Finding Your Confidence: An Interview with Indie Author Jenny Bravo

There’s something inspiring about talking to a writer who has just published her first book. It reminds us that all the pain is worth it in the end.

Here’s my interview with the energetic and thoughtful indie author Jenny Bravo!

Tell us a little about yourself and about your book.

Hi there! I’m Jenny Bravo and my book is These Are the Moments. I’m a twenty-four-year-old Louisiana native with a B.A. in Creative Writing and a writing blog called Blots & Plots. Fun fact about me? I once was a safari truck driver at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

These Are the Moments, also known by its hashtag TATM, is a YA/NA crossover novel about the love story between Simon and Wendy. It’s an on-again, off-again relationship of a couple brought back together through a mutual friends’ wedding. Can people really change? Can they actually make it work? You’ll have to see!

Is this your first book?

Yes, it is! First published, that is. I do have an unpublished, unedited manuscript that is somewhere collecting dust. But maybe one day, I’ll get back to it.

How did you come up with the story idea?

Originally, I had the idea of this couple when I was still in high school. I wrote about their story in a very elementary kind of way, as I was still developing my writing skills. I loved the idea of a couple reunited over time and thought it would make for interesting tension. After I graduated college, I remembered the story and started writing. From there, I added layers over layers of plot, and it became a real, fully-fashioned story.

How long did it take you to write TATM?

I started writing in March of 2014 and finished that December. It took me about three months to edit before sending it away for developmental editing.

What is your writing process? (Are you a pantser, plotter, or something in between—a plontser?)

I’m definitely a plontser haha! In the first draft, I just let the story take me where it wants to go. It starts out as a collection of scenes, and through my second draft, they blend together into a story. From there, I plan. I have a more concrete idea of the story arc, and I map the scenes to fit. Then it’s edit, edit, edit, and somehow, it makes a novel.

Do you keep a writing schedule?

I don’t have a writing schedule. With a full-time job, I just do my best to find the time. Word sprints are my very best friend. I can write about 1,000 or more words in 30 minutes, so I try to make the most of the time I do have.

What were some of the bumps you hit along the way while writing TATM?

For me, the hardest part was knowing when to stop. I could edit my heart away, and I spent an entire weekend just holed away in my room, working for hours on end. At some point, I just had to call it a day. I had to accept that writing is a fluid art, and it’s never necessarily “finished.” I had to be proud of myself, and then hand it over to its readers.

Why did you decide to indie publish? What have you liked about it? What has been difficult?

Jenny Bravo Blots and Plots Pic

I love indie publishing, but I had no idea how amazing it was until I started researching it. After graduation, I had big plans to publish traditionally, as most writers do. Then I found indie authors and started listening to their stories. I was so excited to pick my own publishing team and take my book in the direction I wanted it to go.

I’ve loved this experience. It’s amazing to learn the work and time that is required for a book. The whole experience can be difficult, but I was very stressed when it came to creating my own timelines. I wanted to launch it in the right way, and I was scared I wouldn’t give myself enough time. Thankfully, it all worked out perfectly!

What advice do you have for writers who are struggling to write their own first book?

If you’re struggling to write, there could be a number of different factors. Maybe you haven’t found the right story or you are second-guessing yourself. My best, overall piece of advice is to give yourself permission to write poorly. It’s okay for your first draft to be all over the place. It’s okay for you to doubt where your story is heading. Just write something. If you need more tailored advice, I suggest visiting my blog or shooting me an email. I’m happy to help!

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Nail Your Pitch: Avoid the Common Pitfalls and Sell Your Story

Many of today’s best-selling books were written by once-unknown authors—authors who had very little to no platform at all—like J. K. Rowling when she wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. So how did word get around?

It all comes down to the pitch.

Two Kinds of Pitches

Most of the time the word pitch is associated with authors trying to pitch their manuscript to agents or editors. But there’s a second, and equally important, phase of the pitch: readers pitching books to other readers.

I recently read (and loved) The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which was recommended to me by my next-door neighbor. I was one of thousands who catapulted Stockett to fame and fortune (after first being rejected sixty times by literary agents ).

In fact, I rarely read books based on genre or best-seller lists but instead on the recommendations of friends and family:

A pitch can be powerful because it not only advertises one book but all of the author’s books. After having read Unbroken, for example, I went on to read Laura Hillenbrand’s first book, Seabiscuit, which I then pitched to several of my friends.

However, readers will not pitch your book unless you give them a very good reason to. Something about your book needs to be unique and exciting, but at the same time, relatively easy to explain. That’s where a book’s pitch comes in.

Take Harry Potter, for example. The series has many intricate plots and characters, but the overall story is easy to pitch:

A boy discovers that he’s a wizard and that the darkest wizard of all time wants him dead.

How to Craft an Enticing Pitch

If your book doesn’t have a clear and enticing pitch, it will have a hard time getting traction. Randy Ingermanson in Writing Fiction for Dummies lists the numbers of times a book has to be successfully pitched before it has a chance of becoming a best-seller:

  1. You or your agent sells your book to an acquisitions editor, who brings it to her publishing committee.
  2. The acquisitions editor sells the concept of the book to the publishing committee, who offer you a contract with royalties and advance payments.
  3. The acquisitions editor then sells your book to the sales team, who are in charge of fulfilling orders from bookstores.
  4. The sales team sells your book to professional buyers, who also place orders for bookstores.
  5. The catalog copy and back-cover copy (which have hopefully been perfected by a production team that’s rooting for you) sell your book as well.
  6. The sales teams at bookstores (or the back cover of the book itself) sell your book to readers.
  7. Your first wave of readers sell your book to their friends, and their friends sell your book to their friends, etc.

If a link is broken or missing anywhere in the selling chain, the road to best-sellerdom becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible. (And if you self-publish, you alone must successfully link all the steps leading up to number seven.)

What Is, and Is Not, a Pitch

This is where many writers get lost. The purpose of a pitch is not to convince everyone of the awesomeness of your book. The purpose of a pitch, as explained by Ingermanson in Writing Fiction for Dummies, is to “tell people immediately whether they belong to your target audience.”

Remember that you’ll never write a book that appeals to everyone. If someone doesn’t fit your target audience, that’s okay. You fail quickly, which allows you to move on to the next person. But if someone does belong to your target audience, then you succeed quickly.

Ingermanson also argues that a pitch should actually be called a storyline, because it allows you to focus on accurately explaining your book rather than on desperately trying to sell it.

Now that we know what a pitch is (or a storyline) Ingermanson explains what it should look like:

It’s short. You want it to be short so you can memorize it easily and say it quickly—and so can everyone else in your selling chain.

It’s emotive. Fiction is about creating a powerful emotional experience, so your storyline needs to tell what emotive experience your story will deliver.

It arouses curiosity. Your storyline shouldn’t give away the story. It should raise a question that demands an answer.

Your Pitch Checklist

Ingermanson then gives a detailed checklist on how to build your pitch/storyline:

Shoot for twenty-five words or less. If you can do it in less than fifteen words, you get extra credit.

Limit your storyline to just a few characters. One or two is ideal. Three is the maximum.

Tell only one thread of the story, either the most essential one or the most interesting one.

Most of the time, don’t name the characters. Instead, describe each, aiming for internal consistency that promises conflict. A “one-armed trapeze artist” is infinitely more interesting than “Joe.” (However, whenever a famous character—such as Houdini or physics pioneer Marie Curie—plays a role in your novel, consider bending this rule and naming him or her in your storyline.)

When writing the storyline for a historical novel, tell the time period and geographical setting if they add potency to the brew.

Use adjectives that evoke empathy or cast a character as an outsider. The word young frequently shows up in storylines because it implies vulnerability and appeals to modern youth-oriented culture. References to gender may set up romantic tension or show characters who cross stereotypes. You can tolerate some redundancy if it heightens the wallop.

Don’t be afraid to use a small amount of hype with a verb such as battles or struggles.

Backload the storyline by putting a surprise or some emotively punchy words at the end of the sentence.

Examples of Great Pitches

Writing Fiction for Dummies gives many great examples of pitches. Here are a few:

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (thriller)

“A Harvard symbologist and a female cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.”

Highlighting male and female characters promises a bit of romantic tension, which is always good, even if it’s not central to the story. In this case, the storyline is already high-octane, with three separate phrases that generate emotive responses: “Holy Grail” connotes “religion,” “race against death” is a stock phrase for thrillers, and “Europe” adds an exotic flavor that appeals to Americans.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (literary)

“A young girl watches the turmoil in her family from heaven after being raped and murdered by a neighbor.”

This storyline highlights the unusual story premise—watching from heaven. Note how we backload several traumatic words (“raped and murdered by a neighbor”). The story is too harrowing for some readers, and this storyline tells them immediately that they won’t be able to handle it.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (romance)

“A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.”

This storyline puts on display the weaknesses of both the young woman (“from a peculiar family”) and her suitor (“arrogant”). It raises the questions of whether the man will succeed and whether the reader should want him to.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy)

“A hobbit learns that destroying his magic ring is the key to saving Middle Earth from the Dark Lord.”

Notice how very many characters we’ve left out of this storyline: The wizards, the elves, the orcs, the Ents, Gollum, Shelob, Tom Bombadil. We’ve also left out all the important places: The Shire, Rivendell, Lothlorien, Rohan, Minas Tirith, even Mordor. We’ve stripped it down to our hero Frodo and the Dark Lord. In a battle between good and evil, just showing the symbol of good and the symbol of evil is okay.

Writing Fiction for Dummies has many other great tips for breaking into the publishing world; I highly recommend it.

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3 Things You Can Do Right Now That Will Get You Published Faster

If you want to get ahead of the publishing game before you even hammer out that first draft, you need to write these three things first:

  1. Your pitch
  2. Your synopsis (or your book jacket, for you pantsers who don’t like much detail)
  3. Your query letter

You do not have to know every detail of your story before you sit down to write it, but you absolutely do have to know the details that will make your story unique and riveting. In other words, you have to know the details that will make the publishing industry give a damn about your book. 

I’m not saying that you should only focus on what you think will sell (which usually never works anyway because you either guess wrong or you find yourself at the tail end of a dying trend); what I am saying is that you need to be realistic.

If you want to traditionally publish, you need to win over an agent, an editor, and eventually an entire publishing house before your book hits the market. That means you need to know how to pitch your book to their bottom line.

(And if you want to indie publish, the game is pretty much the same. You still need to convince people—i.e., your readers—in a very short amount of space that your book is worth buying.)

So it makes sense that the first thing you need to do with a potential story is figure out how you’d pitch it. The worst thing you can do is finish writing your book, only to rudely discover that what you thought you were going to write—and what was going to skyrocket your book to best-sellerdom—isn’t actually what you ended up writing after going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.

Why You Need a Pitch Before You Write

A pitch isn’t just to sell your book; it’s to keep you focused during the writing process. Tape it above your computer and ask yourself every day, Is this still what I’m writing about, or has it changed?

If it’s changed (and if you’re a pantser that’s probably the case), that’s okay. But now you need to figure out what it is you are writing about—because there’s a good chance you’re not writing about anything, at least not anything publishable, and you’ll have to do a lot of re-writing.

Must-Haves for Writing Pitches and Queries

For some great examples of professional pitches, subscribe to Publishers Lunch, the free daily email from Publishers Marketplace, which lists recent book deals and their one-sentence descriptions. Simply by reading this one thing every day you will better understand what sells and how it sells (i.e., how to write a pitch that’s worth pitching). 

For query-letter writing, check out this excellent article from Jane Friedman: The Complete Guide to Query Letters That Get Manuscript Requests.

And to top it off, in an upcoming post I’ll share the best advice I’ve found on how to nail down your pitch quickly and painlessly.

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What Rowling Did Wrong: On Respecting the Rights of Readers

Last month J. K. Rowling started a hullabaloo when she questioned the suitability and long-term viability of Ron and Hermione’s relationship.

I personally wasn’t fazed by the whole who-should-be-with-who argument. What did concern me was that Rowling had overstepped her bounds as an author by casting doubt on a storyline she had already finished. 

The Harry Potter series had (and still has) a huge impact on the literary world, which means that Rowling has a huge impact on the literary world. She is currently the most well-known example of what it means to be a writer—and that’s why her comment irks me. It disrespects the relationship between writer and reader.

I know some of you disagree with me. You say that Rowling clearly identifies with Hermione and is more musing on her own life than on the lives of her characters. But here’s the thing:

You’re absolutely right.

The Potter characters obviously mean a great deal to Rowling. In a 2012 interview with Oprah, she said:

When [Harry Potter] ended, I was in a slight state of shock. Initially I was elated, but then there came a point [when] I cried as I’ve only cried once before in my life and that was when my mother died. It was uncontrollable . . . For 17 years I’d had [these books], through some very tumultuous times in my personal life, and I’d always had that. It was an escape for all these children; you can imagine what it had been for me.

And when Oprah said, “But you know what happens ever after,” Rowling replied:

Yeah, I do. I couldn’t stop. I don’t think you can stop when you’ve been that involved with characters for that long. It’s still all in there. They’re all in my head still. I mean, I could definitely write an eighth, ninth, tenth [book].

Let me clarify.

I’m not saying that Rowling doesn’t have the right to portray her characters as she sees fit or that she doesn’t have the right to vicariously portray herself through her characters. I would’ve had no problem with Rowling’s Ron/Hermione comment if she had written those ideas in an eighth, ninth, or tenth book.

But once a writer puts down her pen, she’s handed over the imaginative rights of her story to her readers, and it’s disrespectful to take that back and say, No, this is actually what happens, no matter how you imagined it.

Just after finishing the final Potter book, Rowling said:

It gives me a certain satisfaction to say what I thought happened and to tell other people that, because I would like my version to be the official version still even though I haven’t written it in a book. Because it’s my world.

Part of me agrees with her. She did spend years writing Harry Potter and it is her world . . . but then there’s another part of me that says, Isn’t that selfish, though?

Rowling insists she’s done with Potter, yet she won’t allow her readers to keep the story alive in their own imaginations and in their own ways.

In the end this argument boils down to one simple question: where does a writer draw the line between her rights as creator and her responsibility to readers?

I firmly believe that the best books come from writers who have the utmost respect for their readers; they’re driven to create better stories, better characters, and better worlds because they have too much respect for their readers to give anything less.

And yes, Rowling has done that in so many ways . . . I just have to disagree with her on this one.

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Letting Go after Publishing: Why Rowling Shouldn’t Have Commented on Ron and Hermione’s Relationship

Have you heard the latest buzz in the Muggle world?

Hermione-actress Emma Watson interviewed J. K. Rowling for the British entertainment mag Wonderland and some of Rowling’s quotes have made quite a stir.

The magazine itself doesn’t hit newsstands until next week, but snippets of the interview have leaked, wherein Rowling claims she made a mistake pairing Hermione with Ron instead of Harry:

I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.

She goes on to say:

I know, I’m sorry. I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.

She also adds that Hermione and Ron will probably end up in couple’s therapy.

Not surprisingly, Potter fans have taken sides on the issue. Personally, I’m for leaving Hermione and Ron alone, and here’s why:

Rowling finished writing the books.

That’s it. That’s my only reason.

A writer will always have the itch to go back and change things. Words are permanent and you want everything to be perfect, I get that, but I’m coming from a reader’s perspective.

Any time a writer tries to dial back the clock and correct or clarify something that’s already been published, she pulls apart her intricately woven story and exposes all the ugly wires underneath. She reminds her readers that it was “only a story.” Not real people in a real world trying to solve real problems but just some characters slapped on a page.

To write an enthralling story is to create an illusion—a magic trick—and every time Rowling steps in and says, Oh wait, I should’ve done this instead, the illusion is spoiled.

Furthermore, by questioning Ron and Hermione’s relationship, Rowling violated the rights of her readers. Check out my next post for more on that.

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