Writer’s Challenge #2

Welcome back to Front Matter’s weekly Writer’s Challenge! A little something to tickle your fancy this Friday morning…. Feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below. Happy writing!

Fiction Prompt: Historical fiction meets autobiography – Pick an actual incident from your own life and fictionalize it, slightly or wildly. It can be something that happened to you, something you witnessed or just happened in your lifetime. The character of you, however, must play some role in the story!

Non-fiction/essay: What has been the most life-changing result in your experience with social media? Did you reconnect with an old flame via facebook? Was it the start of a new business for you?

Writer’s Personal Challenge: What defines you as a writer? Take 4 minutes (time it!) and list the one-word characteristics you feel embody your skills, personality and values as a writer. Don’t judge, just list. Then take that list and distill it down to the 10 most important words about your writer self. What does this list teach you? Can it be crafted into a mission statement or biography? Or simply posted where you can see it while writing?

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The Book Market’s Glutted. Why Bother?

Ahhh… After a long day of chasing the kids and ignoring the growing piles of laundry, I sit down to do a little writing. Not, of course, without stopping to browse online for a while. The trouble with doing this before I write is that if I follow the wrong link down a rabbit-hole, not only can I end up lost in the vagaries of cyberspace, but I can make myself downright depressed. Everywhere I look, there are reasons not to write.

Doom and gloom about the e-publishing bubble, discouraging news about authors behaving badly, and so many books and authors vying for attention and readers it’s almost mind-boggling. Every time I go to twitter these days, I find myself saying, Sheesh, is everyone writing a book?

I’m not far off, actually, if you believe the statistic that over 80% of Americans think they have a book in them. Maybe this speaks to the egocentricity of Americans, our love for the written word, or something else altogether. Could be a flawed statistic. But if you’ve been on Twitter lately, it certainly feels true.

If it is true, and you’re hoping to make it as an author, you could have four out of five of your fellow countrymen competing with you for airspace and readers. The population of the US is 311 million, so that’s just under 250 million people.

I remember in high school one of my favorite teachers pointed out that only about 300 people in the U.S. actually made a living as novelists (meaning they didn’t also have to do something else to support themselves). That’s sort of like the NBA of the literary world. I don’t know what the numbers are today. But let’s just say that with the appearance of amazon.com and the accessibility of publishing (also allowing for some error in his original numbers), maybe it’s four times that number today. So my chances of doing this full time are… let’s see… 250 million divided by 1200…. could I borrow your calculator?… Oh, crap.

If these numbers are anywhere close to correct, and you want to be a professional fiction writer, that’s over 200,000 people competing for one market ‘slot.’ What’s more, the word on the street is that half of self-published authors will make less than $500 and that 75% of the self-publishing revenue ‘pie’ is going to the Top 10% earners.

So what’s a writer to do? Give up and take that job with Uncle Howard? Run around your local Starbucks and ‘accidentally’ spill lattes on other writers’ laptops? (Not recommended. It’s messy. And rude. And illegal. Plus, Sue Grafton already told us that real writers aren’t at Starbucks anyway.)  Hmmm…. Need new strategy.

I have one, actually. It’s a mantra that I’ve begun using every time I follow back yet another writer on Twitter. Every time I come across a book remarkably similar to that idea I had last week that I was sure was totally original. Every time my thoughts are invaded by negativity and doubt and all the reasons I can’t do it. Here it is: Write anyway.

It’s simple. Almost annoyingly simple, actually.

The hard truth is that most of us who are aspiring authors (indie or traditional), well… we’re not going to make the cut, at least in terms of major financial success. Just like every waitress in LA is really an actress, just about every stay-at-home-mom with a laptop is really a writer. And many of us will work our tails off, only to be called back once for an orange juice commercial or, if we’re lucky, becoming this chick, (who I see in every commercial there is). But most of us are not going to be Julia Roberts — or Emily Giffin. And the statistics say most of us will never earn a living at the keyboard.

But just like farm girls from Iowa will always get on that bus to New York or LA, dreaming of stage and screen, we have to try, right?

Unless you have an, ahem, distant relationship with reality, you didn’t become a writer because you thought it was an easy path to riches. If money is your only motivation for writing, I have to say you’re terrible at choosing careers. I am, too, but still…. There are several thousand easier and more efficient ways to make money than being a novelist, including that job with Uncle Howard and the fourteen other suggestions made by your guidance counselor when you told her you were going to be the next Nora Roberts or Stephen King.

But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here because you love to write, and you hope – as we all do – that you have something original to say or a new way of saying it. You want to connect with people, touch hearts, entertain your readers, share your passions or your life experience. You have a story to tell. Now, if you can make a living doing all that, so much the better. And if you’re original enough, talented enough, lucky enough, and hard-working enough, it could happen. You could be one of the 10% the rest of us are grumbling about as we hunker down over our laptops and try to tune out our families’ complaints that we should’ve stayed in law school. Readers are going to buy books. Someone has to fill those top slots. Why not you? Why not me?

But even if that doesn’t happen, I’m here to argue that there is a lot to be said for staying in the game.

Having the dedication and passion just to complete a 90,000 word novel demonstrates a fortitude and self-discipline many people lack. That’s to say nothing of all you will learn through the editing, revising, publishing and marketing process. Grammar, yes. Writing skills and marketing, too. But you also learn to create an identity for yourself and your characters, to accept and incorporate feedback, adapt to changing and uncertain situations. Not to mention demonstrating a level of drive and self-direction over an extended period of time that’s comparable to running a marathon.

Oh yeah, and tons of humility. Truckloads. What business venture, career, volunteer organization or family could not benefit from those qualities?

If you’re a self-published author, you’re also an entrepreneur. When you make the decision to put that book out and hope that someone, somewhere, will like it enough to purchase it, you become the owner of a small business. In some cases a very small business! In their first two years the overwhelming majority of new ventures fail – from restaurants to technology companies. You might fail, too — at least in the sense that you might decide to abandon your efforts for something more lucrative or less time consuming. But once you’ve written a book, no one can ever take that away from you. Your grandchildren will know there’s a writer in the family, and maybe that will inspire them to write, too. No one needs to tell them that you only sold 30 copies, if that’s the case!

Writing is about personal expression, storytelling, and creating something cohesive and interesting where once there was just a blank page. If you’ve chosen this path, it’s because all of that means something to you; and it will continue to do so whether you sell 30 copies or 30,000. So I say, go for it. Read the statistics, weigh the risks, and then throw it all out the window. People don’t look back on their lives and wish they hadn’t bothered playing in that rock band or auditioning for a play — even if they never got further than their high school auditorium. There’s no shame in doing something many people only dream of doing, hoping it will pay off, only to decide later that it didn’t. And if it does pay off, well, you can mention me in your Pulitzer Prize speech.

But you might want to hang on to Uncle Howard’s number. Just in case.

Inaugural Writer’s Challenge

Front Matter’s Writing Challenge: No contests. No time limits. Just inspiration, motivation, and a friendly kick in the pants! Respond on your own blog or website and share – or not – at your leisure. For the sanity of all, please read guidelines before posting a comment linking to your response – thanks!

A. Fiction Prompt

“Writhing in miserable pain on the ground, he knew his career was almost certainly over today. As he scanned the crowd in vain for her face, however, he knew his problems were bigger than that. Much bigger.”

B. Non-Fiction Prompt

St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes/desperate cases. Write about an experience you had with what seemed like a lost cause.

C. Personal Challenge

Follow or Like 7 new things online this week (Twitter accounts, Facebook fan pages, blogs). For each one, send a personal message to the author, curator, or account-holder telling him or her something that appeals to you about their page, profile, or blog. Be genuine!

Self-Promotion: Getting Past the Ooginess

For many of us, the idea of self-promotion is about as appealing as eating dinner in a train station bathroom stall.

But if you are a burgeoning writer – self-published, small press or even big press – one of your tasks in this book-flooded age is to market yourself. This is true whether you’re the manager (and only employee) of your own multi-media, multi-outlet social marketing machine; or you have a large staff doing the marketing for you, and your job is limited to blogging and book signings. If you’re a writer, you are the brand, at least to some extent. That means self-promotion is a part of your job from day-to-day.

For those of us who aren’t, well, raving narcissists, self-promotion can be counter-intuitive to say the least. Most of us have been socialized to believe that tooting our own horn is unseemly and conceited (especially women, I’m sorry to say). The idea of trying to foist our latest novel or blog onto total strangers can be nightmare fuel. Is it possible to self-promote without losing your integrity and humility? If so, how do you get past all those doubting voices in your head, and open yourself up to the world?

In my experience, those people who are most modest and self-conscious about promoting themselves often have the most thoughtful, insightful and interesting contributions once they are discovered. Not always, but often. The trick is to find a happy medium between hiding your light under a bushel and becoming that annoying person who just won’t shut up about their damn book.

As you might guess, I have some suggestions:

  1. Be worth promoting. Before you launch yourself on the unsuspecting masses of twitter, the blogosphere and Aunt Cynthia’s Christmas party, make sure you feel confident in your own product. In the case of written works, make sure they represent your true best efforts and that you’ve taken the time to edit, proofread, and solicit honest feedback from people who are able to be unbiased. Notice I didn’t say make sure your product is perfect. That would paralyze you for sure. If some of your timidity about promotion, however, stems from genuine embarrassment about your writing, you may want to investigate and correct that before proceeding.
  2. Address your fears. If talking to people about your book makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why. Are you afraid of rejection? Striving for perfection? Uncomfortable with criticism? Unsure how to handle attention from others? Whatever it might be, the only way to get beyond fear is to confront it head-on. Write down what scares you, say it out loud (to yourself or someone else) and ask yourself what the worst realization of your fear would look like. Could you survive the worst-case scenario? If the answer is yes, then once more unto the breach, dear friend!
  3. Remind yourself of #1. You wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t think you had something to offer, right? If you’re too humble to spread the word about something you spent months or years crafting, revising, and… basically birthing, you might be robbing the world of something truly valuable. You also might be robbing yourself of an opportunity to gain feedback, improve your skills, make money, win acclaim, share your story, and maybe even make a career out of this.
  4. Get the ‘lay of the land’. You wouldn’t start off a new job by storming into the conference room and pitching your own pet project on the first day. The same goes for promoting yourself. When you enter a new online community, give a speech, join a writer’s group or address a new twitter contact, stop to look around first. Learn the rules and ‘listen’ to the tone of a chat stream before putting in your two cents, do your research on any group or person you’re propositioning directly, and make a soft, respectful start. For heaven’s sake, don’t let your first interaction be a request that someone buy or read your book, like your Facebook page, or follow your blog. How about a little foreplay?
  5. Be genuine. Nearly all successful ventures are built on relationships. Real relationships. And believe me, even on twitter, people can tell the difference between someone who is entering the conversation to build connections in good faith, and someone who is only promoting themselves. Promotion is a two way street: it takes listening, absorbing and responding to others as well as trying to get your own point across. It’s also a long-term proposition, requiring cultivation and care.
  6. Share, don’t sell. We all have negative, slimy associations with the archetypal idea of door-to-door insurance salesmen and cold-call telemarketers. Why? Because their one and only goal is to close a sale and move on to the next target. In reality, the most successful salespeople are those who listen, learn, and fill a genuine need, without pushing potential customers to an uncomfortable place. Self-promotion’s main goal should be keeping your name and your brand ‘out there’ in front of writers and readers, so that when they go looking for their next book, they might think of you. The goal is NOT to push everyone you meet to buy your book (more on target markets later).
  7. Give first. This means something different in every context. Promoting someone else’s blog posts instead of, or alongside, your own. Tweeting another author’s book promotion. Connecting two people you know who might help one another with no thought to how it benefits you. Volunteering. Listening and empathizing with someone else’s story without launching into your own. Emotionally investing in and asking about the lives and projects of others. And, maybe this should be obvious, but in my experience it’s not: you should talk about other stuff besides your project in whatever forum you’re in. Be multi-dimensional. You know, like a person.
  8. Take the hint. If people unfollow you frequently on twitter and no one ever seems to re-tweet your posts, if no one shares or comments on your Facebook page, or if people drift away from you at parties as soon as the topic of your writing comes up, it’s possible that either (a) you’re not putting out quality content and information or (b) you’re making it too much about you. Don’t let this ruin your dreams. Just ask for feedback when appropriate, re-evaluate, and re-engage by listening more.

Self-promotion doesn’t have to be slimy or annoying. It’s about developing genuine, mutual relationships and having the courage to share about yourself and your work along the way. The people you meet will give you feedback (sometimes via silence, which is useful, too) and as long as you incorporate that feedback with an open spirit, you’ll be well on your way to promoting like a pro.

Welcome to Front Matter

I’m so excited to announce the launch of my new blog: Front Matter. This space will be a platform for discussing the writing process, self-publishing, and all the ups and downs therein. Posts in the queue already include time management, handling negative feedback, and much more.

Please take a moment to follow along at the right. I invite my fellow writers, artists, editors and self-pubbers to follow along, along with entrepreneurs of any ilk looking for encouragement and inspiration. Enjoy!