M Pepper Langlinais doesn't believe in confining herself to one genre. She's written fantasy, mystery, spy thrillers and romance in the form of novels, short stories, stage plays and screenplays. We chat to her about her various writing projects, seeking out readers and the dangers of writing advice overload.
Please give us a brief overview of yourself and your work.
I have an undergraduate degree in Radio-Television-Film, and I wanted to work in that industry as a screenwriter. But that’s very difficult to do, and after working on a few film sets and dealing with the stress of that—it was amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a stressful industry—I decided to go get my Master’s degree in Writing and Publishing. From there, I worked in publishing for a number of years before deciding while I was home with my first child that I should maybe use that time to work on my own books. I eventually left publishing entirely.
I write mysteries, spy novels, fantasy, and romance. I’ve also written stage plays and screenplays and have had some of those produced. I write pretty much whatever I’m feeling without regard to genre. I know I should be building a brand or whatever, but I’m having too much fun just doing what I want to worry about that.
What made you want to be a writer?
I started writing around age eight or nine, making newspapers and magazines for the kids in my neighborhood. When I moved away from my best friend, we began writing chain stories and mailing them back and forth to one another.
Early on, I wanted to write for my favorite television programs. That was my real goal. My friends and I loved making up stories about the shows we watched, and I wanted to make a career out of that. But it’s a very difficult industry to break into, and a lot of people have to say “yes” for anything to happen—it’s a long, slow process and I’m a bit impatient. So I turned my focus to books instead. Still a tricky industry, but fewer hoops overall to jump through.
When I decided to go to graduate school, I wrote a Sherlock Holmes story as part of my application. Years later I unearthed that story again and, self-publishing being the new fad at that time, I published it. It did fairly well, so I began writing more and branched out from there.
Around the same time, a friend who worked with a community theater asked me to write a short play for a directing workshop. I did, and that play ended up premiering in Connecticut and then was picked up for the Source Festival in Washington D.C. It was later turned into a short film that premiered at a film festival in San Diego. So I got at least one movie made, I guess.
What inspires you to write?
A lot of the time I’m not inspired. But the work still has to get done, so I sit down and write, sometimes knowing that I’m going to have to throw most or even all of it out. It’s like a pump that you have to keep using, even if the first few buckets of water are dirty and useless. Eventually, after you pump for a while, the water runs clean and clear.
Music can inspire me and sometimes I’ll just have a strong sense of a character and know I need to write a book for them. Peter Stoller was like that.
Is there any particular incident that has happened along your writing journey that you’d like to share?
Sometimes it’s not you, and it’s not your book, it’s just the market. Case in point: when I was shopping The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, I spoke to editors at Random House and Viking who were very interested. But despite that interest, I couldn’t get an agent to send it to them! I was told over and over again that the writing was really good, but upmarket espionage didn’t sell. Just about every agent told me to go write something else and send them that instead. I eventually found a small publisher to take it, but the agents were right in that, so far at least, there has been no big market for the book. Sometimes the story you want to tell isn’t the one others want to read. That can be really rough. On the bright side, a short script I adapted from a portion of that novel won an award. I still cherish hope it might get produced in some form.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Whenever people ask me for writing advice, I always tell them not to listen to too much writing advice! Don’t read too many books or articles about how to write or what you should and shouldn’t do. There’s plenty of time for that after you’ve written—plenty of time to fix things later. But first, you must write. Get it on paper. I’ve found that if and when new writers read all these how-to books and articles, they freeze up. They’re so scared of doing it “wrong” or making a mistake, they can’t write at all. So don’t read that stuff. Just write. Once you have a draft, that’s the time to worry about fixing it. That’s what editing and revision are for. But to read all that stuff before you even write anything is getting ahead of yourself.
Any advice for approaching publishers?
Be polite. Always. No matter what. Even if you think they’re wrong to reject you, even if you disagree with any feedback, simply thank them for their time and consideration. Arguing isn’t going to change their minds, it’s only going to convince them further that they don’t want to work with you. Begging for them to reconsider is also going to make them uncomfortable, and they definitely don’t want to work with someone who makes them uncomfortable. It’s sort of like being in a relationship—demanding or begging someone to date you if they aren’t interested isn’t the best way to go about things. Go find someone who is equally interested in you.
What do you think is the biggest marketing challenge for new authors?
There’s so much noise out there. It’s incredibly difficult to be heard and seen and discovered. I’ve heard it called the “Wall of Content.” So many more books being published each year than ever before thanks to self-publishing and small publishers. A new book is buried pretty quickly in a mountain of new releases each day, week, month. How to stay afloat? Readers have become immune to the endless Twitter and Facebook posts. You have to figure out where your readers hang out, and to whom they listen and trust, and then somehow get those outlets to promote you and your book to that audience. But it’s a lot of work and it takes time and often money as well.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be published by a large imprint, you’ll have to do some self-promoting. Gone are the days of being able to hide and only pop out when you have a new book. You have to keep people constantly aware of your existence. You’re expected to engage with the audience. Which, personally, I love. But I know a lot of authors would rather be hermits.
What methods of book marketing do you find the most effective?
When I find one I’ll let you know. Seriously, though, it’s constantly changing. And things only work for a little while before, once every writer is trying them, the readers become immune to that particular tactic. I will say that right now most of my income comes from people reading my books via Amazon Kindle Unlimited. But while some authors swear by KU, just as many will tell you to “go wide” (meaning don’t be exclusive with Amazon). It’s all trial and error and different for every author and every book.
How do you handle rejection as a writer?
Poorly. I sulk for a day or two or maybe longer depending on how discouraged I’m feeling. I can’t write for a few days after, either. Logically, I know it’s all part of being a writer, and as I said above, there’s no sense chasing someone who doesn’t want you. But the very fact that someone doesn’t want you—and it feels very personal to have your writing rejected, even though it is not a judgment on you as a person—still feels like a kick in the kidneys.
How do you deal with isolation, as writing is an inherently private exercise?
I’m actually quite happy to have time alone. Lots of it. I regularly kick my family out of the house so I can write (I can’t write if there are people in the house). I also do writing retreats for a change of scene. I’m happy to travel alone, eat alone. Doesn’t bother me.
That said, I do have a handful of writer friends I make it a point to get together with semi-regularly so that I’m not always alone in terms of writing. I attend at least one conference or event per year. And I’m part of a weekly critique group, too, so that I’m getting feedback on my work.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with aspiring writers?
Remember that “comparison is the thief of joy.” I don’t know who said it, but it’s true. The more time you spend looking at how other authors are doing, the less time you’re spending on your own work, which means you won’t make any progress. So instead of worrying that you’re not as far along as So-and-So, just mind your own business. Track your own progress rather than tracking against someone else’s.