My 92-Year-Old Mom Reads Proust and Other Instagram Flash Stories

August 20, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Elizabeth Garber

I posted: My mom has seven pages left in Vol 2 of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Each day I visit, she starts off with an update: “Proust is mad at his mother because she misplaced his hat.” Then she’s puzzled and kind of pissed off. “I just don’t get it, why is he so famous?”

My most popular Instagram/Facebook posts are about my mom. There’s a photo and story of her crossing a meadow with her cane to pick fiddleheads in the spring or picking blueberries in the summer, or the three days she read and commented on my new manuscript. But the best received has been about her reading Proust.

To answer her question about Proust, I read aloud sections from a Lit Hub article on 6 Reasons Why You Must Read Proust by Joshua Zajdman. How he describes everyone from the duchess to the seamstress equally. This helps her. She says, “Proust watches young girls on a beach, and spends a whole page describing a girl with a mole on her chin.”

I show her my post about her on Instagram with responses from Paris (with photos of crepes suzettes and a Proust library at the Ritz), Cannes Film Festival, Sweden, England, China and local friends. She’s thrilled. Her face lights up, and her life is expanded from her compressing world. A little story can go a long way. People love stories, and are hungry for real stories that feed our spirits. I’d started writing these little stories because I love to collect the vivid details of what people say and the little stories grew.

I also have to confess the other truth. On the days I get restless or impatient helping my mom, writing little stories gives me a creative way to appreciate her more. In the midst of going to the grocery store for her, or changing her sheets, or changing a band aid, I ask her questions. She tells me a story. I take notes. I look up photos in the old albums.

I asked her about the Borges story she told me when I was sixteen, the one where the man realizes he is a character in someone else’s mind. That story was literally mind-blowing for an Ohio teen in 1968. She said. “I think I still have a file of our book lists.” She hunted through her files, hard to see as her eyesight dims, and I pulled it out. Her Cincinnati Book Club lists are all there, with the South American writers list on top and her notes on each writer, every year of the 1960s. We sat for an hour, reading through the books, and I found a photo from 1968. Now I have to make a post to share this story.

What I love about writing these Flash posts is the immediate connection. It’s heavenly to write a story and have readers read it right away! While I wait years for a book to move into print, here’s a way to touch readers right away! The immediate exchange gives me a taste of that writer/audience magic, like hearing my audience’s breathing change as I read to them.

If you post an image, and don’t write a little story, it’s a missed opportunity to nourish your reader, and yourself.  In 2018-20, when InstaPoetry erupted, headlines blared: How Instagram Saved Poetry, (The Atlantic). Now it’s time to practice Insta-Flash.

Just notice the little stories that happen in your life, that mean something to you. Think of the situation. Notice a mini narrative arc. A story starts somewhere, ends somewhere else. Set a scene in a few words, a little dialogue, something happens. Something poignant, something changes.

As I left my mom’s that day, after we looked at her garden, she said, “I’m just so happy to talk about Proust.”
____

Elizabeth Garber, author of Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter, is pitching a new memoir of teens at sea on a disastrous ship. Find me on Instagram at @ElizabethGarberWriter and at www.elizabethgarber.com

These ARE My Real Friends

June 1, 2021 § 23 Comments

I’ve always had a simple test to show if someone is my “real” friend: Would I drive across state lines in the middle of the night to bail them out of jail?

Now that I live in an absolute monarchy where I’m not even sure if bail is a thing, the equation is a little more complicated. I’ve also spent the past ten years actively making more virtual friends—reviewing books, sharing publishing information, commenting on posts, boosting tweets. That’s a lot more bond money at stake.

But Allison, you say, wary of the reduction of the sacred bond of friendship to an automated heart, How can you be “friends” with people you’ve never met? Social media isn’t real friendship. Acquaintances, maybe. But friends? I mean, would you really even recognize half your Instagram following if you saw them on the street?

Nope. But I’d recognize the people I follow back. Or the hundred or so who turn up at biweekly Writer’s Bridge events, or the twenty or so who come to weekly co-writing events, or the fifteen in my most active comment pod.

O philoi, oudeis philos, exclaimed Artistotle, often translated as, “O my friends, there is no friend”; at once a recognition and a denial. If we have many friends, have we any? Those we deem intimate, we grant power. Here is my secret—destroy me if you will, or as Derrida writes in The Politics of Friendship, “No friend without the possibility of wound.” How many people can we trust to hold the knife?

In the late 1940s, psychologist Leon Festinger led a study investigating the role of physical space in friendship formation. The scientists’ theory: “Friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home, or walking about the neighborhood.” It wasn’t attitude or commonalities that made friends, they found, but proximity. Their study of MIT student housing showed that the most popular residents weren’t the most likeable—they were the people who lived at the bottom of the staircase everyone used to get in and out of the building. Proximity made them more likely to meet more people, giving them a larger chance of connecting. In the 1990s, Steve Jobs redesigned the Pixar offices to put engineers, animators and executives all in one building to create Pixar’s famously collaborative space. Google puts every worker no more than “150 feet from food” so everyone will “casually collide” for “unplanned collaborations.”

These casual collisions are why most of us make our last serious friendships in college: we have proximity to our classmates, with whom we frequently collide, as well as being assigned to work with people we might not have chosen. We’re more codependent: we need a ride to the store, or quarters for the laundry, and there’s no shame in asking, or in saying, “Sorry dude, can’t today.” Common areas abound, places specifically designed to read or talk or think or lie in the sun with a book until someone walks up to say, “Whatcha reading?”

Social media and virtual events recreate the college experience. Paradoxically, living thousands of miles from most of my friends while unable to travel for over a year has built more connections than ever. I spend more time on Twitter and in Facebook groups. I co-invented a biweekly gathering where writers discuss a common topic, have small-group breakouts (Surprise! You’re gonna talk to someone new!), and the chat is alive with personal side-conversations. I’m a member of Instagram comment pods where I’m required to engage…while I grow to like people for who they are.

I don’t have to schedule time for most of these interactions—I don’t even have to agree in advance. Interaction happens when I choose to be in the virtual space. Acquaintanceship grows into intimacy through repetition. Welcome to the Writer’s Bridge, love your haircut! I saw your fabulous essay on Facebook! Your new baby is beautiful on Instagram! I have an answer to that publishing question you Tweeted!

Frequent. Spontaneous. Contact.

Am I in a bad mood? Fine, not commenting on your post right now. Am I in a great mood? Let me drop into a few Facebook groups and share information. Not every person will love me…but as we all survive publishing together, the opportunities are there to develop real friendship.

Early one morning, Wittman Ah, the artist protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, acknowledges “the winners of the party”—not a chosen social group, but the last stragglers of an all-night acid trip, emerging to share the dawn. Strangers thrown together by happenstance and a deeply emotional journey through a common experience. “It’s very good sitting here among friends, coffee cup warm in hands, cigarette,” he thinks. “Good show, gods.”

It might not be practical for me to post my Twitter mutuals’ bail, but I can sure help them promote their book, celebrate success, lick the wounds of failure, brainstorm solutions, provide resources for their current problem, or just plain enjoy their company.

You know, like friends.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to spontaneously connect? She’s leading a webinar for Creative Nonfiction Magazine June 16—come be a new friend! Register here: Writing Powerful Sentences: Going Beyond Grammar.

The 21st-Century Book Launch

April 8, 2021 § 12 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.

To Blog or Not To Blog

April 2, 2021 § 16 Comments

By Jeanne Bonner

On a whim this year, when I wrote out my New Year’s resolutions, I decided to add the following intention to the list: Blog for the entire month of February.

I figured I would pick a month with the fewest days to make the task somewhat easier. Finding something meaningful to write every day for a month is in many ways no small undertaking.

But why bother? Who reads blogs?

I don’t know if I even answer those questions. Social media has changed the landscape for other online activity – by essentially elevating the primacy of multi-venue feeds, rather than discrete reading destinations such as blogs.

I only know the blog that I started in 2008 as a shrine to my love of the Italian language has long been the only place I can throw up a quick essay or my take on a new Italian film in such a way as these bits and pieces contribute to a larger whole. I can’t command anyone else to publish my work or accept my niche pitches. But my blog? It has no choice.

So I use it to catalog my interests – and literary projects are chief among those interests. The blog is where I might try out an idea; for example, I decided to write a “letter” to Marie Kondo, defending hoarding because, well, I need a lot of mementos from the places I’ve loved. It’s an appropriate forum for rants or observations plucked directly from my diary, and hence not finished writing that could conceivably be published.

And yet does blogging sap creativity and waste time, both of which I could use to further more significant writing projects?

Surely in February I could have devoted more time to nonfiction essays I’ve been struggling to complete rather than resurrecting a forgotten bit of travel writing, for example, about the 24 incandescent hours I spent in Rome a few years back?

I write primarily to publish creative nonfiction essays. Wouldn’t it have been wiser, if I wanted to exercise my writing muscles, to simply review the laundry list of essay ideas, some of which I’ve begun, or to write well thought-out pitches for articles?

Tough to say. Or maybe a better answer is: yes AND no. In the case of the travel essay about a day I spent in Rome, I’d pitched it to several outlets without success (perhaps because Rome is well-covered in the travel writing space), and then I moved on to other writing. So it was a piece of writing that I had spent a lot of time on, which nonetheless languished unseen and most likely would have continued to do so if I hadn’t shared it on my blog.

And reviewing old posts I’d never published and topics I’d been wanting to broach did inspire me to begin a new series that could be fruitful. I also think one published piece may emerge from the blogging since I felt inspired to tackle a topic I’d only mentioned in passing previously.

Plus, it gave me a project, as I came off a month of teaching an intensive course on memoir during which I’d put aside my own writing. So it felt like a way of jumpstarting my writing.

Moreover, blogging – if done well, and if shared via social media correctly (two ifs that aren’t guaranteed) – can help you gauge interest in a topic. I think, for example, I’d like to use my blog as an incubator for journal bits I could develop into proper essays. One bit: words are almost always at the heart of everything I save and everything I remember.

But deciding to blog is not easy. Indeed, the Hamletian note you hear in this entry’s title is purposeful. There is room to waffle on this topic.

Blogging does provide one bit of writing pleasure: putting a thought out into the world. A series of thoughts, rather. Not just a tweet or a Facebook post. It’s more considered than that.

Some writers have established successful blogs. For example, Jane Friedman has a wonderful blog – and one of the topics she’s discussed there is whether writers should blog. What’s her verdict? “The average author does not benefit much from blogging,” she writes.

And yet she continues to blog and also offers a course on blogging for writers. Key caveat: take the writing seriously on the blog. If it’s ‘lesser’ writing, she says don’t bother. She also says blogging can pay off more for nonfiction writers than novelists.

That said, George R.R. Martin, the man beyond Game of Thrones (the book that inspired the TV series), has a blog. It’s called “Not A Blog,” so there you go. He updates it regularly with small bits of writing that feel maybe not expansive or developed enough for an article.

So to blog or not to blog? Ah that is the question. And perhaps it begets other questions: Do you have another way to write regularly in a low-stakes environment? Do you post long strings of thought on Facebook or to Instagram? Or maybe you prefer sites like Medium.

As for me, I will continue to blog because I have a blog. Because I like to track a particular activity – my Italian language engagement – through blogging and I take advantage of the platform to also publish writing about other interests. Essentially, when you come to my blog, you’re around my table. And while other people would serve you a meal there, I’d like to serve you my writing.
___

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.

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.

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.

Freshening Up

December 3, 2020 § 16 Comments

Exactly what holidays this year will feel like

As we near the end of 2020, the year that brought you April is Forever and Where Did August Go? it’s time for that special season: Weird Holidays.

The upside of this strange emptiness? Those hours normally spent shopping for a mob, cooking for a mob, cleaning up after a mob, or biting your tongue while Uncle Henry shares his Views, is free time!

Use some of these open hours to freshen up your author self. This is regular maintenance, ideally done 2-3 times a year, and the routine is worth setting up long before you publish a book.

EMAIL SIGNATURE
Update your email signature with links to your website, favorite social media, or newsletter sign-up, and a recent publication or the book, course, or service you’re selling right now. Limit to 2-3 links and an image—rotate information rather than overwhelming the reader.

WEBSITE
No website? Ask your writer friends how they built theirs. Choose WordPress, Squarespace, or a professional designer for a simple, one-page website with your name, bio, author photo, and links to anything you’ve published so far. You don’t need a blog or events calendar. Just the equivalent of an online business card.

Already got a website?
– check all links
– update your bio with new honors, awards or projects
– add new publications
– update events if you have a calendar
– update pricing for any services, and give yourself a minimum 10% raise yearly
– make sure your headshot still looks like you, and you still like it

SOCIAL MEDIA
You don’t have to do social media! If you’re writing literary essays/memoir, you’re better off focusing on publication and prizes. But if you do social media, for all your accounts:
– update your bio and link; add a Linktree if you need multiple links
– update profile and cover pics if needed
– check that any pinned posts are still relevant to the work you’re doing now
– in your phone, delete duplicate, unflattering, or blurry photos (you’re never going to need them ‘just in case!’ I promise!)
– ‘Favorite’ photos you like for social media, or put them in an album.

GOODREADS
You don’t have to be on Goodreads! If you aren’t, spend ten minutes checking it out and see if you’d like to have an account. If you are:
– update your bio and any links
– update your profile pic
– ensure any book titles you’ve authored are “claimed” and listed on your profile
– answer any outstanding questions from readers

AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE
If you’ve published a book or you’re included in an anthology, get your Amazon Author Page organized:
– update your bio and links
– add or update any photos and videos
– claim all titles associated with your name

MAILING LIST/NEWSLETTER
If you haven’t started an official mailing list, open up an Excel or Google sheet and enter the names and emails of every reader and writer you know. You’re not emailing them yet, but when you’re ready, this is who you invite to join your list. All those workshop contact lists, those author business cards you’ve kept in a file? Put that information here.

Got a mailing list?
– improve your open rate by removing inactive subscribers
– check your website pop-ups and other sign-up links—are they specific calls to action? Do they link correctly?
– if you use a service like MailChimp, export your contacts list to back it up
– in your favorite notes app or notebook, start a casual list of ideas and topics for future newsletters
– if you use a newsletter template, update images and links
– check that any automated subscriber messages are still relevant

PORTFOLIO
If you have online publications, make them into PDFs. Someday that website will go under or clear their archives and you’ll still want to share your work. If your article/essay/story only appeared in print, scan to a pdf, then make it viewable on your website 2-4 months after publication. Link to the publication’s subscription info, too!

Update your list of where you’d like to be published. Rotate your reading to keep in touch with what those venues publish, and note submissions periods or pitch guidelines.

BLURBS
Start/update your list of authors you are even vaguely connected to who might blurb you one day. Every week, pick an author and promote, retweet, share, or review their book/recent article/course/services, or send a brief, friendly email. Maintaining these connections long-term means you’ll feel OK asking (and they’ll remember you fondly) when it’s blurb time.

CONFERENCES
Look up live and virtual writing conferences, and non-writing events around your memoir topic. Note anything you’d like to attend and why (agent pitching, particular speaker or genre focus, audience who will be helped by your book). If speaking is part of your work, note application deadlines and requested materials.

BOOKSTORES
As health, safety and finances allow, buy a physical book from your local indie and chat with at least one clerk. Note live or virtual events you can attend. Connect with the stores and their featured authors on social media.

 

This is a long list. Don’t do it all, and don’t do it all at once! Set up your own checklist, and make notes in your calendar or recurring to-dos. Tackle the things you care about most, in tiny bites. And when the time comes to talk to your publisher’s marketing department? You’re going to have great news for them.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Freshening up your manuscript? Join Allison and Jane Friedman for Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story. Suitable for any subsequent draft, we’ll talk narrative voice, theme, and Allison’s #1 editing technique to revolutionize your next draft—no matter what number it is! December 16th, recording available if you can’t make it live.

Facebook Author Pages Are Useless. Make One Anyway.

November 11, 2020 § 13 Comments

A writer asked me, “Should I start a Facebook Author Page? My book is coming out next week, but I want to keep my personal profile private and just get everyone to like my author page.”

What I heard: I don’t want to share my real self or genuinely connect, but I want people to sign up for my commercials.

Because yes, we share our blog links and promote our friends’ books, too, but these are all commercial activities. Read me. Buy me. Buy this other thing.

Nobody wants to be your customer. They want to be your friend.

Facebook already knows this. That’s why Facebook feeds you a steady stream of news from family and acquaintances, posts from interest groups you’re part of, and a very occasional post from that author page you liked a long time ago because your friend asked you to.

Even when you like and follow a business or author page, Facebook rarely delivers their posts. You have to specifically visit the page. For that author, only 10-15% of the people who clicked “follow”—who signed up on purpose!—will see their posts. Mathematical algorithms weigh a page’s popularity and interest to the public, because what Facebook wants is for people to spend more time on Facebook. If a page has thousands of followers, Facebook shows the posts more widely and more often. Famous people get more famous. Viral content goes viral-er.

Social media algorithms aren’t looking for “quality” or “this author deserves a boost!” so if you want anyone to see posts from your author page, you’ll have to pay for advertising. Do you have a product to sell? Your beautiful book, or maybe a course you’re teaching? Run $20 worth of well-targeted ads. No product yet? Don’t bother.

Because Facebook Author Pages don’t attract their own traffic, they don’t usefully separate professional from personal. You will always get far more engagement on your personal page. (Try posting the same link or post or picture to your author page and your profile and see who shows up where.)

No-one wants to be your customer. They want to be your friend.

Even if they see your post in both places, commenting on a friend’s post feels “real” and “connected” in a way that commenting on their low-traffic author page doesn’t.

For a useful compromise, join some interest groups on Facebook. There are plenty of writing groups in all genres, and whether you write about boating or genealogy or special-needs parenting or hot-air ballooning, your topic almost certainly has groups, too. Lurk for a while until you understand how the group functions. Comment when you can help, or congratulate, or encourage. Almost zero groups allow direct “buy my product” advertising. But if you gain a reputation for being helpful and kind, people will ask you about your book.

Administrating an author page is a little more difficult than updating a personal profile. They don’t get traffic, they feel fake even to your friends, and you’ll feel weird constantly advertising yourself.

Make a Facebook Author Page anyway.

Here’s why: One day, you’re going to publish that book, or that second book, or offer a workshop or a course, and you’re going to want to spread the word. You can only buy Facebook advertising for posts on a page, not your personal or group posts.

Here’s why else: if you’re writing a book that will benefit from a social media platform (that’s not all memoirs!) agents and publishers will care how many followers you have on Facebook personally, and on your page. They’ll also care about how many members your groups have, and how active you are in the groups. Pumping up those numbers from scratch at the last minute doesn’t create genuine connections. A long, slow process builds bridges between your writing and reading communities.

  • Set up an automatic feed to post to your author page whenever you write something new on Instagram/Twitter/your blog (I use IFTTT, it’s free).
  • Share non-private posts from your personal profile to your page, so your fans see some of the personal you.
  • Once or twice a week, find a helpful or well-written blog or article you didn’t write. Say why you liked it or found it thought-provoking, and quote something intriguing or counter-intuitive. Post that to your author page (and Twitter, if you have it). Tag the original author. Sharing their work connects you to them a little more, and their fans may discover your work, too.

Sharing your work on your personal profile, among the genuine moments of your life, will always be more rewarding and gain more readers. “We had a picnic!” “So excited about my publishing deal!” and “Wow, these fall leaves!” are far more engaging than “Buy my book,” “Review my book,” “Tell your friends about my book.” Instead of asking friends to watch a commercial, your work sits amidst the many things you mutually find interesting. But a Facebook Author Page has advertising and platform benefits you’re going to need one day—so start gently building your following now.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching the webinar Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story December 16th (replay will be available). Click here to find out more and grab your spot!

How Will Your Memoir Sell?

October 29, 2020 § 7 Comments

Do you need a platform to sell a book?

Read that question again. Not as “Do you need a PLATFORM to sell a book,” but as “Do YOU need a platform to sell a book?”

We usually think of “platform” as “social media.” But there are literary platforms and mass-media platforms, too. Some memoirs sell on powerful writing alone.

How do you know if yours is one of them?

Memoirs fit roughly into four categories, and each category needs different elements to sell. Yes, a strong social-media platform can be one of those elements, but it’s not the only one. Let’s break it down:

Voice-Driven memoirs are collections of anecdotes, essays or loosely-connected stories. David Sedaris falls into this category, as does Jenny Lawson—authors we want to spend time with, to enjoy whatever story they want to tell because they’re telling it. Comedians’ memoirs are also in this category. Their plot might be “I grew up, I worked hard and then I got famous,” but we want to hear that story from the person inside it.

Character-Driven memoirs are often generational family stories through the eyes of the narrator, like The Glass Castle or The Liar’s Club. Or the reader navigates a particular situation or time in close concert with the narrator, as in The Year of Magical Thinking. The journey is through time and personal change, rather than up a mountain or around the world.

Plot-Driven memoirs focus on a journey, from Point A to Point B. There’s usually a physical element: sometimes these are places on a map, as in Wild; sometimes the journey is through addiction, or traveling from sickness to health as in Porochista Khakpour’s Sick.

Personal Record memoirs survey a place, culture or time. Orange is the New Black (women’s prison), Kitchen Confidential (professional cooking), and Maximum City (Bombay) each encapsulate the writer’s personal intersection with a larger phenomenon. “Legacy” books—collections of family letters, parent biographies, community histories—fall in this category.

The sellability of each type of memoir—to agents, publishers, and ultimately readers—tends to spring from these elements:

Voice-Driven Memoir: Come Spend Time with Me

  • Personal Fame from public speaking or a public career like theatre, dance or politics.
  • A unique, consistent, often funny, voice.
  • Mass-Media Platform: publications in newspapers and newsstand magazines.
  • Social-Media Platform: a high-engagement blog with hundreds of comments per post, or social-media accounts that regularly receive thousands of likes.

 

Character-Driven Memoir: Personal Change, Beautiful Writing

  • Excellent writing with a strong narrative voice.
  • Deep insight into oneself and the human condition, expressed on the page.
  • A “hot essay”—a literary or mass-media publication that draws wide attention.
  • Literary connections: teachers and workshop leaders who promote you to their agent and publisher, and will blurb your book.
  • Literary platform: a body of work in literary journals and upscale mass-media; places at selective residencies; literary awards and contest wins.

 

Plot-Driven Memoir: The Journey Is the Story

  • Newsworthiness of your journey, especially if a physical journey has been reported in mass media or an internal journey is related to an emerging hot topic.
  • Cultural relevance of your journey, like a significant generational, ethnic, or gender experience.
  • A “hot essay”
  • Literary platform

 

Personal Record: My Experience with an Interesting World

  • Self-publication and niche-marketing to the community the book is about (your relatives, a geographical area, etc.), though traditional publishing is also an option.
  • Cultural relevance, especially if you are an expert on or native of a world that’s becoming newsworthy or topical.
  • Social-Media Platform, including incredible visuals that invite readers into the world OR
  • Mass-Media Platform, especially regular publication in niche venues about your world, such as popular travel or cooking websites OR
  • Literary platform if your writing is voice-driven.

 

You don’t need to tick off every element in your category. But the more you can achieve, the better your chances of selling your memoir.

If you want to focus primarily on your writing, you’ll need to consciously improve your craft, seek publication in top-notch journals, and cultivate ongoing connections with your teachers. If your physical journey is the fascinating part, try to interest a reporter in your story, or learn to pitch to mass media yourself. If you want to build readership online until you reach critical mass, make improving your reach and content on social media a large part of your writing practice, and write a book that makes social media a positive contribution to your time.

As Jane Friedman says, “Everyone has a meaningful story to tell, but not everyone’s story (or writing) will find an agent or receive a commercial publishing deal.” Your book is worth writing. If you want to sell it, start educating yourself now on how that’s likely to happen, and how you’re cultivating and connecting with the readers who need your book.

Need more platform information? Want to know how to build an audience with or without social media? Join Allison K Williams and Ashleigh Renard for The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A Zoom chat today at 1PM EST (recording will be available). Always free. Sign up here to receive the zoom link.

 

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