy in turning the idea into a manuscript. I believe it makes the writing process tighter and easier. It also leads to less long-term headache because we’re figuring things out ahead of time that most people don’t realize until revision. Well, this writer happened to have a very specific theme in mind. In fact, I believe the theme might’ve been the idea kernel that set the whole story in motion. Unfortunately, the story idea was mostly just a vehicle for this theme. In other words, the theme was so prominent that it became heavy-handed.

Why is this an issue? Well, in the case of this story, the writer could’ve easily turned the theme into a motivational poster and left it at that. You know those inspirational quote squares that are all over your Instagram and Facebook feeds? One of those. Why write a novel when all you want to do is communicate an idea that can be summed up in one sentence? This is why theme-heavy story ideas hardly ever work. There’s simply not enough nuance for the reader to be interested in digging deeper. “The point of the story is so front and center, what is there for me to do?” the reader might ask.

A lot of writers have such strong themes. It’s not bad to have a theme. In fact, every story needs at least one. The issue becomes how to express it. If you’re quite subtle about it, you may not be communicating your idea clearly. But I hardly ever see this problem. Much more likely is the issue of overt theme.

Picture books probably suffer the most from theme overload. Many writers are extremely tempted by the idea of putting a wise adult character into their stories for young readers that voices the theme outright. “And that’s why,” the kind grandmother said, “it’s so important to share.”

Yuck. That belongs on a classroom poster. Not at the heart of a story. Now, if you show a character’s life being enriched by sharing, that’s another thing. That lets the reader see the benefits of sharing for himself, and to make the connection that sharing is probably great on his own.

In novels, theme usually manifests itself in imagery. Let’s go back to my client’s story. It was a classic coming of age, where the character goes on a journey of self-discovery. Now I’ll depart from the actual idea for the sake of anonymity. What images can we use to talk about transformation, freedom, and self-expression? I know. Butterflies! They go from weird caterpillars to beautiful creatures. The journey is painful. The outcome uncertain. They crawl on the ground and then, all of a sudden, they take flight. These images are evocative and they fit the theme. In that sense, using the image of butterflies to communicate a coming of age theme is a home run, right?

The problem is, this image is heavy-handed. Too many writers have gotten to it already. It feels very familiar. There’s nothing fresh here. Unfortunately, more creativity is required not only to avoid clichés in writing, but to couch the theme in a way that’s thought-provoking, and not just a shortcut.

I would wager that if you were reading a YA novel about a character’s personal transformation, and the climactic scene took place in a botanical garden where there’s a butterfly exhibit, and the main character let a butterfly take flight from the tip of her finger, you would…groan a little? It’s been done. It’s a part of a very obvious conversation.

If you innovate in terms of your imagery as it pertains to your key theme, you will likely get a more engaged reader out of the bargain. What is your theme? What images are you using to convey it? How can you freshen up those images, make them more unexpected, ask the reader to use their imagination more?

After all, the world is your…abalone. 😉

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Critique Connection

By request, I’m letting this post be a way to find virtual critique partners. I’ve done these in the past, and people have reported finding good connections.

It’s simple. In the comments, please post:

Category: What you write, whether MG, YA, picture books, etc.

Genre: If you write in a specific genre

What You’d Like Critiqued and How: Are you looking for a partner to exchange pages with as you’re writing, someone to read an entire novel, etc. If It’s a bigger manuscript, maybe note the word count.

How to Get In Touch With You: If you’re not comfortable sharing your email, you can type it in a way that discourages spam (mary at kidlit dot com), or you can ask potential partners to reply to your comment…then come back and see if you have any nibbles.

It’s a little old school to do this on a blog, but if you’re looking for a critique partner going into the holidays and New Year, I can vouch that my blog readers are some of the smartest and best looking kidlit enthusiasts around! 🙂

In other news, I’ll be doing some critiques and participating in this year’s WriteOnCon in February. It’s a completely interactive online writer’s conference. I’ll post more as their website for this year gets up and running.

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I’m not calling my editorial work boring. Not in the slightest! I am suggesting a specific revision technique to work on pacing. I call it the “Boring Edit.”

Now, I can give advice until I’m blue in the face, and I know that maybe only 1% of people will actually try it. For example, I routinely tell writers who are struggling with a manuscript to put it away for three months and THEN try revising it. So far, I’ve heard from maybe a handful of writers who’ve tried it. (They loved it, BTW. Just sayin’…)

Yet I still persist in giving advice! Because it’s good for you! (What a Mom thing to say.) This technique is especially useful if you’ve been told that your writing sags or slumps or stalls. I’m looking at you, Muddy Middle. There’s not much of a trick to it, it’s very simple. All that’s required is a printer and some marginal self-awareness. As you “edit,” you only have ONE task. Sounds great, right?

Here are your steps:

  1. Put your manuscript in single-space formatting. This is so you’ll be less tempted to scribble on it and line edit. Sure, it hurts the ol’ eyeballs, but we all have to suffer for our craft sometimes.
  2. Print it out and pick a time when you can read it as you would any other book. This works best if you have a few solid chunks of time to really kick back and sink into it.
  3. Start reading. Consciously avoid trying to edit as you read. Try and read it like you would any other book.
  4. Have a pen in one hand. The pen is NOT for editing.
  5. Look at your own mind as your read. Your one job is this: Put a check mark in the margin whenever you feel yourself starting to drift, mentally. If you start thinking about the grocery list, or what you’re doing this weekend or sinking into a mire of self-loathing about how crappy your manuscript is, or whatever, put a check. That’s it, that’s all. Don’t even analyze it, just put a check mark.

Awesome. Now you have a manuscript with some check marks in the margins. And what does all that mean?

These are the parts of your book that are boring.

I’m sorry. Someone had to say it. But we can’t all be brilliant for 250+ pages, especially in the early stages of crafting a manuscript. Scenes run long. We lose the point of what we’re trying to say. We get more excited about crafting wonderful prose than actually accomplishing any action. Objectives disappear and are replaced by banter that may or may not be witty. Plot points go into hiding. Or maybe you’re just trying to make your 1,667 words for the day because it’s NaNoWriMo. (I’m on to y’all…) It’s OKAY.

With this largely hands-off read-through, you are identifying the parts of your story that need work. That are, let’s face it, a little boring.

The most important take-away is that, if even you can’t focus enough to read it, you can’t expect a reader to slog through. Simple as that. You have a vested interest in this manuscript. Nobody else does. (Yet.) If you’re boring yourself, you need to take a long hard look at those places. Usually the culprit is too much thinking/talking and not enough action. I have tons of plot-related posts you can check out to help beef up in that respect.

So who’s with me? Who’s excited to do a Boring Edit?

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This post was inspired by a question from Debbie B., one of my editorial clients, and her critique group. First person is great. A lot of people use it. It lends a sense of immediacy and accessibility to your work. The logic is that it’s easy to connect to a protagonist when you’re intimately involved in their interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). But first person POV has a lot of limitations. (Plus it’s overused, and some writers avoid* it because of how common it is.)

Not Being Able To Go Inside Another Character’s Head

Perhaps the biggest character-specific limitation is that you don’t have access to anyone else’s interiority. In close third person, you don’t really, either, but in omniscient third person, you can “head hop” to your heart’s content and access any number of characters. First person limits you. For example, you cannot say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, feeling annoyed.

Since Susie is not our protagonist, we can’t now her inner landscape. So how do you get around it? Instead, you can say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, annoyance in her voice.

Or you can put the emotion in dialogue:

“Ugh, I don’t know, okay?”

Or you can venture a guess like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, as if I’d asked the most annoying question ever.

Or like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, and she was probably still mad at me for being late.

It’s up to you how much to use these techniques. I would suggest to limit the guessing and let Susie’s action and dialogue tell the story. The hard and fast rule is that the one thing you can’t do is tell the reader what’s actually going on in Susie’s head. That crosses POV lines.

The Protagonist Having to Be Present

The biggest plot-related problem with first person POV is that your protagonist has to be around for everything. Dagnabit! But, they are the narrator. So if they’re not there when the murder weapon is found and planted in their locker, they can’t narrate it. So the reader can’t find out about it. And it doesn’t get on the page.

How do you get around this? I’m less able to prescribe a solution because a lot depends on what you need to narrate. Here are some common workarounds, though do be warned that some of these are cliché at this point:

  • Eavesdropping (they can overhear key information)
  • Clues (they can find clues to key information)
  • Direct confrontation (not everything has to be hidden, sometimes you’ll solve problems by revealing your secret sooner because the ramifications are actually where the drama is)

How else do you get around these issues? Are you grappling with any particularly hairy POV-specific questions? Leave some thoughts in the comments.

ETA: I didn’t meant that agents and editors reject a project just because it’s in first person, I meant that some writers avoid it and try third person because they don’t want to use such a common POV. I have to be careful about the word “reject”! Thanks, Chris!

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Having a literary agent is great. I’ve been one, and I hope it was a good experience for my clients. It was a wonderful, frustrating, humbling, and incredibly educational experience for me. The publishing game is not for the faint of heart! But thinking about agents always gets me thinking about expectations.

What will an agent do for you? What might an agent do for you if they have certain specialties? What is unreasonable to expect of an agent? First, I’d like to discuss what an agent won’t do.

What An Agent Won’t Do

It’s nice to want an agent you can get along with. Someone who answers your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. Finally, a publishing insider on your side! But is this reasonable to expect? I see a lot of writers wishing for a BFF relationship with their representative. And I understand this impulse. But you have to remember that your agent is your business representative. They are not really around to answer all of your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. In fact, if you make the mistake of treating an agent as a best writing friend, you may drop on their priority list. I’ve seen many agent/client relationships go south because the writer didn’t understand professional boundaries.

The best agent for you may not be the funniest agent on Twitter. Or the one with the best blog. At the end of the day, you want an agent who is going to sell your work and get you favorable terms for your primary contract and any subrights that get sold. Yes, this is a little less “love connection” than a lot of people are dreaming of. That’s okay.

Agents are also not editors. While some do heavy editorial work, it behooves you to approach an agent with a polished, professional manuscript. Agents do not get paid to polish up their clients’ work. They sometimes do it because polished work sells more frequently and (sometimes) for more money. So if they see it as a good investment of their time, they will work with you. But to expect it is unreasonable. If you want to submit with a rock solid manuscript, it’s often in your best interest to partner with an experienced critique partner or developmental editor. I’m not just saying that because I am one, but it’s important to note that even agented writers use me for help with manuscripts that their agents say aren’t quite ready yet.

Agents get paid when they sell books and subrights. That’s it and that’s all. If I was looking for an agent for myself, I’d rather have one who is sitting at their desk right now, selling and negotiating and reviewing contracts, than one who is slogging through draft three of someone’s picture book essentially on spec (because the book hasn’t sold yet and there’s no guarantee it will). The more an agent sells, the more experienced they are at their core competency, and the more they may go on to sell–for all of their clients.

It may come as a surprise to some but not all that an agent is not, for the most part, paid to read the slush, full requests, or even client submissions. Most agents do this outside of their workday, which is spent meeting with editors, pitching things, traveling to conferences, and negotiating deals.

What An Agent Might Do

All this being said, an agent will probably ask you to make editorial tweaks because they have a clearer sense of what the marketplace is buying and what kind of pitch will work. Dystopian manuscripts, for example, are pretty heavily trafficked. So they might ask you to tone down on the dystopian element and bring up the volume on the romance. This is the sort of editorial work that is reasonable to expect. Some agents go above and beyond, offering very detailed notes, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Writers also ask if an agent will help them market their work. This, apparently, is a rather controversial topic. I was surprised to hear that people expect agents to do their marketing for them, but I suppose this way of thinking makes sense. An agent will very likely shout about your sale and/or release from the rooftops, but this is a matter of personal promotion as much as it is a matter of helping you out. If you have an agent who is proactively doing some marketing on your behalf, you are lucky. But it is not really their job to do so. They’re likely doing it because they want to promote their deal-making prowess and sell some subrights.

Finally, many writers are surprised to learn that they’re probably not going to get flown out to NYC to have lunch with their agent as soon as the ink is dry on their representation agreement. In fact, some people never meet their agent in person. Only if the agent comes out to their city for a conference, or they happen to be in the agent’s city, will a meeting happily take place. Otherwise, most business is done over email and, occasionally, the phone.

What An Agent Will Do

By this point, I think you’re starting to realize what an agent’s job really is. It’s not to be your buddy. It’s not to be your therapist. It’s not to be your developmental editor. It’s not to be your PR person. It’s not to take you out to lunch. It’s to sell your rights on your behalf in a way that’s most advantageous to you.

In this regard, an agent is extremely valuable. They’ve likely negotiated deals (or their agency has) with every publisher and they’ve developed top notch contracts at each house. They likely have leverage. They likely know what they’re doing with that 30-page document that, to you, will read like legalese gobletygook. They’ll be able to help you navigate crucial business decisions that could impact your career for years.

This, in and of itself, is a whole lot of work. In my opinion, anything else you get is delicious gravy.

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An editorial client of mine wrote me this morning, just as I was wondering what I’d post on the blog. Her question, to paraphrase, was:

I see that my manuscript has a few flaws, some big, some small. But are they fatal flaws? Is it better to revise this manuscript or give up on it so that I can focus on something else that doesn’t feel quite so full of holes.

In other words:

Does this have a chance of getting published or should I place my bets elsewhere?

If this isn’t THE QUESTION, I don’t know what is! And, as you can guess, I love and I hate this question. I hate it because it’s, for the most part, impossible to predict which projects will sell to a publisher and which won’t. Which will, once they sell, go on to achieve commercial success, and which won’t. Even publishers don’t have the secret formula: most of the books that they pay advances on don’t earn out. Yet this is the question on every writer’s mind, and understandably so. Unfortunately, I can’t answer it with any degree of certainty because I don’t have a crystal ball. (If I did, you’d see my IP address coming from some island. Cuz I’d use it to play the financial markets and not hedge my bets on publishing, ha!)

But this noncommittal nonsense is NOT why you’re reading this post. So, while I have to say it, I won’t give you some fake half-answer and call it a day. I know what you’re really asking, and despite my caveat, I will tell you what I told my client, just in less specific terms because I likely haven’t seen your manuscript. If there are weaknesses to your manuscript that you or someone else has identified, or if it’s in a very crowded category (zombies, for example) and you just don’t know if you can make a dent, I would really dig in to the area that needs work. If it’s craft, read as many plotting/character/voice/whatever books as you can get your hands on. If it’s premise, start thinking of ways to make it stand out. (I wrote a post with some ideas here.)

While you’re at it, you will want to really take a long, hard look at everything that’s going on in the book. In fiction, one element informs the other, and so it’s pretty hard to untangle them and say, “This is the culprit, revise this and everything else will seem different, too.” Take all feedback you receive with a grain of salt, and make sure you do your own digging, too. Hint: If you have a hunch that something isn’t working, I can basically guarantee that you’re right. The majority of things I comment on in manuscripts are things the writer knows are an issue but has been avoiding fixing because the fix seems complicated, or they just don’t know how. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard, “Yeah, I thought so!” in response to an editorial note.

You know that I hate this question, but I said that I also love it. I love it because writers are asking it. That means they have the presence of mind to think critically about their own work. A lot of people don’t, believe it or not. Not any of you fine people who are reading craft articles in the pursuit of knowledge, that’s for sure. With you in mind, however, I will say this: It’s possible to be too critical and nip a good project in the bud before you give it adequate time to flower. We all want the certainty of, “If I spend six months on this manuscript, I will reap the rewards with a juicy book deal!” But it doesn’t work that way. If you’re an unproven talent, you have to do the work and put in the time long before anyone has heard of you or validated your efforts. So don’t get frustrated and quit too early, because any work you do on your WIP is good work. Is necessary work.

You don’t get any guarantees but revision is never a complete waste of time, either. Unless you know, without a doubt, that the manuscript is terrible and even your Mom has told you so, there is something to be learned from every revision effort. You can certainly speed up the process by getting qualified feedback (not everyone who has something to say about writing knows what they’re talking about, so only seek out the opinion of people you trust). And you can speed up your ability to do something with the feedback by reading about the craft.

There’s no way to say right now whether your revision will result in a manuscript that goes on to be published. I am NOT trying to dodge this all-important question when I say that. Either way, though, it will be worth it because I can say, categorically, that every writer has at least a few things to learn. Whether they’re for your current WIP or for your next idea or whatever’s after that, you will learn something and you will be able to use it to your advantage going forward. There’s an obstacle course in front of you, and I’d at least run it, even if you don’t get the outcome you want.

If this answer doesn’t seem right for you because you suspect your manuscript is flawed as all get-out, I recommend the following: Put it aside for three months (this is key, I promise, nobody will do it but it’s good advice), and work on whatever new idea is getting you excited. Then give it one last read anyway. Sometimes revision fatigue can blind us. You may find something there that’s worth working on. Or you may confirm your suspicion that you’ve written a manuscript only its author can love. Either way, you’ve given it one last look.

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I was working on a wonderful client manuscript last month and hit a patch of “Muddy Middle.” It happens. Quite a lot, actually. Now, this particular manuscript was a fantasy adventure where the kids went to another world. I decided to write about it because this is a popular premise that many people pick. (For advice on how to innovate a popular premise, check out a recent post here.)

What really slowed this particular manuscript down, and what I’ve seen many times before, is a lack of information about the world. This is completely understandable. Writers have been put off of “info-dumping,” perhaps even by yours truly. They don’t want to simply unload all of the necessary information all at once when the protagonist lands in the new world. The downside of this approach, however, is that it leaves the protagonist in limbo.

Where are they? What’s going on? What is the context of the world? What’s everyone up to? Why? These basic world-building questions go unanswered. And the entire plot of the story stalls because it has now become a quest for information. Plus, all of the characters are now withholding information from your protagonist.

If you find yourself using phrases like, “There’s much for you to learn but not now,” or something similar, your manuscript might have this issue. The characters in the other realm know about the world, but if they don’t tell your protagonist, or they stall, then the reader starts to wonder why. They feel jerked around. The characters desperately need to know certain things, and people’s refusal to tell them starts to feel arbitrary.

Imagine the following stalling:

“Who is Oz, the Great and Powerful?”

“You’ll find out all in due course.”

“What’s with all these monkeys? Did I hear something about a witch?”

“That’s a very long story. Just follow the yellow brick road and you’ll find out eventually.”

That’s not very satisfying, is it? So the protagonist wanders around, totally clueless about the world and the various elements operating within it. And the instinct is good. You don’t want to info-dump and you get to withhold information that will arrive with a big splash later. The reveal gets to become a plot point. But what about the actual plot? What about the things the protagonist wants and how they clash with what the antagonist wants? That is really where your action is going to be.

How do you remedy this problem? Leak information strategically. Believe it or not, the more information your protagonist has, the better. Many writers assume that leaving your reader with too little information will create a snazzy sense of mystery. It won’t. You should be volunteering key world-building information throughout, as the protagonist gets deeper and deeper into the story.

“You see, things aren’t always what they seem here.”

“There is a witch, and her deal is ABC…”

“The Wizard wants XYZ and you might be just the ticket…”

Once your protagonist knows certain things about the world or the story, they can operate with that information and further their agenda, which is likely in conflict with something going on in the world. That is really where you’re going to generate most of your tension. Information has some power to create stakes and surprise, but I’m of the opinion that what your protagonist does with information is much more powerful.

If you feel like you’re wading around in the Muddy Middle, ask yourself if the protagonist is chasing information. Then think about giving it to them, and using the reveal as a springboard instead of the end all, be all.

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The following article is written by Helena Echlin, a client of mine who wanted to share her experience with Inkshares, a crowdfunded publishing platform. As you know, I don’t often do guest posts, but I made an exception because I find this particular experience very interesting. While I haven’t done a lot of research on Inkshares and haven’t fully formed an opinion on this specific mode of getting a manuscript out to readers, I can’t help but acknowledge and be curious about the various platforms available to writers today. Consider pre-ordering SPARKED and enjoy!

unnamed-1 As you read this, I’m probably hitting the refresh button on my phone’s browser to check how many preorders of my novel, Sparked, I’ve sold. Or taking my five-year-old to a birthday party purely so I can hand out promotional bookmarks. Along with my co-author Malena Watrous, I’m working with a publisher called Inkshares—think Kickstarter for books—and ever since our launch on September 1, we’ve been obsessively selling preorders, even though our book has no publication date yet. Inkshares authors raise funds this way in order to subsidize the initial publication costs. Malena and I have both published adult novels with traditional publishing houses. How did we end up here?

Back in 2012, Malena had an idea for a young adult novel: what if that clique of mean girls in high school got superpowers? By the time we finished writing it, editors at traditional publishing houses informed us that the paranormal genre was “down-trending” in YA. But we quailed at the thought of self-publishing, which would take money—$5-10K—and require us to do everything ourselves, from copyediting to marketing.

Then we discovered Inkshares, a crowd-funded publisher based in Oakland. The gatekeepers aren’t New York editors, but readers, who care less about New York publishing trends than finding books they enjoy. These readers subsidize your initial publication costs by preordering your book. Sell 250 preorders, and you get light publishing. Sell 750 and Inkshares will do everything a traditional publisher does, including help with marketing and distributing the book into bookstores. You get a percentage of the profit that they say is better than what a traditional publisher would give you. And hey, they seem to be good at selling movie rights, so we can hope.

It seemed like the perfect fit, although crowd-funded publishing does have its own challenges. The biggest: how do you sell 750 copies of a book without a publication date? If the book doesn’t exist yet, people are not ordering a book so much as they are supporting your dream. Only people who know you want to do that, while strangers want to spend their $10-20 on a book they can have right away. Most of us have about 150 people in our network. Between the two of us we could sell 300, but that still left 450 total strangers to win over. One advantage we were lucky to have: we are both published authors already, so we didn’t have to convince people we can write a book.

After strategizing for months, here’s what we learned:

  1. Prepare your marketing materials. Minimum: a book cover, a website, the first few chapters of the book that are edited and ready to read. If you are a debut author it’s even more important to make these look professional. And if you’re going to persuade strangers to invest in your dream, then make your dream compelling. As well as the story itself, sell “the story of the story”—tell people who you are and why you wrote the book.
  2. Prime as many friends as possible to order on day one. People want to believe they really can help you realize your vision, which means they want to see you’ve got dozens of orders already. Email people individually to let them know day one is important. Your friends want to help you but your book could easily fall to the bottom of their to-do lists. This won’t happen if they put your launch date on their calendars.
  3. Segment your emails. Emails are more effective when you tailor them to specific groups. MailChimp is great for this. For instance, I sent an email to all my mom friends reminding them that Sparked was the book they’d heard me talk about at the playground so many times, and it’s a great escapist read for tired moms.
  4. Offer freebies. Your friends buy a non-existent book because they love you. Strangers want something more, so think of something to give them, preferably something that costs you little or nothing. In our case, it’s a free writing coaching session.
  5. Sell to friends of friends. Where strangers won’t buy, sometimes friends of friends will. Have people post about you on Facebook. Better yet, get your “Connector” friends to reach out individually to their friends.

We were incredibly grateful to get over 250 orders on the first day, so we’ll get “light publishing,” whatever happens. Many people kindly ordered the book simply they wanted to help us make our goal and we’d never have been able to sell them our teen thriller otherwise. Now we’re working on those remaining orders: 160 to go. Now, if only I had the willpower not to check that number every five seconds.

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SPARKED authors Malena Watrous, left, and Helena Echlin, right.

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There are no new stories in the world. I’m sorry, but there really aren’t. Every story ever told can be boiled down to archetypes. So where does that leave the story you’re writing right now? No, not in the trash can. Don’t worry! But, it does leave you with some work to do on that story if you want it to stand out.

In the last few months, I have had a lot of clients come to me and say, “Mary, I’ve written yet another boarding-school-for-wizards story. I know it’s probably not a great idea, but I can’t just not write this novel. It has gripped me. Yet the odds seem so high against a story that’s been done and done and done, maybe to death. What do I do?”

There are a lot of stories that would fit in this category of “overdone.” A lot of them happen to be “high concept” stories, instead of, say, contemporary realism. Examples: Birthdays that bequeath magical powers. Vampires. Dystopian worlds. Time travel. Apocalypses. Schools for those kids with magical powers. It’s not that these stories are bad, it’s that they were trendy at one point or another, and now the shelves are full of them. And for every one that’s published, there are probably a thousand more in manuscript form that didn’t make it past the agent or editor’s slush pile.

And yet there are still extremely well-meaning writers who want to toss their hats into these crowded arenas. And that’s okay. Now, some agents will flat out say, “No vampires. Don’t even try. I don’t want to see it.” And that’s okay, too. But I’m here to say that all hope is not lost just because you want to write in a familiar category.

So, how do you go about defusing that resistance you’re likely to encounter, and standing out? Well, the devil is in the details in your case. Truly. Let’s take everyone’s favorite dead horse: vampire books. (Though it has been so long since the Twilight days that you may be able to sneak one in at this point.) The biggest mistake that people make when writing in a familiar category is that they don’t innovate. They take for granted that everyone knows the basic deal about vampires, and they don’t even think to build on that or turn it on its head.

Since you’re smarter than that, dear reader, I really want you to think about what could make your vampires, or the world they operate in, unique. And instead of being more general about it, be specific. Design all of their powers from scratch. Maybe these vampires can only recharge on the blood of those with a certain virus that makes them vulnerable. Some poor people have this virus naturally. Other unfortunates catch it. Criminals are injected with it and pawned off as vampire fodder to keep the beasts away from the more desirable members of the population. Now you have a slight dystopian tinge to your vampire story. And your protagonist, lo and behold, comes from a family tasked with keeping the vampire menace at bay. Then he’s in a terrible hovercar accident (another specific detail of the world-building) and ends up…catching the virus that makes his a prime vampire target. Now his family turns their backs on him because they cannot be seen as vulnerable, etc. etc. etc.

This is literally the first thing that came to mind, but I was trying to establish a world and a spin on the familiar vampire story. What I’ve tried to do here is come up with specific details about the world, a new twist on how vampires function, and something interesting and high stakes that will provide plenty of plot fodder for the story.

If you find yourself working on a familiar-sounding premise and worrying that it looks like everything else that has come before it, this is the thinking you must be doing. What is unique about your idea? If it’s a kid with powers, how specific and interesting can the powers get? If it’s a school for wizards, what world-building details will make it stand out? Don’t just have them go to the same boring classes and do the same boring training exercises. What else can be part of the curriculum? What can you bring to your chosen genre that will turn it on its head?

Don’t be lazy. Treat your vampire or wizard or love triangle or sorcery summer camp like nobody has ever heard of such a thing before. Forget everything you’ve ever known about mermaids and unleash your imagination, populating your water-based world with creatures and details and magical rules that set new boundaries. Free yourself from the conventions of the genre and take some risks.

Yes, you may have a harder row to hoe, and you may get bounced by your dream agent because they have five other similar projects already. So a certain level of psychological preparedness should happen on your end. And yes, you’ll have to take some care when pitching the project. But you don’t have to abandon ship.

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