Surviving the Latest Literary Extinction Event

July 16, 2019 § 34 Comments

sarah+anne+strickleyBy Sarah Anne Strickley

I recently read a piece online about how the Internet is like the industrial revolution in that we won’t understand its impact until we’ve gained significant distance. But, as an editor with more than twenty years of experience and as the current faculty editor of a bi-annual journal, I think I can say right now that the Internet has transformed the business of literary journals into a system that actively works against the practice of reading for pleasure.

For more than two decades, writers have argued the various advantages and disadvantages of digital media. Digital journals are more portable, accessible, cheaper, and more easily transmitted than print journals. They have, for all intents and purposes, won the war. Case in point: the idea of starting a new print magazine now sounds insane; only the bold, the idealistic, and the angry endeavor to do it. Shout-out to my good friends at Oversound!

The comparatively smaller monetary investment required to start an online journal means that a broader range of literary tastes are serviced in a digital publishing landscape. It also means that traditionally marginalized voices have a greater chance of circumventing those old, fusty gatekeepers. But the massive proliferation of literary journals online has, among other things, diluted the meaning of publication to the degree that we’ve clung to pre-digital hierarchies as a defense against chaos.

Despite our market-expressed preference for disruptive digital technologies, we still trust The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Granta and handful of other top-tier publications to tell us who is writing the most important, must-read work today. (There are notable all-digital exceptions to this rule, of course. You’re reading this diatribe on the Brevity blog, after all.) The important difference now, though, is that we don’t want to pay for access to that information, which is one of the reasons why journals like Tin House, Glimmer Train, and The Normal School, to name only a few recent (and painful) examples, are closing up the print-issue shop.

As many avid readers are quick to note, the experience of reading physical books is different enough from the experience of reading digital books to retain its value. That’s why indie bookstores are in the midst of an exciting resurgence. But there is a broader audience for books than there is for literary journals. The audience for literary journals is predominantly made up of writers. We can quibble over the reasons, but the cold, hard truth is that writers have decided that they don’t want to pay for access to literary journals. The medium has not retained its value; it is, therefore, unlikely to experience an approximate resurgence. But does that necessarily mean that it’s dead?

Only publications with established, dynamic, and diversified funding structures—and a heaping helping of straight-up grit and luck—will survive the current extinction event ravaging the literary publishing planet. I won’t sentimentalize the days of yore (journals have always been propped up by generous donors, selfless editors, and affiliate institutions), but I will say that I deeply regret the disappearance of so many wonderful and daring publications. It is my sincere belief that the world will be less interesting for the loss of them.

Like many writers who are also editors, I have the very clear sense that we are reaching a highly regrettable inflection point. As a writer myself, I know the frustration of paying journals to spend a year (or more!) not reading my work only to fire off a form rejection, but I also know what the back end of a literary journal looks like: a tiny budget, a reliance upon an unpaid editorial staff, a fraught relationship with costly digital submission managers, a shrinking audience, and an unwieldy fire hose of digital submissions aimed directly at our heads.

My experience is anecdotal, but it’s also common enough among literary editors as to be depressingly representative of the state of affairs. We know that a substantial percentage of the writers who submit to our journals do not read our journals; many of us have long-since abandoned the hope that a readership of writers would be willing to pay to sustain our literary journals; and we’re also often the targets of some writerly hostility. (Ask me about the writer who began e-mailing one of my undergraduate editors when he didn’t like the response he’d heard from me, or the writer who decided her best poems were too good for us post-acceptance and sent us three others instead.)

It’s easy to become apathetic in the face of apathy, to throw up your hands and say: what’s the point of all this? Two recent trends have convinced me that the meaning may have fallen out of the endeavor: It’s not at all uncommon for a certain tier of writer to demand as a prerequisite to responding to a query letter that an editor promise to nominate the work (sight unseen) for certain honors and awards. And it’s not at all uncommon for a different tier of writer to list the number of publications earned (sans titles of journals) in cover letters. As in, “I have published in 122 journals.”

That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it? Increasingly, it’s the mere fact of the publication in the context of cover letters to editors and agents that matters, not the fact that the reading of the publication might offer a unique (and valuable) pleasure to the reader. It’s a numbers game. And, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had much of a taste for math. What I love, instead, is the thrill of discovery, the opportunity to reconsider what I know of genre conventions, the chance to lose myself in a story and wake up an hour later with my head on backwards.

Where else can you read Lydia Davis or Carmen Maria Machado published alongside writers publishing their first poems? Where else can you encounter variety within variety: a creative non-fiction category, for example, that features flash, longform reporting, and lyric essays? Or an 83-page poem published alongside a series of translations? Where else can you read literary reviews that are written in the service of explicating a book-length work in literary (and distinctly non-commercial) terms—for the sheer love of it?

The work of the literary editor is about providing a rich readerly experience to an audience that is far more likely to read a tweeted photograph of a printed page or follow a link posted to Facebook than to purchase an issue and/or read it whole. But those of us who keep on keeping on are often the ones too in love with the business to ever stop. Bringing writers together and sharing their work with others is often a thankless, soul-wearying endeavor. It’s also the most wonderful job I know.

I’m convinced that online journals have a shot at sustainability (the journal I edit is online, so I have become a digital strategizer and a shameless crowdfunder) but we appear to be reaching a point where writer/reader apathy collides with editor apathy. I fear that the tension might erupt in a conflict that precipitates yet another round of extinctions. I’m not sure how we fight back—perhaps no one knows—but I do know that it would help if the tone and tenor of the business were less antagonistic and more celebratory. We’re all on the same team, I find myself repeating to myself. And then, in my darker moments, I find myself wondering: Are we on the same team?

There are certain technologies that always endure cultural paradigm shifts and words are one them, of course. I hope we come around to discovering their value in the context of the literary journal again—and soon. With any luck, I’ll still be here. Reading the slush. Forever.
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Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Copper Nickel, Witness, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville. Visit her online at www.sarahannestrickley.com and visit Miracle Monocle at http://louisville.edu/miraclemonocle

 

Creative Marketing with Book Blurbs

July 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

By Stephanie Weaver

You might have heard writers say, “Blurbs don’t sell books unless they come from big-name authors.”

I don’t agree and here’s why: getting creative with how you use blurbs from lesser-known authors might indeed help sell your book.

When my book The Migraine Relief Plan came out in 2017, I knew I was going to work hard to market it. I asked doctors who believed in nutrition, authors of similar health books, and cookbook authors I knew to write blurbs, including several people with more than 50,000 followers on social media. Sixteen people delivered blurbs on time, which was fantastic. Receiving their approving words was validating, but I knew that if we only included them on or inside the cover, their recommendations would only reach people who picked up and paged through the physical book. I wanted to reach the blurbers’ followers too, not just people who might look at the book in a shop.

The publisher decided to place the blurb from Dr. Mark Hyman on the front cover because he’s nationally known, with multiple New York Times best-sellers. Instead of the traditional two paragraphs of description on the back cover, they used seven more blurbs. The publisher’s marketing team also used many of those same blurbs for the Amazon description.

When I was researching how other authors marketed similar books, I had noticed that Dr. Hyman had good engagement using square images on social media. For his previous book launch, his social media team had pulled quotes from his book and added them to a beautiful background.

I asked my publisher’s designer Morgan Krehbiel to create a template. She used the book’s background image of weathered white boards and added a colored bar and the 3-D book cover to the bottom. She created one for each blurb we got, whether or not they’d been used in the final cover design.

I sent the pre-order quote cards to each person who blurbed by book, asking them to share the graphic on social media with the pre-order link during our four-month pre-order push. Then I created an “On Sale Now” version they could share on publication day. About half of those I contacted shared the cards at least once, or shared my version when I tagged them. This way both their audiences and mine saw the images—and sharing their own words with their audience felt more organic than simply posting an ad for my book. Making it easy for people to share meant that more people did so.

Over the month following the Migraine Relief Plan launch, I shared one quote card every few days on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, thanking and tagging the blurber if they were on that platform. Any blurbs that came in after the deadline also became quote cards and were shared with a thank-you.

After the book came out, I started getting wonderful messages from readers telling me how the book had impacted them. With their permission, I created more quote cards with their words in the same template.

What I like about sharing these social-media-ready graphics is that it doesn’t feel like me “selling” the book; instead I’m sharing someone’s wonderful response. And often that response will reach a new person who tells me, “I didn’t even know you’d written a migraine book!”

Since these images are evergreen, I can re-share them as seems relevant—often in response to items in the news that relate to migraines. I have a Google News Alert set for the word “migraine,” and get an email digest once a day. If I see that a star athlete is out with a migraine, I tweet a quote card to them and their official team account. They may never buy my book—but some of their fans will find out about it.

Any time I get a great review on Amazon or a comment in my Facebook group, I ask permission and create a new quote card to share on social media to spread the love.

These “quote cards” can be created easily using Canva.com or another photo editing program, and you can use blurbs, reviews, and enthusiastic comments in creative ways, whether or not they’re from someone famous. Even non-famous-person blurbs sell books—when we use them wisely.

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Stephanie Weaver is a writer, wellness coach, and speaking coach based in San Diego. Her third book is The Migraine Relief Plan: An 8-Week Transition to Better Eating, Fewer Headaches, and Optimal Health (Surrey Books, 2017). She’s currently at work on a memoir inspired by her mother’s recipe box.

The Benefits of a DIY Writing Retreat

July 10, 2019 § 18 Comments

jovarnishby Jo Varnish

My Submittable let me know that my friend C and I hadn’t been successful in our application to Barrelhouse Writer Camp. I spent my mandatory few minutes wallowing, and then called C to fill her in. Similarly resilient through the disappointments this writers’ life hurls our way, we were open to a new idea. A Do-It-Yourself writing retreat.

We had already secured our partners’ support in leaving them with the kids and pets for three nights, we had set aside the money to pay for the camp – we could do this.

We decided on anywhere near Madison, Connecticut for our retreat’s venue, being midway-ish between C’s Massachusetts home, and mine in New Jersey. I immediately jumped on Airbnb. After coming dangerously close to accidentally booking a bargain of a stately home in Madison, Georgia, I found the perfect cottage. It had two bedrooms and sat on the banks of Oxoboxo Lake. What a name.

We would write, and relax by the lake, kayak, enjoy wine by the fire pit in the evenings: it would be our own Barrelhouse Camp. C and I are well acquainted with the writers’ getaway. We first met two summers ago in a retreat in France. On the day I had arrived, I had walked into the living room of our stone house in the tiny village of Villeferry, to meet the group. C was dramatically sprawled across a chaise lounge, eyes closed, hands on her face. “I have a headache,” she said and then she opened her eyes. “Oh, you’re younger than I thought you’d be.” We fell in friend love at first sight. We later spent a weekend on a writing course in Boston. We talk every day. Every single day.

We arrived at Oxoboxo Lake with long lists of goals, and huge excitement. As a mother with deadlines and work and pets, knowing I have an hour to write at home isn’t really an hour of fully focused writing. The on-call brain is always chugging along, reminding me the laundry in the basement needs to be switched to the dryer, I don’t have sandwich food for school lunches the next day, the dogs need a walk, the gas bill needs paying. Not to mention the fact that at any point in time one of my kids might call or text or Instagram message or snapchat me. Or Facebook message or Facetime me. Or yell from upstairs.

At Oxoboxo Lake, I was free to write in a way I have never been before. Even at the French retreat, or the Boston weekend, the time was punctuated with excellent workshops and craft sessions. I was hungry to learn and be part of those communities, but our weekend on the lake was different.

We chose our spots and stuck to them. C had the day bed directly in front of the picture window framing the lake. I wanted the armchair a little further back from the window. The view didn’t even seem real. Mist suspended over the grey lake in the early morning cleared within a couple of hours, burned off by the sun. The sky brightened to postcard blue, and the lake’s surface shimmered. We could hear the kids next door shrieking in the distance, jumping in, swimming. I got started writing at 9 am each morning, and apart from eating, didn’t stop until 7 or 8 pm each evening. After a late dinner, we organically continued writerly activities: we drank wine, we brainstormed, we read our day’s work, we critiqued, C even built me a writer’s website.

We never did make a fire. We never sat outside in the glorious sun. We didn’t kayak or even take a walk. I literally didn’t leave the cottage from our arrival on Thursday afternoon to our departure on Sunday, and none of that feels like a waste. I wrote thousands of words, edited even more, and submitted like crazy. It wasn’t Barrelhouse Camp, but it was inspirational and it was productive. I got home feeling reinvigorated, ideas spilling forth despite the laundry which had to be switched in the basement.

And isn’t this what a writer’s life is all about? Accepting a rejection and moving on, whether that’s researching new venues to submit your work to, or creating a DIY writing retreat. Barrelhouse Camp would have been an opportunity to learn and create and meet like-minded folk, but our weekend was a great alternative. We reaffirmed our close connection (I forgot my toothbrush and C immediately gave me hers – that kind of close) and re-energized our writing lives. Hopefully next year, we’ll make it to Barrelhouse Writer Camp. If not, I know exactly where we’ll be.
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Having moved from her native England aged 24, Jo Varnish now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.  Her short stories and poetry have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Manqué Magazine, Nine Muses Poetry, and Cathexis Northwest Press.  Currently studying for her MFA and working on her novel, Jo can be found on twitter as @jovarnish1.  The website C built her while at the DIY retreat is at jovarnish.com.

Five Steps to Self-Publish a Quality Book

July 9, 2019 § 9 Comments

By Mandy Wallace

Like most people, I’m hesitant to get excited about a self-published book before seeing its quality.

Sure, subpar books occasionally squeak through the gates of traditional publishing. When they do, we shrug and say ‘it happens.’ But when we pick up a lackluster self-published work, we roll our eyes and say ‘of course.’ There’s a vetting process behind traditional publishing—teams of experienced, full-time employees green-lighting each book—making books from the traditional model more likely to hit the markers of professionalism readers expect.

But these larger teams and distribution networks make for slower publication timelines and smaller royalties.

I created my self-published book, Landing Your First Publication, as a tool for new writers in my community at Write or Die. I wanted the book out there helping them faster than it ever could through traditional routes (if a traditional publisher even picked it up).

I didn’t know it was destined to become the main text for a college creative writing classroom.

But looking back, I made a number of decisions while creating Landing Your First Publication that helped it hit markers readers consciously and unconsciously look for. Since then, I’ve noticed both traditional publishers and highly successful self-published authors following a similar process to ensure a quality book.

These five steps had the greatest impact:

01 Survey Readers

Having direct access to my target readers through my online platform gave me insight into what they sought in a writing instruction book. Many were overwhelmed by conflicting advice. Questions, comments and survey answers about cover letter “rules,” grammar technicalities, writer’s block, and issues like developing voice and style revealed they felt intimidated by the theories and storytelling techniques in existing writing references. Many were looking for a way—or an excuse—to write what they felt excited to write about.

In response, I approached writing as an exercise of curiosity and exploration rather than “work.” I used writing prompts, worksheets, and submissions trackers to make writing more approachable.

02 Invite Beta Reader Feedback

Rounds of beta reader feedback can function like market research for self-publishing authors. It was especially important to select beta readers from or close to my book’s target audience. Writers of different skill levels have different needs. Readers from a different skill level were likely to produce feedback that didn’t serve the new and blocked writers I want my book to help.

I sent surveys to these beta readers with questions designed to elicit specific, honest feedback. Phrasing was important. Asking “This book would be a lot better if…” and “If I really, really had to complain about something in this book, it would be…” elicits more helpful feedback than questions like “was this book helpful?” or “what did you like about this book?”

Had I known the book would end up in front of so many creative writing students or if it had been a more complex project, I would have invested even more time into beta reader rounds with more readers invited from my platform’s email list.

03 Hire a Professional Editor

(Because even professional editors need help editing their work.)

Landing Your First Publication went through multiple rounds of editing, and still those pesky little typos and errors popped up during the review and book launch phases. In my editor’s defense, I made changes to the “finished” manuscript as feedback filtered in, leaving her pristine edits open to errors. I reassure myself that even traditionally published works carry the inevitable typo. We’re all human.

But like traditional publishers, I still worked to get my text as close to perfect as possible through professional edits and multiple points of feedback.

04 Adhere to Cover and Interior Book Design Best Practices

I was genuinely excited to learn about book design. I told myself I had plenty of experience from designing my author platform website and graphics. How hard could it be to design a book?

Cue facepalm.

I purchased an InDesign subscription, pored over the designs of books on my shelves, and unearthed guides from successful self-published authors. I learned about ISBNs and barcodes and that many fonts are copyrighted and can’t be used in a book sold for profit. And while traditional publishers have pre-existing relationships with book reviewers, Publisher’s Weekly might review a self-published book submitted through their Booklife arm.

Even with all this foreknowledge, I made so many mistakes  I had to redo the book design at least three times. From too-small margins to cover-spine misalignments and font-based icons that refused to embed, this is why many self-published authors outsource to professional book and cover designers. The time saved is often worth the cost.

05 Ask for Peer Reviews from The Book Launch Team

Besides the obvious promotional boost a book launch team supports, many of the reviewers and peers who read ARCs of Landing Your First Publication came back with comments and feedback that improved the book. A few caught typos, too.

It was amazing to work with people who cared so much about my baby project and wanted to help it succeed. The self-publishing process reflects what’s true of anything that helps people or creates an impact: you can’t do it alone.

The difference I see between traditional and self-publishing, and between self-published books that succeed and those that don’t, is the community behind the book. Self-publishing may be the leaner model, but it isn’t a loner model. The way to ensure a high quality self-published book is not to do it by yourself.

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Mandy Wallace shares writing tips, resources, and industry interviews with the 20k monthly readers of Write or Die, named one of the 100 Best Websites for Writers. Her book, Landing Your First Publication: The Writing Prompts + Publication Strategy for Writers Who Refuse to Rely on Luck, is available on Amazon.

Daily Newspapers Still Offer Superb Training for Young Writers

July 8, 2019 § 9 Comments

autmanBy Samuel Autman

I wish I could say reading novels by James Baldwin or Toni Morrison spurred me on to becoming a writer, but my career choice is more likely tied to my Southern family’s penchant for spinning tales, my comic strip heroes Clark Kent and Peter Parker, and the fact that I was seven-years-old when Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reportage forced Richard Nixon out of the presidency and made newspaper work seem noble.

By the time I showed up at the Tulsa World as a general assignment reporter in 1989, people who wrote for newspapers were still revered as skillful, savvy souls contributing to the social good. Thirty years later, journalists are too often vilified as “the enemy of the people” and purveyors of “fake news,” but newsrooms are still invaluable boot camps for aspiring writers.

The structure is natural. Editors sign off on the stories. The writers are provided with characters acting out on a public stage. Sometimes reporters make dozens of calls, knock on doors, or talk to people on the street in search of that sparkling quote. Deadlines force the journalists to quickly organize their thoughts and write for editors who are waiting for the piece, which will be edited and placed online almost immediately. The stakes are high but the system creates a safety net and structure for all involved. Nobody wants to be sued.

During my first week in the Tulsa World newsroom, editors tossed me a juicy front-page story. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation requested that FBI Director William Sessions authorize a new DNA test to re-examine the unsolved Girl Scout murders. On the morning of June 13, 1977, the bodies of Lori Lee Farmer, 8, Doris Denise Milner, 10, and Michelle Heather Guse, 9, had been discovered at a Tulsa campsite. They had been molested, bludgeoned and strangled on their first night out. Gene Leroy Hart, who had been convicted of kidnapping and raping two pregnant women, was on the run at the time of the Girl Scout murders. His arrest and trial drew a lot of media coverage. In March of 1979 a jury acquitted him. Three months later Hart, in prison for other charges, collapsed and died after exercising.

Over the next thirteen years in Tulsa, and later at newspapers in Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and San Diego, I was paid to chase hundreds of assignments and write about a series of characters I would not have met otherwise.

Once I accompanied a team of journalists who followed San Diego Padres right-fielder Tony Gwynn from San Diego to St. Louis to Montreal until he made his 3,000th hit, a real stretch for me, a non-sports guy.

Another time I covered the story of the Salt Lake Board of Education tossing out every single noncurricular student organization –  from the Bible club to the UFO club –  just to prevent three lesbians from forming a Gay Straight Alliance at East High School. The action launched a series of 1960s style protests, landing me on the front page for ten consecutive days and making national headlines.

Not everything was a splashy A1 story but they all taught me something. I remember covering a speech in the early 1990s by Pulitzer Prize winning author Norman Mailer, who went on a rant at the Tulsa Public Library. “Most newspapers writers are hacks,” he asserted. “They’re just terrible writers.” I felt so located and enraged because he was right. Much of my prose was truly dreadful, but each day, sentence by sentence, editor by editor, year by year, newspapers allowed me to shed those terrible sentences, hone my craft.

Later I was invited to write about a reunion with my father from whom I had been alienated since childhood, and his subsequent death. This was the story that hooked me on narrative technique. The way readers responded to those columns, which I now know were personal essays, led to my eventual resignation from working in the newsroom. I craved the freedom to write what I wanted.

When I quit, a former colleague from The Salt Lake Tribune invited me for two weeks to visit a small college in rural Indiana to consult with the student newspaper. All these years later, I have tenure, and numerous personal essays in literary magazines and print collections.

Yet I owe my literary DNA to writing for dailies.  I would do it all again.
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Samuel Autman is a member of DePauw University’s creative writing faculty. His essays have appeared in The Chalk Circle, Black Gay Genius, The Kept Secret, The St. Louis Anthology, Ninth Letter, The Common Reader, Under the Gum Tree, The Little Patuxent Review, Bonfires, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Memoir Magazine and Brevity.

www.you.com: The Author Website

July 2, 2019 § 10 Comments

If you’re writing for publication, you need a website.

Not an expensive site with social media feeds, embedded video and a blog with weekly updates. Just an internet calling card that serves as a hub for your online presence. Ideally, the first thing that pops up when someone googles your name, or if your name is common, “Your Name+Author” or “Your Name+Writer.” A website makes you look more professional than social media alone, and it’s part of the framework of your writing career.

Pick a domain name. If you can get your own name, or your own name with a middle initial, or yourownnamewriter or yourownnamebooks, get one of those. Don’t name your site the title of your book, because the title may change before publication, and you will (hopefully!) write more books. If you also register the title of your book, super, but until your book is published, point that domain name to your main website.

Make the domain name simple enough to say out loud and have people remember it. Make it short, so it fits easily on a business card. If you’ve got social media handles, try to get that domain name: @SoniaRashidWrites = SoniaRashidWrites.com

I’ve found Name.com to be cheap and reliable; you don’t need to already have a website to register your domain name. Here are the basic steps.

Use a responsive template. “Responsive” means the website automatically changes size and shape when someone reads it on their phone. Most modern website templates are responsive, but check for that word.

Just the facts. If you’re making your first author website (or redoing an unfortunate previous site), include:

  • Your name and a tagline or very short bio that tells what you write about, visible on the first page without clicking or scrolling.

Martha Carroll

Freelance Travel and Memoir

Allegra Martinez

Adventurous cookery from a food scientist-turned-travelista

  • A photograph of you, or that is evocative of your writing topics. Read our previous blog post for secrets to a good headshot, and search “free stock photos” for a professional photo that shows something about your work. Or heck, pay for a stock photo—they aren’t expensive for non-commercial use (you aren’t selling copies), and that reduces your chances of picking a photo six other writers are using on their own websites.
  • Contact information. Either an email contact form or a link to email you, plus icons that link to your social media.

If that’s what you can do for now, great! Your online calling card is good to go. If you have more time and energy, add:

  • A full bio that tells your background and education, how you came to writing, where your work has been published, and what you’re working on right now. If you’re writing fiction, you may want to include a charming personal detail like your pets or relationship. If you’re writing memoir and worried about privacy, you don’t have to put personal info down, but one detail like “He enjoys goat yoga,” can help the reader get to know you.
  • Links to anything you’ve previously published that you’re proud of.
  • A blog where you update readers on your publications and/or life relative to writing, about once a month. You’re unlikely to gain many readers through the website, but that’s not what this blog is for. This blog is to show agents you are engaging with the world as a writer. If you want people to read the blog, send out posts as an email newsletter. Turn off commenting if that’s an option, because “0 comments” looks sad.

That’s enough. Really! Until you’re publishing regularly, that’s truly all your website needs.

How much does a website cost? Anything from $50 for hosting, domain name and a stock photo on an existing platform, to $3000 or more for a fancy site with dedicated hosting. Good basic websites can be had for $500-1500; spending more can help you get exactly what you want without having to learn very much.

If you do want to throw money at the project, make sure you look at other writers’ websites and check out who designed them. Ask for references, and ask those references how fast the site was done and if they got what they really wanted. Google the writer and check that their site is on the first page of results; if not, the site designer hasn’t done great SEO (search-engine optimization—basically little coded flags the website waves to say “Here I am! Show me to people!”)

For doing it yourself, WordPress, Wix and Squarespace are the main build-your-own-website platforms. (Links are to basic tutorials for each platform. And if you love one of those, please tell us why in the comments!) If you feel more adventurous and are willing to spend 20-30 hours and learn a little html code, try a Bootstrap template.

A writer website doesn’t need to be constantly updated. When you publish something new, link it. When you write a blog post, post it. If you blog somewhere else, post the first paragraph with a link to the other blog. Add the website link to your email signature, so friends can click over and see what you’re up to. And when you’re ready to query? Double-check for typos one more time, and feel good about being a professional.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, PA, August 21-23, 2019.

Learning to Fish: the Under-Labor of Writing

June 25, 2019 § 15 Comments

By Katharine Coldiron

As online writing communities proliferate, new writers flock to groups that include members of all experience levels, asking some of the same questions over and over again. Some questions are difficult to research independently—seeking a consensus of opinion or a specific sliver of information—but other questions could, and should, have been Googled first.

Starting to write is overwhelming, I know. Annie Proulx I am not, and yet even I have been asked “how do I know where to submit my stories?” more often than I can count. Just because I’ve done it before. I suspect that new writers are often so worried about starting that they want to talk to another human being about it, even if that human being isn’t particularly impressive. In grad school, I was asked so many times where and how to submit short stories, I wrote a series of blog posts about the question and related ones. In online groups, I refer curious new writers to this series of posts at least monthly.

I’m hardly the only person to write helpful blog posts aimed at beginning writers. Any online search reveals a boatload—a yachtload—of opinions about market and submissions. Maybe this is part of the problem; maybe there’s simply too much out there, so overwhelmed young writers post “How do I know where to submit?” instead of sorting through Google results, knowing that a human will offer a narrower, less intimidating place to begin.

That troubles me. Online communities are poor substitutes for the kind of genuine mentorship that can give a young writer the aesthetic foundation and emotional stability to persist in a difficult career. Plus, dashing off a post with a broad question betrays a desire for the easiest way. It shifts the labor of research onto the answerers, rather than the questioner. It’s akin to skipping a seminar, then asking at the next class, “What’d we do last week?” It’s the student’s job to find out and make up what she missed, and—crucially—not to waste the time of the other students, who are ready to get on with that week’s class.

This is the labor underneath writing: research, trial and error, reading. Hours of browsing online content to see if your work is a good fit. Honing queries, word by word; mourning lost opportunities (and determining to do better next time) due to not reading the submission guidelines down to the last comma; poring over prize-winning collections and pieces to figure out what makes their work different from yours. Pitching and following up. Writing interview questions. Crappy spreadsheets.

It’s hard, annoying labor, but it’s not possible to outsource. You have to learn how to do it. Most of learning how to do it happens on your own.

Asking other people to do or explain the under-labor of writing will make you more helpless and, ultimately, less successful; it will mean always buying fish from the grocery instead of catching your own.

If you have no idea how to fish, then of course you need to learn from the ground up. But would you go directly to Kevin VanDam, the greatest living bass fisherman, to learn to cast a line for the first time? No, you would not. You’d probably start with YouTube tutorials, or a library book, or someone’s dad. When your skill level grows beyond what you can figure out on your own, then you seek help.

A writer asking general questions of a community of experts when he hasn’t put in enough effort to learn the answer on his own demonstrates that he doesn’t work independently very well. That’s a real problem for a mostly solo profession. It also shows that the writer has minimal understanding of the time and work publishing takes, how much research writing involves, how frequently it requires sorting through overwhelming noise for the harmonies that make the work sing. Writing is a profession like any other, and learning a profession takes time and effort. Enough lazy, broad questions online and expert writers will stop answering. Then all of us lose out on the value they add to such communities.

(Incidentally, a writer who is discouraged from asking more directed or complex questions by this message of “figure out the basics before you seek help” is missing the grit and perseverance necessary to be a writer. Feeling rejected, overwhelmed, and lost is a daily condition. Get past it.)

The early stages of being a writer are full of such uncertainty, so many questions, and it seems impossible to know what you’re doing. But no one guidebook will tell you what you need to know. No number of answered questions will prepare you for being inside the profession. At some point you have to get a rod and reel and go, learn in the moment what it feels like to have a fish on your line. That experience will only bring up a whole new set of questions, some of which might not appear to have answers you can Google as easily as your early ones. Voila, the community will be there to help.

Ask your questions, by all means.

But do your research first.

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Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, NPR, LARB, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming in 2020 from Kernpunkt Press. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.

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