by Ellen Buikema
Touch is a basic human need. It’s the first sense we develop and our first social interaction at birth.
The Power of Touch.
Imagine walking barefoot through a forest. The softness of moss between your toes, the cool slime of mud, the pokes and scratches of pine needles, sticks, and stones.
Think of the kitchen and the intense heat of the oven. Remember kneading and punching bread dough, making deep indentations in the mixture, releasing stored aggression on the dough. (Good therapy.)
Touch has two different systems, factual (location, movement, and pressure) and emotional. Both types are used in writing.
Sensory Writing Practice:
Close your eyes and pick something up.
- Describe how the object feels.
- What are its features?
- Does it have crevasses?
- Is it heavy or light?
- Wide or narrow?
- Smooth or rough?
- Squishy or hard?
- Solid or springy?
- Write about your experiences with the sensation of touch.
These details will help bring a reader deeper into the story.
Writing Touch in Different Genres
Touch in Horror
Remember playing a game where you put your hand into a box and try to guess what’s inside by touch? Or perhaps experience the Boca de Veritas or Bocca della Verità? If you put your hand in the statue’s mouth and tell a lie, the bocca (mouth) will slam shut and bite it off.
Don't hesitate to include tactile sensations in your writing. Give us the slick, tackiness of blood between the antagonist’s fingers, the weight of the knife, the damp Spanish moss against her exposed skin as she lay on the forest floor. Let us feel her excitement, panic, elation, whatever emotion she is feeling, and draw us deeper into the story.
“She approached the couple and watched them for a moment. They looked pathetic, writhing down there in the sand and fumbling at each other’s clothes like desperate, love-struck teenagers. They disgusted her.
The male sensed her presence and turned to face her. She immediately noticed the fear behind his stubborn glare and it aroused her. Her scar throbbed and pulsated as she withdrew the knife from the sheath and dragged it across his throat. As the blade tore through flesh and sinew she once more heard the retort of the rifle, felt her cheekbone shatter. The blood poured from him just as the blood had spurted from the wound in the deer’s throat.”
― Stacey Dighton, The Hawk and the Raven
Touch in Humor
Slapstick is a visual art, born in ancient Greece and Rome as mime and pantomime, and successfully used on the big screen as in this example, Make ‘Em Laugh from Singing In The Rain.
Slapstick in Prose
“I jammed my key into the door lock and . . . And it wouldn’t fit. I tried again. No joy. Half-panicked, I ran to each of the others, but every single one of the locks was out of commission. I was going to bust out a window, but checked the car’s ignition through it first. It had been packed with what looked like chewing gum. The Munstermobile had . . . Had been sabotaged. With gum and superglue. It was a trick I’d had Toot and company play on others more than once. And now what I had done to others had been done unto me at the damnedest moment imaginable. ‘Aggggh!’ I screamed. ‘I hate ironic reversal!’”
― Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files: Cold Days
Touch in Romance
Touch is crucial when writing romance. When writing a physical scene in a romance novel, don’t forget that touch is a two-way street. They are both feeling something.
Let your characters feel the goosebumps on each other’s skin, how the palm senses the texture of their hair, the sensation of lips touching. Minor details like the gliding of bedsheets or the touch of the sultry night air are essential to writing a good love scene.
“Love should feel like the first time you gallop a horse flat out. It should make your blood sing. It should terrify you. And some part of you should recognize it the first time you meet the other person’s eyes.”
— Audrey Coulthurst, Of Fire and Stars
Whether it’s the sting of a skinned knee, the wind tearing your eyes as you fly down a mountain on skis, or butterfly kisses on your cheek, touch provides a deep human need. Tactile sensory information draws your readers into the story.
Resources for further reading:
How do you approach the tactile elements in your writing? Do you have any examples of writing using the sense of touch you’d like to share?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.
by Lisa Hall-Wilson
I am frequently asked how to write a verbal disclosure of trauma in fiction. So, usually one character has a trauma backstory they’ve never told anyone about, and at some point in the story, they decide they need to share that history with someone. This is such a courageous and difficult thing to do in real life, right. I mean, lots and lots of people suffer trauma and often the quickest route to healing is to talk about what happened – often more than once.
This is so individual, there isn’t really a roadmap or set of instructions I could create. Rather, I’ve come up with some food-for-thought questions you can ask yourself and/or your character that will hopefully help shape the emotions, internal dialogue and internal conflict of this moment in your story.
Why Have They Kept Their Secret?
The answer to this question is likely one you’ve already built into your story. Most writers have given thought to this. But to take it a step farther, get curious about how time and place affects the character’s decision to disclose. Is this a taboo topic?
I once interviewed a nurse doing volunteer work in Cambodia years ago. She had a patient complaining of intense chest pains, shortness of breath, exhaustion. She did a physical exam and couldn’t find anything wrong. The nurse began asking questions – does the pain get worse with activity? Has the pain gotten worse over time? Finally, she asked what the patient was thinking about when the pain always started. The woman said, my baby.
Her infant had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. Those who showed any emotion during the killings were killed themselves, and the nurse observed that as a society no one spoke of what had happened. The woman didn’t have a name for her grief, didn’t have any outlets, and it was only safe to disclose what had happened to a foreigner.
The reason why the character kept their secret shows the reader the stakes involved in disclosing. Historical context is important. For a woman to disclose she was raped at age 10 would be treated much differently now than twenty years ago than two hundred years ago. Also consider shame/guilt, fear, confusion and an inability to trust their memory or their emotions. One or all of these things may influence the character’s decision to stay quiet.
Who Does The Character Choose To Share Their Secret With?
This is a super important question to ask yourself. Why does the character choose that person to disclose this most personal of secrets to? What you need this scene to accomplish is vital to making this scene have the emotional punch you’re probably looking for. Set aside your fears of being melodramatic, swing for the fences emotionally. Beta readers can help if you’ve gone too far, but more often than not we pull up short and the emotion deflates like a pathetic balloon zipping around the room.
When choosing someone to disclose to, we’re usually looking for someone who is trustworthy (they’ve kept past secrets maybe?), who is transparent (their reaction can be predicted, counted on to be honest), who will offer support and not judgment, who will empower the one making the disclosure. All this is what makes someone SAFE.
Build into the story the character observing or knowing all these things about the other person. Show this through interactions and subtext. Show this is someone worthy of this level of trust, so it makes sense that this person is chosen to hold this secret.
But now, what if the character has misjudged this other person? What if that other person isn’t as safe as they presumed? Or their reaction is completely out of line with what was expected? You can make your character an unreliable narrator if needed, or even just make them blind to what’s really going on. Let the reader lean in and feel the tension, knowing this is not going to go the way the character expects/needs it to. Or, have the reader be blindsided right alongside the character, they find out as the character does that this person isn’t safe.
Why Is Your Character Disclosing This Secret NOW?
There are a few common reasons people choose to disclose such a secret, particularly one that’s been kept quiet for many years. Why your character is choosing to disclose is super important for the reader to understand, because it speaks to the stakes involved. What is being risked?
Validation is one reason people disclose past trauma.
This happened to me and it was wrong and it shouldn’t have happened/been allowed, kind of idea.
The character is looking for someone to be on their side, to have their back.
The next question is why they feel they need that support right now. What’s changed? What’s different? What’s causing the fear or lack of security? What would it mean to them to have this moral support?
Some people hold onto their secrets until they see that others are being harmed or may be harmed.
If it was only them, it wasn’t worth fighting for, but they won’t let what happened to them happen to anyone else.
Some people make what feel like irrational decisions to those who don’t know about the trauma past: isolation, abandonment of relationships (even if completely unrelated to the trauma), dropping out of school, moving cities, divorce, etc. This could tie into needing moral support or validation.
Seeking help or tangible support
Sometimes people feel they have to disclose because they’re in crisis, they feel they’re in danger, have been left without means or shelter, etc.
Know their WHY and what they’re risking by disclosing. This character will have spent a lot of time (most likely) thinking through the inevitable common questions they’ll be asked and will have an answer for them, such as why they haven’t said anything until now. They will probably have given thought to why they’re disclosing face to face instead of through a letter or over the phone. The where and when details will usually be considered in advance. This could be a spontaneous disclosure, but usually for serious trauma it’s something the character has perhaps obsessively analyzed.
The character who isn’t absolutely sure of positive support may get stuck in analysis paralysis.
Internal Dialogue And Disclosure
Do you see how much will be on the mind and heart of someone about to disclose past trauma? This won’t be something they’re emotionally objective about unless your goal is to show dissociation or emotional numbing (maybe the character has voted certain emotions off the island because they’re too painful or overwhelming).
The whole body will echo the inner tension of this disclosure. Their body language will likely be protective, they may struggle to make eye contact, their voice may stay very quiet or they might stumble over their words.
But their internal dialogue will be exploding with the what ifs and why they musts. The voices in their head will be clamoring for attention, and among the objections will be voices convinced that this has to happen. We FEEL emotions, we don’t often think about them, so the emotions will be shown in body language. Use the character’s thoughts to show their doubts, fears, whys and musts.
Will you have a character disclosing a secret in your story? Why do they feel they MUST tell this secret?
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Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog, Beyond Basics For Writers, explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers.
She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view.
by Kris Maze
Writers often set New Year's Resolutions to write more or to be more productive and I am not an exception. Some plans may not have turned out as productive as I would like. Maybe it was unexpected changes at work or writer's block, but I was not feeling up to writing over this winter month. Then over the holidays I spent some down-time with family and learned a new skill: knitting.
My mother uses her TV binge-watching time to knit blankets. Blankets. Plural. I am blessed with an industrious mother, who is also an entrepreneurial expert. She bought me a circular knitting circle and colors my kiddo would love and set me to work.
My Initial Conundrum
But I have writing to do!
And 2022 planning and manuscripts to read and blogs to post.
My to-do list goes on and on (as every writer's does), but ultimately I gave in. I was hypnotized by the click-clack of the needles and the softness of the yarn. I wanted the soft warmth over my knees as I crafted the blanket strand by strand.
Brain science supports learning a new skill because we gain neuroplasticity or the ability of our brains to regrow and reorganize. From learning and being outside our comfort zone. Testing this boost-the-brain theory, I dove into my new task and poked my way into a messy lane of knots.
9 Story Writing Tips I Gleaned From Knitting
Spinning a yarn is a phrase that has been around for centuries. The phrase has been synonymous for knitting together fishing nets while telling one heck of a tale. The idea of how knitting is similar to writing is not new, but new to me. It also helped me to move forward on my writing project when I was less than motivated. Perhaps it can motivate you as a writer, too.
1. Learning a skill is easier when watching a master in person.
Having someone at your elbow helps when you get stuck. And when learning something new, it is highly likely to run into a few snags. In writing, we can find our plot isn't working or we need help with characterizations. Luckily, we have many resources available to help us get unstuck. Try these if you need to find writer masters to help you.
- Writing groups online and critique groups
- Writing organizations. Check your local library and writing organizations for your genre and type of writing.
- Classes! I am taking an immersion course with Margie Lawson. Squee! We are never in the position to not learn more. Litotes, anyone?
- Amazing blogs like Writers in the Storm where writers can access professional tips and inspiration 3 times a week. For free! Spread the work, writer peeps!
Being in a group can benefit you, but you will also find that your experience can help others as well. Share your own talents and give back to your writer friends. Reading in a critique group or helping another writer with a computer issue can validate and energize your own writing. Be are part of your writing community and see where it takes you.
2. Start with the basics.
There are knitting masterpieces and there is the single loop technique I am trying to master. After nearly 11000 of these simple loops, you have a warm, unique, handcrafted blanket that you can share. A hundred thousand more, and then you can try a different technique.
In knitting, I started with a solid rectangle. No sleeves or fancy schmancie patterns. I needed to just get the loops and rhythm. I needed to find my groove.
We do this with writing as well. It is so simple, but not easy to get words on the page. Keep up a good writing habit and don't stress too much about the quality of the first draft. First drafts are all notoriously bad. Getting the words onto the page is a success.
We can quiet the inner editor and work with the words we have written. Keep it simple and keep writing. However you feel, keep going your next page is just a few words away.
3. Consistency and Planning are keys to making a successful blanket and to finishing your novel.
The Rule of 4 can help writers maximize their writing time. Studies show that even the most amazing of humans can only focus at a high level for about 3 to 4 hours a day. That’s it.
So, given that we are mostly amazing humans with the ability to laser focus for under the time I would prefer to take a nap, how and when you spend that focus time can make a difference in how productive your writing life is.
Using the Rule of 4 with your time
Candy crush may be a good mental release, but is it getting your full attention your writing life could?
Is another hobby or activity eating up your attention? Writing? Social Media? Knitting? (hee hee) How are you using your 3 to 4?
I prefer to get my hours in during the morning when my mind is the most fresh. It also hasn’t had time for the daily grind to assault my mental energy yet. I try to keep it from draining my most quality focus time.
The same goes for writing time
How much time does it take you to write a page? To create a scene? Do you spend more time in worldbuilding? Or do you like to dig into the minutia of deep editing? Find out what your writing habits are and keep track of the time you need to compete a project.
Keep your laptop or notebook nearby.
Have your work space physically where you can see it. If your computer is next to your TV, you are reminded to dig into your manuscript before watching that enticing mystery. It is commonly said, you can’t edit an empty page. The process of writing gets smoother the more you make it a habit. Keep your writing near by in part of your life to complete your project sooner.
Calculate the time you need
In knitting, you plan. A lot. You figure out how many scans you need and find out how many rows it makes. You need to know how big a blanket you need and purchase the right amount of materials. In writing, you can estimate how many words you write per minute.
One of the valuable lessons I learned participating in Nanowrimo was how many words per minute I wrote. By watching this statistic over the month, I saw when I wrote more and took mental note of my patterns. It also motivated me to make that number a little faster by focusing harder when I had a writing sprint. A bit of the chicken or the egg situation, being aware of my rate of writing kept me focused and increased my output.
If it takes you 45 minutes a day to write a couple pages or a scene, how many days will you need for a chapter? How many chapters will complete your novel? Plan for the time and watch your project grow.
4. Use the right tools and prepare for back ups.
While knitting, one of our circle needles broke. As it unhinged, the blanket it held together sat in peril as we rubber-banded the thread to keep it from unraveling. We rushed to the store and bought a fairly inexpensive second set of needles.
When has that happened to you when writing?
If you said never, you are one of those lucky ones we all love to hate! Everyone has lost a file or accidentally erased something important.
Writing takes time and we want to have backups to protect our work. Knowing where your work is located and having a easy-to-follow filing system will alleviate writer stress during your project.
I am guilty of this. I am setting up a new computer and trying to take a more focused approach to create my filing system. It is better than the I’ve-got-it-somewhere approach that I used to use. Using the find feature often isn’t the best plan, but it was my go-to under my old system.
How can you better prepare for the unknown and unexpected?
5. Fixing Flaws
So, you may have a manuscript that is in a solid first draft. It is time for another look-over. Let’s say you figure out during this second review that your protagonist is too lackluster. Or perhaps you figure out a better fatal flaw that ups the stakes and makes your story soar.
It takes unraveling to do this. Sometimes it is better than having a knit blanket with a hole. Sometimes it only takes an extra stitch to fix. You decide, but be sure to fix those flaws, or you will leave your reader feeling cold.
6. Starting over!
Sometimes the project is a total loss. Unravel the string and enjoy the satisfaction of pulling that thread. It will go faster the second time writing your story and it will give your mind time to edit as you go.
It’s never a total loss. And like in knitting, the threads unravel but they remain to be knit back together again. This time with more intention and skill.
7. Plan your knitting or writing time.
If you struggle with finding time to write in our busy world, try some of the suggestions in our recent post by Julie Glover. She has links and many suggestions to remember to be kind to yourself. We are into writing for enjoyment after all!
I have my knitting project in our TV room. It is something to keep my hands busy and my mind relaxed when watching something I am not exactly interested in. (Monday night football? Only if it's my favorite team!) Before I know it, I'll have half a blanket and a new plotline worked out over the course of a few winter nights.
8. Set a deadline.
When do I want to gift this blanket? My mother wanted to finish before she left on a plane. She had no desire to haul it through an airport and to be questioned by the TSA. She finished 2 projects during her stay, along with many other moments of quality time.
Make writing your priority by setting your daily goals to finish the larger project. Even if you don’t hit your mark exactly, you can recalibrate your goals and celebrate the progess you have made on your Work-In-Progress.
A helpful tool
If you struggle with time management here is one strategy for making time to finish your work. The 4-step Eisenhower Matrix of Time and Task Management, which aligns tasks by importance and urgency, has helped many professionals make priorities and increase productivity. It may help you become a more prolific writer as well.
In order to do the most important work with efficiency, this WWII president’s method focused on the following criteria:
The decision-making process goes like this:
- Is it urgent and important? Do it right away.
- Is it important, but not urgent? Put it on the schedule and get it done soon.
- Is it less important, but urgent? Hire it out or delegate the work to someone else.
- Is it unimportant and not urgent? Cut it from the list and focus on what is important.
This matrix can keep a writer when the decisions they make are overwhelming. Writing is both business and art. One strategy that helps with the business side is to find others to share the work.
For tasks that must be done, consider getting help for tedious tasks you hate. For example, other artists may love to put together social media campaigns or format a book. It is worth the money to have it done right. Consider a task swap if it is cost-prohibitive. You may know someone who excels at book blurbs. Perhaps they could beta read your book and give you a concise blurb for your cover.
Do you have someone in your family or friend circle who supports your writing and can help with some of the writing tasks? Call in a favor and maybe give them a free book in exchange.
Consider hiring extra help. We don't need to be experts in all aspects of our author life. Delegating tasks can free you up for the most important task: writing.
9. Have an audience in mind.
Have an audience in mind. Writers know to always have their audience in mind. In a similar way, I thought about who I planned to give this blanket to.
When knitting, this takes planning. From which colors and textures go with the person’s room, to making it the right size to go over their couch or guest bed. Find the personalized touches that will make them swoon with amazement. Do this with a story and create loyal readers who will share your book with others.
Here is my work in progress!
I am merely a novice, but I am enjoying this new hobby. It helps me focus and regenerate energy. It helps me to see progress that shows up row by row. Just like… words in a document.
Next is one of my mother’s creations. Warm and cozy and a perfect pair for this adorable bear.
Here are some questions to explore.
- How do you want your audience to perceive your novels?
- Are you meeting the expectations of your readers?
- Are there parts of the work you can use later (ex: character quotes, deleted scenes) for social media or on your website?
Know what your readers want and make to those specifications. It will build a loyal audience who will willingly spread the word about your novels.
Check out the recent post by Kathleen Baldwin for more ideas on how to connect with your audience and fulfill their expectations.
Writing is one part of our lives, but it filters into other things we try as well. What interests do you have outside of creating the next great novel? What hobbies do you do that inspire your writing? Tell us in the comments below!
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Kris Maze is an author, writing coach, and teacher. She has worked in education for many years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and the award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. You can find her horror stories and keep up with her author events at her website.
A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors with her family.
And occasionally, she knits.
Photos and visuals created by Kris Maze using Canva.
by Jenny Hansen
I started January with something a little different this year: a workshop about goals. I have a confession to make... I struggle to meet my own goals. Constantly.
Notice I said "my own goals." I am aces with outward-facing goals. Work projects, family projects, Writers In the Storm three days a week. I nail those suckers. But my own goals tend to fall far behind the rest of my life's commitments. Perhaps this happens to you too.
This month's goals class delved into two things that gave me "a-ha moments" of epic proportions.
Let me explain...
Two Phrases That Sparked Change
The class began with the instructor saying: "Joy. Progress. Power. Fulfillment. Learning. Impact. These are the important qualities about goals."
(And then he got to the parts I really needed to hear. The magic is in easy-to-find blue font below.)
"Your brain is meant to solve problems, not just store a bunch of to-do's. You can’t get clarity while you’re mired in a to-do list."
If you’re inside the jar, you can’t read the label.
And that was my first "a-ha moment."
I have grand lists that I misplace or get overwhelmed by. Those lists often feel like running through molasses. No joy, slow progress, no fulfillment.
I think this is the true reason so many writers (especially slightly ADD writers like me) get procrastination paralysis on their projects. It's those huge to-do lists with no action plan. There is a how to some of these to-do's, especially big to-do's, that must be respected.
Organizing is a project as well and it takes time. And sometimes it helps to decide in advance what "done" looks like so you don't get lost inside that jar.
Perhaps we cannot really manage time - perhaps we can only manage priorities.
Think about a website. Perhaps the name of the goal is "Finish Website." But the actual goal looks more like this:
Give the Goal a Realistic Deadline.
Brainstorm a list of steps (this lets your brain solve problems):
- Make list of 6 Hex Colors
- Find complementary graphics - at least two, must be landscape, min size: 1200x800
- Build wireframe
- Research plugins
- Choose WordPress theme
- Choose fonts
The list is much larger than this, but there's no need to bore you with it. Organize those steps into sequential tasks. Schedule some time on your calendar. Work on them several times a week.
Here's a goal we can ALL relate to: "Finish Book" (or even "Finish Chapter [fill in the blank]")
Y'all know that's a terrible goal, right? Not only does it fail the SMART goal test, it's the kind of goal that's sure to send any insecure writer screaming from the page. At the very least, there will be questions like: Where do I start? How will I know when it is done?
If you have any hope of finishing something as big as a book, your list of goals has to be broken down into much smaller steps that might look something more like this:
Chapter 1 To-Do's
If you're a plotter...
- List out chapter goals
- List out characters needed onscreen to accomplish these goals
- List the problems that must be solved in this chapter
- Divide all this into 3-4 scenes
- Write them one at a time
- Repeat over multiple chapters
If you're a pantser...
- Schedule writing time
- Set out kitchen timer
- List at least two chapter goals
- Start writing (Note: timed sprints often work best for pantsers)
- Repeat over multiple writing sessions
Our friend Laura Drake is a pantser of the highest order, but she has an Excel spreadsheet of what happens in every chapter. She updates it as she goes along. She might not know everything about where she's going when she sits down to write, but she knows where she's been and it helps her move forward until she can fully see the story.
Plus, she knows the big secret of goal achievement: What gets scheduled gets done. If you set a habit of achievement in place, you will make progress on those goals.
Remember, when it comes to goals, PROGRESS = HAPPINESS.
Since achieving a goal or making progress releases dopamine in your brain, this one really is true. Setting yourself up for success is the best way to keep moving forward on your writing goals.
This LifeHack.org article , The Science of Setting Goals says it better than I do: "Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains, and we feel good."
When you set a goal and keep your word to yourself, your reward is a nice shot of dopamine. Woo!
And here was the second lightbulb moment for me:
Not breaking down my goals into manageable pieces hurts more than my work in progress.
When you don’t keep an agreement with yourself, it erodes your self-confidence and the ability to trust yourself and your own word.
In other words, it's highly expensive to your writing confidence to break your word to yourself. If you are scared or shamed about meeting your writing goals, you will get stuck. It's human nature. Plus, you don't get the lovely dopamine.
I had to take a break and a deep breath after the instructor dropped that bomb about keeping agreements with yourself. Because often, I just ...don't.
I'm so busy meeting the demands of others in my life that my dreams get shuffled to the back of the line. Instead of those dreams getting a luxury lakefront view, they're being relegated to the seat in the back next to the trash can for days or weeks at a time.
My dreams (and yours) deserve better treatment.
The Good News
If this breaking your word to yourself thing is a pattern, you can make the choice to put it behind you and move forward differently. The same as it does with our characters, a misbelief can create anxiety and procrastination. It can erode our confidence in ourselves.
When you keep your word to yourself, you are better able to keep it to others. In other words, prioritizing your goals helps the others in your life too.
Great mantras for all you Goal Chasers:
Where focus goes, energy flows.
What gets scheduled gets done.
FEAR = False evidence (that) appears real.
COURAGE = action in spite of fear.
It is not the stars that create light but rather light that creates the stars.don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
Go forth and embrace your light, y'all. I believe that every one of you has the power to illuminate the world through your writing.
What "a-ha moments" have boosted your writing confidence? Do you break your word to yourself or do you keep it no matter what? Please share your story with us down in the comments!
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By day, Jenny Hansen provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
by Lynette M. Burrows
I am an independent author-publisher. I love what I do. But there are things I wish I knew before I published.
I spent years learning how to write a story. Having listened to more than a few science fiction authors, I knew more than the average person about the book publishing industry. I tried the traditional publishing route. My two literary agents were superb at their jobs. They landed me a couple of “close but no thanks” responses from traditional publishers. Then, a friend urged me to go the independent route.
I did a great deal of research about traditional publishing vs. independent published. Finally, I decided independent publishing was best for me and my book. Despite all my research, there are many things I wish I knew before I published my book.
Today, I’ll share the big picture ones with you.
It's A Business
If you want to make money from your books, writing is a business. The choice between traditionally published or indie published is a business decision.
Use the resources of writer organizations like the Authors Guild or Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) to educate yourself on best practices. Here at Writers in the Storm, there are many posts to help you decide.
- John Peragine discusses Six Self-Publishing Considerations.
- Piper Bayard’s three-part series, Indie Publishing 101, is also very helpful.
The Business of Being Traditionally Published
The big 5 traditional publishers are relatively big business. But even traditionally published authors need some business skills.
For most traditional publishers to consider your book, you will need an agent. Here are some questions to ask:
- Which agents are best for you to query?
- Do you sign a contract? Or have a verbal agreement? Know the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Be very clear on what the agent will do for you. Make certain you understand the agent’s commission and charges.
- What if you or your agent decide to end your relationship? How do you do that?
- What happens to your books?
If the agent sells your manuscript, you will sign a contract with the publisher. Not all agents are savvy about contracts. Make sure you understand what contract clauses you should avoid. Know what rights you sign over to the publisher.
Understand what an advance is, what royalties are, and how to read your publisher’s royalty statements. Know what you will and won’t be able to influence during the publishing process. Be certain you can meet the deadlines. Know what your options are if you can’t.
I learned a lot about literary agents in my genre from author friends and from reading articles like What Is a Literary Agent? Pros and Cons of Hiring a Literary Agent by Masterclass.
The Business of Being Independently Published
An independent author-publisher is much more than decisions like: Do you want to make a profit or are purchases by friends and family enough? It's a business. The good news and bad news is that you will be CEO, CFO, COO, and worker bee all in one package. It’s a lot of hats to wear, but you are in control.
What are your business strengths and weaknesses? Does your local, regional, or federal laws require you to have a license? Choose a business model, an accounting method, and a tracking method. I wish I had understood tracking methods better before I published. You can learn as you go. As with most things in life, it will cost you time or money—and sometimes both.
Things I Wish I knew about Business
Among the things I wish I knew before I published is how to write and follow a business plan for authors. Better business skills would have helped me make better decisions. Better decisions may have translated to earlier success.
Investing in Your Business
Writing and publishing books is not a get-rich-quick type of business. A traditional publishing company bears the publishing cost. As an independent author-publisher, you do. The trad published author role is not without its own costs. There are trade-offs. Only you can decide what's best for you and your book.
Investing in Traditional Publishing
A traditional publisher will edit, proofread, and format your book. They will put a professional cover on it. It is rare for trad publishing to give an author a choice in those matters. But no money will come out of your pocket for these services. And you will have a professional-looking book in the end.
Some traditional publishers will advertise. Usually, they spend a lot more advertising dollars on authors who sell well (Steven King or JK Rowling, for example). Unknown or debut authors may wish to augment the advertising by their publisher.
Know if your contract allows you to advertise, go on a book tour, or to sell your books at conferences and conventions. You may get some complimentary author copies. Beyond those few, author copies will cost you. Typically, if a contract allows a debut author to do book tours and conferences, it’s on your dime. What are you willing to spend to help the publisher sell your book?
Investing in Independent Publishing
You can independently publish your book on a tiny investment. There are some authors who do their own formatting, editing, and make their own cover. Your book has a much better chance of selling well with professional level editing, covers, etc. All of those things cost from a little to a lot of money. Research the what type of editor you will need. Learn how to choose which professionals to hire. Know what you’re able to invest.
Know the average cost for editors and cover artists in your genre. Understand that on every platform, on each sale, you get a percentage or royalty. Platforms like Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing) don’t charge you to publish, but will charge a per product fee and potentially a delivery fee against your percentage of each product purchased. Other platforms, like Ingram Spark, charge a modest amount to publish or republish. If your book doesn’t sell, you may be responsible for the cost of returned books.
Things I Wish I Knew About An Indie's Investment
Investing in your author career wisely is another set of business skills. Having that set of skills would have made me feel more confident in my investment decisions. And it might have saved me a few dollars.
Learn about advertising online. You can advertise on almost any social media platform. They each have different costs, and different audiences. Most advertising gurus will advise that you do not advertise your first book. Readers will wait to see if you are more than a one-book-and-done author.
Know your numbers. How much did it cost to create your book? What price will you put on it? How much will you make on each sale?
I might have made a few different decisions if I’d known the details of things like how to track cost vs income and what that meant short term vs long term.
Things I Wish I Knew About Advertising
I was clueless about advertising. I'm learning, but it's a steep learning curve for me. You don't need a degree in advertising to be an indie author. But understanding basic principles of digital and print marketing would be helpful. Hiring someone who is better at it is an option, if you can afford it.
Everything Takes Time
There are hundreds of adages about time. Most of them express at least a modicum of truth. The time things take in the publishing world may shock the uninitiated.
It takes time to find the agent who loves your writing and will attempt to sell it. The agent requires more time to find an editor and publishing house that will buy your book. Contract negotiations can be quick or slow. The publishing house and editor will have other books they are working to publish, so your book may not get much attention for a month or more. Once the editor has thoroughly reviewed your book, they may ask for a revision. Of course, it takes time to revise a novel. Then you wait for the copy edited version. During all this, your editor and publisher will choose a cover artist and cover concept (they rarely give you a choice.) Then, you wait for the printing press to run your book. Next comes distribution and sales and eventually, if you’re lucky, earning out your advance and earning royalties. This can take years.
The independent author-publisher must do all the steps the publishing house and editor do the paragraphs above. It takes time. Some authors can produce a book in weeks as opposed to months or years. Some authors skip steps to speed the process. No matter what publishing decision you make, publishing a book takes time. Period.
A day-job will affect the speed of your process. Life can do that, too. Create deadlines with a cushion of time for those deviations in your plans. Experienced author-publishers may get by with a 10% cushion. The less experienced you are, the bigger the cushion you may need.
Your publisher will have a company wide publishing strategy and a publishing strategy for your book. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have a strategy. Part of your strategy is the choice to be published by a traditional publishing company. You will also need a strategy for your brand, appearances, social media, and advertising.
You need a publishing strategy that also includes brand, appearances, social media and advertising. Do you want to go wide (publish on more than one site) or exclusive with Amazon’s reading subscription service? Which is best for your genre?
Waiting until your trilogy is complete is one strategy. Rapid publishing is another. Have a strategic plan.
Decisions about what types of stories you write, cover design and what front and back matter to include are part of your strategy. Learn to write an effective book description. (Hint, it’s not a summary, and it isn’t like writing a book.) Choosing categories and keywords appropriate for your book is another piece of your strategy.
There isn’t a right vs wrong time to publish. Your book will never be perfect. You will never be 100% ready. Your book launch won’t be perfect. So when are you ready to publish? It’s your decision.
Independent author-publishers have advantages traditional publishers do not. You can push your publication date forward or back to a certain degree. Changing front and back matter, covers, even your manuscript are all possible when you are an independent author-publisher.
Things I Wish I Knew About Publishing Strategy
I wish I understood publish strategies better before I published my first book. Perhaps having a cohesive strategy to begin with would have strengthen my business from the beginning.
Delays Will Happen
The one thing you can count on in publishing is that there will be delays and problems. Publishers can’t get paper. Or your editor quits and no one else in house wants it.
Book seller sites don’t always load as quickly as they say they will. Or they’ve changed the rules or image sizes. Often, you will need to learn something you didn’t know you needed to know. Sometimes you’ll need to reload your book more than once. And pay the charges more than once.
An independent author-publisher can keep their book as is or pivot and go another direction. Change covers? Change the price? Change the blurb. All, and more, are possible. It requires knowledge of your genre and current book selling trends in order to choose the best path for your book.
Things I Wish I Knew About Delays
I don't think one can anticipate all delays and problems. I wish I'd known that even though distribution platforms like Draft to Digital charge fees for each sale (on top of the sales platform's fees), sometimes saving time is worth the extra cost.
There are a lot of pieces to being an independent author-publisher. Don’t let being overwhelmed stop you. Remember, everything in publishing takes time. Give yourself realistic expectations and deadlines.
If you are overwhelmed, decide on one thing you’ll do today. Give yourself a time limit for investigating that one thing.
Remember, the number one thing you must do if you want a career as an author is write the next book. You won’t have a business if you don’t have books to sell.
Wrong or Right?
There is not a right or wrong choice between traditional or independent. It’s simply a choice. Make the best decision for you and your books.
These big picture things I wish I knew before publishing my first book don’t make me regret my choice. Believe it or not, there are more things I wish I knew before I published. They are for a future post.
I love being an independent author-publisher. I enjoy being able to make all the decisions. I take ownership of my writing and publishing. Yes, I’m a control-freak. And I will continue to learn and grow, even when it’s hard. Even if I learn some things I will wish I’d known when I started.
There are challenges to both traditional and independent publishing. What do you wish you’d known earlier during your journey to be published?
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About Lynette M. Burrows
Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all show up in her stories. She writes thrilling science fiction about badass heroes and heroines.
Her series, The Fellowship Dystopia, presents a frightening familiar American tyranny that never was but could be. In Book One, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship way of life, and the deadly reality of rebellion. In Fellowship, the series companion novel, a desperate young man and his siblings hide in the mountains from the government agents who Took their parents. Book two of the series, If I Should Die, will be published in this spring.