Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advice from a Formerly-Failed Novelist

Since childhood, my biggest dream has been to become a published novelist. I’ve always been a reader and couldn’t think of anything better than making a living writing the kinds of stories I loved.

I was lucky. After ten years of trying to get my books published traditionally, I stumbled upon the idea of uploading my books to Amazon’s Kindle in 2009. Everything lined up perfectly. My timing was good and early readers recommended my books on message boards. On my own, I sold 100,000 ebooks and it only got better when my books were acquired by Amazon Publishing and helped by their marketing reach.
Today I have ten books published in print, ebook, and audio through Amazon Publishing, Kindle Direct Publishing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Brilliance Audio. Many of my titles have spent time on the top 100 Kindle list. My publishing story has been covered by the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and the national NPR show, The Story with Dick Gordon. I’ve also appeared on ABC's World News Now and America This Morning. I get complimentary reader emails on a regular basis, something that continues to amaze and thrill me.

I’m not sure I deserve this success, but I’ll take it anyway. Other writers email and ask for specific information regarding marketing tips and and tech advice. Regretfully, I tell them I’m not the best person to ask since a lot of my good fortune came as a result of timing and luck. The publishing world is changing so quickly that any strategies I used are now outdated.

The advice I can give comes from a lifetime of reading, writing, and (more recently) publishing. Here goes:

·   Don’t be afraid to try something different whether it’s crossing genre-lines or finding new ways to get the word out about your book. Be open and listen to your gut. After I’d started selling on Kindle, I told several writer friends what I’d done, and I tried to convince them to put their novels up as ebooks but none were interested. A few of them said, “What’s a Kindle?” (Seriously, this was 2009) and most of them were dismissive of self-publishing, which admittedly did have a major stigma back then.
·   Write the book of your heart, the story only you can tell. Write it with the thought that even if it doesn't make a cent, the joy of creation is enough. I’ve seen plenty of writers try to write to the market. Usually the books lack heart and don’t do well, which infuriates the authors who believe they’d put in all the necessary components. Novels aren’t widgets. Readers can tell when a story has been constructed instead of emotionally crafted.
·   Keep going. Write more than one book and then do it again. Some really great books never get their due. What can I say? Life isn’t fair. Having multiple titles increases your chances of discoverability. Personally, I’ve written ten books and some do really well and others not so much. Could I have predicted which was which? I could have tried, but I would have been wrong. Just keep writing.
·   Think of every book sale as a gift. Someone out there parted with their hard-earned money in the hope your story would pull them into another world. Appreciate their trust and never take it for granted.
·   There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote that writing teachers like to trot out: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” To this I’d add that it helps if the character is thirsty. Besides wanting something, there should be some pain involved, whether it’s physical or emotional. As readers we empathize with characters and want to root for them. Their pain becomes our pain and we’ll keep turning pages to see how it all comes out.
·   Avoid info dumps. They reek and interrupt the story. Description and information becomes more palatable when it’s filtered through the eyes or actions of a character.
The good news and the bad news is that you’re not going to find definitive step-by-step directions for writing a novel here or anywhere else. You might disagree with something I’ve said, and that’s okay with me. No one appointed me the Grand Poobah of fiction writing. I’m figuring it out as I go along, just like everyone else.
So find your own way, use your own voice, craft your own story. In my opinion, this is a wonderful time to be a writer. It’s still not easy, but if you wanted easy you’d probably be doing something else.
Happy writing!



Debra Curtiss said...

Karen, I am so happy with your success and it is good to have 'known' you from the beginning.

Your books supply great stories that display your respect for not only your characters and the plot, but also the respect you show for your fans and readers.

You provide books that are error free, formatted well for ebooks and at the right price point. The stories are not dummied down by just telling us. You give us visual pictures in ways we can all identify with from our daily lives and when you do, it touches our hearts and minds in ways that make us into better people, or at least desire to be better.

You have done it all correctly and we love the journeys you invite us to go with you. We are always ready for a McQuestion adventure.

Thank you!

Debra Curtiss

Amber Dane said...

Thank you for sharing this inspiring post. Like all the bullet-ed points, especially the Keep going even when we don’t want to. Much continued success to you.

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Debra! So nice to see you here. You (along with your daughter, if I remember correctly) were one of the awesome early readers I mentioned.Thank you for all your kind words about my books, and for giving me such a boost at the start. I really am grateful that there is such a thing as a McQuestion adventure (love that phrase!).

Hello Amber! I'm glad you found the post helpful. I've been the recipient of a lot of good advice, and I like to give back when I can.

Kay Bratt said...

Great advice as usual, Ms. McQuestion!

Karen McQuestion said...

Thanks Kay!

Bill B said...

Good advice ... which, by the way, with a few word substitutions applies to other professions as well.

I so appreciate your taking the time to lay down some encouraging and helpful words for folks you've never met! And I'll continue to try to find my own way, use my own voice, & craft my own story, Ms Poobah!

Karen McQuestion said...

I'm glad you found it helpful, Mr. Bill! Heh. It's absolutely true about each writer having their own voice. As much as I admire other authors, I can't be them so I might as well embrace what I've got and do the best I can.

Tony Memmel said...

"Novels aren't widgets." Well said, Karen. I really enjoyed this blog. Keep up the great work!

Fiona the Artist said...

Hi Karen, I found your blog today, through Amazon, when I was reading some tips on marketing Kindle books. Your words are really encouraging! I'm a painter but I have written a novel, based on my years living and working in Cyprus, and I'm about to self-publish it on Kindle. So I'm really excited. It's been some years in the writing but I have loved writing it. I don't have any expectations, in the same way that I don't with my paintings - the love of making them comes first. But it is so warming to read about your success, and to have contact with a writer who has published on Kindle. I am now following your blog. Best wishes from Fiona

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Fiona, it's so nice to hear from you! Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment. I wish you every success, in art and in life. :)

Karen McQuestion said...

Tony, I just realized I never responded to your comment! My apologies. I enjoyed your comment and was glad to see you here.

It's been fun for me to follow your career and watch you grow as an artist. I'm a fan!