The Blog

Perfection in Writing?

Get over yourself. You’re a writer. So write.

Need some help getting over a desire for perfection? Self-doubt, seen in an obsession to perfect your prose in fears of being exposed as an unworthy imposter (we’ve all felt that, right?), can be debilitating. Here are some tips from great writers that have proved helpful to me.

“No matter how hard you work on your writing, there will always be other writers who are better, faster, deeper, more popular, richer. And that’s fine.”
– Jane Yolen

“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterize our age.”
~ Albert Einstein

“A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.”
– John Steinbeck

“Knowing how to work as a farmer has helped me a lot as a writer. You don’t, for instance, have such a thing as ‘farmer’s block.’ If you’ve got animals to take care of, you take care of them.”
– Wendell Berry

“Once the book or the story is written nobody cares and nobody knows what was written on a good day or what was written on a bad day. Nobody knows or cares how fast it was written. (Coraline was written over ten years. That’s an average of about nine words a day.) By the time the book’s been copy-edited and is ready to be published, nobody will know or care or remember which days you enjoyed writing it and which days you didn’t, not even you.”
– Neil Gaiman

“Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.”
– Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), in Following the Equator, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

“To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Isak Dinesen [Danish author Karen Blixen] said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.”
– Raymond Carver

That last quote is truly one of my favorites. We all understand that we should write without despair. But without hope? It means that writing is not a matter of wishful thinking, but what you do, one day at a time. It is a commitment not requiring a promise of a wonderful outcome. Perfection of means or confusion of goals? Your goal as a writer is to write, today. It is what we do. Dithering over the perfection of means will hold you back.

You’re a writer. So write.

Twitter Tips for Book Authors – Getting Started

“Without leaving the house I know the whole universe.” – Lao-Tzu

This could also be the motto of the social-media platform known as Twitter.

For book authors and other writers who wish to use Twitter, I’ll offer some specific tips below.

And here’s a link to Twitter’s own help center, to walk you through the basics.

But first, a general shout-out for tweeting in general.

To my astonishment, Twitter is surprisingly useful. It’s a well-connected, active group of intelligent users, a place to connect casually with fellow literary types and to be generous about other people’s accomplishments.

It’s also a place where you can, now and then, toot your own horn. But the Golden Rule lesson is the same as for other platforms: what goes around, comes around. Start by sharing other folks’ stuff; they might share yours in turn. Revel in their success; they might revel in yours. Focus at first on sharing and complimenting others. (And if that’s all that happens, think of the karma credits you’ve gained!)

For your own news, Twitter is a place to share bits about your writing: catchy tag-lines, links to reviews, news of signings, conferences you’re attending, etc. Be brief, link to longer posts elsewhere as needed, and be gone.

And it’s a place to develop your literary “brand” (how others perceive you), by sharing ideas, inspirational quotes, and opinions on writerly things important to you.

I admit I’d shunned Twitter for some years to focus on Facebook and blogging, thinking the 140-character count would be a woeful limit.

But I’ve finally taken the plunge into the world of Twitter, and find it enjoyable, idea-rich, and mo’ better connected & filtered than Facebook, in comparison. Who knew?

For emerging writers, it’s a good place to see and learn from what others are doing and getting excited about. It’s easy to find and follow lots of literary professionals: writers, bloggers, librarians, teachers, review magazines. Follow the best writers in your field. And learn to present yourself well, with that same mix of confidence, charm, modesty, and delight in the crazy world of creative people and ideas, as does Neil Gaiman, or Guy Kawasaki or . . .

Over time, others will follow you and learn what you’re doing and what you’re getting excited about.

As with all social media, having an intelligent strategy for posting is what creates followers and true fans.

Here are some tips to get started with Twitter:

1. Retweet lots of good stuff posted by others.

This is a great place to start. Your first 10 or 20 tweets can mostly be retweets. It’s generous. It’s useful to others. And it helps you show up on the radar of those you retweet; they just might notice that you’ve shared their thought-bubbles.

2. Use a tweet style that fits you.

I personally prefer a clean, professional style: a statement, a link, maybe a hashtag (category) or two. Here are a few examples:

Claudia Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books for children | Harvard Magazine Jan-Feb 2014:

Didn’t We Have Fun! is a glorious picture book with jazzy paintings by Hilda Robinson.

Is Ralph Waldo Emerson still a ghost among us?

“Chesterton argued that by changing the rules of the world, fairy tales remind us of the contingency of those rules.”

3. Use a URL shortening service to keep links short.

Bitly, for instance. Or TinyURL.

These are free websites you can use to shorten a long link (often crucial given the brevity of Twitter).

So if I want to link to my recent book, The Purpose of Fantasy, instead of using the long Amazon direct link:
I’ve gone to Bitly, entered that long URL, and presto, chango! . . . it created a permanent short URL that redirects to that Amazon page.
The bitly version is so much shorter:

I have a place where I record useful Bitly URLs, so I can re-use the ones I already created. Note: Twitter will, on its own, shorten long URLs . . . but the Bitly-type URL can be used outside of Twitter.

4. Hashtags.

Hashtags are essentially categories. It appears in the tweet, and looks like: ##KidLitChat, or #FridayReads. Use of one of these tags (capitalization is helpful but optional) will include your tweet on a webpage that is a mini-Twitter universe of all posts with that hashtag. So if I use a popular hashtag like #amreading or #amwriting, or a genre tag like #fantasy or #mystery or such, my post appears in that sub-flow, where folks interested in tracking a field may go to glean ideas.

For example, if you’re on Twitter, first click on a tab at the top called “Discover,” and search for a hashtag, say: #haiku, or #micropoetry or #writingtips. You’ll see a page with all the posts tagged that way. It’s kind of cool. Like a lot of social-media stuff, it’s only occasionally useful, but it just might attract a new follower who is checking out that hashtag page, or a reviewer looking for certain types of books to review.

You can use hashtags right in your sentence, or you can drop them in at the end of your tweet.

Here’s a great #mystery you don’t want to miss. #amreading.
[Then, add a direct link to a book, to a blog post about a book, a review, etc.]

5. Study others’ tweets.

To get started, study and try to emulate the best of what you see on a couple of common writer hashtags:

For instance, click on this #WriterWednesday hashtag-page and look for posts to emulate:

Which of those tweets appeal to you? Why? Write your own versions and tweet away.

You can Google the phrase “hashtags for writers” for more ideas. Here’s another list of 10 writer-related hashtags; this great post has good examples of them in actual use.

for example:

Giles Kristian ‏@GilesKristian
My new book arrived today! Always a big moment and you wonder quite how it happened. #amwriting #WriterWednesday

6. Publish similar material often.

You not only can, you probably need to. Unfortunately, people will only see a smidgeon of what you post. So you can probably post the same thing, more or less, with a few variants, several times in a day or over a couple of days. Separate the posts by some interval, say an hour or so; it’s unlikely the same people will see the same post, given the huge flow and how people pop on and off throughout the day.

There are programs that will help you do that from one dashboard, at one time. HootSuite is one. (I recommend, though, waiting till you get a decent sense of how Twitter works before automating any of it.)

I’m posting currently as my indie publishing house, Crickhollow Books (#CrickhollowBks).

You’re welcome to follow me into the Looking-Glass world of Twitter. I’ll share stuff I think is useful, and together we can enjoy discovering literary tidbits, captured in that quirky, fascinating 140-character limit. I think one of the real pleasures is the sense of a large community conversation; it can mean a lot to a solitary writer.

I #amwriting! I #amreading! How about you?

November Hodgepodge 2013 – Keep Writing!

[Are your fingers flying feverishly on a NaNoWriMo project? Or are you you working on something else? Here are a few quotes to encourage you to keep writing!]

I don’t impose any word count or number-of-hours quota on myself, or have any rules, except one: persistence. Nothing glamorous. No epiphanies. Just revisiting and rewriting. For me, momentum is far more important than inspiration.
– Pam Muñoz Ryan

Write in any way that works for you. Write in a tuxedo or in the shower with a raincoat or in a cave deep in the woods.
– John Gardner

The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.
– Norman Cousins

A goal is a dream with a finish line.
– Duke Ellington

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.
– Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit

Keep going; never stop; sit tight;
Read something luminous at night.
– Edmund Wilson

I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
– Ernest Hemingway

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.
– Norwegian proverb

[Okay, that last item is not really about writing, but it might help you find an extra ounce of gumption in the face of literary or life’s headwinds.]

Just Say No to NaNo (WriMo)

If you really want to try to write novel in a month, I am not going to stand in your way.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to commit, sitting side by side (virtually) with thousands of other avid fictioneers, to pen a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days, starting at midnight on Nov. 1 with 0 words written.

Sure, a few of the impulses behind this zany idea are valid. For instance:

  • It’s good to set goals.
  • It’s good to create a specific timeline in which you commit to reaching a specific goal.
  • It’s good to tell others your goals.
  • It’s good to write daily, if possible.
  • It’s good to try to find extra time to write even if you seem too pressed by other obligations  to have much time for literary creation.

Fine. And the NaNoWriMo challenge may sound fun and possibly productive (at least in October).

But the problem: a madcap, caffeinated dash to write 50,000 words in 30 days and call it a novel is a bit foolhardy.

What is most likely to happen? After a week or ten days, the creative juices will flag. At about the two-week point, you’ll start to seriously get tired.

You’ll ask yourself, should I continue? Some will quit. Others will stiffen the spine, declare they are not quitting, superglue their posteriors to their chairs (or growl at anyone who approaches them in the coffee shop), and plunge along.

It’s just that few good novels are written in this way. I’ve always recommended NaNoWriMo as a good time to commit to writing more diligently. (As is most any time, but November is good, as the fall settles in and our gardens are done and we begin to look at what we’ve achieved this year and hope to accomplish in the near future.)

But make a realistic plan. Please.

Am I being too Midwestern? Too practical?

Here’s what I’d rather that you did in November, towards the goal of writing a good, readable, marketable novel:

  • Commit to writing 500 words a day. (So you’ll end up with only 15,000 words. So what? What if that’s better than a 50,000-word mess?)
  • Commit to finishing a short story each week in November. Four weeks, four stories.
  • Commit to finding a good writing partner. Exchange serious plans, and support each other in a path that leads from here to a good novel, within any reasonable timeframe.
  • Commit to anything that you genuinely feel will push your career forward, in a way that really helps and that doesn’t create a lot of bad habits and mediocre writing.

If you’re a nonfiction writer, you might also check out this challenge by Nina Amir to “Write Nonfiction in November!” (She suggests that you write and publish nonfiction all year.)

Her pitch:

You are personally challenged to start and complete a work of nonfiction in 30 days. This can be an article, an essay, a book, a book proposal, a white paper, or a manifesto. WNFIN [Write Nonfiction in November] is not a contest. It’s an event held for you—so you get inspired to set a goal and achieve it.

That actually makes sense. Follow that lead, for your fiction or nonfiction. Set a good goal. Get inspired. Achieve it.

And enjoy your Thanksgiving . . .without sitting there with a dazed, distracted look, wondering if sending your hero over the Zylchix Mountains on a wild goose chase is such a good idea, but deciding you’ll stay up late and make it happen anyhow . . . because, hey, it’ll take thousands of words to do it. And it’s Nov. 28. And you need 5,000 words to hit your NaNo goal.

Just say no to NaNo. (And yes to more pie!)

If NaNo works for you, godspeed. May your fingers fly. May the Zylchix Mountains ever rise to meet your hero’s step, with the flowing wind of words at his/her back.

[For a few other articles I’ve written dealing with the NaNoWriMo issue:]

Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?

NaNoWriMo – A Literary Feast of Fools?




October Hodgepodge 2013

Here are a few thoughts (about creativity and the writing process) to savor:

”Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it.”
– Madeleine L’Engle

“You climb a long ladder until you can see over the roof, or over the clouds.  You are writing a book. You watch your shod feet step on each round rung, one at a time; you do not hurry and do not rest.  Your feet feel the steep ladder’s balance; long muscles in your thighs check its sway.  You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark.
When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb.  The sun hits you. The bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.  You look back at the ladder’s two feet on the distant grass astonished.”
Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life

No matter how hard you work on your writing, there will always be other writers who are better, faster, deeper, more popular, richer. And that’s fine.”
– Jane Yolen, in an interview in the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
– Albert Einstein

“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.”
– Pablo Picasso

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.”
– J.M. Barrie, in The Little White Bird, “Peter Pan” chapter

“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.”
John Burroughs, naturalist (1837–1921)

Time and The Writer

“There is time for everything.” – Amish saying.

1. Ask the right question: What is possible? 

I’m starting a new writing project and want to make good progress this month. A motivational phrase that floats through my mind, one that resonates for me (as a busy person), comes from an Amish source: “There is time for everything.”

Although this may produce an initial snort of derision, it holds a deep truth. What happens is the everything. What doesn’t happen . . . well, those ideas and wishes were merely figments of our imagination. We might envision writing an ambitious work. We might break it down into plans to write chapters and sub-chapters. We might plan to work on it hard. We might try to shoehorn it into a busy lifestyle with long worklists. We might try to get up early to write, or stay up late, or write during breaks during the day.

But what will happen is what will happen. And for many of us, that depends on how much we wanted it to happen.

Let’s agree that what happens is the totality of “everything.”

Is my writing project a high priority? If so, it involves trade-offs. Will I waste time doing less important things? Or will I decide things other than writing are more important?

As Maeve Binchy, said, “Time doesn’t come from nowhere.”

To write, you need to prioritize it.

I often see aspiring writers who bite off more than they can chew. John Gardner recommends starting with short stories to develop craft. I like the advice, because writing short pieces also develops the habit of tackling right-sized bits . . . and finishing them. Short pieces teach you how to work through an idea, try it, and if it works, great. If not . . . on to the next.

I often refer to what I call Ray Bradbury’s method (from Zen in the Art of Writing): Start a story on Monday, and send it off at the end of the week.

All during my early twenties I had the following schedule. On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting . . . confident that . . . I would soon let them out.

Me? I’m an essayist. I write in 1,000- to 2,000-word chunks. It works for me. Focusing on a short piece at a time, I’ve managed to write a number of books, learning to organize my short essays in outlines that lead to longer works.

2. Perfection is the enemy of the good.

The proverb is good advice for writers. How often have we slaved too long over a work . . . and in the process, undermined it by a) overwriting. and b) not ever finishing it? I am not a believer, as some literary types say they do, in the need to polish each sentence before going on to the next.

Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible. The returns (better quality for more effort) diminish over time. As the Pareto principle says, 80% of the results comes from 20% of the work. Yes, try to improve your story . . . up to a point. That point is where you’re fussing over details that don’t matter to the reader, that don’t contribute to the story, and that may well interfere with the real purpose of the story.

Get in, tell your story, and get out. Let the story do the rest of the work for you. If it’s good, it will.

British Inventor Robert Watson-Watt, who helped develop early-warning radar to counter the initial success of the Luftwaffe in World War II, offered this advice, recommending a “cult of the imperfect,” which he stated as “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.”

3. Exclude. Focus. Work.

In Henry Miller on Writing, the gifted author lists a set of “Commandments” that are worth their weight in gold.

  • Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  • Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  • When you can’t create, you can work.
  • Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  • Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  • Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  • Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

What keeps you from getting your writing done?

Do you know how to exclude distractions, focus, and work on your writing steadily?

Make it VIP, a very important pursuit. Do it, and then go on to other things.

 4. Real desire. No waffling.

Steven Hagen, an American teacher of Buddhism, writes in Buddhism Plain and Simple (1997) about “right intention” or “right resolve”:

Intention to act, for him, means more than wishful thinking.

There’s a story of Socrates testing the true intent of a youth who came to him for instruction. He wanted to see if this young man had the resolve to search for Truth. He took the youth to the river , and, after wading into the water, asked the young man to follow. Once they were waist-deep, Socrates suddenly took hold of the fellow and held him under the water. Naturally, the youth soon began to struggle for air. Socrates then lifted him from the water and said, “When you fight for truth as you fight for breath, come back and I’ll teach you.”

. . .

“Right resolve” is likened to a person whose hair is on fire. When your hair is on fire, you’re not going to weigh the pros and cons of putting it out. If your hair’s on fire, there’s no waffling. You see no choice. You act.

Do you intend to write? Do you fight for the time to write? Do you act on that resolve “like your hair’s on fire”?

5. Accept.

There is time for everything. Will “everything” include . . . that story you’ve been meaning to write?

I could work longer on this piece, but I won’t. My hair’s on fire . . . to finish this and get it to you.

I hope it helps you understand how to find the time to write.

SEO for Writers – Magic Bullet or Hokum?

If you’ve been looking for ways to get noticed on the web, you’ve probably run into the term SEO. It stands for Search Engine Optimization.

So . . . how important is it to understand and use? Is it a real game-changer?

Or is it mostly hocus-pocus, a bit of internet trickery, a fake magic charm, like the “ohwa tagu siam” chant from scout camp, something to trip up the uninitiated?

Perhaps you can tell that I’m not enamored of SEO; at least, I don’t think it’s as valuable as those claiming it’s “essential” make it out to be. Mostly, I just think that writers need to adopt a common-sense approach to being found online. SEO techniques at their core are just that: common sense.

SEO means you do some things on your website or social-media page to encourage search engines (Google, etc.) to point people to you when they search online for something (a term, a topic, a phrase) that they want to know more about.

For me, the techniques of SEO are about 3rd on my list of things to do. First: write good stuff that’s useful, clear, interesting. Second, share it directly with everyone you can, by linking to it on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, email, etc.). This draws the most immediate hits to my posts.

Third, I try to use some basic, common-sense SEO techniques. This does help some people who don’t know me from Adam discover one of my posts . . . if it’s about something they want to learn about. They enter a phrase in a search engine and voilà, they see a link to one of my posts! (Okay, that’s sort of magical.)

For me, the hits I get at first for a new post are mostly from direct connections, people I’ve shared my posts with pretty directly (and their networks, if they re-share it). But as time passes, more of the hits I get for a post are from search-engine referrals.

I’ll give a few quick tips here.

1. In your post, use terms that your audience will use if they’re searching for info on that topic.

This may seem obvious, but like a lot of common sense, it’s sometimes absent.

Personally, I often come close to slipping up. I sometimes realize I’ve drafted a post in which, although I’ve told a good story or touched on an important theme, I’ve nearly missed actually naming the core thematic terms or phrases that it’s all about.

What I do: after I write a post, I go back and think about what terms people might be using when searching for this info.

If I write a post on finding an agent, for instance . . . I might try to incorporate the phrase “how do I get my book published” in the post. That’s a common starting-point question for a lot of writers, which then leads them to want to learn more about how to find a literary agent.

What about similar terms for the same thing? For instance, I used the term “writers” in the title. But what about the word “authors”? And have I used other key terms for the web: web, internet, online?

This simple bit of brainstorming just takes a minute or two; for a writer, it’s similar to identifying a theme in your story or article . . . and naming it.

Then, think about other common terms that real people might often use. Think beyond jargon; think outside of your own mindset . . . into the thought process of a person looking for help with the subject at hand. Someone wanting to read this post, for instance, may not search for “SEO optimization.” They may just search for “how do I get more hits on my author website.”

Whatever you’re writing about, you can be sure there are other things people may call it. If you’re writing about dogs, are you also writing about pets, canines, specific breeds,  animal companions . . . ? Probably yes, yes, yes, and yes. Try not to get locked into one term only; sprinkle some common varieties of terms or phrases in the article.

You can do it. You’re a writer!

2. Look for a narrow, niche-y subset of that core topic.

Let’s face it, the web increasingly has a zillion posts; hundreds, probably thousands, are out there that relate to any given post of yours.

But you might have a good specific little niche that can help you show up on a least a few more searches.

For example, if you search for “fantasy author,” Google returns about 250 million results. That’s a lot. Hard to get noticed.

Search for “fantasy author in Wisconsin” – this yields about 18 million results. Top of the list: the über-popular (& deservedly so) Patrick Rothfuss. But on the first page are some other lesser-known Wisconsin-based writers. They pop up because the online item about them includes the key terms: “fantasy, author, Wisconsin.”

TIP: Include your location (state & town) on a number of your posts. This helps libraries, book festivals, book groups, etc. to find local or state authors. Many states have lists of authors connected to that state; these lists are posted and often include links to author websites, mention titles of books, and so on.

It’s an excellent example of how SEO works: you include the right terms, and people find you online via those terms.

TIP: Include subtitles (or make up subtitles), location, and genres for your books. Why? Because these are rich in important terms. If a book doesn’t have an official subtitle (a lot of fiction doesn’t), I make one up. For instance, when talking about a novel by Sylvia Dickey Smith titled A War of Her Own, I might include a subtitle: A World War II homefront novel set in Orange, Texas in 1943. Or writing about a novel I’ve been working with recently to re-publish in a new edition, Goliath Catfish, I could add a subtitle: An action/adventure historical novel for young readers set in Memphis in the 1940s. Remember to keep noting the topic, setting, genre, etc. somewhere in your post.

A good subtitle (official or not) spells out a set of keywords that are SEO rich; use it and you’ll place a lot of hooks out there on the web, hooks that are likely to draw relevant search-engine attention.

3. Refine & expand your SEO terms.

Of course, for an author, you also want to use all the genre terms for your work. Are you writing dark fantasy, stories about the supernatural, ghost stories, scary stories, speculative fiction . . . ? In fact, a number of similar, nearly interchangeable terms may relate to you and your work. You can’t guess which will be used most often in a web search.

Or can you?

Although you can’t guess which terms will be used, you can go to places online to find what people are looking for when they search.

Search for a (free) “KeyWord Tool.” Put in a term . . . say, “speculative fiction.” A web-tool like Google AdWords Keyword Tool does a quick search and returns a list of terms . . . and tells you how many people used that term in the last month. When I look at the list, I see that “speculative fiction novels” was searched for 210 times.

Hmmm . . . but “horror novels” was searched for 90,000 times in that month. Seems that “horror novels” is a more popular term than “speculative fiction.” If I was writing dark scary fantasy . . . I’d be sure to use the “horror” label.

4. Want to know more?

One book I’ve been recommending to friends and fellow authors is Sexy, Smart, and Search Engine Friendly by Lela Davidson. The subtitle: Get Found Online without Losing Your Mind or Wasting Your Time. In 50 pages, it offers a clear explanation of SEO and how to use it, suitable for us writers . . . and does so in a way that’s fun to read. Your eyes won’t glaze over, and you’ll learn some easy tips and simple-to-use practices.

So . . . give it a whirl. There are plenty more tips and techniques that you’ll learn over time. But you don’t have to be an expert to attract a few more hits on your website or other social media account. Go ahead. Add a little SEO punch to your next post.

And repeat after me . . . “ohwa tagu siam” . . . . for not having used these simple ideas consistently till now.

Discover Your Author’s Brand

Branding is a simple concept. For an author, in a nutshell, it’s what people expect when they hear your name attached to a book (or story).

If you think of the name Mark Twain, or Stephen King, or Toni Morrison, or J.R.R. Tolkien . . . many things likely pop into your head. For me, the name Tolkien conjures up images of a professorial fellow with a pipe, the smile of a raconteur on his face, eager to spin long tales that I suspect I’d like hear, maybe sitting close by in a comfy easy chair by the fireplace in his study, sipping a little sherry and traveling to a far-off imaginary land . . .

This post offers tips to help you think about your brand – how to identify it, strengthen and refine it, and present it to your adoring (right?) fans.

There’s an interesting book I read some years ago that comes to mind to help you think about branding. It’s called Primal Branding, by Patrick Hanlon, a marketing guru who’s worked on famous brands like Absolut, LEGO, IBM, and others. His book equates a strong brand with a culture of belief, one that is similar in many ways to a religious faith.

Before you get illusions of grandeur, let’s look at his points of comparison. Like a religion, Hanlon says, a strong brand has these key elements:

  • Creation story
  • Creed
  • Rituals
  • Icons
  • Sacred words
  • Non-believers
  • Leader

It’s interesting to think in those terms about you and your author’s brand. To translate:

Creation Story

How often have you heard (and significantly, can remember) the “origins of how I got started as a writer” story of one of your famous authors?

This is always a good place to start when telling the story of your brand. What got it going? Why did you feel called to write? Readers like to hear a good story of how you got started. It sets the whole idea of a brand in motion.


As a writer, what do you believe in most strongly? What fuels your professionalism? What drives your writing? What core principles drive you to write fictional stories or nonfiction texts?

A belief in the power of love? A sense of the frailty of the human condition? Concern for the environment? A desire to help some build a better deck or take better care of their pet? A love of comedy? A love of the beauty of fine literature. An urge to reach out and share a good story to entertain?

These are examples of core things that drive us as writers, but they are not the same for all of us. What drives you to write?

This goes deeper than your “origin” story, into the inner drive that led you to pursue this career. Why struggle to nurse your stories into existence, to persevere despite the headwinds of so many things that conspire against the average writer?


How often have writers been asked classic questions about the rituals that drives their lives. In what part of the day do you write? Where? Do you slurp coffee or tea? When you get stuck or just to rest and refresh, do you like to talk a walk in the woods? Go shopping? Play tennis?

Other rituals involve interactions with your fans. Do you post every Wednesday? Will you post if you have an epiphany? Do you post a picture of your writing desk? Your pet who sits by your side as you write?

Do you celebrate each book that’s published in a particular way, and share this event with your fans? Do you post excerpts? Do you celebrate great reviews or fan comments?

The ultimate ritual, that had near-religious overtones, was the midnight gathering of millions of fans worldwide for the release of the later books by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series.

Why are rituals important to a brand? They are a way for us to come together, you and your fans, in an interaction of some sort. It likely is more muted than a Potter book hitting the shelves, and it’s probably a mix of live and online interactions. It’s the act of sharing not just the published book but also the wider spectrum of what it means to be a writer that helps to create that sense of a bond of togetherness between authors and readers.


For a writer, this is not usually a logo. You probably don’t have a Starbuck’s mermaid or a Target’s bull’s-eye. (Although on some excellent author websites,  you might see the author’s name treated in a classic logo-like fashion.) But for you, the most important images are your author photo, and possibly the cover of your most popular book.

These images stand for you and your work. (Note to authors: get a great author photo taken. It’s worth its weight in gold.)

Sacred words

This touches on the key phrases that inspire you or the mantras that you chant or the slogans that you pin next to your computer. Take a look at Maya Angelou’s website. What do you see? Besides iconic images of her and the cover of her well-known book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I also see a line from that book: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”

What are the texts that you hold closest to your heart? What are your favorite books that inspire you as a writer? The Elements of Style. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Lord of the Rings. The Cat in the Hat. The Phantom Tollbooth.


As Hanlon says, to have the yin of believers, you need the yang of non-believers. It’s those idiotic folks who don’t agree with us and our literary tastes. The Philistines. You aren’t like everyone, and you don’t want to be. You want to stand for something.

Me? I’m a traditional printed-paper book guy, first and foremost; I don’t really like the e-reader experience with books as electronic files with their easy-to-publish-and-change-and-grab-and-read-and-toss aspects. I don’t like obscure poetry or academic mumbo-jumbo that makes my head hurt (I do like haiku and poems about real places and times of the year).

I don’t agree with self-publishing 95% of the time because it’s done poorly. I don’t really like Helvetica. I don’t like hyped-up ads and overblown promotions; I was taught not to brag, that good work spoke for itself, and cream rose to the top.

Not surprisingly, some of the blog posts I’ve done on things that irritate me (“Kindle, Schmindle”) have been among my most popular. The point: opposition to something else is a powerful uniting factor. It’s part of not being ordinary.


This is the easy part. For my writer’s brand, that’s me. For your brand, that’s you. This is one point where writers are already on the branding bandwagon; they know that it’s important to have a person who stands for your brand. For Virgin Airlines, it’s Richard Branson. For your writing, it’s you.

But of course, there are things you can do to build up and refine your personal story. What do we know about your first writing project as a kid? About influential people who have helped you become the writer you are, whether a high-school English teacher or a favorite aunt who gave you a copy of . . .

All of those things help us know you better. Learn to tell your story. Learn to shape it, to think about its drama and themes and lovable characters and opening lines . . . just as you would a beloved short story that you’d write and rewrite until it glowed and jumped off the page before sending in to your favorite magazine to be published.

Your Brand is a Culture of Belief

These ways to think about a literary brand might at first seem odd to you. But you can use them to help identify, refine, and present yourself as a writer more clearly to the rest of us.

What’s your brand? If we choose to follow you and your writing, what can we have faith in?

(See also related post on branding for authors: “Build Your Author’s Brand”)

Proper Persistence for Writers – Or How Long Should I Keep Trying To Get Published?

In emerging-writer discussions, I often hear versions of this question: How long do I keep trying if I’m not seeing any results in my pitches to agents or publishing houses?

There are many ways to approach the answer. You can just buy into Winston Churchill’s advice to youngsters: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Yes, there’s a part of me that appreciates that kind of bulldog stubbornness. I’d definitely want it if, say, I needed to defend Great Britain from invasion from foes.

But in most cases, for writers, the answer is more nuanced. What, to follow Churchill’s words, is the point at which it makes good sense to give in, lick a few wounds, learn from mistakes, and move on?

Yes, I’m familiar with the stories of writers like Madeleine L’Engle, whose wonderful novel, A Wrinkle in Time, saw dozens of rejections. Ditto for Jack London, and for others now considered authors of great literature.

But honestly, that doesn’t really tell you how long you should persist.

Here’s my advice, mostly in the form of questions for you to consider:

1. Are you sure you’re targeting the right agents and publishing houses?

Maybe half the queries I see for Crickhollow Books, the small indie press I run, are not of any interest to me. That suggests (admittedly from a small sample) that half the queries the typical writers send out are going out are going to places with no interest whatsoever. In fact, for most houses, the immediate rejects from slush piles are much worse; the bigger the publisher, the smaller the percentage of pitches they’ll want to ever consider even briefly.

Have you studied your prospects closely and developed an appropriate list? Have you used the directories of agents or editors that have detail on what they are actually looking for? Have you visited their websites and gleaned all you could?

Better targeting is a key step. Develop your best list of 10-12 places, and work through those. If all say no, you might want to try another dozen, especially if you’ve got a broad set of market options (say, for short stories for literary magazines). But if you’re writing in a niche area, after the first 12, the next 12 get less likely. After that . . . you’re starting to get a sense that what you’re writing may not be tickling the fancies of the gatekeepers.

2. Are you moving things along briskly?

Once you query a house, how long do you wait? There’s a big difference in waiting one month versus three. The first timeframe allows you to query 12 in a year. The second, only 4 – which means it will take you 3 years to work through a dozen targets. I’m only pointing out the math; you’ll feel different about your results if you’ve gotten “no”s for your pet project for 30 months year or just for 10 months. (The shorter time to discover what the market interest is will help you decide whether to keep pitching the work to others, to revise that work, or to start another.)

It behooves you to move things along. To be business-like, you’d want to get a sense sooner rather than later if a given project is of interest to your top prospects. A good literary agent is of course very helpful here; they will not only help to find the right targets, but they’ll also have the clout or to get it reviewed sooner and know how to push for an answer (and possibly an answer with real feedback about why the “no”). In a business sense, a “no” is useful information; it tells you to move on to find someone more interested in the work . . . and eventually that maybe your work isn’t of sufficient quality or market interest.

Agents will push for an answer. If it’s no, they want to move on to the next prospect on the list. You should too if you’re representing yourself.

3. Are you meeting agents at writer conferences?

This is one of the best ways to get more individualized attention from a few agents and editors. The professionals that you meet at conferences, assuming you’re a reasonable writer, should be willing to give you serious consideration; that’s why they are there. They’ll listen to your pitches at the conference, and if they ask for a submission, they’ll look a bit more closely at your project when they get back to their home offices. This means that if you’re work is good and marketable, you’re more likely to get a nibble, at least at a request to submit more material.

And if you get rejected here, it might be a sign that your work is lacking something that’s needed.

4. Are you reading outside of the current popular literature in your field?

This is not apparent to many writers, but let’s say you’re writing fantasy, and the reading you do is all bestselling, most hyper-popular stuff. So you read Harry Potter. The problem is that your writing is too likely to be strongly affected by the Harry Potter style. You may write work that seems to echo those stories. And to an editor or agent, work that is too derivative of recent popular work is often less marketable, as a) it’s already done so well by the big names in the first place, and b) lots of other new writers are submitting similar work, hoping to be the next J.K. Rowling.

To get around that, one trick is to read the good stuff that falls outside of your area. Read American national poet laureates, read National Geographic books, read biographies of the most fascinating people in arts or business or science . . . and then go incorporate elements of those into your fantasy novels or whatever you’re writing. Your results may be unique, more different from bestsellers, and this might be the competitive advantage you need.

5. Have you started your next project?

One of my favorite techniques comes from Ray Bradbury, who launched his career by a regimen of starting a story on Monday, and sending it off by Friday. He kept at it, generating a lot of material. This covers more bases – the 6th story or 12th might just happen to be the one that is bought – or it might have led him to success because he just kept getting better as a writer over time.

Look at the writing of a famous one-hit wonder, Margaret Mitchell. Her one novel, Gone with the Wind, was a terrific success. On the other hand, she had long written profiles for the Atlanta Journal of local bon-vivants and grand estates and society events. How much of her ability to capture dramatic characters and places and events was honed by practice, by long observation and writing of several hundred feature articles and news reports, with steady feedback from editors and readers?

In short, maybe it will be the second project, or the 24th, or the . . . that will sell. If you just write one, and it doesn’t sell, and you ask should I give up . . . I’d say you haven’t worked enough yet to develop either your writing skills or the choices in your literary offerings.

In Conclusion

This isn’t a comprehensive answer to the question: How long should I keep trying?

But it is what I’d want to know if you came to me and asked me that question. Maybe it helps to point out some helpful things to focus on.

Your Novel Needs a Second Story

One of the keys of a successful novel is often the presence of two (sometimes more) major storylines. Unfortunately, as a book doctor/novel editor, I often see manuscripts-in-progress that are just too stingy in this regard.

I recently read a review of a movie that addressed this very point. Reviewing the movie Warm Bodies, Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “But too often [this movie] also badly needed a second big idea to move its [primary] story off the track we expect it to take from the start.”

To put it bluntly, a single storyline, even if well-written from beginning to end, will be thin, predictable, and a little boring. You want the structure of your novel to be less like a one-story ranch house and more like Downton Abbey.

Okay, maybe if you can’t populate it with so many storylines (after all, Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, is a brilliant and experienced writer, winner of the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, etc.). But at least try to build a functional second story, a place we can go to experience something different than we do on the first floor of your novel’s house.


In How To Write Your Best Story, I argue that two stories offer a terrific way to create originality and depth:

In a 1968 article in The Writer, “Thoughts on Plots,” Joan Aiken pointed out that it takes two ideas, colliding, to spark a story.

“I shall always remember H.E. Bates [English, 1905–1974], that master of the short story form, saying that besides inspiration and a lot of sheer hard labor, a story requires, for its germination, at least two separate ideas which, fusing together, begin to work and ferment and presently produce a plot. This tallies with my own experience. . . .”

Many stories have been told, but unique intersections of any two ideas will be more original. Take a story of a dragon in a cave. Then take a story of a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman. Both have been told. But the combination of the two? Less likely.

Think of the number of ideas you might generate by watching a traffic intersection where two busy streets come together. At the intersection, you’ll not just see more traffic, but you’ll now have the likelihood of interesting episodes as people face more decisions, have to deal with crossing traffic, and end up in surprise situations and, yes, collisions.

These collisions are crucial to an interesting novel. To return to Downton Abbey, think of the interest generated by the intersections of the storylines of the “upstairs” aristocracy and the “downstairs” servants.

Phyllis Whitney, romance novelist, liked to write stories that involved occupations. The occupation was one story; the romantic suspense tale was the other.

Consider whodunits such as the Egyptian archeologist mysteries by Elizabeth Peters or the National Park ranger mysteries by Nevada Barr, and any number of similar series. The details of professional practices are interesting in themselves, and they always contribute substantially to the story of the mystery investigation.

Or, as Franny Billingsley realized in writing her Horn Book Award–winning novel, The Folk Keeper, she needed to give her protagonist not just a desire to motivate her, but also a job to keep her active and interesting and out doing things and finding out things she otherwise wouldn’t. Billingsley, by the way, has been called “one of the great prose stylists of the field.” — Kirkus

I also often cite the Harry Potter books (the first ones I liked, the latter ones less so), for the way they combined several storylines: the big struggle of good vs. evil as Voldemort tries to rise to ascendancy through nefarious means, and the school-year stories of kids, classes, professors, highjink, friendships, romances, and all that entailed. Those are two well-developed storylines. Most importantly, they intersect throughout the novels and give the novels their uniqueness.

One more tip: When I advise writers, I often suggest that the biggest storyline they might initially think of as “primary” is often best presented as the second, slower-to-develop story. In the concept of your novel as a house, the first floor is the most public floor, the place of daily routine and busy activities. The second floor is the place where hidden dreams and loves and desires find their place.

To use a literary example of this, consider how the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird uses several storylines. One is the summer life of the young girl Scout Finch and her brother Jem in the sleepy  town of Maycomb, Alabama. One summer, Jem and Scout become friends with a boy named Dill, and the trio explores the neighborhood and acts out stories together, including ones involving a spooky nearby house owned by a Nathan Radley and his mysterious brother, Boo, a recluse.

This all goes along as the frontline story, but eventually, the big second story grows and sets in, swelling to epic proportions, as Scout’s father, Atticus, is drawn to defend a black man named Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. This sets in motion the full sweep of the second story.

While the racial-relations story might have been the initial impetus that caused this novel to come into existence and is the “big” story of the book, the childhood story of Scout is really the one that carries the novel from beginning to end.

In the end, what is really important and transcendent? The way the two stories interact.

The message: construct your novel well. To entertain your readers, present them with at least two full stories, and let those lines intersect in ways that each might fuel the fire of the other story, and in so doing, offer some fresh surprises to your readers.

Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?

Writers, how patient are you? Do you really listen to what your stories are trying to say before you try to tell them to others?

Do you give your stories enough time to grow creatively, to blossom into their fullest form?

I read a lot of blogs and group chats about self-publishing. One of the biggest problems I see is the impatience of aspiring novelists to write, finish, and get published. (One of the stranger phenomena in speedy, don’t-look-back writing is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month; it encourages writers to create a 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month. Yikes!) Especially in the fantasy field, I run into plenty of newbie authors who have written a trilogy, zooming ahead to sequels full of plot twists and further adventures . . . before having fully contemplated and completed the potential of their first (and most important, career-wise) novel.

In contrast, accomplished authors recommend the importance of taking time to reflect, to work through a series of drafts, to put work aside for a time, to come back later to revise. They know that this passage of time involves actively listening to what a story is trying to say, to seek the hidden door to the treasure cave that lies hidden in the shrubbery of early drafts.

Why do the best authors often talk about reaching a watershed moment in the course of writing a novel – a state of mind in which the characters of the work-in-progress start to “talk back” to the author, resisting being pushed into pigeon-holes or, conversely, resisting something not in their “true nature” or self-interests?

This is the point when you’re dreaming about the work, when you’re thinking in the back of your mind about it as you’re doing mindless, repetitious work like washing the dishes or going for a walk, when the brilliant solution comes unbidden and you have to scribble it down on an old napkin found in your car’s glove compartment.

I’ve quoted this before, in How To Write Your Best Story and a few other places:

“When I’m really writing, I’m listening. . . . [Listening] takes us places we have no idea where we’re going. Surprises always follow.”
– Newbery Medal–winner Madeleine L’Engle

To listen, you need to allow the quiet time to do it. I recently read a brief piece from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by psychotherapist Philip Chard on the dangers of “hurry sickness”:

So one of the casualties of hurry sickness is the [lost] opportunity to contemplate, to apply one’s quiet attention to some experience or idea or to one’s sense of self and life purpose. Contemplative introspection . . . is an ancient and proven practice that supports emotional balance and mental clarity.

Historically, it was the preferred method for making important decisions, as well as for nurturing greater self-understanding. When someone had to figure something out or clarify their identity or sense of purpose, she or he would be cloistered away from distractions, often in a natural setting, where it was possible to fully focus on the issue at hand. Think of Jesus in the desert or Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Do you have to figure something out or clarify something in your fiction? Do you have a (metaphorical) tree you can go and sit under?

Sometimes you need to sit in silence and not do anything. Here’s some wisdom from an Inuit elder named Majuak, from Diomede Island in Alaska, describing a native practice of creative contemplation called karrtsiluni to Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in Rasmussen’s 1932 book The Eagle’s Gift.

In the old days, every autumn – we used to hold great festivals for the soul of the whale, and these festivals were always opened with new songs which the men made up.  The spirits had to be summoned with fresh words – worn-out songs must never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to this great prize of the huntsman – the whale.

And while the men were thinking out the words for these hymns, it was the custom to put out all the lights.  The feast house had to be dark and quiet – nothing must disturb or distract the men. In utter silence all these men sat there in the gloom and thought, old and young – ay, down to the very smallest urchin, provided he was old enough to speak.

It was that silence we called karrtsiluni. It means waiting for something to break forth.  For our fore-fathers believed that songs are born in such a silence. While everyone is trying hard to think fair thoughts, songs are born in the minds of men, rising like bubbles from the depths – bubbles seeking breath in which to burst.

[I encountered this wonderful passage in Bob Kanegis’ blog, Storyteller’s Campfire: Thoughts on Living a Storied Life]

Maybe your story could be better. Have you asked it?

As Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton wrote: “Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness.” For writers, the real significance of your story might lie hidden in the quiet cracks – in unspoken thoughts, in missing passages, in unrealized potential. The plot is the noise, but inner nature of the story is what you need to listen for and draw out into the open.

Do you need a fresh song to catch a great whale? Yes.

To find a fresh song and to be a good writer, you might need to take a little time to silence the “hurry sickness” and listen.

Secrets of Goblins and Good Writing

I’ve in the middle of reading, with considerable delight, William Alexander’s debut fantasy novel Goblin Secrets. It just won a National Book Award for Young People’s literature, and it’s a wonderful piece of literary storytelling. I wanted to share one of his chapter starts, as it continues the “trick of particularity” point I made in a recent post about the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien, plus some other good writing techniques.

At the start of the third chapter, the young central character, Rownie, is sent on an errand to a gear-smith’s workplace (to fetch some oil for Graba, the witch) :

Broken gears and stacks of wood filled the alleyway outside Scrud’s workshop. Rownie heard shouting inside. He waited in the alley and rooted through some of the mess of gears until the shouting faded to a low mutter. Then he went in.

The noise did not actually stop. It never did. Mr. Scrud was always shouting to himself.

“Hello, Mr. Scrud!” Rownie called out from the doorway, hoping to be noticed now rather than later. The workshop smelled like sawdust and oil, with a rotten smell underneath. Scrud made very good mousetraps, but he never remembered to clean up the mice afterward.

Planks of wood, bars of copper, and gears stacked in piles and pyramids covered the floor. Dowels stuck out from the plaster of one wall, with ropes, chains, tools, and more gears hanging from them. Clocks hung on the other wall, so many that the wall looked like it was made out of clocks. They all worked, or most of them did – tocking and ticking in rhythms that clashed with each other. It sounded like an argument of clocks.

Scrud bent over his workbench in the middle of the room.

“Jellyweed and impsense!” he shouted at the bench. (. . .) He didn’t notice Rownie. There was a gearworked horse’s head on the workbench, and this did notice Rownie. The automaton’s eyes followed the boy as he picked his way across the floor and tried not to step on anything important.

Rownie took a deep breath. “Hello, Mr. Scrud!” he shouted again. The gearworker scared him, and always had scared him, but Rownie had been here often enough that the fear didn’t matter. He felt it, bright and burning, but it didn’t stop him from standing in the middle of the floor and shouting Scrud’s name.

As Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses – one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.”

In this passage, Alexander spins out a moment: the arrival of the young protagonist at the workshop of a cranky gear-smith. Notice a few tricks of the literary craft. First, the author uses a variety of senses, especially sounds and smells, not just a visual description of the workshop or the smith.

Second, Alexander gives the details from the viewpoint of the child, young Rownie (who is 8 or 10 years old, he’s not sure exactly). We see what Rownie sees, and we feel what he feels.

Third, notice the pacing, with a good amount of repetition (something Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in her book Steering the Craft is a great tool for beautiful, powerful writing).

Next, the tone of the passage fits the book, which is full of tension and challenges. While this passage reminds me a bit of Zuckerman’s barn as described by E.B. White in Charlotte’s Web, this story of Goblin Secrets is a tougher, scrappier tale.

Finally, the passage is eminently suitable to read out loud – not surprising, as the author is also immersed in the lore of the theater, a professional interest that fueled this particular story in many ways, not the least in the fluid sound of the prose.

While this moment – as Rownie approaches and enters the workshop – pauses to look and smell and listen and allow the character to feel emotions, the book as a whole moves briskly, with an overall economy, unlike the oft-bloated tomes found in the fantasy genre. In Goblin Secrets, Alexander delivers a book with the economy of the theater playwright or the oral storyteller, with dialogue and scene movements and pauses valued, all meant to advance the story, not to describe or explain everything. This is the power of great writing, its ability to share words that fire up the reader’s imagination without overwhelming it.

From the National Book Award citation:

With a sure hand, William Alexander here creates a wholly convincing world of mechanized soldiers, chicken-legged grandmothers, sentient rivers, and goblin actors. In that uncertain landscape, young Rownie learns the mysterious craft of masking to search for both his brother and his own story, unaware that the solution to these searches may be the salvation of his city.

Goblin Secrets is a book that adults will enjoy as much as young readers. And for writers, it’s a worthy read, an enjoyable master class in delightful prose and captivating storytelling.