Happy New Year! At this fresh beginning, we set our goals for the coming months. As writers, we can divide these into Creative and Business Goals. The former may involve writing the next book or trying a short story, while the latter can include marketing efforts or reissuing titles in different formats.
First, let’s look back to see what I’ve accomplished in 2021. It was a productive year, coming after the pandemic started and we had a major move that sapped my creative energy through the latter half of 2020.
Last Year 2021
Wrote and Published Styled for Murder, #17 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries
Published Box Sets 1-4 in my mystery series
Offered a Sales Promotion for Permed to Death
Added my mystery titles to Google Play
This Year 2022
Write and Publish book #18 in my series, tentatively titled Star Tangled Murder
Publish Box Set 5 – Scheduled for Feb. 15 launch date
Revise standalone mystery Murder at Your Service
Do more audiobooks
Consider publishing romance backlist as paperback editions
Some of these choices are economical. I’d love to offer my early romances in print editions, but would enough readers buy them to offset the cost of formatting and cover design? Or should I attempt to do those myself using online tools? These are business choices I’ll have to make later.
Ditto for the audiobooks. These are very costly to produce, and I’ve only done 4 out of 17 titles. I don’t care to do royalty share, so this leaves the burden of cost up front to me. If I was sure I’d make back my investment, it would be a no-brainer, but that’s not happening. Another possibility is selling the rights to the remaining titles, if that’s even possible.
Every author likely goes through a phase when we are waiting for inspiration to strike. Or perhaps we have a plotting problem and need to find a solution. If you’ve been thinking about this issue for some time, the response will pop into your head at unexpected moments. It’s like a lightbulb turns on in your brain with just the answer you need.
It’s ironic that I was slated to speak to the Citrus Crime Writers chapter of Sisters in Crime on “Creating Settings that Sizzle.” I was struggling to figure out the setting for my next Bad Hair Day mystery.
It had been several weeks since I’d started preliminary research for this book on topics that interested me. But I still lacked the single cohesive factor I needed. In my blog post on the Five Stages of Writing, I mention Discovery as number one. This is wherein you discover the story before you begin writing. I knew the inciting incident had to take place at a fairground or a park. I had several disparate elements that I couldn’t tie together. What was I missing? The setting within a setting, which I’ve discussed in a previous post. I needed a group of people who knew each other, but I couldn’t repeat what I’ve done before. This will be my 18th book in the series, and it becomes a challenge to keep things fresh.
I sat on my couch, intending to ruminate about the plot, when EUREKA! The answer popped into my brain! It was PERFECT for what I needed!
It’s amazing how the subconscious works. This is why you need to give yourself time during this discovery phase and not rush things. Gather the story elements, let them stew in your mind, and out will come the answer you need.
I’d visited this place and wrote a blog on it. I had an album with over sixty photos. And there was even a haunted house with ghost tours on the premises! Moreover, this setting within a setting was located at a fairground and would have a built-in group of suspects.
I’d have to adjust things a bit to fit my scenario, but this idea hit the nail on the head. I even remembered an episode of The Brokenwood Mysteries that took place in a similar setting. I’ll watch it to see how they set things up. Fortunately, I have the DVD in my collection.
You never know when a research trip will pay off. As a writer, you should take notes and photos wherever you go. At some point in the future, you might need those notes to set a scene or an entire story in that place. Every site you visit becomes a potential goldmine.
Now I’m excited to bring the pieces together. I’ll have some weaving to do but I have my basis to get started. At this point, I can determine the suspects. Then it’s a matter of figuring out their secrets and interconnecting them. All of this takes place as part of the Discovery phase before writing the story. More research may be required but at least now I have a direction to follow. I’m excited to see where the trail will lead.
My fellow writers, have you ever experienced this Eureka moment? It’s a glorious feeling, isn’t it?
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When writing a cozy mystery, you need to identify the victim and then figure out who has something to gain from this person’s death. It can be friends, relatives, or colleagues. Give each person a secret that may or may not provide a motive for murder.
Next figure out how these people relate to each other. Imagine a spider web. Put the murder victim in the center circle. The spokes coming from the center are the suspects. These spokes have branches that are their motives. Then connect these people to each other like a web. If you want to see this web of deceit illustrated, pick up a copy of my book, Writing the Cozy Mystery.
Here are examples from Trimmed to Death to show you how it’s done. Hairstylist Marla Vail enters a bake-off contest at a local farm during a fall festival. She finds a dead body face-down in the u-pick strawberry field. Spoiler Alert!
Tally Riggs, Marla’s best friend, met Becky Forest at a local historical museum. Becky told Tally about the bake-off, who invited Marla to participate with her. Here is Becky in her office.
Becky, a scientist, is a cookbook author and curator of the museum. She studies plant remains of ancient peoples, including early Florida food practices. Every time Becky has a new cookbook out, she’s a guest on Chef Raquel Hayes’ TV show.
Raquel, a judge at the bake-off contest and a TV chef, did something in the past that could cause a scandal. Francine Dodger recognizes her on TV and threatens to spill her secret.
Francine, a contestant at the bake-off, is a food magazine editor. While researching an article on the farm, she uncovers something that could ruin the owners’ reputation.
Zach Kinsdale, eldest brother of four siblings who run the family farm, hasn’t told his two brothers and sister Janet about this looming disaster.
Janet is married to Tony, who runs an import-export business. He sells his imported olive oils to Zach for the farm’s marketplace. But Janet suspects something is unethical about her husband’s business. She organized the bake-off since her husband’s company is a festival sponsor.
Tony, Janet’s husband, is worried about an exposé that Francine has mentioned. He’s also concerned about Tristan Marsh, pastry chef at The Royal Palate and a judge at the show. Tristan has been making inquiries that concern him. Then there’s Alyce Greene, a blogger who supports the farm-to-table movement. She has been troublesome as well.
Alyce is a contestant at the bake-off. She’s married to Jon, a food truck operator. Jon got a loan to start his business from Alyce’s brother, Steve Madison. Steve, an investment advisor, manages Tony’s accounts.
And so on. You see how these people are interrelated. It helps when the puzzle pieces fit together as a whole, but this process may take a while. In the meantime, allow your subconscious to stew on your characters until story magic happens. The connections will pop into your brain. It’s a joyful moment when this occurs.
Questions often asked of writers include: What is your writing process? Do you set yourself daily writing goals? Do you plot the book in advance?
For me, I’m a plotter, not a pantser. I write a synopsis ahead of time. The storyline may change as I write the book, but it acts as a roadmap along the way. Once I get started writing and get past the first few pages or beginning chapters, I’ll set a deadline for completion. Then I put myself on a writing schedule of five pages a day. I don’t stop to polish my work or perfect my sentences. It’s important for me to get the story down on paper and then I can go back and revise.
If you want to finish a manuscript, it helps to set daily goals. When you sell to a traditional publisher, you’ll have definitive deadlines for the next book. Small press publishers may require a submission date as well if they offer multibook deals.
I’d started out working for Dorchester and did two books a year for them, meaning I had to complete a book within six months. Strict self-discipline is the only way to get this done. When I wrote for Kensington, they only wanted one book a year. That was easier because it gave me time to plan an extended launch campaign.
Now that I’m indie publishing my work, I set my own deadlines. My writing happens early in the morning before normal office hours. Then I have the rest of the day free for excursions or to work on marketing or other book projects.
When I’m in the revision stage, I also set goals. For a 300-page manuscript, this would be 10 pages a day to get done in a month. And that’s only for the first round of line editing.
Besides the creative goals, I also set business goals. This year, I am bundling my mysteries into box sets. Last year, the goal was to complete reissuing my backlist titles. Next, I’d like to do more audiobooks and perhaps revise some old manuscripts sitting in my drawers. This is in addition to writing book #18 in my series.
Keep in mind that my method might not work for you. Whichever way you can finish a book, go for it. But if you’re floundering and can’t seem to get past the first few chapters, set yourself some achievable goals.
Some writers say they write when the muse strikes them. They might go days without filling a manuscript page and work feverishly when the mood hits. I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration this way. As a professional writer, you have a job, and you must show up for work each day.
However, I do believe there’s a certain spark about a story that serves as a creative faucet. It’s what caught your passion in the first place. Or maybe you’re struggling to find this elusive element. That’s where I am with my next Bad Hair Day mystery. Never mind the dozen other distractions demanding attention, such as reissuing my remaining backlist titles. So what’s wrong?
I know what the next Marla Vail story will be about in terms of the murder mystery. But I like to learn something new with each book. That’s what makes the story fun and special for me. In EASTER HAIR HUNT, it was learning about beekeeping, stamp collecting, honey production and Fabergé eggs. In TRIMMED TO DEATH, I researched Florida olive groves and olive oil scams. The range of topics I’ve covered in each of my books varies greatly, but each subject was something that interested me. I haven’t found this spark yet for book #17 in the series.
As an author, you don’t want to repeat yourself. I’ve done the historical angle, especially in FACIALS CAN BE FATAL when I used excerpts from my father’s 1935 travel journal. I should avoid mixing history and mystery for this next one. Science? Maybe, but this might not be a good idea when we’re all so paranoid about viruses. Food? Always an interest of mine, but I’ve already done olives, coffee, honey, and vanilla.
I’ve scanned through the news, hoping some esoteric topic will catch my fancy. Maybe I’m too distracted to really think hard on it. Likely it’ll be 2021 before I can sit down to write this book, because I have too much else to get done before then. However, I could work on the plot once I get involved in the research. Would you call this waiting for the muse? Or is it merely waiting until my mind is clear to focus on this story?
I know the moment will come when the notion hits me. Or I’ll get interested in diverse topics that I will have to fit into the mystery plot. This is similar to putting a puzzle together. I’d write the ideas onto mental index cards and then shuffle them around to see how they can be combined. This is a bit harder than an overall concept but it can be done. Either way, I’ll be excited when inspiration hits. How about you? Do you need that special spark to start your story?
Is there such a thing as Writer’s Block? Or is it merely an excuse for poor planning? Because if you’ve properly laid the groundwork for your novel, you should know exactly where the story is headed. Some writers are pantsers and not plotters, and their novel writing experience is a meandering road that will eventually lead to the end. Whichever way you tell a story, the middle might become a muddle where the road ahead is obscured. But this doesn’t have to happen if you retrace your steps and build on whatever is already present.
In terms of writing the story, I don’t believe Writer’s Block exists. Even when faced with the complexity of writing a novel, we can break it down into baby steps. One hour of writing, one page, one chapter. We keep going until we are done. However, in terms of lost confidence or too many outside distractions, it can definitely be real.
Loss of confidence comes from a variety of sources, such as a bad review, a publisher who rejects your next option book or dumps you altogether, a line that is cancelled along with all its authors. You might feel lost, doubting your talent and questioning which way to go. But if you’re a career writer, you’ll either ignore that nasty review and celebrate the good ones instead, or you’ll pick yourself up and find a new publisher or will decide to try the indie route.
Outside distractions can be another major cause of Writer’s Block. Disastrous world events can become huge roadblocks. Our writing becomes insignificant in the face of these catastrophes. Storytelling seems meaningless, and yet we have to remember that books offer comfort to our readers. It’s our calling to provide escapism and entertainment during troubled times.
Personal events are much more difficult to ignore. Some writers find sitting at the computer to be comforting during personal crises. Others find it impossible to write. That’s okay. We need to allow time to process what has occurred, and hopefully, someday the muse will return.
Speaking of minds, in my fiction writing classes, I advise writers to examine their character’s life space to get to know them. This is what’s in the person’s head at any given moment in time. For example, three items are occupying my mind right now that are blocking my creativity.
Because of Covid 19, I hesitate to start a new project when each day brings the possibility of getting struck down by the virus. I have to avoid the news and shut out the dire prophesies in order to get anything done.
Another big energy drain is our desire to move to be near our kids. We’ve been packing, getting rid of stuff, looking at houses on Zillow every day. After living here for forty years, this isn’t easy for us.
The business of writing is also taking up a large portion of my brain. I am still working on reissuing the remainder of my backlist titles. After these are done, I’d like to bundle them into box sets and run price promotions. These require a learning curve as well as more time and effort to put them into action. In fact, I could focus totally on marketing and never write another book. And what about those standalones buried in my desk drawers? Are they worth publishing?
Physical problems can be inhibiting. People with pain may be unable to focus. Surgeries require time to heal. Along with health concerns come aging issues. How much longer will we be able to keep writing? Is it worth the effort to start a new series? How many more books will we be able to finish in our remaining years, and is that how we want to spend them?
Yet being a writer is who we are. We write stories because it fills our time, satisfies an inner need, expresses our creativity and gives our days purpose. We hang out with other writers and contribute to the writing community.
We’ve all been distracted by these problems and somehow we’ve found our way back, often to even greater success. I suspect the secret is what I’ve told aspiring authors. Focus on the writing first thing each day. Shove aside anything else on your mind and spend an hour on your writing project. Then let the world flood your mind.
What advice do you offer writers struggling with these issues?
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What is homework for writers? It’s when you need to learn something new, and instead of going the easy route by asking writer friends for answers, you do the research yourself. It’s okay to ask for advice and input but don’t expect to learn everything there is to know.
Where Should You Start?
Listserves can be a great source of information. Join your professional writing organizations, set your posts for daily digests, and scan the topics. Any time something pops up that you might use one day, copy and paste the information into a file. Then when the time comes, you’ll have a rich source of data that you can mine.
Blogs, podcasts, and webinars are another great source. So are your group’s newsletters, writing workshops and conference classes. Collect all the data and file it for when you need it. I’ve done this with just about every marketing topic I’ve ever needed to address.
Launching a New Venture
So now you are ready to get started self-publishing or putting your indie book into print or applying for a BookBub deal or trying an Amazon ad. Scour through your information on the topic and eliminate any links or material that’s outdated. See what applies to your situation. Then organize your tasks step-by-step. This gives you control and is more manageable than facing the entire job, which can be overwhelming. Once you’re ready, you need to ignore the fear of failure that might be holding you back and take a leap into the unknown.
On the loops, I’ve been reading about authors who get wide distribution for their audiobooks via Findaway Voices. I have corresponded with a few of them regarding the switch from exclusive to non-exclusive on ACX. That’s the first step to do if you’ve paid up front. As instructed, I also downloaded the audio chapters for each of my four audiobooks.
Next, I went onto the Findaway site and wrote down their requirements. Figuring my books would work, I requested the change from ACX support and am waiting for this to go through. Then I’ll do the upload to Findaway. At that point, lots of new promotional opportunities will open. I have notes on these also. My goal is to gain new listeners and hopefully get into the library market with my audiobooks. It’s all a big gamble, but then, what isn’t in this business?
I am also approaching my first sale with trepidation. Now that all of my mystery backlist titles are on board, I can start doing price promotions. But the idea seems overwhelming. You have to set a date, book ads around that date, notify the vendors, create memes and ads. It’s a lot to do, not to mention social media blasts to get the word out.
The only way I can approach this adventure is to be supremely organized. Again, I’ve studied my files, reviewed blogs on the topic, asked other authors how they’ve done it, and then wrote a step-by-step guide on what to do. I rechecked links on ad sites that might have gone defunct since I started my files and picked the best places based on what other authors have mentioned.
And that’s how we take the next step forward. We listen. We research a topic. We verify links and search out new ones. And we move forward. There’s no magic bullet for what you want to do. You have to collect the data and organize it to suit your needs. It’s part of the business of being a writer. Do. Your. Homework.
Authors have all sorts of administrative tasks, from answering emails, to fielding workshop requests, to creating book ads, to keeping up with social media and writing blogs. These behind-the-scenes duties can keep us busy from morning to night.
When I’m in a creative phase, the writing comes first. But right now, I am taking a moratorium from writing to get these other jobs done. Yesterday, I spent the morning updating all the buy links on my website. This was necessary since I’ve added my full-length Bad Hair Day mysteries to Ingram. Readers should be able to order the entire set in print at their local indie bookstore. The paperback editions are also available at Barnes and Noble, but they have to be ordered online because they’re coming from another distributor.
Meanwhile, I finished the final proofing for my first futuristic romance trilogy that required substantial editing. I’d written these traditionally published books years ago and needed to bring them up to my current standards. These will need new covers and reformatting. Hiring a cover designer is next on my agenda. If I have to help search for images, that could take hours. At least I already have a concept in mind for each series. I’ve also asked ACX for my audiobooks to go non-exclusive so I can put them “wide” in terms of distribution. Once I get the rights cleared, I’ll kick this project into gear.
Price promotions and box sets are on the horizon also, but these will involve a learning curve. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while but had to get all my books uploaded first.
As you can see, these are full-time tasks. Once they are completed, I can move on to new works. Or maybe by then, this virus will be gone and I’ll want to enjoy life and being a grandma. Who knows? At the moment, we have to take things day-by-day.
Thankfully, as a writer, this doesn’t mean much in the way of adjustment. Our normal routine is to stay home in front of the computer. Since we are in forced isolation, we can get even more done if we focus on our work and not the daily news. So batten down your hatches. Make a list of all these nagging tasks you’ve been meaning to do as a writer. And get to work! Use this time to your advantage. What will be the first item on your list?
I’ve compiled a list of Florida writers organizations for those of you seeking like-minded individuals in the state. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to add to it or adapt it for your needs. But if you’re new to our semi-tropical paradise and are looking to get connected with other writers, I hope this group list will help.