Writing Beginnings with Shane Millar

What do you need in the beginning of your novel so your reader buys your book? Shane Millar shares tips for writing brilliant beginnings, regardless of your genre.

In the intro, trends in what publishers want at Frankfurt Book Fair [Publishing Perspectives] Adobe incorporating AI-generation alongside a Content Authenticity Initiative [Adobe blog]; Bertelsmann-owned venture capital firm BDMI invests in NFT book company, Book.io [Yahoo Finance]; NFTs for books overview [The Future of Publishing]; NFTs and copyright with Kathryn Goldman; NFTs for authors;

Plus, Writing Career Toolkit Storybundle (limited time); A pilgrim in the path of history [Books and Travel]; Sign up to be notified of my Pilgrimage book; and Your Author Business Plan workshop live sessions.


Today’s show is sponsored by IngramSpark, which I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 40,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries, and more. It’s your content—do more with it through IngramSpark.com. Use promo code PENN at checkout for 1 free book upload, print, ebook, or both, if uploaded at the same time—until December 31, 2022.

Shane Millar is the author of urban fantasy thrillers and craft guides for writers, as well as a story coach and editor.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below. 

Show Notes

  • How Shane started his indie career with rapid release in 2022 across multiple genres
  • Why the beginning of a novel it matters so much
  • Examples of different types of beginnings for different types of novels
  • The importance of reading for pleasure
  • How to signal genre to readers so they know the book is for them
  • How much of a character should be revealed early in a book?
  • Different writing processes for fiction and non-fiction
  • How the basics of marketing don’t change and what is working for Shane since he started earlier in 2022, 15 years after Joanna.

You can find Shane Millar at swmillar.com

Shareable image generated by Joanna Penn with DALL-E 2.

Transcript of Interview with Shane Millar

Joanna: Shane Millar is the author of urban fantasy thrillers and craft guides for writers, as well as a story coach and editor. Today we’re talking about How To Write Brilliant Beginnings: Crafting Your Novel’s Opening Chapters Made Easy. Welcome, Shane.

Shane: Thanks for having me on the show, Joanna.

Joanna: It’s good to have you here.

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and the indie author world.

Shane: So way back in 2010, I read the first novel in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series. And in my youthful naivety, I kind of thought I can do that, that’ll be fine. So I wrote the most terrible vampire urban fantasy novel you will ever read. I did what 99.9% of writers do, I stuck it in a drawer, I let it gather dust while I fell into a “sensible” corporate job.

I found that manuscript in late 2018, skimmed it through and promptly realized just how awful it was. And as sobering as that experience was, it made me want to write again, but do it a lot better this time.

With that in mind, I did what any self-respecting nerd would do: I studied a lot. After a ton of trial and error, I published the first four novels in my myth and magic urban fantasy series this year, as well as the first five guides for writers in my Write Better Fiction series, I also qualified as a Fictionary Certified story coach too and that’s pretty much me. That’s how I got into it.

Joanna: So a few questions out of that, then before we get into writing beginnings. What is your sensible corporate job?

Shane: In my day job, I work for an insurance company. So it is very sensible, very corporate and very dull. It is not creative at all. And it’s one of those kind of soul-destroying cubicle slavery type jobs, that I’m hopefully using writing as a way to transition out of.

Joanna: But it absolutely pays the bills. Looking back on my own corporate job as well, which I did for five years, while building up my writing business, there are people who email me and they say they are a freelance writer, writing for hire, and they have nothing left for their creative work.

Whereas with insurance and what I was doing with IT, I had a creative side that I wasn’t using at work.

I want to encourage people listening, if you have a similar corporate job, it does actually leave you some creative space for writing.

Shane: Yes it does and writing is definitely the one good thing I would say. If anyone out there is struggling with their day job, whatever that might be, is that you do have that creative outlet in writing. It does provide somewhat of an escape from the day job, even though you’re still there. So just keep going. And you will make a success of this and get out if you want to.

Joanna: Then you said you launched the first four in your myth and magic series, and five guides for writers, right?

Are you following the rapid-release model? And how’s that gone?

Shane: I did this year. My word for this year was ‘production’. And I managed my schedule to allow me to do that.

I will say it’s very tiring, especially when you have a full-time job. And it’s not something that I will sustain going forward.

I think there are a lot of loud voices in the indie space that extolled the virtues of rapid release. And I think it’s great for building an audience quickly and finding readers fast and all of those things.

The question of whether it’s sustainable or not, is another one. For me, personally, I don’t think it is. I think it can lead to burnout if you push too hard, and we all know how dangerous that is.

Joanna: I’m clearly not one of those loud voices about it!

Shane: You’re definitely not.

Joanna: Obviously, having read your Brilliant Beginnings I can see the work you’ve put into trying to figure out aspects of the craft. And I can see how much work you’ve done on that. And obviously, being in insurance you like you said, being a geek, I’m also similar, we like to research but let’s get into that book.

How are you defining beginning? Because there might be people listening who write short stories, novels trilogies.

What is a ‘beginning’ to you?

Shane: Specifically, I was thinking of novels when I wrote this book, because that’s what I have experience in. I define the first 10% of the novel as the beginning. Particularly in the digital reading age, because I think, well, you and I both know, the way that people buy books, or at least search for books has changed.

You can go onto pretty much any one of the online stores now and download the first 10% of a book as a free sample. And readers can download as many samples as they like, so there’s no barrier to entry, really. Then readers don’t want to waste their time on stories that don’t engage them fast.

You’ve said many times on the podcast that you give, I think you give a book three or four clicks on your Kindle before you decide whether or not to read on.

Joanna: That’s why I wanted to ask about what you consider a beginning, because you said 10%. In a 70,000-word novel, that’s 7000 words.

There is no way as a digital fiction reader — and I only read fiction digitally in ebook format — there is no way I give a book 7000 words. That’s quite a lot.

I give it as you say, three or four clicks, which is probably less than 1000 words, which is why it’s so important.

Shane: I defined the beginning as 10%. As much as that’s the entire sample, obviously, the very beginning of your novel is that first few pages, and it is vital. Because of readers such as yourself, and I do it too.

I probably get about four or five clicks before I decide whether to purchase, getting those initial opening pages. Really packing a punch with those is vital, because if that first sentence even doesn’t grab your reader, then they may not even read on. So I think that’s why I wanted to tackle this book first.

One of the things I realized when I read that awful novel that I wrote back in 2010, was that the beginning was non-existent.

It started far too early.

There was a lot of ‘I got up, I brushed my teeth,’ all that stuff that we do when we’re beginning writers, because readers aren’t hanging around.

Now, if your book’s opening falls flat, they’ll just move on to the next one, because they’ve got so many to choose from. I think that’s how I defined beginning for the book, and how I defined beginning for the reader in terms of that first few pages.

Joanna: And we should say it’s not just the sampling on an ebook reader. If you read in a bookstore, you pick up a book, you read the back, then you might open it and read a few pages from the beginning or on an audio book, you might listen to the sample, which is usually from the beginning. So it’s true, whatever the format, right?

Shane: Yes, absolutely. And even if readers search for paperback, and they’re not in a physical bookshop, they can still view the sample of the paperback online. It’s the same difference, really.

Who hasn’t gone into a bookshop wandered round, picked up a few books looked at the first few pages? So it is vital, whatever medium you’re focusing on, certainly.

Joanna: Absolutely. So you mentioned that obviously, engaging readers quickly. So give us some tips and not just for genre stories. What about more literary stories?

Some people say start with a bang, and I have definitely started books with an explosion. But I write action adventure.

Give us some thoughts on different types of beginnings that engage different types of readers.

Shane: I do have some thoughts on this. I’ve got three quick tips that you can use to hook readers quickly. And this will work whether you’re writing literary or genre fiction.

The first thing is something that I call the invisible question, which is where you can craft your novel’s opening line into a statement that essentially makes the reader ask themselves a question that they can only answer by reading on.

Now, you mentioned literary fiction, and The Kite Runner is a great example of this. That novel opens with the line, “I became what I am today at the age of 12.”

Now, immediately, as a reader, I would be asking, Well, what are you today? And what happened when you were 12? They can only get that answer by reading on.

You mentioned thrillers, obviously, in genre fiction, the Da Vinci Code again, fantastic example of an invisible question opening line with a museum curator staggering through a vaulted archway, and the reader wants to know why he staggering. Is he drunk? Is he injured? Is it something else?

By creating that question in the reader’s mind, it sets up a cognitive dissonance that makes them want to read on. So that’s a really quick tip you can use for your opening line.

My second tip is to introduce a relatable point of view character on the first page.

And when I say relatable, I don’t necessarily mean nice or likeable. There are plenty of characters like Katniss Everdeen, in The Hunger Games, for example, who is not particularly likable. What I do mean is flawed.

Readers identify with flawed characters, because we’re all flawed. And on a subconscious level, readers know that if your novel opens with a flawed character, they’re going on an internal journey with them to fix that flaw because they’ve been consuming story for so long. They’re used to that type of journey.

My final tip is to open with some kind of tension or conflict. And this does still apply to literary fiction novels, too.

So if you’re writing something literary or a low action genre, like romance, for example, you could open with some kind of argument or disagreement. If you’re writing so called high action genres, like thrillers or fantasy you could open with rather aptly your protagonist trying to defuse an unexploded bomb.

You mentioned opening with an explosion earlier, so that would be the kind of thing you can use.

So, my three tips are:

  1. the invisible question,
  2. opening with a relatable, not necessarily likable character; and
  3. opening with some kind of conflicts to hook the reader in.

Joanna: Those are some good tips.

But you can’t do everything, right?

Shane: No, of course not. That’s impossible. You can’t do everything, you have to be selective. So think of a few ways that you can hook your reader in. But they wouldn’t be my sort of go to ways that would work, regardless of what genre.

Joanna: Yes, I think those are good. And it’s also about tapping into the kind of reader you’re after, but also the kind of writer you are.

So for example, sense of place is very important to me. You mentioned the Da Vinci Code, and that curator is staggering through the Louvre. And whatever Dan Brown’s faults, he has some pretty epic settings and setting is so important.

I did want to give an example. I just read a book called The Paper Palace. It’s all over the charts at the moment in the US and it is, I guess you’d say, a literary/romance. But the opening is just a description of a table. Like it’s a really deep setting description.

I don’t normally read this type of book. And yet when I sampled it, I was like, This is amazing. And it kept me reading and it was a very deep setting description of a cabin. So I think for me, as a reader, I’m hooked in by sense of place. So what about you, as a reader?

What do you as a reader think about in terms of what hooks you?

Shane: It’s hard now, because I’ve done so much work into the writing craft, I think it ruins how I read. But I think for me, the main thing that would hook me and I very much read in the urban fantasy, thriller genre myself.

So for me, it would be getting into the story quickly or in media res, if you want to be fancy-pants. Start in the middle of a scene, make sure that something happens relatively quickly.

And also, I think, for me, story is character. So as long as there’s an engaging character on the page, I will read whatever genre although I have my go to ones, I will read whatever genre as long as the character is engrossing, and I can identify them with them in some way, or at least relate to them in some way.

Joanna: I’m going to pick up on something you said that you said. “It ruins how I read.” I want to challenge you on that and anyone else listening because it is a danger.

I think from seeing your picture, you’re at least a decade younger than me. In actual years, and probably in writing years. And I feel like this, this is very, very important. People listening as well, we have to be able to switch off that brain.

If we lose the love of reading, then why bother? Seriously, this is so important.

I would really encourage you to try and come at the page with a different mindset. And like I said, picking up this Paper Palace was really interesting, because I will never write a book like that. So it was very interesting to read it. I read a lot of thrillers, but it is more difficult for me to disengage, so I do find reading outside my primary genre really helps.

Short stories are great. Anything to get back to that joy of reading, I think is so important.

Are there ways you think you could let all this go and read for pleasure? Again, go back to Jim Butcher?

Shane: I think so. It seems to only affect the way I read when I’m writing nonfiction because I think I’m looking at for examples all the time because I write that craft that I can use, and I’m kind of deconstructing the book as I go.

If I’m writing fiction, I tend to find I can sink back into novels much more more easily. But it is definitely a mindset thing, for sure.

Joanna: Again, another thought on being a few books ahead of you is that you will run out of things you want to write about. So I would say that perhaps once you’ve written the craft books that you feel called to write, you’ll be like, Okay, I’m done. I’m now going to get into doing other things.

I totally relate to the type of person you are in terms of researching and wanting the sorts of input and output. It’s very similar to how I work as well. But I feel there does come a point when you’re like, Okay, I’ve done my book on that. You don’t need to write another book on openings, right? So you can relax into it.

Coming back to your book, let’s talk about signaling genre. So for example, so you talked about questions, you talked about character and conflict, but that’s not necessarily signaling genre. Fantasy is kind of obvious, because put some magic in it.

What are some of the other ways we can clearly signal genre so readers understand the promise of the book?

Shane: I think one of the best ways to signal genre clearly, especially at the beginning of the novel, is to focus on the tone that you’re trying to create.

You’ll find if you read lots of different genres the tone is always different. And most genres have a tone that they evoke. Specifically for that type of genre reader. This applies to literary fiction as well.

I think it comes down to four main things. And that is the point of view and tense that the novel is written in. For example, most YA dystopian novels are usually written in first person present tense, whereas epic fantasy novels, again, usually written in first person, past tense. So that’s one difference.

You could see when you read a genre that would signal to you maybe what you’re reading on a higher level.

Character voice is another. If you look at the genre I write in, urban fantasy, the tone is snarky, it’s playful. Whereas if you looked at a cozy mystery set in the 1950s, then that tone definitely wouldn’t work for that type of book.

Something like whether time of day or season that you start your novel in. It’s no coincidence that thrillers tend to start on cold rainy nights and feel good beach reads start on cloudless sunny days.

Chapter length is another thing to look at. So again, thrillers. An author, like James Patterson, he has very short, very punchy chapters. And in general thriller chapters, or at least the scenes that the chapters are made up of are shorter. And then again, with epic fantasy, they run a lot longer.

And then one of the main things I think we can use, apart from, as you said, sticking magic in a fantasy novel to signal what genre the reader is in for is character archetype.

A romance novel will open with a single bachelor or bachelorette protagonist looking for love. And something like the reluctant hero is really common in fantasy. Somebody who needs to go on a quest, but doesn’t actually want to go on the quest.

I think those are the main things we should look at when trying to signal genre. In terms of tone.

Joanna: I would definitely suggest reading the award-winning books in your genre.

So for example, I read off the Bram Stoker list for horror.

And I write horror, I use aspects of horror, and I also read off the International Thriller Writers award lists. If it’s literary, you could do the Booker Prize, or whatever it is. Essentially, what I find is that the prize winners are a great example of that genre.

Often they’re standalone books as well. They’re not necessarily series. It’s hard to win a prize with a book in a series. But I find that I learn a lot from that.

So for example, Ararat by Christopher Golden: when I read that I was like, This is it. This is an archetypal horror novel that has everything I want, and everything that wins a prize. It did, it won the Bram Stoker. Looking at examples, the very, very clear examples of genre I think, can definitely help.

I did want to bring up prologues because I actually think in your book, you don’t like prologues, right?

Shane: It’s a tricky one. My opinion has changed since I wrote the book. So I’m happy to go into it.

Joanna: I like prologues and I often shop for books with a prologue.

Shane: I’m not someone who’s going to say you should never ever do a prologue. When I wrote this book, I was writing for newer writers. And obviously, the easiest thing to do in terms of engaging the reader is to just start with your protagonist, usually in the present moment to really bond your reader and your character together.

Since I wrote that book, I’ve read some really fantastic prologues that have made me shift my perspective a bit.

So an example of a fantastic prologue comes from Helen Schuerer’s Curse of the Cyren Queen series. At the start of each book, the main character features as a child in the prologue, so it set about 10 years before the main action of the novel, I think, and they act as a sort of subplot to the main plot.

There are clues and red herrings weaved into the prologue that make their way into the main plot. So you can do something like that.

And I think you should consider what type of genre you’re writing in as well, and whether prologues are common.

In thrillers for example, it’s common practice to have a prologue that hints at the object or MacGuffin that the main character is going to chase or it could be a scene from the antagonist’s point of view, to show what they’re doing at the start of the novel, their evil plan that they’re going to hatch.

I think readers expect that in certain genres so there’s much less risk of throwing them out of the story when you use the prologue. Whereas there are genres like romance that usually open in the present with the one of the love interests, usually the lead protagonist again.

I think because I was so conscious that I didn’t want to over complicate matters as I was writing this but for newer writers, is that prologues are really difficult to write well, and particularly when I’m editing work for newer writers. They often use them as an excuse to info dump or well build through sheer exposition. It doesn’t actually add anything to the story, which I think is a surefire way to turn readers off.

So if you held a gun to my head, I’d probably say it’s best way you can to jump in and feature the protagonist right away because it’s less risky in terms of throwing the reader out.

I remember reading, I think it was A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark. They have a scene as a prologue, which was a great scene. And it connected you to a character who then got murdered at the end of the prologue, which then threw me out of the story completely, because I couldn’t connect to the protagonist in the next chapter.

So if you don’t introduce your protagonist fast enough, readers may not identify them, which could lead to them putting your book down.

So I’d say again, a bit like you said earlier about looking at examples in your genre. If you know that your genre utilizes prologues a lot, or you just want to try one, get some best selling books or books you like, have a look at the prologues and see if you think they were. So I have shifted my stance ever so slightly.

Joanna: My Tomb of Relics, it opens in the tomb of relics, and it’s 1000 years ago, and then what they find in the tomb, then we move into the present day, and we see the result of what they found.

tomb of relics

So it’s difficult, because I also think so I’m really happy with that, within my ARKANE series, I often do have them, because the writers who I emulate in some way, writers like James Rollins, Steve Berry, that’s something that they do.

I have thought many times about rewriting my book Desecration because I do have what is essentially a prologue in the voice of the villain, the antagonist, and then it goes into a crime thriller. The second book and the third book don’t have that. I think that it may put some people off. The people who do read those books, they get my highest ratings, but not enough people read those books.

So I feel it’s interesting, thinking about what a genre reader prefers. And when we get it right, and when we get it wrong, and being honest about that, but a lot of these things you can only look back at when you have written and read a lot of books.

So if you’re listening, and you’re like, ‘I love prologues,’ then go ahead. And if you don’t, then don’t worry about it.

Let’s come back on character.

There’s a difficulty with revealing too much about the character, and wanting to use a relatable character, but then also retaining enough mystery.

Tell us more about that.

Shane: I think you’re right, knowing what to reveal about characters, when a novel opens is really tough, because we know so much about them. We’ve done all the character questionnaires and filled out their traits and stuff, and we want to share that with the reader. But we also have a tendency to overshare, which was the readers and like you said, it doesn’t leave any element of mystery.

So I think the best way to reveal enough about characters, and particularly our protagonist, at least in the beginning of the book, is to introduce their flaws in a really clear way early on. You don’t really have to introduce much more than that, I would say, about your character at that stage. Our main aim is to obviously get readers to connect with characters quickly.

As I’ve said before, revealing the flaw works so well, because readers are all flawed, and it helps them to relate.

Again, you also asked about leaving questions open for a later reveal. By opening with a character’s flaw, you’re subconsciously alerting the reader that they’ll go on a journey of change with the character. And the mystery surrounding that, or the question this will raise in the readers mind, is what obstacles is the character going to face that forced them to change? And how exactly will they change?

This is going to sound odd considering I also have a book on plotting, in my Write Better Fiction series, that readers come into story, I really believe for character transformation to a greater or lesser extent, and not drama, of course, and not plot. So revealing that character flaw really early on, I think is the best way to reveal enough without revealing too much about it.

Joanna: I’m a thriller reader. We love plot!

I think what’s interesting about the traditional story structure is that it genuinely starts with this protagonist’s current world set up. And if you’ve read the screenwriting books, there’s a certain percentage of the book where it’s like this is the protagonist’s current world, then the inciting incident comes along and disrupts that world and we get into it. So even if you want to start with the action, you still need some elements of the protagonist’s current world.

I wonder, given how short our attention spans are, are we shrinking this aspect of portraying the character’s current world?

Shane: I think the tried and tested three act structure still works in as much as the inciting incident and can occur somewhere between the 10 and 15% mark, because it’s so ingrained in the subconscious thanks to Hollywood blockbuster movies.

But you’re right, reader’s attention spans are shorter. Because don’t forget, we’re not just competing for reader’s attention with other books now, or even movies. It’s Netflix, it’s gaming, it’s pretty much any other form of entertainment you can think of, and it’s so easily accessible. So obviously, a book is much longer than your readers favorite Netflix show, or at least an episode or your readers favorite Netflix show.

There is an argument to be made for staging an early inciting incident. Readers do want something to happen fast, because they’re so used now to things happening fast on their TV screens.

And again, I think it is genre-dependent. Epic fantasy readers still enjoy discovering the world. And you’ve probably got longer to engage them than you would a thriller reader say you want some kind of disruption to the norm within the first few scenes.

So depending on the genre you’re writing, and if you are writing in a really high action genre, I’d say there is an argument to be made. Some authors even kick off with the inciting incident and leave the world building until a bit later, or at least setting the stage for the normal world a bit later. So yeah, genre dependent, I would say on that one, which probably isn’t very helpful. Yes, it is a tricky one, because there’s so much competing for reader’s attention these days.

Joanna: Absolutely.

I think it’s curiosity; you have to arouse the reader’s curiosity.

Again, I’m just going to keep coming back to The Paper Palace because it is not a thriller. It’s a love story. And it’s literary. And within the first 1% is a line which I won’t read because it has a rude word in it! But it is a line that made me read on.

I started reading for this beautiful description of a setting. And then I read on because this one line made me go Oh, right, what is going on?

And so it’s almost the hook for the reader has to be curiosity to know more, regardless of genre, regardless of what whatever that may be. It might be character, it might be mystery, it might be MacGuffin, it might be love, whatever it is. But that hook is has to be curiosity. And that to me, is what you have to do within the first couple of clicks. Otherwise, you’ve lost them.

Shane: I completely agree. And that’s why I rely on the invisible question so heavily. You do need something to pique readers curiosity, because without that, they are just going to put your book down, unfortunately, and go and binge Netflix, because it’s easier than trying to get into your book if that curiosity has not been aroused.

Joanna: Absolutely.

Coming around to your process: you write fiction and nonfiction.

What are the differences in your writing practices for fiction and non-fiction?

Shane: Really, really different. I found I wasn’t expecting there to be such a difference, but there definitely is.

In terms of my writing process, I’m usually a hardcore plotter when it comes to fiction. I plot out my characters, my locations, my beats, and my scenes well ahead of time. And the process of getting words is slower, relatively speaking, in terms because I have to do all that plotting beforehand.

And you mentioned research; I’m so prone to falling down research rabbit holes, especially anything to do with mythology, which is basically what my novels are based around, so I have to keep a really close eye on that. Otherwise, I’ll never start the book.

When it comes to nonfiction, I’m much less of a plotter, which is where they tend to have a pretty clear idea of what the problem is that I’m trying to solve and the steps I need to include.

So it’s all in my head, when I start writing. I discovery write my nonfiction essentially, and then order it later, or go back and reverse engineer some kind of outline. And I’m far more focused, which is odd.

When it comes to research for nonfiction, I’ve identified the exact books I need to use and the resources I want to pull quotes from. I’m fairly good at staying on track, which makes the process of writing nonfiction for me much faster, as well.

Joanna: Obviously, it’s the first time we’ve talked to just see so much of my own process. Have you done the Clifton Strengths thing?

Shane: Of course. I know Sacha Black so she bullied me into it.

Joanna: Yes, she bullied me too, in a good way! Sacha, if you’re listening, and I’m very grateful. I learned a lot.

What were your top five Strengths?

Shane: My top five are futuristic. I have deliberative at number two. I have learner at number three, communication at number four and competition.

Joanna: Oh, okay. So I was going to say you must have Learner in there.

Shane: Learner is six.

Joanna: Exactly. If you do your Clifton Strengths and you have Learner and Input, you do need to watch out for how much research you do. My pilgrimage book that I’m writing at the moment, which is nonfiction/memoir, I’ve got notes on around 35 books around pilgrimage and walking. I’m reading all my notes going I cannot possibly include all this stuff.

Shane: Oh, yeah, that happens so much. I’m chronically over-writing with my nonfiction, and I really have to pare it back to get a decent simple message across. There’s no way to include it all.

Joanna: No, exactly.

As we record this, I just finished a survey. And one of the thing that people did say is that they do want to hear from people who’ve started at different times.

I started self-publishing way, way back now in 2007, 2008. And you said you put those books out this year, right? You started self-publishing in 2022.

So as someone who started self-publishing and book marketing this year in 2022, what are you doing? What have you learned in that process? And what’s working for you?

Shane: In terms of marketing, again, it couldn’t be more different between the fiction/nonfiction split.

As much as it really pains me to say it, one of the only ways I found to get real traction with fiction is paid advertising, whether that be paid newsletter, promos, like Bargain Booksy, or Freebooksy, that kind of stuff, or things like AMS ads, Facebook ads.

I made a very conscious decision, because I published fiction first, to launch my urban fantasy series into KDP Select, because urban fantasy, at least in the indie space is quite heavily dominated by KU authors. That’s what readers are used to. So it made sense. I’m not saying I’ll stay exclusive to KU forever. But at least to build a reader base that seemed like the smart thing to do.

In terms of nonfiction, it’s 10 times easier to market.

A lot of the principles that you teach Joanna, in your books around content marketing, they very much still apply, in my opinion for for nonfiction. You can choose stronger keyword phrases in terms of SEO and discoverability. And that goes for titles, subtitles, the seven keywords Amazon allows and the keywords that you use for manual targeting, and any paid ads you do decide to run.

And like I said, content marketing for nonfiction is much easier. So it’s interviews, for example, it’s much easier for me to gain traction from a podcast like this, or any podcast interviews that I do, generally speaking, than it is for a fiction author trying to do the same thing.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but they’re key crucial differences. I’ve found that it’s much easier to craft a marketing message that you can use for evergreen content marketing, than it is for fiction, in my limited experience.

Joanna: To be honest, I feel like the nonfiction side probably hasn’t changed in well, since the beginning of the internet. I mean, literally, if you have the right keywords. And just as a comment on you pitching me, you did a great pitch because one, your book title, How to Write Brilliant Beginnings, as a podcaster it’s like, well, here you go. Here is a title for the podcast episode.

And it’s much easier for me as the podcaster to get a book that encapsulates a specific topic, it makes it easy for me to prepare, it makes it useful for the audience who know they want an episode on that topic. It’s easier to sell, whereas fiction obviously is much more difficult.

[Here are more tips on how to be a great podcast guest.]

Let’s talk about email. Are you building one email list or two?

Shane: I use ConvertKit. And I segment the list between fiction readers and nonfiction readers. And I keep them fairly separate, because they’re very, very different messages.

But I do find again, with I think the email list is if I was going to say what is the most important marketing tactic you can use in 2022, the email list is definitely one of them.

I know people always say, ‘oh, email’s dead, the age of email is done. Just go on TikTok or whatever.’ But I don’t agree.

I think email marketing at the end of the day, you’ve got access to your customers then in a way that you won’t have on TikTok or Facebook or Instagram or any of those things. And provided that you can craft engaging emails to either your fiction or nonfiction readers, I think you’re much, much more likely to convert them to superfans, as David Gaughran would say, because you have that space in their inbox that you know you’re not going to have on their Facebook feed.

You can do a lot of things with your mailing lists. You can find out what their likes and dislikes are. You can hold polls, you can ask them questions, it’s something that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. I definitely think if you’re starting now, to start your mailing list at least three months before you need to. I wish I’d started mine slightly earlier than I did.

Joanna: Now I love to hear this because email marketing has been a staple for again, like 25 years, and that hasn’t changed.

I get so many emails as people say, ‘Oh, everything’s changed in marketing,’ but actually it has not in terms of the principle of owning your online real estate.

You said there don’t build it entirely on Facebook or TikTok or whatever.

I would also say, Don’t build your entire business on KU. Now I know why you’ve done that with your initial book. But the same thing can happen. The algorithms change, you lose access, as many authors have, something switches.

And if you build an audience on email as well, you can always reach people if you have to shift your business model, which many of us have done over the over the years. So I want everyone to reflect that what you’ve said is actually nothing different.

Shane: No, it won’t change. I think the basics of marketing will never change.

In regards to the KU thing, actually, you raised an interesting point, I, again, I consciously didn’t go KU for my nonfiction, because it didn’t make sense for that business model.

So it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. I think a lot of writers, and you think, Oh, I have to be all exclusive, or all wide. But that’s not necessarily the case. You can make decisions based on different series or different projects if you make standalone books, too.

Joanna: Absolutely. And in fact, I’m experimenting, as we record this, it might be different when anyone’s listening. But Desecration, for example, is in KU. Right now, that crime trilogy is in KU, because I’m experimenting with it. But that’s been wide for like almost a decade, I guess, which is crazy.

And you can do these experiments over time. You can use email marketing, to direct people to wherever your books are, including like my Shopify store. So I love that you’re doing that.

Before we run out of time, what is your plan? In terms of your career, you must have quite an aggressive business plan to have put out, what nine books this year and really going for it as well as working.

What do you hope to achieve, let’s say in the next three years, or when do you want to leave your job?

Shane: In the next three years, I hope to be doing this full-time. And that’s why I am being so aggressive with my business plan.

I get a lot of people on Instagram, asking me why I’m being so aggressive. If you don’t want to do this full-time, that’s absolutely fine. But that is one of the things that is a definition of success for me because I am unhappy in my day job.

In order to get out of that, and I do, have we’ve touched on strengths, I do have number five Competition, and the person that I compete most with is myself. So I want to achieve my goals as quickly as possible. For me, that’s getting out of the day job.

In terms of the plan going forward, it will be to upscale the nonfiction in terms of providing higher priced items like online courses, etc. I will be scaling the editing side of my business to support that income because although it’s active income, it’s nice easy income that I can use to leverage a bit more money and pay it back into the business.

And then with my fiction, I think the rapid release for fiction isn’t for me. So it will be a much slower release pattern and building an audience over time rather than trying to ram my fiction down people’s throats straight away.

Joanna: Interesting. Okay, so in 2025, pitch me again. If I’m still podcasting, which you never know, I’m still going.

Shane: I hope so because it’s a great show.

Joanna: Thank you. I think what’s nice, talking to someone like you, I can see aspects of the way I work and the way I’ve built my business. And what will be interesting to see if your trajectory is similar to mine, even though I started 15 years ago, because as we said things, some things change, but a lot doesn’t change.

[Click here for my author timeline.]

Shane: No, that’s quite right. And again, it comes down to loud voices. So a lot of people say, Oh, this has changed, that’s changed. But when you strip it back, it’s really the same basic principles. You just have to tweak your tactics a bit to account for maybe a shift in how much advertising costs or whatever, but the basic principles I think, will always be the same.

Joanna: Absolutely. Right.

Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?

Shane: You can find everything about me and my books at swmillar.com. If you want to find me on social media, I am on Instagram and Tiktok at SW Miller Author. And if you want to listen to my brand new podcast with my amazing co host, you can head over to storytellersfaceoff.com

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Shane, that was great.

Shane: Thank you for having me. I had a lot of fun.

The post Writing Beginnings with Shane Millar first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • October 23, 2022