For many months, I’ve resisted writing this.
Author advice columns and ‘do-it-better’ blogs often come off as pretentious.
And that’s the last thing I want to do.
After swimming in the shark-infested waters of self-publishing for many years, I feel it’s time I share a few nuggets of wisdom. About writing. About marketing. About presenting oneself to the literary world. Now…these aren’t gonna be your typical Stephen King-ish motivational tips or super supportive rays of sunshine. I’m going off the grid with some of these. Because everything else has been said.
Here we go.
1. Audience Building
We’re not talking about genres. We’re talking human beings, and we’re talking how you approach them after you’ve already written your masterpiece. So you say you’ve crafted a new work of erotica, an epic fantasy series, or a vampire romance? Fine. It’s all fine. Whatever floats your boat. The key to your success, assuming you’ve actually got the writing chops to write a good book, is to make people care. Spamming ‘check out my book’ ads on the net? Not gonna fly. Auto-messaging unsuspecting people on Twitter? Fail. The key here is to be interesting. You’re a writer, after all. When marketing, you’ve gotta use the same chops you used when writing the best parts of your book. Don’t be dull. Don’t be static. Build some awesome blurbs and engage people. Hand your business cards out at DragonCon. Strike up conversations with strangers at the bar who might like to read. Be your book. Live it.
Also…when audience building on the internet, use perfect spelling and grammar. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think it’s important. It is. Whenever an author posts a blog or funny facebook post with garbage grammar, it leaves an impression. And it’s not the one you want.
2. Stay the F**K away from Negativity
You probably think I’m talking about other people’s negativity. I’m not. I’m talking about yours.
Let’s say you’ve got a website dedicated to your books, your art, your whatever. And let’s say from time to time you write interesting, relatable pieces about your life and your experiences (you should do both of these, by the way.) You wanna know what never to do? Project negativity. Ever. Like anyone else, writers have opinions. That’s all well and good. But for the most part, your army of loyal readers wants to hear positive (or least non-negative) stuff. Hate your neighbor? Cool. Shut up about it. Got a headache and some writer’s block? Nope. Another author crap on your book via Amazon? Deal with it. Sales in a slump? Don’t say a word.
It’s a slippery slope, negativity. Everyone feels they have a right to complain. Maybe they do, maybe not. But as a professional and as a person who wants others to feel good about your books, your persona, and your ability, I recommend keeping all but the most dire complaints to yourself.
Actually, I recommend this to everyone in the entire world. Not just writers and artists.
3. Get Great Cover Art
To be fair, some people can get away with having bland, homemade, or just plain bad cover art. What I’m saying is: don’t assume you can. Now…it’s true cover art can get expensive. Artists will charge hundreds for good work, and they’ve every right to do so. It doesn’t matter. No matter your budget, you’ve got to find a way to put your (presumably wonderfully-written) book beneath a cover worthy of cracking open. It doesn’t have to be an epic Greek sculptor/Sistine Chapel wonder of the world, but it needs to look good. Or cool. Or crazy. Just not boring. Never…ever…boring.
Oh, and speaking of good cover artists, try Amanda Makepeace.
And speaking of great covers she created…
4. Shelve Your Ego (not your Eggo)
What’s that you say? Someone left you a shitty review on Amazon? You got a rejection letter from a publisher? An author refused to do a review-swap (which you shouldn’t have agreed to do anyway)?
What I recommend in these and a thousand other less-than-awesome scenarios is that you not get butthurt. Ever. Artistic endeavors of any kind, and indeed life endeavors, don’t care about your sensitivity. Anger, jealousy, vengeance, frustration, cats sitting on your keyboard and deleting an entire chapter…all part of the dance. Simply put, you’ll get more work done if you shrug off all the crap and vent it creatively, rather than on Facebook.
Tip: Your ability to find greatness might very well depend on your ability to carve through all the emotions…and arrive on the other side unscathed.
5. Brush off Compliments / Embrace Criticism
I’ll keep this one brief. Maybe. When seventeen of your friends read your book and tell you how awesome it is, ignore them. You heard me. Ignore them. Smile and nod, but let their words fall off your shoulders like yesterday’s dandruff. Why, you ask? Because while they mean well, their compliments don’t mean anything. Compliments and superlatives about your work won’t make you a better writer. Sunshine up your bottom might feel good, but it won’t lift you to greatness.
But criticism might. Your most valuable review on Amazon might be the single-star one. Your best asset might be the lone family member who tells you your ending doesn’t make sense, or that one of your characters is a whiny loser. When you free your ego (see #4) and become willing to embrace criticism, you allow yourself to grow.
If you need a metaphor, imagine a tree. The oldest, strongest trees are covered in knots, scars, and broken limbs. And yet the tree never complains. Not once. Not ever. It simply adjusts, heals, and keeps moving toward the sunlight.
6. Create an Image & Stick to It
Perhaps you’re really good at writing horror. Or maybe you’ve got a knack for writing killer romance scenes. Or maybe your descriptive ability is out of this world. Cool. Now what I suggest is that you use your strengths to create an image. Mine is sort of this dark, brooding philosopher thing. Yours should be whatever you feel represents you, whether a fluffy unicorn girl, a dominatrix, a vulgar comedian, or a quiet librarian genius. Whatever. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s yours.
The point is: craft your image and use it as a presentation point to the world. Don’t be boring. Tell the world what you’re about. Speak to them as though you were your characters. It’s like this: you can either flood your social media feeds with writing memes and coffee-worship, or you can become a living, breathing avatar for your work. I’m being completely serious. I’m not suggesting you try to fake your audience out. Far from it. I’m saying to grab them by their collars. Shake them. Entertain them. Because really, what else are we here to do?
7. Demand Honesty
This is a two-part piece of advice. First and foremost, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. Can you look at your work and say, “This is the best I can write. This book is as ready for the world as it’s gonna get.”? If you can, boom. Kudos. Publish it. If you can’t, then the honest author in you has to be ready. For more work. And lots of it.
The second part: demand honesty from those who help you. This means reviewers, editors, other authors, beta-readers, friends, and family. If they’re brave enough to read your stuff, you need to be brave enough to look them in the eyes and tell them to be utterly honest in their criticism. And you need to mean it. Really mean it. Like Brad Pitt in Fight Club, you need to hear them say it three times. (Anyone remember that scene?)
Because the only conversations in life worth having are the blunt, brutally honest kind.
Everything else is fluff.
Now get to work.
And try to have fun while you’re doing it.
J Edward Neill
Author of 101 Questions for Humanity
Author of the Tyrants of the Dead series