Just over four years has flown by while I’ve written and published four detective-thriller-adventure novels with @LonCaslerBixby. I had previously written and published with a small press so he asked me to take one of his scripts and rewrite it as a novel.
What I first thought would be mostly me sitting at my laptop writing away has turned into a close collaboration to bring life to a Los Angeles detective and his friends. These crime fiction stories also have our dry humor and reveal our same enjoyment of close friendships.
We’ve written one novel per year on average. Here are the key lessons that I’ve learned and embraced.
Get to Know the Characters
While this sounds obvious, it’s even more important when you take someone else’s work, in this case, Lon’s, and want to breathe life into the actions and dialogue. You don’t necessarily have to write out a complex back story, but thinking deeply through who are these people and what do they want is necessary.
Why should you, as the author, care about them?
The answer isn’t because it’s my story and I want to publish the darned thing. When you discover why you should really care about all the people you’re creating then they become multi-dimensional characters and readers will find ways to appreciate them.
You go deep into who they are and you reveal their soul, whether that’s for one story or a series.
We’ve had good reviews for each of our stories, but I was really struck by a well-written critical review that gave us three stars for our second novel, Tom Stone: Sweltering Summer Nights. The reader congratulated us on a good story, character development, and dialogue. But, he wrote, he just couldn’t “care about the characters.”
You can’t help how readers will interpret your work, but it was a comment that we paid heed to and will continue to do so.
Put on Blinders and Do the Work
We each have our own personal challenges that are quite different from each other. Our daily routines are a remarkable contrast. Mine is a constant swirl of activity that can disrupt a writing flow at the slam of a door and the shout of a child.
Yet both of us have flexible schedules and similar temperaments. We set our own routine of regular writing sessions from either late morning until early afternoon or mid-afternoon into late afternoon.
Putting on blinders meant that we mostly ignored sales numbers, or the lack thereof, and stayed focused on the story — day after day, week after week. Having the characters become important to us was quite helpful for that.
We built enough momentum that we were quietly determined to write each novel and make it happen.
I’ve done some acting and when you embrace the character or let your body and feelings be used by the character, then you get caught up in the story and you forget about the audience. The people in the theater seats watching you or the cameras and lights right in your face magically disappear.
A writer’s job is similar. Yes, you have the burdens of everyday life and expectations from others that you have to meet. But when you sit for twenty minutes, forty-five minutes or two hours then those minutes belong to the characters that you’re shaping. That’s the time to put on blinders.
Keep Your Rhythm Moving
Once you start writing, there will be bumps and rough patches but a rhythm to me is a welcome routine. You keep writing and the more you do then the more you can envision the developments and character actions that will lead to the end.
Think of a train moving steadily along the tracks over the flat plains, chugging along at a steady rate or a swimmer moving effortlessly through the water. Embrace the characters, give them the space to live and you’ll find your thoughts flowing as you create. Enjoy that feeling and then grit your teeth in the rough patches.
Work through the Slowdowns
Family and work interruptions or even puzzles in the story that you can’t solve can threaten to toss you off track. I discarded the draft of the original novel I started writing but after that, we kept moving along. During the very first novel, I felt like I was finding my way in the dark as I wrote and created. Lon would come along, read and I’d ask if we should be doing more for it, but he felt we were fine.
After publishing, I saw some things we would do differently but that’s another lesson I learned: the more you write, the more you will grow as a writer in your format and genre.
You’ll Keep Growing and Getting Better
Keep writing, reading in your genre, and getting feedback and you’ll keep improving. It’s not likely that you’re going to get worse. Writing our first novel, Tom Stone: A Nitty Gritty Christmas, I felt like I was weaving along a country road in the fog, trying to find my way.
The detective was chasing the bad guy, but I didn’t know where I was going with it. That’s not bad, really. Surprises were waiting.
But by the time we wrote our fourth novel, Tom Stone: One Shot, One Kill, I had a much more clear understanding of beginning to end. Which was good, because our fourth is one that I’m really proud of. We have a number of characters in conflict and deal with various underlying stories.
I believe we became better at our craft.
John Grisham Doesn’t Care What I Think
John Grisham’s first novel I read, The Firm, remains my favorite of his works. I read another one he released in 2008 and wasn’t impressed by it. It was well-written. He knows the craft extremely well. But I just felt the story was a bit too cliché and, quite honestly, there were a large number of negative reviews.
So what happened? Reports are that he stopped writing and gave up as an author. Too bad because — I’m kidding, of course.
I don’t think John Grisham cares what I think about his work. He’s going to craft the best story possible and he’s written many in the last decade and will continue doing so. But even someone as accomplished as he is, a master in his craft, gets one and two-star reviews.
The same goes for Nicholas Sparks. I’ve seen this mega-selling author get ripped apart for writing the same type of story over and over. Yet, his novels sell and have been made into popular romantic films. Does he care what you think?
Don’t focus on deeply negative comments. Learn from them. You’re going to get them. Honestly, do you only leave five stars or four-star reviews on the works of others?
Enjoy the five-star reviews and then move on. The next story is waiting for your imagination.
Building a Fan Base is T-O-U-G-H
Develop a marketing strategy that works for you. Get your work out there while building an email list. One of the things we did was hold some giveaways using King Sumo and it’s helped us in acquiring new readers.
Many indie authors use a rapid release strategy meaning they’ll write and release novels every two to three months so they stay in people’s minds. We just couldn’t do that. We plowed along, taking several months for one, several months for another and so on.
But we have used a small email list to stay in touch and we write our newsletters in an entertaining way.
Building a fan base is also an on-going never-ending task.
Once you create a body of work then you do have more marketing power and clout. We now have five titles, four novels, and a short story. That allows us to do more promotions and contests than when we only had one or two titles.
Persevere. Keep at it. Writing a novel isn’t easy. It’s certainly a marathon.
Writing five novels isn’t easy and writing ten is also hard work. But do the work, you’ll improve and you’ll bless the world with your stories.