As a writer, you know that readers are out there. You know what keeps the pages turning, because you’re a reader yourself, so the success that others enjoy should be within reach. But sometimes, when publication feels elusive, readers can seem a long way away.
I know that feeling from the other side of the desk: I was an editor in-house, positioned in the middle – between the authors I published and the readers I was publishing for. It can seem as if no one is looking.
Happily, these days, there are more opportunities for authors to be listened to than ever before. You don’t have to rely on reviews or big press features or author tours. Readers actually seek out authors – they know you’re real people, and they want to engage with you.
There are opportunities for all writers – unpublished, bestselling, midlist, writers between publishers/agents, debuts with or without traditional backing – to reach out to readers. That puts you in the driving seat. You can set your own expectations, and manage them. Maybe even exceed them.
There’s lots of advice available on what strategies to pursue to achieve success. But I want to take a step back and think about how to prepare yourself for the busy times and the quiet times. I believe a consistent approach is best.
I’ve discovered this, because I recently left full-time publishing to become a freelance editor, mentor and writer. I’ve self-published my own novel, Ready to Love. Every day I wonder: what’s happening to my book? What can I do to keep things moving?The Writers’ Workshop recently launched a great online course Self-Publishing Success which gives you all the lowdown on how to get your book out there. But what happens next?
Never feel that nothing is happening, or that nobody is looking. Make something happen, and make it work for you as well as your audience. Here’s the advice I offer to other writers, because it’s what I follow myself.
1. Get yourself out there, but hide away too
My blog is a kind of writing journal where I talk about the process of writing, the influences of other writers and books, and thoughts about my evolving work. I might share work in progress but it will strictly be in that context. I want people to know how deeply immersed in books I am because I’m committed to making my own writing life work. But I’m cautious, because I know it’s important to keep something back.
Does that contradict the point of this post? Not really. I once read the chilling line ‘learning to write in public.’ Once you share your work, you are on show. Don’t be so eager to break into print that you submit too early (a mistake I often made), when an idea is half-baked or your writing isn’t as finessed as it could be. If you’ve got a good idea make sure you get the best out of it. That takes time. And space. Agents and editors don’t always have time to give that to you. Don’t forget, the Writers’ Workshop offer professional and objective feedback on your writing.
So don’t put everything out there. Maybe your online persona publishes short stories or sketches, or reviews in a particular genre, hinting at your main project, enticing people, but keeping the real thing under wraps till it’s ready.
2. Focus your time and energy.
You can’t do everything. You’ll run out of time and energy if you apply yourself to too many projects. So keep your homework simple. Spend time following the career trajectory of two or three authors who are working in your genre. Be realistic in your comparison, but try to learn from reviews in papers and Goodreads and Amazon. What is appealing to readers about the books? What is irritating them? Which titles grab your attention (or others’)? What sort of taglines are applied to covers or ads or are quoted in interviews? You don’t want to ape anyone, but you can learn from what works and what doesn’t, and apply it to your own work.
3. Refine your pitch.
I can’t stress this enough. You’ve finished a piece of work and you’re ready to submit. You’re knackered! Cobbling together the covering letter, knocking together the synopsis, and tidying up the first three chapters won’t take long and hold you up much, will they? Make sure they do. Submitting to an agent or publisher is like applying for a job. You always keep your CV up to date, so, likewise, keep refreshing your pitch. Rewrite the synopsis – make sure that what you claim happens really does. (If it doesn’t, maybe you need to rewrite to realise your fantastic concept.) Try cutting your synopsis from two pages to one to half to a single line that will become your elevator pitch. If your submissions are met with silence, review your pitch – maybe you’re not highlighting your project’s most compelling aspects.
4. Reread your backlist.
Even debut writers have apprentice material. It’s a natural hunger to want to write new stuff, but don’t forget to learn from what you’ve already done. Reread old drafts and abandoned texts and write down your impressions. You’ll find stylistic ticks you’ll want to edit out and tendencies to overexplain or round things off too abruptly. You’ll make mistakes in the future, of course, but make sure they’re new mistakes.
5. Remember who you are …
You got into this business because you’re a reader and want to create something as stimulating or pleasurable as the books that mean so much to enjoy. So enjoy reading. Enjoy browsing inside a bookshop or library. I went to a Mrs Dalloway book group to network and improve my social media connections, but all that got eclipsed by the experience of discovering an amazing book which I simply couldn’t believe I hadn’t read. That was one of the most valuable pieces of ‘homework’ I’ve ever done.