The Power of Story

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Alexandria’s Cristin Harber, New York Times and USA Today Best Selling author of military and suspense romance. Photo courtesy of Cristin Harber. (Photo: Tom Smarch)

Alexandria’s Cristin Harber — Strong Fiction from a Strong Author

By Kris Gilbertson

It was a chance encounter with a paperback, idle time spent waiting to have a prescription filled, that set Alexandria native Cristin Harber on her literary life’s path.

Harber started writing as a child, “very, very long stories, mysteries and thrillers” she says, “that were really novels.” She continued writing through high school, gave fiction a rest at the University of Louisville (KY), but after graduating in 2003, she took a job in grassroots politics and picked up her pen, or keyboard, again.

When campaign colleagues retired to the hotel bar, Cristin says, she went to her room and wrote stories. This went on until, in 2007, she realized that “these are good stories.” She wanted to publish.

Harber took the established budding-author route, pitching her books to New York publishers, and quickly realized how much she had to learn. She started taking craft classes and workshops, and attending conferences where she could speak with publishers. She queried agents steadily. It was a roller coaster experience, with moments of euphoria when all seemed to be coming together, followed by rejection.

During this period, in 2010, a CVS pharmacist took a long time filling a prescription and Cristin picked up a military romance novel. Harber grew up in a house filled with books as her mother was a voracious reader, so she’d never looked for books elsewhere. This chance meeting with military romance introduced her to a new world.

“Military romance,” she says, “like if Jason Bourne falls in love, or Die Hard.” A fan of action movies, she’d always rooted for the protagonists to fall in love, even a little bit. She read that first book cover to cover, then read many more, and started writing the Titan series. (See sidebar.)

Photo courtesy of Cristin Harber.

“When I moved to military romance,” Cristin says. “I found myself writing very strong women who don’t mind the white knight coming in to save the day, but can certainly save the day themselves, and often in my books they do.

“I didn’t realize it was going to become my brand, but I write strong, fearless women and even if you don’t realize it at first, you are that person, it’s in you somewhere.”

Self-Publishing 101

In July 2013, at an Atlanta writing conference, Harber set up a meeting about a traditional contract situation, but she had time to fill. She went to a workshop where three prominent names in romance writing – Barbara Freethy, Bella Andre, and Lilliana Hart – were presenting about self-publishing. It was a new and not fully accepted concept then. Harber stepped in out of curiosity, with no intention of following up, but found herself enthralled.

Since childhood, Cristin had written business plans about her every activity. When she came home from summer camp, she planned how she could start a camp. When she was pregnant, she made ginger snaps that helped with morning sickness and, on bed rest at eight and nine months, she wrote a business plan for mass producing ginger snaps. There was no intention of doing it; she was simply compelled to think of things this way. But now this was different.

“What they said, spoke to me,” she says, “that you can have your manuscripts and use your entrepreneurial side. It was the perfect combination.” Harber promptly removed everything she had submitted in New York from consideration. She would self-publish.

Once again, there was a lot to learn: the mechanics of self-publishing, how to format, and find a designer and a copy editor. Harber had to become the publisher of her own work. And then figure out how to market it.

While working in politics, Cristin learned to discover what people liked. “If somebody rode motorcycles,” she says, “you’d have a candidate speak to a group of motorcyclists. If an environmentalist, same idea….” Reach out to people based on their specific interests.

Harber searched out people on social media who would probably like her books. “I would basically say, I’m new, I would love it if you would take a chance on me,” she says. In September, two months after the Atlanta conference, she set up an author page, started a newsletter, and offered the Titan series. “Here it is,” she told followers, “if you like it, please review it.”

The Titan series novels are stand-alones, but if read in order they create a vivid world. She watched the first one sell, and then people moved to the second and third. Harber offered no freebies; she sold her books from the start.

The next step was to “go wide” by posting on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo, which was planned for October 1st, but when everything was ready early, Cristin asked herself “Why am I waiting? Nobody even knows I exist.” She hit publish.

And nothing happened. “Well,” she thought, “I guess I’ll go change a diaper.”

Then it took off.

Writing chops

At home, Harber writes in a “little sunroom” that is dedicated solely to her work. “Writing is like exercise, muscle repetition,” she says, “you have to write every day or you’ll start to slack off. Even writing notes or a grocery list, make it the most exciting grocery list you’ve ever written: the vivid red catchup in the third aisle on the top shelf….” Whatever you write every day, make it the best you can do, not just a list but descriptions of how wonderful the items on that list are. Because all writing exercises the muscle.

Cristin Harber reads extensively outside her genre. She believes knowledge of other subjects stimulates creativity and always comes back to inform her fiction. “If I think about the same thing over and over, if I think about nothing but my [current] book, it’ll be the same book every time.”

When a DC reporter wrote about a new law governing beekeeping in the District, Harber was intrigued and read everything she could find about keeping bees, urban beekeeping. Two books later, while she was developing a protagonist, beekeeping was her logical profession.

Photo courtesy of Cristin Harber.

Self-publishing 201

Cristin Harber is a New York Times and USA Today Best Selling author. Her books sell internationally, so she works with various cover designers. In the U.S., it’s Kim Killion of Hot Damn Designs. But her German books have a different feel, as do her U.K. books, because covers that sell well in Germany or in the U.K. are not the covers that sell well in the United States.

She learned this in yet more business classes and workshops on publishing. Cristin realized early on that more than an entrepreneur or small business owner, she was a whole publishing house: the researcher, the CEO, CMO, CIO. When her website was hacked last year, a Go Daddy tech asked to speak with her webmaster. She said hold on a moment, paused, then said “Hello!”

But she couldn’t at that time make another major investment in a website, so she learned to do it herself.

Paying it forward

At writers conferences, Cristin Harber presents a keynote speech, The Power of the Story, about how books you’ve read stick with you and come back even when you don’t know you need them. She conducts workshops on business fundamentals, teaching other writers to treat their business like a business. “You can’t just register a story online and expect the world to beat a path to your door,” she says. “It isn’t going to happen.

“If you want it to be a career, if you want to support your family, if you want to buy a house based on your work, you need a business plan,” she adds.

Cristin believes that you must have humility when success comes because you are the same person, you have not changed. When she first hit USA Today’s bestseller list, a call came in while she was wiping out a diaper. “It puts everything into perspective,” she says. “A friend said, now you can celebrate with champagne! I thought maybe I’ll just go wash my hands.”

It took Harber time and initial success to understand that she is her brand. “I realized late in the game that I am part of it,” she says. “In New York publishing, the publisher is the brand, an author says I write for so-and-so, I write for this publisher, and you have to earn your font size [how big an author’s name appears on the cover].

Barbara Freethy taught Harber that you don’t have to be Nora Roberts to have her font size. Cristin worked with designer Kim Killion to bring her font size up. “I want my name almost bigger than the title,” she says. “I don’t want readers to remember Winters Heat, because I have more than 20 books. I want them to remember me.”