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The Multi-Pronged Assault: Strategic Planning for Aspiring Writers

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Maybe I’ve read Sun Tzu’s Art of War too many times, but whenever I start to talk about trying to break into the publishing industry, my vocabulary always starts to drift toward terms more commonly used in siege warfare. It’s too easy for me to picture the Publishing World as an impenetrable citadel and myself as the general of a ragtag rebel army storming the gates. (The Fortress of Publishing can and shall be taken and I’m just the girl to do it!)

My writing buddies have heard me talk about my multi-pronged assault and flanking maneuvers more often than is probably healthy for a girl who writes bubbly comedies, but at least I’m not the only one attacking writing with a militaristic mindset.  Former-green beret and best selling author Bob Mayer wrote a book called Warrior Writer and talks frequently about strategic and tactical goals in his posts at the Genreality blog.

I’m a big believer in strategic planning for writers.  We can’t just wait for the publishing career of our dreams to be handed to us on a silver platter.  We have to pursue our dreams with the determination and cunning, waging our campaign deliberately until we achieve victory (however we choose to define that victory).

I call my plan of attack the Multi-Pronged Assault. My weapons aren’t trebuchets and battering rams, but query letters and contest entries.

There are several avenues of attack for the aspiring author.  Contests, queries to agents, queries to editors, conferences, and writers’ organizations (both online and in person).  If your end goal is the Big New York Publisher, one avenue of attack may be writing for a digital press, a smaller print press or category romance.

Any one of those methods could be the way you get the right editor’s attention (and skyrocket you to fame and fortune, right?), but you can’t predict which one it’s going to be.  That’s why I’m a firm believer in keeping my eggs in a few different baskets (to mix metaphors).

None of us have the time or energy to do everything, but by playing to our strengths and diversifying our efforts, we give ourselves a better chance of success.  Here are my tips for making yourself a multi-pronged strategic assault plan.

1. Select a few contests a year that will benefit you the most (either with feedback, prestige, or final judges you’d like to get the attention of).  Contests can bring validation, and help you learn how to identify helpful comments and withstand the hurtful ones.  But don’t get sucked into only entering contests.  The time and money spent on entering every contest on the planet could be used to shoot out a few queries to agents or sign up for a conference.

2. Research & query agents who represent your subgenre and try to have at least two queries/proposals out at all times.  (The two queries thing is so when you get a rejection, you always have another iron in the fire to focus on, rather than the R.  If you’re feeling really ambitious, Kresley Cole had a “Rule of 25″ where she always had her writing out at least 25 ways – queries, contest entries, etc.)  If you aren’t sure where to start in the agent hunt, Shea wrote an invaluable post for us on the agent hunt.

3. Try to attend at least one conference a year – if you’re short on cash look for a smaller, regional conference in your area with lower conference fees and transportation costs.  The setting will be more intimate and you’ll be likely to get more one on one time with attending editors and agents. And sign up for a pitch if possible – they commonly result in requests and guarantee you face-time with an editor/agent if you’re too shy to seek them out in the bar.

4. Join a chapter and get involved. The connection with fellow writers can improve your writing, make the writing experience less solitary, and potentially open doors.  Through online writing loops, I hear about online opportunities for pitches & queries like Agent Shop.
If there isn’t an RWA chapter near you, you can still join Romance Divas, the RWA online chapter or one of many online special-interest chapters like Beau Monde (regency historical) or FF&P (Fantasy, futuristic & paranormal).  If you’re in danger of spending all your writing time networking, try scheduling a specific block of time for loops & chapter emails (and set a timer so you don’t get sucked in).

5.  Consider writing a short story or novella for an epublisher or one of the Harlequin “brief” or “bites” lines.  Quicker than writing a complete novel, this can be a great way of getting your foot in the door and learning some of the ropes of publishing.  And if you have big dreams for your full length masterpiece, you don’t have to feel like you gave up on your Big Book’s New York chances if you write something fresh for a quickie line.  Harlequin has them for Historical, Paranormal, & Erotic, and epublishers have even broader ranges.

You never know which method is going to find a vulnerability in the Fortress of Publishing’s defenses.  No one way is guaranteed to work for everyone and we can’t predict which avenue of attack is going to be the one that leads to your juicy contract. So fire everything.  And always having some of your soldiers (queries/contest entries) out fighting for you.

The siege on publishing can feel like a hundred-years-war, an endless campaign.  Morale is threatened by the strength of the walls, the seeming impossibility of our task.  But others before us have broken through and more are battling through every day.  It can be done, so don’t lose hope.

I’ll leave you with a little Sun Tzu:  Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” So plan your victory.  And then go get it.

41 Responses to “The Multi-Pronged Assault: Strategic Planning for Aspiring Writers”

  1. Great blog, Vivi. You’re so right. Planning is vital in developing a writing career. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.’

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Ooh, I love that quote. :) How about this one from Sun Tzu:

      “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

      My translation into writing terms: “Do your research (know your enemy) and find your voice/hone your writing (know yourself) and you give yourself the best chance of success with each query sent.”

  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    Great suggestions, Vivi – particularly about playing to your strengths. For more insight into weaknesses, I can’t recommend Bob Mayer’s “Warrior Writer” and “Who Dares Wins” highly enough. “Who Dares Wins” in particular has some concrete exercises about self-knowledge, which is key to success in any endeavor.

    I think it’s important to always study craft, to read about writing, and to take classes, either online or in person. I can’t tell you how many fabulous things I’ve learned listening to RWA National workshops on my iPod while mowing the lawn. (Thanks, Bob M. and Cherry Adair!) I’m fortunate to live near Minneapolis, with its Loft Literary Center because I find in-person instruction to be highly energizing. I remember taking a week-long summer writing workshop about a decade ago, and being absolutely floored that the ‘student’ sitting next to me was multi-pubbed author Patricia Wrede. It was great reminder to me that there are always things we can learn. She said she was there to “fill her tank.” I remember that comment to this day, and I know exactly what she means.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      “Fill her tank”. I like that. It’s exactly how I feel when I go to conferences. Like the creative energy around me (and insight from workshops & conversations with other writers) fuels me up for months of writing to come.

  3. jbrayweber says:

    Super blog, Vivi.
    Great suggestions. I really like the “Rule of 25″ and think I may try something similar.
    BTW – thanks for the MuseTracks Agent Shop plug. It is much appreciated. ;-)

    Jenn!

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Thanks, Jenn. Isn’t the Rule of 25 a fabulous idea? And she sold in something like a year using that technique. Of course, she’s Kresley Cole, who I personally think is a freaking goddess, but if it worked for her… Definitely something to consider.

      You must keep us posted if you try it, Jenn!

    • Tina Joyce says:

      I also like the rule of 25! The idea of always having something out there is s great one!

  4. Captain, I think we’ve got them surrounded.

    I’ve heard whisperings of this multi-pronged attack theory, but now I have details. And don’t forget the armor.

  5. rita says:

    I thought I was the only one who read the Art of War and followed Bob Mayer. Your assault plan considers an option I hadn’t-writing a novella. And mine maybe one to consider -getting your mind and body healthy. This plays into your Sun Tzu quote.
    For those of you fearing the get published part of writing, listen to Vivi. Thanks Sista you’ve very nicely broken down Sun Tzu into what every writer need to consider.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Great point, Rita. The healthy mind and body is key. Physical, mental and creative fatigue can derail a writer faster than anything I know.

  6. Diana Layne says:

    An Art of War and Bob Mayer fan here, too. Thanks Vivi, I’ve been following your career and taking notes. :)

  7. Elise Hayes says:

    LOVE the Sun Tzu quote, Vivi. Definitely one to tape over the computer monitor…

  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    “Win first, then go to war!”

    I love this, Vivi, especially from the author of bubbly comedies!!! You have an awesome attitude.

    Makes me realize I need to get my….er, trebuchet in gear.
    My style tends to be more “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

  9. Kim Law says:

    Great post, and just what I need right now. I’ve recently felt like i’ve either stayed in the same place or gone backwards in the last year and realized it was because I wasn’t setting a plan and attacking as I had been.

    I like the rule of 25. I might have to do something similar!

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      I’m so glad it came at a good time for you, Kim! Sometimes we need the creative inspiration and sometimes we need someone screaming “Charge!” in our ear. :)

  10. Liz Talley says:

    I laughed out loud (yes, I spelled it out) at “ragtag rebel warriors.” That’s what I feel like sometimes. My feet hurt, my back hurts, I’m hungry.

    And here’s the other fact. If and when you breach the walls, you gotta fight to stay in there. And this rebel warrior doesn’t have a guide (aka agent) and she lost her glasses (her mind) and can’t see where she’s going. I do love metaphors :)

    Great post, Vivi. Glad to have so many warriors beside me. We’re the Band of Sisters. Don’t mess with the sisters. LOL

    • rita says:

      Band of Sisters
      A never ending mini-series about a group of determined writers battle to reach the pinnacle of the publishing industry. Coming soon to HBO.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Exactly, Liz! The fight doesn’t stop just because we broke through the walls. You’ve got to subdue the garrison inside or you’ll get chucked out again. (Extended metaphor nerds unite!)

  11. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tamara Hogan, Ruby Sisterhood. Ruby Sisterhood said: Ruby Slippered-Sisterhood @viviandrews on: The multi-pronged assault – Strategic planning for aspiring authors http://tinyurl.com/2u9ksvs [...]

  12. Timely and inspiring, Vivi. I’ve gotten the feeling (maybe it’s just me) that the Rubies have been getting kicked around a little bit lately, and it’s high time we kicked back.

    I’ve been thinking about prong #5 — writing a short Harl — but haven’t made time for it yet. I wish there were more options for their short lines, but hey, erotic is probably close enough to what I do for me to give it a shot.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Here’s to kicking back!

      Re prong #5 – if you write something for Spice Briefs & it isn’t right for them, you can always make it a smidge longer and sub to Carina (if you want to stay in the Harl family) or another epub.

      And novellas really help you focus on what drives the story. Practice writing tight is never wasted.

      • Yes! I’m sure you’re right.

        I’ve been watching friends find real financial and audience success with epubs and category briefs — I can think of one who parlayed a couple of Bites into full-length Nocturnes, and now she has her own series-within-a-series at Nocturne as well as a two-book historical/paranormal romance deal with … Penguin? I think it’s Penguin. Anyway, her main goal was to produce lots of high-quality work in a short period of time, and for her, in made sense to write several short stories and category novels while developing full-length proposals.

        She stormed the gates with overwhelming and superior force, let’s say. And now she’s been given a key to two different keeps within the city walls.

  13. Anne Barton says:

    I love this post, Vivi. Great analogy and so true. There are lots of paths to success in this business, and you just never know which one you’ll end up taking.

    After reading lots of interviews with successful authors, I’ve noticed that their “big breaks” were often several little things that came together, working in their favor. They worked hard and were ready when opportunity knocked!

    Thanks for all the great links, too. Awesome!

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      That’s a really good point, Anne, about the little things piling up. Sometimes the opportunities don’t seem like much but turn into so much more when you take the sum of them.

  14. Finding an agent is like finding the perfect dress for the the occasion of a lifetime. Sometimes it’s on the first rack you search and sometimes you find it in the umpteen store. Then comes the shoes.

    Great reminder to keep displaying our talents.

  15. Thanks for another excellent post, Vivi. What you said about diversifying is really resonating with me. I need to start thinking of ways to do that in my own writing and stop focusing on only one path and one goal.

  16. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Excellent post, Vivi! Like Kim, I feel like I’ve gone backward, but it’s time to cancel the retreat, damn the torpedoes, and full speed ahead! (Can you tell we’re retired Navy? *G*)

    I can’t quote Asian philosophy or Bob Meyer, but will a line from Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang do? “From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!” (Perfect for the avid gardener.)

    I’ll be getting those book you’ve mentioned, btw. Tactical warfare is part of most of my stories anyway, so I guess it’s time to put it to practical use.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      I’m gonna have that song stuck in my head all day! LOL. The niece & nephews love that movie. I think I can sing the whole score from memory – and that song is my hands down favorite. “Alexander Graham knew failure well… he took a lot of knocks to ring that bell!” ;)

  17. Darynda Jones says:

    Wow, sorry I’m late. This is a GREAT post, Vivi!! Good job!

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