The Greatest Writing Opportunity of the Year is Here!

a stack of holiday cardsWriters take heed: The time is upon us.  After a busy year of great excuses for why we haven’t been writing much, at last, the mother lode writing opportunity (including a captive audience) presents itself—clear, unpretentious, a ghost of past, present and future reaching out a scrawny finger, beckoning:  Come. It’s time.

Perhaps you are squirming in your seat right now because you know what is being requested.  And, deep down in your soul, despite the Scrooge-like withholding of writing this year, you know you are up for the task: the thematic weaving of this year’s good and bad, the drawing from events of the past year to arrive at the present, the happy messages of goodwill for the future—in other words: the annual holiday letter.

Yes. That’s right. The dreaded annual holiday letter, my writing friends, is in fact an optimal opportunity to practice your writing skills.

Think of it as a writing prompt that starts with “This was a year of . . .“

And then use it to hone your skills, to search for a theme for the year, to synthesize disparate events, and to show rather than tell your family and friends what your life has been like by including little scenes from the year.  Practice finding your voice.  Is your letter snarky, self-deprecating, or philosophical?

Allow your holiday letter to be the forum by which you communicate what you have discovered this year, what lessons you have learned, and what you wish for others.

So, throw off the chains holding you back.  See that your future writing self is in fact generous with words and loves to use them to reach out and connect—to lift up and inspire the Tiny Tims among us.

Friends, it’s time.  As we end one year and begin another, go forth and cast your writing spells.

I’ll leave you with the opening line of my own holiday letter:

This was a year of climbing up formidable rock walls and leaping off metaphorical cliffs, of ending, beginnings, challenges and some notable peak experiences.


Photo Credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Truth is Strange

A man standing, holding a murder weaponLet me tell you about S-Town. It’s a podcast that came out a couple of months ago. It’s complete at seven episodes, and it’s about this antique clock restorer, John, who says he lives in “Shittown, Alabama,” where a murder occurred that nobody is investigating. The podcast grows from there into a meditative long-form portrait of a man and his town and the creepy things going on. It’s cool, and you should totally give it a try.

Sadly, this is not a blog post about S-Town. It’s too hard to talk about without spoilers.

But listening to S-Town crystallized something I’d been noticing for a while: that the way I experience nonfiction narratives is completely different from the way I experience fiction.

Let me pick apart how odd that is. I’m saying I could read word-for-word the same story, but having it framed as fiction versus non-fiction gives me an entirely different experience. It’s not as if they’re unrelated art forms, right? Compelling stories–fictional or not–mostly follow the same rules: Give strong images and good dialogue. Escalate the tension until you reach a moment of climax or clarity that changes everything. Pick and choose only the most important moments. Start late and get out early. Show, don’t tell.

But it’s entirely different. I swear, as closely as it’s related, it’s not related at all.

When I’m reading fiction, I’m having a conversation with an author whose narrative choices delineate a view of the world. It’s all Aesop’s fables, blown huge. If the narrative says “Alice did this,” I’m asking myself, “Okay, what does it mean that the author chose to have Alice do that? What is the author saying about people like Alice? What is the author’s view of humanity? What does this thematically represent?”

In nonfiction, I assume Alice actually did the thing the author says Alice did, so I’m asking different questions. Like: “Why did Alice do that?” or “Is the author relaying Alice’s motivations and circumstances accurately? What are the author’s biases–what could they have missed?” And I’m allowing the story to add to the things in the world that I consider true: “Oh, that really happened to somebody? I never knew that was possible!”

In fiction I expect climax and payoff and promises kept. Nonfiction gets more leeway. It needs to conclude somewhere meaningful–otherwise, why tell it?–but I assume some messiness and murkiness and untied threads. It’s a different kind of suspense, wondering about real people. Not “What could happen?” but “What did happen?” I don’t need big thrills, but I want to end knowing something I never knew before. (Seriously, go listen to S-Town.)

But that’s really damn weird, right? Nonfiction isn’t necessarily truer than fiction, we just pretend it is. A writer’s biases loom just as large when they’re relating real events as when they’re making them up. Non-fiction is just as curated, just as processed and interpreted, and just as distorted by personal biases as fiction. Sometimes, writers even lie. And yet, the distinction completely changes how I react to it.

I love fiction. It’s most of what I read and all of what I write. But fictionalized, a story like S-Town would lose something. The gravity would be less grave. The impact would be a different impact, from a different direction. I can’t help thinking it would be a less profound one.

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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.

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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.


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

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Not For Everyone: How to Identify Your Specific Target Audience

B&W Photo Old Cars in ParadeI once had a potential client tell me that his book–a coffee-table nonfiction guide focused on an obscure group of collectible items–was a book that would be read by everyone.

I asked him, “Why would anyone who isn’t interested in collecting these items pick it up?”

He had no answer for that, and for good reason: not everyone is interested in collectibles.

Likewise, not everyone will be interested in one author’s romantic historical, or another author’s YA fantasy, or another author’s memoir about growing up in Italy during WWII, or another author’s nonfiction book on leadership skills. Yes, there will be readers of each of those genres, but not all readers are interested in all books.

Most authors are passionate about their work, which is probably the reason that so many believe that their books are going to be sought-after and read by a lot of people. But this just isn’t the case. There is usually a very specific (and very narrow) group of people who will actually want to read the book you’ve written. And, believe it or not, this is a good thing. Why? Because having a specific target–a niche market, if you will–for your work allows you to zero in on those readers. The more specific the group is, the more it becomes definable, and the more easily authors can begin to target and reach their readers.

So How Do You Identify Your Target Audience?

One of the best ways to identify potential readers who would specifically like your book is to take a look in the mirror. Are you a reader of the type of book you’ve written? If so, especially if you’re passionate about and/or an expert on the topic, chances are your own personal description is a good reflection of the type of person who would buy and/or read your book.

But what if you’ve written a book for someone who isn’t like you? Then it’s up to you to identify your readers according to their personal makeup (demographics) and their interests and activities (psychographics).

In either case, the best way to identify your audience is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the readers of my book most likely to be male or female? Or would both genders like it?
  • How old are they?
  • How educated are they?
  • What are they approximately willing to pay for a book?
  • If they’re children who can’t buy books themselves, who would be buying books for them?
  • Are they likely to be a regional audience or worldwide?
  • What are their hobbies and interests?
  • What television shows do they watch?
  • What radio stations do they listen to?
  • What internet sites do they visit?
  • Are they library readers or book buyers?
  • And so on. The more you can define your readers, the more likely you’ll know where to find them, and where to spend your time and money promoting your work.

Even after you’ve identified your target audience, that doesn’t mean that all of those within your target group will buy. Some readers only read books by certain authors, while others only buy books in a series. Some buy from only one source, while others will look for certain specific types of books in the genre you’ve written. So, managing your expectations realistically becomes an important part of selling to your target audience. Most likely, you will be able to reach a certain percentage of your audience, and a certain percentage within that group will actually buy the book.

Even so, knowing who your audience is will help you decide where to promote the book. If your target audience is young and active online, then having an interactive website, an active blog, and promoting on social media sites may be the focus of your publicity efforts. A blog tour or articles and posts on targeted online sites may be the best way to reach this particular group.

If you write genre fiction, you’re lucky—there are often specific blog sites, library reading groups, conferences, etc., where your genre readers cluster. Seek out those venues, both online and in person, to introduce yourself to readers and let them know about your books.

Nonfiction authors will often find that there are specific outlets for their work depending on the topic they’ve written about. Self-help authors will often find readers in workshops, college classes, therapy groups, meetups, and other places where readers go to learn about the topics. Those venues provide good opportunities to meet with readers based on their interests. Sometimes, nonfiction topics lend themselves to presentations at professional organizations or conferences on the topic. There are also online opportunities to write articles and posts for online publications and blogs that allow guest posts. And an author’s own blog is a powerful tool to both develop a platform and market to readers who seek information on a particular nonfiction topic.

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Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her by email at, at her website at, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications