About jandunlap

Jan is the author of "Saved by Gracie," a humorous spiritual memoir about her experiences with her rescued dog who helped her overcome anxiety issues and rediscover faith. She also pens the Birder Murder Mystery series that follows the adventures of ace birder/high school counselor Bob White, who has a bad habit of finding bodies when he birds. When she's not playing with fictional devices, Jan is a birdwatcher, a featured speaker, and the proud mother of five children.

Give ‘Em What They Want, Not What You THINK They Want

shop-vac-10-gallon-industrial-wet-dry-vacuum-925-40-100After fumbling around with social networking and reading every marketing article about it that I could get my hands on for the last year or so, I’ve distilled my promotional strategy down to a simple directive: give readers what they want.

I know that sounds obvious, but the tricky part is understanding the ‘what,’ especially once you realize that ‘what’ your readers want may not be the same ‘what’ that you THINK they want.  The key is taking ‘you’ out of the picture, so you can clearly see your reader without your own perspective distorting your vision.

It’s like reflective listening – you want to reflect back what the other person is saying without putting your own spin on his words, so you hear clearly what he said, and not what you think he said. Quick example of doing it wrong: my husband said he wished he’d taken music lessons when he was a kid, so I got him music lessons for Christmas. Two weeks into the lessons, he told me he didn’t want to continue.

“But you said you wished you’d taken lessons as a kid,” I reminded him.

“As a kid, yes,” he said. “But now I have other interests that I’d rather spend my time on. You interpreted my comment as a current wish, which it isn’t.”

Ouch. I should have gotten him the shop-vac he said he needed, which I thought was boring.

Same idea applies to your readers.

Pay careful attention to what they say, or in the case of social media, what they really like to see and with what they engage.

For instance, I thought that as an author, I should be posting on Facebook about my WIP or upcoming events. Those posts, I’ve found, get little notice.

But if I post a photo of me getting kissed by a French bulldog, or a goofy homemade video of me singing (badly) about the cold weather, I get comments galore. Clearly, on Facebook, at least, my writing news is not very interesting to my readers.

Writing news is appreciated very much, however, by my newsletter subscribers, so that’s where it now goes, along with on my website. As for LinkedIn, I post both events and business-related material, such as when my books get a rave review or included in an industry-recognized blogger’s post.

For Twitter, I post quick links to interesting material in my subject areas (birds, nature, dogs, humor) or retweet entertaining posts, because I’ve found that those kinds of communications are most appreciated by my followers. Because it’s a fast and short exposure, I tend to use Twitter more than any other social media platform as more of a shotgun approach – post and hope it spreads wide and far to get my name in front of a greater number of people, because that’s the first step to finding new readers.

My experience has convinced me that connecting with readers, followers, and networks is a necessary piece of expanding my readership, but once I’ve reached new folks, it’s time to shift gears and use social media to build relationships, not solicit sales.

That’s why it’s called social media, and not the shopping channel. Remembering to give the reader what they want is easy when it’s the same thing you want to give your friends.

How do you use the various social network platforms?

All Aboard the Creative Team Train!

trainUnless you work with a co-author, the act of writing is indeed a solitary activity.

Selling your writing, however, is anything but. (Think book signings, audiences, store owners, readers, reviewers, friends, foes…)

And that’s a good thing, because if you were the only person involved in marketing your book, you might never want to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) ever again. A one-person sales force means when sales don’t meet expectations, you’re going to have to fire yourself. Then who will you talk to during writing breaks?

Yes, your publisher will be doing some of your selling, but that can range from simply listing your book in their catalog to assigning you a short-term publicist to whatever the big publishing houses do (which I understand is much less than they used to do!). If you want to drive your sales-train – instead of just being a passenger going along for the ride – you need to be the chief engineer, reaching out to all those folks and activities I listed above.

But as engineer, you also have another job besides sales manager: you need to oversee the creative effort that goes into preparing the infrastructure upon which your promoters will depend.

You need your own creative team: a group of individual contributors who shine at what they do and share your enthusiasm for your writing projects. Yes, it’s going to cost you some money, but I’m convinced it’s worth the expense when you assemble the right team to get the sales prep done.

Here are the team members I couldn’t do without:

Website designer. A professionally designed website is essential for communicating your brand and presenting yourself as a professional author and speaker. Find the designer who ‘gets’ you, because she’ll come up with other marketing ideas for you to try. I confess, I put this one off for a long time, thinking my basic (but amateur) website was sufficient. My redesigned site offers me more ways to connect with readers, and offers readers more reasons to revisit the site.

Video producer. I’ve had two book trailers done, and I plan to do more in the future as I expand the ways I use them. Working with the same experienced producer saves time and effort – he has my stock materials on hand and a clear understanding of how I want to present my work. He also has a vested interest in my success, since his business grows from referrals.

Key local media contacts. I know the local newspaper staffs well, which means they pay attention when I send press releases. Many of them have contacts in the wider media community, as well, and they are generous with sharing information and ideas.

Social networking experts. I have the best in the business, because I subscribe to (and read) their newsletters and blogs. What I have learned from these gurus has rapidly added both depth and breadth to my social networking comprehension and usage, and their desire to help writers succeed is evident. My go-to sites are: Social Media Examiner, startawildfire.com/blog, Post Planner blog, socialmouths and Michael Hyatt.

Are you riding the train of book marketing, or are you the engineer?

Scary Publicity Stories

????????????Like most authors, I have a second job title: Doer of Whatever It Takes to Get My Books in Front of the Public So They Will Sell. Much of the time, it’s a pretty cool job with a lot of variety.

Sometimes, though, it’s almost scary, like…

The bookstore signing

I spend an hour and a half at a table outside a bookstore. The place is mobbed – not with readers frantic to buy my book, but with adults and kids participating in a fun run to benefit the local children’s hospital. It is also the weekend for children to trick-or-treat in the indoor mall. Sitting at my table, I get lots of attention, though. The two most frequent questions I get asked are: “Where is a bathroom?” and “Is there some place around here where we can get something to drink?” Being the helpful person I am, I point people in the direction of the former and offer the others some of my bottled water. And people think being an author isn’t glamorous…

The best part of the gig is watching the costumed revelers go by. I see a pint-sized Dracula in tears, a little Spiderman whose foam-padded muscles are slipping off his shoulders, several princesses, and a standard-sized poodle dressed as a duck. But my day takes on cinematic proportions when two adult Star Wars storm-troopers, fully armed with plastic laser guns, walk down the hall. Oh my gosh! Man the Deathstar! Call the Jedi! Tell Spielberg to get the cameras rolling again!

A mom with her baby in her arms poses next to the storm-troopers while a friend takes a picture with her cell phone. The baby takes one look at the helmeted man and goes to sleep. I know how she feels.

Storm-troopers are so passé.

My first television interview

“You’re not allergic to dogs, are you?” a nice young intern named Kurt asks me before he opens the door to the green room, where I’ll wait for my turn on the show.

“How big are the dogs?” I ask, since I don’t do well with big dogs in open spaces, let alone big dogs in small windowless rooms where they can slobber all over you while you cringe in abject misery on a hard plastic chair.

“They’re little,” he says.

“No, I’m not allergic,” I tell him, and he ushers me into the room.

Kurt’s right, the dogs are little. Really little. They are also dressed up in costumes. One is a shark, one is a pumpkin, and one is a Chihuahua wearing a blonde wig and red dress.

“Who’s the Chihuahua?” I ask.

“Marilyn Monroe,” the handler answers.

I give myself a mental head slap. Of course it’s Marilyn Monroe. What was I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. I’m thinking I’m waiting to be interviewed about my novel with a bunch of dogs dressed up for Halloween. I’m thinking I’m going to fire my publicist, except that I’m my publicist.

Now that’s scary.

A Valentine For Our Readers

rosesRoses are red, violets are blue,

I love you, my readers, for all that you do:

To your families and friends, you talk up my books;

You buy the hard copies, Kindles and Nooks;

You come to book signings in out-of-way places.

I’m always so happy to see my fans’ faces!

You sign up for my newsletter and say lots of nice things

On Goodreads, in book clubs – you make my heart sing!

You share kind reviews, both oral and text,

You give me ideas for what to write next.

You twitter my Tweets, like my Facebook page, too.

I’m so very grateful for readers like you who

Help me find new folks that I want to reach

And invite to the fun of being my peeps!

For YOU, my dear fans, are the reason I write

All through the day and into the night,

Wrestle with words and struggle with plots

(which sometimes are great, but sometimes are not!).

When all’s said and done, I have to confess

There’s only one way I measure success:

If I’ve made you laugh, touched your heart in some way,

My work is done, and YOU’VE made my day!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all our readers

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo……..the WordServe Literary Agency authors

A Matter of Time (Part 2)

La Ronde's Le Boomerang Roller CoasterLast week, we looked at how content benefits from timing. This week, we’ll explore timing within writing – the art of pacing narrative.

Pacing is what keeps your reader reading. In suspense/mystery/thrillers, pacing is easy to identify: what starts out as a problem grows steadily (and generally, rapidly) worse. When I write my humorous mysteries, I use humor to relieve some of that growing tension in my mysteries, and my uphill roller coaster ride is one of short climbs and plateaus; thriller writers often choose steeper climbs with no reprieves before the final sheer drop. As the writer, you need to choose what effect you want to create in your reader, and then manipulate your scenes and character development accordingly. For an excellent overview of pacing in fiction, read this post by K.M. Weiland.

Note, however, that I didn’t say ‘narrative of story’ in my opening paragraph. That’s because nonfiction benefits just as much from effective pacing as does fiction. Think for a moment about the biographies, how-tos, memoirs, travel pieces, or any other nonfiction you’ve read recently. Did they keep your attention? Did the author tease you with promises of solutions or details and then slowly reveal them, building momentum so that you couldn’t put it down? Or did you plod through pages of dry facts and lose interest to the point of feeling like the reading was a chore?

That’s the tipping point for me as a writer, whether I’m penning fiction or non-fiction: losing interest. Even when I’m the one doing the writing, I try to think like my reader.

Am I getting bored with a litany of facts? Then break it up. Focus on one fact and bring it to life with a concrete, preferably colorful, example, then note the other facts briskly. For instance, in my forthcoming memoir, I list items not to do with a new puppy. I got bored with listing the list, so I described how I totally did the wrong thing with our dog concerning the first point, then simply noted the remaining ones. Making a list personal will engage your reader and create momentum to continue reading.

Use dialogue. Even if it’s imaginary, it can help your reader place themselves in the same situation.

Use a metaphor or simile to make your explanation more understandable. Details enrich writing of every kind.

Keep focus. Confine paragraphs to one point, then move on – visual cues like breaking up text help your reader follow your organization and your pace of developing thought. You don’t want your reader lost in the middle of a page-long paragraph, because they might decide it’s not worth finding their way out.

In fact, write your nonfiction like you’re telling a story with its own beginning, middle, and end, and you might hear that awesome compliment: “It was such a good book, I couldn’t put it down, even though it was nonfiction.”

Timing really is everything.

A Matter of Time (Part 1)

HourglassTiming is everything.

This phrase appears frequently in the books of my mystery series, because my protagonist is a birder, and the timing of nature determines what birds he might see in each adventure: depending on the season, only certain birds are (typically) in a particular area. The phrase also is a descriptor of a ‘perfect’ crime – timing is everything if you’re going to get away with murder.

As it happens, ‘timing is everything’ holds true for all kinds of genres, fiction and non-fiction alike, both in regards to content and the pacing of narrative. In this post, we’ll take a look at how content benefits from timing; in my next post, we’ll focus on the art of pacing.

Content is dependent on the context of your experience of time. Everything a writer writes reflects his or her unique perspective and experience of life. For example, five years ago, I could convincingly set a book in a high school because I worked in a high school, and the students and faculty I met provided me with the raw material for characters and plots; a year earlier, I would have been inept handling the same material. The take-away: no matter the genre, write out of your own experience, because authenticity depends on reality. That’s not to say you can’t write a medieval romance – you can research the historical details that make the setting accurate, but you need to infuse your own feelings and insights, based on your own experience, to make the story ring true. Pay attention to what’s going on in your life, because that’s where your story will ultimately come from – the feelings and ideas you have in response to real-time life.

Content is strengthened by its connection to what is happening in the world right now. The obvious example is the spate of books that are published when an anniversary comes around, such as the books that hit the market last November to remember the JFK assassination. Holiday books do the same thing – they capitalize on timing. Any time you can connect your content to current events or trends, you accomplish two things: you strengthen your content by association, and you build in marketing opportunities. Are you writing a novel about a young person struggling to achieve success? Use current research about how depression can manifest in video game addiction to add intriguing layers to one of the characters; if you’re writing a study about age 30 being the new 18, that same research would add depth and attract readers.

If you’re lucky, time can even solve writing problems! I had that experience with my book A Murder of Crows, which dealt with the conflict between wind energy development and bird advocates. Mid-way through writing my manuscript, that exact conflict erupted in a neighboring county, furnishing me with ideas and even plot twists I hadn’t considered. I don’t routinely plan on serendipity to help me out with manuscript issues, but the timing couldn’t have been better for that one.

How do you make use of timing in your writing?

How a Blue Bird Can Save You Time

bluebirdI love Twitter.

Yes, it’s true – a year ago, I said I would never get on Twitter.

Just like I said “no Facebook,” the year before that.

The truth is that as an author, if you’re not on the social networks, you’re missing the boat, and while I’m still learning the best ways to use social media, I’ve found a surprising, but HUGE, benefit to spending time every day on Twitter: it’s my go-to source for content.

Content – the endless supply of information you need to share – is one of the things you have to manage on social media, and for me, it was one of the most intimidating. I barely eke out enough time to work on manuscripts between book marketing, my part-time teaching job, mothering, housekeeping, and walking the dog, let alone to come up with bright new pieces of information to post on my social networks every day. Effective social media marketing requires new content to keep your followers interested in what you do as an author; if your audience doesn’t hear from you in a while, they’ll move on to someone or something new, which defeats your whole social media strategy.

On top of fresh material, I also have to find/create the right spin on the content I collect to make it appropriate for my social networks. My readers expect humor, which isn’t nearly as simple or easy as it may sound; all authors – no matter what they write about – have to somehow personalize the content they curate to reflect their own signature brand.

Enter Twitter – tiny snippets of titles on anything and everything. It’s like an overflowing cornucopia of trivia, which is exactly what I like about it – I can skim through my Twitter feed and if some title catches my eye and strikes me as funny, or inspires a witty response in me, I can open the link and immediately bookmark it into a folder on my laptop. (Keeping a bookmarking folder dedicated to raw social media content has been one of my better ideas.) Then, when I’m making the rounds on my social networks and need new content, I can open that folder and retrieve the snippet for instant material. I’ve discovered that in just a few minutes a day, I can find enough tweets on Twitter to provide me with ideas and quick posts for a week, which frees up more time to write.

The danger of wasting time on Twitter was originally one of the reasons I didn’t want to use it, because like all social media, it pulls you into engagement that is hard to escape. (How many times have you told yourself, “I’m only reading one more post,” and then, an hour later, you’re still on Facebook?) By mindfully turning my Twitter time into content development time, I’ve made it a more productive and focused task that actually reduces the amount of time I need to spend on creating posts for my other networks. And that makes me tweet with happiness! (And you can join me @BirderMurder!)

What are some of the creative ways you use one social media to assist you with another one? 

God Has the Plan, Not Me!

Chess pieces on chessboardI’m a planner.

In the days before I go on a trip, I make a list of everything I need to take, so I won’t forget something in the actual process of packing. I mark items off the list as I pack them. When I close the last suitcase, I tuck the list into my purse, so when I return, I can use the list again to be sure I don’t leave anything behind.

The fault with my method of preparation is obvious, though – while I can control what I bring on the journey, I can’t control what actually happens on the journey. Sometimes the weather is much hotter than I expected, and I end up wearing the one sleeveless shirt I brought for the whole trip. Or the opposite occurs, and I wear the same sweater nonstop because everything else I packed was perfect for the 75-degrees that had been expected, but got pushed aside by an unseasonably cold weather front.

Again and again, I think of the Yiddish proverb: Man plans, and God laughs. And while I appreciate a good laugh – I’m something of a humorist, you see – it can get very tiresome when I’m trying to apply my planning penchant to my writing career.

Here was the plan: Choose a niche, write a great book, get an agent, get a publisher, write more great books in the series.

This is what happened: Wrote a book tailored to the niche (cozy mystery), wrote second book, got turned down by every agent for three years, not a word from any publisher, began writing third book in series, began writing another series in a different genre (supernatural thriller/romance) to see if I could do it and since the first series was getting nowhere, why not?, and finally found a small regional press for the mystery series four years after finishing the first novel.

Encouraged by that success, I pitched the thriller/romance to an agent, who snapped it up. That was five years ago, and that series now has two books in it, but no bites from any publisher. In the meantime, I’ve had five books in the cozy series published by the regional press, and my agent for the thrillers has now sold a humorous spiritual memoir I wrote six months ago (which grew out of several blog posts) to an international publisher.

From mystery writer to memoirist. I never could have planned that, not to mention the wonderful community I’ve found here to share the journey with at my agent’s company. It’s funny to see where my ‘plans’ have taken me, even though they haven’t taken me where I had planned.

They have, however, taken me exactly where God wanted – I just didn’t know it at the time. So every time I feel God laughing at my plans, I know the laughter is with me, not at me, and I know I’m not alone in this very human experience, for as the prophet Isaiah declared:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

So go ahead and plan all you want for your writing career. Then let God show you the higher way.

What I learned from Leo Kottke

GuitaristLast month, my husband and I enjoyed an evening concert at Big Top Chautauqua outside Bayfield, Wisconsin. Leo Kottke was the featured performer, and while I wasn’t particularly familiar with him and his music, he has long been a favorite of my husband’s. The concert took place under a big tent on a beautiful September night, very near the shore of Lake Superior, and Kottke did not disappoint, either as a guitarist or an entertainer. I came away a fan…and with a new perspective on what I do when I give a book talk.

I realized that the key word is entertain.

While the need to entertain my audience remains uppermost in my mind when I write, I haven’t always kept that focus during speaking engagements. Sometimes, I get too bogged down in the details of crafting a narrative when I talk with writers’ groups, or my presentation begins to sound stale when I answer the same questions over and over from audiences of readers. If I’m getting bored with repeating the same “this is my book, why I write, how I write,” then I expect my listeners are getting bored with the same old book talk they hear from every writer.

Enjoying Kottke’s performing style convinced me I needed to think of myself as a featured entertainer when I speak, not as the featured author. Yes, the man could play amazing guitar pieces, but it was his in-between chatter that tied it all together into a neat package of entertainment. Too much chatter and it would not have whetted my appetite for his music; too much music and I wouldn’t have formed a connection to the man. Instead, he balanced the two pieces and sold me on his entertainment value – which is exactly what I need to do to find new fans of my books.

After our evening at Big Top Chautauqua, I revamped the way I approach and present a book talk.

Instead of focusing on what goes into the book when I speak to groups, I now read short selections from several of the books – selections that are particularly meaningful or funny for me – and explain where in my own life those passages came from (and I always tell it with humor!). The result has been increased active engagement with my listeners, and they become more intrigued with the books, which results in more sales after the presentation concludes. I’m getting more comments about how enjoyable/entertaining the talk was, which not only makes it fun for everyone, but also leads to a greater number of speaking referrals for me! After all, if you’ve enjoyed an event, you’re likely to come back for more – whether it’s another book by the same author, or a CD recording of a musician – because you want to tap in again to that source that gave you an entertaining experience.

Authors need to think of themselves as entertainers – both in print and in person – and then present themselves that way, too.

How do you craft your talks for entertainment?

When Marketing Ideas Go Bad

One of the benefits of trying a variety of marketing strategies is that you learn what works.

You also learn what doesn’t.

Here’s a list of my worst marketing ideas. I share it with you so you won’t be tempted to make the same mistakes!

1. Order 1000 very simple business cards with just my name and website. That way, I could customize additional information on it to every person to whom I gave it. What a brilliant idea – I could use it for everything!

And I do – for store lists, reminders to me, store drawings (you know the type – you drop your business card in a big glass bowl), and when I want to write down a new acquaintance’s phone number. I quickly realized that I was spending so much time writing other info on the cards, that it was much easier to just hand out my book series book mark, since everyone wanted to know the names of the books and where they could be found.

Lesson learned: make every marketing piece targeted for what you need it to do. All-purpose pieces are wasted money. (Added benefit of book mark: it’s harder to lose than a little business card!)

2. Have a t-shirt made to wear to festival book signings that features the cover of your book. I could be a walking billboard!

But only once, I found out. The t-shirt shrank too much in the wash to be worn again. I did donate it as a door prize at a later festival, but marked the size as “Child.”

(Related story: I’ve seen authors wearing shirts that read “I’m the author” with the book on the back. Mistake here is that if readers don’t want to talk to the author, they can readily identify you and avoid engaging in conversation, which is how you make sales. The stealth approach can be a good thing at festivals, I’ve found.)

Lesson learned: let your book covers represent themselves and you dress professionally.

3. Try to show a different side of yourself. I thought readers would appreciate my expertise about birds in literature (since I’m both a college literature instructor AND I write about birding), so I gave a talk at a festival on that topic.

Yes, I had a large attentive audience interested and engaged! We talked about myths and legends and literature. But I didn’t sell any of my books.  My books are humorous, not academic. I wasn’t there trying to land a teaching job – I was there to find new readers.

Lesson learned: Stick to your brand and deliver what your books promise.

4. The giant inflatable gorilla that I put out in my front yard when my neighbors have garage sales.

Just kidding! I haven’t made that mistake…yet. Although car dealers have used it for years, so it must work for someone. I know!  A flock of pink flamingos…