Writing as . . . Composting?

Colorful tulips blooming in a field.

I write about the weather often because I live in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Extremes. 2019 has been full of them. February’s –30-degree temperatures (without windchill) burst pipes in a building on the college campus where I teach, requiring classes to be moved out of the building for an entire semester. In May, five inches of rain fell on an otherwise ordinary day. 

Minnesotans consider spring sacred because it’s relatively moderate. My favorite part is tulips that bloom outside my home’s back door. Their hardiness, beauty, and short-lived presence after long, dark, brutal winters never cease to inspire me. I obsess over them. Once their green leaves push through the soil—and sometimes through the snow—I check on them as if they were pets. When they bloom, I stare at them giddily for a few minutes every time I step outside. When fall comes, I buy and plant additional bulbs because some Minnesota winters kill even the heartiest souls. And because I firmly believe one can never have too many tulips.

Like a tulip, a student essay I graded this spring pushed up through final exams’ black stress and white blanket of papers to present a colorful bud. The student mistyped our textbook’s title, The Composition of Everyday Life, and Microsoft Word autocorrected it as The Composting of Everyday Life

Initially, I sighed with irritation. 

Then I giggled, amused.

But when I stopped to think about the phrase, I fell in love with it. 

Composting everyday life seems like a perfect definition of writing. Creative nonfiction, especially, requires cutting through experience to find its most colorful or flavorful elements. Reflecting on and working with those parts to create something worth consuming. Revising to eliminate waste. Celebrating the fruits of my labor. Allowing the waste and myself to rest. Using the waste to prepare the soil for future projects. 

For me, the hardest part of writing is eliminating waste—better known among writers as killing my darlings. I’m a teacher, so I overexplain everything in early drafts. Cutting passages I labored over hurts, but it’s less painful when I think of it as composting instead of throwing away. That mindset was especially helpful recently, as I wrote a book proposal. 

I’ll be honest: Creating a proposal was among the hardest and grossest things I’ve had to write, and that includes my Ph.D. dissertation. Aside from the strict format and application of phrases like “poignant but inspiring” to my writing voice (eeeww!), I resented putting so much work into something I might never need. There is no consensus among agents or publishers about pitching memoir. It’s narrative, so some want it pitched like fiction, which doesn’t require a proposal. But it’s nonfiction, so some want it pitched like a how-to or research-based book, which does require a proposal. Most don’t specify, leaving the writer to make her best guess. And forget about consensus as to what belongs in a memoir proposal. One thing all agree on, however, is the need for a chapter outline, and that was the toughest part to write. I had to summarize each chapter of a book I’d revised over and over to add layers of complexity and subtlety (I hope!) by boiling it down to one typed line per page. 

While painful, the outlining exercise proved (I grudgingly admit) informative. I began to see my book’s potential in new ways, to question links among themes that had previously seemed as obvious as rotting vegetables, and to identify weeds I’d thought were flowers. It made me want to revise my entire manuscript again (while also laughing with hysterical madness at the very idea). The proposal and the additional revision it inspired seemed like wasted time and effort, but in truth, it was composting: revisiting early drafts and remixing the book’s ideas to create a layer of nutrients that would feed the final draft’s blossoms. Composting makes the process feel more like pruning to make the bloom healthier than throwing away something nature and I worked hard to grow. So I cut, mix, rest, and then sift the draft, letting “dead” passages fall away, perhaps to feed future projects. If nothing else, the process creates improved writing skills.

I can’t say that revising will ever be as fun as watching Netflix or riding horses, but it’s certainly less malodorous when I think of it as composting rather than trashing.

Image by 1195798 from Pixabay

Taking Risks as a Writer

A GIF of a daisy bloomingAre you a raging risk taker? The person who jumps out of planes, eats live crickets, or bets thousands of dollars on a single throw at the craps table? Do you take risks in your writing too? If so, pat on the back for you, carry on.

While I know some fairly bold writers, as a general rule, we tend not to be risky. We like our books and our coffee and our computers and our dogs (or cats).  We hunker down with our words and our small group of humans and pets and live mostly in our minds.

Recently as I sat at my desk, staring at the query letter on my screen and refusing to press send, I thought about the importance of taking risks. I could press send and risk receiving the dreaded rejection letter in return. Or I could stare at the query letter, safe from rejection, with no shot at securing an agent or having my book traditionally published.

The question is, which caused me more pain? The risk of rejection or the risk of not achieving a dream? As I procrastinated, I came across this quote from Robert Schueller: “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”

Well, hell, when you put it that way, the list of what I’d do is pretty long. And it starts with sending that query letter.

So in the spirit of taking risks, here are a few more reasons why it’s important to take risks as a writer.

You don’t get anywhere playing safe

If you have dreams of getting your work out into the world, then at some point, you have to let someone else read it. You need to submit it to an anthology, literary magazine, or contest. Maybe start that blog you’ve always thought about. Submit to a magazine.

Start small, with something that only gives you a tiny bit of panic. Maybe it’s a local anthology or contest, or maybe you feel better in the anonymity of a larger competition. Pick one place where you are going to submit your work in the next thirty days, and do it. Once you take that tiny leap, you can grow and become bolder with your work. Challenge yourself. It’s important.

Learning to “embrace the suck” helps you to overcome your fear

I know people who take cold showers solely for the purpose of overcoming discomfort. It’s a way for them to actively condition their mind to stay present and overcome their hesitation to a situation that they know is going to be uncomfortable.  There’s a school of thought that says you should do something that makes you uncomfortable every day.

What makes you uncomfortable in your writing practice? Are you nervous about sharing your work out loud? Get out to an open mic night (like Dime Stories, here in San Diego) and share your newest piece. Always wanted to write poetry but not sure where to start? Take a class. It’s okay, if you’re not good at something to start, you’ll get better. Build your writing muscle, or your reading aloud muscle, or whatever muscle needs work because it causes you fear.

Sometimes you learn more from a belly flop than you do from a swan dive

In the early drafts of my book, I had a prologue that I loved. LOVED. The rhythmic quality of it. The words. The imagery. I protected that preamble like a troll hoards gold. It was my Precious.

A few months later, I brought that prologue and the first few chapters of my book to a writing workshop hosted by one of my writing heroes. And you know what? That prologue got shredded. Not like a delicate tear. Like a hungry bear destroying a campsite. It was a good lesson. My beloved prologue was not the beautiful swan dive I thought it was and as a result of belly flopping in front of fellow writers, it made my work that much stronger.

Expose yourself to new experiences and new people

The workshop you were afraid of? You met some lifelong friends. That poetry reading you didn’t want to attend by yourself? You got at least three ideas that will improve your work. The open mic night that gave you dry mouth and made you shake? You met two new people who introduced you to two other people with whom your formed a read and critique group. New experiences lead to great things.

It’s important for us as writers to take risks so we can grow. As Anaïs Nin said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk to bloom.”

It’s time to bloom.

Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work (Part II of II)

A Great White Shark attacking a lineIn Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part I, I broke the rules by suggesting that we writers can benefit from two reality TV shows: Project Runway and Shark Tank.

While Project Runway inspires creativity and shepherds me through the writing process, Shark Tank teaches me how to pitch my work for publication without becoming prey.

Pitching in Primetime

Shark Tank grants inventors the opportunity to pitch their products to venture capitalists (the sharks), who then decide whether to invest. The pitch room is called “the shark tank” for good reason: Investors are shrewd entrepreneurs who cut their teeth as they battled their way to the top. They don’t suffer fools, and they smell blood in the water a mile away. They extend investment offers only when a great product comes from a well-prepared inventor.

Pitching Basics from the Boardroom to Publishers

The same applies to publishers. Nonprofit presses enlarge the tank we writers dive into, but the feeding frenzies that surround submission are no less intense. Pitching a book is so similar to what Shark Tank portrays that watching TV feels like taking a course. When pitching to agents or editors, writers have three minutes to describe their target market, highlight their book’s unique features, and convince “paper sharks” that investment will lead to profit.

The show provides a second benefit, too. While agents and editors rarely explain why they reject a piece of writing and don’t give feedback unless they sign the writer, Shark Tank investors do both.

Let’s Meet the Sharks!

Like reality shows, however, not all sharks are created equal. Several seasons have helped me identify species that bear striking similarities to people who comment on writers’ work.

WHALE Shark (Robert Herjavec).

He proposes only win-win deals, and he wants investors to succeed whether or not he backs them. Whale Sharks don’t have teeth; their writing-world counterparts have no agenda. They don’t need to show off, have their ego stroked, or hear their own voice, so they speak little but convey a lot. Seek them out in writing groups, conferences, and critiques. Listen carefully. Take what they say to heart. Employ their advice; it will lift your work to the surface like a buoy.

The GREAT WHITE Shark (Kevin O’Leary).

Whether O’Leary or his writing-world counterpart, the Great White lives to get his teeth into writers and tear them to shreds, but only after batting them around for his own amusement. He panders to an audience he imagines is awed by his power and amused by his antics. He’s not above nipping at fellow sharks, swooping in at the last second to grind their offers—and the inventor/writer—to minced meat. He cuts down others to raise his profile, so unless you find value in something he says, ignore it all.

The BULL Shark (Mark Cuban).

Bull Sharks are mercurial: docile enough to hand-feed one second, voracious enough to attack the next. Their gut guides their every move. How their writing-world counterparts react to a text depends on their perception of its author. If intrigued, they offer a win-win deal—but only after they investigate to a degree that unnerves. If provoked (even unintentionally), they strike. If not engaged within the first 20 seconds, they dart out of reach and disappear. Regardless of their reaction, heed whatever feedback they give; they have a killer instinct.

The LEMON Shark (Laurie Greiner, Barbara Corcoran, and guest investors).

Lemon sharks prefer to observe from the periphery before they enter the fray. Smaller and less aggressive than other species, they rely on agility rather intimidation; therefore, they navigate shifting currents with ease. Their writing-world counterparts’ feedback may conflict, but that’s what makes it special. Keen eyesight aids them in glimpsing flashes of insight in murky depths. Consider their comments carefully; some are sinkers, while others’ quiet wisdom makes them rise above.

Finally, Shark Tank reminds me to pursue publication with a sense of humor. The most successful inventors laugh, even as the quake. The more shark teeth they reveal through smiles, the less likely they are to get eaten alive.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen

Harnessing the Power of Six-Word Memoirs

a lit fire in a fireplace with hearthSix years ago, I lost my job right around the same time I became an empty nester. Adrift without direction and needing inspiration, I decided to sign up for the TedX San Diego conference.  I was surprised to learn there was an application form to be turned in before being accepted as a participant.  Among the thought provoking questions was a requirement to write a six-word memoir. We would use these six-word memoirs as talking points with other participants. That gave me pause. It had been years since I had written and shared my writing with others. Could I even write a six-word memoir?

It turned out to be a powerful exercise, requiring me to discern what had been the most important and interesting theme or themes in my life thus far and pointing to what I knew best.  

After much debate, I settled on this:  Smoking-gun girl cooks from the hearth.

I hoped to stimulate conversation:  Why Smoking-gun girl? What’s important about cooking? Why the word “hearth?”

I had a reputation for being a “finder,” earning me the nickname, “Smoking-gun girl,” and I liked this about myself.  I was inherently tenacious and knew whether I was seeking a critical piece of evidence, the perfect family vacation, or enlightenment, I was going to keep at it, paying attention to patterns and ferreting out the keystone.  

I had also developed a passion for cooking—not gourmet cooking, mind you, but something closer to peasant cooking.  I made endless variations of stone soup and relished the sensual art of hand chopping ingredients and melding them together. To me the hearth was symbolic of gathering together and nourishing each other with good food and good stories.

This six-word memoir pleased me and, in fact, helped me shape the next phase of my life.  Most importantly, it got me writing again. At that TedX conference, as I was sharing my six-word memoir with others, my adrift and unfocused self suddenly saw a simple next step: I would start a cooking and storytelling blog. I wanted to use my favorite recipes as a springboard from which to tell stories.  My blog would be my cyber hearth.  

I revisit the idea of the six-word memoir from time to time. I still find it to be a powerful focusing exercise for my writing. A few years ago I was a “Zen Tantrika Witch Casting Writing Spells.” These days I am more of a “Devoted Rock-climbing Dakini Cooking Up Stories.”  

I hope you’ll track me down and ask me about it.  And if you do, I’m going to return the favor and ask you:  What is your six-word memoir?  Please, do tell!

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1896745/

 

Writing with Intention: How Understanding Why You Write Can Help You Sell

a neon question mark in a graffiti-filled tunnelI recently spoke with a potential client who has written a nonfiction guide to help parents recognize the signs of late speech development in their children. Besides being articulate and able to clearly describe the book’s content and its audience, this author was particularly succinct about what she was looking for in the way of publicity. “I want to reach as many parents, teachers, and pediatric health professionals as I can about how to recognize the signs of speech and language development issues in children,” she said. “I also would like to cast as wide a net as possible via the media, so that parents and pediatric associations know about the information in my book and how it can help them.”

This particular client’s clarity about her goals is similar to having a corporate mission statement, which many companies use to provide vision and direction to their employees. When a company has a clearly written mission statement, employees can use it to tune in to upper management’s expectations and determine how they fit with the corporate mission. They can more easily grasp the company’s purpose and who its customers are, as well as develop a better sense of how to serve those customers.

Likewise, having a clear sense of the purpose your book serves and what you’d like to do with it can be very helpful to you (and the marketing professionals you might hire) when it’s time to promote your work.

In New Age circles, pundits call this sense of clarity and direction working with intention. When we work with intention, i.e., when we’re clear about why we’ve written something and understand its value to others, not only does the work flow more easily, but we are much more likely to be able to correctly describe and promote it.

The intention behind a written work can take many forms. Some authors intend to write books that are instructive or informational. Others write to entertain.

Some write because they feel compelled to do so, or because a certain storyline keeps playing over and over in their heads and they want to capture it in written form.

Some write to heal, as is often the case with memoir. Those who keep diaries or journals may do so as a means of knowing themselves better.

Many authors write because they love language or because they like playing with ideas. Others use writing as a way to develop a community connection, through meetings with other writers and the readers of their work.

Some write to document family history for future generations, while others do it purely for pleasure, as a way to pass blocks of time.

But no matter what the reason, it helps to know why you’re writing, so that when the writing is done—be it a novel, a short story, a nonfiction guidebook, a memoir, or a collection of poems—you’ll better understand it’s purpose and intended audience. This understanding makes it easier to pinpoint what you need to explain that purpose and reach your audience which, in turn, will help you make decisions about how you’re going to promote your work.

So, before beginning your marketing efforts, ask yourself, “Why did I create this piece?  What is its purpose? Who is my book written for, and how will it help those who read it?” Write down your answers; they’ll help you understand your original intention and determine what you need to do now to sell it.

 

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Query Letters Are Impossible (But Here Are Some Websites That Helped Me)

girl climbing cliff while man shoots at zombiesI’ve got this manuscript, and I’ve been querying agents. It’s a little terrifying.

First, the basics: a query letter is about 250 words long, and it pitches your novel to an agent who might be interested in representing it to publishers. Also, it is somehow harder to write than an entire novel.

I’ve sent out one round of queries and gotten no bites, so I’ve been revamping my manuscript and submission materials. As I reach the eve of another round of querying, I thought I’d share the query-writing-related resources I’ve found most helpful so far.

Writer’s Digest Successful Queries

A compendium of blog posts by different agents showing great queries for successfully published books. Some of these queries are spectacular, some are really solid, and some aren’t my thing at all—all of which was super helpful for understanding what querying looks like from the agent’s side.

Query Shark

The Writer’s Digest list was many agents unpacking good queries. This is one agent, Janet Reid, unpacking great queries, mediocre queries, and disastrously bad queries, with discussions of what works and what doesn’t. Query Shark is funny, terrifying, and unbelievably helpful, and I learned a huge amount reading her archives.

Agent Query Connect

Forums for writers in the querying process. Their critique forums in particular are fantastic. You post your query, you critique other people’s posted queries, and they return the favor. There are pros and cons to getting a wide range of opinions (remember: your writing is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship), but I found it amazingly helpful. It’s hard having your 250 words battered into shape by total strangers, and it’s so worth it. This place and Query Shark genuinely made me a better writer. My ear for wordiness is vastly better than it was six months ago.

Absolute Write Water Cooler

If Agent Query is a writers’ forum about querying, Absolute Write is a writers’ forum about everything. Honestly, it’s so big I’m not entirely sure what’s on there. I know they’ve got a critique forum a lot like Agent Query where you can post your query for critique (many more rules, though—read the stickies!), and they have excellent advice for people in all stages of the writing and publishing process.

Absolute Write: Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check

This subforum of Absolute Write is where writers discuss their experiences with agents and publishers. They have posts on what to expect from a legitimate agent or publisher and how to spot a scam, but mainly they discuss individual publishers and agents. It’s not all laments about dodgy dealings—many posts describe writers’ experiences with professionals who are fantastic at their jobs. If you’re wondering who’s legit, who’s a scam, and who’s amazing, I can’t recommend this place highly enough.

There are lots of resources I haven’t covered because I haven’t used them much yet. But I hope some of this was helpful! Whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or fixing up your manuscript to publish yourself, good luck out there!

PHOTO CREDIT: https://pixabay.com/en/zombies-silhouette-girl-boy-gun-2258609/

What Makes a Good Memoir?

a book with a landscape popping out of it.As a publicist, I’m sent books of all genres by authors interested in my services, but lately, I seem to be on the receiving end of a lot of memoirs. I’ve also spoken to a higher-than-usual number of memoir writers, who either telephone or approach me with questions at writer’s conferences. The bulk of these conversations has to do with why their memoirs aren’t selling and what the authors can do to make them better.

My first suggestion for all memoir writers is to take a look at their market and identify the different types of people who would want to read their book. This is tricky, for while many memoir writers have done a good job of detailing certain aspects of their personal history, a number of them have not thought about who might be interested in reading what they’ve written.

A lot of memoirs I’ve seen recently are nothing more than personal recountings of an individual’s experiences—some of which are, indeed, memorable. But I’ve found that a great number of memoirs contain information that might only be interesting to the author. In this category, I include stories about having a child out of wedlock, rescue missions by health care workers, struggles with family members over an elderly relative’s care, vacations or trips abroad, collections of stories that the author told his/her children while they were growing up, or collections of a family member’s letters from World War II. Although engaging and, occasionally, entertaining, books with these topics typically focus on material or experiences that a number of us have already encountered in our own lives. And, thus, because we readers are familiar with the situations ourselves, stories like these don’t always make interesting reading.

So, what makes a compelling memoir? To become a bestseller, a memoir must have a strong storyline. That means that there is a beginning, middle, and end to the events recounted in the book. Examples of breakout memoirs with clear timelines are Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, where the author, Danish baroness, Karin von Blixen-Finecke, describes the political and emotional barriers she faced while trying to build a coffee farm in Kenya. Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas, the rebellious and flamboyant Cuban poet and playwright, also falls into this category. He describes both his early years as a homosexual artist under the Castro regime, including his imprisonments and escapes, and his last days as an exile in the United States.

Successful memoirs also have compelling or distinct characters in them. Just like fiction, a good memoir will introduce the reader to individuals who are memorable and, sometimes, highly unusual. Examples include Augusten Burrough’s mother, Deidre, and her unorthodox psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, in Running with Scissors, or the sadistic mother in A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer.

Often, as in fiction, the individuals in a memoir will be sympathetic, so that readers strongly identify with them. This is particularly true of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, who begins her book by depicting herself in a heap on the bathroom floor, devastated by a recent divorce, or Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, who lost her husband to a sudden heart attack and shares the aftermath with the reader in a way that is heart-wrenchingly honest.

Another reason for the success of these two memoirs is the fact that they both tell love stories. In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert begins the memoir with the loss of love (after a failed marriage) and then ends it with the start of a new relationship with the man who would eventually become her next husband. Likewise, Didion recounts the significant moments of her marriage to her husband, John Gregory Dunne, as she describes her attempts to grapple with her grief at his passing. These two books are skillfully written, with clear, strong voices and brave directness, and both authors draw painful moments with great tenderness.

People in successful memoirs often face situations with high stakes consequences and experience an emotional trajectory, or arc, whereby the individuals are changed somehow at the end of the book. Many memoirs have to do with the author or a parental figure teetering on the brink of alcoholism (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller), destitution (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt), poverty and spousal abuse (All Over but the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg), drug addiction (A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey), cultural adversity (Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver-Relin), and life-threatening adventure (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer). What makes these books stand out above others is that in all of these stories, the authors or their loved ones faced extreme circumstances—incarceration, kidnapping, starvation, emotional abandonment, and, sometimes, imminent death—and somehow survived.

In addition to the victim/survival type memoir, there are celebrity memoirs, where the author recounts his own story as a celebrity or his experiences living or working with one (examples include Here’s the Story by The Brady Bunch star, Maureen McCormick, or Everything about Me is Fake and I’m Perfect by supermodel Janice Dickenson). There are also tell-all or insider memoirs, where the individual describes events in an environment that most of us would never have a chance to experience. Many of these are political in tone, such as John Dean’s Blind Ambition, the anti-Nixon tome published in 1976, or George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, which described intimate details about the first family during the Clinton administration.

The message here is that unless your memoir is something like the ones I’ve mentioned in this post, you might have a tough time selling it. That doesn’t mean that authors shouldn’t write memoirs—on the contrary, writing a memoir can be a wonderfully revealing and cathartic experience for the author and of great significance to family members and friends. But, to reach further audiences, memoirs that don’t involve a celebrity connection or insider information must have a definable storyline, remarkable characters, high stakes, and a great love story—or some combination, thereof—in order to experience breakout success.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/book-writer-read-landscape-paper-1014197/

The Feisty Writer’s Guide to Tackling Your Fears

People on scary carnival rideWriting Task Terror Challenge

 Being the feisty coach that I am, I want to encourage you to start to tackle your writing fears.

“But how, how, how?”  you ask. “They are my fears; I can’t just conquer them. I am filled with writing anxiety. I am scared to reach out to an agent. I can’t submit to a contest, go to a networking event, or travel to a different city to pitch my story!”

 Yeah, you actually can. I’ve watched many a timid writer transform into a fierce writing lion in action. And I have a plan. It’s easy, and I know you can do it.

 Do one writing task per month that terrifies you!

 Let’s take a minute to talk about what you may be avoiding:

 Sending a query letter. Sending your 12th query letter. Making a cold call. Writing a book proposal. Pitching an agent. Signing up for a conference. Submitting to a contest. Applying for a writing job. Reaching out to a writing mentor you respect. Attending a class. Finding a writing group. Completing your book. Taking a manuscript out of the drawer and showing it to someone. (add your own here)

 Now let me break down my little plan for you in 4 easy steps:

Step one: Make a list of things that you want/need to get done in the next six months to reach a writing goal. Include the things that you really don’t want to do, or that freak you out.

Step two: Grab a calendar. Pick a day of the month (say the 15th) and make it your Writing Task Day.

Step three: On that day (for example, Oct 15th, then Nov 15th…), for six months, perform a task that you would normally shy away from.

Step four: Put it out of your mind until the next month.

Important: What matters is staying in creative motion and putting yourself out there. Don’t become attached to the outcome. I once worked with a client who had submitted her book for a year. Ready to quit, she said she would only submit one more. Well, three submissions later, she found her perfect agent. Had she quit at one more, her career would never have blossomed. Letting go of the outcome allowed her to keep moving.

 What you will notice: The first time will be the scariest.

 Then, you will find that:

Being bold is addicting!

 Why? Because you will realize that what has been holding you in its grips so tightly–telling you that you can’t do it, well, it no longer has a hold on you.  

 And the more you get out there, the more you will have successful experiences. Failures too. That’s just part of it. But the successes will happen–and they will happen because you stayed in creative motion.

 Send us an e-mail with a pic of you doing the thing that scares you the most!

 

Photo credit: http://nos.twnsnd.co/image/149083312733

Rising Above the Noise: What Authors Can Do to Make Themselves and Their Work Stand Out

Girl on snowy field jumping in the airIt’s a tough world for most authors. With so many books out there for readers to choose from, how can authors make themselves and their books stand out?

If you’re an author who feels stymied by a lack of exposure, here are a few suggestions to get you thinking about ways to rise above the crowd.

Share Your Enthusiasm

Passion is infectious–when someone deeply cares about something and is openly passionate about it, others can’t help but notice. In all your communications, whether it be a press release, a blog post, a Facebook post, a tweet, a comment on Goodreads to thank a reader, a panel appearance, or an individual speaking engagement–don’t be afraid to let your enthusiasm and passion for your book and its contents shine through. Let your energy channel through your voice–use strong verbs and bold adjectives in your writing, so that your readers feel the passion when they read your words. If you’re speaking, be excited, honest, and authentic–engage your audience by asking questions and answering with as much enthusiasm as you can muster. Your audience will feel your passion and respond in kind by buying your books, writing reviews, and acting as brand ambassadors for you when they help spread those all-important word-of-mouth endorsements of you and your book.

Jump on Opportunities

A former client called me this morning excited about a glowing review she recently received in the Los Angeles Times book section. She asked me how we could keep the momentum going, so we noodled on some possibilities together. The point is that getting good press isn’t the be-all and end-all for an author. You can and should use any media exposure you receive to your advantage: contact booksellers who may have passed before you got the coverage and ask them to shelve and promote your book, schedule a book tour with those bookstores, secure keynote and panel opportunities at conferences, contact other media who might be more interested in you now that there is some buzz about your book. The possibilities are endless– what’s important is that you use your current success to engender more of it.

Be Open

Vulnerability sells, especially in the blogosphere. Those authors wanting to connect with readers will find the most success if they’re willing to be honest about themselves, their flaws, and their failures. It’s not our natural inclination to present ourselves as weak or as having made mistakes–these types of admissions make us feel vulnerable, and we worry that we won’t be respected or liked, because of our peccadillos. But the most popular bloggers out there are so because they’re willing to bare all. We see their flaws and realize that we’re the same way. It’s almost like looking into a mirror–most of us feel safe when we see ourselves in others. We identify with the author’s pain, and when that happens, the connection is powerful.

Leave No Stone Unturned

The more exposure you have to readers out there, the more it’s likely that they will know you. If you sit at home in your office and pile up reasons why you can’t (or won’t) do certain marketing activities for your book, then the opportunities for exposure will be fewer. Marketing follows the law of averages–the more you do to tell others about your book, the more likely it is that you’ll get responses. For that reason, I urge authors to do everything they can to get the word out about their books. This includes activities such as participating in blog tours, scheduling book signings, meet-and-greets, and speaking engagements, writing a blog and posting regularly, writing articles for print and online publications, offering to guest post on others’ blogs, becoming a featured member of a blog, being active on social media, keeping books on hand in their cars, at work, or anywhere they may need them, handing out bookmarks to friends and business acquaintances, soliciting reviews from online reviewers, friends, colleagues, joining writing groups and meetups, attending and speaking at conferences, etc. The possibilities are endless and varied, and authors should take advantage of all of them to maximize exposure.

Tap the Media When Newsworthy

If you find that something in your book or your own life is a popular topic in the current news cycle, jump on the opportunity to introduce yourself to local and national media. Consider how your book or your platform would fit with a current news topic and create a press release and a Q&A around it. Share your idea with producers and editors and be ready to send them back up material–your press release, a headshot, the book cover art, and your Q&A. Timeliness is the key–the news cycles can be short, so be diligent in reading and listening to news outlets so you can take advantage of any opportunities that may appear.

Explore Ideas with Others

Don’t try to go it alone. There are lots of writers out there, and while having so many other authors vying for readership sounds like competition, it can actually be a good thing. Most other authors face the same issues you do, and for that reason, many are a fertile gold mine of resources. Time to plum that mother lode! Read blogs and articles by the experts and those authors whose stars are on the rise. Set up meetings with fellow authors to discuss marketing ideas and share opportunities. Work together on joint events. Or create your own events. Again, the possibilities are limitless, and the more you exchange ideas with others, the more you’ll discover some golden nuggets worth exploring.

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Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her by email at paula@paulamargulies.com, view her website at www.paulamargulies.com, contact her on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or say hello on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/Eax7a3sVHAw

Building Worlds with Confidence (Even if You’re Faking It)

Man on the moon planting American flagYou’re sitting at a cheap fold-up table at one of those New York City writing conventions across from a hipster literary agent who’s twenty years younger than you. He wields too much power for someone who uses mustache grease in 2016, but you’ll be damned if you’re not about to pitch the hell out of your newly completed furry vampire novel (think Bunnicula meets Fifty Shades). There’s only one problem–your nerves–and you’ve already tripped yourself up on something you haven’t even said yet. You know it’s coming out of your mouth, something about a “niche market,” but you suddenly doubt how to pronounce the word “niche.” Does it rhyme with itch? How about beach? Or is it pronounced like Nietzsche? No, that last one is definitely wrong. Unless it’s the new hipster pronunciation.

You decide you’re not going to let one word ruin your pitch. You summon up all of the confidence you can muster and go for it:

“I know furry vampire erotica is a niche market, but I’ve already got a large Tumblr following,” you say. You end up pronouncing “niche” to rhyme with “beach,” because it’s nicer to say than “itch.”

“I’ll take a look,” Michael Cera-lite says, nodding at you. He takes your manuscript and doesn’t even bat an eyelash at your pronunciation choice. You’ll never know his stance on the rhymes with itch v. beach debate, but you certainly learn his stance on furry vampire erotica when he emails you two weeks later (not topical enough…please!).

And before your next pitch slam, you even remember to look up how to pronounce the word “niche,” and find out that the pronunciation you chose was the less common of the two. But hipster agent was none the wiser because you spoke with confidence.

And that’s the whole point. A word spoken with confidence, even if spoken somewhat incorrectly, will usually be successfully received by the audience. It’s human nature to follow things done confidently, even if incorrectly (just ask a Trump supporter), and the same holds true for creating a world in your writing.

I see too much sci-fi and fantasy writing that seems to doubt itself and ends up reading like a giant explanation of what the author wants the world to be. It may not even be a bad world—it’s just that, as a reader, I don’t need or want all of that explaining. Dive into the world with confidence and let the readers figure out the rules as they go. For example:

Knight-Captain Alaurel had mounted her battle bug within minutes of hearing the long, low chimes of the watchtower bells. Chomper stood taller than a dwarf when walking on all six, and Alaurel knew exactly how imposing she looked to the village children with her lance in hand and her sword at her back. She kicked Chomper’s sides with her boots, the light chain of her armor rustling against his hard carapace, and they began to charge out of town. Let the orcs come, she thought. She and Chomper would be ready.

In this cheesy little bit, we learn a bunch of stuff about a world where a female knight rides a giant bug into combat against invading orcs. The weirdest part, of course, is that she rides a bug instead of a horse (in my mind it is a giant beetle, though it could be a different bug, and this could be described later). But I treated the bug exactly as if it were a horse. I didn’t spend any extra time explaining. I didn’t say, “Alaurel lives in a world where finding a giant bug was as common as finding a cow munching grass,” because I had confidence in the world I was building, even if it wasn’t fleshed out yet.

Always be confident in the world you are building, even if you have to fake it a little bit. Your characters and your readers will thank you.

Photo Credit: http://nos.twnsnd.co/image/125765431290