Finding Success as a Novelist — Interview with C.S. Lakin

C. S. Lakin has penned nineteen novels of various genres. She works professionally as a copyeditor and writing coach, and critiques more than two hundred manuscripts a year. She also guest blogs on the top writing blogs, such as Writers’ Digest and Grammarly, and teaches workshops around the country.

Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive provides year-long instruction for writers with deep instructional courses in weekly posts. She also publishes a series of writing craft books in The Writer’s Toolbox Series aimed at helping writers craft solid novels.

How did your writing career begin?

I’ve always been writing. Poetry, stories, whatever. I grew up in a house full of books. My mother and brother were successful screenplay writers, and while I helped my mother with television projects and played around with writing scripts, I didn’t pursue a career in TV. Instead, I felt inspired to write my first novel at about age thirty, and while it was immediately picked up by a top literary agent, it never sold.

What were some of the challenges you faced early on?

Language. Words. The same things many writers struggle with. I played with fancy words and creative uses for them. I included vocabulary in those early stories that no one would ever use. It sounds so pretentious to me now. I sometimes read my first novel, just to remind myself how far I’ve come.

I also struggled with how to write a great novel. What would sell? Back in the day, when you needed an agent, there were so many rejections. Hundreds of them. I had six agents over twenty years, and not one of them sold anything. But I learned from them. Some gave helpful feedback, but mostly there was minimal instruction.

I didn’t actually know what I was doing. Craft books and writing courses didn’t go very far. Now, with podcasts, blogs, author interviews, and so many other resources available, there are many ways writers can learn their craft. Anybody can learn to write. It takes tenacity, though.

We all pick up tips and tricks as we learn to be better writers, but you covered so many with your “12 pillars” that form the foundation of a great novel. Tell us how that came about.

On my blog Live Write Thrive, I’ve often chosen a focus or approach to cover for a whole year. I’ve sometimes spent Decembers writing an entire craft book and then broken it up into blog posts, or I’ve taken a year of instruction and crafted it into a book, which is what I did with Writing the Heart of Your Story and The 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing. When thinking about everything I’ve ever learned about novel construction, I came up with a concept of having twelve pillars. I often structure topics on my blog in twelve parts as that makes it easy to cover one a month. Of course, there are many more elements that go into a novel, but it wasn’t hard coming up with the top twelve most important, when it comes to solid story building.

I write stories with a holistic approach. I usually begin with a thematic issue, but other people start with a setting or character. It really doesn’t matter where you start. What matters is that you make sure you have all the elements strong. That’s why having key pillars in place is essential to building, whether it’s a home or a story.

My husband was a builder. He had to see every step along the way in the plans, and that’s how you have to write a novel, too—with a plan and an end in mind. Structure is ingrained in your brain, and it’s an important step, even for writers of non-genre fiction. If you can follow the steps of your plan, then you have a great structure.

(Editors Note: See The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction)

If you had one most important tip to give a new writer, what would it be?

Read all my books. Just kidding. But, in one sense, I’m serious. I’ve crammed thirty years of serious study into those books. Most important: do your homework. Really learn your craft. A doctor goes to school for eight years or more. If you’re serious about being a novelist, you need to take the time. Many writers feel as if they’ve been reading all their lives, and that if they’ve read enough books, they should be able to write one—but it’s just not so. Writers often experience failure because they don’t take the time to do their homework. If you want to learn how to write a novel, you have to learn all the skills, and some are harder than others. Hit the books. Read blogs. Attend conferences and workshops. Keep learning.

What crucial lesson did you learn that might help an experienced writer who is trying to break out?

Times have really changed. Years ago, the idea was to know what publishers were buying.

You tried to fit in a niche, and then pitched your book within that niche. Problem is, sometimes you have a book that doesn’t easily fit into one genre. Publishers might love it but not know what to do with it.

Fast-forward to today. You can write any book, mix it up with genres, tell the story you want to tell. You can use Facebook ads, Amazon ads, etc., to target an audience that will enjoy the specific book you’ve written.

It’s really important to know how to target your genre, study keywords, write your Amazon product page. It’s a brave new world. Great authors are writing great books and putting them out there, and sometimes they still don’t sell. But I use strategies that are proven, and even without selling a copy, my books are often on the tops of the best-seller lists because people are able to find them and buy them, and that pushes my book to the top of the list.

Most authors are going to self-publishing. Discoverability is the new topic that people need to research.

What are the greatest challenges writers face in the current market?

Discoverability. Definitely the biggest challenge. First, you have to learn how books are structured, read in your genre, and start writing great books. But discoverability is the top one.

Publishers still buy the same kinds of stories over and over, but in today’s world, you can exercise flexibility. You can self-publish. It takes time and work, though. Develop a mailing list, engage fans. Again, do your homework. Find ways to write what you love to write, but learn how to market on Amazon effectively.

You’ve devoted considerable time to a blog that is aimed at helping other writers. Tell us about that.

I started the blog in January 2012 after taking a course that taught me that if you want to become great in your field, put out free content every week and people will love you and follow you.

I wanted to create a product that had global reach. The blog has opened that up for me. It’s exhausting, but it’s rewarding. Guest posting, getting feedback from people saying how much it’s helped them. It’s been a great way to meet authors, get feedback, build a community.

Time management and productivity are things that concern many writers. What does your typical day look like?

Lately, I’ve been getting up at 6:30. I check my emails first and get stuff off my plate. I work on editing until noon. Then I take my dog for a walk and clear my head. When I sit to write, I might focus on one scene, maybe. If I’m on a deadline, I write nonstop if need be, to just get it done. My husband comes home at 5:30 and I make dinner, then we do a jigsaw puzzle and watch NBA games.

I don’t have a typical day. I don’t write novels every day. It can be really frustrating. I have a family to support, so I edit and work for other writers. I’m super productive and efficient. My latest book, Crank It Out, is about how to optimize your writing time by taking a hard look at your attitudes, biology, habits, and choices.

Tell us about your new book that is coming out.

I surveyed readers on my blog and asked for their top concerns. Everyone said they’re struggling with making excuses, managing time, thwarting self-sabotage, and not getting things done. It’s all related. Since so many were having a problem with time management, I decided to put out a book to help them. I have lots of things competing for my time, just like everyone else, but I’ve learned how to crank out books every year, and so have many other writers. But there’s a self-awareness we all have of whether we’re being productive. What’s causing us to not get books written, then?

In Crank it Out I don’t deal with the issue of whether you’re a proficient writer or not. If you don’t have the writing skills under your belt, that can account for things like fear and procrastination. I’m addressing the writer who knows how to write but isn’t getting the writing done. What distracts us? How can we hack around our excuses? There’s so much that plays a part. Biology about sleep, foods to eat, when to eat, how to figure out your biological prime time, or how to rearrange your schedule to get the most out of your time and personal productivity.

I want to help every writer learn how to find the best time of day to get work done. Take advantage of peak times, assess yourself, your lifestyle, and then don’t sabotage yourself. Our attitude is a big problem. Negative talk.

I learned a lot of new things during my research. For instance: that blue light stimulates your mind and if you use devices at night that emit blue light waves, it can prevent you from falling asleep. Research clearly shows that if we sleep well and soundly, we’re more productive.

One author was struggling with getting her writing done. She tried to change her habits, diet, everything, to be more productive, but in the end realized she just wasn’t getting enough sleep. By adding one hour, she fixed her problem.

I hope the material I share in this book will be a big help to a lot of writers.

Where can we find you on the web?, it’s the center of my hub. You can contact me through that or subscribe to my blog. Or join my mailing list. I send out emails to my Novel Writing Fast Track group, hold a monthly raffle, and offer free books every month.

Do you have any parting words of encouragement for our readers?

Everyone can be successful. We all get discouraged. Keep at it, reach out to other writers, support one another. Help folks along the journey. Enjoy the journey. That’s my best advice.

A. Howitt
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Rachael Mills
Rachael Mills
3 years ago

This is a very inspiring interview. I’ve gotten some ideas to help me improve my writing. I will visit her site as well, thanks for sharing this.

Mandy Robinson
Mandy Robinson
3 years ago

This is the best advice ever! I love this interview because it made me understand a bit more. I need to change my habits for sure! I better start taking care of myself and see if it helps with my writing.

gia c. ramirez
3 years ago

Lovely article and I’m excited to check out Lakin’s resources and blog. Would have loved knowing what her tipping point was from not getting published to getting published. I’m sure it’s in one of her books…I loved her system of planning a theme with 12 parts (or putting together a book from the 12 blog posts). Pure brilliance!

4 years ago

Thank you for sharing this interview! I’ve been going through Lakin’s posts on the 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction and have found them the most helpful thing for my writing yet. I’m thankful for the heads up about discoverability.

4 years ago

I have a question for C. S. Lakin. How did she build an audience for her blog?

I know authors who’ve had blogs for years, and almost no one reads them. What steps do you take to get a blog noticed?

M. Oliver
M. Oliver
4 years ago

Great interview! Thank very much for sharing this. 🙂

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