Monday, February 28, 2011

3 Ways to Bulldoze Fear

Part of my blog is the idea of "exiting safe." We all have our own cocoon of safety, and that cocoon often morphs as our lives change. Sometimes the safe zone is a good place to be, but other times we can feel ourselves outgrowing it, yet we dig our claws in and cling.

Why is it so hard to leave safety sometimes?

I can only speak for myself, but fear is a big part of it. I've clung to many cocoons over the years--being okay with an extra five pounds because I was afraid of giving up thirty minutes to exercise every weekday, doing chores my children could do because I was afraid of moving into a new phase of parenting, rushing to try to learn everything about writing because I was afraid of being left behind--or worse, quitting.

I still fight those extra five pounds; I still occasionally do chores on my kids' lists, and I still work hard to learn about writing--but I'm no longer motivated by fear in these areas.

We can work through our fears. These concepts aren't new but they are worth reviewing.

1. Focus on the steps rather than the goal.I'm not saying the end result isn't important--we should have a concrete idea of what we want to accomplish--but the thought of getting there can paralyze us. The goal can feel far away, unreachable. It's easy to give up on "losing forty pounds," or "writing two novels this year," because we don't know if it's possible. We fail before we even try. It's less threatening to "work out on the treadmill at 3mph for thirty minutes," or "write 500 words."

2. Get support.

No matter what your fear-inducing goal is I guarantee there's a support group ready to help you. An Internet search can lead you to forums and professional organizations. It's much easier to keep going when you can share your struggle with someone striving for the same goal. Not every day will be perfect. Not every week will be perfect. But when we have friends cheering us and pushing us forward, we can find the courage to keep going.

3. Stay accountable.
This is the tough one. In order to leave our safe zones and go after our dreams, we have to be honest with ourselves. If we really want to change, we're the ones who have to do the work. We have to carve out time to do new things, some of them scary, and we have to do them repeatedly.

Our precious schedule will have to be adjusted. Our family might fear the changes will affect them negatively. Through all this, we have to stay focused and stay accountable. If you want to lose weight, consider logging your workouts and keeping track of your food. Weigh yourself once a week. If you want to write that book, jot down how many words you wrote or how many chapters you revised. Add it up each week. It will be obvious if you've slacked off. Forgive yourself and move on.

We will always be striving for something. Life never becomes perfect. But when we truly work toward our dreams, we build confidence and we change our lives.

How do you work through fear?

Have a wonderful Monday!

Friday, February 25, 2011

How Much Time Should You Spend on Social Media?

One of the biggest problems any writer has with building and maintaining a platform is the time issue. Many writers struggle to find time to write, let alone keep up with e-mails, blogs, and everything else. What is the solution? Is there one?

There is no one solution for writers to manage their time on social networking. Each author is different, at a different place in her journey, and not everyone should devote the same amount of time online.

I have my own theory about the stages of the writer and social media. Each stage will require a different amount of energy and time.

1. The BeginnerThe writer who is just starting out should not worry about building a fiction platform yet. Beginners are smart to devote the bulk of their time writing and learning about writing. This is a good time to start reading author blogs because they are full of tips and advice. A Facebook page and Twitter account set up under your writer's name are fine to connect with other writers and friends. Don't stress yourself out trying to get followers and friends. Write your book, study the craft, and relax.

2. The Actively Querying Writer
Writers who are actively trying to acquire an agent or who are submitting their projects to editors are poised to build a platform. They are not wasting their time by starting a blog, adding friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, or any other venue they feel comfortable utilizing.

Writers at this point are wise to schedule time each day or week to be active across their social media sites. Owners of new businesses are willing to spend many extra hours to insure their operations succeed. Think of yourself as a new business. Building a platform takes time and energy. It doesn't happen overnight. Spend the time now so that when you get that book contract, you'll have social networks in place to help promote it.

3. The Debut Author

This writer has an advantage over writers in other eras--she can build buzz about her name and her book before the book comes out--all from the comfort of her own home. Janet K. Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency wrote a phenomenal post--Building Velocity is More Important than Building Sales on the subject. Ideally, by this point, the debut author should have a solid network in place through blog followers, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or other sites. She'll also want to create a website, if she hasn't already, and publish a quarterly newsletter.

She should invest time to stay active on her sites, whether it's thirty minutes each day or two hours, and she will want to be smart about the time she spends. Her goals should be maintaining contact with her current network while adding new friends. This means actively "following" new people, and being personable on their blog or other sites. I'm not going to mislead you--this takes time.

4. The Established Author Who Wants to Grow Her Audience

This author typically has a fan base, a website, and that's about it. She's savvy about promoting her writing in person but isn't quite comfortable with the whole social media thing. Not only is she unsure of what to do online, she has doubts that it even works.

This author would be wise to evaluate her current website. It should be showcasing her achievements (best-seller lists, awards) and it should be professional, updated regularly, and it should feature her current book, her backlist, and any appearances she's making. She will also want to add social media buttons so fans can easily follow her on any sites where she's active.

At this point, the established author should not feel compelled to start a blog. She already has a fan base--she's in a great position. She can spend a smart fifteen minutes each day on Facebook, another fifteen on Twitter, and she'll grow her audience.

Really? Only fifteen minutes on each? Yes, if the author is focused, she can grow her network quickly in a simple half hour each day. First, she should "friend" all of the authors she knows. Second, she should search for groups related to her genre and "friend" people there. For instance, a fantasy author might look for groups dedicated to online gaming. If she interacts with the people she meets, they'll be much more likely to want to buy her book because they like her. Plus, her efforts will drive people to her website, the perfect showcase for her writing. Win-win!

In my opinion, the writers who can get away with the least amount of time on social networks are beginners and established authors. Writers who will benefit from more time online are those actively querying or who have a debut book coming out. The exact amount is up to the writer.

Do you worry you spend too much time on social media? Not enough?

Have a terrific Friday!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Agent Follow Up Etiquette

You've read the submission guidelines. You've followed them and checked your material five times. Your finger trembles as it hovers over the "Send" button.

You did it! You actually queried an agent! And then, miracle of all miracles, the agent requested material from you!!

Ten weeks later...

You check your e-mail once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and eighty-five times in between. Your forehead breaks out in a sheen of sweat.

Did the agent even get the material? Has she read it? Why haven't I heard anything? Oh, no, it must be really bad. She's so embarrassed for me, she's trying to figure out how to break the bad news. No, she's laughing at it right this minute. That's ridiculous. Agents don't have time to laugh at my measly book. She probably hasn't gotten to it yet.


Should I follow up?

Agent sites are usually great about spelling out how and what to submit. They're generally clear on what kind of response to expect for queries. However, not much information is available about what happens after you've submitted material. Some agents get back to you within a day, others won't get back to you for months. How is a writer to know the correct process for following up?

Literary agent, Scott Eagan of Greyhaus Literary Agency tackled this subject in January. His post, "The Protocol for Following Up" is useful for any writer unsure of how to inquire about their submission. If you are still not certain after reading his post, I'd recommend waiting at least eight weeks before following up on requested material. Keep your e-mail polite and to the point, and don't forget to include all of your contact information. You still might have a long wait, but you'll feel better knowing you've made the effort.

Do you find waiting for a response excruciating?

Have a terrific Wednesday!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Writers Helping Writers

Bill Morris wrote a funny and thought-provoking article, "To Blurb or Not To Blurb," over at The Millions. He chronicles his discomfort when faced with a friend's book he agreed to read with the intention of writing a blurb.

It got me thinking about all of the ways writers help each other. Some things are easy, like commenting on a blog, while other things are harder, like offering a critique. Agreeing to give a blurb for a friend is another sticky area.

What if you love the friend but aren't in love with the book? What if all of your published friends start requesting blurbs from you? This could be a time-consuming affair! What if you spend hours reading the book, give a terrific blurb and the publisher ultimately does not use it?

I am not in a position to offer a blurb, so I'm not worried about any of this. But every writer has something to offer another writer, and some gestures are more time-consuming or risky than others. It's up to the writer to decide what she is willing to offer.

Here are some ways aspiring writers can help other writers.

- Follow other blogs.
- Connect and encourage each other on Twitter, Facebook, and other sites.
- Offer to critique a query, synopsis, or manuscript.
- E-mail writers you don't often see.
- Share other writers' good news. Shout out a congratulations on your social networks when a writer friend lands an agent, finals in a contest, or gets "the call."
- Leave positive reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites when you enjoy a book.
- Volunteer at your local writer's group.
- Answer questions to the best of your knowledge and pass on information.

In the spirit of wanting to share, I'm showcasing a few writers' blogs I recently discovered. We found each other through different routes--Twitter, recommendations, and other blogs, and I'm so glad we connected.

P.W. Creighton: Writing Files
Laura Pauling: Exercising the Right to Ramble
Jessica R. Patch: What are You Doing Here?
Lindsay A. Franklin
Cheryl's Musings: How to Thrive on the Writer's Road

I could have expanded this list to twenty-five easily! There are so many terrific blogs out there! Won't you take a few minutes to stop by and say "hi" to the above bloggers?

How do you help other writers?
Have a wonderful Monday!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Aspiring Authors DO Have Something to Offer

Every Friday I like to chime in on social media, and today we're talking about a major concern many unpublished authors have about starting a blog before they're published.

Aspiring authors get conflicting advice about blogging. It's a hotly debated topic, one which writers, agents, and editors have differing opinions. Since the publishing industry stirs many personalities together, there can be no one right answer. Ultimately, starting a blog is an individual choice and should be made with care.

The two worries I hear over and over from authors who haven't taken the plunge to build a platform are:

1. If I start a blog, what do I, as an unpublished author, have to offer?
2. How can I find the time to do all that social media stuff and still write? (I'm not answering this today, but time is a big factor in building a platform and should be considered before signing up for a blog, Facebook, Twitter, and any other site. Check out Jody Hedlund's When Social Media Becomes a Time Suck for advice on not letting it overtake your life.)

Honestly, I get sad--my heart actually hurts--when I hear that anyone would think an unpublished author does not have anything meaningful to offer. Yes, I know there are some uninspired blogs (or blogs still finding their sea-legs, as I like to think of them), but the vast majority of blogs I read are written by aspiring authors, and the posts make a difference in my life.

Whether I'm reading an author's opinion on a writing technique, a personal essay about her writing struggles, a funny breakdown of the Grammy Awards, or a quick two-sentence line that the author is busy and promises to be back next week, I'm connecting with that author. I'm reading in someone else's viewpoint, and I'm learning from it.

The aspiring authors' blogs I come back to over and over offer three valuable things:

1. Friendship
They follow me back, and even if we can't read each other's posts all the time, we chat on Facebook and Twitter to stay connected.

2. Support
We shout out congratulations to other bloggers, we interview our friends during book releases, and we reach out when life throws grenades.

3. Information

I've learned grammar tips, conference ettiquette, agent news, contest information, writing craft nuggets, inspirational quotes, motivational devotions, and any number of items that have helped me on my writing journey.

You have so much to offer.Please, if you are an aspiring author and you think you will have nothing to offer until you're published--throw that thinking out. Seriously, erase it. That's like telling a student in high school she shouldn't volunteer at the local hospital until she's finished with her nursing degree. Or telling an eight-year-old not to enter the fair with his art project because he's not a real artist yet.

Here's another fact--many of the blogs I started following two years ago were written by aspiring authors. Now they aren't. They're written by authors who have gotten agents, sold books, and entered the realm of published authors. Do they have more to offer now than they did two years ago? No. They have something different to offer now. How fortunate to have received their wisdom all this time!

What do you think? Do aspiring authors have anything to offer?

Have a fantastic Friday!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Joy of Round Two Revisions

Revisions. It's a dirty word, isn't it?

I am not a revise-as-you-go writer. I write the first draft close to the desired word count, set the book aside, and come back to revise it.

The first round of revisions can only be described as painful. I'm fixing major plot, character, and pacing problems. I'm straining to make sure each scene has conflicts and goals. Round one takes a long time to get through.

But round two--oh round two!--is beautiful. I'm filling in scenes with action tags, sensory details, and internal thoughts. My favorite way to do this is by reading the scene out loud in first person (I write in past tense, third person.) It helps me get in the character's head and visualize the scene.

The second round takes much less time than the first, and the process is more fun. I'm not tensing my shoulders or burning a hole into my laptop with my laser-stare, trying to figure out what on earth is wrong with the page. Instead, I'm complimenting the scene, making it better, like dusting glitter powder on a dancer before a recital.

Then round two will be finished and I will enter round three with a thud. Chocolate will be involved. And coffee. Round three can be a bear.

What aspect of revising do you like best?

Have a happy Wednesday!

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Love Edition

Happy Valentine's Day!

I love romance, love Valentine's Day and the unabashed joy of love.

How important is love? Elizabeth Bernstein wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal, "How--and Why--to Say "I Love You" to Friends and Family." I loved the article and got a bit misty-eyed at the Piglet reference.

Why is it so difficult to say these words to certain people?

I wish I had the answer, but in the name of Valentine's Day, go ahead and tell those closest to you that you love them. If they seem shocked, you can attribute it to the holiday! If the words lodge in your throat like a huge wad of cheese, at least show them you love them with a kind gesture. A big hug always tells someone you care.

For those of you without a recipient for a loving gesture, why not take the opportunity to do something really nice for yourself? Is there something you've put off because it seems extravagant? Today's the day! Go ahead and indulge in a box of chocolates, a thick book, a trip to the movies, or whatever is on your wish list. Sometimes the person we need to hear "I love you" the most from is from ourselves.

How will you show your love this holiday?

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 11, 2011

One Tip for Writers Starting a Blog

If you're a writer and considering taking the plunge into the blogging world, I have one piece of advice.

Use your author name in the URL and the title.

I know, we all want our blogs to stand out. We want the title to be clever--a good thing--and catchy--another good thing. But failing to include your author name in the URL and the title will cost you.

There are two reasons to use your author name in the URL and title of your blog.

1. From a platform perspective:

You're starting to build a web-presence to help you either get published or get readers. Will agents, editors, or readers Google an obscure title? No, they will Google your name. We want every online effort to reflect back to our author name. Let's make it easy for search engines to find us!

2. From a reader's perspective:

I follow hundreds of blogs, and I read them in Google Reader. The title of the blog shows up along with the title of the post. If your author name isn't in the title of your blog, it makes if very difficult for me to connect you as the author.

A few days ago, in the name of researching this post, I counted how many blogs I follow that feature a play on the word write in the title but no author name. Twenty-five! My memory for matching authors with blog names is very limited.

If I see Julie Musil: New Blog Post, I'm more likely to read it because I know and like Julie's posts. (If you don't follow Julie Musil, go on over to her blog. She's terrific!) Plus, I connect Julie's name to her Facebook profile and her tweets on Twitter. Whenever someone retweets or shares one of her posts on a social network, I see her name with the title of the post.

On the other hand, it's very hard to remember that Write Bucket is written by Susie Sunshine. Even if I adore Susie's posts, I'm less likely to read them because I've forgotten Write Bucket belongs to Susie. (I made up Write Bucket and Susie Sunshine--my apologies if this is an actual blog.) If her post is retweeted, I don't see Susie's name in the title of the post, making it less likely for me to click on it.

If you already have a blog, consider altering the title to include your author name. It won't affect old followers (any existing links to your site from other blogs will still show up under your old title), but new followers will have an easier time coming back. In Blogger, simply click on "Settings" and type in your new title, example--Susie Sunshine: Write Bucket.

If you follow many blogs, do you have a hard time remembering who the author is if the name isn't in the title? Does it affect your reading habits?

Have a fabulous weekend!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

No? What Is This Word "No"?

Most people fall into one of two categories. Either they have a hard time saying "yes" to anything, or they find it impossible to say "no."

I'm in the latter group. What can I say? I like to help people. I enjoy volunteering at my kids' school and I adore pitching in with my local writers' group, MVRWA.

Lynn at Place to Create: Connecting Stories wrote a terrific post last week about her experience at Breaknorth Canada 2011. One line in particular stood out for me. "The reality is that when I say Yes to a new task, I'm saying No to another, and pushing my priorities down."

Yeah, I get that. Sometimes we should say no instead of yes. Since my professional goal is to be a published author, I need to carefully weigh each volunteer opportunity before making a decision. Since my personal goal is to raise great kids, I cannot only weigh volunteer opportunities based on my writing.

Here is one way I aim (and never completely succeed!) to keep my volunteer commitments at a manageable level.

I write every volunteer commitment for the current year on an index card and slip it into my small day planner.

My rule? The card can only have writing on one side. When the white space is used up--I have to say no.

This helps me choose the activities I enjoy the most and which are tuned into my goals.

If you have a hard time saying no, what tricks do you use to keep your commitments realistic?
Have a fabulous Wednesday!

Monday, February 7, 2011

3 Lessons for Writers from Cleopatra

I recently finished reading Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It isn't difficult to see why Ms. Schiff has won prestigious awards for her writing--the book is meticulously researched and gives a broad, unbiased look at a slice of world history many are only vaguely aware of.

I walked away from the book with a better understanding of a pivotal moment in history, when Rome finally gained control of enough money to dominate the world. It didn't pass over me that these events happened just 30 years before Jesus was born, that one of the main players played a prominent role in Jesus' life, and that, with Cleopatra's demise, a new world emerged.

It's a fantastic book--if difficult to read--and I recommend it.

Here are three lessons for writers based on Cleopatra's life.

1. Don't trust your family (to be honest about your writing).

Cleopatra had siblings murdered. She didn't trust them, and with good reason. No, we don't want to kill our families, but it's best to seek honest opinions about our writing from outside sources.

2. Keep going when things don't go your way.

This woman should have been renamed "tenacity." She would not give up. When her brother convinced officials to turn against her, she cozied up to her supporters, went into hiding, and found a way to meet with Julias Caeser. It wasn't easy; there were no guarantees Caeser wouldn't kill her--but she didn't let that stop her.

3. Expect the best.

Cleopatra believed she deserved to be queen, and welcomed all of the trappings and responsibilities that came with the job. Did she feel guilty that she was the wealthiest woman in the world? No. Did she worry she wouldn't be able to handle the constant stream of duties each day? Doubtful.

We too can expect the best. When we believe we will be published (or whatever dream we have that seems impossible), we welcome all the trappings and responsibilities that come with the job.

Do you find it harder to keep going when things don't go your way or to expect the best?

The mental game of being a writer is hard. Be confident!

Have a happy Monday!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Does an Internet Presence Really Help Unpublished Authors?

Last Friday we talked about how social media can help sell your books. But what if you're an aspiring author without a book to sell? Is it really worth your time to create an online presence?

Wendy Lawton of Books & Such Literary Agency wrote a terrific series a few weeks ago, and one of the posts, The Inside Track: How to Attract an Agent, spelled out what she looks for in a new client. "Along with that knowledge of the industry I look for writers who are connected. If you are writing fiction, I look to see what organizations and critique groups you belong to. I like to see queries from writers whose names I recognize because they Twitter with other writers, they comment on writer blogs or they follow a number of my writer/agent/editor friends on Facebook."

Her words triggered my memory. Way back in 2009, Rachelle Gardner wrote in her blog post The Dreaded Author Platform, "...I almost wanted to announce that I'd no longer accept queries from anyone who doesn't already have a good solid head start on a platform. (I won't draw such a clear line in the sand, but consider yourself informed.)"

Recently, more evidence of the importance of having an online presence came directly to my blog. I wrote a post two weeks ago, Why Not to Announce Requests/Rejections on Twitter, and wanted to share quotes from two very interesting commenters.

Lucky Press, LLC said, "As a publisher, if I am considering a manuscript, I do visit and read many posts and comments on the author's blog.... If a writer wants to be published, she must treat it as if she is starting a business and the product is the writer and her work." Lucky Press continued on to give a detailed, inspiring scenario about a current client.

Also, Bob Mayer--yeah, Bob Mayer the best-selling author, speaker, and publisher--stopped by and chimed in. "The first thing I do when I get a query from an author is Google them. Mainly to see if they have a social media platform-- it's a hard sell without one. I don't think authors should discuss their submissions, their agents, their publishers, unless it's positive on-line or unless they're burning a bridge they never expect to cross again. This is a good topic."

Four different publishing experts agree it is important for an unpublished author to build an online presence. To be fair, I know of a few authors with no online presence who have gotten agents in the past six months, but I know many more with firm online presences who have gotten agents.

What do you think? Is it important for unpublished authors to build an online presence?
Have a fantastic weekend!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Research, Reality TV Style

I watch reality television. Don't judge me. I can't help it.

I'm drawn to shows like Hoarders, Pawn Stars, The Biggest Loser, Storage Wars, Jersey Shore, Worst Cook in America--yes, I watch them. Am I proud? No. But recently, I came across a new-to-me reality show set in Detroit, Hardcore Pawn, and it was very different from the other shows I watch.

Hardcore Pawn does not focus on wealth, strapping young adults, or fun antique finds.

It highlights the seedy side of the pawn business--desperate people doing anything to scrape up money.

While I didn't find the show itself compelling, the customers and interactions blasted me with book ideas and dialogue snippets. Even as I laughed at some of the conversations, I couldn't help but feel saddened by the grisly reality of poverty and addiction. Some of the customers show up several times a day and head straight to the casino. Others need cash to pay monthly bills. One woman announced she was headed to jail the next day.

From my standpoint as a writer, the show gave me interesting material. Dozens of people wait in line each morning for the store to open. Then, inside, they wait even longer. Many of them are irate. Just watching the way they physically handle waiting is an eye-opener. Some are so self-centered and hostile, I almost couldn't believe it, but then I kept watching, and it became obvious that they weren't putting on an act.

I imagine anyone growing up in a poverty stricken area full of crime quickly learns to watch out for number one.

By the end of the episode, I had to give the producers of Hardcore Pawn credit. They broadcast an unflinching view of one segment of Detroit. It's one of the few programs that doesn't hide poverty. It might be cringe-worthy, but it did give me plenty of material to use in my books.

Do you watch reality television? If not, can you help me to stop watching reality television??

Have a great Wednesday!