Extended Q&A with WD’s Self-Published Book Awards Winner

An Exaltation of Larks, by Suanne Laqueur, is the grand-prize winning book in the 25th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. It bested more than 2,300 entries from 55 countries across eight categories to take home a prize package that includes $8,000 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the March/April 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from this year’s awards.

To read a brief excerpt from An Exaltation of Larks, click here.

Suanne Laqueur, released her first novel, The Man I Love, in 2014. This was followed by three additional novels in her series The Fish Tales before she moved on to An Exaltation of Larks, the first in her Venery series. A Charm of Finches, the second Venery book, came out in November 2017.

Tell me about yourself and how you started writing. I grew up in a town outside of NYC. My father was a translator, my mother was a dance teacher, and really her dance studio was where I grew up. That was my background and my passion, and really all I did for a significant part of my life. I majored in dance and theater when I went to college, I came back and taught with my mom at her studio for about 10 years. My love of dance was really bound up in my love for my mother, and when she was ready to move on, I was too. I never wanted to own a studio—I saw how much work that was, it was tiring. At the same time, I hstories, I took it all the way through high school into college, manila envelopes stuffed with stories that I would share with some people, but it was just a thing I fooled around with, I never thought, “Oh I’m going to be a writer some day, I’ll publish this some day.” It was private, it was fun, it was something I tinkered around with.

And I did have one completed manuscript by the time I graduated college and I did send it to a coach to look at, and he made two really interesting observations: He said, “You have a really great 500-page character analysis—now write the story.” And then he also said, “When you get out of your own way, you have some really good moments of digging into the emotion of a scene, and you need to hone that craft.” But of course I was 24, I threw it in a drawer, and I came back to it when I was in my 30s and I thought—I don’t connect with this any more, the dorm life and the parties and the angst. I’m not interested in that anymore, but can I start writing about these characters as adults?

And around November of 2013—it was the start of National Novel Writing Month—I decided to finish it. (I’m a big believer in quantifiable, simple goals.) I’m going to finish it, I’m going to work with an editor and now that I know there are all these self-publishing platforms, I’m going to put it up there, I’m going to order a few copies, I’ll give one to my mother, and maybe my friends will read it and say nice things, and that was the goal. And that was my debut novel, The Man I Love.

What is An Exaltation of Larks about? It’s a book about the business of sex and the price of love, and a married couple and a male escort whose lives cross over three decades and two continents.

Do you still have a day job? This doesn’t pay the bills (and also I carry all of the health insurance for my family). I’m a business analyst for Verizon. By day, I am numbers and spreadsheets and analytical, and then when that’s all over I go into my creative mode. If I could write full-time I would, but at the same time it’s a pretty good gig. And what I like about self-publishing is that it’s done on my time, my pace. This is a really ideal situation for me. When my kids say, “Mom, when friends ask me what you do, should I say you work at Verizon?” I say, “No, tell them I’m a writer.”

Why did you choose self-publishing? I did my research and I did my homework, and I realized—I tend to write very long books, even with editing, and when I was researching the industry I realized no publisher is going to look at this unless it’s significantly cut, and then it would cease to be my story and become more of the marketable story, and I had a hard time with that. And I said, ok, as long as I realize this, and this may limit me, I’m ok with that. I do it on my time, yes I’ve got to put in the legwork on the marketing, I’ve got to do all of the things that a traditional publisher might be able to do for me. But I do a lot of things, and this let me be everything.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing? Keeping up with the marketing. There’s a constant fear, anxiety, that if you relax for a minute you’re going to fall of the radar and disappear into this saturated market of millions and millions of self-published authors and books, and that’s true to an extent, so the challenge is managing the marketing, the promotion, your exposure, social media, little details that add up. They suck a lot of time out of the day, time that you could be writing. This was the year that I actually hired a personal assistant who takes a lot of that stuff out of my hands. And for me it’s money well spent. And it’s gratifying that I’m making enough money that I can afford a personal assistant. There are certain things that you want to hire out because it’s not worth your energy and your time and your anxiety. [My editor said,] “Your anxiety is very precious, save it for the things that really matter.”

What are the biggest misconceptions with self-publishing? Some people think it’s more expensive to self-publish, and really the “publishing” part of it, getting your book onto the platform—that’s free, at least the way I’m going, which is a blessing and a curse. The investment into getting a good editor, getting a good format, getting a good cover designer, those are all things that come into play, but I was surprised by how easy the actual process of getting the book up there onto a platform was. Where people fall into pitfalls is that they think, “Ok, now it’s up there, I’m just going to sit back and watch the sales come in.” That’s not how it works.

What’s the worst mistake self-publishing authors can make? They go in with no plan whatsoever, or they go in without setting realistic and quantifiable goals, or—to go in with the goal of “I’m going to publish this book and I’m going to be famous,” that’s really not a quantifiable or achievable or even realistic goal. So go in and say, “I’m going to publish this book with the intent of selling 10 copies a month, what do I need to do to get there?” With no concept of building a base of followers, building an email list, at least having yourself set up on social media and having some barebones tactics of marketing. That’s a big mistake I often see a lot of authors make. Or… your manuscript and your cover have to be the two towers that your entire publishing experience sit on, and if you’re going to put in money, you put money into a good editor, and you put money into a good cover designer. And you invest in your manuscript. It’s worth your money, and it’s worth your time.

What made the biggest difference in getting your book in front of potential readers? I knew to set up 10 or 15 people who would read the book before release, be ready with a review to post right away, and then I really started querying book blogs. There is this world of book blogging out there, and the world of avid readers who follow these blogs and follow these Facebook pages, to the point where they would click any recommendations. This is where I really did my homework; this is something I’m really proud of. I put together a list of maybe 2,000 blogs (this is where my analyst mind comes in). I had my excel spreadsheet, and I would do 30 queries a month. That was my hustle. If I got a read [by a book blogger], I put that blog aside, and then that blog [became part of] my team. I cultivated those relationships. [Eventually I started] to amass not only blogger friends but readers outside my circle of family and friends, so I asked them, do you want to be on my review team? Started amassing that street team, all of the pieces started falling into place. So when the second book came out, it was a much smoother process, it was bigger. With book after book, I could see the process tighten and the net widen to the point where I’m not only promoting it, but I’ve got a gang of people helping me promote it.

What’s your advice to others considering self-publishing? It’s absolutely essential that you put your money into your manuscript and your cover, because that carries the entire weight. Have a platform, have a team, have a plan, and make your cover and your manuscript the best that they can be. I would even say… I think if I did it differently, knowing what I know now, I think I would have waited to publish until I had two or three books out. If you are starting out and know you have a series in you, I’d almost hold off until you have two finished so you could put one out and put another one out in quick succession.

Your books are often shelved in the Romance section, but An Exaltation of Larks doesn’t really fit in to the romance genre. What are your challenges writing outside of a traditional genre? It’s really hard. I don’t know where my audience is. Really difficult to find the sweet spot in terms of marketing. It doesn’t fit marketing anywhere.

Romance can be very formulaic. And my books don’t follow that formula, they get really deep into psychological issues, they get deep into other subjects. And it’s not romance, but they get shelved with romance, and people respond, “This isn’t a romance book,” and I’m like, “It’s not marketed that way, stop it!” Because I do like to write about couples that have a healthy sex life, when I shelve it in literary fiction, people see that and are like, “Ugh, I just read a romance book.” And so then it kind of goes into this women’s fiction genre. Which bothers me—it has this undertone of it’s not something a dude would read. And I’ve had men read my books, and especially I think the new release [A Charm of Finches] is a book that men could definitely read. So then that puts me smack in the middle of general fiction or contemporary fiction, and a lot of the social media, blogs and groups, they don’t always look at those books. So I had to sneak in the romance door and make my way through, and it’s still something I struggle with. And I want to call Amazon and say, “Can I make up a new genre here?”

Unless you know that you’re going to be writing for a particular genre and you’ve researched it and you know what makes it tick and you know what makes it sell, if you’re like me where you’re just writing the story that’s in your heart and not caring too much about how it fits into this picture … you have to write the most truthful story to you. And I learned this with my first book. I got into a big thing with my editor where she wanted me to cut one of the major characters. And I got off the phone with her and I threw a few things, but then I sat down and saved a new version, I cut this character, I brought it all together and it worked, but it wasn’t my story. And she said, “In the end, you have to publish what you can sleep with at night, and if you feel it’s not the story you set out to tell, and it’s a diminished story, and it’s not as honest a story … I’m really glad you made the honest effort, but you’ve got to publish what is yours.”

And I think self-publishing allows you that freedom. There are trade-offs, which everyone will tell you, but if you work with traditional publishing it’s more about what’s marketable. I have control of the book, I have control of the story, and I’m cool with that.

What is the best writing and/or publishing advice you’ve received? My editor telling me, “Hire that shit out!” She also told me, “Just tell the story. Don’t be clever, and get out of your own way. Say what happens. Say what you mean.” I have a Post-it on my computer that says, “Just tell the story.” Also, Ernest Hemingway said, “Write the truest sentence you know.” Another Post-it I have is “simple story, complex characters.” And those are the daily things that I keep posted around me.

Who has inspired you as a writer? In terms of authors, from an early age Stephen King—and not so much his terrifying, gory stuff, but to me the genius of Stephen King is in his ordinary writing. How he makes his characters completely ordinary people that he then puts into extraordinary circumstances. It’s the stuff between his horror scenes. [Also] Catherynne Valente and the way she plays with language, and Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman as storytellers and masters of simple language telling complex stories.

What can you not live without in your writing life? Coffee. Actually no, my massage therapist. He’s been with me for five books now, and not only does he help the chronic neck and shoulder strain, but I go once a month, and when I take that 90–minute slot of just isolated quiet … it’s really amazing what I’ve worked out while I’ve been on his table.

Describe your typical day. Up at 7:00, I write between 7:00 and 8:30—I write anything, that’s sort of my daily thing. It doesn’t matter if I’m working on something new, old or just fooling around. And then I’m at my day job until 5:00, and then, depending on what day it is, the kids have activities. I’ve got to take my daughter to dance class, I’ve got to pick my son up from track practice, people need to be fed around here, I have a senior in high school so we’re working on college applications, we’re going on college visits and if I do get to my writing again it’s usually towards 7–8:00 in the evening.

Describe your writing process. I sit down with a notebook and a pen and I write anything. My writing process is, I don’t start with a story and characters to fit it, I start with characters, I start thinking up people. I liken it to (this is my theater background) an improv troupe with a big trunk of costumes on stage, and I let these people try on costumes, and I don’t lock them into anything. If they want to be a policeman one day and the next day they’re a hairdresser, fine, and I just write it down. And I turn the page and say, “Well, what if?” And it’s this very freeing, playful, non-pressured fooling around, and I like the brain-hand connection—it seems to flow the best when I have a pen in my hand, and it’s less pressure—when something’s not going right, just turn the page and it’s blank. And little by little it starts to come together, and I can take all that stuff and put it together in a software like Scrivener, which is very good for people who write in chunks like me. That works really, really, really well for me.

[For An Exaltation of Larks] I had an idea of a family, and it was going to be that family in a small town, they’ve been there forever, and things are named after them, they own the pharmacy, they own the bank, they have a street, and then I saw this funny Facebook post with the group names for animals and I was just going through it and I thought, “A lot of these sound like book titles!” And I see “an exaltation of larks,” and I realize that sounds like a family! That totally works! This is one of the first books where the title came at the beginning of the process. And the characters began to tell me their stories.

What are your strengths as a writer? Giving the reader interiority, not just telling the story but making the reader experience the story with the characters, building characters who are so real that they resonate in your head later on and you find yourself wondering what they’re doing. I get a lot of reader who come back to me saying, “I miss them. Isn’t that weird? They’re not even real people, but I miss them. I wonder what they’re doing—what are they making for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s Christmas—are they decorating the tree?” And I think that comes from my process of letting the characters build themselves first. Because my stories are so character based and my characters get so much time, that’s what allows the emotions to resonate.

What aspects of writing do you struggle with, and how have you worked to improve? Beginnings. I’m really good at wrapping up a chapter, finding an ending for a scene, a chapter, a section, I’m pretty good at the last line. Beginnings I really struggle with, especially that opening, punchy hook. Larks started out that way. I was practicing opening lines. My editor does this brilliant thing where she finds a sliver from the middle or the end, and she cuts and pastes and says, “Here you go.” She’s done that twice now. And I’m like, “This is why I pay you.”

What are your proudest moments as a writer? One of my advance readers finished Finches and emailed me, and said, “I have to tell you that I was raped in college, I never went to counseling, I never dealt with it, I finished your book and I made an appointment with a counselor.” [The main characters of A Charm of Finches include a male survivor of rape and his therapist.] And to know that something I wrote made someone make a decision like that—it was one of those “I can retire now” moments. I had a moment like that too with The Fish Tales (which is about a long estrangement) where a reader emailed me and said, “I finished The Fish Tales and I made a phone call, a very overdue phone call, to say I was sorry.” When your writing can connect with someone so profoundly that they feel moved to make a decision, that’s what it’s all about.

What are your goals as a writer? To write the truth. To write true stories that people can connect with.

Any final thoughts? Owning a studio is a lot a lot of work. I saw what went into it—financially, logistically, all the details, and I thought, “That’s not what I want to do.” I love the teaching, the choreographing, the staging, but I didn’t want to own it. It’s tough, it’s hard. There are a lot of parallels [with self-publishing and owning a dance studio].

What I’m doing now is what I feel I’m truly meant to do—to be a storyteller. And dancing and choreographing is storytelling. Stories make the world go round.

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