The Writing Life

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How to Write When the World Is Too Much With You

Worried young woman at computer

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
—William Wordsworth

For me, the past few years have been tough ones on the writing front. I lost my editor and then my publisher. Lost my agent. My family had crisis after crisis and the political situation in the world today is not helping my mental state.  If that sounds familiar to you, maybe you, too, have struggled with how to write at all when your brain is “otherwise occupied” and how to imbue your characters with emotion when your own are wrung out.

Bad news: I don’t have all the answers.

Good news: I have a few suggestions that might help.

1) Consider how long the problem you’re facing will continue and whether there’s anything you can do about it. In the case of losing my publisher and agent, I sat down and considered what it meant. It was permanent, which was pretty chilling, but it also meant that I had the ability to try some new things. The family crises were more debilitating and there was nothing I could do about their emotional toll, but I managed to figure out a way to alleviate their physical toll.

2) If it's going to be a long road and you can’t fix it (major health crises in your family, politics, etc), see if you can schedule your way around stuff. For example, maybe you only write 3 days a week and give the others over to dealing with whatever is pressing on you. Think about what’s realistic for you in the situation and plan around it.

3) If the problem comes from the world around you, like politics, etc, download a program (I use Freedom) to block access to the internet to allow you to shut it out on the days you need to work. It’s okay. I promise. The good and the bad will both still be there  when you get back. If you’re the kind of person who can write half a day and concentrate on the things that worry you half a day, set up that kind of schedule. I can’t do it. I have to focus on one thing per day. (But I do allow myself to focus back on the distractions in the evening.)

4) Get out. Literally and figuratively. Walk outside for at least fifteen minutes. Come back inside, write for an hour, and go back out. You’ll feel better and you’ll give yourself time to process what’s going on in your manuscript while you walk.

5) Sometimes, even when the words just won’t come, you can still outline. Not a plotter? I recommend Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley. I have a brief review here. Can’t even plot? Try journaling or other forms of writing not related to your current work just to keep the habit of writing fluid.

How about you? Do you have any tips for writing when your brain won’t cooperate?

—Laura K. Curtis

Laura K. Curtis is the president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. She has written romance, romantic suspense, and crime fiction. She is currently working on a contemporary Gothic-style ghost story.

The #1 Thing You Need To Do To Get Your Book “Discovered”

This is the third in Valerie Peterson's series on author marketing. You may want to check out her previous articles, "7 Common Mistakes of an Author Website” and “How to Create a 'Selling' Author Bio.”

"Book discovery" is a much-used buzz-phrase of the publishing industry. In the increasingly competitive and very digital book marketplace with shrinking readerships and revenues, authors, agents, publishers are all engaged in figuring out how books are discovered by the readers who buy. Did they hear about it on television or online? Twitter or Instagram or YouTube? Word-of-mouth or a New York Times review?

Any author who wants his or her book to reach readers needs to understand by what means readers come to their books. When you understand how readers find — "discover" books like yours, you increase your chances of positioning yourself and your book appealingly and effectively in front of them. And if you do that right, you'll get them to buy and read.

Book discovery means author discovery, too — and setting yourself up to be "found" — found to be capable, found to have writing street cred — before you're even published will help position your for agent queries and publisher's editorial board appeal.

From what I've seen of my fellow MWA members, you're doing a lot right — but with some tweaking, you can optimize your chance of being discovered, bought, and read.

Book Discovery Is an Outgrowth of Book Marketing — But It's Not the Same Thing
"Book discovery" is the result of many factors, mostly "book marketing" (print or digital advertising, cooperative advertising placement or promotion at bricks-and-mortar or online booksellers, social media marketing) and "book publicity" (a publicist's efforts to gain coverage in the broadcast media, book tours, and author appearances).

Traditional book marketing and book publicity are resource-heavy for anyone who's taking it on. These efforts take either a lot of money or a lot of someone's time and, therefore, even at traditional publishers anything beyond the basic PR campaign is generally reserved for established authors who are most likely to bring a return on this type of publisher investment. This usually means authors with an existing platform or for books with hot topics.

From my own strategic content and book publishing pro viewpoint, "marketing" can be viewed as "putting out" — tweets, posts, press releases, "free first chapters." But more and more, in today's digital and social world, the critical concept to leverage is the flip side of the book marketing coin, the reader-centric view. Ask yourself: “Who is coming/will come to your book/s? Who is reading/will read them and why?”

There are those who answer: "Book lovers!" "Mystery lovers!" Or: "My friends and family, of course!" But I'll tell you frankly: not all that likely. I'm not kidding, even about your friends and family. Okay, they might buy the book to support you but the odds of more than a few of your nearest and dearest actually reading a book-length something just because they like/love you are surprisingly slim. (And that's okay, because you're going to be using them for other things, like researching resources.)

And that is because everyone is busy and there is much, much noise and distraction in everyone's lives.

I, for one, NEVER read that "FREE FIRST CHAPTER!" unless there are several other factors at play. And for first-time, little known, or midlist authors, those factors are rarely straight-on "marketing" unless there is the kind of critical mass of ads and media that is rare and/or cost-prohibitive for 98% of authors.

So while an author with a lot (A LOT) of disposable income or a great deal of free time on their hands can emulate a traditional publishers book marketing or publicity campaign, many miss a critical first step to boost their effectiveness and enhance their discoverability.

The #1 Step to Getting Your Book Discovered: Research
Marketing efforts without the "discovery" homework are wasteful and scattershot — like having your murderer try to kill her lover with birdshot versus a .22 to the heart. Sure, the victim might bleed out, eventually — but there's a good chance he'll get to the phone or escape or even overpower her before he collapses.

The digging needed to truly figure out how to leverage the combination of your book's content plus what you know about your readers and potential readers will help you reach the goal of: Helping more readers discover you and buy your books!

Research involves knowing your very specific marketplace — like the authors and titles that can be compared to yours. Deep research involves knowing about things like "search engine optimization" and "keywords" and "hashtags" — and where and how to can deploy them. I compare using them to planting the hidden clues to lead your potential readers to the places (your website, your social media channels) that you've ideally optimized for more discovery.

And, once readers have "discovered" you, you need to be able to deploy the secret weapon of your research skills on them to understand what might keep them coming back.

So much of book marketing is in the hands of every author these days — big houses like Penguin Random House are providing marketing education so authors can be more effective as the scale tips the onus toward them.

Research is a tool that authors can deploy more effectively than even traditional publishers because you'll likely have more time and brainpower to spend than the harried folks in the marketing and publicity departments (who have dozens of books to work on); you'll always be more intimately acquainted with your books than they are; and you'll always be more invested in the outcome. Even if your publisher is doing everything for you, it's great to be informed about what goes on behind the scenes. And if you're self-publishing, you'll definitely want to understand this.

The trick is doing the research and then using the info (thoroughly, consistently) to optimize the other tools of book discovery. Think of it as part of your ongoing job as an author.
Valerie Peterson

— Valerie Peterson

Valerie Peterson is a proud member of MWA-NY, a semi-finalist for a 2016-2017 Writers Guild of America East Made in New York Writers Room Fellowship, and a 2015 Finalist for the CBS TV Writers Mentorship Program. She is currently finishing her first novel, which involves several intertwining mysteries and at least two dead bodies. Peterson is also a content strategist and book publishing consultant who ran major book marketing departments and campaigns (including for James Lee Burke and Robert Crais) and for six years ran the Book Publishing site for About.com/The Balance.

How to Create a “Selling” Author Bio

This is the second in Valerie Peterson's series on author marketing. You may want to check out her previous article, "7 Common Mistakes of an Author Website."

Your bio is a marketing tool, pure and simple. Properly executed, it can help you attract an agent, editors, journalists, and readers to your work. But if your current bio has you revisiting your long, long road to discovering your inner author, you're going to have to do some killing off your bio babies. I know, I know: You were weaned on Dashiell Hammett and you've wanted to pick up a pen since you were in Pampers.

My tough love to you is — that's a big club, nobody gives a dirty diaper, and that type of information is only relevant to agents and editors if that pen was poisoned, you stabbed your babysitter, and you spent your toddler years in juvie.

And — unless they're potential stalkers — even most avid mystery readers don't have the patience to slog through 2,500 words that goes back to your grade-school writing awards.

What pros care about — and, importantly, what marks YOU as a pro — is to include in your bio only what:
1. Uniquely qualifies you as a professional writer with the chops to pull off a mystery novel and the knowledge of your specific marketplace
2. Helps the pros see that you understand the need to help them draw in an audience of paying readers.

The Good News — You Can Choose
Your bio is a living "resume" and should change constantly as you grow your expertise and accolades. Whatever writerly level you have achieved, you can choose what to include, you can focus on what you do have going for you to divert people from what you might not yet have and let them dig deeper.

Sure, many pros will understand that you're dancing a bit, some will dig, and some won't — but if you present whatever credentials you do have in a professional manner (and on an appropriately established website), your bio will go a long way to showing that you understand what it takes to be a professionally published author — and that you are taking the steps to get there.

Then, as your expertise grows, you'll continuously add the most relevant "cred" for your author bio:
• Any "official" publications, writing awards & prizes, and bestseller list appearances. Regular blogs and mystery publications count. If your chops only extend to school newspapers, write "… was editor of The Crimson Tide," etc. As your "cred" grows, keep in the most prestigious and relevant, ditch the rest.

• Other "social proof" such as quotes and review excerpts from accredited publications and reviewers and established authors and booksellers. Again use reviews from "pay for play" pubs only if it's all you've got and replace as soon as you've got something better.

• Self-published or online published work. You don't have to call out that you're not traditionally published. Naming books or short stories "out there" at least shows you've had enough pro-activeness to get it there.

• Your unique expertise and/or intense research and awards for such: Your day job (you're a transit cop who's writing about accused of killing their boss by pushing him in front of the new Second Avenue subway line), volunteer work, or highlighting your passionate pursuit of obscure firearms.

• Your memberships and board positions and awards for such: MWA! Authors Guild! NRA! These show you have a community that might come to your book.

• Your readings and speaking engagements. These show you know how to get in front of an audience, and show you know the importance of building an audience of readers.

• Any other bio info that's relevant to your book plots. For example, if you're an academic, and your mysteries are set in academia, that's relevant. Ditto for stay-at-home dad / Little League coaches who are writing about a serial killer who targets the same.

• Your voice — you're a writer, for Edgar's sake! Bring your own creative sensibilities into your bio. Funny, dead calm, creepy… just make sure to also bring . . .

• An editor. Get a peer (not your mom or spouse) to look at and vet your bio for any kitchen sink or turn-off "ick factors."

Keep in mind that your bio is a mere marketing tool and an edit here is nothing personal. Honing your bio to its best will just help you attract (and not turn off) the people you most want to engage and bring to your work.
Valerie Peterson

— Valerie Peterson

Valerie Peterson is a proud member of MWA-NY, a semi-finalist for a 2016-2017 Writers Guild of America East Made in New York Writers Room Fellowship, and a 2015 Finalist for the CBS TV Writers Mentorship Program. She is currently finishing her first novel, which involves several intertwining mysteries and at least two dead bodies. Peterson is also a content strategist and book publishing consultant who ran major book marketing departments and campaigns (including for James Lee Burke and Robert Crais) and for six years ran the Book Publishing site for About.com/The Balance.

7 Common Mistakes of an Author Website

Your author website is the cornerstone of your media platform, and it's the one piece of real estate that you can (mostly) control. Your author website is the thing that:

1. Validates you as a professional writer with a knowledge of the marketplace (even before you publish)
2. Substantiates your ability to draw in an audience - which is what agents and editors and publishers really care about

The cold, hard marketing fact is that, upon reading your name on a query or cover letter or discovering it on a free first chapter or article anywhere else, all of the people below WILL Google you. Your author website will determine whether or not:

• Agents consider your query seriously
• Editors bring your manuscript into an editorial board meeting
• Journalists and periodical editors take your work seriously enough to review
• PR folks consider you an authority enough to tap you for insights or quotes about your genre or the writing process
And, most importantly of all . . .
• Readers consider investing (yes, investing) their precious resources of time and money and energy on something that you wrote.

The less well-known you are, the less you can afford to risk doing anything to turn off these important audiences, the less you can afford to make these . . .

Common Author Website Mistakes
1. You don't have a website.
If you even aspire to finish a novel, you need a website. Start modestly, but start. You need to set up your author persona and brand, and chops as an author, well before you start approaching those agents and editors and others mentioned above.

No website? If you're an MWA member, please get cracking on it! The earlier the better, but I recommend at least a year before you plan on publishing as part of your pre-publication marketing plan.

And it doesn't have to be complicated. The most important factors to start with are: readability, easy navigation, and appropriate genre branding.

2. You rely on Facebook to be your author "website."
YIKES! Facebook is useful, but not as a website substitute. There is much danger to relying on a platform that you have no ownership of, no design control. Think about the efforts of all those Vine stars who had the video ripped out from under them before they made it big. All that effort, gone, because they had no control over their main platform.

3. Your author website looks like it was built in 1995.
Some authors seem to put a lot of resources into promoting their books, but have websites that looks like they were created at the dawn of the Internet by a moderately HTML-savvy high school friend. This immediately brands you as someone who does not know how the world actually works. For pity's (and PR's) sake, get yourself a decent website!

4. Your author website is not mobile responsive.
There are plenty of attractive sites created just a couple of years ago that are not mobile responsive (user friendly on phones, tablets, etc.). Today the majority of people are searching on their phones or tablets and you must keep up with the audience that you're trying to engage.

I personally like StudioPress templates for WordPress because the blog/content management system is organic and the support is responsive and timely. Plus, they don't seem like a start-up that's about to go out of business. But there are others, so do your research.

5. Your "social proof" is not smack dab on your home page.
Again, I've seen a number of author sites where they try to draw readers in with just book jackets or lengthy synopses of their plots. WRONG! Readers are more effectively won over — and will click further — if you give them "social proof," i.e., third-party corroboration. This is hugely important because agents, editors, and readers all want to know you and your books are worth their time and, quite frankly, as this is the Internet, they have no reason to believe you. Examples of social proof include:

• Awards, prizes, bestseller list stats
• Review excerpts from accredited publications and reviewers. I personally hate "pay for play" reviews, but if you've got nothing else, use 'em.
• Quotes from established authors (the more name recognition, the better) and booksellers.

6. You have too long of an "About Me"/Bio section.
Most pros really don't care that you wanted to be a writer forever and got an award for your story in first grade — unless there was a dead body in it. Focus on biographical information that positions you as:

• A competent writer — i.e., publications and all the stuff from your social proof
• A specialist who is uniquely qualified to write about your topic – e.g., career and hobby experience relevant to your book's topic
• An author who is building an audience in relevant communities — through social media, regular publications, and associations like MWA.

7. Your author website highlights Amazon.com.
Bookselling today is a very competitive business — and for Barnes & Noble and the independent bookselling community, Amazon is Public Enemy #1.

The reality is, Amazon sells a lot of books for most authors and any book sold is a good thing for us. So the trick is not to show favoritism — or you risk never getting asked to sign in your local indie. You can link to B&N and indie bookseller buy buttons, as well as Amazon and at least show your broad support for all booksellers so that when the time comes, they'll support you.
Valerie Peterson

— Valerie Peterson

Valerie Peterson is a proud member of MWA-NY, a semi-finalist for a 2016-2017 Writers Guild of America East Made in New York Writers Room Fellowship, and a 2015 Finalist for the CBS TV Writers Mentorship Program. She is currently finishing her first novel, which involves several intertwining mysteries and at least two dead bodies. Peterson is also a content strategist and book publishing consultant who ran major book marketing departments and campaigns (including for James Lee Burke and Robert Crais) and for six years ran the Book Publishing site for About.com/The Balance.

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