The Blog

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.]

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)

November Hodgepodge – Being a Writer

Don’t, please, get precious about your working methods. . . . The more you humor your inadequacies by compensating with phony environment, the tougher your work will become. You have to be in a mood. I grant that. But if you haven’t the understanding of yourself to be in any mood when you wish – then don’t fool around with the mood business. Be an automobile salesman. I would like you to be able to write as well as you can with pen, pencil, and typewriter, in tree houses, boiler factories, and on subway trains. I insist you must be able to write as well as you can with a stomach-ache, a crying baby, a paving drill going – and on a typewriter that has a non-functioning “e” and an inoperable backspace. If you want and need to. Then – for your regular surroundings – any moderately quiet, well-ventilated room with an ordinary typewriter table and chair will be paradisiacal.
– Philip Wylie (1902–1971), co-author of When Worlds Collide (1932)

I can’t decide for you whether or not you have got to write, but if anything in the world, war, or pestilence, or famine, or private hunger, or anything, can stop you from writing, then don’t write . . . because if anything can even begin to keep you from writing you aren’t a writer and you’ll be in a hell of a mess until you find out. If you are a writer, you’ll still be in a hell of a mess, but you’ll have better reasons.
– William Saroyan (1908–1981), author of The Time of Your Life, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, which he declined to accept.

I believe there are writers who enjoy writing. For my part, I loathe and abhor it. I enjoy immensely sitting in an easy chair before the fire, closing my eyes and rapturously envisaging the sweep, the drive, the sounds, and the fury of the masterpiece – they are all masterpieces at that stage – which I am going to produce. But writing – ah! That is a different pair of shoes! . . . No sooner am I seated at my desk than I want to get up again, to wander about the room, look at the view, eat apples, suck toffee . . . .
– A.J. Cronin (1896–1981), author of The Stars Look Down

I confess, right at the start, to the doubts  – and sometimes outright dreads  – that go with me as I climb the stairs to my study in the morning, coffee mug in hand: I have to admit to the habitual apprehension mixed with a sort of reverence, as I light the incense . . . and wonder: what is going to happen today? Will anything happen? Will the angel come today?
– Gail Godwin (1937–), American novelist

I have no idea whether what I write will be of the remotest interest to anyone else. Some mornings when I read what I wrote the previous day I think it’s fairly entertaining; other times I think it’s pure rubbish. The main thing is not to take any notice, not to be elated or upset, just keep going.
– Maeve Binchy (1940–2012), Irish novelist

[Quotes from Wylie, Saroyan, Cronin, and Binchy appeared in issues of The Writer magazine, in Feb. 1938, Sept. 1938, Dec. 1938 – it was a good year –and Feb. 2000 respectively, and all reappeared in The Writer’s Handbook 2002; quote from Godwin is from “Rituals and Readiness: Getting Ready To Write,” a wonderful article in The Writing Life (1995), a collection of essays by National Book Award winners.]

 

Alert to Writers Using Facebook for Marketing

Facebook is no longer as free and open as you may think.

Did you know that the average post you do on Facebook now reaches only 12%–14% of your friends?

The FB marketing director defended this, saying, “There are pieces of content you create that are interesting, and there’s some that are not.” Per their Oct. 3 announcement: Facebook will now “allow” users to pay $7 to make their posts “more visible” in friends’ News Feeds.

(Later in this post, I’ll note several things you can do to deal with this.)

It’s true. As of October, Facebook is offering you the “opportunity” to “Promote” any given post. What this means: per post . . . you pay $7, and they’ll push that specific post higher in your Friends news feeds.

The dark underbelly: to make this more compelling, they are cutting off, through a magical algorithm called EdgeRank, many of our friends’ posts, so they never appear in our News Feed!

How bad is it now? For instance, a page I run for Crickhollow Books has 452 Likes. But a recent post (announcing a new book just released) was seen by only 7 people. (That’s less than 2%.) The Facebook message says bluntly: “7 people saw this post.”

It should say, “Pay up, dude, if you want to see your Post alive on your Friends news feeds!”

Other pages I work with are seeing similar wretched results, and this is confirmed by other social-media experts and publicists who are interested in how Facebook can help writers and other creatives to connect with fans, friends, and followers.

In my experience, the current spread of a given post ranges from a paltry 2% up to 50% (for a photo posted on a church FB page). The average post I do is seen by about 15% of those who Liked the page. No longer do I see any example of any post that reaches 100% of those who Liked that page, via News Feeds. (Yes, they could choose to go directly to a person’s Timeline page and see that person’s entire posts. But most people still think they’re seeing everything on their News Feed, subject only to older posts dropping farther down & out of sight.)

Check it out yourself. Go to your Facebook News Feed & check the posts at the top. Note the time of posting. When I recently checked my feed, the top 3 posts said “3 minutes ago”, “28 minutes ago”, and “51 minutes ago”. Those aren’t the 3 most recent posts! They were chosen, somehow, by Facebook to share with me; they also put them at the top of my feed. As you go down, you’ll see entries likely aren’t in chronological order. Facebook is ordering them. (Likely, most didn’t pay anything; FB is using “EdgeRank” to calculate how important they think each post is to you, based on your past activity on FB.)

Why is it happening now?

In my opinion (and others), it’s connected to Facebook’s need to make a bigger profit, after their dismal IPO stock offering. But, in typical FB fashion, they’re rolling it out in a way that is confusing, a bit stealthy, and poorly designed for customer friendliness. Most people don’t even know it’s happening.

Here’s the best detailed article I found, on Mashable, about the problems with Facebook’s Promoted Posts (with a few excepts below):
“Facebook is rigged: Why Personal Promoted Posts are Bad for Users,” by Matt Silverman

The average user’s News Feed is not chronological. It is determined by an algorithm called EdgeRank, which selects things that are, theoretically, most relevant to you.

. . . Essentially, the network is [now, more than ever] “hiding” your updates from friends, and then turning around to say, “Hey, if you want friends to see your updates, you could pay us!”

It’s what economists call artificial scarcity. . . . Facebook status updates are [nominally] free for everyone to post and consume. But when EdgeRank makes them scarce for some people [in their visibility] and not for others, it creates an artificial market. . . . Facebook is rigging the game and then asking users to pay to level the playing field.

What you can do?

1. Make EdgeRank (somewhat) go away. Encourage your friends to do the same.

According to that same Mashable article:

[Y]ou can make EdgeRank go away. A tiny text link at the top of your News Feed allows you to sort updates by “Top Stories” or “Most Recent.” If you want to see everything that your Facebook friends and brand pages have posted in chronological order, you always have the option.

Facebook doesn’t call much attention to this wonderful feature because it makes promoted posts less valuable.

UPDATE [from Mashable]: Facebook has informed us that some posts may still be omitted form your News Feed even when sorting by “Most Recent.”

The tiny link you’re looking for is labelled “Sort” – it is just below & to the right of the “What’s on your mind?” box. I just switched mine to “Most Recent” – it mostly (with curious exceptions) now orders posts by chronological order.

2. Use more photos.

I’ve seen reports that certain kinds of posts do much better. One analysis suggested that photos get 6 times more views.

This is born out by my own small data set, from the half-dozenn pages I manage actively.

Links, however, don’t seem to affect the ranking that much.

3. Consider establishing a social-media base elsewhere.

I’ll be looking more at Google+ (their emerging social media network). Also, I’m shifting most of my core writing back to my blog.

If you don’t already, you should question if Facebook is right for you, considering costs, time wasted, privacy concerns, annoying design . . . vs. the benefits we get from that quirky assemblage of goofy, ironic, inspirational, neo-sincere, etc. posts.

4. Decide if you do want to pay $7 to promote an occasional key post.

If I have a driving interest to make sure everyone in my Friends pool (“Likes”) sees a given post, I’ll test & try to measure the benefit of paying $7 to push a post.

For instance, I’ll post & promote a link to this article on Facebook! Sure, I’m happy to shell out $7 for that.

And I’ll pay to tell Friends I’m moving mostly away from Facebook, and how to follow me if they want to stay in touch and read my social-media posts elsewhere.

(To help, if you like this post, add a positive comment. Or sign up for the blog, by entering your email to get notice of future posts.)

5. Wait & hope that Facebook sees this as a hugely negative thing and drops/changes it.

FB has mostly grown with a “Hey, it’s free” mentality. As they start to charge for it . . . over-charge, and under-explain . . . will they succeed?

I’ll end with an evaluation from the Mashable article:

The very notion of the Social Graph, the data brain that makes Facebook so valuable, is absolutely genius and should be leveraged by marketers to make brand messaging more efficient. Facebook is a free service, and we pay the price of privacy to use it.

But to rig the social conversation and then ask people to buy their way back in? That’s a terrible user experience decision, and it will hurt Facebook in the long run. Power users will see the philosophical flaws here, and average users will be miffed that their wedding photos are invisible to old high school chums unless they pony up the cash.

As someone else said, this is a lot like Facebook peeing in their own pool. Most people don’t yet know this is going on. Once they do, will we all still bother to go to Facebook as often?

I will now and then . . . to read random posts, knowing I’m not seeing a lot of what friends are posting.

But will I go as often, or post as much myself? And once this starts to break down . . . I’m no longer as positive about what the Facebook experience offers me, or you.

Social media marketing for writers in a nutshell is sharing what you do, in an appealing way, staying in touch, and enjoying the diverse conversations and news about highs, lows, and yes, the mundane things about daily life we enjoy sharing with others.

It’s only worth doing if the process is clear & the results are worthwhile.

It just doesn’t matter if you have 50 or 500 or 5,000 “Likes” – if you can’t communicate easily with them.

October Hodgepodge for Writers

“I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”
– Brenda Ueland, American writer (1891–1985)

“I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.”
– Ray Bradbury, American speculative-fiction author (1920–2012)

“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, American speculative-fiction author & essayist (1918–2007)

“Brevity is the sister of talent.”
– Anton Chekhov, Russian short-story author & playwright (1860–1904)

“The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.”
– Robert Frost, American poet (1874–1963)

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), British author & mathematician (1832–1898), in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Simultaneous Submissions (Should I or Shouldn’t I?)

I’ve often heard writers ask whether they should follow a “no simultaneous submissions” policies, as requested by some publishers.

The question of multiple submissions, also call simultaneous submissions, is daunting to an emerging writer.

Here is how the policy is often stated:

Please do not send us work which is also being submitted elsewhere. We do not consider simultaneous submissions. This policy saves our editors from reading work that is not actually available for first North American publication, and it saves authors the embarrassment of having to withdraw a manuscript.

My advice? I recommend that authors do what is in the best interests of the author, and let publishers do what is in their best interests.

It’s a bit of a gray area, I admit; it may depend on how “hot” or timely or truly amazing your work is. You generally want to be respectful, in part to increase your likelihood of acceptance anywhere. Still, in a nutshell, if you feel compelled to violate a publisher’s policy . . . well, you cannot always shape your business model to what is most convenient or efficient for a publisher.

In short, while publishers logically are publisher-centric . . . as an author, you need to be author-centric. Exclusive expectations to review literary work, given the competition of the real world, seems unrealistic, especially if you are submitting work “over the transom” (which means unsolicited).

As an author, your responsibility is to submit good and appropriate work, which gives a publisher a chance to consider it and respond as quickly as they wish to. In this business climate, publishers should know that unbought work can be bought or acquired by a competitor if they don’t move quickly enough.

I’d say publisher legitimately could request a “no simultaneous submissions” policies if:

  1. They acknowledge receipt.
  2. They indicate how long before a response will be given.
  3. They indeed respond to your submission within that time.

If so, their request that authors don’t submit work elsewhere is more reasonable. Still, authors – especially new emerging authors – need to submit and get work published, and they need to pursue this aggressively.

Caveats and exceptions:

1. Don’t submit countless random, machine-gun simultaneous.

I recommend authors be selective. Do good research into likely prospects. Start with the highest-value publishers (or literary agents), those with the greatest pay or highest readership or greatest literary prestige. If it’s a timely item, you might want to send it to a selection of a few prospects. If you don’t hear anything soon, then move onto the next prospects on your list.

2. Do honor explicit requests for an exclusive read.

If a publisher, editor, or agent looks at a brief query and requests more, asking for or expecting an “exclusive look” for a set period of time, I’d likely grant that. I’d confirm the period of time; if one isn’t given, I’d send the requested work but state my acceptable period for an exclusive look, perhaps 3–4 weeks. At that time, I’d nudge, and ask how the review has gone, before withdrawing it from the “exclusive” zone.

3. Avoid irritating good clients.

If you have a working relationship with a publisher, then you have a reason to give that partner in your literary career a first look, probably an exclusive one, at new work. Some book contracts may insist on that. But it’s generally a good way to do business. This would be true also of a literary journal where you’ve seen some past publishing success; you may have an inside track, and so logically want to build a good relationship.

But, if you are an emerging writer without a lot of published credits or existing relationships with agents or publishers . . . and you want to get your work published to launch a fairly new career . . . ask yourself what is the best model for your success? You are exactly the person who needs to get your work onto a lot of editorial desks to be reviewed.

A publisher should know they are in competition for manuscripts, especially when it comes to discovering new talent.

Sure, they’d like an exclusive look. Who wouldn’t?

As a business matter, authors should consider the risk. Ask yourself: what’s the down side? Let’s say one publisher accepts it, and you have to notify others (yes, you should be courteous and do this immediately) that the work was accepted elsewhere and you have to withdraw your submission from further consideration. If they are peeved . . . well, they should have responded sooner if they really wanted to acquire the work.

And you have made the publisher who accepted the work happy; this is the publisher you’ll clearly be working with. You’ve annoyed an editor who thinks he/she “wasted” (possibly) time considering your work, but didn’t move quickly enough. So? It’s only a factor for you and your business if you later want to work with that publisher, and if the same editor is there and maintains a black list. Is there some risk here? Have you possibly burned a bridge? Sure. But I think your outcome, in such a case, is better than having your work sit too long on a single desk.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in playing the literary game fairly. But to me, an exclusive demand for unsolicited work just doesn’t meet my definition of fair to all parties involved.

Further Reading:

Here’s a well-balanced discussion of some issues (Harold Underdown recommends reasonably that you indicate that your submission is a multiple submission): http://www.underdown.org/multiple.htm

Here’s a good author-centric analysis: http://whatdoesnotkillme.com/2009/08/31/simultaneous/

Daily Discipline – The Shadow of the Writer on the Keyboard

Here are six of my favorite motivational tips for writers.

At its best, writing is a daily habit. You are at your desk, on time, each day. You turn in work on schedule – lots of it. Not surprisingly, you get regular checks in the mail: book royalties and payments for articles, columns, short stories, or poems.

But even professional writers have dry spells or need help to keep producing . . . even when things are slow or uncertain. Here are my six favorite tips to get yourself to write. I use them all.

1. Pick a microscopic piece to accomplish next.

Set a tiny goal. Break a larger project down into pieces. Then convince yourself to tackle the smallest bit possible.

My favorite trick is to tell myself I will sit down to write just 15–20 minutes. In fact, once I am at my computer, I’m seldom inclined to stop after such a brief period. Soon, an hour has passed, and I’ve done a good piece of work.

And even tiny sessions quickly add up.

2. Pick a specific time to be at your desk working – and write it down!

Studies show that choosing a specific time in the near future when you intend to tackle a task can double the likelihood that you will actually do it. Writing down that intention further increases your chance of success.

So, for the coming week or month, set a goal – perhaps to write 500 words a day. Personally, I set a modest target of 2,000 words a week, which gives me flexibility to write most but not all days, or to write shorter or longer in each session. Then, I block out four hour-long writing sessions on my weekly planner. I tend to prefer to start around eight o’clock in the evening for most of those, so that’s my target time to be at my desk, ready to write.

3. Create a Positive Metaphor for Starting to Write.

I like to have a mental picture of what happens when I sit down to write. My image is based on the concept of flow; I know that once I start writing, the words will flow. For me, the trick is to get that going.

So, as I sit down to begin, I focus less at that moment on the desired outcome — writing, say, 500 words – and just hold in my mind an image of getting going.

For me, it is the metaphor of the faucet. This is what I “turn on.” I know I have that simple if imaginary switch. I sit down, turn it on, and the writing begins. My mental image is one of reliability; it reminds me that I have creative forces, I have unseen reserves. I just need to get the words moving and out into the light of day.

Others may choose different images or metaphors, such as a visit from a muse. For me, the idea of a muse seems too external and unreliable. As a professional, I know that the main thing at first is not quality but a certain quantity of decent output. Bruce Holland Rogers, author of Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, a great book on the writing process, hit the nail on the head when he said, “My own motto during [a first] draft has been, ‘It doesn’t have to be good. It has to be done.’ Good comes later, in revision.”

4. Bribery

Self-bribery – you can call it positive reinforcement if you wish – is an essential part of my writing life. During the day, it involves strong coffee. Pouring a cup of java means it’s time to get back to my desk. After five, the liquid turns into a glass of a dry red wine. A small nibble of chocolate is a nice complement.

A more puritanical approach would award delectable morsels later, after the work is accomplished. Personally, I’m in favor of small pre-rewards. I grab one and go happily to my computer. Like a good Pavlovian, I salivate, sip, and write. Again, for me, the hard part is sitting down, especially when tired in the evening after a day of editing other people’s work.

Besides, a bit of dark chocolate and a nice earthy Rioja is now recognized as a healthy choice. Yes, there is a kind god in the heavens, after all.

5. Have Two Projects Going.

As a creative person – with passion for writing but some resistance to writing under pressure – I love to have multiple projects underway. Unless a deadline is imminent, this gives me a choice of which I want to work on at a given moment.

In truth, it’s often the other project than the one I planned to tackle when I first sat down. (For instance, I didn’t plan to work on this piece when I first drafted it some months ago! But considering my choices, it suddenly had a lot of appeal.) Serendipity works for me; it makes me productive, if not predictable.

The ability to choose helps to prevent writer’s block. If I hit a wall on one project, finding myself without enthusiasm or good ideas, I just close the file and switch to another project. You’d be surprised how often the avoided problem works itself out smoothly when revisited later. Don’t wallow in projects that are stuck; look for ones that are most exciting.

6. Write, schmuck!

This is from award-winning fantasy novelist Peter Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn and other novels. In an interview a few years ago, he told me that he posted this sign in a prominent place over his desk to remind himself just what his job was. It’s a Yiddish version of the Nike slogan, “Just do it.”

In the Midwest, our version is: “The cows aren’t going to milk themselves, you know.”

This is not an affirmation. It’s a little swift kick in the butt.

I heard another rural Midwestern version somewhere: “The thing that makes the crops grow best is the shadow of the farmer on the field.” For writers, this translates to the shadow of the writer on the computer keyboard.

Some of you, of course, may prefer positive affirmations.
I will write well.
I will finish my big book project by the end of this year and see it on the store shelves in the bestseller section soon after.
I will send a flood of short stories to the best magazines and have them begging for more.
I have published much and will publish much more.
I’m better than other writers at telling my stories.
I am writer, hear me roar.

Yes, I am a writer. Often, though, this means being a tired writer. But I know that a session at the computer, once I get there, makes me feel better. It perks me up. I just often need a little boost to get me there and get me going.

I hope these small suggestions help give you a boost, too.

The cows aren’t going to milk themselves, you know.

Blog Post by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary (www.GreatLakesLit.com) and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.

Branding for Writers – Beginning Principles

Here’s a simple concept: You and your literary work are a brand.

An older term was identity. Now, brand is a newer, broader term to talk about the perceived, implicit promise of what your writing will deliver to a consumer of it.

Stephen King is a brand. His brand: thriller writer, author of familiar dark-fantasy works like Carrie with modern, everyday things like proms and favorite but spooky old cars, etc. He’s from Maine, and is a bit reclusive . . . His brand is that overall expectation that pops into your mind when you see his name on a book or story. Based on that preconception, do you want to read that thing with his name on it?

Think of Dave Barry. Another brand expectation pops up.
Think of David McCullough, nonfiction author of the John Adams bio, 1776, etc.
Think of J.K. Rowling.
Think of . . . you get the picture.

These are mega-brands, the “Coca-Colas” of the literary world.

Is a brand something you want to strive for?
First, you do have a brand. The real question is how strong, consistent, positive, quick is it?

Why would you want to strengthen it? A strong and positive brand pulls your customers to you.

The result of a strong brand: your customers (readers, editors, etc.) choose to come to you. They associate you with what they want: good writing just the way they like it, with style, with panache, with consistency.

So  . . . what are the most basic principles to think about when you start on a quest to review, identify, and strengthen your brand as a professional writer?

1. What’s your area of focus?

If someone hears  your name, or (assuming you’re not already well-known, if someone takes a quick look at your website, your bio, or your other visible aspects . . .what do people expect you to be writing about? And how specific can you be? (Clue: you want to narrow the area of focus down from, “Hey, I’m a writer!”)

2. What’s your literary style?

Within that area of focus, what do people think from knowing or eyeballing your “brand” – often, for newcomers, a quick scan of something you’ve written – about what kind of writing that you’ll deliver in your work? Is your style or choice of content or angle on what you’re writing about . . . humorous, detailed, practical, well-researched, gripping, conversational, succinct, provocative . . . is it filled with the dazzling use of language, are you a plain-talker or good explainer, etc.?

3. What’s your personal story as a writer?

You might think of this, as one brand strategist suggested, as your “Creation Story.” How did you get to be where you are as a writer? What were the beginnings, the influences, the key breaks, the current passions that keep you writing?

4. How can your brand imagery help focus & imprint on fans (current & future!) what your writing delivers?

These are the quickly visible things commonly thought of as branding: the tools that work together to build and reinforce your brand identity. The common ones for a writer include: an engaging short bio, and a logo (well, for many writers this is a bio photo). Also, you might invoke familiar phrases that characterize your work, memorable tag-lines (“slogans”), literary-genre labels, meta-data tags (often invisible except to search engines), images of you at work and play, images of your books, decorative elements highlighted on your website, typography, etc. . . . all working together to reinforce the brand message.

The main thing: a brand more than a logo or slogan. It’s the overall effect, the preconception that people carry with them (or gain quickly) that gives them confidence about what you’ll deliver that they like, want, need. Coca-Cola isn’t just its scripty type logo, red color, catchy songs, and such. It’s the impression that all of those aspects build that suggest (or remind) customers that your “product” is something they like, because they’re familiar with you, or that they will like soon . . . when they read what you’ve written.

For now, think about four principle elements of your literary brand:

  1. area of focus
  2. literary style
  3. your personal story as a writer
  4. the brand imagery to reinforce it all

I’ll go into more detail in follow-up articles on how to identify and strengthen these core elements.

Blog Post by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary (www.GreatLakesLit.com) and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.

Blogging for Writers – What To Blog About

What should I blog about as a writer?

How can I build my online presence, accessibility, and fan base, and boost sales of my stories, my books, or my writing services?

Here’s my short list of good things to blog about for any author. While most are obvious, some are overlooked. And if methodically tackled over time, the accumulating body of posts will create a powerful element of your marketing platform. The goal: think strategically, think long-term and sustainable, and avoid letting your blog become a bottomless sinkhole of time and writing energy.

1. Posts related to the topical focus of your writing.

If you write nonfiction, then post extra tips, new developments in your field, brief case studies or profiles, feedback from readers or colleagues. If your work is fiction, there are plenty of topical connections. As an example, one pair of co-authors, Hilda and Emily Demuth, wrote a children’s chapter book called Plank Road Summer, a historical novel. It’s a story of two best friends, 19th-century rural life, the plank road that runs by their homes in southeastern Wisconsin near Lake Michigan, and a subplot about a fugitive slave trying to escape to Canada in the decade before the Civil War. Those are the topics they can write posts about: period history, Underground Railroad resources, growing up on a Midwestern farm, etc. They can offer links to regional museums, Civil War re-enactor events, other books or websites, that relate in some way to their book’s topics.

2. Posts to tell the story of researching and writing your work.

Tell how you got the initial idea for a major piece of work, researched it, wrote it. What got you going on this topic? Was it a lifelong interest or a sudden brainstorm or remarkable encounter? How did the idea get fleshed out? What was the break-through to develop something special or unique? What problems did you encounter? Why do you think the work is worth reading? People are interested in the writing process, and enjoy behind-the-scenes knowledge.

3. Posts to present your nature as a likable person.

What kind of person are you? Funny? Wry? Thoughtful? Kitchen-table friendly? People enjoy getting to know other people; blogs, with their conversational, storytelling, quirky nature, are great vehicles for this. And knowing a bit about a writer’s personality probably gives an insight into their writing.

4. Post about your own journey as a writer.

What writers inspired you (and how?) What were your early writing activities? How did you get to this point, how did you build your career? Remember, the blog format is best for short bits of story, not full-fledged biography. Keep it brief. Do you remember a teacher who inspired you? Remember writing your first story as a young writer? Not surprisingly, childhood or adolescent or early-career memories can connect deeply with readers.

5. Where do you live?

Location often informs and affects your writing. An author from the American Midwest might be different in outlook from one from the East Coast, West Coast, Deep South, Scotland, Zimbabwe, etc. Not in all ways, but in some ways. Your location also has some practical application in the publishing world; it affects conference attendance, speaking engagements, inclusion on lists of regional literature, etc. And it is a basic search tool: searching the web for Philip Martin in Wisconsin gets you closer to me than a generic search for that very common name.

6. Posts to give contact information, ordering details, book reviews.

A good blog includes some way to contact you or your agent, how to order your book or engage you on a new project. Post info about coming appearances (and brief reports afterward will help reinforce the connection). Describe any programs or workshops you offer. Post recent reviews (from periodicals) or testimonials (praise from knowledgeable individuals) for your work.

7. Posts with some brief samples of your published writing.

This should be obvious! I wouldn’t overdo it, but oddly, I see that brief excerpts of published writing are often not included on many writer blogs. It’s interesting to see which passages a writer might choose to quote, which are particularly dear to you. You can add a bit of commentary about your craft. Who’s your favorite character, and why? Why did you pick a particular structure, point of view, word choice?

8. Posts to connect with related topics of current interest.

Share news and opinions, comment on breaking trends. For instance, if you’re writing Regency romances, comment on the breaking news (as of writing the first version of this article in 2009!) of the Tiger Woods illicit-romantic-flings scandal. Marketing your work involves connecting it with anything people are interested in, reading about, talking about today. And this can create strong search-engine interest.

A blog lets you work these ideas out over time, in bits and pieces, allowing you to grow your own thoughts and expressions about your work, organically (unlike a website that tends to be more static). A blog is clearly a work-in-progress. It lets a writer try out pieces of his/her “stump speech” – stories and info-bits that might become part of the standard patter of the accomplished writer, appearing on jacket flaps or in interviews.

If you do this with skill and aplomb, with a fresh twist, you can develop a great resource that shows you off in a positive light, that pumps up the search engines, that develops a growing audience, that shows you off to influential people in the business (agents, editors, reviewers, interviewers) in the best ways.

Just keep your eyes on the prize. Consider the needs of your reader. Always remember it’s a marketing tool, albeit one that will grow in bits and pieces.

Blog Post by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary (www.GreatLakesLit.com) and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.

Blogging for Writers – Beginning Principles

As you consider launching a blog as a writer to feature your work, I suggest you start with these three simple principles.

Plan for Longevity

Many blogs start with a great flurry of activity, then fade away after an initial burst of energy in the first months. So it’s very important to find a frequency that you can sustain.

In my experience, the key is to find a pace that you can keep going for a long time – a year and beyond. This will yield better results.

Therefore, your core commitment should be for less frequent, rather than more frequent posts. Consider: if you write a good post at least once a month, then your oldest post won’t be more than a month old! Write more frequently if you can, as long as you maintain your minimum commitment.

Too often, you’ll hear that you must post wildly often, in a frenzy of blogification! You’ll hear that you must post at least twice a week. Nice idea, but do you have the time to do that? And shouldn’t you be writing other things . . . working on that novel, that article, that white paper, the poem, that short story . . .?

To keep it under control, but yet develop a real consistency, plan to blog less frequently. Keep track of all those ideas, but when it’s time to post, choose the best one!

Clearly, I’m not a fan of blog blather. Quality often will prevail over quantity in the literary business.

Show Your Personality

The more personal, the better the blog.

Good writing starts with an abiding and sincere passion: yours! What gets you charged up enough to write about?

Your blog is your voice, your personality, your best ideas and experiences.

Someone said that while a website is like a brochure, a blog is like a conversation. You don’t want to sound like a generic announcer (boring) . . . or like an implausible carnival pitchman (over-the-top).

Talk like you really talk – especially when you’re excited about something and want to share it with a friend.

Write with a Spirit of Giving

This is the real magnet for readers – and the heart of the whole concept of blogging. Start with your own experiences and passions and personality, but consider what is most valuable to others. And give it away. Generously.

People aren’t coming to your blog to hear every thought you have or recent occurrence in your life. They are coming to read something useful.

And they aren’t trapped in an elevator with you.

So keep it short.

That’s All!

In the end, the success of your blog will be based on the solid foundation of those three principles. It’s simple.

Happy blogging!

Blog Post by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary (www.GreatLakesLit.com) and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.

More Kindle, Schmindle – Further Thoughts on Books, Stories, and Pages

I’m still not convinced that eBooks are as successful literary devices as print books are, or even that they have as great potential. (They have other potential – speed and info abundance and portability – but they fall short, I believe, in pure storytelling impact.)

Compare how differently each stimulates the use of brain, especially the creative imaginations of the readers. In children’s books, an example is the book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, winner of a 2008 Caldecott Medal.

(It led, of course, to the movie Hugo, which then built its own imaginative story-rich world appropriate to that movie medium.)

For those interested in books and literature, it’s worth reading this speech by the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret book, with insight into the power of the book and the printed page.

In his speech, Selznick considered the secret of the magic of a book:

And the secret was in the page turns.

Think about the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are. The pictures grow until they take over the entire book and there is no more room for words. Only the reader turning the page can move the story forward. We are put in charge at the exact moment Max himself takes charge. We become Max, all because of the page turns.

Ultimately, it’s about the power of the story, not the medium. But many of the best authors (and publishers) are still working with the printed page, and it’s not because they don’t know better.

It’s like the testimony at the 2012 Oscar Award ceremony a few nights ago, as a host of silver-screen actors commented on the impact that going to the movies had on them. It was a story of a rich experience, often a communal one, and one where the size of the screen, with its ability to draw one into its depths, and the immense commitment of the actors and directors to the quality of that experience, rang loud and clear. They may not have said it out loud, but they were arguing against grand movies turned into small-sized shrunken videos seen on a tiny iPad or Kindle, or against the amateur immediacy of YouTube – at least when quality is concerned.

Brian Selznick also references, in his speech, a “brilliant little essay,” titled “A Page is a Door,” by one of his own book-making heroes, Remy Charlip:

A book is a series of pages held together at one edge, and these pages can be moved on their hinges like a swinging door. . . . Of course if a door has something completely different behind it, it is much more exciting. The element of delight and surprise is helped by the physical power we feel in our own hands when we move that page or door to reveal a change in everything that has gone before, in time, place, or character. A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book’s unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.

Yes, Charlip and Selznick are talking here about picture books. But I’d argue that a similar phenomenon takes places, with a more subtle nature, in chapter books. For some reason, we understand and enjoy the finiteness of the page, the feel of the paper, the curiosity of what lies on the other side.

Consider another series of books of recent success: the Harry Potter series. For some reason, millions of fans wanted to buy and read hardcover books. Yes, this was in part because it was the only format the books were first released in. But there was also a sense of community. Kids and adults stood in lines, got their books, and sat and read them, joining in a real-life worldwide community of readers focused on a very tangible thing: a new novel by J.K. Rowling. Was there a prestige of being the first to have and hold those pages?

Would those books ever have succeeded had they been conceived, released, and existed only as eBooks? I suspect that the physical existence of all those printed books and all those readers of all those printed books . . . and the ongoing presence of the books on shelves in home and bookstores and libraries . . . has something to do with their success.

And . . . if they were only released as eBooks, would the author and publisher have even bothered? (See my argument for the effect an eBook-dominated approach would have on authors – especially authors of longer works – in my original Kindle, Schmindle post on this Writer’s Handbook blog.)

If nothing else, I’m encouraging people not to jump on the eBooks bandwagon because of a misperception that it’s somehow “the future of books.” Let’s look more closely at the medium and what’s being done with it.

Will eBooks ever capture the same excitement of getting a real copy of [your favorite book here] and curling up in a comfortable chair to open the cover and begin to turn the pages?

Until eBooks can deliver that kind of magic, I still have a preference for the printed book.

Simplicity and Good Storytelling

“Once upon a time” is such a simple beginning. Yet so effective.
Is this a contradiction? No . . . not if you understand that true simplicity is not easy.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

(He is paraphrasing Einstein, who said: “the simplicity on this side of complexity was easy; but the simplicity on the other side of complexity took real thought and effort.”)

To add a thought from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.)”

The most enduring story can be simple in many aspects. Consider a great book like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both use the seeming simplicity of childhood to tell a powerful story about one of the most complex subjects in American culture: racism (the human causes and consequences).

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. . . . When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
– from To Kill a Mockingbird

I recall writing a short story in high school. When I got it back, my teacher noted he was duly impressed with my use of language, allusion, imagery, etc. But he didn’t understand the ending. I had failed to make it clear enough. I thought it was so obvious, the crowing glory of my tale . . . but a very intelligent reader was baffled. Good story? Not really.

Perfect sincerity and transparency make a great part of beauty, as in dewdrops, lakes, and diamonds.
– Henry David Thoreau

I remember when I drove a car. As a kid, I had grown up with long cross-country trips in the family automobile to visit my grandparents in California. My dad was a smooth, calm, masterful driver. So when I first got behind a wheel as a teen, then, I must have thought driving was exceedingly simple. When I encountered my first curve, I naturally tried to be as smooth as my dad, taking the turn with a slow, imperceptible nudge of the steering wheel.

Next thing I knew I was careering on the shoulder of the road. It took a powerful yank on the wheel to over-correct and swing me wildly back onto the road, where I swerved madly for a few long seconds.

Hmmm. Seems like my old man actually had a lot experience behind his smooth driving ability. He saw each curve in the road ahead and made many little preparatory adjustments unknown to us passengers . . . and so we flew through every curve like our car was predestined to follow the road.

I had just learned that the appearance of simplicity can involve a lot of skill.

Many emerging writers are like I was when first learning to drive. They try to look cool and calm, then they hit that curve in their story’s plot and end up careening back and forth. Or they zoom about from the start, hoping to impress us like a teenager trying to impress a date with a flashy car.

But great stories often have a much more direct route, with a smooth flow that seems as natural as a creek following a stream-bed that seems to have always existed.

Oscar Wilde said, “Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple, and the simple thing is the right thing.”

He might as well have said: “A good story is not complex. We are complex.” Therein lies the crux of it. A good storyteller needs to learn when to let a story carry itself forward, when to get out of the way. And by doing so, to let readers fill in some part of the complexity from their own rich experiences.

In short, simplicity is not a beginning stage, something you graduate from. It is may well be the goal.

Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.
– George Sand

What if your literary story were more simple, more sincere, more transparent in some way?

Would it be worse . . . or better?