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The Big Damn Writer Advice Column

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It’s that time of the week (or two weeks later than that time because I just plum forgot this post twice in a row) when I answer your anonymous questions about writing and all that stuff connected to it. Every Thursday, I’ll be answering two questions from the Big Damn Writer Question Box.

Q: How big of a readership/ built in audience do I need before submitting my first novel to a publisher? If I don’t have an established brand with a million followers on twitter, will publishers or even agents even consider me? I am not very active on social media and while I am trying to submit other pieces of writing to online publications, I don’t have much of a following.

A: Short answer: You don’t have to have a built-in audience or a brand or a million followers to be considered by a publisher or an agent, but having some sort of presence can sometimes give you a leg up. Note: I said “can” not “definitely will”.

When I first got published, there was no such thing as “social media.” I had a LiveJournal and AOL Instant Messenger and that was it. Nowadays, we expect first-time authors to not only produce a good book, but to do all their own marketing ahead of time. That seems really unfair. On the other hand, it’s also an opportunity: you can build your audience before there’s even anything for them to consume. That gives you an incredible leg up when the book does come out. And the bonus is, you can make it so editors and agents actually know that you’re alive!

So, you’re not very active on social media. The good news is, you don’t have to be. Some of us love talking to people all day every day (provided it’s not face-to-face interaction or on the telephone, in which case we would just take a hard pass and become a hermit living in a cave on some a-hole aristocrat’s sprawling manor), but that’s not for everyone. What you want to do is pick a form of social media you do like. Is Instagram your thing? Twitter? Facebook? Cool. Pick one and go with it. Then start checking out hashtags for writing on that platform (or groups, if it’s Facebook). Start participating. Follow authors you think are cool, authors you’ve read, authors you want to read, authors who aren’t even in your genre, just anyone you think is pretty neat. Remember, this is social media, not networking media. You’re there to make connections with people, but not just so you can get something. If you see a bunch of writers participating in a monthly hashtag challenge on Instagram, join in and follow people! If you see people in a Twitter chat, hang out, read stuff, chat with people. If you’re on Facebook, do whatever the hell it is people do on Facebook. I don’t understand it. The point is, engage with other writers on the subject of writing. Editors and agents follow those chats, too. You might even make friends with some of them. And then, when it comes time to submit your books, they might go, “Oh, yeah, I remember them from Twitter.” Or what have you.

Isabelle Drake is basically the author queen of Instagram. In a recent workshop she gave to my writers’ group, she advised that rather than spread yourself reluctantly across all social media platforms, you should figure out which ones you actually like using and ditch the rest. She argued that a strong presence on one platform looks better than half-assing every platform. That’s really good advice.

At the end of the day, though, an editor or agent isn’t signing you because you have an awesome social media platform. If they’re looking for your book and your book finds its way to them, they probably aren’t going to go, “Gosh, this is everything I want right now, but they don’t have have a lot of Twitter followers, so I’ll just throw it it in the trash.” That’s probably not someone you’re going to want to work with, anyway. So, don’t let a lack of Instagram followers stop you from submitting, and ignore any advice that insists you must have at least x many followers before a publisher will look at your submission.


Q: One of the most useful things I learned from your recaps was how (and not!) to end chapters and sections. In your own writing, how do you decide where to end sections and how to create hooks?

A: That’s a good question. I would love to know the answer, myself. I can break one down for you, but I’m not sure I can teach what’s really just something I feel after years of consuming media. It’s almost like I instinctively know where the commercial breaks are. Basically, I’ve outlined every scene in the book already once I’m writing it, so I know that when a scene has achieved a certain goal, I can stop at any time. For example, right now I’m writing

Basically, I’ve outlined every scene in the book already once I’m writing it, so I know that when a scene has achieved a certain goal, I can stop at any time and probably should stop pretty quickly, before I’m just writing words that go nowhere. For example, right now I’m writing The Sister. I knew there was going to be a scene where El-Mudad came for a visit, and he and Sophie and Neil would discuss their relationship, and eventually, it would lead into a sex scene. Well, once they have their relationship discussion, I can’t just put “SCENE OVER TURN PAGE,” right? (PS: It’s unfair that I can’t just do that.) What I did instead was have Sophie ruminate on a revelation that came from that discussion:

On the other hand, Neil and I had sort of expected to have that life together. He was fifty-three now. He couldn’t exactly wait for me to reach retirement age to travel the world. And if we waited for Olivia to grow up, he would be seventy before we really got to do anything.

My heart fell. Was this what people meant when they said life happened when you were busy making other plans? Because that sucked.

Then tied it in with some dialogue (which attaches to dialogue that I just haven’t pasted here, I promise):

“We might go together,” El-Mudad suggested. “I have a beautiful house there, and somehow I never quite make it for visits.”

“Like our wasted apartment in Venice,” I joked. I still had never been.

“I think we should sell it. Make some new memories somewhere else,” Neil said with forced cheerfulness. He’d bought the apartment for his ex wife and apparently fought for it out of sheer spite. I couldn’t blame him for not weekending there.

“As long as I get to go to Venice at least once.” I wouldn’t bend on that stipulation. But my tone grew serious. “It’s all well and good to talk about running around all over the world, but it’s not practical. I’ve got the magazine, we’ve got Olivia–”

“But you don’t have them tonight,” El-Mudad said with an arched brow.

“It’s not like we can run away to France tonight,” I reminded him.

And then ended by giving the reader an idea of what to expect next. In this case, the big giant sex scene that will comprise the next chapter:

Neil gave a dark laugh, his eyes practically glittering with lascivious intent. “Oh, can’t we?”

That works as a hook (as least as far as I’m concerned; your mileage may vary) because the reader is aware that Neil and Sophie have a Versailles-inspired sex dungeon, but also because this is a story about a billionaire with his own private jet. They very well could “run away to France tonight.” So you have to turn the page to get to either a) the hot sex you’ve been waiting for, or b) find out if they actually take a trip to France.

It doesn’t have to be something big and dramatic. I just view section breaks as the commercial break in the middle of the episode (you know you’re going to want to continue), and chapter breaks as the final scene of the episode (you know whether or not you’re tuning in next week).


Bonus Question: More of a blog question but: are you going to start recapping your own book like you said you might? You mentioned you had some books from early on in your career with problematic content ripe for snarling on.

A: I have been advised that openly mocking content I created that someone else is trying to sell might not be in the spirit of the contract I signed in order to receive money for said content. Oops.


Wanna see your questions get answered (or just wanna air a grievance?) Put it in the box!

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  1. Atrista

    The Sister!! I can’t wait for the next installment of the series.

    I loved The Stranger so much that I reread The Boss right after. Then continued rereading the other books in time for the release of The Baby.

    Thanks for the surprise excerpt, that hook is already effective.

    May 25, 2017
  2. Amy

    The question about snarking on your own book was mine. Too bad that you can’t do it, but I totally understand. Seems like it would’ve been a good way to get your snark on and teach us about writing without feeling badly about roasting another author, but it makes a lot of sense that your publishers would not be down with that. I loved you fifty shades of grey recaps but I’ve stayed on for all the other content. I love your big damn writers advice column too!

    June 6, 2017

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