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Monday, May 26, 2014

Successful Authors Don't Keep Secrets

When I began writing, it was definitely a solitary effort. So solitary, in fact, I kept it a secret. I wrote early in the morning, when my husband was at work and the kids were asleep. No one to look over my shoulder. No one to critique. No one to criticize. Just me, and my novice efforts and my fledgling craft.

Who was I kidding? Back then, I had no craft. I just wanted to write. I had no goals, no real plans, and certainly no schooling. Those days were long before I educated myself with craft books and the internet articles. I had no regard for plot and I couldn’t have cared less for dialog structure. All I knew was I wanted to write word after word and see if they took me anywhere.

Then, one day my husband asked me who Marek was. Erp. He’d found the bits and pieces I’d been writing, a first person POV with a romantic interest. I had to set him straight real fast. Marek was a character I was writing, and no, he couldn’t read it.

I lacked confidence. I wasn’t a writer—I was a pharmacist and a homemaker. I grew up in the eighties, when only professionals got published by big companies. Stephen King was a writer. I was just a girl with an imagination too big to stay in my head.

He didn’t see it that way. He believed in me and said if I wanted to be a writer, I should just stop saying can’t, and start doing it.

So, I did.

Eventually, I let others in on my secret. I showed my scenes to my sister, cringing and waiting for her to declare it complete suckitude. She didn’t. Neither did my husband, who took my characters very seriously (and decided he hated one of them violently). I got my younger sister to read an early draft—and she finished it. That really blew my mind—that anyone would actually want to read the whole thing.

My husband and my sisters became my most powerful critique partners and my dearest lifelines. They gave me the confidence I needed to crawl out from under the rock I’d been writing under. They took the solitude out of my efforts. And they cheered when I got published, because it was a victory for us all.

Flashing forward to today... my third novel comes out in June, the third in a series that began with a character named Marek and a writer who was too cowardly to tell anyone about him. I’m no longer quite as solitary a writer and often have long conversations with my husband about the people who dwell inside my head. He daydreams about retiring from his career in pharmaceuticals so that he can be my full-time assistant. (He doesn’t realize I’d gladly hire him, even if only to shovel off my desk once a week. I tend to stock-pile it to the point of oblivion.)

The one thing he’d never do was manage my social media. You need a personality to sell books, he said, and I don’t have your personality.

While I’m sure he meant it as compliment, I took it as a painful reminder of the uncomfortable, vulnerable moments I experienced when I first showed my pages to others. I wrote in solitude because I was safe there. As long as I was writing for only myself, solitude was fine.

While writers can exist in their vacuums, authors cannot. I’m using the term author to mean someone who is writing for an audience—so, by definition, solitude can play no part of it. While there are websites devoted to authors getting their stories out to an audience (Wattpad.com is a favorite), it eventually becomes necessary for us to put ourselves out in the world, book in hand, face to face with real, live people in the hopes that they will read our work.

Once again, I’m reminded of the concepts I’d stubbornly carried with me since the eighties. Book signings and readings and tours were for real authors and big publishing houses. That would never be me. The only concession I made in recent decades was to admit the Internet was a good place to sell books, which was just fine by me. I could still hide behind a computer, no sweat. I’d been doing it for years.

But, alas. I might write fantasy, but I can no longer pretend to live in one. My illusions have been completely dispelled. Putting a book on Amazon didn’t guarantee sales, not when your book is a mere drop in a literary ocean. Having a publisher doesn’t ensure a landslide of PR, no matter who the publisher is.

I’ve read a fair share of posts from mid-list authors of big houses as well as mega-successful indie writers—and none of them are saying anything even remotely close to what my eighties-era conceptions would have had me continue to believe.

So, what’s a writer to do, other than get out there and sell my books? No one is going to do it for me.

And that, I think is where I realized my husband had put it all together for me in a single word: personality. He can’t be my voice on Twitter or Facebook, because he doesn’t have my voice. He couldn’t post to my blog any more than he could write my next book. It all comes down to personality. Readers are drawn to a writer’s voice, so why wouldn’t they be drawn in by an author’s personality?

Personality doesn’t mean being the most popular person in the room, the winning smile or the center of attention. It’s us, pure and simple, as we can only be in person.

Personality is both our strength and our weakness. While it’s our nature—and, being creative people, writers should naturally have interesting personalities—it’s also the most intimate thing about ourselves and we are protective of our privatest parts. Public speaking is not for everyone.

Conferences and their opportunities for schmoozing with the big-wigs give most emerging authors the willies, if not outright palpitations. The whole face-time thing means we can’t hide behind our computer screens anymore.

Personality and in-person go hand in hand. Bye-bye, solitude.

It's all part of the publishing game. We must learn how to write better and improve our craft if we want to be published. Likewise, we must learn how to appear in public if we want to sell our books.

Emerging authors sell more books to personal contacts than by any other route. Our first readers are our family and friends—so, naturally, they become our first customers. Using our personality to sell our books to them is as easy as blinking. However, once you try to move past the innermost circle of our audience, it gets a little harder.

So we must learn how to do it, and do it well.

My only regret is that when I started to take my writing seriously, I didn’t know enough to look ahead to the business side of things. Why would I have done that? I never crept out of bed at five in the morning because I planned to pursue publishing contracts. I did it because I wanted to write, not because I dreamed of book signings or meet-and-greets. Culturing an author appearance-worthy personality takes as much craft as completing a manuscript.

Lucky for me, I like to talk. My career in pharmacy requires me to be an expert in the field, an educator, a counsellor, and a professional communicator. When I go to book signings, I draw on the strengths I’d developed in my day job and use them to my advantage. (Bonus is I don’t have to filter everything I say. When I’m at my author job, I get to be as sassy as I want to be.)

I love to talk to readers about books, and not just my own. I get to connect with readers who like the same kinds of stories that I do. My favorite appearances have been in libraries because that’s where the readers live. The real payoff lies in knowing that I made face-time with readers who will tell their friends about my books. That word-of-mouth is what grows our audience in the beginning—and word-of-mouth spreads fastest when we’re the ones doing the talking.

The Real Secret to Success...
If you are on submission with your first book, or anticipating your first release, celebrate the first victory: the moment you took your book out of the computer and sent it to a complete stranger.

That’s bravery at its finest. Just remember, though, that there are still times ahead when you are going to have to re-prove your courage—when you have to actually go out in the world, book in hand, and tell a complete stranger what it’s about and why they should read it.

Don’t wait until your first appearance is a week away and decide to have a complete meltdown because you just don’t have the type of personality. You do have that type of personality. You just need to cultivate it.

Start close to home. Practice your pitch on family and friends. They are going to buy the book anyway—why not use the opportunity to hone your charm? Practice now means ease of execution later.

Do mini-readings where you’re already comfortable. At work, at your kids’ playgroups, at your church or community events—your neighbors and your acquaintances are perfect for pre-appearance practice. You may have started writing in secret solitude like I did—but when you have a book to sell, the time for secrets is long past.

Start small. Does the thought of walking into Barnes and Noble to ask for a book signing scare the living hell out of you? Don’t start there. Start with your local library and offer to do a reading. Bring some bookmarks to hand out and a few copies of your book. You will drive home and have that surreal moment where you go Holy cow. I just had a book signing. Then you’ll wink at people in their cars the rest of the ride because you’re all that and a bag of chips.

Barnes and Nobel just might still be there next year. You’ll get there. Don’t worry.

The bottom line is…you may write in solitude now, but you can’t stay there forever. Hone your writing craft, but don’t neglect your in-person personality. Write your pitches and read them out loud. Tell the very next person you encounter that you are a writer, and that you’d love to tell them about your book.

Don’t keep your biggest achievement a secret. Learn to talk about your book now so that the word-of-mouth you get later on will be made of good words.

Experienced authors—what secret can you share with emerging writers regarding those scary first appearances?

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. Visit Ash at www.ashkrafton.com for news on her urban fantasy series The Books of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press) or stop by the Demimonde Blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com . WOLF’S BANE (Demimonde #3) is forthcoming June 2014. 


Donelle Lacy said...

Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed reading your story and hearing your personality in your words.

I think often writers and creative types are introverts and we have to come out of our shells a little to perform for the public. It's definitely a performance, but it's like we've shined up the best of ourselves (talkative as a lot of us are once we've taken hold of a subject) and we're putting that on display. Yes, we can do it and you're proof of that.

I wish you well on your writing journey and with your author career. It's worth celebrating. I plan to someday be there alongside you. Published and with a readership. How awesome would that be?

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

Thanks, Donnelley... and you nailed it with the word "performance", I think. I remember my first year out of college. Having so little experience, I'd often have to resort to pretending like someone who knew what she was doing.

Like Joe Walsh sings in "Lucky That Way":

"I'll let you all in on a little secret
If I could share with you a thing or two.
If you just act like you know what you're doing,
Everybody thinks that you do..."


Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

Darn that autocorrect! I KNOW I typed your name correctly, Donelle :(

Traci Kenworth said...

This sounds a lot like me. I don't know how I'll be when the day comes but I will do my best to step out with confidence.