Holiday Gift Guide for Romance Writers

The holidays are fast approaching, which means it’s time to start thinking of great ideas to give that special romance novelist in your life. Instead of gifting them yet another mug printed with a clever writing-related quip, or a stack of blank notebooks (although, frankly, we can never get enough blank notebooks), try thinking outside the box this year. Here are a few fun, novel ideas to get you started.

  • Subscription to Focus@Will. When we’re churning away at our novels, we need to block out the rest of the world and focus on nothing else but our words. Sometimes this can be hard to do, especially for those of us who fit our writing in among the chaos of day jobs and families. Something I’ve personally found helpful is Focus@Will, a music service that is specifically designed – and scientifically proven – to help improve concentration. You can give gift accounts in 3-month, 12-month, and lifetime intervals.
  • Aqua Notes. Ask any author: the best ideas always come to us while we’re showering. Half the time, we’re running out of the bathroom, naked and covered in suds, eager to jot that brilliant plot point down on a soggy piece of paper before we lose it forever. With a pad of waterproof paper suction-cupped to the shower wall, though, we can capture our ideas while we’re still in the middle of shampooing our hair.
  • 642 Things to Write About. We all have those days when the words just don’t flow as fluidly as we want (or need) them to. Sometimes, the best way to combat writer’s block is to write about something totally random and off-the-wall. Writing prompts are notorious for helping us out from our ruts, and a book with 642 of them provides almost two years’ worth of ideas – whether it’s brainstorming a new story or getting unstuck from a tricky plot point.
  • Plot Your Work Planner. This is a new one, and still in a beta-testing round, but doesn’t it sound cool? Well, to the novelist in your life it might sound cool, even if it doesn’t to you. For authors who are juggling multiple projects at once, this planner helps them break down their massive monoliths into manageable chunks of work, scheduling their entire year with goals, focus items, and mind maps. As of this publication, they should be available for order during the first week of December, with plenty of time to ship before the holidays.
  • Gift Certificate to The Ripped Bodice. We all need to refill our creative wells from time to time, and the best way for a romance novelist to do that is to read more romance novels! Give the writer in your life a gift to The Ripped Bodice, the only bookstore in the United States to focus exclusively on romance. They offer online-only gift codes, so even if you can’t make it to their brick-and-mortar storefront in LA, you can still indulge in the romance-y goodness available online.

These are just a few creative ideas to help inspire your favorite romance novelists to write more and write better in 2017. Any ideas I left off? Feel free to leave them in the comments!

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An Agent Has Offered You Representation… Now What?

The query process is often a long, draining one. While you’re busy sending out letters, refining your pitch, and collecting rejections, it can sometimes seem like you’ll never get an offer of representation. But then, after weeks, months, even years in the trenches, it happens: you get “the call.”Question Marks

Well… now what? As much as you might want to jump on their offer with a resounding “YES!” it would behoove you to ask some questions to make sure the agent is a good fit for you and your writing career. We’ve all heard that saying, “A bad agent is worse than no agent.” This is your chance to figure out if this agent is the right choice for you. So, what should you ask them?

Recently, this same question came up in a small group of RWA-SD writers, and some of the suggestions were so good, they deserved to be shared with a wider audience. So here are some questions you can – and probably should – ask a potential agent during that exciting offer of rep call:

  • Do you consider yourself to be editorial, or are you more hands-off? In other words, do they want to help revise your projects before sending them out on submission, or are they planning to send them as-is? Both agenting styles have their pros and cons, so this is really a matter of what you’re more comfortable with, and what you want out of your relationship with your agent.
  • What is your communication style? Find out how the agent prefers to get in touch with you – by phone, over email, etc. – and how often they plan to touch base.
  • Can you tell me about some of your recent deals? Get an idea of who they rep, what kind of work they’re putting out there in the world, who they’re doing business with, and what kinds of contacts they already have. Many times, this information is available on Publishers Marketplace, but if you don’t have a subscription, now’s a good time to ask about it.
  • What is your policy on self-published work? If you plan to self-pub your projects in the future, or are interested in becoming a hybrid author, you should find out their stance on self-published work ahead of time. Will they be involved or supportive? And do they expect a financial cut of your self-published projects?
  • What happens if my book doesn’t sell? Most likely, you’re signing with an agent based off of a single book or series, but there’s always a chance it won’t sell. Now’s a good time to discuss other ideas for future projects, to see if you and the agent share a long-term vision for your future and your career.

What about you? What are some things you asked your agent before signing with him/her – or what are some things you wish you’d asked?

What’s Your Plan?

Do you have a business plan? If not, you aren’t alone. Many authors don’t have one, for any number of reasons. It can be scary to actually put your dreams into words. It can be intimidating to look at how much work you need to do to get to where you want to go. And it can be embarrassing to admit you haven’t a clue as to what you even want to achieve. But, according to Stephanie Bond, an MBA-holding author of over seventy mystery and romance titles, a business plan is a necessity. In her 2016 RWA Nationals workshop, “Plan for Success: Create a Motivational Business Plan for Your Writing Career,” she discussed the benefits of creating a business plan, and shared a rough outline for how to write one for yourself.Plan for Success

Perhaps writing a business plan came naturally to Stephanie, since she holds an MBA and spent many years climbing the ranks of the corporate world before quitting to write full-time. But it doesn’t have to be a formal process. According to Stephanie, we can start out by asking ourselves questions. Questions like: What do you want to do with your writing? What do you want to achieve? How do you want to affect your readers? Just forcing yourself to think about the big picture like this is an excellent tool for establishing focus and figuring out what you really want to accomplish as a writer. This is the foundation of your business plan, and allows you to lay the groundwork for the future of your writing career.

An important component of your business plan should be setting your goals and objectives, which Stephanie described as two separate things. Goals, she said, are under your control, while objectives are not. Objectives tend to be lofty and long-term – Earn enough money to live off my writing! Hit the New York Times bestseller list! – while goals are short-term and achievable – Enter that contest! Query that agent! Focus on what you can control, she said, and figure out what kinds of short-term goals you can set that might help you to achieve those lofty, long-term objectives.

She also stressed the importance of adopting a business mindset in your everyday life, and recommended paying attention to business blogs, such as Seth Godin’s, keeping CNBC on in the background as you work, and reading Entrepreneur magazine.

In my opinion, the most important takeaway from the workshop was the following sentiment:

You are a business that creates entertainment for consumption in multiple formats.

Think of yourself as a “content generator,” creating novels, blog posts, audiobooks, novellas, short stories, nonfiction articles, and more.

There was so much to this wonderful workshop, including discussion of branding strategies and instructions on how to maintain a body of work document. I came away from it inspired to create my own business plan, which has left me more motivated and inspired than ever before. If you’re an RWA member, you can purchase the audio recording at rwa.org to get all the details. The return on investment could be huge.

Navigating the Twitterverse

Confession time: participating in social media does not come easily to me. For one thing, I’m sort of a private person, and uncomfortable with the idea of someone knowing my every move, or worse yet, my every feeling. I’m also not much of a photographer – I mean, have you seen my Instagram lately? The artistry of the snapshots leaves much to be desired. And when it comes to turning the camera on myself, I’d rather get a deep cleaning in the dentist’s chair than take a selfie.

But there’s one social media platform that I’ve become comfortable with, maybe even grown to love, and that’s Twitter. Designed for brevity, Twitter limits your updates to 140-character posts, or “tweets.” These bite-sized morsels of information allow you to compose quickly, peruse at a glance, and connect with everyone from Harlequin to the President.

It took me some time to figure out how best to use Twitter as an author. But with a few years of experience under my belt, I’ve come up with some tips and tricks worth sharing that can help you to use Twitter most effectively.

Kristin’s Totally Subjective Dos and Don’ts of the Twitterverse*

  • Do make connections. I’m not talking about getting as many people to follow you as possible. I’m talking about connecting with people on a very real, authentic level. If you’re having a hard time thinking about what to add to your Twitter feed, start with your writing: What are you working on? What are your challenges? Where are you going to set up your writing space today? Find other writers who are writing in your genre and tweet at them. Participate in hashtags like #1linewed and #amwriting, which implicitly invites other people to tweet at you. Take part in Twitter chats like #RWChat. By putting in the time and effort, you can build your community organically.
  • Don’t wallpaper your feed with promo. If all you do is show up on Twitter every once in a while to promote your book – or worse yet, schedule the same tweet over and over and over again – you’re not going to get a lot of people who really care about you or your books. When it comes to Twitter, canned promo is just another reason to scroll. However, once you make those authentic connections, you’ll have people who really care about you, are interested in what you have to say, and maybe, they might even want to buy your book! As long as there’s a high ratio of entertaining or educational tweets to promo or marketing, then when you do send out a promotional tweet, you run less of a risk of scaring off potential, or even existing, followers.
  • Do get educated. Opportunities for writing advice abound on Twitter. Some of my favorite accounts to follow are:
    • Jami Gold. A writer herself, she links to articles – some her own, some from others – on many different topics, ranging from setting career goals to editing your story. (Side note: If you’ve never checked out her worksheets, I highly recommend them.)
    • Naomi Hughes. A freelance editor, Naomi frequently posts tips on story structure, pacing, conflict, and much more. Many of her tweets are storified, as well. I’ve saved so many of her informative tweets, and reference them often.
    • Chuck Sambuchino. A contributor to Writer’s Digest, he posts a lot of information on how to query, how to find a literary agent, and perhaps most importantly, provides links to new agents who are actively looking to build their lists. His Twitter feed is an invaluable resource for someone who’s in the query trenches.
  • Don’t worry (too much) about followers. A lot of people seem to be concerned with hitting a certain number of followers – if I can just hit 100, 500, or 1000, then I’ll totally be dominating Twitter! But the truth is, having a lot of followers doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot. There are even services out there that offer followers for pay, and people are catching on to that, rendering follower counts less significant. Of course, you do want to have an audience, though. So worry more about the content you’re creating – this will help you attract real followers who are actually paying attention to what you tweet.
  • Do seek out representation or publication – if that’s what you’re looking for. There’s no better way to connect with agents and editors than on Twitter. Many of them have a strong Twitter presence, and freely interact with other publishing professionals and aspiring authors. Many of them post their manuscript wishlist requests under the hashtag #MSWL. And several times a year, there are sponsored “pitch parties,” such as #PitMad and #DVPit, which agents and editors will scroll through and favorite – essentially, a request for a partial or full.
  • Don’t pitch your book. Unless you are participating in one of the pitch parties described above, agents and editors will bristle if you attempt to pitch them on Twitter with your book. Think of Twitter as a water cooler, where everyone from publishing gathers to take a five-minute break to chat. You can ask them questions – many of them will gladly clarify questions on their wishlists or submission requirements if it’s not already clear from their websites – but don’t expect to get a request for pages by tweeting them an unsolicited blurb of your book.

What about you? When using Twitter, what’s worked for you and what has been a total failure? Share your experiences in the comments!

* As always, YMMV.

Pitch Perfect

You’ve spent the past six months (or twelve months, or three years) pouring your heart into the pages of a novel. You’ve written, revised, sent to critique partners and beta-readers, crossed every t and dotted every i… and now you’re finally ready to send your creation out into the world.

But if you’re seeking traditional publication, first you’ve got to get the attention of a literary agent or editor. Often, this means months (or years) of sending out query letters, hoping to be plucked from the depths of the slush pile. And while the slush pile is not to be discounted (my agent found me in her slush pile!), there’s something to be said for the ability to talk one-on-one with a publishing professional about your work, to have their undivided attention and be able to sell your story in person.

At this week’s RWASD meeting, you’ll have the chance to do just that. Experienced literary agent and San Diego local, Kevan Lyon, will be talking all about audio, foreign, and film rights in the morning, and taking pitches in the afternoon. If you’re one of the lucky ones who scored a spot on her pitch list, here are some tips to help you make the most of your minutes with her:

  1. Get to the point. Your pitch should get to the heart of your story. Don’t waste any of your precious minutes describing extraneous details or secondary characters. Instead, focus on your main characters, what’s keeping them apart, and why they need to be together. Concentrate on conflict and emotion. And make sure you come up with a strong hook. (For tips on how to devise a hook for your story, see this article written by Angie Fox, our June guest speaker!)
  2. Be natural. Think of this less as an interview and more like a conversation. The first time I ever pitched to an agent, I sat down with a stack of index cards trembling in my hands, and started reading from them, tripping over my words. When the agent saw how nervous I was, she told me to put the cards away and just tell her about my story. She started asking questions, and so did I; after that our discussion just flowed, and I walked away from the pitch with her business card and a partial request. Agents and editors don’t want to sit through a presentation; they want to engage with an author. Don’t just sit down and launch into your spiel – ask them how they’re doing, and what they’d like to know about your book.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Even though you’re not aiming to repeat a memorized speech verbatim, you still need to know the gist of what you’re going to say, inside and out. This is particularly helpful if you’re a bit of a nervous public speaker – like me! Rehearsing what you’re going to say dozens of times can help it become second nature, resulting in a more natural delivery, and alleviating any performance anxiety you might have. If you’re looking to perfect your pitches, you’re welcome to come to our PRO breakfast this Saturday morning to practice with some of your fellow RWA members. (I’ll be there to help provide feedback!)

If you have any tips on pitching, please share them in the comments!

Even if you haven’t signed up for pitches with Kevan this weekend, don’t forget that you’ll have another chance in July, when RWA Nationals is hosted right here in our hometown. So come on by this weekend to practice your pitches in the morning, and stay to hear all about what Kevan has to say.

See you on Saturday!

Sticking to Your Writing Resolutions

Ah, the first week of a brand new year. When the landscape before you seems ripe with potential and promise. Tacking a new calendar onto the wall can make you feel like you can conquer anything, can’t it? Like, for example, those writing-related resolutions you made. Perhaps you’ve set a minimum daily word count for yourself, or a deadline by which to finish your revisions. Whatever it may be, you’re energized by this new goal, committed to setting aside the time you need every single day. You’re gonna make 2016 your most productive writerly year ever. Am I right?

Except once week two rolls around, that little annoyance called “real life” starts to get in the way of your dreams. Suddenly, the nice hour of uninterrupted writing time you’ve carved out for yourself every evening after the sun goes down is getting harder and harder to keep up with. Especially when your boss asks you to stay late for the rest of the month, right before your toddler comes down with a cold, at the same time your hot water heater explodes all over your garage floor, and oh good the cat just puked on the carpet again… it’s enough to make you want to throw in the towel.

But you won’t, because you love this too much.

So how do you keep making progress and moving forward?

Traditional advice tells you that your writing time is sacred, and you should protect it at all costs. So for crying out loud, STOP MAKING EXCUSES! GO IN YOUR OFFICE AND SHUT THE DOOR! But what if you don’t have an office? What if all you have is a corner of your cluttered coffee table, right next to the puddle of cat puke? How do you protect your writing time then?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have some ideas that have worked for me.

  • Stealing moments. Think about all those short bits of unoccupied time you experience in the course of any given day: standing on line at the pharmacy; sitting in the lobby of the dentist’s office; leaning against the kitchen counter, waiting for the kettle to whistle. If you always keep your story at the forefront of your mind, you can easily snatch these minutes for your writing. Some examples of five-minute tasks: developing a plot point; determining a character motivation; smoothing out a clunky piece of dialogue that’s been bugging you for a while. Make a habit of keeping a notebook and pen on you at all times so you can capture the words as they come to mind. (If you’re a techier person, like me, you might use a note-taking app on your phone instead. My personal favorite? Google Keep.)
  • Getting organized. When you’re writing in five-minute increments at various locations, it can sometimes be hard to keep all your snippets of literary genius straight. So come up with a system of organizing your story that works for you. Personally, I like using Scrivener; whenever I get a chance to sit down at my laptop, I’ll copy my handwritten and/or phone-dictated notes into the binder for my project. A caveat: don’t allow your organizational system to become so complex and time-consuming that it usurps the moments you should be devoting to your words. Keep it simple and make sure it supports your writing goals.
  • Reevaluating priorities. Sure, you might have a good time knitting that king-size afghan or binge-watching Sherlock (for the third time this month…) but do these things really matter to you more than your writing? As the credits roll on the final episode of the final season, will it bring you as much joy as typing “The End” on the last page of your finished novel? If not, then maybe you should cancel your Netflix subscription.
  • Adopting a mantra. Silly as it may sound, motivational mottos tend to ground me when I’m flailing around. I’ve got a couple pasted up on the wall next to my desk, and I’ll look over at them when I’m in most need of inspiration to keep moving. My favorite is a Chinese proverb: “Be not afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” Progress is progress, even if it’s an inch at a time. Put one word after another after another, and you’ll eventually have a whole story.

What about you? What are some strategies you employ to protect your writing time when the pesky needs of real life get in the way?

Start Your Engines! NaNoWriMo is upon us!

Somewhere between the spooky sights of Halloween and the warm comfort of Thanksgiving lies an insanity that only writers understand. That insanity is National Novel Writing Month also known as NaNoWriMo. Many writers ride their October candy binge into the deep void, fingers itching against their keyboards on the eve of October 31st as they strive to complete a 50k rough draft in a single month. For thirty days houses go uncleaned, phones go unanswered, and writers survive off a steady diet of caffeine and hot pockets as they tirelessly write… and write… and write.  Madness usually overtakes you around the third week and the uncontrollable giggling starts on the fourth. I won’t get into the lengthy one-sided conversations in an empty room by week five.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo for three years now and despite the groggy nights and gnashing of teeth, I look forward to it each time. It gives me an entire month of being focused on my story and puts me in a almost zen state as the words fly out from my fingertips. If you are deadline oriented person like myself and want to get into an everyday writing habit, it’s a great start. Honestly, NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone. It can be pretty stressful if you don’t like pressure. I know many writers who just don’t enjoy it like I do. But if you thrive under time crunches, this is a great exercise.

If this is your first time at the NaNo rodeo, here are some tips that helped me survive the November insanity:

  • Designate some writing time. An hour at least. After work is when I do mine, but if you’re an early riser, maybe an hour in the morning will do you good.
  • Find a NaNo buddy. Find two! Find eight! Get yourself a crowd of folks who you can cheer on and can cheer on you. That community will be your life’s blood while you scramble for your daily word count.
  • Word sprints are the best. My monthly writers group already have our coffee shop NaNo sprint planned. If you can’t do one in person, do a sprint online with your Facebook friends.
  • Don’t feel discouraged. Even if you don’t hit your 50k goal, even if you only wrote one sentence, you still wrote! And that is to be celebrated!

Are you a NaNoWriMo writer? Share some of your tips in the comments!

The Courage to Keep On Writing

Writers live interesting lives. We toil in solitude, sometimes for weeks on end, churning out words, perfecting our prose, and trying our darnedest to persevere in the face of rejection (after rejection, after rejection…) in pursuit of publication. Our lives can sometimes seem like endless stretches of self-doubt and emotional struggle, punctuated by short-lived – but euphorically high – moments of triumph. Sometimes, it can be hard to slog through those long stretches; when you’re not getting any positive feedback or signs of encouragement, how do you find the courage to keep going?

Personally, I always look for the answer in a book. When I start to feel low or panicky, when I’m faced with a daunting task or a looming deadline, when I get a bad critique or rejection letter, I’ll turn to that shelf mounted just above my desk, the one that’s loaded with books I find to be particularly inspiring. And I crack the spine and turn the pages until I’m feeling good again.

The crazy thing is, it works every time.

Here are just a few of the books that never fail to pick me up when I’m feeling down:

  • The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. This might be a considered a classic by writers and creators everywhere. It’s a quick read by Stephen Pressfield, and focuses on methods writers (and all artists) can use to fight back against all those nasty negatives that prevent you from creating your best work – forces Pressfield refers to as “resistance.”
  • Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. This is a new addition to my shelf. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, released this self-help guide in September, which is structured very similarly to The War of Art. Written like a letter from your own personal writing coach, Gilbert draws on her own experiences – both as struggling rejected writer and wildly successful celebrity — and whittles creativity down to its essential elements, which is basically: showing up, doing the work, and not allowing your fear to make any decisions for you. (For an abbreviated version, you can also check out her TED talk.)
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I know, I know, you’re thinking, “That sounds awfully rigid and business-oriented.” But my favorite part of this best-selling book is where I define my core values, goals, and personal mission statement. I wrote these years ago, and whenever I need to remind myself of what it is I want from life, I read through them and feel reenergized. This is also a handy method for determining what deserves priority and attention in my life, and what merely serves as a distraction from what’s most important to me: namely, my writing.
  • Old Favorites. Reading my all-time favorite books in this genre remind me of why I embarked on this journey in the first place. Some of mine include:
    • The Queen of Babble series, by Meg Cabot
    • Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie
    • Something Borrowed, by Emily Giffin
    • Basically anything by Kristan Higgins (who, coincidentally, will be our guest at the November literacy event!)

Hopefully, you found something worthwhile on this list that might help you in your hour of personal writing-related despair. What about you? What are some of your favorite books that inspire you to keep on writing?