Before I sold my first book I imagined it was like a train ride through an incredibly exciting world where I would breathe the rare air of the published. The possibility that there were going to be times when I stuck my head out the window and my lungs were filled with clouds of smoke from the coal burning engine never crossed my mind.
I didn’t have to wait around for these extremes, it happened with my first book. I went from the thrill of the sale to the reality of the business in less than a year. Prepared for a royalty check based on what a friend had made with her first book in this same category ($25,000), mine arrived missing three zeros. No mistake. Just a new formula for figuring the royalties.
Ten books later, my first “mainstream” for another publisher completely sold out within a week of publication, but never went into a second printing. It was a best seller all over Europe, made into a television movie starring Jane Seymour and James Brolin, but was never promoted in the U.S., not even as a movie tie-in.
The first book in my BEACH HOUSE series went into six printings. The second book, ANOTHER SUMMER, was published in December. Unsurprisingly, there were no reprints.
Ten books after making the switch from category I became the poster child for the numbers game and even though editors said they liked the completed book that was being passed around in NY, they could not make an offer. For me, it was back to category for one more book and then on to a new career.
I became a wildlife photographer. A good one. A successful one. And I loved it. More than writing—or so I thought.
Until the phone call. THE BEACH HOUSE was going to be reprinted, along with ANOTHER SUMMER. And did I have any ideas for a new book? I did. Eventually there was a third book in what is now considered THE BEACH HOUSE SERIES. A fourth book and novella are under contract.
This time around I haven’t given up my day job. I’m still taking pictures of baby polar bears and loving every minute of it.
The author of more than a dozen books, including The Beach House series Georgia Bockoven is a writer and photographer. Learn more about her at georgiabockoven.net.
As of today, there are over 200,000 books with ‘On Writing’ in the title. The majority of them are on ‘craft’, the techniques and tools that make a book work—character, plot, style. The rest of the books are along the lines of ‘How to Write Bestsellers in Your Spare Time’.
This book is different. It evolved out of a discussion among six highly experienced authors on ‘What I wish I’d known before I signed my first contract’. We realized that we had insights, gathered from years in the trenches of authorship, on what it is like not just to write, but to be a writer. It’s a lonely profession and it can be difficult to find quality advice about issues beyond the nuts and bolts. This book is more of a first aid kit than a tool box.
Whether you are just starting out or experienced, there are issues that arise in a writer’s life that few other people know or understand. Some of them are unexpected, from ‘Why doesn’t my family read my books’ to the ‘I’ve sold a book freak out’. Between us, we have over 125 titles and about as many total years of publishing. We know about a thousand people in the business so if we haven’t had a particular experience, we know someone who has dealt with it.
It is our hope that this book will be something you can return to often as your career, your life, progresses and changes, dipping into it as needed. We expect to update it from time to time, to bring you fresh information and insight gained from our on-going professions. Living as a writer, as opposed to making a living as a writer, is complex and often can go seriously askew. With this book, we hope to offer some guidance on how to navigate these waters successfully.
Cynthia Bailey Pratt
PART I: LIVING WITH “THE CRAFT” and REMEMBERING “HOW TO…”
GETTING TO “GO”
Choosing the Right Starting Point for Your Novel
By Terese Ramin
You’ve always wanted to write a novel, a memoir, a biography; the problem is where to begin?
Logic suggests starting at the beginning, but every story has many beginnings, often going as far back as I was conceived in a bomber over Brazil. The question then becomes, which story am I telling and to whom do I plan to tell it and what is my purpose for writing this story — or:
1. Purpose – why am I writing this story Answering the above questions goes a long way to helping a writer decide where to open a book or story because not all beginnings are created equal.
2. Audience – for whom am I writing this story
3. Occasion – what do I hope to accomplish by writing this
It’s a sad fact that a huge number of first books open with an information dump instead of at a point that draws the reader in and makes him/her want to keep reading. Some of the information may be necessary for the story, but most of it is research or background information about the characters that can be filtered in later—doled out in bits and pieces like treasure. This often means that the real start of a book is chapter three or four, where the action starts or the main characters meet or the plot’s inciting incident occurs. That “inciting incident” or the thing that makes the book start and head in the direction it’s supposed to is key not only to writing a great book, but to writing a book that will sell.
Another way to decide “where to begin” would be to make sure you understand the genre and sub-genre into which your work fits. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define “genre” as the main marketing category into which your book fits (romance, suspense/thriller, mystery, women’s fiction, science fiction/fantasy, horror, paranormal, etc.) In other words, if you’re in a bricks and mortar bookstore, you can find the various “genres” by looking at the signs over the various sections of that store.
“Subgenre” breaks down a category even further, getting more specific and reaching a more defined cross-section of readers: romantic suspense, cozy mystery, urban fantasy, romantic women’s fiction, science fiction romance, paranormal romance, etc. The more you cross-pollinate between genres, the more specific a book’s niche and audience (urban fantasy–romantic suspense, for example).
If you’re writing a personal memoir that will only be read by you and perhaps an heir or two, begin wherever you like because the only reader you need to please is yourself. But if that memoir may also be read by a wider range of family and friends or will be published by a local museum as part of the area’s historical background it immediately becomes more important to choose an opening that will intrigue them as well, drawing them into the story you’ve chosen to tell in order to give them the information you want them to have.
Once your purpose is to write for an even larger and more commercial audience, however, everything changes drastically. Then you have far more people to intrigue, and that audience will invariably be more difficult to catch and keep intrigued. You’ll not only need to please yourself, but also a wide variety of readers, up to and including agents and editors if you choose to take a traditional publishing path.
At this point it becomes all about knowing your target audience.
If you know your genre and subgenre (for example: contemporary romance>contemporary romantic suspense>international thriller), then you have a place to begin doing some homework to find out how other books in this group are started. You can do this by reading the kind of books you want to write, by walking into bricks and mortar bookstores and perusing the shelves for your category, or by downloading sample chapters to your e-reader to take a look at a wider variety of first pages and/or chapters. And if you want to write for a specific publisher, peruse that publisher’s online catalogue for the type of books you write, find out if you fit that publisher’s “tone” and target audience.
Which brings us to occasion, or “what do I hope to accomplish by writing this book?”
Whether you’re at the start of a potential career in writing or you’re already established and have a fan base for your work, you definitely need to know the answer to this question when beginning to write any book.
Writing for publication means understanding both your audience and your market, but it also means understanding what you-the-author want to gain. Are you writing to entertain, to educate, to make money—or to get down a story about which you feel passionate whether or not you’ll ever find an audience for it or make money from it? Knowing the answers to these questions helps an author decide both how and where to open a book.
Always remember that background information that seems vitally important to the telling of a story often isn’t. The key to a good beginning is to start where the book starts, not where you think the story starts. Get in fast, grab your readers, and don’t let go until the end.
WRITING RITUALS AND ROUTINES
By Sandra Kitt
I don’t think I was ever a great one for routines, whether it’s in my personal life, or maintaining order and consistency in my career as a novelist. If I’ve done something once, I don’t want to do it the same way a second time. I want to push the envelope, try something new, take the road less traveled, if you will! I actively look for ways to change things up, make it different, opening the possibility of learning something new. Having said that, I have also learned that there is a place for routine when it serves a purpose. In the case of a writer it’s getting the book done!
When I first began writing my ideas were coming fast and furious. I had no sooner come up with a concept then I realized the idea was full blown. That is, the entire story seemed to have appeared in my head even though I may not have known, in that moment, who all the characters were or if there was a theme. I only had to write the beginning down and fill in all the details: scenes and transitions, dialogue, conflicts, plot twists, and finally resolution. This seemed to work magically for more than a dozen books. Then I eventually realized it was becoming harder to maintain all those characters and their stories in my head. For one thing each of my stories got progressively more detailed, and more complicated. It was becoming harder to keep the stories straight, and harder to remember.
I next developed the routine (ritual) of first writing a synopsis of the story...............................
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