Hard truths (and sage advice) from a NYT-bestselling author, 5 ways to elevate your writing today, how to navigate the messiness of art and money, and more!
✨ Plus, a book publicist spills on how you can prep for publicity success ✨
Welcome to the Shit No One Tells You About Writing’s second newsletter! We are so excited to share another bumper issue with you. But first we want to extend our heartfelt gratitude to everyone who read, enjoyed, and shared our launch issue. The road to your debut can feel long and lonely. We created this newsletter to give writers like you the support, expert advice, and industry insight you need to write the book of your heart and join a thriving literary community in the process. And we’re so glad you’re here! Don’t forget, if you missed our last issue, you can read it here. Now, let’s dive in!
SHELF LIFE with New York Times-bestselling author Marissa Stapley
We caught up with the author of Reese’s Book Club Pick and New York Times bestseller Lucky to find out what she wishes she had known as a young writer, dealing with career setbacks, and the writing advice that still resonates with her a decade after the publication of her debut, Mating for Life.
Welcome to SHELF LIFE where we interview successful authors about one of their backlist titles so that you can get the scoop from authors who’ve been there and done that. If hindsight is 20/20 perhaps some of the most successful authors in the business can offer a little foresight to emerging writers. Plus, you might just discover some great books you missed!
Marissa Stapley’s debut novel, Mating for Life, was published in 2014, followed by Things to Do When It’s Raining and The Last Resort. In 2021, her fourth novel, Lucky, became a Reese’s Book Club Pick and a New York Times bestseller. Her work has been published in fifteen countries and two of her novels, including Lucky, have been optioned for television. Her next novel, The Lightning Bottles, will be published worldwide in October 2024. She writes holiday rom-coms under various pen names, including international bestsellers The Holiday Swap and All I Want for Christmas, and the forthcoming Three Holidays and a Wedding, written with Uzma Jalaluddin. She lives in Toronto with her family.
SHELF LIFE: From Mating for Life to your Maggie Knox books to Lucky, your writing career has gone from strength to strength. Do you have any regrets about your journey so far? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
MARISSA STAPLEY: I used to wish I had stayed more firmly in one genre—or fought harder against being considered a genre writer at all, because I was doing something different every time, and it was somewhat frustrating not to get to say “I write fiction,” and leave it at that. (Although yes, I understand why genre categories need to exist in terms of sales and marketing.) Things to Do When It’s Raining was considered an epic romance in the vein of Nicholas Sparks. The Last Resort was a domestic thriller. Then came Lucky—and in the end, it didn’t matter what it was classified as. It was called a crime novel, and sometimes even a thriller—and I don’t think it was either of those things! Reese picked it for her book club and my life changed. Suddenly, anything I might have regretted didn’t matter anymore. I often think about what I could have done differently and how those choices might have led me down a different path, away from all the amazing things that have happened over the past year or so. It’s a great feeling to say I have no regrets, to unequivocally know that all the hard moments led to such a great destination. I was listening to the Tom Hanks episode of the ‘Dead Eyes’ podcast over the holidays and was so moved by the idea that our worst, hardest moments, the ones where we feel rejected or as if our dreams have been crushed—those are often the moments that are leading to the breakthrough. I know this to be true in my own life.
“The publishing industry is a marathon, not a race… This is an incredibly important concept for debut authors to understand. You don’t stay down forever, and you don’t stay up forever either. So, stay strong.”
SL: What do you wish you had known about being a writer and/or the publishing industry before you published your debut, Mating for Life?
MS: My wise publicist at Simon & Schuster, Adria Iwasutiak, said to me early on, “The publishing industry is a marathon, not a race.” I’m so glad someone told me that and perhaps I wish I’d known it just a touch earlier. As an author, you have this idea that once you get your first book deal, that’s it. You’re good. But actually, it’s just the beginning—and sometimes things just get harder! There will be times when you’re exhausted, or you slow down, or you feel like everyone else is so far ahead of you. You have teams of people supporting you, but ultimately it all comes down to your strength and resilience. This is an incredibly important concept for debut authors to understand. You don’t stay down forever, and you don’t stay up forever either. So, stay strong.
SL: If you could travel back in time and meet your past self in the year after the publication of Mating for Life, what words of encouragement and/or warning would you give yourself?
MS: I think I’d be afraid of saying anything at all, for fear of changing my course! But one thing I didn’t understand in that year after Mating For Life came out was that second novels are so difficult. I was shocked by that. I didn’t really have any writer friends at the time, so there was no one to commiserate with. I thought there was something wrong with me. You write your debut by yourself, no expectations, and then all that changes. I also wasn’t very good at being edited because I think at the time I didn’t fully understand what the editor/author relationship is—the idea that it has to be a conversation and you can’t just go off and do your thing and not explain why. I was so used to writing in a vacuum, because I laboured over Mating for Life by myself, for years. Opening the door and letting other people into my writing process wasn’t easy. However, I would have also told my post-debut self that once you get over that difficult second novel-writing hump, it does become easier. Every book is different and requires something unique of its author. Some books will be harder than others. Some books will turn out to be a complete waste of time and you’ll have to start something new. (Which happened to me between The Last Resort and Lucky; I had to scrap a half-written novel because it just wasn’t working.) But you’re putting in your hours, you’re becoming a pro. No writing is ever wasted, and every lesson you learn makes you a better writer. You also never stop learning, which is one of the great things about being an author!
“Our worst, hardest moments, the ones where we feel rejected or as if our dreams have been crushed—those are often the moments that are leading to the breakthrough.”
SL: Is there any piece of advice that resonated with you while writing Mating for Life that you still stand by today?
Don’t give up. Mating for Life was my third novel. I sold my first novel, called Saving the World in Sensible Shoes (it was an environmental rom-com I still think about a lot! Maybe some day…) to Key Porter—and then Key Porter went out of business. I wrote another novel that didn’t sell at all. I didn’t give up. I kept going. I’ll always be proud of myself for that. I live by that motto now and try to drill it into my kids, and tell every aspiring author who ever asks me for advice: never give up!
You can purchase Marissa Stapley’s Lucky and Mating for Life on our Bookshop.org affiliate page here. Buying books through this link supports a local indie as well as The Shit No One Tells You About Writing 📚❤️
SHELF LIFE is produced by Bronwen Keyes-Bevan, a Toronto-based writer and editor. Bronwen is newsletter editor at The Shit No One Tells You About Writing and is at work on her debut novel. She lives in Toronto with her husband and their son. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, or at her website.
Let’s Talk About… Action Beats
In this brand new monthly advice column, Bianca Marais shares concrete, actionable craft tips that you can immediately use to elevate your writing. This month Bianca lets you in on an underused and underappreciated technique to turbocharge your dialogue tags.
Let’s talk about dialogue tags and how little value they actually add.
But, Bianca! I hear you saying. They’re essential for the reader to know who’s saying what. And while that’s true, is the best way of achieving that by attaching ‘he/she/they said’ after every piece of dialogue? I don’t think so. After all, we know someone said it because the dialogue was put in quotation marks to denote as much. But how can we elevate that even further?
I know what some of you might be suggesting as a solution: using stronger verbs instead of just ‘said’. Verbs like: shouted, whispered, begged, replied, muttered or replied. And yes, those do help get rid of the sad saids.
But, if your dialogue is strong and doing the work it needs to, we can infer if the character is shouting, begging, or replying.
So, now what?
Allow me to introduce you to the underused and underappreciated action beat which can be used before, during, or after dialogue to show what the character is doing. These can include movements, gestures, facial expressions, and so much more.
So, let’s consider:
“What are you doing up there?” Mo asked.
All the dialogue tag does in this instance is let us know that it was Mo who spoke because we can already tell from the dialogue that the character is asking a question.
But look at how an action beat can accomplish the following:
World building and setting
“What are you doing up there?” Mo shaded his eyes, gazing up the ladder which magically stretched beyond the library’s ceiling, carrying Topaz so high that all he could see of her were the bewitched golden boots that made the treacherous ascent possible.
Look how much world-building is packed into that one sentence! This tells us about the world and creates an image in the reader’s mind so that what they’re imagining is the same as what the author is envisioning.
“What are you doing up there?” Mo hated to ask since asking made him appear weak, but what else was there to do when he constantly felt left out, circling the periphery of his own life.
This tells us something about who Mo is as a character—it broadens our understanding of him!
“What are you doing up there?” Mo swallowed hard thinking back to the time when he and Topaz were just eight years old and she disappeared up the tree for hours, not responding to their mother’s calls long after dark. And how it was Mo who took the beating for that, facing down his mother’s wrath while Topaz explored without repercussions as she was wont to do.
This tells us something about Mo’s backstory in a way that doesn’t take us too much out of the current narrative.
“What are you doing up there?” Mo whipped off the battered fedora and ran a trembling hand through his copper curls that sprouted every which way from his oversized head.
Now we know how to picture Mo!
Emotionality and interiority
“What are you doing up there?” It felt strange for Mo to hear his own voice after all this time, almost as though he were listening to someone else, someone more assertive. He couldn’t help but wonder if this is what it meant to be brave and if so, what it meant for the kind of man he could become.
Boom! We have his thoughts and his feelings, and thus a much deeper insight into Mo.
You’re now empowered to elevate your sad saids into incorporating the kind of information that moves a story forward and elevates it. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Don’t overuse the action beat! You want to balance them out with the lowly dialogue tags so that they don’t become onerous.
As always, you’ve got this!
Bianca Marais is the author of the bestselling The Witches of Moonshyne Manor, as well as the beloved Hum If You Don’t Know the Words and If You Want to Make God Laugh, and the Audible Original, The Prynne Viper. She taught at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies where she was awarded an Excellence in Teaching Award for Creative Writing in 2021. She is the co-host of the popular podcast, The Shit No One Tells You About Writing, which is aimed at helping emerging writers become published.
Five Things You Can Do to Become Your Book Publicist’s Dream Client
It’s no secret that as publishing budgets grow tighter, authors must take on more of the work previously handled by publicists. But what does that actually mean? Here Sydney Tillman, a freelance publicist who has worked at Penguin Random House, Scholastic, and as Publicity Director at Zibby Books, shares five areas to focus your attention on now so that when you start work with your book’s publicist you’ll be raring to go.
Your book has reached the stage where things are out of your hands. Perhaps your agent is shopping your manuscript around to publishers or your book is off to be copyedited and typeset. You’re counting down the days until you can hold the finished copies in your hands. The anticipation is killing you. So what to do now?
Behind-the-scenes promotional work is an integral part of a book’s success and preparing yourself to work with a publicist is a great pre-release area of focus during a waiting period. Below, you’ll find a checklist that outlines five things you can do to prepare to work with publicity.
Understand the functions of Publicity versus Marketing
All Big Five publishers have separate Marketing and Publicity departments responsible for different parts of the promotion stage of publication. If you’re not published by a Big Five, don’t fret! Many publishers still have separate departments or point people responsible for this work.
Publicity is responsible for Earned Media Coverage. These departments maintain consumer and trade media relationships across print, broadcast, and online/blog outlets. Sometimes this includes influencer relations—and sometimes influencer efforts fall to Marketing. Don’t hesitate to ask your editor or publicist who is responsible for influencer outreach if this isn’t clear. Your publicist will make outreach to journalists to secure media placement. They strategize outreach to ensure your book has the appropriate coverage to build consumer awareness and support sales goals. The other main function of Publicity is author appearances, which can include book signings, tours, festivals, and trade show appearances.
Marketing is responsible for Owned and Paid Media. Owned Media consists of any platforms “owned” or maintained by the publisher—a.k.a. social media and email outreach. Paid Media consists of advertising and the creation of promotional items—which could include consumer-facing “swag” such as bookmarks or items designed for retailers such as in-store displays or event kits. The goal is to market to consumers and provide retailers with tools that ultimately help drive full sales distribution.
Update (or create) your website
Downtime during the querying or editing process is a great time to update or create your website. An author’s website is often a publicist’s—and later a media contact’s—first stop for more information. It is important to clearly lay out information. Suggested sections are: About Me, My Books, Press/Appearances, and Contact Me.
Increasingly, authors are creating their own newsletters as a medium for updating their readers, industry contacts, and others in their network. Having an established newsletter can make a querying author more attractive to a publisher, publicist, or agent—it shows that you are working to grow your audience and it’s a way to quantify that audience. I’ve worked with authors who started with 25 to 50 subscribers and grew their list to hundreds (even thousands!). If this is something you decide to do, consistency is key, and I recommend sticking to a regular schedule (monthly or weekly). Potential newsletter topics could include book/event updates, giveaways, resources—truly whatever you want!
Create a digital media kit
A digital media kit or digital press kit (DPK) is a resource that is essential to share with media once coverage conversations begin, and it is helpful for authors to begin putting this information together ahead of working with publicity—this is also another useful resource to list on your website! In some sort of shareable digital folder, store your author bio, approved headshot (with photo credit), high-res book cover image, and social media handles. The purpose of this kit is to provide a journalist with the essential information they’d need to run media coverage. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a book featured in a roundup where the book image included was low resolution (or incorrect!). Having this ready to go—and publicly accessible on your website—is a way to help ensure the correct information is being provided as quickly as possible.
Start a list of contacts and ideas for outreach
Your publicist is responsible for media and bookstore outreach, but it is always helpful to start with an author’s contacts to ensure outreach is as widespread as possible. It is helpful to have authors add media, influencer, and bookstore contacts to a grid organized by existing or aspirational. Anyone already in your network falls under existing—bookstores you’ve worked with, reporters you’ve interviewed with in the past—and anyone you’d like to work with or send your book to that isn’t in your network falls under aspirational. Within this same list, create a separate tab where you list any previous favourable media coverage or place op-eds. Once assigned a publicist, you can discuss previous experiences with media—using this list as a starting point—and any ideas you have for your upcoming release and media outreach. Collaborating with an author to strategize on outreach and brainstorm pitches is one of the highlights of being a publicist—and being aligned early on outreach and pitch angles will set you both up for a successful media campaign!
Consider hiring freelance help
As someone who has worked at various Big Five and mid-size publishers, I’ve seen things from the inside. It is important to be realistic about the state of publishing—and this is a conversation worth having with your agent and editor. It is also extremely important to consider additional costs associated with hiring freelance help—and if you decide to go this route, budget for this in advance and consider exactly what this help will look like. I’d recommend waiting until you’ve seen your Publicity and Marketing plan before deciding to bring on a freelancer—sometimes publishers do this on their end depending on the plan and the department’s bandwidth. If that’s not the case, and you’d like to bring someone on, consider what you need help with and where there are gaps in your publicity expectations, and what the publisher will provide. Sometimes outside help looks like a Personal Assistant or Booking Agent who can help with scheduling and booking. Other times, this might be a Freelance Publicist who will liaise with you and your in-house publicist to secure media coverage and build awareness for your book.
A final note: it is one percent okay if you don’t do all of these things. Please consider these recommendations to better position yourself to work with an in-house publicist. Many publishers will have authors fill out author questionnaires with similar information. However, it is good practice to have this information gathered in advance. Marketing and Publicity timelines vary depending on the publisher and book—but sharing this information as soon as there’s a publicist assigned to your book will help you stay organized and better prepare you to work with publicity.
Sydney Tillman (she/they) is a New York City-based freelance publicist and strategic communicator with 6+ years of experience in book publishing and public relations with a passion for amplifying stories and reimagining the way we launch and discover books. They have previously worked at Penguin Random House, Scholastic, Hachette, and Zibby Books. When their head is not in a book, you can find them plant shopping, baking scones, and rewatching their favorite horror films.
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Each podcast episode costs us five hundred dollars to produce and edit and we aim to air at least four episodes and one bonus a month. The biggest compliment our listeners give us is that our episodes don’t have any filler, just one hundred percent helpful content. Your support helps keep it that way. Once-off and monthly supporters have access to Carly and CeCe’s written critiques as well as other exclusive content. Once-off supporters have access to the additional content for one month after their donation date. Monthly supporters will have access on an ongoing basis. Please register on Ko-fi and then follow us there to ensure you have access to the materials.
Art and Money: How Writers Can Successfully Navigate The Fraught Relationship Between The Two
Every writer dreams of getting paid for their art. But with money comes new, often complicated, emotions. Carly Watters shares how writers can unpack this fraught relationship.
The first writing you ever do will not be for money. You write to communicate. You write to remind yourself of things. But some people evolve to tell stories. They become writers. And then money enters the equation. When a writer starts getting paid to write—whether it’s for a website, a blog, or a book—that money can signify something concrete: you might imagine making enough money to pay off a debt, enough to go on vacation. And now perhaps new feelings emerge. Feelings of worth, power, respect, value, legitimacy, superiority, longevity, gratitude, and much more to unpack.
When we mix our complicated feelings about money with our complicated feelings about our art they don’t cancel each other out. New concerns arise: am I getting paid less or more than someone else? Will this project keep paying me for awhile or will these cheques stop?
There are new feelings of scarcity mindset, of professional jealousy, of career insecurity.
As Christopher George Latore Wallace, better known as the Notorious B.I.G, once said: “mo money mo problems.”
Money can bring opportunity and choice, but also expectation and pressure.
And as Carly Watters, a.k.a. myself, once said: “money alone does not define your self-worth as a creative person.”
Would you feel like your manuscript was better if someone paid you ten thousand dollars for it? How about a million dollars? You wrote it when zero dollars were assigned to it.
So, as an ambitious creator how are you supposed to feel about money? Everyone needs it. Bills must be paid one way or another. When we spend time on something as a career we want to be compensated. This is where the Venn diagram of success comes in: art + commerce overlap to create what? In the middle you must find peace with where you’re at. Find contentment with knowing that the art you create and the writing you put out into the world will be assigned a value but that you don’t have control over that value. From the publisher’s advance to how many copies it will sell, you don’t know.
But you can control writing a great book and finding peace in knowing that you’re putting great work out into the world.
How do your writing payments make you feel? Because writing is more than a job, and when you unpack how much value you assign to the financial piece of the equation you can see how important it is to reconcile your emotional response to money.
In a business where you can make as little as zero dollars and as much as millions, there’s a lot of room in the middle to make a living. Being a working writer requires stamina, consistency, dedication, commitment, talent, and the confidence to know that money follows demand. If there is demand for what you’re creating, money will follow, and financial success will come.
But first, find alignment in your values around money and write like everyone is going to read it. Success shows up in all forms.
Carly Watters is a SVP and Senior Literary Agent at P.S. Literary and the sitting VP of PACLA, the Professional Association of Canadian Literary Agents. She is the co-host of popular writing podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing. Carly received her MA in Publishing Studies from City University London. Her clients’ books have been translated into over 40 languages, optioned for TV and film, adapted into podcasts, and have been on every bestseller list from coast to coast.
On The Podcast This Week
Check out this week’s podcast episode below!
In today's Books with Hooks, Bianca speaks to guest agent, Emmy Nordstrom-Higdon, about five submissions including middle grade queries, a rom-com, and a graphic novel script. They discuss the best way to personalize your query letter to your specific agent; balancing narrative dialogue and action in a scene; content warnings; non-fiction book proposals; overwriting in non-fiction; and the need for an illustrator when submitting graphic novel queries.
After which, Carly chats with her client, Karen Katchur, author of The Greedy Three. They discuss the fun and difficult parts about writing a ‘closed door’ mystery; the process of writing dark humour; Karen’s use of a specific setting for this novel; her choice of epigraph; her path to finding Carly; her experience working with different publishers; being a woman in a male-dominated genre; and Karen’s words of wisdom for aspiring authors.
And don’t forget, you can register for our Books with Hooks Book Club here!
Well friends, that’s a wrap for this month! We hope you enjoyed reading this issue as much as we enjoyed creating it. If you found this helpful, please tell a friend!
And if you’re interested in advertising in this newsletter, email us at theshitaboutwriting.newsletter at gmail dot com! Thanks for joining us and, until next month, happy scribbling ✨
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Wow. The publicity section has opened up a whole new world for me! Thank u for this!