Author Anna Schmidt on why she writes

“There is only one reason to write,” says Sarasota author Anna Schmidt. “That is because you can’t not write.”

Anna, known to her friends as Jo, has written for therapy, but for most of her career, she’s written for publication. She is the author of several series of inspiration and romance, including ones set during World War II (All God’s Children), in Sarasota’s Pinecraft Mennonite community (A Sister’s Forgiveness) and in the Southwest (The Lawman).

She shared her experience this week with members of Sarasota Fiction Writers.

Her advice for emerging authors?

  • Build a track record in your genre and develop a following
  • Don’t chase trends (unless your agent and editor tell you to)
  • During dry spells, attend events and conferences outside your area of expertise (for Jo, that’s mystery and suspense)
  • Join book clubs and writers’ groups
  • Read outside your genre.

She ended the program by giving away copies of her latest book. Surprised by her generosity, the moderator asked why. With a sly smile she said, “The publisher sent me forty copies. What else am I going to do with them?”

For indie authors, publish or perish

There’s a saying in the academic world—publish or perish. It means that if you want a tenured position, you must publish your research, or your dream of advancement will perish.

Writers who want to share their work face the same dilemma.

Years ago, people wrote books and sent them to editors who hired others to read through the pile of manuscripts in the hope of finding the next Updike or Jong. When editors ceded that job to agents, they followed the same procedure, acting as editorial screens to deliver works with literary or commercial potential. It was a respectable system.

Self-publishing wasn’t. People viewed indie authors with the same credibility afforded Donald Trump. Even the name of printers who handled the work, vanity presses, spoke volumes about DIY status. And for good reason. If a professional, an agent or editor, didn’t vet your work, you could bet the writing would look as amateurish as the cover design.

Joanna PennToday, indie publishing—uploading your work to e-book brokers and print-on-demand houses like Smashwords and Amazon—has gained a small measure of respect. Some proponents, Joanna Penn of the Creative Penn among them, count the followers of their blogs and podcasts in the thousands. Some writers like Bob Mayer, the former Green Beret and Area 51 series author, sell tens of thousands of units.

Self-publishing is not that onerous, they say. Gone are the days of loading up the station wagon with cartons of books and flogging them to libraries and stores. POD services print and deliver books as readers order them. Yes, with indie publishing, you won’t get the marketing, distribution or stamp of credibility offered by a traditional publisher. But if you’ve queried hundreds of agents with no takers, you need another option.

swiftwaterbigThrough the end of the eighties, that wasn’t necessary. When I last pitched a novel, I landed a series of agents who did the heavy lifting. A decade later, when I wrote my first non-fiction book, the Spirit of Swiftwater, I took the manuscript directly to the publisher, an academic press that wanted to start a business imprint. For the second book, the publisher called me.

Those were the days.

For Peak Season, my debut crime-fiction novel, I queried seventy-six agents and editors. Nada. For Mr. Mayhem, the first of the Brinker novels, due out this fall, I queried seventy-five. Zip. So I declared independence.

That proved simple but not easy.

Publishing is no longer a question of DIY vs. traditional. Today we choose between sharing our work and giving up. That means authors must not only learn how to write, we need to develop skills in editing, proofing, design, social media, marketing and distribution. Add persistence to the mix and we have the ingredients for a new system that, like the old, offers satisfaction but doesn’t guarantee success.

From a gatekeepers’ perspective, the traditional system makes sense. In this name-brand culture, editors and agents look for a sure thing. Paid on commission, agents don’t need to take a chance on the unknown. New authors present too much risk with too little guarantee of reward.

My advice to emerging writers is to ignore the stigma of indie publishing. If you want someone to take a chance on your work, there’s only one place to look . . . in the mirror.

A query on writing queries

Writing query letters is probably the last thing writers want to do once they’ve finished their work. But a query that arrests the attention of an editor or agent will justify the hours you’ve just spent agonizing over your book.

Writers are always asking about the best way draft query letters. While there is plenty of narrative about how to write a query letter, the best advice is specific, even if does follow a form. Moira Allen writes that a query should have five elements:

  • The hook
  • The pitch
  • The body
  • The credentials
  • The close

WritingMystersGraftonG. Miki Hayden (“E-Media–Crime Fiction E-Volves,” Writing Mysteries, Sue Grafton, editor, Writers Digest Books) says the hook might be something like: “”When Rona Bennet finds a dead body on her seaside property, she knows that she will be a suspect. A year before, she was tried and acquitted after a similar killing.” The idea is to lead with the best example of your skills in action. In other words show, don’t just tell. The fest of the formula explains itself.

Allena Tapia offers a sample query for nonfiction that follows a similar format. British crime and literary fiction author Alex Keegan (creator of the Caz Flood novels) provides the query that landed a contract as well as the editor’s reply—and the novel wasn’t even finished. Charlotte Dillon offers a host of sample query letter on her site.

And don’t forget your background and platform, if either would help you write or market your book. That might just be the writing that hooks the deal.