Over the last several years, I’ve had the privilege of talking to a lot of indie authors in various forums. It seems that we all share a common set of problems and traits when it comes to writing. Any serious indie author will tell you it’s not an easy undertaking to write a novel or multiple novels. Not only can the task be physically and mentally exhausting, it can also be emotionally exhausting. I liken being an indie author to being a prisoner in solitary confinement. There’s a sense of being alone, being stranded, with no one to turn to and no one who can sympathize with you—unless you have a strong network of fellow writers who have been successful as indie authors.
Many of the indie authors with whom I’ve spoken or corresponded are frustrated. The writing isn’t going well, and the book sales aren’t going well either. They’re not in the place they want to be with their writing endeavors. They can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong. They feel like they’re spinning their wheels. This is from seasoned indie authors and new indie authors alike—those who have published many books and those who are setting out to write their first novel. I, in fact, have been there myself and still go there from time to time. But still, many of us go on torturing ourselves and stay the course until our work is done and we move onto the next book. Some call us gluttons for punishment and others see us as artists dedicated to our work.
I believe that indie authors serve a vital purpose in the literary world. There are many diamonds in the rough in the world of indie authors. Just because a major publishing house publishes a book doesn’t mean that the author is good or that the book is good. I’ve read many best sellers from major publishers that lacked substance but yet they were incredibly well-marketed so that the everyday reader believed it was a good book. But that’s not to say that all indie books are marketable or better than average; in fact, many represent a hobby or personal endeavor as opposed to a serious commitment to the art. My focus is and always has been on the realm of serious indie authors—those who have committed themselves to the art of writing and those who will continue to write whether success finds them or not. The serious indie authors, like indie filmmakers, bridge the gap between that which is marketable on a mass scale and which is often average and the realm of artistry where you might just find a diamond in the rough which for whatever reason has been overlooked by mainstream publishing houses.
To those serious indie authors who share the same emotional, mental, and physical struggles that I often endure in pursuit of writing a novel that is entertaining for readers, I offer a few tips that I have compiled based on my personal experiences and those of other indie authors. I hope my insights are helpful to indie authors who may be struggling with their writing endeavors and give those thinking about writing a book some issues to consider before they undertake a writing project. Together we can make the world of indie writing better for all those who are dedicated to or are dedicating themselves to the art. Keep writing!
Here are my thoughts on what indie authors should keep in mind as they seek to advance their writing endeavors.
- Stay focused—Staying focused is one of the hardest parts of writing. It takes discipline to be a writer. You have to dedicate time to the art—and a lot of it. Good books aren’t written overnight. It’s easy to start a book then get sidetracked by other things in life. By the time you get back to writing you may have forgotten where you were going with certain elements or you may have to spend a great deal of time going back to review what you’ve already written. Indie authors are usually also writing because they have a passion for the art, not because it’s their full time job. If you’re going to be a successful indie author, writing needs to be either your full time career or your second job. Dedicate a set amount of time on a set schedule and stick to it. Stay focused on the task at hand—finishing the manuscript. You’re inevitably going to stray from the schedule, but try to get back on it as soon as possible. Set goals and timetables for yourself and try to meet them. It took me a long time to write The Versailles Conspiracy. I wrote the manuscript then put it away for a couple years. When I resurrected it, I got sidetracked several times and had to step away simply because I wasn’t staying focused. A similar thing happened with Conversations on the Bench—I kept getting sidetracked so that I couldn’t do the research (phone interviews predominantly) that I felt necessary to write the book. With my other books, however, I set timetables and goals and used that as my roadmap to the completion of the manuscripts.
Staying focused is also important once you’ve published the book. It takes a lot of planning and execution to successfully market the book. The planning, launch and execution of the marketing phase should be part of your overall plan and schedule. Marketing the published book isn’t something you as the indie author can do on your own. It takes a dedicated marketing effort that combines social media and traditional advertising to make the book a success. Are you, the indie author, best at marketing your book or at writing? If you’re like me, I’m a better writer than I am promoter. Find the right marketing team to focus on that specifically so that you can focus on writing. It’s very easy to get sucked into the marketing process with the social media managers, brand managers, advertising professionals. Don’t totally disengage from the marketing process. You need to oversee the marketing so that it remains focused on the book and sales of the book. Don’t stray from your focus on writing but pay attention to the work others are doing for you.
Set goals and timetables for writing the book and then for marketing the book then stick to that roadmap. You’ll be surprised how far it will take you.
- Write what you write best—If you’re really good at writing romance novels, it’s probably not a good idea to venture too far into other genres. If you’re a technical writer or good at writing non-fiction, don’t think that you can write a successful romance novel the first time out of the gate. This is similar to the simple business concept of specialization. If your business specializes in making widgets, don’t try to make bread. Doctors who specialize in dermatology don’t practice birthing babies. You specialize in what you know best. Zane Grey wrote westerns, not legal or political thrillers. John Grisham writes novels with a legal theme, not westerns. There’s a bit of a steep learning curve to go from writing one genre to writing another. Readers generally want to associate you with one genre, but that’s not to say that you can’t stray into other areas. Four of my five novels are mysteries although they have different themes. Murder at the Ocean Forest is a period piece. The Versailles Conspiracy is a modern day political thriller. The Maynwarings is set in the Old West. The House of Dark Shadows is a psychological thriller. There is certainly a mystery element to all of them. My only foray into another genre was with Conversations on the Bench, which is a motivational or inspirational novel. It was a total change of pace for me to write an inspirational novel, and it was a steep hill to climb to be able to do it. First, I had to convince myself it was a project that I both wanted and felt capable of completing. Second, I had to remind myself that it was based on real people and actual events—not what I made up with my vivid imagination. Third, I had to do some research to see what elements went into writing a motivational or inspirational book. Then, I had to actually write the book.
I’m not trying to discourage any indie author from trying different genres. If you’re willing to climb that steep hill and accept responsibility for the outcome and any fan fallout of moving into a new genre, I would encourage you to go for it. What you don’t want to happen is for readers to be unable to identify you with a particular genre. If you’ve written a couple of romance novels then decide to try a mystery, for example, mystery readers may not be willing to give you a try because they associate you with being a romance writer. The same goes for romance readers. You don’t really want to lose your identity as an author of certain books and genres. If you have a formula that’s working for you, it’s probably not a good idea to mess with it. Remember what happened when Coke tried to change their formula?
- Don’t give up—It’s easy to get discouraged while you’re writing your book and then again while you’re marketing your book, but don’t give up! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been discouraged during the writing process. I haven’t been happy with the way the story was going or the way I was developing a character or the progress I was making. I’ve been discouraged by the detractors and writer’s block. I’ve been discouraged when I felt that no one appreciates the work I do. If you are truly passionate about your writing endeavors and you believe in yourself and your talents, you have to press on. You have to fight the personal doubts and demons when you’re a writer. In case you haven’t noticed, indie authors are still generally looked down upon by the mainstream publishers and the mainstream media. They don’t really want us in the marketplace; we’re inferior to their published authors. They want the indie authors to give up; they want us to fail. So, if you give up and if you admit defeat, you give them what they want. But the naysayers don’t really matter. More importantly, if you give up, you defeat yourself. Being a successful indie author isn’t easy. It takes hard work and discipline. It may take years to build a following and to get noticed and to get traction. If you’re truly committed to it, you’re in it for the long haul. Stay the course. To quote former President Richard Nixon: “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
I have fought those personal demons of doubt. I have been ready to quit on many occasions. After I could get nowhere with Murder at the Ocean Forest, I was discouraged. I didn’t have an interest for a long time in The Versailles Conspiracy. But I wasn’t going to defeat myself. I love writing. I knew it then, and I know it still today. I finished The Versailles Conspiracy and moved on to The House of Dark Shadows. It seemed like I got some personal momentum going after that and I haven’t stopped. I told myself I was going to write because I enjoyed it. Critics and naysayers be damned. I don’t care if I sell any of my books. I’m writing because I enjoy it. If I had given up over a decade ago, I wouldn’t have some of the books that I’m most proud of and I wouldn’t have further developed and honed my writing skills along the way.
- Ask for constructive criticism—First off, here’s a piece of advice for indie authors: Don’t read reviews of your books. The reviews of the book aren’t for the authors; they’re for the readers. Most of the time, the reviews aren’t even meaningful. The reviewer has found something they like or don’t like (most often the case) and focused on that. That doesn’t help an indie author; it only leads to hard feelings and self doubt. It weakens your confidence in yourself. Remember, most of the critics have never written a book; they don’t have the skills, the discipline or the interest. They’re simply looking to criticize you in an effort to make themselves feel better about their own inadequacies.
However, every writer needs to have someone to turn to for feedback about the manuscript. Constructive criticism only makes our work better. A good editor will often provide constructive criticism. Friends and family do not provide constructive criticism for fear of hurting your feelings; they tell you what they think you want to hear. Find some people who are willing to provide you with constructive criticism. It will only help you strengthen your work and your skills. Constructive criticism can be about plot, flow, character development, tone, style. But remember that you can’t have just one person to provide you with feedback. You need two or three people. I’ve set up a bit of a small group to review each of my manuscripts. They come up with various critiques and then I assimilate those and decide if I want to make any changes or alterations. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, but it does provide me with an opportunity to get an opinion from impartial parties. Murder at the Ocean Forest is still one of my most divisive novels. The focus group either loved it or hated it. Some said the sentences were too long. Some said it was too slow moving. Some didn’t even want to finish it. On the opposite side, others just loved it and couldn’t get enough of it. They said they couldn’t put it down. At the end of the day, I had to make a decision on what changes to make. Today, I’m still proud of that book, and it still generates strong feelings on both sides.
Constructive criticism is something every indie author can use. Remember, the focus group you choose is not here to be your friend or preserve your feelings. They’re here to give you the honest truth. Take what they have to say, assess it, and then decide what to do.
- Read a lot and learn from it—One of the best ways to become a good writer is to read a lot of books, particularly those published by known authors. You’ll pick up ideas for style and how to build characters or plot or setting from authors who have been there and done that. If you write westerns, you should read Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour to get a feel for how they wrote about the Old West. If you write detective/police novels, you could read Mickey Spillane or Ed McBain. Michael Crichton’s books might give you insight into science fiction or medical thrillers. That’s not to say you should take their ideas or try to recreate their work. Far from it. You should read their books with an eye towards learning how they develop characters or present the theme of the book. You probably don’t want to write a science fiction book that has plot development elements of a western. You may develop characters differently in a legal thriller than in a romance book. You may learn how other authors build scenes and theme for your chosen genre.
Reading other authors in your genre isn’t the only reading an indie author should be doing. Read other books and newspapers and articles about writing and authors. Reading helps improve your grammatical skills and generally expands your vocabulary, both of which help improve your work. If you’re writing medical thrillers, keep up with what’s going on in the field. I’m not saying you should study to be a doctor, but you should keep up with developments in the medical fields if you’re writing about an epidemic or biological warfare. One of my favorite weekly publications is The Economist. It has everything from world affairs to economics to new books to science and technology and so on. From there I might find something that I want to explore more and learn more about. I’ve even come up with some pretty good ideas for storylines based on topics I first read about in The Economist. Reading expands your horizons and helps you further strengthen your writing skills.
- Choose your style—If you want to write in short sentences that are easily understood by most readers, go for it. If you want to write at a college level, go for it. Just remember that there are consequences associated with whatever choice you make in this regard. Not everyone wants to read at the college level, so if you’re too difficult to read you’ll limit your market of potential readers. If you’re writing at a fifth grade level, you may lose some readers as well who find your prose too simple.
I wrote Murder at the Ocean Forest to be deliberately difficult to read with long flowing sentences and extensive descriptions. I wanted to paint the scenes for the readers. Some people haven’t been able to finish the book because it’s too difficult for them to read; they say they have to concentrate too hard. Other say they love the descriptions of the Ocean Forest Hotel since it makes them feel like they are there.
Another aspect to consider is character development and how you paint the picture for the readers. Do you want to describe the characters and settings in great detail so that the readers can visual them? Do you want to be more generic by providing the readers a basic outline of the characters and setting and let the readers fill in between the lines in their own minds? The answer to this may be a function of the type of novel that you’re writing. If the book is character driven where there’s only a few characters, you may want to be very descriptive. Same goes if the setting is the driving factor. In The Maynwarings, there are a lot of characters, some of which are more developed than others, but the setting at the Greenbrier Ranch is also important. The House of Dark Shadows is more of a character driven novel, since there are really only four main characters in the book…or are there?
There’s no right answer when it comes to your own style. You need to consider who your general audience is going to be and to whom you want to cater. Of course, you can’t please everyone, so go with what you’re most comfortable with writing.
- Get a good marketing team—You might have the greatest novel in the world but if you don’t have a good marketing plan and marketing team in place no one will ever know about your great work. Unless you’re an expert in marketing and social media, you’re going to need help. That doesn’t mean you have to go get some Madison Avenue advertising consultancy to do the marketing for you. There are plenty of advertising services available online, and social media is probably the number one vehicle used by indie authors to market their books. Get a good social media manager and let them run with it. If you try to do all the tweets and posts yourself, you’ll never have time for writing another book. Plus, a social media manager knows the ins and outs; they know what works, what doesn’t, what gets people to engage and so on.
I like to experiment with marketing from time to time. Consider getting a group of college marketing majors together for an afternoon of brainstorming. Have them come up with some real wacky ideas. Anything goes and nothing is too bold. You never know what may work and turn you into an overnight success. Take their ideas and work with the rest of your marketing team to figure out a strategy for employing some, all, or none of the ideas.
- Do your research when necessary—Taking literary or creative license is one thing, but make sure you do some research if you’re writing about something where specialized knowledge is required. If you’re writing a police mystery and an important element is the autopsy, make sure you know about real life autopsies. You don’t need to go back to school, but you do need to do your research, read about it, and get any questions you may have answered so that you can convey an understanding of the subject matter. If you’re writing a story set during the Civil War, make sure you know the dates of the Civil War. If you’re writing a work of fiction, you can create characters and mend circumstances to fit your needs, but you can’t alter the dates of the Civil War or the outcome (unless it’s a science fiction book). Writers can and often do alter or tweak some historical elements to fit their needs, particularly if you’re inserting fictional characters into actual historical events. Don’t go over the top with it. If your story is set in a particular place that you have never visited, do your research to learn about that place then you can weave what you’ve learned into your story. It may even change things dramatically for you and force you to change elements of the plot or change scenes, etc.
Murder at the Ocean Forest is set at the Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina back in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, the hotel was demolished in the 1970s and there is little left about it today. So, I had to research the hotel and find out what information was available. I researched books and articles. I had conversations with people who had been there. I looked at photographs. I did my best to recreate that place in my mind then convey that to the readers. Of course, I did take some creative license in certain aspects of the hotel, but it didn’t involve anything egregious. Those who remember the Ocean Forest and who have read my book said that it they felt like they were there and that it was just how they remembered it.
- Have your book edited 1 or 2 times—There’s not much worse than putting out a manuscript rife with errors. There are plenty of editors out there to read your manuscript, find typos and grammatical errors, and make suggestions on plot, style, tone, etc. You’ll be surprised at how much they can improve your work. But even the best of editors isn’t going to catch everything, and even the best make mistakes or must make judgment calls that aren’t necessarily the best decision for the manuscript in question. I generally have my books edited at least twice if not three times. (This is in addition to having the book read by actual readers as a test audience.) This gives the opportunity to catch mistakes. If your manuscript makes it through three rounds of editing by professionals, there may still be mistakes but there will be far fewer. And I’ve found that three rounds of editing gives the editors and opportunity to come to consensus on changes over which there may be disagreements. One editor may say use a comma. One may say use a period and make a new sentence. One may say use a semicolon. I generally put them together and ask them to come to a consensus of what would be most acceptable in the publishing world as opposed to stylistic decisions.
But the editing process isn’t just about finding typos and grammatical errors. They’re going to identify inconsistencies and gaps that need to be corrected before the manuscript is published. They’ll identify plot and character developmental issues and perhaps make recommendations on how to improve for a better finished product. Most importantly, a good editor is going to give you impartial, honest feedback about the manuscript—constructive criticism that only makes an indie author’s work better and that helps the indie author in the future.
- Have a great cover—There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The sad reality is that we live in a world where we all do just that each and every day. Most readers are drawn to a visually attractive and appealing cover on a book. On a bookshelf with hundreds of other books that are your competitors or in a grid of book covers at online retailers, you need to have a cover that jumps out at people. This is where I see most indie authors drop the ball. They spend all their efforts in writing the book then they use a generic template to make the cover or they try to do it themselves. This only makes your work look amateur, and there is no excuse not to try to find a good graphic designer. With online services, you can put out a request for proposals and get a ton of bids in a matter of hours. And you will probably be surprised at how reasonably priced custom artwork can be.
As the writer you know what the key elements are in the book. What are some unique things that you have in the book? Is there any symbolism in the book? Consider these factors and how they can be incorporated into a book cover. Then, find a good graphic designer and communicate these ideas to him (or her). Tell them about the book, about the characters, about the setting, about the time period, and so on so that they have a general idea when they go to work designing the cover. Put the creativity in their hands and let them present you with an idea or several ideas. Most of them are well trained in what is visually appealing and what is not visually appealing to an audience. Then collaborate with them to decide what you like and don’t like about the cover. Rarely will you get the final design on the first try. It may take several iterations until you’re satisfied.
Once you’ve put in all the time and effort to write your manuscript, don’t ruin your chances of success with a poor book cover. Collaborate with a graphic designer to come up with something that really showcases your book and jumps off the page at a reader. You only have a few seconds to make that first impression on a potential reader and to get them to pick up the book or click on the icon. You may have a great novel, but once they’ve passed you by, they’re not going to come back and take a second look.
About Mr. Cartwright— Digger Cartwright is the author of several mystery stories, teleplays, and novels including The Versailles Conspiracy, a modern day political thriller, Murder at the Ocean Forest, a traditional mystery novel set in the 1940s, The House of Dark Shadows, a psychological thriller, and The Maynwarings: A Game of Chance, a mystery set in the Old West. His latest book, Conversations on the Bench, is an inspirational/motivational novel. His books are available in hardback, paperback, and e-book format through his website, www.DiggerCartwright.com, on-line booksellers and bookstores.
Mr. Cartwright has contributed to a number of articles on a wide range of financial, strategic planning, and policy topics. He frequently contributes articles, commentaries, and editorials focusing on current economic and political topics for the private think tank, Thinking Outside the Boxe.
He enjoys golf, participating in charity golf tournaments, and attending WWE events. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., South Carolina, and Florida.
Executive Assistant to Mr. Cartwright
Daily News Briefing: www.MysteryWriterNews.com