SPS-295: Discovery Writing: Telling a Story Back-to-Front – with Patricia McLinn
Patricia McLinn has seen it all when it comes to the writing and publishing world. She’s been a journalist, a traditionally published author, a hybrid author, and an independent author. In this interview Patricia talks about the choices she made and how they served her, and has advice for upcoming writers about focusing on what matters.
- Transitioning from journalism to writing fiction
- Learning to write characters that readers care about
- The importance of getting the rights back on early books
- Starting a book by eavesdropping on characters in conversation
- Discovery writing in the extreme
- On tracking income and ad spending trends
- What new writers should focus on
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
SPS-295: Discovery Writing: Telling a Story Back-to-Front - with Patricia McLinn
Voiceover: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.
Patricia McLinn: I clean closets, I weed, I organise filing cabinets. I punish myself for not writing but it pushes me back to the writing faster and it gets clean closets.
Voiceover: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson and first-time author, James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome. It is The Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: We've got that weird thing again where you've just been to Tenerife, in this world but not in the real world. You haven't actually been there yet. How was it?
Mark Dawson: Not as we're recording this. I think it was probably okay. I'm hoping I got back without catching anything and probably just had my PCR test arriving back in the country.
James Blatch: That's a pain, the whole thing is a colossal pain, isn't it?
Mark Dawson: It is a pain, yes.
James Blatch: On that note we should say we have more or less pulled the plug on the idea of being in Florida for September. It's just probably, almost certainly not going to happen. We told the organisers we almost certainly won't be there and to disregard us in terms of presentations, unfortunately. Which is such a shame but the situation is not great there. America won't let us in anyway, so it's all kind of irrelevant.
Mark Dawson: Regardless of the fact that Florida is a hell hole at the moment, we can't even get in the country because President Biden doesn't like people like us.
James Blatch: Doesn't like us. To be fair, it's not just you and me. I think it's not like a watchlist.
Mark Dawson: No, it's anybody else, basically. We can't. It's a shame. We will see how we go, if next week they say, "Look, you can come," then we might think about it, you and me, perhaps. I don't think John will go because he's not a vulnerable person but more vulnerable than either of us are.
We're probably not going to be there this year, which is a shame and kind of keeping our fingers crossed now for November, because we're down to come to 20Books in Vegas and we'll just have to see. John did say that he found something out the other day, suggesting that, just speculation of course, that foreign visitors won't be allowed in the States till the 20th of November, which if that happens, we can't go to Vegas either. We'll just have to see. There's nothing we can do about it. Just have to play it by ear.
James Blatch: I'm really disappointed about it. And I'm particularly sad for, well in the first instance for NINC, for the organisers and we've been in touch with Tawdra and Mel this week to let them know. We were very supportive of it, we love it. It's our favourite little conference to go to. Little conference, very important, prestigious conference.
It's just a lovely part of the world. Lovely group of people, got friends there, I'll have friends for life who I've met at NINC and we want to support them. We will do everything we can to make sure we're there in the future. We are still sponsors and we put some money into the conferences this year, which we're very happy to do but we probably won't be there in person. Fingers crossed for Vegas. If we don't go to Vegas, you and I have to have a few days off just playing golf somewhere warm. It's going to to be your course.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, I'll go for that.
James Blatch: Because I need to recharge some batteries in some sun. We've had a really rubbish August as well, just to make it even more miserable.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, it's not bad today, but it has been crap. I was looking at there, although course as this goes out, I'll be back but the fourth of November, again the forecast for Tenerife is 28, 29 for the whole week.
James Blatch: Okay, I'm jealous. I'm not jealous of you where it's sweating about getting home afterwards.
Mark Dawson: No that's the thing, we come up positive, I think we have stay in a Spanish hotel and it won't be the one we're going to. I'm slightly nervous about that.
James Blatch: It'll be an ibis.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, exactly.
James Blatch: Ibis.
Mark Dawson: I'll have my laptop, so I'll have a very productive 10 days. I've got to write a couple of books.
James Blatch: In a small room with two children.
Mark Dawson: Well, they can have their own rooms, but yeah.
James Blatch: Okay. Now this week's interview is Patricia McLinn is somebody who's straddled both trad and indie over the years. She's produced dozens of books. I'm going to say 70 odd books, a real feel for how the trad industry worked and how indie works now. Lots of tips about how to be successful in both worlds, particularly in indie now.
And in particular, she's a discovery writer. We call them pantsers, but discovery writer is a much nicer expression and you don't have to plot. You don't have to do things by strict structure if you want to write in the way that she does. Let's hear from Patricia and then Mark and I will be back for a quick chat.
Patricia McLinn, welcome to The Self-Publishing Show.
Patricia McLinn: Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to be here.
James Blatch: Now that's the nice bit of artwork behind you, if people are watching on YouTube. Is that your own work?
Patricia McLinn: That is actually an original oil painting that my niece did that became the background for a cover of a book in my Wyoming Wildflowers romance series. She did, I think five because the original books were a watercolour that I had somebody do way back and then I had my niece do this and now she's too busy so I've got to figure out what to do with the upcoming books.
James Blatch: Well that's very impressive so well done to your niece, for those people who aren't watching on YouTube, it's a lovely landscape, an oil landscape.
Patricia McLinn: A Wyoming landscape.
James Blatch: Wyoming, there you go. Let's get going. Patricia, we've got a lot to talk about. I think hopefully some encouragement for writers, particularly those who don't diligently plot or enjoy diligently plotting, let's put it that way and how to write, how to be a writer. The kind of mindset I think is what we're going to talk about but let's start a bit with you and your background.
I think it began in sports journalism. Is that right?
Patricia McLinn: I did. Really practical, right?
James Blatch: Yeah, well there weren't many men in sports journalism probably back in the day.
Patricia McLinn: Many women.
James Blatch: I'm sorry. It sounds very rude saying that. I'm sure you're only 22, 23.
Patricia McLinn: No, you're absolutely right, there weren't. And I had an incident with a high school basketball coach from the Catholic high school who said, "Well, the state says you can come in the locker room now." And he was really grumpy about it. And I said, "Well coach, the state says I can but my mother says I can't." And he was so delighted by that. He would bring his players out to me first and so I would get them all first and get my story in first.
James Blatch: That's funny. Do you know that locker room thing is, I think it's quite an American because I was a sports journalist. I started as well doing that and I covered all the usual sports but I covered ice hockey, which is not huge in the UK. We've got a few clubs but we had a local club up in Peterborough and it was populated by people who used to play NHL. I can remember Cam Plante I think it was the captain, he used to play for Toronto Maple Leafs but it was a very American environment which I wasn't used to. And I remember Cam saying to me, once he said, "Okay, you can come in the change room afterwards." And I genuinely didn't know what he was talking about. I don't know why did he want me to go in the changing room? Was I supposed to be getting changed?
Patricia McLinn: Yeah, this is not a huge treat for those not in the know. It's really stinky.
James Blatch: But I understand now it was a kind of sports journalists thing. It's more a thing in America than it is in the UK that you have access to the team before and after and you can do your interviews and stuff.
Patricia McLinn: Well usually only after.
James Blatch: Yes, usually only after. I know they were all battered and bruised and bleeding afterwards.
Patricia McLinn: And stinky.
James Blatch: And stinky, yes indeed. Anyway, good. Okay look, you got going in that. I know you had a great journalist career. Just looking, at scanning your CV.
I think you ended up at the Washington Post, did you not?
Patricia McLinn: Yes. I was there for 23 years.
James Blatch: Wow. And that's obviously one of the big newspapers on the planet, so that's a really good thing to do. But did you always want to be writing fiction?
Patricia McLinn: Oh yes. Oh yes. I always did.
James Blatch: And how did you transition?
Patricia McLinn: I just didn't know how.
James Blatch: Wow. Did you teach yourself then?
Patricia McLinn: Well, when I first started trying to really write, I wrote some in college and I took some courses and then the professor scared the bejeebers out of me by saying, "You could have a career in literary." And I thought, ah! And I didn't particularly want literary because those books depressed me. And if they depressed me reading them for a day or two, how much were they going to depress me writing them for months to a year? I thought this is not a good programme. And then I started belatedly reading Regency romances, Georgette Heyer.
I started trying to write those and I sent them off, the beginnings to my sister-in-law who had actually babysat for me when I was six years old because I'm at the end of the family by a big chunk and I would send them off to her and she'd say, "Well, this is really good. What happens next?" I said, "I don't know." Had no idea because I always thought it had to start at the beginning and write to the end.
I had these various starts and she finally said, "Don't send me anything else that's not finished because I can't take being interested in these characters and getting no reward."
When I got to the Post, it was actually a more sane working schedule than I'd had at the other two papers where I tended to work longer hours. And I had more time. I also was chipping wallpaper in my old house because there were multiple layers of wallpaper and your mind starts to wander, maybe there's something wonderful about old wallpaper paste but I started having a story idea. I would write it until I didn't know anymore and then I'd go back and I'd chip wallpaper paste and there's nothing to make you like writing better than chipping wallpaper. I'd go back and forth.
James Blatch: That's a good tactic, find something you really hate doing and then if you're not doing it, you can write.
Patricia McLinn: James, I still do that. When I am not writing, I don't go off and play. I clean closets, I weed, I organise filing cabinets. I punish myself for not writing but it pushes me back to the writing faster and it gets clean closets.
James Blatch: There you go.
Patricia McLinn: It's a win win. I started writing these things and I'd made every mistake. Every mistake. I sent off my favourite chapters to agents and a few wrote back and one of them in particular wrote back and it started off, "It's clear you know nothing about publishing." And then she went on and she said, "But you did this well, you did this well, you did this badly." And she actually said I over plotted for my characters.
I started looking into that more. And then somebody along the line said, "Look at romance." Oh maybe she did because you have to have the characters in order to have a story in romance. You can't get by with just a plot. You have to have characters that the readers are with.
I started reading romances. In about six weeks I covered about 20 years of romance history in roughly chronological order. And at the beginning, I'm thinking, this is not for me. And by the end, I was like, okay, this I can do. And this made sense to me. I'd read War and Peace and I can remember specifically like, yeah, yeah, yeah. Another battle, who cares? Get back to the people. I wanted to know those relationships.
From there I found the Washington Romance Writers while I was still working, of course full-time at the Post and through them I started another book, was in a critique group and had eight minutes to pitch my story to an editor when she came down from New York. Worst eight minutes of my life, but she said send her the full and I did and they bought it.
James Blatch: Wow.
Patricia McLinn: Pretty quickly.
James Blatch: Well that's good.
Patricia McLinn: I had plenty of rejections later.
James Blatch: Yeah, okay. I want to ask you one thing though, you were a journalist at the Washington Post and somebody talked to you about writing literary fiction because I think there's a bit of a snobbishness here, isn't there? I seem to remember my colleagues in the newsroom who all had a novel in them of course, we're going to write a novel. To be fair, one or two of them did. And they all saw themselves as literary fiction writers.
But actually it's refreshing to know right from the beginning, you thought that's going to be boring. I don't want to do that. And you found genre fiction, which is the fiction that people love reading and consume in big numbers.
A shout out to genre fiction, which drives indie publishing anyway. But it's fun and enjoyable and nothing to be snobbish about.
Patricia McLinn: Yeah, I was also very interested in mystery from the beginning because I didn't read mystery until I got out of college but then fell into it like a vat of chocolate. It was amazing to read all those classic cosy mystery writers. I just loved it. And then as I said, I discovered that I had probably been a secret romance reader in picking the romance parts out of classic literature and wanting to scoot by the other stuff.
James Blatch: You're the opposite as me because I watched Top Gun and I couldn't wait for the romance to get over so we get back to the flying. But I understand what you're saying. To be fair, War and Peace is a romantic book. I think the romance is what sustains it. Certainly the characters is what sustains it. Great, so you got picked up, well done to you in a very competitive environment. Obviously strong writer. Remind me the publishing company that picked you up.
Patricia McLinn: Harlequin. It was Silhouette at that time.
James Blatch: And how long did that trad period last then? And how many books did it last for?
Patricia McLinn: I wrote 27 books in 24 years in trad. It's 24 or 25.
James Blatch: Wow. More than a book a year, just over a book a year.
Patricia McLinn: Could've written more.
James Blatch: And that process, normally traditional publishing they have their own timetable, which you obviously fit into. And it's quite a time slots here and there. It can do two things but it can get you to deadlines, which is one thing. Oh, somebody is woofing.
Patricia McLinn: Sorry about that. My senior dog is making herself known.
James Blatch: That's okay. We like dogs. It gets right inside of it. But the other thing it does and I had a friend go through this recently, is it kind of slowed the whole process down. I know indie writers, not me, but I knew other indie writers who produced five books in the time that she wrote her first book through the trad system going backwards and forwards with editors.
Did you find that frustrating?
Patricia McLinn: Absolutely. Because I could never get, after a few years I went part-time at the Post because for those years while I was initially published till I went part-time I was basically working close to two full-time jobs and I would call coworkers by character names and I'd get in the car and no matter where I meant to go, I'd end up at the Post.
I went to part-time to do wonderful, exotic things like laundry and sleep. Sleep was a nice one. But I could never get enough books published fast enough to get the momentum to stop the part-time job. I couldn't support myself on the writing income. And when you talk about the production, I was trad, then I was hybrid, then I was indie. There's an overlap in these years but I first started indie, first put books up in 2010.
James Blatch: How did that work? Because you were obviously under contract for, I guess for one series.
Did you just come up with another series and decide you weren't going to tell the publisher about it?
Patricia McLinn: No. They had an editor at Harlequin had told me that my books didn't sell well enough to republish. This was way before indie. And that was a blow. That was definitely a blow but I am stubborn enough that I thought they're not going to do anything with them, give them back to me. There was nothing to do with them at that time. Absolutely nothing. But having them in my control was important to me. I'd gotten the rights back to a lot of my early books. I started with those books, that was the core of my beginning indie and started 10 years of six figures, 11 years now.
James Blatch: Of course that doesn't happen very often, I don't think, that traditional publishing relinquish rights back.
Patricia McLinn: Not anymore.
James Blatch: Right. Because now the electronic publishing industry makes it easier to handle the back catalogue, I guess.
Patricia McLinn: I can remember having the publisher of Harlequin at NINC, I think it was 2013 and you could tell as she left a panel it was like she was running out to call Harlequin and tell them to stop giving back rights. People were doing really well. And it became much more difficult after that but in the years since I've gone indie, so now I'm over 60 books published. I have done maybe twice plus as many books per year as Harlequin was having me do.
James Blatch: Back in 2010, around then when you got your rights back and you indie published your previously published books, so presumably you had to go and get new covers, write the blurb and do all of that.
Did you market those books? How did you market them?
Patricia McLinn: Initially I did everything. I did the formatting, I did every bit of it and there were a group of us on forums and stuff and we would stumble along and lead each other through. And before that, I had started a website for several authors. There were about 10 of us to sell direct. Now that was very forward thinking and way before the time. And we weren't really marketing and we couldn't get very much readership there but it was a great idea and I still have the URL in case the retailers go nuts. What was your question?
James Blatch: Oh yeah. I was asking about the marketing more than anything else. How you marketed it, did you market?
Patricia McLinn: Did not initially market. Didn't really learn much. I think it was 2013 that people were starting, maybe it was 2012, were starting to put first in series free. And I was reluctant because giving away your work. And I just recently looked at a graph of my sales from overall sales from 2010 to now. And you can see bloop, it was astounding. It was just astounding. And that sort of made me go, okay. Yeah, maybe I should be doing some marketing and I should be thinking about these things.
James Blatch: What were your first forays into marketing?
Patricia McLinn: Well, I consider putting a book free as marketing. In fact, it's my favourite. It's my favourite because it's no harm, no foul. And you try to see if you're a good reader-writer match with somebody. There are a few cranky people out there who will give you a bad review even though they got it for free. But overall, I think it's a great way to introduce yourself. And it's a comfortable way to me to introduce myself to readers.
I'm not as comfortable going, oh, this is the best book ever. You've got to read it. Even if in my heart of hearts I think that, it just doesn't come naturally. That's the primary one. Another one was of course the newsletter. And I initially was only doing newsletters when I had releases, and I'm talking, I started a newsletter list with physical mail.
James Blatch: Wow.
Patricia McLinn: We're talking way back then. Course I only did them when I had releases. And then I started doing it. No, I was still doing it releases. And somebody said, "You have to do it monthly." And I said, "No, I don't." And they said, "Try it for four months." And darned if they weren't right. The numbers went up, the open, the click rate, everything went up. I thought, well, rats.
And then I went for a period, I was in a special promotion with some other people so I was doing two a month. And after the promotion was ending, I surveyed my readers and said, "Would you like to go back to once a month?" And they overwhelmingly said, "Keep it at two." Well, darn. And I just surveyed them again, hoping they might say pull back because you hear a lot about the readers being tired of stuff in their email. And again, they said, "No, keep it at two. Maybe some more."
James Blatch: Well, that's good to have a loyal audience. How big is your mailing list now?
Patricia McLinn: I hesitate so long because the gross number is 19,000. The active is between 13 and 14.
James Blatch: Yeah, yeah, okay. And so you said 60 books, that's 60 books total or have you done 60 indie books?
Patricia McLinn: No, 60 books total.
James Blatch: 60 books total. You've done sort of 30 something, 32, 33.
The indie books are in terms of genre with Harlequin, you were fairly mainstream romance were you? Or historical romance? And what have you done with your indie books?
Patricia McLinn: I did do some historical romance too. I've done some indie and did one traditional. I had a mystery series and the first two books were published traditionally by a smaller press and then they offered a contract on the third book. By that time I was in the indie world and I felt I could do better so I declined that contract. And then it took me a couple years to get them to sell me back the rights to books one and two.
That started my Caught Dead in Wyoming mystery series. And that's my best selling series. And then I started a second series and then I have a trilogy to be, which means it's got two books out so far. A third one is still to come, but it's a trilogy. It's going to be a trilogy. And they're a little different. Caught Dead in Wyoming is probably in the middle. The Secret Sleuth series is a little more cosy and the Innocence trilogy is edgy is too strong a word, but it's a little more than Caught Dead.
James Blatch: Ironically, being called Innocence, but anyway. Let's talk about writing then. Let's talk about writing process.
You said in the notes before the interview, you're not really a plotter, you sit down a bit like Marie Force, I think does this, you basically, you sit down and the story comes out of you.
Patricia McLinn: Saying I'm not a plotter is a very British understatement, James. I am whatever you want to call it, discovery or a pantser, an extreme.
James Blatch: Discovery's a nicer expression, I think.
Patricia McLinn: Joanna Penn uses discovery. And I am the extreme, I write out a sequence. I usually start, I hear voices talking to my head. It's usually some sort of conflict. I don't know their names. I say, it's like eavesdropping in a restaurant on a really interesting conversation and you don't know who these people are yet but you can pick up a lot of the emotion and you can imagine, you can guess how they got there or some of the things that got them there.
Then you speculate on where they go from there. And this is the way I write the mysteries too. There's usually a scene, something. I hear voices. It's voices in my head, these people talking and then it's like a bird building a nest. There are pieces I've heard, pieces I see while I'm thinking about the book. Something I had stored away in the back of my head 10 years ago. Oh, that can fit in here and you just start putting it together.
James Blatch: That's when you hear the voice, the restaurant type conversation, you're eavesdropping, that could be in the middle of the book.
Patricia McLinn: Where that ends up, yes. In fact, it's often in the middle of the book.
James Blatch: Right. You start there.
Patricia McLinn: Because it's some sort of real.
James Blatch: Moment.
Patricia McLinn: Usually conflict or emotion.
James Blatch: And then you do your building. At what point do you then say, I need to start this book. I need to have a start. Or do you just carry on writing what comes to you for a bit?
Patricia McLinn: I carry on writing what comes to me as long as it will keep coming to me. And then I have this mass and I've done it long enough that I will have a general idea of what order some things go into. That's in one file. In another file I just have scenes and I've sort of labelled them or I have even bits and pieces and I'm just storing them. I know they're going to go in the book somewhere but I don't know where yet.
When the stuff stops coming to me then I really have to work. And the hope is that there's enough in that mass to make me feel horrendously guilty if I don't finish it. That I've got to give those characters their full life and the full story. That usually carries me through the tougher part.
James Blatch: A sense of duty to your characters.
Patricia McLinn: Yes. And then a sense of duty to the readers to go back through it multiple times to make sure you've picked up all the threads because this is a way of writing where you can really drop things and you have to be careful to do that.
James Blatch: I was going to ask about that process. At some point you have to start at the beginning again and edit your work effectively. Effectively do a developmental edit, I guess, at that stage, make sure that the stories work.
Patricia McLinn: Absolutely. And I often recommend the book, Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger, because it was the book that clicked for me on structure. But what I love about it is its premise is that you've already got something. You aren't starting from scratch with word one and you have to do it in this format. You've got something, now how do you make sure that it has the right shape? And especially if I'm feeling like something is off, I will go to that and double check where I am.
James Blatch: And so after you've done that, a pass on the manuscript, what state is it in? Is there another polish to do after that? Or is it then off to a copy editor?
Patricia McLinn: It depends on the book because sometimes it will take two passes, one kind of big picture, clunky things. I'm still moving pieces around, looking at pace, looking at the structure and then another pass for smoothing out. And then I usually do the copy editing and then I have a proofer. I have two, sometimes three proofers. And one of those proofers was also an editor at the Washington Post who's now my assistant.
James Blatch: Very good. I think proofing is something you can't do yourself because you can't see your own work.
Patricia McLinn: You can't. Although there are some tricks. If you read from the bottom up on a page because it disconnects you from your words.
James Blatch: And you can read it out loud. Read it out loud or have it read out loud by your computer is another one, isn't it? But it's still nonetheless I think and from my own bitter experience, employing a proof editor is a good thing to do.
Patricia McLinn: Oh, it's always a good thing to do. But another trick, another writer Laura Altom told me was she reads hers out loud in a really bad British accent. And the idea again, is it disconnects you from it being your words.
James Blatch: I'd like to hear that. If she's at NINC I'll ask her. It can be done. There are lots of books on the structure and I'm somebody who thought I'd probably be a discovery writer but actually I don't plot in a kind of spreadsheet fashion but I write a long winded synopsis and I use that to then write my book. That's how I like working. But there are people who just don't like that structure stuff. They don't like writing stuff before it's happened. It kind of spoils it for them and they want to be discovery writers.
And I think you're living proof as is Marie Force that this is a viable way of doing things as long as you've got a process that takes account of the way the original manuscript is going to be written, which is to be honest, it's not going to be a fully formed manuscript.
Patricia McLinn: Yes. And you've got to push yourself from where it's fun and stuff is coming and you're just writing whatever you know, because you have to have the structure at some point. You've got to find something that's going to make you do that structure, even if you hate it. And I use guilt because you use the skills you're good at.
James Blatch: It works for you. How many words roughly would you have when it's at the point at which the voices stop talking to you and the stuff stops coming and you have to start working?
Patricia McLinn: It's varied with book to book. I would say it's from 25,000 to 45,000 words. Maybe 50 once in a while.
James Blatch: What typical length are your books?
Patricia McLinn: The romances are usually about 65 to 75 and depends on the mystery. The Caught Dead and Innocence are about 90 to a 100K and the Secret Sleuth is more like 65 to 70.
James Blatch: Okay. Tell me a little bit about your actual process.
Patricia McLinn: That's the length of my novellas too.
James Blatch: Yes. A lot of romance genre books can be quite short compared to thrillers, which I write, which do tend to be a bit longer. Neither of us write epic fantasy, which can be sagas. Which can be even longer. But anyway, I want to ask a bit about your actual process.
When and how do you write?
Patricia McLinn: I don't have a schedule. I write here at my desk. I'll write on the laptop a lot. It's however the day is working. I don't necessarily write every day. I write a lot of the days. And as I get to deadline, I write all the time. I'm more of a binge writer.
James Blatch: You give yourself your own deadlines.
Patricia McLinn: Well, to me pre-order is a deadline. My own deadlines I will blow off but pre-order, I won't. I missed one in May by a week and it's really bothering me. Really, really, really bothering me. And I know why, it was an accumulation of things. That comes from journalism. And I don't know if I needed deadlines and that's why I went into journalism or if I learned it from journalism but you know that just sort of gut grinding gnaw if you've missed a deadline.
James Blatch: I also think journalists and I include myself, who are lazy and nobody in our newsroom would have done anything if they didn't need to. That's how the deadlines work. You needed to do stuff. We had a programme that went out at 6:30 every night and if you didn't have your piece in by 5:00 it wasn't on air. And if you missed it, your whole day's work, the whole day of the producer and the lives of the people involved in the story were all for nothing because you didn't make it. That was a big no no.
Patricia McLinn: It's guilt, James. It works.
James Blatch: Do you write in Scrivener or Word or something else?
Patricia McLinn: I write in Word. I tried Scrivener and everybody said, "Oh, this should work great for you." But I think because I don't write in sequence, I need to see the whole thing more and I need to be able to juggle things around. And I did, I tried three books I think I started, tried and each one I ended up taking back to Word.
James Blatch: Isn't that funny because everything you described then would lead, I would say, would lead somebody to using Scrivener. But anyway.
Patricia McLinn: But it didn't work for me.
James Blatch: Whatever works for you.
Patricia McLinn: That's it.
James Blatch: And how's it going? In terms of sales and income, where you were when you don't have to do specific figures but in terms of had you stayed at the Washington Post? How have things panned out for you?
Patricia McLinn: Oh, great. Great. I left the Post knowing that I had saved enough money to bridge to retirement but it was going to be tight but I needed to do that for family reasons and with the idea of being able to write full-time and I was extremely fortunate that I left in '07 and indie books came not that long after. And it's been terrific. And as I said, this is something I really want to say to the new writers. Be careful, be careful, be careful.
There's lots of talk about six figures, gross. Gross. And I will say I have been six figures, this is the 11th year, gross. But my net has bounced all over the place, depending on what's going on. Last year it wasn't as good because I was flowing through a lot of money to my gig people to help them moving projects into 2020, to help them because other things had disappeared for them.
James Blatch: I think that the net and gross is a very important thing because people can say I've got a six figure income but if you're spending 80% on ads, that's not really the point.
Do you have a kind of percentage spend of ads to income that you are happy with?
Patricia McLinn: No, I watch my income monthly and I adjust the ads according to that. Because it all goes on the credit card so that I know if I'm going to have lower income, I want a lower credit card bill and I'm tracking that.
That's another thing I'd really say to the starting writers to track your individual money because there's lots of information in there. And lots of people are on the forums and stuff going, "Oh my sales drop this month, is everybody else seeing that?" You're going to have your own rhythm of when things are better and when they're not. And the only way you're going to know that is by starting to track at the beginning.
For me, September tends to be a really bad month. Don't know why. It can be low for a lot of people but it is consistently the worst month of the year for me. And now I've got 11 years I can look back on and I can really see that trend. But the only way you can do that is start accumulating the data now and your data. Doesn't matter what other people are doing. For other people September's fabulous.
James Blatch: I'm a big fan of tracking and I think it governs all our spending decisions, that sort of benchmarking, which is the best way of know whether what you're doing is effective or not. What are you doing?
What ads are you running at the moment?
Patricia McLinn: Not many. I have a few low grade, very low cost, Amazon ads. I have a few low cost Facebook ads, which I am not touching because Facebook is doing all those changes and stuff. I figure the less I fiddle with them, the less likely I will draw their attention. Which most things perk along.
And then I'll do BookBub feature deals. I try not to do those too frequently and I try to leave a year plus between the same book being featured. And then I do BookBub ads.
James Blatch: You do BookBub ads?
Patricia McLinn: Yes.
James Blatch: How do you find them?
Patricia McLinn: I find them very useful, especially for non US, UK markets. I like them for that.
James Blatch: Good. We can be discovery writers. We can migrate from trad to indie.
I didn't ask you this question, but I'm assuming your income under trad, you were still working at the Washington Post then, which is an indicator that it was never going to get you into retirement, where indie writing has given you a career.
Patricia McLinn: Yes. And really padded retirement, paid off the house, has done a lot of nice things. Absolutely.
James Blatch: Well, congratulations on your career. You're obviously a great writer, Patricia. It was clear from the fact that you got picked up at a very busy time when few people did early on.
I'm delighted that you were there just before Harlequin worked out but their back catalogue was worth something to them.
Patricia McLinn: Me too. It was great.
James Blatch: That's some timing because those books presumably are still working for you.
Patricia McLinn: Yes, they are. And that's one of the things too, to say to the new writers, this is a fabulous, fabulous time because you can reach those markets. That editor who said to me that my books didn't sell well enough to reprint. She was not wrong for Harlequin and the audience they were reaching, they didn't. But I've been able to reach an entirely different audience and a much larger audience. Thank you very much. I'm really pleased about that.
James Blatch: Which is fantastic.
Patricia McLinn: I will say the writing has to come first. You don't have writing, nothing else matters so focus on that. Focus on your process. And this is not, when we talk about what works for you, that is not just airy fairy or ooh, isn't that lovely. It's got to be what works for you so that you can keep doing it.
If you want to have a 30 year plus career, you've got to go for sustainability. And that's both in the writing and in the business part of it. What can you do that you can keep doing? Also, really keep your eye on the future. You absolutely have to know what's coming up. But before I say the future, be financially responsible, track your money. Don't go in debt. Put money aside for taxes. Build cushions. Have a business account. Have a business credit card. You do not have to have a really intricate financial system, especially to start.
Have your business system be built based on what the writing is doing, what is coming in, what the income is doing. And one of the reasons to have that cushion and to have no debt is that it makes you much more flexible when things change and things are going to change. They are always going to change. And that's one of the reasons I'm very strong on watch the stuff about the future. And well, I will say it and if I can't say it you'll cut it out. But listen to Joanna Penn's Futuristic. She's doing the work for us. She goes through all this information.
James Blatch: She loves a bit of that.
Patricia McLinn: Oh, she's fabulous.
James Blatch: Mark, I have to say is quite cynical about all the AI and the automated narrating and all the stuff that Jo loves but it's all coming. There's no question about that.
Patricia McLinn: It is coming.
James Blatch: It's just when it's coming and when we need to really pay attention to it.
Patricia McLinn: But if you're listening to it now, it's feeding in and you're going to be ahead of the curve. If you wait until it's really hot, then you're scrambling to try to figure things out on the fly. And she's keeping up with all these things. Just listen, put it in the back of your head.
I'm not saying you have to go out and implement any of it at this moment but knowing it is power and it is important because things are going to keep changing. I also want to say the two best things I've ever been told about marketing.
One is, I am not my audience. I hear on so many author forums, you hear, well as a reader, I.... If you hear yourself saying that, stop because you are not your audience, you have to do what your readers like, like my two time a month newsletter, I keep trying to weasel it back to one. I'm not my audience. You can't do that.
Second thing is my friend, Lisa Mondello taught me to say, "Those are not my people." When you get a bad review, especially one off, you get people un-subbing, you get somebody cranky on social media. Those are not your people. And the other aspect of it is why spend time angsting about people who are not your people? We do it. It's human nature. But tell yourself the focus is on the people who are your people. Give them your time and attention and emotional energy.
James Blatch: Wise words.
Patricia McLinn: Another really, really strong piece of advice is that all advice, all writing, all marketing, all business advice is a buffet. It is not a fixed menu. You pick and choose what works for you. Test it against how you feel, how it makes you feel and what you do and go back for more if you want. That works, try it later, do something else. But it concerns me that I see so many beginning writers crunched up and trying to do things right. There is not a right. If there were a right, you wouldn't be hearing a 147 different ways that are right. The reason there are so many versions out there is that different things work for different people at different times. The only way you can do it is to proceed and move on, do it yourself.
And if you screw it up, if you have a problem, it was a horrible mistake, so what? Number one, you don't necessarily know it's a mistake at the time. I used to kick myself for staying with Harlequin as long as I did. And yet those books became the core for my indie career. Was it a mistake to stay with Harlequin? Or wasn't it? You don't know until the game's over and by that time you're dead so it doesn't matter. Just get past those mistakes.
And if you totally blow it for some reason, you can always start with a new writing name if you need to. Go to a different genre. There are ways to start over. There are ways to rebuild and that's so amazing.
Where in trad if you burned your bridges, you burned your bridges. I hope people will loosen up, focus on the writing, the pleasure that it gives you, whether it's the actual writing or the having written, when it's done and loosen up about the business part about it. It's you're building your own career and you can be as creative with that as you are with your own writing. You're not writing anybody else's books. You're not having anybody else's career.
James Blatch: I think that's really good advice. I think particularly the fact that there is a lot of advice out there and you do have to pick and choose what's going to work for you. I have a friend who all love the same thing when they hear somebody speak and I look at it and think this is not going to work for me in terms of the way I write. And that's fine. That's fine. There's other people for us.
Brilliant. Patricia, thank you so much. You've got a lot of wisdom and experience from both camps. But the writing is what sustains you and it is as you've rightly pointed out, the most important thing, the number one thing to focus on. We hope we will meet some person later this year in Florida, but who knows in these times, but we'll look out for that opportunity. And thank you so much indeed, for coming onto the show.
Patricia McLinn: Thank you for letting me spout.
James Blatch: All good.
Patricia McLinn: I have a few opinions.
James Blatch: There you go. I guess you are a discovery writer, Mark.
Mark Dawson: Yes. Probably, mostly. I have some kind of guidelines I worked in. I'm mostly of kind of writing to see where we go.
James Blatch: Yeah. You're sort of a Lee Child writer. You sit down, but you have an idea how the story is going to work by the time you start writing.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, they're usually based off something that's really happened. Something I've seen in the news or a person who interests me. I'll take that as a starting off point. Think about how things could be turned into something slightly more dramatic and then put Milton or one of my other characters into it and see what happens.
James Blatch: I think that's how most discovery writers are. The exception, the real discovery writers are Marie Force and others who sit down with no idea how the story is going to work, start creating characters' situations and see how they act and how they behave and where the story goes, which is amazing. And she says, she approaches writing a bit like a reader, excited to know what's going to happen next, which is a bizarre concept, isn't it? But works.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, that will reflect in the writing as well. If the author is surprised by the way the characters go then you can be sure the reader will be too. That's not a bad thing.
James Blatch: Yeah. Great. Okay well look, I want to say thank you very much indeed to our guest, Patricia McLinn for this week. Okay, that's it for now. Enjoy Tenerife, Mark. All that remains for me to say is this a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Bye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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