I can still remember the first time I printed out my work for a critique group. I felt confident and excited. I knew it was good. Damn good. Legendary. Awesome.
But my writing was different. In a phrase:
What? If? It? Sucks?!?!?
Today’s assignment is to write what it feels like for that first critique group. (Or the first similar experience in a similar situation–maybe the first time they talk in front of a group or that time you asked someone if they wanted to spend the rest of their life with you.)
And, once again, it’s time to write your FWA collections entry, and this could very well qualify as first steps.
Time limit: 30 minutes
I’ve been trying to expand my literary reach lately, so I’ve gone to the Book Riot list of 100 books to be well-read. I read a fair amount, but there’s a certain sameness about the latest Lee Child or Ace Atkin’s latest Spenser. Why not read something new?
My first choice was Gone Girl, mostly because it seems like it’s been in the best seller section at Barnes & Noble since about 2003 (an exaggeration). It wasn’t bad. It set up the scenario, got you thinking all kinds of evil things about the protagonist, this guy you were supposed to like to some degree–then turned everything on its head. The ending was less-than-satisfying for me, but that’s the way the world works sometimes.
My section choice was American Pastoral by Philip Roth. As I compared various best-books lists, this title seemed to come up a lot. Why not?
As I read it–I’m about a quarter of the way through–it’s different than most things I’ve read. It’s different from anything I would dare to write. So far, there’s not a lot happening. Oh, there’s been the set-up of the back story, which I won’t reveal here. And there’s the establishment of The Swede, the protagonist’s childhood boy-crush and how things seemed to turn out fifty years later, followed by an explanation of the way things really turned out.
But there’s a massive amount of exposition. So far, the majority of the story has been told from deep inside the mind of the protagonist–and sometimes it’s a little much. I find myself skimming, looking for dialog ahead, getting lost in some of the expansive sentences that seem to meander like and old river, threatening to cut off some of the larger curves as their own little oxbow lakes.
And yet, I’m happy for reading this book, regardless of the way it ends. I’m happy for it because the themes being explored are, in some ways, larger than the story story in which they’re presented. It’s not just about how generations interact, but why they interact that way–as much sociology as psychology, but woven through the memories of this one man.
They’ve made me consider the depth at which I know my own characters–and the astounding fact that while I know my most recent protagonist very well–that I would be able to accurately predict how he would react to almost anything–I don’t know why. I don’t know about his own underlying structure. I don’t know if his grandfather came through Ellis Island, and whether his grandfather’s straight-ahead work-focused approach would allow for a guy who makes a living talking into a radio microphone.
In short, regardless of how this book works out for me, it’s been worth the read.
By Joanne Lewis
#3 Celebrate Your Successes, Face Your Failures
Learn as much from your successes as you do from your failures
I wrote my first novel when I was 24 years old and while a prosecutor working sex crimes and child abuse. I didn’t have an agent. A small press that has since gone out of business published the novel. While I did not sell many books, I was invited to speak on panels and did book signings. I got an agent. I was on my way. I was going to be a writing success story.
Then my agent unexpectedly passed away. Opportunities continued to arise, at least for a short time. Another small press wanted to publish a book of mine, however the novel was never released.
At this time, I’m 29 years old and feeling like my writing career would never go anywhere. I was a writing failure story.
I didn’t write throughout my thirties. Not writing gnawed at my brain but I was productive in other ways. I left the State Attorney’s Office and opened my own practice. I fell in love. But still, I didn’t write. I knew, however, that I would write in my forties.
Four days shy of my 41st birthday, I experienced a life-changing event. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After a radical hysterectomy and six months of chemotherapy, I emerged cancer free and ready to write. I was determined to be published again.
Nine years later with five published books and over 25,000 copies sold in 2013, I have learned as much from my successes as I have from my failures. Without both, I wouldn’t be the writer—no, I wouldn’t be the person—I am today.
I was watching the Grammys this year and say an amazing performance from a singer named Pink.
Who would name their kid Pink?
The same people who would name their kid Wolfman Jack or Prince. Pay attention.
The lyrics for the song she performed included this gem:
Where there is desire
There is gonna be a flame
Where there is a flame
Someone’s bound to get burned
But just because it burns
Doesn’t mean you’re gonna die
You’ve gotta get up and try, and try, and try
In those seven brief lines are twenty-eleven best-selling novels, along with some brilliant imagery. Just because something is scary and you got hurt by it, you should try. And try. And try. (I don’t think it was laziness that caused that word to be there three times.)
Today, your job is to write a scene in which your protagonist has been burned pursuing a desire and has to realize that just because they were burned doesn’t mean they’re gonna die. It’s a scary thing for that to happen. But now it’s time to buckle up and move forward.
(Also, you should consider the product of this prompt to include in the FWA Collection. Here are the guidelines.)
Time limit: 20 minutes
Email remains one of the most least expensive and most effective vehicles for marketing. Are you using it effectively?
Here’s something that happens a lot. I receive a short email inviting me to a book release party. I scan it quickly, and I have to admit, I trash it quickly. Why? The person’s name was not familiar to me. (I couldn’t find her in my contact list.) Not only that, the party is taking place on a weeknight, about fifty miles from where I live. I have to wonder: what was the sender thinking?
This sender erred by not making our relationship clear. Had we met at a writer’s conference? Does she subscribe to my newsletter? Had I signed up for her mailing list long ago? Or did she just scrape my address off my website like a spammer would? She also erred by not making the content relevant to me. It’s not likely that I will travel all that distance for her book party.
Often, I’ll get an email like this one: “I thought you should know that my new book, ‘The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread,’ is out.” That’s it. No context. No call to action. I wonder, why did you think I should know?
It’s not that I’m cranky. In fact, because of my profession, I am more likely to thoroughly read book-related emails than most people are. But the truth is, these frequently-used “techniques” just don’t work. Here are some key principles for effective email marketing.
Develop a relationship with your email recipients. Market research has shown that most people do not buy a product (your book, example) right after they hear about it. But when people get ready to buy a book (or need a speaker, or ask for consulting) you want them to think of you first. Regular mailings of value will keep your name at the top of potential buyer’s minds.
Provide content that is relevant to recipients’ interests (not just your self-interests). Let’s face it, unless you’re a famous writer, large groups of people are not going to be all that interested in what’s going on in your writing career. Don’t make me-centered selling your main message—buy my book, come to my reading, me, me, me. Self-promotion quickly becomes tiresome. Provide content that is unique, interesting and valuable to your readers, and they will be interested in you.
Be considerate. Email “by permission” only. Include an email sign-up form on your website so that people can voluntarily opt into hearing from you. As you begin to mail to contacts, let them know how you obtained their email address; why they are being emailed; what kind of information they can expect to receive and how often; and how they can unsubscribe from your mailing list if they want to.
Never expose your mailing list to all your email recipients. It’s rude! It undermines the recipient’s privacy and exposes her to people who choose to “reply all” when they’re sending what should be a private message. Hide your contact list in the BCC portion of your email and send the email to yourself.
Never scrape email addresses from websites or use mailing lists without permission. This is what spammers do!
Make sure you’re sending subscribers information that is relevant to their expectations. Do not mix your professional mailing list with the one to which you send jokes, religious, or political mailings. The writer who used to send me (and apparently his entire mailing list) off-color jokes in between promotional mailings achieved the wrong kind of top-of-the-mind awareness.
Mail regularly (but not too often). Regular emails help to create top-of-the-mind awareness. If you wait for months (or a year) to contact the people who asked to be on your list, they will probably not remember why they signed up for your list or what relationship they have with you.
What is your experience with email marketing either sending or receiving? What works and doesn’t work for you? Share your thoughts in the comment section.
Mary Ann de Stefano is the editor of The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. She is also a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30+ years experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-on-one with writers who are developing books, she designs author websites and advises on e-marketing. Mary Ann does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.
By Anne Hawkinson
Writing, from my perspective, is a solitary endeavor that takes place within the confines of my office. I have two windows that I can stare out of when I’m trying to figure something out or if I’m lost and need to clear my brain for a bit. I hope no one’s looking in.
If they did, they might think I’m having seizures, am emotionally unbalanced, or I’ve gone completely off the deep end, since I’m having an animated conversation with an empty room. (Does my cat Viggo count?)
I may not be the only one who does this, but I’m confessing here and now that I do it, and often. I wave my arms wildly; squint as I look over my shoulder, whine, moan, and cry. If one of the characters in my story is doing it, I need to know what it feels like. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. If I try it out, I have a better sense of what is happening, what the character might be feeling, and what they’re reaction should be.
I pinch myself (can’t pinch the cat), stamp my feet, and speak in a hiss. I rub my hands together against imagined cold, feel my throat tighten at the mention of a lost loved one, and have one more piece of chocolate so I know how good it tastes when Maggie and Laura share some.
There are some things I can’t do (like run from a bull moose in rut), so I have to rely on what knowledge I have of them (I’ve actually been 20 feet from one in the wild), how I’ve seen them behave, and what nature shows can teach me. Some might think them clumsy, ugly, and dull-witted. For whatever reason, they have captured a special place in my heart. I love how they look, respect their size and temperament, and because my middle-grade novel takes place in northern Minnesota, am bound and determined to give them a significant role in the story.
What I can do is try to convey the fear and terror Maggie, Laura, and Raza feel when one is hot on their heels. Maggie and Laura live in Minnesota, so they’re familiar with moose, but Raza is from California. He doesn’t have a clue. Laura’s clearly a “girly-girl,” so she might as well be from Mars. It’s up to Maggie to figure something out.
So if you see me running up and down the street in front of my house, arms flailing, and a panicked look on my face, I haven’t lost my mind. I’m just outrunning a moose.
When I was a kid, there was very little more exciting than a snow day. It was the day you’d wake to the alarm and linger in bed while the radio guy started at the top of the list, by county. Albany, Columbia, Delaware… Unfortunately, we were in Saratoga County, deep in the end of the list, so by the time they got to us, I often had to get up to make sure I’d be on time if we did have school.
Some days, we were totally ripped off. I mean, if there’s ten inches of snow or more, there has to be a snow day. It was like a rule.
Except when it wasn’t.
And those days, those were the best. The back yard was a giant white virgin piece of paper, ready to accept whatever adventure we chose to apply.
Until we had to drive. Then things changed.
Today, as our friends to the north deal with what we laughingly refer to as winter, your writing assignment is to give your protagonist a snow day. It could be a real snow day, full of fun and excitement. Maybe it’s an unexpected chance to be trapped in the house with a stoked fireplace and the One You Love, with nothing to do but experience the warmth of the fire, hot chocolate (or other beverage) and each other.
Or it could be a painful snow day, with a horrible commute, or things they can’t get done because of the stupid snow. Or maybe they’re sunning in the Caribbean, victimized by someone else’s snow day, and inability to get something done or even to get to the warm, sunny shores or paradise.
Time limit: 25 minutes