Editor’s Note: I’m pleased to feature this interview with author Monica Leonelle as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.
She is also a multi-talented author entrepreneur specializing in young adult fiction development, author platform building and book marketing.
Follow Leonelle on Twitter: @MonicaLeonelle
[Total read time: 18-22 minutes.]
Matt Gartland: As a young adult fiction writer, what have you learned about the craft of storytelling that’s imperative to a narrative’s identity, likeability and success?
Monica Leonelle: This is a great question. I’m going to answer each in turn.
When I first wrote Silver Smoke, I didn’t know anything about basic story structure aside from what my intuition told me. For example, in the earlier drafts of my story, I didn’t have many clues about the villains in my story, and the reader didn’t feel their presence as a result. This created a problem with tension because the characters didn’t seem to have anyone chasing them…but once I went back and added glimpses of the villains, the novel took true form.
The book’s identity comes from all sorts of places–the way the story is structured, the characters, the viewpoint it’s told from, the setting, the plot, and outward signals, like the cover and the descriptions and the physical feel of the book. All of these need to be a slam dunk to create a bestseller…and it’s really hard! It requires a lot of work and diligence and help from professionals.
For a novel to be likable, the characters have to be likable (especially the protagonist). I had issues with this at first in Silver Smoke because frankly, my main character is rich, beautiful, and a little too lucky. She’s the type of girl who gets things handed to her. So I had two choices: I could change the character (which would have thrown the entire book off) or I could make Brie van Rossum more likable. I chose the latter. At the end of the day, readers want to feel like they can slide into your protagonist’s shoes. The protagonist must be relatable.
You can also grab points with the audience by making the characters sympathetic. In fact, your job for the first five pages of your novel should be to give as much information as possible to make the reader feel some sort of sympathy for your protagonist.
In Socialpunk, I made Ima (the protagonist) very sympathetic. She’s abused by her father, has a mother who fades into the background, and is in love with her best friend who doesn’t love her back. She is painfully shy and uncomfortable with herself, and the abuse she’s suffered manifests itself in an obsessive compulsive disorder. The book has nothing to do with any of this–it’s ultimately a cyberpunk. But people are curious and get invested in the story. Your characters are the only thing that make people want to read more books in your series.
At the end of the day, a story must have all the marketability elements in place. No book will succeed without a strong word-of-mouth component, and unfortunately word-of-mouth is crazy hard to get because there is so much competition online. Successful authors must have the whole package these days. This means:
- A phenomenal book (I write about this later)
- Attractive cover art
- Strong sales copy and reviews
- A fun, lively online presence
It’s not good enough to write a good book anymore, if you are unknown. You can write good books after you hit it big. But these days, you really won’t hit it big unless you can write a phenomenal book or unless you can make yourself so likable that people don’t mind buying mediocre books from you. I talk about this a bit more later, in the section about entrepreneurship.
MG: Silver Smoke was your first fiction novel. Socialpunk was your second. What mistakes did you make with the first project that you were able to learn from and do better with the second?
ML: Tons of things. And to be honest, I made several mistakes with Socialpunk that I didn’t make with Silver Smoke, which is ironic since Silver Smoke came first. Here are a few from both.
Learning the Craft
After completing and publishing Silver Smoke, I went out and bought about 60 of the best books I could find on writing. (I combed through Amazon recommendations to find them.) Though I love my ereader, I bought them all in paperback so I would have their presence in my apartment. I wanted a physical reminder that I needed to hone my writing craft every single day.
After reading, well, all of them, I noticed the same patterns over and over. I took the collective knowledge of a large group of writers and came up with my own structure of how to write a great book. I pulled from the best of the best in each book, and I built my 100-point marketability analysis based on these books and my own experiences.
The 100-point marketability analysis tests whether the elements that make books marketable are there. It does not necessarily test execution, and it’s not like you can go through the list by itself and check things off and–boom–you have a marketable novel. You need someone who understands the list and who understands your genre to evaluate your novel for you. That’s what my marketability + editing package Prose on Fire is all about.
The biggest improvement a writer can make to his or her work is putting the scenes in order according to modern story architecture. Learn story structure if you want to write a novel. There are four main parts with lots of little pinch points that the book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks goes over in great depth.
I did this back in November 2011 with Silver Smoke, trying to rearrange the scenes into a better order. My sales shot up 5x what they were when I re-released. I’m currently going back through the book again, this time trying to rebuild the plot from the ground up and not worrying about preserving scenes. (In the first rewrite I simply rearranged and didn’t try to write anything new.)
If you want to write a series (and I highly suggest this), characters are paramount. Your characters have to feel real and have to be relatable. It takes a lot for someone to invest in a character, but once they do they’ll happily read additional books about those characters. Without the investment, people seem to be able to take it or leave it–after all, a plot is a plot is a plot and there are only something like 20 plots in the whole history of the world. The Harry Potter series has the same exact plot for seven books…it’s the characters that mattered and that kept people reading.
In Silver Smoke, I did quite a bit of characterization, but there were so many characters and the book was told from three different viewpoints, so it was hard for people to get too attached. In Socialpunk, the book is all about Ima, which worked a lot better. Also, Ima is a much more likable character than Brie in a lot of ways.
To create a good character, write characters who are sympathetic and likable. Give them real feelings and real reasons for their actions. And don’t forget about characters other than the protagonist–in Silver Smoke, the protagonist Brie was a little unlikable but the two guys (Pilot and Rykken) captured people’s interests and hearts. Lastly, don’t forget about the villains. A good villain is three-dimensional.
Silver Smoke already has good reviews (4.7-4.8 on Amazon) but the word-of-mouth is just not igniting, even after a year. I attribute this primarily to the writing not being addictive enough.
Socialpunk, on the other hand, got a ton more press even though the reviews were lower (ranges between a 4.0 and 4.25 overall rating). The reviews are good in a different way–people are completely captivated and hooked by Socialpunk, compared to Silver Smoke. The main things I did differently to increase addictiveness were:
- Stuck strictly to modern story structure guidelines.
- Made the protagonist as sympathetic as possible, and put her through a wild transformation.
- Kept the plot high concept and the suspense building through the entire novel, to the breaking point at the end.
I also used common copywriting/internet marketing tactics within the novel to increase the “call-to-action” (which was essentially turning the page to read the next chapter). Here’s my list that I tried to incorporate:
- Urgency – Ima and her friends set out on a “mission” of sorts and have seven days to succeed before everyone dies (dramatic, I know )
- Tension – Every paragraph within a novel should open plots and close plots. You open plots by creating questions in the readers mind and close plots by answering the questions you’ve created. All of tension is satisfying the reader just enough while tempting them with the promise of more. Sustaining this throughout an entire novel is difficult, and most authors get it wrong (including me, with Silver Smoke).
- Emotion – If you can get a reader to feel something, you’ll have them hooked. There’s a recent article in the New York Times that explains how to stimulate a readers’ brain, which seems to come down to detailed descriptions and metaphors. When I first wrote Silver Smoke, it was all dialogue. I had to learn to write evocative descriptions, but it paid off in Socialpunk.
- Storytelling – The novel is a story within itself, but storytelling through micro-mini stories (a paragraph or so) is a key skill to incorporate background information while still moving the plot along. Socialpunk has this; Silver Smoke does not, which leaves Silver Smoke very saggy at the beginning. In modern fiction, especially young adult fiction, the action *must* keep moving.
- Repeatability – People love quotes, especially in dialogue. I’m still learning how to do this, but in Socialpunk I attempted to incorporate writing that people could quote. This is of paramount importance in a digital age of Twitter and Facebook updates.
- Authenticity – Everything about your novel must be grounded in reality. The characters must feel real, the setting must feel real, the plot must seem both outrageous and believable at the same time. Socialpunk is a science fiction novel, so I rooted the science fiction elements in our current world and show people how the trends of our world could lead to the world(s) in the novel.
- Direction – A big part of being a writer is demonstrating to the reader that you got the wheel and you know where you are taking them with your story. Wandering stories throw readers off and make them put your book down.
These elements make the difference between a potential bestseller and a dud. Do authors incorporate them? Not usually. Again, these are not things you can judge yourself, which brings me to my next point.
Editing vs. Marketability
My experiences with editing were completely different for Silver Smoke and Socialpunk. With Silver Smoke, I had three editors go through the book because I was so damn scared of releasing it. Of course, you were one of them, Matt! I also had beta readers and then put the novel out there for free because I just didn’t feel like it was up to the standards I wanted. To my surprise, it garnered many good reviews and ended up as a Top 1000 Amazon Breakthrough Novel in the young adult fiction category.
The problem, however, was that I had spent a lot of money ($7500) on editing and did not make that money back in sales after a year. The reviews were incredibly hard to get and not organic at all. In terms of word-of-mouth (the way 80-90% of books are sold), the book was a flop.
With Socialpunk, I had no editors and no beta readers. I genuinely wanted to see what would happen, because I love experiments. I had more confidence in my writing and I felt I’d written a pretty good book, overall. I released the book and it got double the reviews (my blog tour helped with this). This time, however, reviews were primarily in the four star range rather than the five star range. And often the book was knocked down because of the lack of editing and the “self-published” feel.
In this experiment, I went from one extreme to another–from spending way too much time and money on editing and no time on marketability to spending no time on editing and all my time on marketability. My conclusion is that marketability is still the most important, but once you have that, editing will take you from four stars to five stars. With Silver Smoke, the editing didn’t get me that far in terms of word-of-mouth, but that’s because I didn’t have the foundation of marketability built into the book. With Socialpunk, people liked the book, but wanted (and deserved) a much more polished version. You must have both marketability and editing for a true blockbuster.
[Matt: I agree with Monica's conclusion insofar that resources (time, effort, money, outreach) should be invested in a balanced manner. An unbalanced book (much like an unbalanced financial portfolio) is highly volatile and likely to crack, topple and flop. Editing alone will not save the day, but it will put you in the best position to succeed if you have the author platform (marketability) in place to capitalize on a word-of-mouth worthy book. Marketability is an equally important--although different--investment from professional editing. Ultimately, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.]
MG: You approach your writing career as a genuine entrepreneur. What elements of your author platform are working best, and what do many indie authors still misunderstand about the need and process of building their author platform?
ML: I feel that you can’t be a real indie author unless you take an entrepreneurial approach. The thing that sets indie authors apart from the self-published is that they are always experimenting and always trying to improve their methods. For example, with me, I do believe there’s a way to write a “bestseller” and I’m determined to hack it. I relentlessly pursue how I can change my writing to give my book a better chance at becoming a bestseller.
I have a decently-sized community of self-publishers at Prose on Fire, and it’s easy to separate the serious writers from the hobbyists. Many people are just interested in getting their writing into the world and would be happy to make a buck or two off of it. This is, of course, perfectly okay–everyone should have hobbies. But true independent publishing is a business. The difference between indie authors and self-published authors is like the difference between Amanda Palmer and someone who sings in their shower, makes a recording of it, and publishes it to iTunes.
Authors are so frustrated because they don’t have sales. They are constantly asking, “What can I do to get more sales?” And I constantly reply, “Marketability, marketability, marketability! Editing, editing, editing! Story structure, story structure, story structure!” Indie authors (and a lot of traditional authors, too) have no idea how much better their book needs to be to truly stand out.
I hate to be so harsh because I know these answers are crazy painful for an author to hear. The next question is always something like: “Yeah, I know I could do those things, but the book’s already written. So how do I market my book?” It’s usually followed by: “SEO? Twitter? Facebook? Press releases? Article marketing? Podcasts? Blogging?”
Look, these are the wrong questions to ask. You can’t get better results by changing the question. Accept pain and choose strategy over tactics. There are three parts (and only three parts) to getting more sales or for marketing your book or whatever/however you want to ask the question. They are:
1. Build a core audience of fans.
I could go on and on about how to do this, but the simplified version is that you must be likable, you must consistently put your work out there (preferably on a daily basis), and you must have a way to capture and communicate with your audience whenever you need to (my favorite way is an email list).
Right now, I am working a lot harder on building my core audience of fans than I have in the past. The hardest thing for me is consistency, and the act of doing little things every day. I’m very much a “burst of energy” type of worker, so I have to practice and keep myself motivated with daily habits.
2. Write a damned good book.
And please don’t tell me you have a good book but it’s just not selling. If it’s good, it will sell. I had someone tell me, before she even indie published, that her book would easily sell millions of copies because it was awesome. I didn’t know what to say–I mean, I don’t want to crush anyone’s dreams, and I’m the last person to give someone a reality check. But writing a damned good book is *hard* and publishing it yourself is *hard* and marketing it yourself is *crazy hard.* Even Amanda Hocking had to write eight or nine books before they (in total) sold a million copies. This is a tough and thankless business, and the competition is fierce. Assume your book isn’t the bees knees. This opens you up to the relentless pursuance of constructive criticism.
I have 100+ reviews on Amazon that tell me I have a good book, and I still don’t believe them because I don’t have the sales to prove it. When my novels become the next Hunger Games, I’ll believe that I have good books that don’t need any more tweaking. Until then, I’m going to work hard to incorporate any feedback I can get into both of my book series; I’m going to continue to revise them until they are perfect; and I’m going to make sure they are the types of books that people tell their friends about. Word-of-mouth sells 90% of books, and it’s harder than ever to get word-of-mouth going for anything in the internet age. Your work has to be phenomenal to get the ball rolling.
Independent authors often don’t invest nearly enough time into this process of creating a good book–they are ignorant to marketability factors; they don’t spend money on good editing; and they don’t work hard enough at their craft. [Matt: Jonathan Fields shares this mindset.]
3. Launch the crap out of your book.
This is the true marketing part where all the tactics I mentioned above finally come in. (Go ahead, ask about Pinterest now.) Most authors just shouldn’t be thinking this way, however, because they haven’t laid the groundwork for a book’s success with #1 and #2 before this point, and most authors need to go back and work through these steps first.
For me, launching the crap out of my book means doing the pre-launch (which is primarily building a core audience) and getting my book into the hands of as many people as I possibly can once it’s ready. If you follow me online for any period of time, you’ll notice that I put the book out there, gather feedback, then go back to my workshop and tinker/improve. I recommend this to every author who is serious about building a writing career.
In truth, for all my blogger outreach and networking, I still haven’t really “launched” either of my books. I soft launched them, but mostly to get feedback. When I really launch them, I’ll be going all out with PR, giveaways, and more. But first, I’m working on #1 and #2 (mostly #2).
About these three parts: you can get away with two out of the three. You constantly see people who have a huge audience and a mediocre book do well, and people who have a damned good book but no audience do well. You also see people like John Green who are just rockstars and have done #1 and #2 really well. Those people still launch, but they don’t need to launch quite as hard as the rest of us. (John Green had around 200,000 pre-orders for his last book, A Fault in Our Stars.)
No matter what, you won’t rise up from obscurity with a mediocre book unless you win the lottery. And this is what 99.9% of independent authors try to do, which is why they get so frustrated and come back to “What can I do to get more sales?” even though in their hearts, they know it’s not the right question. The answers of “build your audience” and “rewrite your book” are just too painful, and learning about Google+ is much easier.
MG: You have a great deal of experience with social marketing: blog tours, book campaigns, and more. How can indie authors better harness the power of such efforts to promote their books?
ML: I’ll share the two ways I do so now:
1. You can raise funds for your novel using social marketing.
I’m shocked that so few authors are doing this. I think it’s out of ignorance (and I mean that kindly, as I was equally ignorant just a year ago) about how much it actually costs to put out a damned good book that has proper editing and high quality manufacturing. I’ve written up the true costs (about $12-$15,000) here.
Independent authors are constantly stressed about how much editing costs and how much book covers cost, and then there are the ISBNs and other printing costs. But here’s a secret of successful authors: no one expects you to put $12-$15,000 of your own money into a book because it’s so damn crazy and none of us have that kind of money lying around. Instead, let the internet support you through crowd funding.
When you offer your crowd funding, you are essentially pre-selling your books before they are available. You can get creative and offer all sorts of extras, like:
- 3-pack or 5-pack of the book
- Minor character naming
- Name in the acknowledgments
- Autographed books
- Special edition/deluxe/limited edition books
- Annotated books
- Bonus books
- Personalized short stories
- Handwritten books
- Signed manuscript drafts
- Objects or experiences that relate to your books (Craig Mod offered a tour of Tokyo for his Tokyo galleries book)
Note that raising funds for your book is just about as hard as marketing the book itself. But it works—I’ve done it, and I even have editing/marketability clients who couldn’t fund editing themselves but ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money. It just makes sense. And they are able to put out much better books for it.
I am currently crowd funding to put out the rest of the Seven Halos series, which is the series that my first novel, Silver Smoke, comes from. If you want to watch the experiment unfold, all backers get really detailed behind-the-scenes updates on how the funding is going. You can become a backer for as little as $5, which gets you pretty much all my novels in ebook format.
2. You can run a blog tour.
Bloggers are the best way to get word-of-mouth started for your book. They are incredibly passionate people and influential within the fiction universe. Book review bloggers especially pride themselves on finding great books and getting the word out about them, so why not ask them for help getting the word out about yours?
There are several things you should know about bloggers:
A. They get offers to review books all the time.
They spend hours and hours reviewing books, so they won’t be as interested in reviewing yours unless you’ve written the next 50 Shades of Grey (according to buzz and people on Amazon, not according to you ). The way to grab their attention is by offering incentives. I always ask for reviews as part of an event, specifically as part of a blog tour. I incorporate a contest with good prizes (like a Kindle Fire) to boost participation rates. My last blog tour had 500 blogger sign-ups and about 200 blogger participants. You can read about it here.
B. It takes forever to review a book, so provide other options.
The best additions are an interview option and an excerpt option. I use Wufoo forms to collect all the information I need, import a temporary list of bloggers into Mailchimp (I delete this list when the tour is over), and distribute download links and an interview guide to bloggers.
C. Offering guest posts will probably make you nuts.
I’ve learned not to offer these because there are so many reasons they may not get published. The blogger may change his/her mind, may reject the content, or may ask for numerous revisions. You could accidentally write something that is too promotional. Or the blogger could just never post it, even if they say they will. Plus, you have to research their site and try to match their audience’s needs, and put several hours into the content itself.
I just offer an interview instead. It’s about as much work for the blogger (though they have to ask you the questions) and it puts some responsibility on them to ask questions that their audience will like. They are less likely to reject your interview because they’ve participated in the process, and hopefully tailored your interview to their audience.
[Matt: Clearly, I'm a fanboy of interviews. Personally, I enjoy the art of interviewing--developing strong, unique and engaging questions that get at truths perhaps never before revealed. Done well, both sides of the engagement love the experience--a win for all, especially the reader (you!).]
D. Offering physical copies of your book will drain your wallet.
In my experience, around 20% of the people who say they will review your book actually do. (That’s not counting the people who give your book a bad review.) Just offer ebook copies and cut your losses with bloggers who only accept paperback/hardcover. There are very few of these people anyway and most understand that you can’t be sending out hundreds of copies of a book when only 1 out of 5 will fulfill their end of the bargain.
E. Don’t be a snob about which blogs to include.
Small blogs are wonderful at getting word-of-mouth started and can sometimes do more for your book than a big blog can. Choose quality and good content over quantity of friends/followers. Since you are sending out ebooks anyway, there’s no reason to be picky. Besides, an in-depth review on Amazon can sell way more books than a short one, and that does not depend at all on the size of a blog, but on the quality and depth with which the author will write your review.
MG: What’s the #1 piece of actionable advice you’d give to indie authors that have decided to self-publish for the first time?
ML: That’s a tough one! Okay, so I just can’t stick to one. I’ll offer several ranging from easy to hard.
Easy: Read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.
It’s a $12 investment in your writing career that will clarify the information I’ve outlined above, and that will probably change your life. It definitely changed mine.
Medium: Re-commit to building your core audience.
Every single month, I try to bring in 500 new readers through either Prose on Fire or through my novels. It’s a tall order, but very doable, and since I’ve been hitting my goals for the last several months I’ll probably increase it to 1,000 a month in June.
How to start:
I have a free e-series that you can read about how I build my audience. Click here if you’re interested.
You can also get 20% off my Audience-Building Formula (ABF) course by using the coupon code “WinningEdits.” ABF is eight modules long and goes in-depth about the specific tactics I use. Click here to learn more.
Hard: Re-commit to writing a good book.
Even if you have gotten your book edited, have you looked at the marketability of it? Completely different thing.
How to start:
- Check out my free information about marketability here.
- Hire Matt as your editor. I’ve worked with several, and Matt was by far the best. Highly recommended!
- Get 20% off my editing/marketability package (coupon code “WinningEdits”). Learn more here, but it’s only for young adult novels.
Disclosure: Monica hired me as her book editor for her Silver Smoke novel. We worked tremendously well together, and the project was ultimately a success. In her own words, “Matt’s an amazing editor who cares deeply about his authors and their books. I can’t wait until he and I work together again.”