Melissa Landers Looks Back on Debut Thoughts... Seven Years Later

It’s time for a new interview seriesa… like NOW. No really, actually it’s called NOW (Newly Omniscient Authors). This blog has been publishing since 2011, and some of the earlier posts feel a little… dated. To honor the relaunch of the site, I thought I’d invite some of my past guests to read and ruminate on their answers to questions from oh-so-long-ago to see what’s changed between then and now.

Today’s guest for the NOW is Melissa Landers, a former teacher who left the classroom to pursue other worlds. A proud sci-fi geek, she isn’t afraid to wear her Princess Leia costume in public. Her books include the YA Sci-Fi series beginning with Alienated, the Starflight series, and the middle-grade title, Blastaway.

Has how you think (and talk) about writing and publishing changed, further into your career?

Yes and no. Looking back at my first interview with you, I made some suggestions that I still stand by, but find a little difficult to follow. For example, I said the best way for an author to deal with anxiety while on submission is to “put it out of mind and get to work on the next book…Do whatever it takes to keep writing.” It’s good advice, but the simplicity of it feels naive to me now. Seven years ago, I had no idea how much my creativity, confidence, and motivation would be affected by publishing. I still try to “do whatever it takes to keep writing,” but it’s not as easy. 

Let’s talk about the balance between the creative versus the business side of the industry. Do you think of yourself as an artiste or are you analyzing every aspect of your story for marketability? Has that changed from your early perspective?

I still write the stories that excite me, but I also do my best to maximize the marketability of each book. I’ve learned over the years that some things make a book harder to sell than others…and because publishing is a business, strong sales numbers are the key to staying in business. 

The bloom is off the rose… what’s faded for you, this far out from debut?

 Hmm… I think what’s faded for me the most is my wishful “anything can happen” attitude when I release a new book. I used to think that if I worked/promoted/marketed hard enough, my books would hit the lists, but now I know that sort of thing isn’t likely to happen unless the publisher makes it happen. I do what I can to stay connected with my readers, but I don’t put pressure on myself to “move the needle” in unrealistic ways.

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Likewise, is there anything you’ve grown to love (or at least accept) that you never thought you would?

I’ve grown much more accepting of my lack of control regarding cover design. I used to HATE that other people had more say than I did when it came to choosing my covers, but looking back, I can see some times when my instincts were wrong and the publisher’s were right. So now I keep an open mind and trust their judgment…at least more than I used to. 

And lastly, what did getting published mean for you and how has it changed (or not changed!) your life?

Getting published completely changed the direction of my career. When I started writing, I was on extended maternity leave from teaching. I loved my job in education, and I had every intention of returning to the classroom someday. But then Alienated was published…and Invaded and United…and Starflight, Starfall, and Blastaway. Now I write full-time, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Despite the challenges of publishing, I consider myself lucky to be a part of it.  

Rhinoceros Skin - Every Writer's Must-Have

I recently did a presentation about the path to publication that included a big fat picture of a rhinoceros, which always seems to set people back a bit. One of the first things I tell aspiring authors to procure for themselves is some rhinoceros skin. Don't actually go kill a rhinoceros and say Mindy McGinnis told you to do it before reading the rest of this post.

Rhinoceros skin is 1.5 centimeters thick - that's pretty thick skin. Even on our fleshiest parts (hands and feet) human skin is only about 4mm thick. Big game hunters in the early 1900's even believed that rhinos had bulletproof skin. This is not actually the case, but that particular myth has staying power- Kevlar backpacks have been dubbed Rhino Skin.

And this is the kind of protective layer you need to have covering your ego when it's time for feedback. Whether that is coming from your critique partners, casual readers, agents, editors, bloggers or professional reviewers, anything negative that anyone has to say about your book is going to sting a little. And stinging a little is just fine. In fact, even the rhino is used to it - the biggest threat to their skin is sunburn and insect bites. Rhinos cover themselves in mud to protect their skin from these threats, and then they move on with their lives.

These topical concerns can't kill you - in fact, much like the rhino you learn from them. But you can't allow the negativity about your work sink past your epidermis and get down into your organs where you can be fatally damaged by it. Your ego can take a bruising (in fact it's good for all of us) but a seeping lesion will drain the life out of you.

So put on your rhinoceros skin and roll around in some mud, at which point you'll be ready to face any negativity about your writing. And yes, you can say that Mindy told you to roll in the mud.

500 Queries In 6 Years: Wendy Heard

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

Today’s guest for the SAT is Wendy Heard who was born in San Francisco but has lived most of her life in Los Angeles, which is on fire more than she would honestly prefer. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art, emphasizing painting, and a Master’s degree in Education. Her debut, Hunting Annabelle, is out now. Her next book, The Kill Club, releases December 17, 2019.

Wendy is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America, is a contributor at Crimereads.com, and co-hosts the Unlikeable Female Characters podcast.

Are you a Planner or Pantster? 

I have done it both ways. I started out as a pantser (no plot ensued), then over-plotted a book and lost all my interest in writing it. Now, I do an outline that thinks out all the major Save the Cat beats, but I only do detailed scene planning to the next plot point. Things change so much in the drafting process (something I thought would take 1 chapter takes 1 paragraph, something that I expected to take 1 paragraph takes a whole chapter, etc), so this leaves room for reflection without a bunch of re-planning. 

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

Before being published, I spent a year or two on each book. Now I do a first draft in 4-6 months because of this horrible thing called DEADLINES. So it’s 4-6 months of first draft, 4 months of developmental edits, and 4 months of copy and line edits and done! Usually. 

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

I have come to the point where I can work on projects one right after the other, but I really try to keep only one on my desk at a time. Edit one, turn it in, draft another, turn it in, etc. If I’m in the middle of a draft and I get edits back, I’ll set the draft aside, bust out the edits, then return to the draft.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

HAHAHAHA.

Yes.

I am one with all the fears.

So, first drafts suck. Characters don’t feel real = I will never get this character feeling real and I am a failure. Plot not working = I will never figure out how to fix this plot and I am a failure. Writer’s block = I will never be able to finish this book and I am a failure. Etc.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented? 

Six fully completed and edited books were trunked along the way. 

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

Yes. I had a second book that just felt...wrong. I could tell this was the wrong book to follow up Hunting Annabelle. Based on that gut instinct, I shelved it halfway through and switched to what would ultimately be The Kill Club. It was a great decision. There’s nothing wrong with shelving a project that isn’t working, in my opinion.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

Lauren Spieller with Triada US is my agent, and I absolutely love working with her. I cold queried her with Hunting Annabelle the traditional way, and she found me in her slush!

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

I queried four books over the course of my years in the trenches, totaling about 500 queries sent (way too many). I did a few R&Rs for agents (revise and resubmit). I am SO GLAD those projects didn’t sell. They were not ready. The whole process of querying was a start-and-stop one, but I believe it totaled about 6 years. 

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell? 

So many things I wish I could tell my former self, but the main one is: get comfortable throwing your words away. Write so much that it becomes less sacred. If a project doesn’t get picked up, be willing to move on. It’s not about THIS project, it’s about developing a strong portfolio of work and finding your voice and brand.

One more thing: Study back cover copy. Learn to write loglines and queries. Marketing copy is a huge part of the author gig. I did not know that.

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

Surreal. Terrifying. It’s public now. When someone buys it, it’s theirs. It’s not mine anymore. Strangely, once my debut was out in the world, I felt separated from it. Hunting Annabelle doesn’t feel as much mine as it used to. 

How much input do you have on cover art? 

It’s hard to say because I haven’t had to push back on anything. My cover designer, Kathleen Oudit with Harlequin, knocked it out of the park on both covers, so I don’t know what would happen if I did want to make major changes. They’ve been receptive to small adjustments, but honestly, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve had a number of friends who pushed back quite a bit with their covers and gave detailed edits, and they were always listened to.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

When you’re querying, you’re an entrepreneur. It’s hard to go from that mindset to working with a publishing house. You have to adjust your entrepreneurism to function within the bureaucracy because there is still a lot to do on your own as an author, but you have to do it in the right way and apply that energy to the right things. You have to learn when to wait and when to act; when to push back and when to hold your tongue; when to ask your agent for help and when to give them space; when to hold off on asking a question because you’re waiting on something else and when to go ahead and ask. It’s fraught with opportunities to fumble an interaction, and publishing is a small world where reputation is king. There is a lot to learn on the business and etiquette side of publishing, and finding mentor authors who are willing to help you navigate is key. I have been lucky to find successful, experienced authors who have been willing to message with me and help me understand things, and I hope to provide that same support to authors who are newer to this than I.

How much of your own marketing do you? 

I would say I am a mediocre marketer. I have social media (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). I do my own website and that has been really an important piece of the author thing. I study how other authors run their social media and sites and am always learning. Bookbub is something a lot of my friends are good at and I am not, but learning their ad platform seems quite smart and I plan to explore that this year. I make my own swag (I have an art degree) and I’m doing a preorder campaign for The Kill Club, which I didn’t do last time. I feel like I still have a lot to learn.

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When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

For me, social media has been for building community. So I started using Twitter long before working with my agent, just because I craved those relationships with other writers. I was lonely! But I also needed to learn about the business and culture of publishing, and Twitter in particular was great for that.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Maybe to an extent. But I’ve never tried to do this author thing without it, so I have no means of comparison. I think #Bookstagram on Instagram builds a lot of awareness with bloggers and reviewers,  but it’s important not to spam hashtags. But there’s no substitute for booksellers and Amazon algorithms, neither of which I can really control. For some people who have a large platform for other reasons (journalists, celebrities, athletes, etc), I’m sure their social media does help push sales. For normal Joes like me? Maybe a little.

All we can do is write the best books we can, be appreciative of those who help us (what goes around comes around and let us never forget it), and have professional, collaborative relationships with our editors, publicists, reviewers, friends, colleagues, readers… All we can do is our best, and the rest is just the rest.