The Prototypical Novelist of Today… Proving That It CAN Be Done

An Interview with Sue Coletta, author of Marred and Wings of Mayhem

Displaying Sue Coletta.jpgSue Coletta

(Quick opening note, leading to a postscript: If you are one of the Storyfix subscribers over the past few days, please make sure you read the important update at the end of today’s post. Thanks. For now… meet Sue Coletta).

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I have to be honest, Sue Coletta discovered me before I found her. She surfaced as one of the most enthusiastic endorsers and gracious reviews of Story Engineering, and then — I suppose because she wanted to see if the author walked the talk — she went on to read and review all of my novels, and in a way that novelists hope but rarely experience. We’ve gone on to be friends, but frankly, she intimidates me. Because she’s done so much more for me than I’ve done for her. Which is not how I prefer the scales to tip when it comes to friends.

She’ll freak when she reads that, but it’s true.

Sue does everything right. She writers killer books — two of them, at this point — founded on a deep understanding of the deep craft of the crime novel.  She writes “how-to” ebooks for her peers in the genre.  Her website is… perfect. Her brand presence is what they term as exploding on all the usual venues, including a recent interview on The Kill Zone and Authorinterviews.com, among others. And she is a master of the writers tool chest, from publicity to the jungle of self-publishing to

And she’s willing to engage with serious authors and share everything she knows.

Yea, we should all be like Sue Coletta. But for now, let’s just hear what she has to say. Trust me, you’ll want more… be sure to click through her links in the bio below.

This is me in bold, with Sue’s responses following:

I see your name everywhere, it seems. How have you managed to create a “brand” with real visibility, and is that something other authors can do in a similar fashion?

Absolutely. Anyone can build their brand. All it takes is discipline, passion, and determination. When I first decided to crawl out of my writer’s cave and join the community I started a blog, and it remains the best thing I’ve ever done. I blog about my passion…crime. Over time I’ve focused my efforts on providing research for other crime writers. Things like, police procedures, forensic science advancements and protocols, crime writing tips, as well as flash fiction and true crime stories. The latter two I include for those in my audience who aren’t writers.

As far as social media goes, many authors advocate picking one or two sites and being active, rather than trying to spread yourself too thin. And for the most part, I agree. Unless you share a name with another author like I do. In which case you’ll have to work twice as hard. When I first set out to build my brand, this other Sue Coletta used to dominate Google’s search results. “Used to” being the key words there. J She is now somewhere around page 10 or 11. And it’s because I remain active on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Pinterest, StumbleUpon, and LinkedIn. By the end of the summer I’m hoping to veer into YouTube, as well.

In order to be everywhere and still find time to write we need to plan our time wisely and stick to the schedule no matter what. Also, we need to be careful with our brand. That means, no losing our cool in public, no responding to bad reviews, even if they’re incorrect or it seems like the reviewer never read the book. Go for a walk (or a run, if you’re really ticked me off), then come back and turn the reviewer into a character and murdered them in unspeakable ways. Works for me!

My point is, we need to conduct ourselves as professionals at all times while still being genuine. Because once you tarnish your brand, it’s very difficult to erase the damage.

Your two novels seem to be doing well.  Are you happy with where you are?  What would you do differently, if you could?

LOL That’s a loaded question. I have such huge dreams. So, am I happy with where I am? Happy, yes. Content, no. I’m not sure I’ll ever be content. It’s what drives me. That said, I am comfortable with who I am as a writer.

What would I do differently, if I could? Hmm…for one, I’d study story structure much earlier. I spent years writing one novel after another that weren’t publishable. But I can’t really say that time was wasted because stumbling, getting back up and forging ahead brought me to where I am now. So I’m thankful for those early failures, rejections, and harsh critiques. It’s how we grow; it’s how we hone our craft.

You are an advocate of self-published authors, but yet, you aren’t one (where your novels are concerned).  Do you work through an agent?  If not, how did you land with your current publisher?

I don’t have an agent, no. And that’s okay with me, for now.

My current publisher, Crossroad Press, doesn’t normally accept unagented submissions. It was kind of strange how it all came about. Originally I had signed a contract for Wings of Mayhem with Marred’s publisher (a small press), but I had this overwhelming feeling that it wasn’t the right move. For months I struggled with what to do. Finally trusting my intuition, I bought back my rights one month before Wings of Mayhem was set to release. Bold move, I know, but I had to take a chance or I’d always wonder, what if?

Once my rights reverted I sent out queries to a handful of publishers. Then one day I was chatting with this girl on Twitter. I had no idea who she was until she invited me to submit to Harper Collins (she was the acquisitions editor). Which I did, even though she warned me that Wings of Mayhem wouldn’t release for a full year after acceptance. The more I thought about it, the more I feared I’d lose my audience if I kept my readers hanging. I liked the work Crossroad was doing, so I took a chance and reached out to them, never expecting that it would amount to anything. They were very clear about no unagented submissions. Anyway, rather than send a formal query I sent a friendly email introducing myself and leaving a link to my blog and social media. That afternoon they wrote back, with a contract for a three-book deal.

Wings of Mayhem

The moral of this story: always trust your gut.

How would you categorize your publisher?  They’re not a “big-5” outfit — those seem to be largely inaccessible these days — so how it this experience different?

I’d categorize Crossroad as a medium-sized publisher. I say “medium” because unlike my first publisher, who is the epitome of a small press, they run the company as if they are a Big 5 outfit, by having an online store, publishing in every medium—audio, print, ebook—and helping an author’s overall career. They also pay for a lot of the marketing and are willing to do the legwork to get their authors into libraries and brick-and-mortar stores. With the average small press, after they demand more rights than they ever intend to use, and the book is available for sale, you’re on your own.

The difference in contract terms is vastly different, too. For example, with Crossroad I still own my characters, the setting, and several of my rights, including all subsidiary rights. Whereas with Marred, I don’t. They could sell the subsidiary rights and I’d never see a penny. And unfortunately, those terms aren’t unusual with small presses.

In your opinion, what should a self-published author do themselves, versus farm out (through Fiverr, for example)? How does a new author ramp-up to knowing what they need to know, both on the writing/storytelling side, and the manuscript prep and submission side?

Unless they’re a cover artist or want to take the time to learn Gimp, I’d encourage them to farm out their cover. There are so many bad covers out there. It’s a shame, really, because the cover is our number one marketing tool.

Secondly, hire an editor. Not only for a line edit but content edit, as well. We can’t see our own work. No one can. Lastly, if you’re a technophobe like someone we know (cough. Larry), it might be a good idea to farm out the formatting for at least the print version. Formatting for all the different book sites—for wider exposure authors should list their books with all book distributers, not just Amazon—will quickly drive you to drink.

As far as writing goes, study story structure, principals, and physics. It’s the most important thing you’ll ever learn. Read Story Engineering. You’ll be so glad you did. Another amazing craft book that I highly recommend is Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets Novelists Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins. It will help you grasp the finer details of writing, like your inner rhythm, emotion memory, subtext, and restraint and control.

What’s your writing process, and how did you end up there?  What have you tried that perhaps didn’t work, and what have you discovered that does?

My writing process stems from years of studying craft books, but everything changed for me when I read Story Engineering. It was like someone flipped a switched, and I finally got it. All that I had learned fell into place while I devoured that book in one sitting. It was one of the most amazing days I’ve had as a writer. I’ll never forget dancing around my living room, high on craft.

Since then, I’ve planned my novels using an Excel spreadsheet based on the principals in Story Engineering, with a few milestones thrown in from James Scott Bell, like the Mirror Moment, and Save the Cat’s Dark Night of the Soul. I also use a notebook for characterization and index cards for scenes.

Early on, I pantsed four novels, all of which aren’t publishable without rewrites. They are now trunked.

What’s the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard… where did you hear it… and how do you apply it?

Competencies of storytelling aren’t your call, any more than you get to invent a new way to swing a golf club or take out a spleen. However you create your work, if you want to sell it, eventually it will need to align to these principals. The sooner it happens in the process, the better.” ~ Larry Brooks, Story Engineering

That quote slapped me with a reality I will never forget. And ever since, I would never even consider writing a novel, novella, or short story of any significant length without planning my story in advance. The only form I don’t plan is flash fiction, but even then, I’m thinking of the overall structure while I’m writing.

What’s next for you, near term and beyond?

I’m hoping to release Blessed Mayhem by late September/early October and Impaled and A Deadly Yearning by January. I’m also involved with a multi-author thriller that’s set to release this fall. I have a flash fiction piece, entitled Betrayed, which is set to release any day now in 100 Voices anthology, published by Allegiant. They’ve asked for a story for the 2nd edition, too, so I’m working on that. And I’m working on a short story for the dark fiction anthology, RUN, that releases Halloween day.

What would you say to the newer writer reading this, perhaps something you wish you had been told when you were staring into the abyss?

Eventually we all find our way, in our own time. But I’ll share a few things to keep in mind.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve your dream, whatever that might be.

Dream big. Dream often. And never settle.

Persistence really does pay off.

Keep writing, keep studying, keep honing your craft. Your day will come. I promise. And someday, you’ll pass along the same advice.

A win for one is a win for us all.

Support your fellow writers…share their good news, pick them up when they fall, root for them, and inspire them every chance you get. The writing community is filled with so many awesome people who will do the same for you. That’s just how we roll.

Don’t measure your success by the success of others.

If you do, not only with self-doubt rear its ugly head but you’ll lose the forward momentum needed to stay motivated. Instead, set small-scale and large-scale goals. For example, a small-scale goal might be having a flash fiction piece accepted into an anthology to begin building up your publishing credits. A large-scale goal might be a featured story in Ellery Queen, or winning a notable literary award, or seeing your name at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. If you think these goals are unrealistic, refer back to my first tip. Most of all, take the time to celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. You’re one step closer to your dream!

BIO: Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is always searching for new ways to commit murder…on the page. In her books—Wings of Mayhem, Marred, The Rendering, Crime Writer’s Research, and 60 Ways to Murder Your Characters—she offers an honest peek behind the crime scene tape. Sometimes that can be fascinating, other times it’s a frightening place. A multi-published author in numerous anthologies, Sue’s also published forensic articles in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, she’s the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science, both groups founded by homicide detective (Ret.) and cold case expert, Joe Giacolone. And she’s the founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. To learn more about Sue, visit her website at: www.suecoletta.com. Or her Amazon author page: www.amazon.com/author/suecoletta 

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Chasing Bliss Update: had some WordPress problems yesterday, this tag didn’t post, after three tries. Strange. I didn’t get this via normal Feedburner distribution, which may have happened for you, as well.

Anyhow… if you’ve purchased Chasing Bliss over the past few days… first, thank you. If you’ve started reading, you may have noticed the book has a few more typos and little glitches than one should expect. My apologies for that, I hit the button too soon. All those fixes are in process, in preparation for the paperback (which comes out in about 12 days or so), and will be implemented in the Kindle, as well.  Which means you can get the updated version on your Kindle.

How to do that?  If you have Automatic Book Updates turned on (on your device), it’ll happen automatically.  If you don’t… click HERE for a walk-through on how to do that (it’s pretty simple). Hope this makes you feel whole. Moreover, I hope the book is contributing toward your experience within your relationship. Sorry for any inconvenience.

18 Comments

Filed under Guest Bloggers

18 Responses to The Prototypical Novelist of Today… Proving That It CAN Be Done

  1. Returning here today happened at a good time.

    I haven’t posted here in a long time. I honestly dove into my novel and found that it consumed me. I’ve lost count of how many drafts I’ve done and I’m coming up for air. This long, drawn-out editing process is no good for someone who wants to make their living writing. But, for me, it has been good to really break the thing down in detail over and over and really analyze it. I’ve also gone through a few major life events over this time that really changed who I am and thereby seriously changed the novel. I am not the person I was when I started it. So, that has led to major changes to the plot and the characters. Exchanging work with a published author who has one more published novel than me (I have none) also gave me insight to problem areas, even if suggestions weren’t the best.

    So, it was interesting to read this interview because it gets into the next steps. I have a lot of other novels I want to write, hopefully more quickly. This first one is a good learning experience. I wrote nine before, but they were more about getting down the gross aspects of writing. This one has been about refining my craft. I have more work to do, but I’m starting to see an end in sight, especially since I have a lot more stories to tell.

    I never thought seriously about publication before this novel. This one has given me a good feeling all along, even though I’m getting tired of it now. I read a lot of good points. One is about the cover. I had a vision in my head of the cover. I even entered a contest where I was supposed to demonstrate the use of a certain company’s pens and inks in a video. It was so awful I almost didn’t enter. Only the top 10 entries would win. I was shocked to win several hundred dollars worth of fountain pens (which I love) and other stuff. It turned out that only 8 people actually entered. I like the concept of the cover, but I don’t have the artistic skills to pull it off. Heck, I even rewrote my map in the book just to make the cover possible. But, I won’t be the one to draw it.

    I liked what she said about advice to newer writers, although I hope age is a number. My neighbor asked me tonight about my age and when I told him, he said, “I didn’t realize you were quite that old.” I’m only 40! I know that in other areas persistence pays off. I’m hoping she is right about writing. I’m on novel #10, if we don’t count drafts. And, of course, I suspect my novel doesn’t have the ability to be a major novel. Rather than worry about that, I need to be happy if it is published and if it entertains people.

    She also mentioned an editor. I’m good at catching grammar and spelling errors. (Don’t judge by my internet postings: I don’t proofread those.) However, I’m terrible at catching theme errors, repetition, boring areas, and the like. Sharing my work with an author who is only one novel ahead of me was educational. He pointed out weaknesses that I’d never noticed in the story, in characters, and in setting. They were obvious once he pointed them out, but I needed that extra eye. As I get closer to my goal, I will need more of those eyes.

    And, absolutely, she is right about story structure. I can tell you exactly what separates my first nine novels from this tenth one that actually got me excited: this one has an organized story structure. I wrote the first nine by “pantsing.” This one I brainstormed, outlined, reoutlined, and outlined again. Then I wrote. Then I tore it apart and outlined some more and redid the plot. I also redid a lot of characters, dropped distracting scenes and characters, and tightened up the events. I also asked “why” a lot. The “why” is part of what has given me so many stories. Some involve my hero from this novel, some other characters, and some other facets of the setting. But, I am really universe building.

    When I first visited this website I was really just discovering how much I didn’t know about writing. I know a lot more now, but I have realized that I’m standing in a tiny corner of an infinite universe, and I can only absorb more knowledge and more experience. But, at the same time, I need to tie this novel up and start another one. Warts and all, I need to put this one out there.

    And that brings me to another interesting thing in this entry. I don’t know a lot about publishing. The tale of the small publisher who could retain the rights to characters scared me. Ian is mine! Nobody else can have him. I created him, faults and all, and I would be horrified to see someone else use him. I don’t know how to navigate the publishing world, but I’d better learn before I try publishing this novel. In other words, the creative part of writing is my passion, but I can’t forget the business side of it as well.

    So, thank you for this post. It was inspiring and it came at a good time for me.

    • Jason, it sounds like you’re walking the same path I did. For over a year I rewrote my first novel until I couldn’t stand reading it anymore. But now, you’re writing a novel with purpose (the end result being publication), you’ve studied and learned and grown as a writer, and that makes all the difference. Bravo!

      I’m so glad you’ve decided to farm out your cover. When approaching cover artists. Fiverr has some fantastic artists that are fantastic, and cheap! But they also have some horrible artists, too, so please be choosy. Don’t settle for a cover you don’t absolutely love. If you want an amazing cover artist, I can give you the name of the woman who did mine (in addition to working with publishers she also works with authors). It’ll cost you more than an artist from Fiverr, but she’ll take the time to bring your vision alive.

      Age makes no different whatsoever. There’s a YouTube video Lee Child where he talks about starting a writing career later in life. In fact, he believes we’ll have more to offer our readers because of life experience. He began his career at age 40. You can check out the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8slg78LVPQ

      A good editor will shine a light on those “warts.” Please don’t settle just to get it out there. We only get once chance to make a good first impression. If a reader doesn’t enjoy our debut, they won’t buy our next book. Trust me. A good editor is worth every penny.

      I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer about small presses. The ones that demand rights to your characters can never use them, nor can they sell them to another author (although I have seen the latter in a contract — it horrified me, too). Basically what that means is, YOU can’t write another story with those characters or setting, etc., without giving them “first right of refusal” to publish it. That includes tying your hands so you can’t self-publish the story, either. They (not all) use the writer’s dream of being published to grab all the rights they can. I’ll add one more tip here: before approaching an agent or publisher make sure you research them thoroughly. A good place to start is Writer Beware: http://www.victoriastrauss.com/writer-beware/ And Predators and Editors: http://pred-ed.com/pubagent.ht

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment. Best of luck!

  2. Wow, Larry. What an opening. *blush* I’m speechless…for once. Btw, I read your novels because I loved your writing (still do!), not because I wanted to see if you walked the talk. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind in that regard.

    Thank you so much for featuring me today! I can’t tell you how much it means to me.

  3. Sue, you’re an inspiration! I notice you commenting often on The Kill Zone. I don’t write crime or thrillers but this site and that one offer valuable insights into the craft process which carries over into my genre, women’s fiction. You obviously have worked hard to get where you are and are diligent in sharing what you’ve learned. Thanks so much for the insights above and I look forward to reading your latest.

    • Aw, thank you, Maggie. *blush* You’re so sweet. I agree. Both TKZ and Storyfix are a wealth of information for any genre. See ya in the comment sections!

  4. Terrific interview. I enjoyed reading about your process and accomplishments, Sue, and I look forward to checking out your novels. I had a wake-up call when I read Story Engineering, too. Now I’m off to check out Collins’s book. Thanks for the head-up!

    • Thanks, Carrie. You’ll love her book. It’s a nice compliment to Story Engineering because it delves into different areas. And there’s a cool chapter where she asks you to drum the rhythm of your sentences. So fun!

  5. Larry, your generosity is one reason I’ll always be a fan.

    Sue, I feel like the guy in the Mustang who catches a glimpse of a Ferrari in the rear-view mirror, and two seconds later that F12 Berlinetta is just tail-lights a mile up the road.

    One thing stands out here: while I’m distracted by a hundred different things, you’re head down grinding it out, doing the work, relentlessly focused, earning it every day. Good for you.

  6. Kerry Boytzun

    Sue, thanks for the encouraging life story, and thanks to Larry for putting it on Storyfix.com.

    I’ll check out your novels and that book by Collins.

    One thing I wonder, is how many people worked full time and have published novels? My job just eats up my energy and time. Leaves weekends, but you shouldn’t be pushing yourself 7 days a week or you’ll burn out.

    Lucky are those that don’t have to work.

    • Ah, I wonder the same thing, Kerry. I’m fortunate to have a husband who supports my dream, so I do write full-time..seven days a week. This is the first summer that I’ve given myself permission to make time for fun, and I’m lovin’ every minute of it. 😀

  7. Larry, I think there’s something wrong with your email and that’s why you didn’t get the Feedburner notification or my emails (I’ve responded each time). If you see this message, go to Facebook. I messaged you there, too.

  8. John V

    Great interview. Thanks, Sue Coletta, for a bunch of super advice and for sharing your story. Thanks to Larry for pointing out how to update Chasing Bliss. I hadn’t know about that procedure and was able to update some of my other books and will do the same with yours once the update becomes available. Thanks again!

    • Thanks, John! Yup. Turn on Whispersync and all your books will update automatically. You’ll love Chasing Bliss. Best book I’ve read all year!

  9. Robert Jones

    Hi Sue,

    I’ve been waiting for some free time to get into this interview. I completely agree with all you’ve said. It takes that kind of steadfastness and determination to accomplish any dream. Congrats on making yours a reality. Mine is happening daily and I hope one day I will be able to share it and nurture the dreams of others with my own accomplishments.

    @Kerry

    I feel your pain, as working and finding time to write has been my problem as well. We have to keep moving forward with a plan firmly in mind. Better to make slow progress than no progress. I understand it’s hard finding that mental reserve after expending so much energy on working your day job. Because the mind and body want to shut down for rest, or engage in something that doesn’t require a lot of effort and escape. It’s a trap for the working class on almost every level. The structure is built to keep the ants working and wheels of business turning.

    For me, working towards a goal of self publishing and running my own ideas as a business is preferable, but that larger scope of a dream means compiling a backlog of work before launching so life doesn’t slow me down to the point where a huge amount of time goes by before my next book. Hence, I have three different novels in the works. This, after doing nothing for almost a year after a divorce that left me wanting to do nothing but keep my head down, work, sleep, try to move forward.

    The moral: Life changes and constantly keeps changing us. People and situations come and go. Energy reserves are filled and depleted. What’s left at the end of each day? What’s it all for? I believe we do it to keep alive the spark that comes from a deep inner place of knowing. All power, all change, comes from within, and all change is really self change. Everything exterior is a collection of the confusion, pain, fear, joy, excitement, and beliefs of the billions who inhabit this planet. As writers, we are observers of that spectrum of emotions and events which comprises the universe. Our craft, when honed, is our sword that cuts through the din and clears our paths one step at a time. You’re tired? So am I. You’re fretting over time? Get over it. Time is subjective, but ours is all we have until the hour glass runs down. So pick up your damn sword and fight…or lay down and allow the moss to grow over you. Your choice. And mine. And everyone else’s. At the end of the day, does it matter if we publish one book, or ten? Or is it the fact that we held our sword proudly and moved as far along our paths as we were able and drank in every inch of it along the way?

    From here to infinity, let no man (or woman) say he has not nourished himself. For how can any writer nourish others who has not drank heartily from the wellspring of life itself? And if we find ourselves struggling, write about that. Because our characters will undergo their own struggles. If we can find a strategy to overcome in life, so will we overcome our obstacles in fiction. Art is life and life is art, my friend. Breath it in and inscribe!

    • Thanks so much, Robert. I wish you the best of luck moving forward toward your dream.

      Love your message to Kerry. So inspiring, true, and beautifully written. I hope you’re having an amazing summer. Write on!

  10. Robert Jones

    Just purchased “Wings of Myhem,” BTW. It’s in my que of soon to read books and am looking forward to the experience.