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The Harder They Come: Writing Woes

Those who follow this blog know that I've been slacking on entries lately, because I wrote two books back-to-back January-April.

The second book, (FUZZY NAVEL, Jack Daniels #5) kicked my ass. I've never agonized over a book like this before. I fretted about plot. I worried about construction. I second-guessed tone. And while I was never blocked, my daily output was much slower than average--about half of what I can usually do.

Part of the problem had to do with writing one book right after another book, without any brain break in between. It was harder than I thought. My hat is off to writers who can write THE END and then immediately start on the next book. I'm not sure I'd attempt it again.

Part of the problem also had to do with the structure of FUZZY--it takes place in real-time, over an eight hour period. There are two POVs in first-person present tense, and six other POVs in third-person present. The book is pretty much all action; there's a psycho in Jack's house, waiting for her to come home, and Jack is followed home by three snipers--so she can't stay in the house, and can't leave the house.

Part of the problem was length. This book is my shortest yet, and I thought I'd be told to pad it out and bump up the word count.

But the biggest part of the problem was believability. I kept questioning if it was realistic to have my characters under fire for so long but still able to make jokes. The book is action-packed, but it's also funny, and I was scared this would take the reader out of the story.

So, for the very first time in my writing life (FUZZY NAVEL is my 15th novel, counting those that never sold) I doubted my voice. I doubted it to the point where I was convinced the book wasn't working. I'd made a big mistake. I was going to have to start over from scratch, and jump through hoops to satisfy my agent and editor.

Which meant I spent more of my time second-guessing than writing. Which meant the book took twice as long to write, even though there was less actual writing and more staring at my last sentence and wondering if I should change it.

The ending was tough. Keeping in sync with the experimental tone of the rest of the book, I also wanted to have an experimental ending. Even though I knew what I wanted, I kept worrying about it.

I hemmed and hawed until I finally sequestered myself in a hotel for four days and finished the bastard. Then it went, fingers crossed, to my beta readers.

To my pleasant surprise, they all really liked it. Since my beta readers are comprised of several published thriller authors, this made me feel pretty good.

What made me feel even better was my agent and editor saying they loved the book. In fact, the editorial suggestions they each made took less than two hours total to do.

So now I'm left to puzzle over my doubt. Did doubt make me concentrate harder and turn in a better book? Could doubt indeed be a good thing?

My conclusion: Hell no.

Doubt is never a good thing. If I hadn't doubted myself, I still would have written the same book, only faster. Doubt didn't force me to make changes, or take the story in new directions. All it did was postpone me from doing what I should have done in the first place; write the story I wanted to write.

So are you paralyzed with fear that your latest opus sucks? Are you convinced you're a phony and a fraud and can't write for shit?

Repeat after me:

1. When in doubt, keep writing anyway.

2. Tell your internal editor to shut up until you reach the end.

3. You're often a poor judge of your own work. Let your readers tell you if you succeeded.

Writing should be fun. That's why we became writers, right? It isn't for the money, fame, or glory. It's because we love telling stories.

Don't let worry get in the way of that love.

Review Redux

I just got a really good review from Publisher's Weekly for my latest book, DIRTY MARTINI, and it got me thinking about something:

Reviews sell books.

I know this for a fact, because I buy books after reading reviews. It doesn't even matter if the book was given a thumbs up or thumbs down. I read reviews for content, not opinion, and reviews alert me to the existence of the types of books I normally buy.

If this works on me, I'm guessing it works on other people. As a counter example, I've never bought a book because I ate a piece of candy with the book cover image glued to the wrapper. Because of this, I don't pass out snacks to potential fans. But I do try to get reviews.

Unfortunately, getting reviewed is becoming harder and harder.

The first reason: Too much competition. There are 200,000 books being released every year, and too little space to review them in. The bestsellers get preferential treatment, leaving the rest of us midlisters to fight for scraps.

The second reason: Too few publications review books. As newspaper circulation dwindles, so does advertising by publishers, which reduces or eliminates the book review pages.

I haven't gotten a lot of print reviews. No big ones like the NYT, ET, or People, and not many by bigger newspapers. My big hometown paper, The Chicago Tribune, has never reviewed me, even though my books are set in Chicago. Though my other two Chicago papers, The Sun-Times and the Daily Herald, have reviewed me, but in both of those cases knowing the reviewer probably had something to do with it.

Genre mags have been good to me, and I've been reviewed in EQMM, The Strand, Mystery Scene, and Crimespree, but they've each missed a few titles.

The trade mags (Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, PW) have all reviewed me, but again they've missed a title here and there.

The Internet has been very kind. Lots of book review sites and blogs have mentioned my books, and Amazon.com reviewers continue to post their comments about my oeuvre.

How does a writer get reviews?

Usually a publicist, either in-house or independent, sends out galleys or ARCs to reviewers along with a brief letter and perhaps a press release. Reviewers can receive over a hundred books a week, even though they only have space in their column to review six books.

Sometimes an author will send books directly to reviewers, and this personal touch may improve their chances. But it's expensive, time consuming, and there is still no guarantee you'll be reviewed.

A good way to get reviewed is to already be a bestseller. Then reviewers will seek out the book, because they know their readers are anxious to hear it. But even then, some reviewers might pass on reviewing the latest Patricia Cornwell if given the chance, and might embrace a smaller author whose book they adored.

Since competition for print reviews is so stiff, many authors are concentrating on the Internet. The World Wide Web has the advantage of being Googleable forever, which can lead people to your book for years after it's been published. But most of the review sites are small, getting very few hits. While it may be great that you're reviewed on 100 blogs, you have to consider the cost-effectiveness of it. Sending out 100 ARCs will cost about $500 (double if you have to pay for your own ACRs), and you may only be reaching an audience of 50,000 people total. Two million people read the Tribune, and it only cost you $5 to send the ARC.

I've seen authors offer free copies of books to Amazon reviewers, which seems silly considering the very small number of books Amazon actually sells.

I've also seen authors give free books to bloggers, which is a somewhat better prospect, but even then you have to consider cost-effectiveness.

It's a dismal situation.

Writers and publishers spend big money on ads and fancy multimedia websites, with unspectacular results.

They spend big money on galleys and ARCs, even though the overwhelming majority of them don't lead to reviews.

More and more books are being released, with less and less print venues to review them in, and Internet reviews are probably not cost-effective to procure.

So what's the answer? Here are a few:

1. Buy reviews. I'm not talking about paying a reviewer. I'm talking about asking a more famous peer to review your book, then using that as the basis for print ads. If your publisher has an advertising budget, it's a much better use of their money if they run 200 words about your latest, reviewed by a known writer, than the standard book cover/author photo/blurb.

2. Schmooze. Reviewers are people. Meet them. Be nice to them. Chances are they'll remember you, and you'll have a better shot at being reviewed than the thousands of authors they don't know.

3. Give away ebooks. While mailing out review copies to people with small blogs probably isn't cost effective, you can email them a pdf file of your latest for free. You'll have to clear this with your publisher first. Remind them how much they spend on galleys.

4. Enlist your fans. Why not use a portion of your marketing budget to reward the folks who already buy your books? If you have a blog, MySpace, website, and/or newsletter, tell your fanbase if anyone writes and posts a review of your latest book on their website, blog, MySpace, Amazon, BN.com, etc, you'll send them something. Maybe a signed bookplate. Maybe a signed magazine you have a story in. This could run a few hundred bucks, but it will reach more people and cost much less than going to an out-of-state writing conference. You can do this for several weeks after your book comes out, or you can do it forever.

5. Become a reviewer. I've written several dozen of Amazon reviews. I've also posted reviews on various sites, and have even had a few reviews published. We need to help each other, and you reap what you sow.

And on that note, DIRTY MARTINI will be out July 3. To paraphrase a bit of PW's lovely review:

"Konrath's latest is a particularly potent mix of equal parts mirth and mayhem with a dash of sex and a twist (or two) of plot. It should be taken straight, no chaser needed."

Want to review DIRTY MARTINI? Email me at haknort@comcast.net.

Faking Confidence

Just got back from Sleuthfest, and attended a session where a panelist said this to folks in attendance:

"You aren't the audience for this book."

Now, in deference to the guy, maybe he was right. But if he was, why was he speaking on a panel to those people? And why was he at Sleuthfest to begin with, since he seemed intent on making sure he didn't sell a single book?

We all have lapses in confidence. It's human. But if you want to have a writing career, DON'T SHOW WEAKNESS IN PUBLIC.

Charlie Brown isn't a good marketer. Sure, we can all identify with being the loser. Especially if we're at a signing and only one person shows up, or if we get dropped by our publisher, or if we don't win that big award we were nominated for, et cetera ad nauseum. Writers are magnets for bad luck. And publicly denigrating ourselves may get us a measure of sympathy.

Unfortunately, sympathy doesn't sell books. Stephen King is not a bestseller because people feel sorry for him. King is a winner. Winners tend to keep winning. He knows it, and the world agrees.

The secret to being a winner is confidence. Since most of us lack in this department, being sensitive artist types, we have to learn to fake confidence.

How do you fake it? Here's how:

1. Smile. A smile shows you're happy to be there, secure in your place, and receptive to your audience, whether it's a room full of fans or a guy standing next to you in an elevator.

2. Be positive. Optimism is sexy, and it's contagious. No one likes to be around a downer. Don't let anything negative escape your lips.

3. Like your books. Think about the enthusiasm you have when you see a great movie and you're telling a friend about it. Tone that down just a touch, and talk about your books in the same way. If you aren't excited about what you write, why the hell are you a writer?

4. Dress for success. The more comfortable you are about your appearance, the better you feel about yourself. This translates into better verbal and non-verbal communication.

5. Laugh. Laugh early, laugh often. It puts people at ease, and attracts them to you.

6. Listen. The best conversations you'll ever have are the ones where you talk the least.

7. Focus on success. You'll fail sometimes. We all do. But if you focus on the good things that happen, and push down the bad, you'll be perceived as a winner. Perception equals reality.

Don't be cocky. Don't be pushy. Don't be overbearing. Just be confident. If you aren't 100% sure that people will like your books, don't speak in public about them--you're only doing yourself a disservice.

Happiness and the Writer

So I've been writing lately. A LOT. I've just finished my second book this year, and now I'm playing ketchup with my blog/website/email/myspace.

Now that I'm back in the swing of things, I've been thinking a lot about why I became a writer. My answer is probably the same as yours: I love to write.

And yet these past few months haven't been easy. In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure, even though I spent almost all of my time writing (not much self-promotion, not much marketing) I really haven't been that happy lately.

So what gives? I got my wish, landed the big publishing deal, and am living my dream. Shouldn't I wake up every morning with a smile on my face and a "I'm so lucky to be alive" attitude?

Yes, methinks, I should. I should be happier than I've ever been in my life. But I'm not, and after thinking long and hard about this topic over several beers, I finally understand why:

Happiness isn't productive.

I just had a long conversation with the talented Tasha Alexander, who was very excited that she got her first royalty check, having earned out the advance on her first book. It was a very nice royalty check too. I also shared good news: On my last royalty statement, I found out I'm only $1500 away from earning out on my three-book contract. Considering my third novel, Rusty Nail, hasn't even had a paperback release yet, I'm confident by the next statement I'll have also earned out.

We congratulated each other for roughly thirty seconds, then spent over two hours openly worrying about our futures.

Q: Why couldn't we just celebrate the good things, and push aside the bad?

A: Because you don't get anything done when you're celebrating.

Worrying, on the other hand, makes you work harder, which gets things done. It helps you focus on the future, and forces you to create a plan to reach your goals.

The problem, of course, is that after you spend a year worrying and working, and you finally reach those all-important goals, you only celebrate for thirty seconds.

Which made me realize something. Happiness should come from the journey, not from reaching the destination. We spend so much of our time as writers WAITING for the big something: getting an agent, landing a book deal, getting a second contract, getting a royalty check, finishing the new novel. Instead, we should enjoy the process, rather than the just end result. After all, the process is what we have control over.

So here's a list of things we should focus on as writers, to maximize happiness and minimize stress and worry.

1. Start on the deadline early. Waiting until the last minute made me late, anxious, and more worried about page count than story conflict. Had I begun earlier, I would have enjoyed the process a lot more.

2. Set realistic goals. Focus on what you have control over. Sending out three queries a week is within your control. Selling three stories is not. Attending a booksigning and giving a good speech is doable. Selling at least 40 books at your booksigning may be out of your hands.

3. Celebrate as long as you can. Enlist your family and friends. Call people up. Go out. Congratulate yourself. Break out the champagne. Smile, darn you, smile.

4. Remember why. The sad fact is, once you've done it for a few years, writing becomes a job just like any other. But it isn't like any other job. We get paid for our words, and we ARE the luckiest folks on the planet. Remind yourself of this from time to time. Look through your old rejections. Stare at the shelf with all your published magazines. Fondle your awards (wait until you're alone first.) You've got a lot to be proud of.

5. Embrace your fans. Writers write. but they also tour, sign, promote, speak, correspond, blog, network, and interview. Interacting with fans is important, because even when you doubt yourself, they never doubt you. And they constantly remind you of who you are. We all need to be reminded every so often.

6. Help other writers. Snoopy was right. Happiness is about sharing and giving and helping. Hording your success is selfish. Share what you've learned, give a hand up to those who need it, and make yourself available to your peers. In that spirit, I'll be teaching two classes at Sleuthfest in Miami Beach this Thursday the 19th of April, 2007. One class is on marketing. The other is on finding an agent and selling your writing.

Can't attend? Eventually I'll post links to the handouts on my website, when I'm all caught up. In the meantime, you can email me at haknort@comcast.net and I'll send the handouts to you. They're 90 pages of hard-earned wisdom about this business. And they're free, of course.

I'll be back to posting on this blog two or three times a week. Thanks everyone for their patience during my work sabbatical.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go celebrate something.

Your Game Face

Today we're going to talk about your public persona.

Hmm? You don't have a public persona?

Why the hell not?

Public figures need public personas. Writers are public figures. You're a writer.

Even if you stay inside your house 24/7, you're still a public figure, still able to make an impression on the public via the Internet, mail, and phone calls.

You want the impression you leave to be favorable. Every human contact you make or potentially make has the power to recruit fans. Or it can sour people on you before they read a single word.

Your public persona is what you chose to show the world. It's your game face. You reveal what you want them to see. Even if it isn't the real you.

In fact, revealing the real you is probably a mistake.

Authors are insecure types. We seek validation, bristle at criticism, and tend to be demanding, volatile, egotistical, and prone to pessimism. We have a sense of entitlement, and often superiority, while at the same time complaining about everything.

This attitude, if shown in public, won't sell many books for you.

What does sell books?

1. Being nice. Never underestimate the power of a kind word or gesture.

2. Being positive. Remaining upbeat, and projecting an aura of success, helps to actually breed success. Never complain in public, no matter what happens. The only difference between a winner and a loser is the winner is smiling.

3. Being attractive. I'm not talking about physical beauty. I'm speaking of charisma. Be the person that other people want to be. Adjust your words, your clothes, your posture, your style, and invite the world to join your party.

4. Being available. Allowing people to have access to you can only help your cause. The bigger you get, the less time you have, and the more people will appreciate your generosity.

5. Being forgiving. Mistakes will be made. Publishing is made up of people, and people aren't perfect. Neither is the publishing industry. You want to be a duck's back, not a sponge.

6. Being confident. Neediness and desperation are guaranteed ways to scare people away.

7. Being aware. Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. If you don't have anything positive about you, fake it. If you suck at public speaking, stay off the microphone. You need to know your strengths and your limitations, and adjust accordingly.

8. Being professional. This is a business. Be businesslike. That means staying on your toes, not relaxing. It means taking this seriously, not thinking it's a game.

As a writer, you're the first and biggest salesperson for your writing. Thousands of people will judge your books by your persona rather than your words.

Make sure your persona is just as good as your words.
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