Use Your Words (and Everyone Else’s)

April 13, 2021 § 5 Comments

Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:

Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…

Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…

Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…

“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?

And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?

Set clear ground rules.

Ask writers what they need.

Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.

Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”

Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?

Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.

Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”

If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:

I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?

Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?

Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.

Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.

Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!

Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.

Approach it like an assignment:

This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?

I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.

Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.

Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?

Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!

The 21st-Century Book Launch

April 8, 2021 § 11 Comments

Dinty W. Moore’s latest book To Hell with It Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno dropped early. Happy readers posted selfies with their Amazon-shipped copies before Dinty himself got a published book. Other writers report Amazon jumping the gun, too. Conversely, the wrenchingly beautiful Inside Passage has pushed back a month. My own publication date for Seven Drafts moved from May to September (sorry but thanks for sticking with me, preorders!).

It doesn’t matter.

The one-month launch is over.

A book launch was once a big, splashy thing. Champagne at a fancy restaurant, or dubious cheese cubes and box wine at a bookstore, your publicist flying in, a party. Then you’d wait eagerly for reviews, write a few supporting pieces, do some interviews, and 30 days later, you were done. Either your book had flown or it had flopped.

Now, the process of a book leaving the nest is much more drawn out. There’s the happy Facebook status when you finish the manuscript, start querying, land an agent, land a publisher, or decide to self-publish. The Goodreads cover reveal. The Instagram Reel of unboxing the first copies. Tweeting nice reviews. With social media, authors have much more control over pre- and post-launch publicity (if they want it). Now, after publication, a “book launch” lasts six months. Or a year. Or two or three years, with a revival when something newsworthy and connected to your book happens in year four.

What’s changed? The pandemic was the last straw, but the haystack had been building since the early 2000s. The sheer number of books published has vastly increased. Sure, Hemingway never tweeted. But in 1926, The Sun Also Rises joined about 23,000 new titles. In 2018, there were over a million new books in the USA alone. More books are self-published, alone or through a “hybrid” publishing services company, and their authors must self-promote or hire a publicist. And unlike a traditional publisher’s marketing department, a hired publicist doesn’t quit when the next book comes out…she keeps going as long as the checks keep rolling in.

The good news is, you don’t have to cram all that publication-related stress into the 3 months before and the 1 month after publication. The bad news is that authors end up doing a lot of the launching themselves, into a much busier, more crowded market. But authors also have more outlets—many costing only your time—to get the message out.

What does the 21st-century book launch include?

  • A mailing list. Start collecting emails now. Being invited into the inbox is the absolute best way to connect with readers (after meeting them in person, when we can again).
  • A giant spreadsheet to track launch activities. As my own primary publicist, I’m listing what I’d like to do on each platform where I’m active, and roughly when. Checking off a list is easier than guessing. (I’m making this spreadsheet available next week, btw, please do sign up for my mailing list if you want a copy!)
  • Blurbs. Lots of them. They don’t have to be famous writers—many readers don’t even know who the literati are. Learn to make a quote card and sprinkle good quotes from beta readers and reviews, as well as traditional requested blurbs, across your own social media. Those authors you hope will blurb? Start gently promoting their work through your social network months before hitting them up.
  • Long-term, low-key social media. You’re less likely to wear out your audience by posting about your book weekly for a year, in context with other news, rather than blasting ads for a month while everyone mutes you on Twitter. Post more about your topic than your book. Be a PSA instead of a commercial.
  • Literary citizenship. You’re going to want online reviews, so make sure you’ve reviewed all your friends’ books before asking them to review you back.
  • If your book launched more than a few months ago, look for something newsworthy to cue renewed sales. Write a hot essay. Get a writer friend to pitch an interview with you. Emphasize how your book intersects with a right-now topic. Supermoms. Actively processing past trauma. Female rage.

Yes, a lot of this sounds transactional. It is transactional. Human nature is transactional. We feel more drive to do favors for people who have done favors for us. Think of it as deposits into the Bank of Goodwill. You may not end up withdrawing the exact same stuff you put in, but when you contribute to a community, the members are more likely to support you, whether you supported them individually or not.

Having a book is like having a baby. Interest peaks right before the big release, but your precious little damp lump also gets 4-5 more months before your cooing starts boring the crap out of your friends. Pick the platforms you actually like—publishing essays, or writing newsletters, or public speaking, if you’re not into social media—and gently participate by supporting other authors’ creations, before, during and after launching your own bundle of literary joy.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching seminars in how to get an agent, joyful platform building, and intriguing first pages as part of Rebirth Your Writing: Publishing and Craft, a 5-day writing intensive May 16-20.

Social Media Doesn’t Sell Books

April 1, 2021 § 5 Comments

Many authors have numbers questions:

Will an agent even look at my query if I have less than 10K on Instagram?
How many Twitter followers do I need before writing my proposal?
Does an essay with 5600 hits count as “viral”?
 
Gentle Readers, I have answers:
 
Yes.
0.
No. (More on this in a minute)
 
Social media doesn’t sell books—that we know of. Nobody walks into Barnes & Noble saying, “I saw this book in a tweet!” Readers don’t tick “Found it on Instagram!” on their Amazon order. You can’t get that information from your publisher. Your publisher can’t get it, either. Mostly you won’t even know who sold the book. Are you an indie bookstore darling? Or were all your sales at Books-a-Million? If they bought through the same distributor, you won’t know.
 
Social media is not a lead magnet or a commercial. Social media is a delivery system, to communicate your ideas, topics, and point of view to your audience. To find out what your audience needs to know. And to reach beyond your own community to broaden your audience at only the cost of your time.
 
You don’t have to buy an ad.
You don’t need a degree.
You don’t even have to put on pants.
 
For authors, social media has four main purposes—but each of these can be done off social media, too.
 
Find your audience: Following discussions (helpfully corralled into subjects by hashtag) shows you exactly who’s interested in what you’re writing about. It’s not weird if you become online acquaintances and spontaneously participate in their conversation. They can directly respond to your joke, question, micro-essay or impassioned political or emotional point, and you can block them if you don’t like what they have to say.
 
Offline, these spontaneous discussions happen at writing and subject-focused conferences, community meetings, and on newspaper editorial pages.
 
Follow “comp authors”: Just as you might list “comparative titles” in a nonfiction book proposal to show the market for your own, you can seek out those authors online. Watch the conversations happening on their social media. Engage with their followers, and some of them (gradually) become your followers, too.
 
Offline, once we can travel again, attend bookstore events and talks on college campuses (sign up for their newsletters!). There, you can meet other audience members, maybe exchange cards to let them know when you publish.
 
Explore new communities: Watching what else your followers talk about, and where else they hang out online, leads to discovering events, classes, and forums. Reddit has thousands of interest-based forums; there’s probably one for your ideal readers. (There’s a 38K-member subReddit focused entirely on eating oranges while showering, so your topic is probably there, too.) Becoming part of a community now means you can tell them about your book in six months.
 
Offline, once it’s safe, Meetup is a great source for interest-based communities. There are likely business clubs, religious organizations, or volunteer groups meeting around your topic.
 
Write better: Sure, an MFA is great, but have you made a joke land on Twitter? Or written a six-part essay on Instagram? You’ve heard me bang this drum before: Social media is ideal to practice writing at the sentence level. Anchor your sentence beginnings and ends with concrete nouns and strong verbs. See what word combinations have punch. It’s low-stakes: there’s no “dislike” button.
 
Offline, sentence-level trial and error with immediate response is rare in workshops, but not impossible to find (let me know if you find it). Or get a professional line-edit on 5-10 pages, then apply that work to the rest of your manuscript.
 
(You may have noticed that when you’re not using social media, all four of these things cost more, take longer, and require more privilege to access.)
 
But I want to grow my following organically…I hear writers moan. They contemptuously dismiss social media as “fake” and “shallow.” But you’re not a spray-tanned influencer. You’re a writer. No-one is forcing you to partner with Starbucks and hawk Unicorn Frappucinos. No-one sternly insists you tweet twice a day.
 
If you want real connection online, be a real person. Join real communities. Listen to what they need. Because “going viral” isn’t 5600 clicks. Going viral is becoming a focus of discussion in the audience you want to reach.
 
 
I triple-dog dare you to read any of those and tell me they’re fake or shallow. Without social media, they would not have created as much serious, emotional and literary discussion as they did.
 
You can absolutely build your entire writing career on the beauty of your writing alone. If that’s your plan, prepare to spend hours, for years, improving your writing and thinking deep thoughts about what to write. It helps to have an MFA. It helps to have a mentor already well-positioned in the literary world. It helps to have started at 25.
 
You can also build a writing career on thoughtful, compelling writing that tells stories your audience desperately needs to hear. Stories you know they need, because you talked to them. As Sean Thomas Dougherty writes:
 
 
Why Bother?

Because right now there is   someone

Out there with

a wound               in the exact shape

of your words.

 

They’re telling you the shape of their wound, every day, on social media.

_____________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore for Rebirth Your Writing: A Publishing & Craft Intensive. It’s a five-day virtual retreat May 16-20. We’ll cover writing beautifully—and building platform.

Not a Memoir But a Mystery

March 9, 2021 § 7 Comments

One common challenge for first-time memoirists is the manuscript that reads like a case file: scene after scene shows the main antagonist as an out-and-out villain; the protagonist’s responses are all appropriate and justified, and the whole story is summed up with how bravely the narrator strode forth into the light.

These memoirs don’t work.

They may be well-written, even delightful at the sentence level. But in terms of the dramatic arc, there’s no mystery, nothing to draw the reader. We know whodunit from the very beginning, and the course of the book is watching them do it over and over again.

Often, the writer is unconscious that they’ve laid out facts in a row and slanted them towards their own hurt feelings. As an adult reflecting back, they have clarity. What happened to them was wrong. They need to express that on the page.

But if the situation was so wrong, why did the rest of the family go along with it? Why didn’t anyone arrest the priest, or kick the foster parents out of the system, or hospitalize the addicted child, or incarcerate the domestic abuser? For that matter, why did the villain of the memoir continue their behavior? Few people are truly “evil,” and fewer still wake up in the morning and think, “Better get going! I’ve got some oppressing to do today!” Somehow, the situation looked OK—or OK enough to ignore—from the outside. Maybe it even looked OK to the memoirist when they lived that trauma the first time through. Maybe it was thoroughly concealed, and that disguise is itself worth exploring.

Our stories are more powerful and more compelling when we write with the voice of innocence. Showing the actions that happened and allowing the reader to be judge and jury. Showing our own adult character’s faults. Showing our own child character’s situation, and how they perceived it at the time. Many of us have had the experience of realizing in adulthood, “Hey, nobody else’s family acted like that.” By showing your own acceptance of your family’s normal, rather than pointing up how strange or abusive or traumatic it was, you allow the reader to inhabit that moment of shock, too. Present the facts, as truly as you can determine, and let the reader decide what they add up to.

Tara Westover explains, in her notes for Educated, that she has included footnotes reflecting other family members’ memories when they differ from hers, because

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families. …Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.

How can you include in your writing more truth than you possess?

  • If it’s possible to do without hurting yourself, seek out the other characters of your story and ask them why they did what they did. Think of yourself as an investigative journalist, one who’s pretty sure what the final cut of the documentary is going to look like, but needs to make an honest effort to get the other side of the story.
  • After you’re finished with a second or third draft, consider sending relevant chapters to the people you depict on the page. If they aren’t approachable, perhaps someone close to them could take a look. Don’t ask if they like it. Ask, “Where does your memory differ from mine? What have I missed in this event? What details do you remember?”
  • Whether or not it’s possible to communicate with your antagonists, consider deeply why they may have done what they did. Villains have their own version of the story—one in which they are the hero. A man who’s spent his life building an empire is devastated when his son refuses to inherit. But the story is told from Luke Skywalker’s side, so Darth Vader is a villain and not a deeply unhappy father.

See if you can allow those who hurt you some small grace, and show on the page why they thought they were right, or why they couldn’t overcome their wrongs. If you can summon up compassion (and you’re not obligated to!) for your antagonists, you may well be able to write a deeper and more interesting book. It’s deeply challenging to set aside our own legitimate grievances and honestly open our minds to the possibility of another point of view, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt and reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why.

______________________
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching how to navigate the story of your own villains in a webinar this Wednesday: Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings. Register here.

Who Deserves the Truth?

March 2, 2021 § 25 Comments

Like this, but plummeting

When I was a circus aerialist, my act finished with a dramatic upside-down slide, dropping 16 feet head-downwards before catching in the aerial fabric, my skull inches from the ground. It was a crowd-pleaser, and it required more technique and timing than sheer strength, so it was a good trick for the end of a tiring show. The only problem was, the back of my knee was the “brakes.” Squeezing hard on the fabric with my upper calf kept me from concussion, but it also gave me rope-burn.

I did it anyway. It was the best trick I had, the one that made audiences clap and put money in the hat at the end of the show. The raw skin was usually worth it. But sometimes, when sticky humidity told me “this one’s gonna be bad,” I’d look at the audience and judge their enthusiasm, their involvement in the show so far, and think, Have they earned this? Do I want to give them this much?

I face the same challenge as a memoirist. When I break out a particularly intense story, or share deep vulnerability on the page, I go full out. But I temper my words in subsequent drafts, gauging how personal I want to be based on the readers I’m hoping for. That’s easy enough to do for an essay or an Instagram caption; I can start later in the story or end earlier, leave some details out, put some mitigating circumstances in. I have some control over how far the story goes, where I submit it, who will see it on which social media.

Adjusting memoir-pain tolerance is much harder for a book. The writing process lasts longer; the potential audience is bigger. Our relatives and friends may treat a book with more weight than a Facebook status.

I’ve had editorial clients ask, “Should I just make this a novel?”

Usually, no.

Novels need complete dramatic arcs, compelling characters, and an ability to fully embrace new scenes or plot elements. “What actually happened” isn’t always believable as fiction. The more gripping the story, the less it may resemble your story.

For novelists, the craft of writing is as important as the story itself. Sure, some average writing makes the bestseller lists, but usually because the story has powerfully hooked the public. Novels based on the author’s experience draw from life, but approach the subject from another point of view, or with a better ending, or happening to different people. Write your novel because you want to write a novel, not to hide from your own story.

Memoirs are elevated by truth. Readers can forgive an arc that doesn’t quite resolve when they’re thinking about the real-person protagonist. Decent-to-good writing becomes gripping when you’re telling the truth. Plenty of memoirists are also incredible writers. Plenty of memoirs-in-progress are not yet excellent writing. How much time do you want to spend “becoming a great writer” versus “becoming a good writer, learning about myself, and getting my story into the world”?

I’ve had clients ask, “Could I use a pen name?”

Usually, no.

Memoirs sell on topic and name recognition. The less recognizable you are, the more powerful your topic must be. If you’re writing about your week in Bin Laden’s bunker, or your high-class Manhattan escort days, or your Secret Service career, sure, use a pen name (and lawyer up!). But if you’re trying to avoid social fallout, don’t bother. You’d have to start establishing that fake person’s publication record and online presence now, and your family is going to find out eventually anyway. Why sacrifice your existing network to temporarily hide, while also sabotaging your ability to sell your own book?

Put the effort of re-visioning your life as fiction into cultivating positive relationships with your readers and your fellow writers. Skip building a fake person to promote this bookinstead, build your own courage and your support network. Part of publishing memoir is standing up for your own story. If you’re not ready to share it as yourself, you probably aren’t ready to share it at all. Keep writing and publish later.

Writing good memoir hurts, because good memoir pokes old wounds. Publishing memoir means knowing ahead of time you’re going to inflict pain on yourself, and choosing to share your story anyway. The pain becomes a badge of power, a sign that silence doesn’t control your story. That you’re strong enough to tell. You trust your readers to listen. You give readers hope, you’re not the only one this happened to—one day, you’ll be strong enough to tell your story, too.

When I did my rope-burn aerial trick, sometimes the audience had earned it with their laughter and applause. Sometimes they hadn’t, and I ended with something less dramatic but without physical pain. But more times than not, I did the trick for me. Because I could. After about 4 years, the back of my leg scarred over. No more rope burn. I’d leaned into the pain so many times it couldn’t hurt me anymore.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Wondering how much pain your memoir can take? Register now for Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings March 10 at 1PM Eastern (recording available).

Keep Your Writing Friends Close But Your Comp Authors Closer

February 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Ashleigh Renard

Last week “harsh writing advice” was trending on Twitter, spurred on by one bonehead tweet that declared that our writing friends are our competition. Well, if we think the prize in this game is winning the attention of a top agent or editor, maybe the bonehead is right.

But if our perspective expands just a tad, we may remember that all of us in publishing—writers, editors, agents, and booksellers—are tremendously outnumbered by the ACTUAL READERS. Our ability to connect with readers is what agents and editors are talking about whenever they mention “platform.” And it is those dear readers who are the most often forgotten about until we have something to sell them.

Here’s how to change that and put readers at the center of your daily writing practice.

Just as writers diligently research comparative titles for queries and proposals, we need to search out “comp authors” on social media. Comp authors are the established, published writers in our genre, who have a large following and engage regularly on their chosen platforms. Followed strategically, their social media accounts can help us determine where our potential readers hang out and what they already consume with vigor.

To determine your comp authors:

  1. If you could switch accounts with any writer in the world today, who would it be? Who shows up online in a manner that appeals to you?
  2. Choose someone you like. This should not be a hate-follow. You will be studying what they do well and why readers flock to them. Liking their work will help you get the most out of this practice.
  3. Find common themes with your own writing in their books and their presence on social media—grief, body positivity, travel, parenthood, nutrition, chronic illness, humor, etc—but your stories do not need to be identical, because of course they can’t be.

What to do with your comp authors:

  1. Turn notifications on for 3-5 accounts on your favorite platform(s).
  2. Pay attention—what do readers react to quickly and exuberantly? Are they following the account for encouragement, commiseration, or to be entertained? What types of posts inspire the most interaction? Does your target reader enjoy a quick punchline or an Instagram mini-essay. Do they want to laugh or want to cry?
  3. Engage by joining the discussion in the comments. When you feel you have something witty and supportive to add to the conversation, do. Comment and respond to comments from others. You’re not there to steal the show. You are there to give genuine support to the community your comp author has already assembled. Add value by listening, offering assistance, and being your real self.
  4. If you have chosen accurate comp authors and are really paying attention it won’t take long before you start to notice gaps in what the writer is offering, gaps you can fill with your unique experience. What holes do you notice in the support the comp writer is giving the readers? How are you positioned to fill these holes and meet these needs with the differences between you and the comp author? This is where you get ideas for your own social media content. Actively noticing the gaps in what the authors already in your genre talk about can even help you narrow the focus of your memoir, prescriptive nonfiction project, or the way you will present yourself as a novelist.
  5. Support the author and practice your literary citizenship. When you buy the author’s new book (because you actually like their writing, remember?) buy an extra copy and hold a giveaway on your Instagram or in your newsletter. On Instagram, tag the author, the editor, the imprint, and their agent. Share to your Story and tag them there, too.
  6. YOU ARE NOT AIMING TO BE FOLLOWED BACK BY THE WRITER. Please remember this is not the goal. The purpose is to focus your online offerings to become a creator who followers of your comp author would recommend to their friends as another person who offers great advice/encouragement/education online.

One pertinent and caring comment from me on an Elizabeth Gilbert post led to Liz responding for a brief conversation in the comments, 1600 new visitors to my Instagram account and 150 new followers, many of whom became beta readers for my memoir. Positioning yourself as a writer who should be read by readers who love your comp accounts comes earlier and is more in your control than whether your title will be shelved next to your comp author at a bookstore or whether you’ll be put on a panel together at a literary festival.

Keep your writing friends close. Share editing and submissions advice and support. But remember we are all of more value to each other when we prioritize growing our own readerships. Newsletter swaps, giveaways, and shared book events all have a wider reach when we actively seek out our audience, and have a finger on the pulse of what they love.

________________________________

Ashleigh Renard’s debut book SWING – A Memoir of Doing it All will be available May 2021. Follow her on Instagram for daily reflections and advice for writers, monogamists and moms.

Need more ways to connect with readers without sacrificing your writing time on social media? Join Ashleigh Renard and Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams for Reach Your Readers, Keep Your Soul: 8 Weeks to Author Platform.

Mailing List Love

February 4, 2021 § 8 Comments

We’ve all heard it.

You need a mailing list.

Your mailing list is your most powerful way to reach your readers.

Agents and publishers want you to have a mailing list.

And it’s true. A mailing list is your most powerful way to stay connected to your future readers. Being invited into someone’s inbox is far more intimate than connecting on social media. Plus, most people see under 10% of everything posted in their social feeds. But most people read about 95% of their email.

Which leads to a conundrum, as a writer asked me recently on Twitter: “How, exactly, am I supposed to get all those addresses?”

Start simple.

When a writer hands you their card at a conference, they are inviting you to stay in touch. Add those emails.

Look through your address book. Any family member or friend who has expressed interest in your writing (and from whom you’re not actively hiding your memoir).

That workshop attendee list. The addresses a literary magazine fails to bcc on their email. Most of them won’t opt in for regular news, but keep their information. When the time comes, one email announcing your book launch is OK!

Broaden your reach. Make sure there’s a prominent mailing list sign up form on your website. Put the link to sign up in your regular email signature (it’s in Mail>Preferences). Each time you contact your list, crosspost a teaser to social media. More of your followers will read, and some will sign up.

You don’t need a lot of mailing list infrastructure. A way to sign up. A place to track information, like a spreadsheet or an app like Substack, Mailchimp, Tiny Letter, Convertkit, or Flodesk. Automate your subscribe/unsubscribe process—legally, it must easy to unsubscribe, and letting a machine take care of that avoids hurting your feelings. Don’t bother to check your subscriber numbers more than every other month, unless you’re actively growing your list with a campaign and need to see if it’s working on a daily or weekly basis.

How often should you be in touch? No more than weekly; ideally no less than monthly. However, most of us have actual writing to do. I personally send my newsletter every 4 to 6 months (whoops!), but the point of regularity is so people remember who you are. I do enough social media that much of my audience remembers me, but I still start each newsletter with “Hey I know you haven’t heard for me in a while…”

And what, exactly, are you writing to all these people? The same things you tell your friends about your writing. How your process is going. What inspired you today. Something cool you read and think they’d like to read, too. Entertain them, enlighten them, be of service. You’re not selling your content, you’re buying their attention.

Most newsletters focus either on service or story. Service newsletters curate information, like Erika Dreifus’ The Practicing Writer, give insider tips, like Kate McKean’s Agents and Books, or consolidate industry news, like Jane Friedman’s paid offering, The Hot Sheet. Story newsletters showcase your actual writing. Emerging writer Casey Mulligan Walsh sends part of her monthly blog to her mailing list (scroll allllllll the way down). Some people will click through and read the whole thing, but Casey’s not overloading their inbox with a giant block of text. I tend to write travel stories or quirky slice-of-life moments. Thriller writer Jessica Jarlvi combines personal moments with writing inspiration.

Nobody wants to be your “customer”; they want to be your friend. As you build your author platform—or as I like to think of it, the bridge connecting you and your readers to each other—readers opting in and choosing to see you in their inbox are placing you among their friends. Your mailing list is a gentle way to keep in touch, not necessarily with the people who’ll rush out and buy your book instantly upon release, but with those who will spread that news to their friends, endorsing you and evangelizing for your work. That warm, supportive feeling you have towards the authors in your inbox, sharing their work and their lives? That’s how your mailing list readers are going to feel about you.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Ready to start building your personal author platform? Join me and Ashleigh Renard for Reach Your Readers Keep Your Soul: 8 Weeks to Author Platform. You’ll learn better social media skills, improve your pitching and submissions, explore public speaking, write PR, discover how to reach your readers consistently, write better, and build an audience that helps you sell your book. Weekly classes and small-group coaching start March 1.

Nobody Gets What They’re Worth

January 14, 2021 § 10 Comments

Emrys Fleet, ratcatcher and master negotiator

Years ago, I sat backstage at a Renaissance Festival, hot and sweaty after eating fire in the Florida sun. (What really sucks? Fire is harder to see in bright light, so I’d endangered my life to look less impressive than usual.) My partner and I were talking contracts with a more experienced performer (this guy). We were going to ask for more money. I said doubtfully, “I know the management is pretty cheap, but I think we’re worth it?”

Our wiser friend replied, “Nobody gets what they’re worth. You get what you negotiate.”

That saying stuck with me. Bad deals come from bad negotiation—not one’s inherent worth. Good deals reflect the writer and their agent’s negotiating skills as much as the quality of the book. (Good writing gets you in the door; good deals come from negotiation).

For writers, negotiating with a publisher can feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But a publishing contract isn’t a gift, it’s a deal. Professional, courteous negotiation doesn’t upset legitimate businesspeople. Anyone getting shirty when you ask for explanations or push back on terms is waving a huge red flag. Trust is for your mother. (Or not, as per many memoirs.)

When you receive your publishing contract, what can you (or your agent) negotiate?

Royalties. Standard royalties are 10-15%. Especially if your advance is smaller, you may be able to do better, perhaps as much as 25% on print books. Even if they won’t shift on print, you could get a higher percentage on ebooks. The standard is 25%, but I’ve seen authors get as much as 50%.

Royalties can also include an “escalator” clause: sell more books, get more money. I arranged an escalator clause for one of the first plays I published: my royalties jumped 5% every 5000 copies sold, topping out at 25%. When I signed, it was an ambitious dream. Twenty years later, the play is still in print.

Subsidiary Rights. Publishers hope to buy worldwide rights, then sell your book to foreign publishers, for which you get royalties. But if your agent sells those rights (or you do, but that’s a longer shot), you’ll deal directly with the overseas publisher and keep a chunk of middleman money. If your publisher retains foreign rights, negotiate for an expiration date. If they have bigger-deal books to focus on and yours goes unsold, you’ll want those rights back for when the opportunity arises to sell them yourself.

You may not be able to keep your audio rights, but you could get the right to audition or even a guaranteed right to be the narrator. (Many authors are terrible narrators; choose wisely!) Audio books could also be at higher royalties than print.

Film rights should always be retained (you never know!). All rights “not named” should be reserved for you, and that’s worth fighting for. Maybe your book will never be a calendar…but it might.

Marketing. In these days of mostly author-driven publicity, it’s more important than ever to get free print and electronic copies. Find out if the publisher uses NetGalley for bloggers, reviewers and the media—can you give your PR list? If you speak at conferences or events, how many copies can you buy for resale, and at what price? First-time authors are unlikely to get cover approval, but you can ask for input.

Process. How long does the publisher have for editorial feedback? What are your deadlines? When will you do last-minute corrections, and will they bill you past a certain number of errors?

Options. Do they have first dibs on the next book you write? If there’s a non-compete clause, negotiate to cover only books “substantially similar and directly competitive,” or you might find yourself unable to sell your next book to another publisher or even self-publish.

Most contracts have flexibility, and it’s always worth negotiating for a better deal. All contracts have unchangeable language about definitions and jurisdiction, but boilerplate rights and financial terms are often sweeping. Like pricing your house 30% above market: maybe someone will pull up with a dump truck full of cash, or maybe you’ll negotiate. Most clauses about money, editing, the actual publishing process, marketing and timelines can be tweaked, or at the very least, fully explained.

If you’re working with a hybrid press, that’s not a publishing deal. You are purchasing a package of services. No matter what they tell you, the costs of publishing your book and their expected minimum profit come from your money. An offer of 50% “royalties” means “As you work to sell your book, we will claim an additional half of your profits.” Make sure your contract specifies what they provide in return. Keep all subsidiary rights. They aren’t going to sell them for you, and if a movie deal drops in your lap, well, you already paid the publisher.

If you’re un-agented, you can negotiate yourself, hire a literary-specific attorney, or take advantage of the Author’s Guild’s legal review services for members (a total bargain! Join here). But you’re allowed to negotiate. You’re not rude or pushy or showing ignorance by asking for an explanation, doing some research and/or talking to your agent, and proposing a better deal. Even after negotiation, you may not get what you’re worth.

Then again? You might get more.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her Friday January 22nd for This Is the Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal Setting for Your 2021 Writing Life in which she will not once say “write every day.”

The Year of the Writer (redux)

December 31, 2020 § 27 Comments

Next year definitely the Pulitzer longlist…

How was 2017 2020? Yeah, this post I wrote three years ago is STILL ASTOUNDINGLY RELEVANT. You know that feeling of low-grade background stress you’ve sustained for nearly four years, ramping up a level each year? You’re not alone, fellow writer.

So 2020 was a dumpster on fire while swept away in a flood, yes, but how was your writing? Because now is a great time to consider what you did. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and couldn’t. Let’s genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments, together.

Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?

Get a piece accepted? Submit to places you want to be accepted?

Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?

Make it to an online workshop or reading or write-in?

Read a book you really loved? Or one that taught you something about writing? Tried some exercises? Researched something new?

They all count.

Bask in the feeling of accomplishment. If you’re a journal-keeper, make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations!

When you’re done, look ahead. Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 12th. But it’s a good time to reassess, because other writers are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck your local independent bookstore (who likely offer curbside pick-up).

Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.

  • Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open.
  • That one’s Measurable–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, or maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out.
  • Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. Maybe start with “meet more Swedes.”
  • And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing.
  • Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts (10 tries, quarterly submissions, etc), so the goal starts with an action you can take.

Here’s what I’m thinking about:

What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to finish a novel, because I care about writing YA, and I think it looks better to give writing advice when I’m walking the walk. You?

Do you need help to be this kind of writer?  I need to locate a couple of beta readers who haven’t read the previous incarnations so they can come in fresh. What help do you need?

What big project do you want to finish? That book, and to host a writing retreat in Costa Rica or Italy, both delayed from last year. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process. And allow myself grace when elements I can’t control hinder my progress. What’s your big project?

What do you want to read? More “challenging” books and less comfort re-reads. How can you make that happen? Order Hilary Mantel’s latest and dive in! What can you not wait to read?

What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’d like to spend a little less phone-on-sofa time. You?

It’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in our brains. It’s hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what we can actually accomplish. Like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.

Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2021’s writing year? Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. January 22nd, she’ll be leading the webinar This Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal-Setting and Project-Planning for Writers. It’s a steal at $25–sign up here!

How Good Is Your Writing?

December 17, 2020 § 12 Comments

You want to be in Modern Love. The Paris Review. A Big Five publisher’s forthcoming list. Are you good enough? How can you tell if submitting would be a waste of time?

It’s hard to judge the quality of our own work. Most of our friends are more supportive than critical—thank goodness! But in order to figure out if our own writing belongs in the publication venue we admire, we need to step back and take a long hard look. Since it’s hard to judge your own work, start by judging someone else’s.

What’s the last great thing you read in the place you want to be published? Ideally, you’re already reading books from that publishing imprint, or issues of that magazine, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow.

That wow is the first step towards judging our own writing—and improving it.

Go beyond the wow, and think analytically. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Being able to see those tools at work is a sign your own writing ability is getting closer to what you’re reading.

Check out those transitions.
Love that she told that whole story in just 700 words.
The way that structure looped around was so unexpected and satisfying.
OK, it’s simple, but it’s so fun!
I’d never have thought to put those two parts of the story next to each other, but it makes them both better.
It’s so well-told – not a wasted word.
Great voice.

Take a look at your own recent work. Are you using those same (or similar) tools in your writing? Which ones are popping up through instinct, and which do you actively employ? Think about the essays, stories, articles or chapters you’ve most enjoyed writing: are you covering similar dramatic ground to the already-published pieces? If not, is there a topic or experience you could investigate in your work?

When you can regularly identify writing tools and techniques, the next step is employing those techniques in your own work. Go back and revise, choosing a craft element you admire from the published piece and consciously employing it in your next draft. Another great way to practice and internalize writing techniques is by copying and changing: follow the sentence structure and format of a page or two from a writer you love. Change the nouns, verbs and descriptions to your own, but see what making sentences with their rhythm feels like. After spending time consciously self-editing, the tools will become habits, and even first drafts will begin to incorporate more skilled writing.

Wait—I don’t need this whole paragraph, the transition is implied.
Too many adverbs, I’m going to punch up the dialogue instead.
What if I told this non-chronologically?
I’m having so much fun writing something commercial!
Yes, this is where that description goes, and it shows what the hero is thinking.
OK, I can totally trim this down.
What if I did the next draft in first person?

Finally, a tough one—think about the way your work is received right now. Does anyone ask to read it? Not just when you ask for feedback, or when it’s your turn in the writing group, but do people not related to you read your work and approach you to ask for more? When you share a piece, do readers give a specific reason they liked it, or tell you the feelings they had when they read your work? Those are all good signs you’re writing at a publishable level. Ask some of those people what else they read, and go read those publications, too. How good is the writing? Would your work fit?

If you’ve been timid, or haven’t had a chance yet to get your work into a public forum, blogging, Medium, or writing-community sites like Wattpad and Sixfold can help you reach readers you don’t know personally.

Going through these steps is not a one-time thing. Every time your work improves, you’ll get better at analyzing others’ work, which in turn allows you to level up again. It’s a virtuous circle. Keep enjoying what you read and looking for the wow. When a writer impresses you, look for the tools they used. Practice using those tools in your own work. And start submitting to the places you love to read.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her forthcoming book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her and Ashleigh Renard Tuesday December 22nd for an Ask Us Anything episode of the Writers’ Bridge Platform Q&A (free, sign up here for Zoom link).

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