The ‘Getting Published’ Advice I Wish I’d Listened To

Welcome to the Distress Signals Blogging Bonanza! What’s that, you’re wondering? Well, you can either go and read this post or read the next sentence. In a nutshell: Distress Signals was out in paperback in the UK and Ireland on January 5 and hits the U.S.A. on February 2, and every day in between I’m going to blog as per the schedule at the bottom of this post. 

As you may know, I’ve led many a ‘how to self-publish your book’ seminar in my time. The first few times I did it, I’d sit down at my desk to start putting together my PowerPoint presentation and despair that I only had 90 minutes or however long to squeeze in everything I needed to tell the group about how to self-publish successfully. After I did a few of them, I realised that the best approach was not to aim to tell them everything about self-publishing, but to tell them everything they needed to know in order to start, and start off on the right foot. Those are two very different things.

So I stopped talking about making and selling print-on-demand paperbacks with the likes of CreateSpace and Lulu. Instead I advised that they treat the e-book like a hardback, releasing that first, testing the waters, adapting their plan if need be, and then – if it went well – reinvesting the profits in their print edition. After years of this self-publishing lark, both doing it myself and watching others at it, I think now that this is the best approach. It’s logical, it’s risk-averse and it keeps it simple. But during the Q&A, someone would always ask something like, ‘What about Lightning Source?’ And I’d groan inwardly, because I’d be thinking to myself, Go home, finish your book, self-publish it as best as you possibly can in e-book – and then start worrying about Lightning Source. But not before.

I wish someone had said something similar to me when I was traipsing into Waterstone’s Cork every Saturday afternoon in the early 2000s, systemically working my way through their How To Write Books books section. I hadn’t finished my book – I hadn’t even started it – but I felt like it was really important I know exactly how much an agent’s commission was on translation rights before I even thought about putting put pen to paper. The proliferation of blogs and the constant, never-ending, information tsunami that is Twitter only made things worse. Much, much worse. Years later, when I finally got a clue and concentrated solely on the things I should be concentrating on, I finally learned that getting published is all about the book. So I finished my book. I signed with an agent. And then I got published.

But, but, BUT.

It’s easy to forget that information you think is common knowledge is not actually so. It’s just that you’ve known it for so long, you’ve forgotten you didn’t once. And starting out, I think you do need to know some things. So here is my absolutely bare bones, rock-bottom minimum place to start if you’re aspiring to see a book you wrote on the shelf. This is what I wish someone had said to me five, ten, fifteen years ago.

(Well, someone no doubt did say this to me. But boy, I wish that I had listened.)

Step 1: Write the Book

If I could go back in time and talk to Me From 2009, this is what I would tell her: do nothing else except sit down and write, and keep doing that until your book is finished.

Now, there’s loads you can to delay this. You can read stacks of how to write books books, you can attend workshops, you can hang around the writers’ water cooler on Twitter, you can blog about all the writing you plan on doing, you can play with Post-Its. But honestly, I think there’s only two things you need to do: read as much and as widely as you can, and put your arse in the chair in front of your computer. Honestly, you will never learn as much about how to write a book as you will from the act of actually sitting down and writing one. So go do that. First.

Step 2: Pick a path

Now comes the decision: to self-publish or try to get published? Well, no one can answer this question but you, so there’s really no point in asking me or anyone else.

What you can do is:

  • Research, so you know exactly what you’re getting into (and you can make a plan)
  • Set yourself a deadline

It’s possible that your book will decide for you. It might be very short, too short for a traditional publishing house. Or it might be about something that means time is of the essence, and you need to publish it now. For instance, last year you might have written something about the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising here in Ireland that really needed to be published in 2016 to take advantage of this increased awareness, public appetite, publicity opportunities, etc.

If this isn’t the case, I will say to you what I always say to writers who ask me this: set yourself a deadline. If you’re not sure, give yourself 12 months. Submit to agents, enter competitions, attend conferences, etc – basically, network – and do everything you can to try to find a traditionally published home for your book. Then, once the 12 months is up, if it seems like nothing is happening, perhaps self-publish instead.

Step 3: Don’t Rush Things

Here’s the thing I would love for you to take in: don’t rush. Don’t panic. Don’t feel like you’re missing out or that you need to get your book on Amazon yesterday. I completely understand the feeling you get in your gut when someone says, ‘When is your book out? I can’t wait to read it.’ It’s itchy. It’s panicky. It increases your heart rate. And suddenly all you can think about is getting the book up on Amazon so you can capture that one sale. And that’s a huge mistake.

Just on a practical level, self-publishing does not mean uploading your file to Amazon this weekend. Self-publishing means launching a product. You need to plan. You need to prepare. You need to build anticipation. Ideally, you need to have another book nearly ready to go. (I think, these days, the only way to succeed at self-publishing and to maintain your momentum once you do is by releasing more than one book.) All of this takes time. You can only launch your book once. Don’t diffuse your own momentum by doing it too soon, before you’ve done the work.

Similarly, don’t give yourself 6 weeks to get an agent. Leaving aside the fact that the top agencies get thousands of submissions a year and it would be nearly impossible for even one of them to get back to you in that space of time, that’s so little time that you’re guaranteeing failure before you’ve even begun trying. All this stuff, it takes AGES. Use it to start on your next book.

What I didn’t realise before I got my deal is that, you know what? It’s not the worst thing in the world to be waiting for your dream to arrive. It’s a nice bit. There’s no deadlines, no pressure, no contracts. You’re writing purely because you love to write. Forget about the destination for a second. Enjoy the journey.

Everything else – that can come later. Worry about it then. For now, just finish your book, pick a path and don’t rush.

In its own way, this is the good bit.

dsbb

Remember: there’s a super sexy hardcover edition of Distress Signals (the American one, out February 2) up for grabs, signed to you from me. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post or any post published here between January 5 and February 2. One entry per post, so comment on more than one and increase your chances. Open globally. Good luck!

How To Write a Novel (When You Think You’ve Forgotten How)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a pathological procrastinator. I don’t know why, but I do know that I have never been able to delay gratification. So instead of rewarding myself with 7 hours of OJ: Made in America when the first draft of Book 2 is done and dusted and I can relax and enjoy it guilt-free, I watch it now and tell myself I will write after. I mean, I’d just be distracted by my wanting to watch it otherwise, right?

(Side note: OJ: Made in America is truly incredible TV.)

I joke that I’d call my would be productivity guide Don’t Start Until It’s Already Too Late – and that’s pretty much what I do. I can only work under pressure, while panicking. I read somewhere that the procrastinator’s sweet spot is the exact moment when the fear of creating something crap is overtaken by the fear of not having enough time to create anything at all. That’s almost always when I start work – and not a moment before.

This past year or so, my procrastination problem has got worse. This is the first time I’ve ever had to write a book under contract, and I’ve had to do it in a period of time that’s, at most, half as long as the time I spent writing the first one. So for starters, you’ve got pressure. I believe procrastination is something like 30% laziness and 70% fear. Distress Signals has been incredibly well received by critics, book bloggers and readers. It’s wonderful but it’s also terrifying. Can I do this again? How did I do it the first time? So, we’ve got plenty of fear in the mix too. I’m a binger, in that I do my best work when I can clear my schedule, lock myself away and write from dawn to dusk – or maybe through the night – without stopping, hopped up on caffeine and sugar. A slow and steady 1,000 words every day just doesn’t work for me.

But now, I’m much busier than I was when I was writing most of Distress Signals that way. Being in university full-time means essay deadlines and exams and more reading than any person who sleeps could possibly do (I maintain). Then there’s everything Distress Signals demands as a book that’s out in there in the world. Online promotion, U.S. edits, a one-day 10-stop bookshop road trip, a signing, an interview for a newspaper and preparation for a literary festival in a couple of weeks are just some of the things I’ve had to do in the last two weeks. So most days I just can’t binge-write any more. The schedule is too busy to clear.

cruisesstreet

Last Friday I visited ten bookstores in Limerick, Shannon, Ennis, Newcastle West and Tralee. The Eason’s on O’Connell Street in Limerick had a side entrance onto Cruises Street – perfect! (Distress Signals is about a murder on a cruise ship.) 

So we’ve got more fear, more pressure and then more things to do/less time in the mix too. It’s the perfect storm. It’s the reason why the first draft of Book 2 still isn’t finished, even though my original goal – back in the rose-tinted days of last summer when the world was all rainbows, puppies and unrealistic plans – was to have a vomit draft by last Christmas and a first draft by the end of April, just before Distress Signals came out.

laughing-gifs-pillow-cover

(I really want to go back to Summer 2015 Catherine and slap her in the face. Hard.)

The good news is we’re almost there. I’m almost there. This is the last week I’ll work on this draft of the book. But I’ve had to sort of trick myself into writing it.I’ve had to hunt down procrastination, sedate it, bound and gag it and lock it in a basement room. (Hey, I’m a crime writer, okay?) In the process, I’ve been reminded of things – tips and tricks and truths – that I’d forgotten. In case you’re struggling with your project, here they are.

Build Write It and They Will Come

I’m a big plotter, so the first thing I have to do in order to write a book is sort mine out. I don’t plan everything out in advance, but I like to have some signposts along the way. I open a Word document and create a simple outline using numbering. It’ll be a longer version of this (the notes in square brackets pertain to my specific plot):

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 09.47.45

Then what I’ll do is I’ll take my ideas for scenes, plot developments, etc. and fill as much of this in as I can. The problem was that when I sat down to do this for Book 2, I ended up with mostly blank space. Erm… Hang on a second. Do I even have a plot for this book?! I started to panic. Yep, totally screwed. I’m just an impostor. I knew I’d be found out. But because I was contracted to write this book, I had to sit down and write it anyway, which is when I realised/remembered:

The ideas come while you’re writing.

I’ve put that in bold and italics because it’s the most important point of this whole blog post. You can sit in all the cafes you want with your notebook, chewing on a pen, dreaming up plot lines and characters and killer twists. But – at least in my writing life – I will never come up with stuff that way that’s half as good as what I come up with while I’m actually in the midst of writing the book.

photo 2-7

This is what the plot of Distress Signals looked like by the third and final draft (the one with my editor at Corvus). But this is the end game. It’s okay to start with mostly blank space on your plot charts. You probably should. 

So don’t panic. You may have no idea what goes in Part 3 right now, or you may not even be sure you have an ending. Your plot plan may be mostly blank space. But don’t wait until you have a plot to start writing. A few signposts will do. The ideas will come. Until then, just concentrate on writing this chapter.

Early, First, Focused

There’s a difference between saying ‘I’m going to spend all tomorrow writing’ and ‘I will write for no fewer than six hours tomorrow’. I turned 34 yesterday, you’d think I’d have discovered this before now. But that’s one lesson that has really been driven home to me recently, because so many hours and days seem to disappear into time-sucking, pointless tasks, and I end up with nothing to show for them. It’s not enough to intend to write tomorrow or this week. When you’re a procrastinator, you need to plan exactly how, when and where you’re going to.

I get the most out of my writing days when I:

  • Start early. This is allowing for the fact that even though you may have eight hours free in which to write, you’ll be lucky if you spend half of them actually typing words into your manuscript. The other thing is that you don’t know what’s going to happen during the day. You could get an exciting e-mail or an unexpected invitation or a toothache. Best to start now, as early as you can, before real life wakes up and starts distracting you.
  • Do the writing first. It’s the only way. Otherwise you end up watching OJ: Made in America before noon. (Trust me on this.) Also, the best thing about doing the writing first is that it’s done, it’s out of the way, and you can spend the rest of your time not feeling guilty or anxious, but smug and overly pleased with yourself that you got it done.
  • Focus. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But as I said at the top, these were things I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten that the internet is like a fibre optic cable plugged directly into my brain – I can’t work with it. Blocking apps don’t work for me; I can’t bring myself to turn them on and whenever I do, I pick up my phone before they’ve timed out. The best thing for me to do is go to a cafe or a library, not connect to the wifi and leave my phone in my bag at my feet. I can get as much done in an hour without the internet as I can in a whole day with it, and I write much better when I’m deep in my fictional world as opposed to being yanked out of it every five minutes, distracted by shiny things.

Change of Scenery

When writers moan about how lonely a profession this is, I roll my eyes. To me, that’s like saying ‘I love being hairdresser but – ew! – touching people’s hair. Yuck.’ I love the solitude. I need it. But I work from home, and my home is very small (I’m a writer and I live in Dublin city centre, so I’m essentially in a telephone box), and lately I’ve been experiencing cabin fever. So now I get out.

I’m surrounded by coffee shops and live only 15 minutes walk or so from my university, where there’s a whole library I can work in during office hours that’s comfortable, quiet and even has plug sockets. I’ve been making the most of this. The best things about writing somewhere else are that (a) you have almost none of the distractions you have at home and (b) when you do come home, you can enjoy it. There’s a separation between work and play.

IMG_9822

Think outside the box. One day last week I was really, really fed up. The weather was terrible, I was struggling to write and I honestly could not look at these four walls for a moment longer. So I did something drastic: I went on Booking.com and looked for cheap hotel rooms available for that evening within walking distance of my home. If a hotel has availability and it uses a third-party site like that, it might drop its rates during the day to try and fill empty rooms that night. I got a bargain, threw my toothbrush and my laptop in a bag and walked 30 minutes down the road to the hotel. I refused the receptionist’s offer of the wifi password and brought enough milk and coffee with me to see me through the night. Then I wrote 6,000 words, falling asleep as the sun came up. It was ridiculous, but it was just what I needed.

* * *

So there you go. I also recommend (i) whingeing and moaning to your writer friends over gin-based cocktails, (ii) re-reading Rachel Aaron’s From 2K to 10K on a regular basis and (iii) investing in a Nespresso machine. And reminding yourself that, hey, this is your dream job. Jobs are hard and sometimes they suck and you’re not going to love every single day, and some days will be more productive than others. But don’t forget about the “dream” part. These are all good problems to have. I mean, I used to have a job where I spent my days stapling things together for Satan himself, and my nights crying about my blackening soul in the shower.

This writing gig? It’s not all that bad…

FBnewcover99p

Distress Signals has a new cover! And it’s still only 99p! More exclamation marks! 

How’s your writing going? Do you suffer from procrastination? What do you do to help overcome it? Let us know in the comments below…