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Decoding the Writer’s Platform: Why

While working on the next post in this series, a client shared with me their logic model for a re-brand. Because they are a large organization, re-branding is a huge undertaking. It’s more of a refresh to update their look and clarify their internal and external brand experience. I manage a couple of their media projects so I get to see the evolution of their process.

Any time we build or revise what we have built, it takes clarity.

One area where a writer can be clear, is why you write. It’s a part of your branding and can lead to community engagement, credibility and be the reason your audience reads what you have to express.

My client shared a TEDtalk video that is one of the best explanations as to why “why” matters. Think of this as a sidebar to what we are discussing in this writer’s platform series. Take five minutes to better understand the power of why:

So how can you have an inspired writer’s platform? Begin with why you write. Not what you write or how, but why. Is that a part of your blog? Your bio? Is it part of what you share in your community? People are going to connect with why.

I’m intrigued by the application of this idea to a writer’s platform. I look at my own bio and read what and how. Why do I write? That is a question we all need to answer with clarity. What do you think?

Decoding the Writer’s Platform: Part IV

“Community”

Eight years old and sitting in Mrs. Coyan’s living room, she served me sugar cookies and tea in real china cups with dainty pink flowers. On the hillside below her house I found broken purple glass, square nails and chips of china. It was a trail I used to get to the creek that flowed through the town where I had recently moved. I never missed an opportunity to pick up old broken bits.

Mrs. Coyan who was my age times ten, with her tightly curled white perm and silver-rimmed glasses, smiled at me when I compared the cup to my collected treasure. She confided that the hillside was once a household dump. Imagine that! Who would throw away china? I held on tighter to my cup lest it became a casualty to refuse.

A lonely child in a mountain mining town found community among the old-timers. Each was housebound so I did the walking and visiting. Visits meant cookies, tea, sometimes beer, and always stories. I learned that if you wanted to better yourself in life you got an education. Mrs. Coyan told me that. To get an education, you had to read or so Mr. Parker said and he told me which books to check out from the library.

Eloise paid me a quarter to deliver her beer. She’d pop the top on her Coors, adjust the patch over her one missing eye and tell me how she used to ride her horse over the rugged Sierra Mountains to inspect the telegraph lines between towns that no longer existed.

From my first memorable community, I gained stories, a craving for adventure and a life-long love of learning and history. And a taste for tea in china cups.

In this series, Decoding the Writer’s Platform, we are examining four components of the platform itself. Later we will discuss how to apply the platform to gain greater visibility. Part II and Part III cover the basic foundation for branding. This is who you are as a writer. The next step is to build a solid community.

Blocks as Steps

Blocks as Steps

Your social media followers are not your audience.

This is what a keynote speaker said at a writers conference I attended in LA. It’s the comment that got me puzzling over just what is a writer’s platform and what’s the difference between community, followers and audience? If social media followers are not my audience, then why am I working so hard to get them?

Before attending the conference, my manuscript received a rejection from a publisher because I needed to “shore up my social media presence.” To me, this meant I didn’t have enough audience and the publisher had concerns regarding my contribution to selling copies of my book.

However, after hearing the keynote, I was no longer certain. At this same time, several of my writing peers were also pondering their commitment to social media. While many enjoy the social aspects, they questioned its effectiveness for their platform.

Using my marketing background and insight gained from the conference, I turned the phrases in my mind like a Rubik’s Cube. If we are building a writer’s platform what is the basic goal? Visibility. That’s when it finally occurred to me that there were two crucial steps between who we are as writers and who will read our books.

Between branding and audience is community and credibility.

Furthermore, I could clearly see how traditional publishing relies more on credibility and independent publishing relies more on community. Everyone is reaching for the prize — audience. Yet, we don’t take time to clearly define our audience. We confuse it with followers and friendly networks. Coming from a retail marketing background I know the importance of defining a target audience.

Coming from the cooperative industry, I also know the importance of building community around an authentic brand. So the keynote was right — your followers are not your audience. They are either your credibility (the more followers, the more likely you have influence) or your community (followers that you network among).

It’s important that you are authentic in your writer’s brand and clear about who you are and why you write because you will engage in many important communities as you build visibility. Successful engagement can lead to credibility and expand your audience.

We have countless clusters of community over a lifetime.

Community Clusters

My childhood community of old-timers was relevant to shaping the person I’d become and the writer I would later be. We have these influences surrounding us including, our family of origin, grammar schooling, work experience, college, career, partnerships, extended family, friends, associates, social media. We could brainstorm extensive lists based on our specific interests alone.

With so many spheres of influence, no wonder we get overwhelmed. Community requires relationship building, and different communities require more or less levels of engagement. We also have the power to influence the spheres that influence us.

So which communities matter?

Each person might answer differently, but our personal, spiritual and professional communities most likely take priority. How our writing fits into our lives makes a difference too. For example, when I was raising three children and working full-time, fiction writing was a sporadic luxury. Now I write full-time and stay mindful of my spouse. We each find our balance within our primary communities.

The communities that matter to your writer’s platform are ones that:

  1. help you learn the industry,
  2. keep you growing in your craft,
  3. form the beginnings of your readership and fan-base,
  4. become trusted peers who can help you achieve your goals.

Your writing community is made up of many sub communities (think of those clusters). For every community yours touches, you extend your reach. It’s a hierarchy that begins to look like a robust family tree.

Hierarchy

You want to build your community thoughtfully. Explore other writers within your genre and from other genres. Look for value. Whether you write romance, humor or educational materials, you want to connect with others who value your writing and whose writing you value. Look for peers and mentors. Offer assistance to someone who asks. Be polite. If another blogger follows your blog, at least look at theirs. Follow if it appeals to you, engage if you feel a connection and move on if you don’t.

The best core community to build is one of kindred spirits.

We each might define kindred spirits differently, and I define mine as writers who are enthusiastic about the craft of creative writing; who uphold the pillars of literature through shared reading, writing and discussion; who want to publish the best they can; and who inspire and encourage others.

Why? Because my goal is to publish novels, but my vision is to connect with writers and readers in a meaningful way. I believe in the power of imagination to create literature that moves hearts, minds and feet.

You might define kindred spirits as cat-loving romance writers who are shy. Or bold steampunk writers who want to shake up the institutional genres. Or occasional writers with casual ambitions. What matters is that you seek a core community that best fits your brand. Not only will it bring you personal enjoyment, but it makes professional sense, too.

After I left my job and moved back out west, I also left a trusted writer’s critique group. I couldn’t find one in my small community. My first year in Idaho, I drove two hours through a snowstorm to attend the closest NaNoWriMo launch party only to discover writers that had different goals and ideas about writing. I thought about attending Boise State’s MFA program but I didn’t want the debt. I found friendly content writers online, but only a few wrote creatively.

Not only did I yearn for a community of kindred spirits, I needed a core community to build literary credibility. My career had veered far from my creative writing undergrad degree. I also wanted to practice craft with other writers the way musicians get together and jam for fun.

So I created my own sandbox community, and transformed my business writing website into an imaginary literary ranch. Yes, Carrot Ranch was an intentional community. However, I had no idea who would show up. I believe that my brand — who I am as a writer — attracted those kindred writers who connected with the idea of weekly jam sessions, are talented creative writers who challenge themselves in craft and benefit from the discussion-oriented community.

From that, the Congress of Rough Writers was born, creating a core literary community of writers from around the globe.

RoughWriters_Map2_Jan12

From my core community, I have gained much value. Experience, knowledge and open discussions. I’ve engaged with other communities that have led to important connections, such as #1000Speak and a better understanding of both the traditional and indie publishing paths.

Community matters. It’s the fuel you need to drive your craft into creation.

Even big traditional publishers are overhauling their websites to improve reader engagement because they recognize the importance of community to audience. We all have communities. Feed the ones that influence you in important ways, just as those old-timers once shaped my young life. And be influential in a way that benefits others.

And consider this: it’s easier to grow exponentially within a community than it is on your own.

Decoding the Writer’s Platform: Part II

“Branding”

Basics are important. When I was advanced to a pre-algerbra class in 7th-grade, I missed crucial math basics that were taught that year in regular class. It wasn’t until I was 30-years-old that I would learn those missed basics. Suddenly math wasn’t so difficult. That’s why I’m breaking down the components of the platform so you can understand the basics and decide how to use each as a building block.

Blocks as Steps

Blocks as Steps by Charli Mills 2015

The purpose of this series is to teach other writers the marketing basics that form what a writer’s platform is and how to use it.

For twelve years, I was marketing communications manager for a natural foods cooperative in Minnesota. I built a national reputation as a brand manager: I built the co-op’s brand through communicating stories, wrote a brand case study for a marketing workbook, presented workshops on the topic and was the subject of numerous magazine articles. When I left, I freelanced over 30 articles on branding.

My personal brand evolved from my specialty; I was the Brand Buckaroo. It stuck in the minds of those I worked with, taught and networked among. I had fun with the buckaroo image, even though I was strict with our store’s branding. I created a western-themed “Branding 101” continuing education course for our workplace. Thus, staff nicknamed me, “The Sheriff.”

When I turned over the store brand to my predecessor, I kept my buckaroo image. After all, I truly was born into a buckaroo culture which shaped my natural inclination for story-telling, and I was headed west to write. I had to shape a new idea for my platform because I was identified with business and freelancing when I wanted to be identified with literary writing. Buckaroo writer and Carrot Ranch became my branding foundation.

My strongest writer’s platform component is branding. This is also an example of how your platform does not have to be like mine. I love branding, I understand it at a deep level and I use it strategically. It’s fine for you to have a simple brand that others experience. But you need to think about what it is.

As a writer, you are the brand; how others experience you and your writing is branding.

A brand creates physical, emotional and intellectual triggers in the mind of the reader. A writer’s brand is unique, identifiable and visual.

Elements of a Brand

Elements of a Brand by Charli Mills 2015

Your name, photos and even the symbols, fonts and colors that you use in your social media, marketing collateral and public relations all add up to your brand. Writers are like cupcakes: the outcome between cake, frosting and decoration is endless. Build your brand like a cupcake and be consistent thereafter.

Consistency matters.

You don’t change who you are once a month, so don’t change your brand after you’ve established it. Keep your brand as close to who you authentically are, what you write and what you publish. Be your own cupcake and maintain your personal recipe.

This doesn’t mean you can’t re-brand. Sometimes it takes a year or two to get a feel for who we are as a writer. Sometimes we begin with free templates or generic colors and fonts to set up our initial presence. As you evolve, so will your brand. Therefore, let your brand grow into something more definitive.

Take a vanilla-chai cupcake, for example. In the beginning, you put out a flavor that rocks the cupcake world. But your cupcake looks, well, overly vanilla. You spice up the look, give the decoration a flair and you’ve re-branded. But it is still the cupcake others have come to recognize and want. You are still the same writer.

What if you no longer want to be a vanilla-chai cupcake? Maybe you started out writing romances because that was the easiest way for you to earn money as a writer. Now you want to write epic political thrillers, definitely a jalapeno-dark-chocolate kind of cupcake. You are a different writer. Develop a new brand (that’s why some writers have multiple pen names, thus multiple brands). Keep in mind that managing multiple brands consistently is complicated.

Branding goes beyond the visual cues and becomes an experience.

Branding occurs the moment a reader takes a bite of your cupcake. You are not in complete control of your branding. No matter what you do, you can’t make every person like your cupcake. Maybe someone likes the idea of vanilla-chai and someone else thinks it looks too bland. Both may or may not like the taste. It’s perception. And you can’t waste your time trying to change the perception of another. Focus on those who connect to your brand.

Your branding is based on how others experience your:

  1. Image of who you are as a writer
  2. Quality and style of your writing
  3. Level of professional manners
  4. Emotional, intellectual or physical connection with your readers

Branding is how others experience the visual cues of who you are as a writer. The quality and style of your writing adds to that image. How you treat others on your blog, their blog, Amazon reviews, at book signings, in the media or in correspondence to publishers is a measure of your professionalism. Think of this as manners or customer service. All this leads to connectivity with others, or not.

If your branding isn’t connecting with others, go back to the most basic element of who you are as a writer.

Be authentically who you are: that writer who likes ballet, lyrical sentences and collects Victorian dolls. Or that writer who wiggles at the sound of a race car revving an engine, collects all things Coke-a-Cola and writes terse dystopian YA. Don’t be pictures of your iguana or sprinkle your website with cartoon butterflies if you write modern spy novels, unless you can tie it to who you are as a writer in a way that others would understand.

Think about your own attributes, interests and strengths. Think about personal relationships.

  1. What do you connect with about yourself?
  2. Why do you write?
  3. Who do you connect with as a kindred spirit?
  4. How do others perceive you?
  5. Ask a friend or family member to be a mirror of you at your best.
Who You Are

Informing Your Brand by Charli Mills 2015

Think about longevity. Will your branding work in the future? My buckaroo brand has been with me throughout my career. It evolved from marketer to writer, and is something I can imagine in the future. I can visualize myself at 92, wearing my buckaroo hat and turquoise boots to a book signing. That I arrived by walker or horse doesn’t matter. That my book is a western, eco-thriller or chick-lit doesn’t matter, either. The buckaroo is me, not my books. My branding is built around my ability to tell stories and make emotional connections: Wrangling words for people, roping stories for novels.

Let’s examine some existing brands so you can get a feel for branding and how it works for a writer’s platform.

Norah Roberts. Her official website is clean, professional and has a romantic flair without being over-the-top. Her picture is fun and you can almost imagine her as one of her jet-setting characters. Even her husband fits the brand of a handsome spouse to the world’s top romance writer. The colors are modern and not gender specific (no obvious pinks or frills). Go to her blog and you might be surprised to find it plain and simple. She’s approachable, enjoys fun times among girlfriends, uses party-left-overs to make a vat of chicken soup and has the same complaints as others on the east coast about the long winter. Her branding is engaging and despite her opulent life, she connects with her readers by being her authentic self. Note: go to her J.D. Robb page and see how different the branding is there.

Clive Cussler. Actually, his website is under a re-brand, which is good because the design looks dated. It is heavily focused on his many books, but note that a photo of him dominates over the bookselling. Clive Cussler is the brand. He makes a surprising statement: “I have never considered myself as much a writer as an entertainer.” His branding is that he is the grandmaster of adventure. He’s lived a life worthy of fictionalized tales in adventurous novels. He is not as approachable as Norah Roberts, but he welcomes readers to his website and feels present. He does not blog. All his books are housed on this one platform.

Wine Wankers. This is blog is one of the best blogging success stories from branding to community to credibility to audience. Conrad (one of the wankers team) was among the first to follow my blog. I thought he was a nutcase. His picture made me think that this was some creepy dude that I would not want to follow anywhere, but I do look at other bloggers’ sites when they follow me. I laughed when I got to the site and read, “Smile 🙂 You’re at the best wine blog ever!” Why does this creepy picture work? First of all, it actually represents the three-man team with a knack for branding humor. The other part of their branding is an authentic enjoyment of wine beyond the pretense of the industry. It’s a wine blog for the common person who happens to love wine. They are Australian, thus they focus on their region. From their branding and community they built up credibility and the site is among the most influential on the internet. And you bet that equates to a large audience.

Here’s a chart of branding specifics that you can use to define who you are as a writer to others:

Branding Chart

Branding Chart by Charli Mills 2015

Tell me about your branding in the comments. Do you feel it is an important component of your platform? Why or why not?

Decoding the Writer’s Platform: Part 1

“The 4 Building Blocks of a Writer’s Platform”

You will find a surplus of media discussing the writer’s platform. It’s a writer’s visibility and what a writer uses to sell books. It stands in the balance between craft and creation.

Mostly, articles on the topic agree, but each article offers different examples of building blocks. It can seem overwhelming. You might look at all the gathered lists and think, “I have to do all that?”

First, understand two points of differentiation:

  1. You build a writer’s platform.
  2. You use your platform to sell books.

Often articles about platforms mesh these two points, combining building with application. Yet, if you were to build a boat, you wouldn’t include steps in your blueprint that described how to sail it. Sailing the boat is different.

What can get confusing with platform building is that we continue to build after we’ve set sail. Think of these two aspects (building and application) as separate systems that work together in harmony with our writing craft.

Working in Harmony by Charli Mills 2015

As you can see in the graphic, a platform is a two-cog accompaniment to the big gear of writing. This series will examine what a writer’s platform is and define it’s components clearly before getting to the system of application.

A writer’s platform is characterized by four building blocks:

4 Building Blocks by Charli Mills 2015

4 Building Blocks by Charli Mills 2015

All those ways to build platform listed in most articles can be placed in one of these four categories. It might bring relief to know that you have four blocks with which to build. It also might encourage you to know that different writers can focus successfully on different block configurations or thickness.

Writers don’t need to conform to one platform fits all.

A tactic is a means to an end. In marketing, a tactic is the action to accomplish a goal. When you read articles that list ways to build platform, you can categorize the tactics before deciding if it is one for you. Use the ones that fit your goals.

Not all writers write for the same reasons or expect the same outcomes.

For example, the following is from a Writer’s Digest blog article about building a writer’s platform:

  1. A website and/or blog with a large readership
  2. An e-newsletter and/or mailing list with a large number of subscribers/recipients
  3. Article/column writing (or correspondent involvement) for the media—preferably for larger outlets and outlets within the writer’s specialty
  4. Guest contributions to successful websites, blogs, and periodical
  5. A track record of strong past book sales
  6. Individuals of influence that you know—personal contacts (organizational, media, celebrity, relatives) who can help you market at no cost to yourself, whether through blurbs, promotion, or other means
  7. Public speaking appearances—the bigger, the better
  8. An impressive social media presence (Twitter, Facebook, and the like)
  9. Membership in organizations that support the successes of their own
  10. Recurring media appearances and interviews—in print, on the radio, on TV, or online

All ten tactics are valid and from an expert, Chuck Sambuchino, who wrote an entire book on the topic. However, I don’t know about you, but when I read this I feel doomed to fail already. Public speaking appearances? A track record? Impressive?

Let me break down the list for you and then you’ll understand why it’s intimidating. Numbers 1 and 2 are audience. Numbers 3-10 are credibility. No one starts out an expert, yet this list reflects that level of expertise.

If you are an aspiring, new or emerging author it can be discouraging to believe this is what you have to do to build a platform. You start with what materials you have and you build up.

You don’t get to the master level without a platform.

This is why it’s important to understand that all those articles list tactics that you can categorize. Some articles confuse audience with community or brand with credibility. It’s important to recognize the difference and be able to pick and choose tactics according to your purpose.

From a marketing perspective, a successful writer’s platform is like a staircase building up from the bottom:

Blocks as Steps

Blocks as Steps by Charli Mills 2015

First you establish your brand because the platform is about who you are as a writer. This is your platform, not your cat’s. You build community, credibility and eventually that ever-so-important audience. This would be a strategy for building your platform.

In truth, our efforts probably look more like a game of Tetris:

Mixed Blocks by Charli Mills 2015

Mixed Blocks by Charli Mills 2015

And, we might focus more on building with one block category over the other. That’s fine as long as you understand that different tactics achieve different results. Once you get building, you’ll also notice that certain tactics overlap others.

Be sure to give thought to each building block in your platform.

Over the next four weeks, I will focus on each category. I am also looking for volunteers to use as case studies. The benefit to you is that I will help you understand your own platform building efforts. If you are interested, please shoot me an email at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Not All Arenas are Comfortable

RodeoThis post is a continuation of my ride to get published. I call it the Rodeo, and not all rodeo arenas are comfortable.

We tend to stick close to familiar territory. When I was a little buckaroo riding at the Bolado Rodeo and Saddle Show, I knew every inch of the arena at Bolado Park. I knew the back ways, where the stables were located and how to find my cousins to share a can of Coke. When I rode there, I felt at ease.

As a teenager, I entered a horse event with my friend who lived in Carson City, NV. I couldn’t trailer my horse so I rode one unfamiliar to me. The event was new and so was the arena. Trying to find where we were to queue up for a parade entry, we trotted our horses past a camel that spit at us. I felt unsettled.

My ride to get published has pushed beyond my familiar arenas. Anytime I read posts about marketing I feel connected. Marketing is familiar. But when I read posts abut the book publishing industry, my eyes boggle in my head. The temptation is to pass and bookmark such posts or articles for later.

But later is now. I need to get familiar with the different arenas of traditional, hybrid and independent publishing. Traditional is my first choice. So is riding my own horse. But sometimes our first choice is not what we get. The more familiar we can become with different arenas, the better.

In my own newness, I don’t have much to say about Amazon. I know it is the number one retailer of books. I’ve read posts on rankings and reviews. I buy lots of books from Amazon and I’m researching how to become an affiliate to boost the sales of books from the writers I know in my Bunkhouse Bookstore. Yet, not everyone likes or sells on Amazon. But that’s about the extent of my knowledge.

So I want to share an important post that I read today; one that gave me greater insight. You see, when we know more about the arena where we might ride, we feel more at ease. I hope you will find this post informative. It’s called, The Top 10 Things All Authors Should Know About Amazon by Brooke Warner.

Also, I’m researching Bibliocrunch, which is a platform that helps authors publish books by connecting them with pre-screened publishing professionals. One of my writing mentors sent out a letter from the CEO of Bibliocrunch announcing free downloads and books for authors through the first week of March. You do need to create a Bibliocrunch account to get these free books:

What insights do you have to share on the arena we call Amazon?

Tools of the Trade: Self-Editing

Tips for WritersThe fledgling barn swallow careens drunkenly, barely lifting off the ground higher than the dog chasing it. With fumbling feathers it flits to the top of the pasture-gate and clings with wiry bird toes as the dog sniffs from below. Later, it attempts flight again, swooping almost comically from side to side, crashing into a clump of tall pond reeds.

I cringe because I can relate.

As an emerging author–dare I say it too early–I feel as though I’m careening through process like I’ve a bottle of moonshine stashed in my desk drawer. Nip, nip on the bottle, snip, snip on the page. I take a deep breath. I don’t drink at my desk and I don’t randomly edit with scissors, but some days I feel as wet-behind-the-ears as that fledgling bird.

To counter doubt, I assemble tools important to my trade. I feel more like a carpenter when I wear a carpenter’s belt with hammer, nails and level tucked close to me.  I’ve talked about other tools employed in writing such as

When you write, write. But before you call it a book, edit.

Last week we discussed a few time management ideas and broke down editing into levels. When it is time to edit, edit with tools. This will help steady you if you feel like you’re careening when faced with the tower of pages in a project. Think of your tools as guides or training wheels. Even when you master this thing called writing a book, it is because you’ve mastered how to use your tools.

Self-editing requires knowledge and assistance: books, beta-readers and professional editors.

Self-Editing (2)

Books for Self Editing

Writers, know thy language. Before you can write brilliant prose, you need to know how to construct basic subject-verb-object sentences. You need references that remind you what it is to write clearly and correctly. Yes, brilliant authors break basic rules, but only because they wore the basics long enough to make them into comfortable, ragged jeans that they could retrofit into the latest-greatest fad.

This short-list of must-have books for self-editing is American-biased. I’d love to hear from writers outside the stars-and-stripes as to what would be comparable references.

  1. Strunk & White, “The Elements of Style.” Don’t let the thin book fool you–it is as dense as a slice of chocolate torte. Be clear. (That’s chapter 16, by the way.) But know your punctuation, your constructs of sentences. Strunk and White advise, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!” This book must grace your shelf and be your self-editing companion (well, if you are American).
  2. The Associated Press Stylebook. The caveat here is that this book is for media writers. However, most authors–established and emerging–blog these days and the AP Stylebook is the proper reference guide, referred to as the “journalist’s bible.” I use it as the foundational guide for client work, making notes for differing styles or words not included (such as, fair trade). It defines email (not e-mail), farmers market (not farmer’s market) and proper weather terms.
  3. Webster’s New World College Dictionary. This is the companion dictionary to the AP Stylebook. Before I got into editing, I relied on my Heritage New Dictionary, and if I want to geek-out on words I go to my beloved Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. What I love about my version of Webster’s is that the book came with a disk so I have loaded both the dictionary and companion thesaurus onto my computer. It makes checking words a breeze (even those occasional “chiefly British” words I hanker to learn). Point is, have a dictionary.
  4. Williams & Bizup “Style, Lessons in Clarity and Grace.” If you are serious about mastering language, get this book. If you are in college to study English (Lit or Writing) you will be required to get this book. So, if you are at home working on a DIY MFA, get this book. It’s $50 and worth the expense. If you don’t have the dough, go to your library and work on the lessons there. Bring a notebook.
  5. Eyes. Not a book, but a self-editing tool. Use your eyes to read other writers (good writers, masters, classics). Use your eyes to review your own work. Use your eyes to look up references, not problem areas and learn as you work on your craft.

Beta-Readers for Self-Editing

Why do I think somebody else reading your manuscript is a form of self-editing? Because you need to be in control of this process (unless you are a control freak and then maybe you just need to lighten up). Don’t just blindly say, “Hey–want to read my book? Yea! Great! Thanks!” Be mindful of why you want your beta-readers to read:

  1. Content. At this level of editing you are seeking feedback. Is the plot flowing, are the characters believable? While it is important to gauge a reader’s interest in your book you do need to go deeper than an opinion (“It was great!” or “It sucked!”). Ask specific questions for your beta-readers to answer.
  2. Clarity. It’s entirely possible to have a beta-reader review your book for clarity. This is a level at which you might ask an industry expert to read. For example, I wrote a climate-fiction project and I might send a few chapters to a climatologist or to someone who is familiar with Baffin Island. My sweet neighbor Bessie isn’t going to be the best beta-reader at this level unless she’s a retired book publisher who worked for NASA and visits Baffin Island.
  3. Correctness. I have more than a few Grammar Tyrants in my life who’d love to scan my sentences for errors and bleed red pen on the page. These are NOT the beta-readers I want at the content level as we will only frustrate each other. But they can be terrific proofers at the level of editing for correctness. However, be sure that they can manage focus for a project the size of a book. Most editors minimize their editing hours or else they overlook mistakes. Personally, I’d prefer a professional, but maybe you are lucky enough to have one volunteer or work out a trade of sorts.

Working With a Professional Editor

One valid reason yet for traditional publishing is to work with industry professionals. However, the conundrum is how do you get the professionals to even glance at your emerging book project? Often, you will need a professional to work with you on the editing. Again, you, the writer, are a part of this process.

  1. Find a professional. There are plenty who call themselves editors. I do, but I would never edit anyone’s book. I have zippo experience in the book publishing industry. I’ve worked for daily newspapers, magazines and businesses. I do volunteer to edit as a beta-reader for friends working on their masters or books only if I know that they are also working with advisers, professors or a final proof-reader. I want an editor who has worked in the industry, read books in the slush pile and honed a knowledge based on experience.
  2. Have your manuscript assessed. For me, revision was paralyzing. I knew I needed to make changes but i doubted each one. So I hired a professional who listened to my desire to write a hero’s journey. Not only did she point out where it was working, she also pointed out where it needed bolstering. She also brought things to my attention such as a persistent slip on point-of-view. I would never have caught that and my early beta-readers hadn’t noticed. I felt confident revising my novel project after her assessment and it cost less than two nights out for dinner.
  3. Have your final revision proofed or copy-edited. Again, you need to be involved with making this decision. If you had an editorial friend go over your book as a beta-reader, maybe all you need is a final proof. If in doubt, send a few chapters and the professional can help you decide what you need to polish the pages until it shines like the star you want it to be. Stay actively engaged in your edits and complete the suggested changes. Always be using your eyes (unless you are writing, then use your imagination to get into that flow).

What tools do you have in your writer’s belt? Have you used beta-readers or editors? Let me leave you with a testimonial for my editor in case you are in search of one or want to check out her company.

Testimonial: Write Divas

When I experienced trouble with revision, I sought the help of Write Divas. I chose this organization out of my list of editors because they had a strong and vibrant brand backed by expert posts on craft and industry. They were punctual in responding to my inquiry; affordable and accurate in their quote; and they saved the day with my manuscript, pointing out weak places that needed attention. Before you can copy edit, you first need to make sure that your story is clear, your structure sound and your characters believable. That’s what an assessment can accomplish. I feel more confident as a writer with the feedback from Write Divas, and I’m able to revise without second guessing my changes. They will help me each step of the way to achieve my publishing goals. Every writer needs an editor, so why not a Diva?

5 Reasons to Hire Write Divas:

  1. Because you get to tell your tweeps that you have your own Diva.
  2. Just look at their brand. Don’t you want to go hang out with them? Write Divas are hip!
  3. It sounds impressive to say, I’m a writer and I have an editor who is not my grandmother.
  4. Because now you have deadlines and no one wants to miss a deadline to a Diva.
  5. Besides all the fun, you have now committed to being professional in your writing pursuit.

NaNoWriMo is Your Ax

Tips for WritersI’ve always liked the analogy that writers have a toolbox. It validates that we engage in a craft where we can add new tools, fine-tune our favorites and pass on trade tips to other word-artisans.

We’ve been discussing the storyboard as a versatile tool for creating structure. But before you can build your structure or revise your plans, first you need material. You need to write. You need scenes, chapters or pages.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). While it is an event that encourages writers across the globe to write 50,000 words in 30 days, you can also think of it as a tool. NaNoWriMo is an ax; use it to chop down the raw material from which you will build your book.

Think of your strategy as harvesting the timbers of your book in 30 days. For the rest of the year use the storyboard to construct and revise your book: map your hero’s journey or arrange your three act story; develop your characters; research any topics or scenarios that are beyond your common knowledge; identify gaps; edit; revise; proof and publish.

For me, I like to have a strategy, a process to completion. But when I write, I need to press the pencil lead to the paper and just go. NaNoWriMo lets me be Paul Bunyan with the ax swinging mightily. The challenge doesn’t allow time for my inner editor or and second guessing. I’m just creating material–I can judge it later.

Year 2012: Partial Draft

2012 was the first year that I participated in NaNoWriMo. I had a partial draft of “Miracle of Ducks.” Earlier that summer, I had taken a workshop with Mary Carroll Moore and learned how to develop a book through using a storyboard. I also learned that it worked best with material. Using NaNoWriMo as a tool to get more material, I added 50,000 more words to my novel project in a single month. It had taken me years to write half that much!

Year 2013: New Draft

The following November I was jazzed to use NaNoWriMo as a tool to develop another project. Even though I was still working on the final draft of the first project, I decided that it would be wise to generate new material once a year. Publishing a book takes so long that I don’t want to have to start all over; I want to have projects ongoing. That’s another strategy we’ll discuss later. So, in 2013 I cranked out an opening scene based on a short story and an idea. But I had no outline, no plan, no scenes beyond the one short. Each day I came to the page not knowing what I’d write, yet miraculously, around 900 words I’d hit my pace and dialog, action, characters would flow. The material is raw but it’ll be a fine structure to build.

Memoir: Not My Own

Don’t let the word “novel” deter you if you are a memoirist. It’s about writing 50,000 words. When I wrote my first novel project I had no idea what genre it would be–I just wrote it. Then the following year, I had my second novel reviewed (a NaNoWriMo “prize”) and it came back listed as science fiction. That was a surprise! The point is, it doesn’t matter what you write, but that you complete 50,000 words in 30 day. Have a memoir in you? Then alter the title a bit and use MeNoWriMo as your ax to slay material for your book.2013-Winner-Square-Button

Next week we’ll look at the end result of NanoWrimo–your book-project.

Do you participate in NaNoWriMo? Why or Why not?

The Story Behind the Board

Tips for Writers“You should take Mary Carroll Moore’s class on developing a book.” A newly published author offered me this advice in 2012 when I told her I was quitting my day job to finish writing my novel. She took this workshop, published and won a literary award.

Moore teaches in NYC, Minneapolis and on Madeline Island. Of the three places, I actually lived in Minneapolis, but along with quitting my marketing career I was downsizing and moving in with my eldest daughter and her husband. They lived in WI six miles south of where my novel, “Miracle of Ducks,” is set.

Together we would move out west where I’d rejoin my husband who had taken a contract earlier in Idaho. My kids were headed to grad school in neighboring Montana. So I had a blessed but small window of time to actually live where I had imagined my characters.

As serendipity would have it, that setting included Madeline Island. And, Moore was offering her book development class while I’d be living in the area. Of all places–so yes, with my final “real” paycheck, I paid for the workshop.

In order to get to Madeline Island, which is the largest of the Apostle Islands that buffer Chequamegon Bay from Lake Superior’s inland sea, you have to take a 30 minute ferry. The ferry lands at La Pointe which is a significant place to my novel’s protagonist and an ancient community first settled by Ojibwa, French, British and finally American.

Madeline Island School for the Arts (MISA) is about three miles inland from La Pointe. For five days, I ferried my car and drove to MISA while other attendees stayed in cabins. Most were from the East Coast; a few from the Twin Cities; one from England and two from WI. And I was close enough to commute.

Writing workshops are nothing new to me. Like most writers, I value classes, workshops and conventions to learn and meet other people. And, like many writers, when I had a full-time day job I took at least one extended weekend a year to focus on writing. My favorite was in Lacrosse, WI at a Franciscan Spirituality Center where I studied the hero’s journey by living it in a guided retreat.

But, at the rate I was writing, I’d finish my novel in 2050. This leap of faith, this deliberate switch in focus, the whole idea behind quitting a good career, was to remedy that drawn-out process. I couldn’t afford to live on a dream, I had to work it into a reality. So I was trusting that earlier bit of advice to take Moore’s class.

My first day was disappointing. Of 20 attendees I was one of two who had not taken a previous class or joined one of Moore’s online writing communities. I felt like I was the starving writer surrounded by a bunch of rich groupies who could afford to hang out on a remote resort island for a fab lit retreat.

But I was wrong. Yes, these were highly successful people–lawyers, college professors, pilots, business owners–and they were mostly (except for a handful) published authors. I went from feeling like I was the studious writer to feeling last-in-class.

Yet Moore, from what I learned, had no patience with such feelings. She was not like the approachable workshop leaders I had met previously, she was the real-deal: a multi-published author who worked in the industry I hardly knew anything about. I shoved my feelings of inadequacy aside and began to learn what this group already knew.

Moore knows how to develop a book.

If you can’t take her class, buy her book, “Your Book Starts Here.” What I can tell you is that by the end of five days I knew how to write “Miracle of Ducks.” I learned more from this workshop in five days than I did in four years earning a degree in writing.

And it’s all in the storyboard. Now, a storyboard is nothing new. It’s Moore’s understanding of how employ both linear and non-linear thinking, using the storyboard. For me, I knew it was “my” storyboard when I learned that her process mapped the hero’s journey. No matter the genre or topic, I believe that the best stories follow the arc of the hero’s journey.

So this is my back-story (you know, the thing they tell you not to do in a novel). But I felt you needed to know why I believe in this process, how I used it to write my novel and how I’ve adapted it for revision. In fact, I spent my weekend revising the storyboard as a tool for my revision process and I’m excited by the results.

Because I’m revising the next few months, I need a bit of structure. My structure, I hope, will benefit you, too. Each Monday my tip for writers will be about this storyboard process and I how I’ve used and adapted it. This is what you can expect over the next few months and it all involves the storyboard:

  • Mapping the Hero’s Journey
  • Writing a Novel Scene by Scene
  • Finding the Gaps
  • Creating a Three Act Arc
  • Using NaNoWriMo to Create or Complete Novel Projects
  • Novel Project Versus a Novel
  • Levels of Editing: When and Why
  • Self-Editing, Beta Readers and Professional Editing
  • Mapping Revisions
  • Annual Progression of Projects

Roughly, this is my documentation of process. Feedback, questions and comments about your process are encouraged. We can all share in the learning together as we write our way to our goals.

Some inspiration from MISA 2012:

Madeline Island July 2012 (32) Madeline Island July 2012 (35) Madeline Island July 2012 (44) Madeline Island July 2012 (62) Madeline Island July 2012 (114)

 

 

 

A Gentler Push

Tips for WritersSometimes we push so hard for the sale that we don’t realize we are pushing against those we need to make it successful.

Whether you are a writer selling your words, a business retailing products or a buckaroo driving cattle to market, knowing how to push is important.

Actually, I’ve experienced all three. And pushing cattle is relevant to sales.

Cattle drives were once the highlight of my year. When I was a teen, a local ranch hired me to keep the range cows and calves at the summer grazing grounds high in the mountains. I’d ride my horse from the ranch below and push any strays back up the sagebrush lined trails to the spring-fed meadows and aspens. In the fall, we’d gather all the range cattle and drive them for three days by horseback.

What I’ve found is that not only do I need to know my stuff–writing, selling, pushing cattle–I also have to be mindful of how I connect with those involved with my success.

With the cattle drives, I needed to know my horse, terrain and cattle. Pushing is a gentle buckaroo art. You have to gauge the distance between your horse and the herd. You want the herd to go a certain way so you might flank right or left. Sometimes you whistle, sometimes you croon and sometimes you click loudly with your tongue.

Granted, I’ve never clicked my tongue at a customer or client, but I’ve made my presence known with a giddy-up in their direction. Making someone aware is a gentle push that doesn’t feel like pushing. It can be consistently delivering a quality experience or writing engaging words that get attention.

Once, I saw a greenhorn–an inexperienced person on a cattle drive–trying to push the cattle too hard. She’d ride her horse too close to the cattle and they’d scatter five different directions. The trail boss kept telling her to back off. Then she rode up on the bull. No one pushes the bull. The bull follows the cows, but he goes at his own pace. She pushed too hard, and that bull spun around and nailed her horse, dropping it to its knees. The horse was okay and she learned what back off meant.

When we’re greenhorns at sales, we might make the same mistake of pushing too hard. Not that a customer or client might drop us to our knees, but we certainly don’t want to annoy people with our constant pushing. We need to learn to back off, but maintain presence. We whistle, croon and click and the herd goes the way we intend.

So how do we do do that exactly? Show up, pay attention and deliver what you have in your care. Make your presence enjoyable, not annoying. If you write about a certain genre, talk about your interest in it or how you tackle the process. Ask questions; get to know people and let them get to know you. What you have to sell is secondary to building trust. This takes time and consistency.

Next time you think you need to push, push, push to the rhythm of hard sales, pretend that the person you are pushing is a bull. It might teach you how to back off and stick it out in the saddle. The buckaroo way.

 

Power of Word Prompts

Carrot Ranch Flash FictionThe first word prompts I ever used were issued weekly by my 7th-grade teacher, Mr. Price. It was called a spelling list and the assignment was to use 10 of the 20 words in a story. That’s when I discovered my calling as a storyteller.

Word prompts continue to make for enjoyable practice. Practice makes for better craft, of course, but it also can be freeing. If it’s just “practice” then the writer can leave behind her critic or his editor, and just do the one thing we all want to do–write.

Take a break to have fun, and you just might return to your work renewed with playful creativity. I’m looking for some writers to play with once a week. The game is flash-fiction and each week will have it’s own prompt. Only 99 words, so not a big commitment. You can even develop a blog post around your submission and meet other writers–poets, bloggers, authors, j-students, teachers. If you write you are invited to play. Nothing serious; it’s just practice.

In the spirit of writing tight, I’m condensing the rules of play:

  1. Flash Fiction at Carrot Ranch begins Wednesday, March 5.
  2. New prompt issued each Wednesday thereafter for submission the following Wednesday.
  3. Entry is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
  4. Entry is to include the prompt.
  5. Entry is to include the Week# in the title.
  6. Post your entry on your blog and link it to the host blog.
  7. If you don’t have a blog, you may post your entry in the comments as long as it is business-rated, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read. Your blog, your business.
  8. Create community among writers–read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.

Here’s an example based on a flash-story I wrote back in 2008. The prompt was: “Write a short scene in which one character reduces another to uncontrollable sobs without touching him or speaking.”

Week #8: Incident in a Raspberry Patch

Raspberries spilled from Grandfather’s hand. He lay on his back, a gunshot wound to his groin, another spreading blood across his chest. I longed to go to him, and place new moccasins on his feet.

From my hiding place, I watched the white invader kick Grandfather with his boot, then tie a rope under his arms. He rode off with Grandfather dragging behind his horse.

Later I found Grandfather’s body in a refuse pit outside their town. Hair hacked off, body decaying, nostrils blown away by firecrackers celebrating the 4th of July.

Tears spatter like raspberries left in the dust.

©Charli Mills 2008

Questions? Leave me a comment!