WDC16 #13

Lucky number 13 is also the last post in this conference series. And 13 corresponds to the Death card in Tarot. Coincidence?

My final Writer’s Digest session was How to Build an Audience and a Business With Your Writing with poet Robert Lee Brewer as the presenter. Of all the sessions I attended, it was probably not the best one to go out on. I think everyone was tired and yet also keyed up in that way that comes with feeling desperate to have your questions answered before it’s too late. And so I think Mr. Brewer made a mistake when he said people could ask questions as he went along. Because what quickly happened was the questions hijacked the session. And so I feel I missed out on a lot of information that Brewer never had time to present.

Here, then, is the little bit I did manage to glean.

Hearing the same advice over and over is a good thing, said Brewer, because it means that thing—whatever advice it is—is working for more than one person. Which means it’s more likely to also work for you. (Makes me think of the coupon codes online and how they’ll tell you how many people successfully used the code. Right?)

Brewer also noted we shouldn’t be worried about how fast we build our audience. Instead, it’s important to do it right. Like building something brick by brick. You want a solid foundation, not shoddy workmanship.

He encouraged us to set both short- and long-term goals, and to evaluate every couple months where we are in the process. Make plans, he said. Don’t just sit and hope it happens.

In advance of a release, try to increase your visibility by publishing shorter pieces on various sites. People are more likely to click through to buy a book if they already recognize your name from somewhere else. Plus, publishing in new places means you’re hitting new eyes and reaching new readers.

And yes, you need a website, whether you have a book out or not. At the very least, said Brewer, buy your domain name. (Meanwhile, I tried to link to his sites for this piece but they haven’t been updated since 2014 so…)

Someone asked about naming their site after their book title. Brewer said it’s fine to want a separate site for just the book (if you can keep up with more than one site), but you want to build your author brand, not just a readership for one book. So it’s best to have things under your author name. (So why is this site PepperWords instead of MPepperLanglinais? Because no one can spell Langlinais. I wanted something people could spell and find easily.)

That was about the extent of things. People were asking about which web hosts to use and how to get business cards and so on. I’m sure it’s all valuable information, but I had mentally checked out at that point. When you begin to hear the same voices asking the same questions each session . . . One woman asked in almost every session I attended, “What if you don’t have Twitter or Facebook and don’t want to get them?” I don’t know if she was looking for different answers or a consensus or just the answer she wanted to hear, but sigh. (The answer seemed to be, btw, to only do the things you think you’ll keep up with. Don’t have social media accounts just to have them or else you’ll look lackluster to potential agents and publishers.)

After that, I went back to my room, gathered my things, and checked out of the hotel. I caught a cab to JFK—and my cab driver got pulled over for being on his cell phone! But the police were very nice to me and we were on our way again before long. And when I got to the airport I had the good fortune to be flagged as TSA Pre-check, which meant I got through security quickly and didn’t have to remove my shoes.

Overall, this conference seemed to emphasize getting a publicist (if only!) and not being that jerk on Twitter who only ever tweets “buy my book!” over and over again without truly engaging with others. It also seems that, to make yourself more marketable, you should publish over other sites. Agents and publishers are looking for people with a track record, or at least a footprint—a good one, not trolls or people who badmouth other authors, agents, etc. If they can’t find you online it’s not the end of the world, but they’re more excited by people who have some kind of presence, something they can work with and build on rather than having to start from scratch.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this summary of info from the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016. I like to be able to bring the conference to you. In this day and age, you may think you can get all the info you need about publishing from the web and various marketing books, but if you’re a writer I encourage you to attend conferences when you can. Good ones, that is. Conferences offer a chance to meet other writers, and often agents and editors as well, and they enliven the spirit. So many times I’ve felt alone as a writer, I’ve lost morale or just motivation, and a conference is like a booster shot. It gets me excited again about the work. I make new friends. I get to immerse myself in the industry, and the art, for a couple days. I love it. And I hope one day to see you at one with me!

WDC16 #12

I didn’t take notes during David Baldacci’s keynote. It was lively and fun, mostly a collection of anecdotes designed to remind us to persevere when rejected and do write for the love of it, and from a place of passion rather than because we’re going to be millionaires if we just hit the trends right. Then there was a cocktail reception, and I and a couple other ladies I’d met went out for Japanese ramen at just the best place.

So that was Saturday. On Sunday I was flying home, but I still had time for a couple more sessions before I needed to check out of the hotel and grab a cab to JFK. The first session I attended was Creating Book Buzz on a Shoestring Budget by Kristen Harnisch. She is a hybrid author, the term in this instance being used to say she is published by She Writes in the U.S. but by traditional publishers overseas.

Harnisch’s first rule: Before you publish, be sure your book is well written, edited, and has a fabulous cover. Seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it? But I get the sense a lot of people rush to publish after finishing just a draft. They want to be done. It’s a marathon, writing, not a sprint. The draft is just the first leg. Getting feedback, revising, and editing are all part of the race.

And we all know covers sell books. We say not to judge a book by its cover, but we all do. Remember what the Princeton study said? One-tenth of a second. We form our first impressions that fast, at that first impression comes from the cover of a book, not the flap or the first line.

Harnisch then said you need to consider (and do) a few things:

  • What’s unique about your book? You should know what makes it different from the rest of the genre.
  • Set goals for your book, have a budget and a timeframe for publicizing.
  • Decide whether you want and/or can afford a publicist.
  • Create a tip sheet, press kit, and press release.
  • Leverage your contacts. All of them, no matter how seemingly small.
  • Grow opportunities with libraries, book clubs, schools and colleges.
  • Pitch ideas to blogs, magazines, newspapers, conferences.
  • Market authentically to connect with readers in a lasting way.
  • Use social media to reach more readers.

So what’s unique about your book? What characters, settings, or themes does it use? Did you do any special research? Are you drawing from life experience? Use this information to develop presentations and blog posts.

As for goals, of course you need to be realistic. How many books do you want to sell in a year? (My goal is to sell 2 books per day, or about 700 in a year. I’m staying modest for now.) Keep in mind that 90% of traditionally published authors do not earn out their advances.

Have a budget for your marketing. Set some money aside and remember there are costs for mailing things, traveling to events, and professional author photos. After the big push, you may still want to allot a monthly sum to ongoing promo efforts.

Harnisch says to start promotions 4-6 months before your publication date.

Now, do you need a publicist? I felt like at this conference everyone was basically telling me the answer to that question is “yes,” but alas, I can’t afford it! Guess I’m fated to languish. Harnisch noted that publicists can develop your press kit, send out galleys and ARCs, arrange blog tours and online coverage, set up events, pitch to media outlets so you get more attention, and consult for social media—basically take a bunch of stuff off the author’s plate. But she also noted it can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 (or more!) for a 6-month campaign.

If you’re setting up a signing or event, Harnisch recommends asking the bookstore or venue for suggestions on where to send the press release. And she also encourages you to create a one-sheet for promotion as well.

What about leveraging your contacts? Harnisch notes people are usually excited to be able to say they know a real-life author. (I feel like this is less impressive now that pretty much anyone can publish a book, but okay.) She says to:

  • Be specific about what you need from your friends, family, and support group
  • Seek opportunities where you shop, worship, eat, work out, get your hair done, etc.
  • Look for themed clubs that might be related to your book
  • Rotary clubs might have speaking opportunities
  • Tap fellow authors for interviews and guest posts (blog swaps)
  • Join the mailing lists for various organizations and get involved—you may get ideas for events and venues this way, too
  • Cross market with another person or organization—Harnisch’s book is about vintners so she cross marketed with a winery

Where can you find opportunities?

  • Libraries—you won’t get sales but you will get word of mouth
  • Book clubs—remember you can Skype or FaceTime with clubs that are farther away
  • Your schools and alma maters, or your kids’ schools if appropriate
  • Have friends host events
  • Set up a booth at fairs and festivals, and donate for silent auctions

Harnisch went on to suggest you enter writing contests and do Goodreads giveaways (before the book is released). She reminded us that it’s a slow and steady process, that you see results over time not all at once (usually). Which goes back to the marathon metaphor. Even once the book is out, you’re not done running. And on top of launching one book, we’re told to keep producing. So now you’re running two races at once! Bottom line: writing is hard work. Gone are the days of being only a writer. We must be marketers too now. No sense fighting or bemoaning it, however. Deep breaths. Pace yourself.

WDC16 #11

Last one for Saturday. You can see why I was so exhausted by the end of this conference! My last session for the day was From Storytelling Mire to Page-Turning Momentum: Three Common Plotting Mistakes that Keep Writers Frustrated, Unpublished and at the Bottom of the Slush Pile. Whew, quite a mouthful, isn’t it? It was run by Annalisa Parent.

Parent began by stating the obvious: Agents want quality writing. Then she mentioned three things that aren’t quality:

  1. Too Much Backstory
  2. Lack of Conflict
  3. Not Pacing the Tension

1. The writer needs to know the backstory. However, the reader may not need to know it. Parent put it this way: “The first time you tell the story, you tell yourself. Every time after that, you’re telling the reader.” This means after that first draft, you cut out anything that doesn’t move the story forward or doesn’t directly deal with the central conflict. If you give too much backstory, instead of caring more, the reader starts to care less. Only tell thing that have a payoff in the end.

2. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story. It’s just a character study or a vignette. It’s a day-in-the-life, a portrait. Keep in mind the forms of conflict:

  • Person versus Person (external struggle)
  • Person versus Self (internal struggle)
  • Person versus Environment (external struggle)
  • Person versus Supernatural (external struggle)

I’ll admit, the last one was new to me. I’d probably just lump it into Person versus Person, or I guess we could collectively call it Person versus Entity, but whatever. You get the idea. A good story might even have more than one of these going on at any given time.

In a story, everyone wants something. (Parent used The Wizard of Oz as an example: wanting to go home, wanting a heart, wanting courage, wanting a brain…) Motivations also help define character, which keeps things interesting.

Triangles, Parent said, are the strongest structure. That’s why we see so many of them in books. (Manifesting Destiny is a series of interlocking triangles.) Parent had a diagram of a triangle with these labels at each point: Story Tension, Scene Tension, Character Conflict. She said the question to keep asking as you write is: “How is what is at stake for each character relate to the overarching story?” Every scene has to earn its place, after all. There needs to be tension in each, and it needs to be showing and developing character as well.

3. Things have to get worse before they can get better. This isn’t a formula so much as a method. The story begins with Situation Normal. Then something changes. Obstacles arise. What does the character do? That’s your story. Every time an obstacle is dealt with, there is a result and a consequence. Often, early on, the result/consequence is yet another obstacle or conflict. The stakes rise and continue to rise. There are peaks and valleys. Peaks are high tension. Valleys are respite, moments of hope. You have to pace the reader so that it isn’t just one mountain after another. At the same time, you can’t have valleys that are too wide or the conflict and tension go away and the reader gets bored.

Meanwhile, keep in mind—and be familiar with—your genre. Each genre is like a different kind of music says Parent. Literary fiction is Classical music, for example. It may move a little more slowly and have many layered instruments. YA may be more like pop music, something with a beat.

Speaking of music, why not stop by Liz Josette’s site and see what I listen to? For the next few hours after this posting, you still have a chance to win an Amazon gift card!

WDC16 #10

Are you still with me? After Jessica Strawser’s 10 lessons, I attended a panel titled The Seven (or So) Habits of Highly Effective Social Media Stars. The panel featured Oliver Jeffers, Jordan Rosenfeld, Jessica Sinsheimer, and Dana Schwartz. The panel was moderated by Zachary Petit.

They didn’t really have a numbered list, but they were at the very least highly entertaining. When asked, “Why be on social media at all to begin with?” Dana Schwartz joked that it was for validation and attention. Which is probably true. But to know you’re not the only one out there struggling to write, or query, or land an agent, or wherever you are in the process—that has value. And then, of course, you should be adding value as well. You should be giving something to the online community, whether it be advice or support or just laughs. Something that keeps people coming back, which in the long run will benefit you and your career.

Jessica Sinsheimer reiterated what we’d heard in so many sessions already: Be genuine. Cultivate a presence. Don’t be there just to sell. Oliver Jeffers said, “You can tell when someone is faking or pretending.”

The moderator then asked about Social Media Don’ts. Dana Schwartz answered that you shouldn’t make political tweets if you’re a racist or a bad person in general. “Keep that to yourself.” Jessica Sinsheimer elaborated on that, noting that agents will look you up to see if you’re someone they want to connect and work with. If you seem angry or negative online, they’ll strike you off their list.

At the same time, Jordan Rosenfeld said, “People go online to escape, so don’t be too real.” It seems to be a fine line.

Oliver Jeffers said, “Don’t get in public arguments, and don’t tweet while drunk.”

So what are some Best Practices then?

Per Jordan Rosenfeld: Follow back. Make various lists to keep up with all the different people. And do LitChat (which is both an account you can follow on Twitter as well as a hashtag).

Jessica Sinsheimer said to only do the things you’re genuinely excited to do. If Twitter isn’t it, don’t be on Twitter. And she said to be a good Internet citizen. Help people out. People might not remember exactly what you say, but they’ll remember how you make them feel (to paraphrase a famous quote).

Nothing surprising in all this, really, but reminders never hurt.

WDC16 #9

Can you even believe how many sessions I attended over the WDC weekend? As far as bang for your buck goes, I have to say the Writer’s Digest Conference definitely gives you a lot of content. (They’re already scheduled to have it in NY again, same hotel, next August 18-20 if you’re interested.)

Okay, so after a lunch break I went to hear Jessica Strawser talk about 10 Essential Writing Lessons From 10 Years of Bestsellers. She’s editor of Writer’s Digest and was pulling wisdom from various bestselling authors she’s interviewed. I couldn’t write fast enough to get exact quotes, so everything here is paraphrased. For the exact quotes, I’m sure you could go look up the WD interviews directly.

1. A better approach to “write every day”

This is the answer to the fact that we’re not all disciplined enough to write every day, despite being told repeatedly that we should. The guilt we feel at not meeting that goal ends up hampering us further. (For those of you who do write every day, I guess this doesn’t apply.) Strawser said that Alice Walker told her it wasn’t so much about actually writing every day as it was about the possibility of writing—being ready for it when the time came. Having the time and space and being receptive. Walker likened it to being ready for a guest who might come to tea. The person may or may not come, but have tea in the house just in case, right?

Meanwhile, Patricia Cornwell told Strawser that a writer should treat writing like a relationship rather than a job. If you want the relationship to succeed, you put in the effort. And if you miss someone, you pick up the phone and call them, even when you can’t be with them. Cornwell said she at the very least “checks in” with her writing each night by looking over her WIP even if she can’t work on it.

2. Protect your candle

This idea comes from author Lisa Scottoline. She says that sometimes it seems like it’s not okay for adults to have a dream; they’re supposed to “grow up” and live in the real world. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with adult responsibilities: a day job, the family, etc. But Scottoline says your dream—your writing—is like a candle in an old-fashioned holder. You walk with it and must shield it with your hand to keep it from going out. Protect it. This is your light. She even keeps a candle on her desk to remind her.

3. Find your weakness

Author Susan Mallery says you should figure out what you’re bad at and focus on it. Get good at it.

For me personally I liken this to targeting a flabby area on your body. Maybe you like your arms and legs but think your tummy needs toning. Work on that. Keep working on your arms and legs, too, but work extra hard on the part you want to make more appealing.

Patricia Cornwell somewhat famously mentioned that a writer who thinks they have no weakness—a writer who talks about how great their book is—is probably not a very good writer at all. It’s the insecure ones, the ones who know it’s not perfect, that end up producing something special.

4. Learn to love revision

Khaled Hosseini had a great analogy for this. He said it’s like moving into a house. The first draft is when you bring in all the boxes. You unpack everything. It’s hard work. Revision is arranging all the stuff. It’s hard work too, but can be more fun and satisfying than just the unpacking.

Don’t try to be a great writer. Be a great rewriter.

5. Don’t be afraid to throw things away

You worked hard on it and you want to keep it—all of it. Because to throw it out would mean you wasted your time.

It happened to Garth Stein. He did years of research and wrote a 100k novel only to realize he’d really only written the backstory. All that work was just preparation for the story he actually wanted to tell. Sure, he could have kept the 100k novel and said, “Good enough.” But he didn’t. “We’re building mountains, not molehills. It takes time.”

Khaled Hosseini says nothing is every wasted, even if you throw it away, because we learn from everything we write.

6. Character and plot are the same thing


Lisa Scottoline notes that how characters react is the key to the story. And that action (plot) reveals character. They are two sides of the same coin.

7. Take detours

David Sedaris notes that it’s important not to pressure yourself when you’re writing. Don’t worry about whether it’s marketable. Just go with the flow.

Garth Stein encourages writers to go out and have experiences. Similarly, let your characters off their leashes. You can always come back to where you were, but you may yet discover something new and better by letting them (and yourself) explore.

Don’t rush things and don’t force them. Readers can tell when the plot is forced. Be patient and let it come naturally.

8. Always aim to grow in your writing

Jojo Moyes says that it’s important to know what your story is really about. What’s the bigger question beneath the story?

It can help to ask readers: “Where did you laugh while reading? Or cry?” Challenge yourself.

9. Remember: It’s supposed to be fun

You shouldn’t be driven by the market or ambition. You should be driven by the passion you have for the project. Which is kind of the same as

10. Do it for love and never give up

Brad Meltzer says, “The moment you think you’ve made it, you’re done.”

Patricia Cornwell believes you can’t become a writer, you either are one or you’re not. It’s like a songbird—you can’t tell it not to sing. Whether they’re a success in the market or not won’t matter to a real writer. They just keep writing because they have to.

About Gardens

This is for a writing challenge, which you can find here. I’m only looking for general feedback on this nonfiction piece.

What interested me about this topic is that there is a Lenormand card called Garden or The Garden. It’s card number 20.

A little background: Lenormand is a set of 36 cards used for divination. I hesitate to say “similar to Tarot,” because it’s actually very different, but I think that’s the closest association that most people would understand.

So the Garden card is card 20. It signifies society, the public world. It can also mean any social function: a party, networking, group meetings. It is an active card, outgoing.

A selection of Garden Lenormand cards

A selection of Garden Lenormand cards

Lenormand cards are not read singly, so how one reads the Garden card would depend on (a) the question being asked, and (b) the cards surrounding it. For example, if it were to be next to Man or Woman, it might be a socialite, or someone well connected. It might also literally mean a gardener. There’s an amount of intuition required to read cards; if it were a simple equation, everyone could do it and no one would need Tarot (or Lenormand) readers.

Though the Garden card is considered neutral, I’m usually happy to see it in a reading. There’s something cheerful about this card and its tone, something optimistic and encouraging.

WDC16 #8

Where was I? Ah, yes, Saturday! It was a long, full day. After Jane Cleland’s session (see previous post), I attended a panel on Effective Marketing Strategies for Authors run by Caroline Leavitt, Amy Quale, Fauzia Burke, and Dan Blank.

At this point, with so much information being thrown at me, some of it was beginning to sound repetitive. At the same time, that’s actually a good thing. It’s when you get conflicting information that you get confused and uncertain.

Amy Quale pointed out that no one author can do everything, so the key is in finding the one or two things you can do, and do them consistently. Don’t try to be on every social media platform. Instead, choose the ones your readers are on and you can keep up with. If you’re not excited about that platform, you’re not going to feel like being on it, so don’t try to force it. Like, you may think Snapchat is where all the YA readers are, but if you aren’t keen, don’t bother. Those would-be readers can tell when you’re not into it, too, so you’re just more likely to turn them off.

Caroline Leavitt said to begin building buzz six months in advance of your release. Once the book is actually out, she said, you can’t do as much or reach as far. What you want to do is make friends and connections. Don’t immediately begin pushing your book. Establish an actual friendship and bond. Invest the time to really get to know people, and always be yourself. Others can sniff out a phony.

Dan Blank added that you should be having conversations with these people, real and meaningful exchanges. He said to start one year ahead of release.

Then Amy Quale said you should figure out your purpose and set goals—outside of sales numbers and how much money you want to make. “Define what success means to you, what impact you’d like your book to have on readers.”

Caroline Leavitt suggested writing personal essays that get posted on other sites. Readers, she said, love personal information and insights into authors’ lives.

Dan Blank urged us to understand comps. He also said to read reviews—in particular, reader reviews—of those comparable titles in order to see what words and phrases the readers use over and over. Those words and phrases are the key to what they do and don’t want.

Fauzia Burke then reiterated something from her earlier talk by telling us to assess what is and isn’t working every three months. Trim away at what doesn’t work and focus on what does. But also don’t let things get stale, else it will stop working. “Your mailing list is more valuable than all the other social media combined,” she said.

An attendee asked how talking about a book six months in advance could possibly be helpful since surely readers will forget before the book comes out. The response was to reinforce the idea of having a consistent presence. Don’t disappear between books, don’t only be around when you have something to sell or when you want something from someone else. You’re selling you, not just a book. Ask what you can give to others rather than what you can get from them.

“Is your writing a hobby or a profession?” Dan Blank asked. “There’s no right answer, but you need to decide.”

Amy Quale told us to be curious about our genre(s) and the people who read and publish those genres.

Fauzia Burke said we should be generous, too, to others. Help other authors not because they’ll then owe you but because it’s the right and kind thing to do.

Then another attendee asked for examples of good author newsletters. “Are there any authors who do newsletters especially well?” Caroline Leavitt said she finds that newsletters mostly feel manufactured. Still, they can be a good source of info. She thinks being in bigger newsletters like Shelf Awareness does more for authors than their own personal ones. Fauzia Burke said there should be bonuses in the newsletters that only subscribers can get. “More people will click through and buy a book via newsletter than elsewhere,” she said. (I found that interesting because I’ve never once purchased a book through a newsletter. Am I outside the norm?)

There were disagreements on how often a newsletter should go out. Dan Blank said weekly. Most others felt that was too frequent. Fauzia Burke said quarterly, maybe a bit more frequent when a book is coming out. (Mine is monthly, btw, and you can sign up on the sidebar!)

So how do you grow your mailing list? Dan Blank says to start with the people you know and invite them. Then reach out to groups and your wider audience. Again, it’s all about offering something of value to them. Amy Quale says to make the sign-up obvious and accessible. Data shows a sign-up at the top of a page does better than one at the bottom. And Fauzia Burke says, much as we all hate pop-ups, those actually score the most subscribers.

Should authors focus their efforts on promoting themselves or their books? A: Themselves. People will come back for more of you more than a single title. Once they do get to know you (be likable!), they’ll be there for all your books, too.