Whenever I start feeling sick, I just stop being sick and be awesome instead. True story. — Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother)
When I checked the blog this morning, I was shocked and kind of scared to notice that I had just five blog posts in the hopper. Usually I try to keep fifteen to twenty scheduled so I don’t have to panic and produce a mess of content on demand. It takes the pressure off.
So having five posts–and three of them already scheduled writing prompts–is a bit scary.
Top that off with the fact that I’ve had a week of a business trip, followed by another week of all-day business meetings, and that I’ve been awesome instead for the past three days…
Hey, welcome to life, you may be saying. It happens. What does that have to do with writing?
I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go. — Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark
It has this to do with writing–all great writing, beyond the emails you respond to and the report summaries you put together, if you’re so blessed, has to be something unique and personal to you.
Radio is a personal medium. — Ron Pesha my broadcasting teacher, in 1981, repeating an often-used cliche.
If that’s true of radio, it’s even more true about your writing. The technical stuff is something you work out over time. How to put a decent sentence together. How to write dialog so all the characters don’t sound the same. How to make your characters come alive and pop.
But you can’t learn your voice.
When we lived in Arizona, we attended a church with two priests. I don’t remember their names. But one of them was a dynamic priest and his homilies seemed like they were over almost before they began. The other priest’s homilies were preparation for purgatory–if purgatory were run by Ben Stein.
But at the end of church one day, I turned to my wife and said, “You know Father A’s homilies are really captivating, but Father B has a lot more content.”
But Father A’s voice was so much stronger than Father B’s that his homilies seemed to hit harder than Father B. I don’t mean that his pipes were sterling silver, voice of God. I mean voice the way we use it.
The point here isn’t that voice covers a multitude of literary sins–though it can. The point is that your voice is a key part of your writing and it comes from within you. For it to work, it has to be unique and it has to be based on experience and even situation.
The way I fill a necessary blog post is different than the way you will, because I look at things differently. Most people wouldn’t write this blog post by including references to a currently dying sitcom, the greatest adventure movie of all time, and an obscure coming-of-age movie from the early 1980s.
Most people can’t make those things work. Maybe I didn’t. But to the extent that I can, it’s because of voice.
As my time in the chair winds down, a certain amount of introspection has started to creep in. It’s only natural as you look back over things.
When I first started doing this on a daily basis, the mantra was that new content was the best. It had to be good, but it should be consistently good. It should be a daily thing, if possible. So I wrote, for the most part, something to post every single day. And people would say, I don’t know how you do that.
But lately, in comments both here and verbally at the conference, the tone has changed a little bit. It’s gone from I don’t know how you do that to That’s really inspired me to write.
To the first point, you have to believe in the process. You have to believe that when you sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard, something will come. It also helps to have a little bit of a buffer built up. It’s far easier to put some content out when you have a couple of weeks of content already scheduled. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to the keyboard with an open day looming ahead of me and no clue what I was going to write.
So I sit down, let thoughts wander a little, and then something occurs to me. And while it’s been hairy getting there sometimes, it’s happened every single time.
To the second point, the inspiration–thank you. I’m glad to have contributed a little. And now it’s time for you to contribute. It’s time for you to pay it forward.
If you produce something every day, if writing becomes a part of your fabric, you will inspire others, too. Just the act of constructively using your gifts on a regular basis–every day, inspires others.
It’s been true with this blog and it’s also been true with the workouts I post every day after I do them. I’ve had people tell me It really inspires me when I see that you’ve worked out every day.
So do your writing and post it. It will help your writery friends out.
By Anne Hawkinson
Writers refer to them as devices. They are things you use for various reasons in a story, depending on what you need them to do. In my middle-grade mystery, I’m plucking them from here and there, inserting them into my story, and giving them a job to do.
My devices fulfill more than one purpose. The pumpkin patch is there to grow pumpkins, provide the raw ingredients for pies and toasted seeds, and it’s most important job, to reveal a clue to the eventual solving of the mystery. The apples in the orchard and the blueberry bushes have similar tasks, but I won’t divulge them here.
There’s a dumb waiter, a hidden staircase, and a lost key that even though it’s lost, keeps popping up in the story and reminding Maggie that it needs to be found before the story can end.
My story is set in northern Minnesota, so I deemed it fitting that a moose should play a significant role. There’s a huge, equestrian-size statue of a moose that acts as a sentry, staring down anyone coming up the drive and a living, breathing version that messes with our characters and the landscape in general. He’s there to help establish a sense of place, add drama/danger to the story, and contribute his bit to the solving of the mystery. One of the words in the title of my story, “Moz” is the Algonquin word for moose. In “The Mystery at Moz Hollow” he gets top billing.
Certain characters in my story function as devices. They are placeholders, decoys, and red herrings. I use them like puppets – drop them in, call the reader’s attention to them, and then lead them out of sight until I need them again. I want the reader to wonder why a particular person came and went, if they are important enough to be remembered, and how significant of a part they will play in bringing the story to its conclusion. My main characters are in it for the long haul. Maggie, her Mom Gina, her friend Laura, their new friend Raza, and the elderly Isabel will be the reader’s constant companions.
The huge, Gothic mansion is a device full of devices. It’s a movie set, which is what brought Maggie, Laura, and Gina there in the first place. It holds all of the characters (except the moose), gives them space to interact, and provides a place for the story to be told. It’s a dollhouse in my mind. I can move people and things around and set the stage for fun and adventure.
As a writer, I have free reign to choose whatever devices I want, invent some if I choose, and decide where and when to insert or remove them from the story. One caution I need to remind myself of: If you use a device, it must have a purpose in moving the story forward. You can’t just plop in/jerk out a device before it has completed the mission. You’ll end up with frustrated and unhappy readers. Which reminds me – I need to figure out if Laura can fit into the dumbwaiter.
My new work in progress revolves around a guy who’s reached the age when he realizes things aren’t going to turn out the way he wanted–that even the little mid-life crisis he went through didn’t change much of anything.
It’s an age when companies cast aside people without thinking twice. It’s an age when being over 50 and looking for a job is like trying to find that email that you files in one of ten or twelve folders a long time ago. If you combine those two things, you get something far scarier than Stephen King could ever write.
In a related topic, there’s a foreclosed house we pass on the way to church each week. The back fence line is against the road my church is on, and over the past year and a half, the lawn has turned into a young forest. The weeds are now trees, and in the past couple weeks, a panel from the back fence has collapsed.
If you were in your early fifties and staring unemployment in the face, passing that house would carry great emotional weight. That could be your house. In that house, children grew up. Santa came. The dog pooped on the carpet. Maybe someone christened their new master bedroom with some of the greatest love making of their lives. It’s a house that was once a vibrant, important place and is now falling into disrepair, day by day. With nothing there to stop it.
I haven’t decided yet if the house–the fictional edition–is going to find a buyer to cut down the weed-trees and mend the fence. Maybe put a new set of shingles on the roof. That might be punching people in the face with the symbolism. Or it might not. We’ll have to see. That’s the fun of first drafts.
But those details–the things you can use to make your writing richer are all around you, if you take the time to see them.
Industry News: Google can scan books, publishers challenged to expand storytelling, American Idol model comes to writing
Judge: Google’s scanning of books amounts to fair use, can continue
Eight years after the Author’s Guild brought a lawsuit against Google for scanning 20 million books without the permission of the copyright owners, Judge Denny Chin has ruled that the scanning project, and the way readers can access the books, amounted to fair use and can continue. Google has scanned the books and readers can search them, but can only read snippets of their content. In his ruling, Judge Chin said that Google did not obtain permission, the program provides “significant public benefits.” (Google books limits access to snippets if the copyright holder hasn’t given permission.) Chin also said that the service actually helps copyright holders. The Author’s Guild promises to appeal the ruling.
What this means to you: After the advent of radio and television, baseball owners resisted having their home games broadcast, saying that it would limit the attendance at games because people could listen or watch rather than attend. Ironically, the opposite has happened. In the same way, having books available in Google Books could help build an audience for books in the same way a library does.
HarperCollins UK Boss: Take storytelling to apps, games, and video
Last year, when the head of HarperCollins in the UK, Victoria Barnsley, quit and was replaced with Charlie Redmayne, the publishing world was afraid it was getting a geek. That might be true, but it might be the right move. This week, Redmayne delivered a message telling publishers that they have to retake storytelling from rivals that have extended it beyond ebooks to other formats. In this case, the rivals extend from Amazon publishing books and ebooks to app and game developers. According to Redmayne, publishers need to think beyond books to digital content, just as others are moving into the book space.
What this means to you: Essentially, Redmayne is echoing a mantra that’s been used a lot here–the best platform is a great book. Publishers must continue to produce great books. But great books aren’t enough. They need to produce the stuff that goes along with it–and that might include apps, games, and other related content that adds to the bottom line. In a way, it’s the same thing authors have been told for quite some time–you have to have a great book, but you also have to have a platform. Publishers can add to their bottom line by building the rest of the suite of products to change their authors into actual brands.
Italian show extends American Idol model to writers
There’s a very good chance you’ve spent some time thinking about the possibility of an American Idol-type show for writers. You’d have the embarrassing wannabes in the auditions, then you’d have rounds of competition complete with overstressed competitors hungry to live their dreams. Maybe Gordon Ramsay would drop by to lovingly call them donkeys and ****s. With the exception of the Gordon Ramsay part, Italian television has debuted such a show. The winner of Masterpiece will get a publishing contract and an initial run of 100,000 copies. After the initial part of the show–the weeding out of the pretenders–the contestants were placed in unfamiliar circumstances, and then got a chance to write about it–for 30 minutes. After six of the eight contestants were eliminated, the top two gave an elevator speech–literally–to pitch their book to Elisabetta Sgarbi, the Editor-in-Chief of Bompiani, the participating publisher.
What this means to you: Not a ton, at least not immediately. But if the show works and people watch, it could be picked up here. And if it is, it could help you learn about parts of the industry, not to mention giving you live examples of pitches. If nothing else, it’s a more realistic–if skewed–look at the industry than you’d get from Castle.
In the publishing industry, the term “platform” refers to everything about you that helps sell your book, such as credentials, useful connections, and public presence. Next to writing ability, your platform is the most important selling point you have when approaching agents and publishers and also for selling your book as a self-publisher. Even a few key elements, referred to as “planks,” can improve your chance of success.
Sure, you’ve got a great idea for a nonfiction book, or you’ve written a gripping page-turner of a novel or memoir…but do you have what it takes to sell that book to a publisher, or to an audience?
Do you have…
a website or blog where people can find out more about you?
a means for interacting with your potential readers?
a mailing list and a way to capture contact information?
connections to influential figures or institutions in your field or genre?
relationships with booksellers or media outlets?
awards, contest wins, or prior publishing credits?
relevant credentials and/or demonstrated expertise in your subject area?
A nonfiction author’s background is critical for two reasons: History shows that potential readers will choose books by authors perceived as experts; it’s easier for credentialed authors to get media attention. Those credentials need not include an academic degree if your other planks are significant, but the right degree always helps. For example, if you’re writing about heartburn, being a gastroenterologist or a nutritionist is a strong advantage. If you aren’t a certified professional, getting one to write your introduction and endorse your book will help. Ultimately, your platform must illustrate that readers can trust you as an authority.
Marketing fiction, however, relies more on visibility than credentials, but the right creds could still be helpful. A degree in medieval history, for example, would be an advantage for the author of
a novel set in the Middle Ages. A master’s degree in creative writing or previous publishing credits and awards also helps you stand out. It means you may have connections to published authors who might provide endorsements. It also conveys a devotion to writing as a career, thus increasing the possibility that you’ll produce more than just one novel (in other words, that you’re a better long-term investment for a publisher). Finally, it gives you more opportunities to teach at universities and notable conferences, which further increases your visibility and opens venues for sales.
The more planks you have, the stronger your platform; a great platform takes a lot of guesswork out of an essentially risky process. Your platform lets publishers know that you understand book promotion, which is increasingly an author’s responsibility, and building one helps create the foundation you’ll need to promote and sell your book. Your platform also indicates where you can expect to gain some relatively effortless sales, or at least some valuable attention. And perhaps most importantly, a sturdy platform gives an indication of where your audience is—bigger audiences equal greater expected sales, which can get you a bigger advance. If no one’s heard of you, publishers may be more cautious—hence a smaller advance, if you get an offer at all.
Same deal for self-publishers, of course. Readers are more likely to buy books from people they’ve heard of, who have endorsements from people or organizations they’ve heard of, or whose bios reveal an appropriate level of expertise and experience. Just think of your own habits when you purchase a new book. What factors influence your decisions?
At this year’s Mid-Winter Conference West, I’ll be leading a workshop to help you identify the planks you already have in your platform and find ways to build on them for maximum success. Hope to see you there!
Allyson E. Machate is the chief editor, writer, and publishing consultant at Ambitious Enterprises and has worked with small and large book publishers, including Simon & Schuster, where she acquired and edited books. Ally loves using her insider knowledge of the publishing industry and more than fourteen years of experience to help others reach their publishing goals, whether it’s showing a writer how to improve his manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish, or ghostwriting a book to help an entrepreneur skyrocket her business platform to new levels. Grab Ally’s free white papers and learn more about her services at www.ambitiousenterprises.com and www.allymachate.com.
As my role in generating content for this blog is about to change, I’m looking back at my time here. It’s a natural thing to do. And while the exercise of producing content to be published almost every day has certainly made me a better writer, there are some things I would do differently.
For one, I would have published more things that cause other writers to call me out. Not in an in-your-face, Howard Stern kind of effort. In this context, no one gains from a food fight.
In a few instances, I’ve been called out by other writers. In some cases, I conceded their points. As awesome and legendary as I am, I’m periodically wrong. Ask my kids.
When writers disagree and hold each other accountable for their opinions–and use that as a jumping-off point for discussion, good things happen.
It’s a cliche now, but about fifteen years ago, I worked for a guy whose mantra was ‘Feedback is a gift.’ And it’s a cliche because it’s true. Now some gifts aren’t helpful. For instance, if you give me a leopard-print Snuggie or the Greatest Country Hits of the 80s collection, I will appreciate the effort and never, ever use the gift. In the same way, if you blast me and call me an idiot and tell me something is <insert criticism here> without taking the time to explain, your words will go into the box with the leopard print Snuggie.
But when you tell me you think I’m wrong because of a, b, and c, I may or may not wind up agreeing with you, but I will consider your argument.
As writers, we are bound to do that. Our publishing content means that we’re putting ourselves in a position where other people can tell us we’re stupid and have horrible taste in thoughts, feelings, and clothing. It’s in the job description. We have to accept that. If you can’t accept that, don’t publish.
But as consumers, we should also give feedback the way we would like to receive it (no, I don’t mean wrapped in twenty-dollar bills, but it’s a nice thought). In other words, if I prefer people who disagree with me to use a reasoned approach so I can consider their opinions, I should do the same.
In my future writing, I intend to provide more opportunities for people to disagree, without being disagreeable to solicit the feedback.