Is Multi-Genre Writing Right For You?

to do list (2)One of the ongoing debates in the writing world is about the wisdom of writing in more than one genre. The reality, I think, is that most writers want to write in several genres and, in fact, may be quite good at it. My first projects were poetry, and then I moved on to magazine articles. Think pieces followed, as did newspaper humor columns. My first published book was a small volume about practical Christian spirituality, but then I found my stride in humorous murder mysteries (#6 is out in September, with #7 currently taking shape on my laptop).

Last but not least, a few months ago, my first memoir was published.

So, for me, the big debate about writing in multiple genres is a no-brainer, because I already do.

My experience of doing so, however, has made me recast the debate from a writing perspective to a publishing perspective, and, as a writer who wants to build a career as a published author, I offer my own pluses and minuses of working in a multi-genre career.

  1. Minus: If you think it’s demanding to build one platform, try building several at once. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but in my experience, it can’t happen simultaneously (unless you have clones of yourself ready to go – and in that case, please drop me a note at my website, because I could use a couple of clones these days). To launch a book, you have to be single-minded to make the best of marketing opportunities: appearances, talks, media, book clubs, etc. Your new book/baby needs attention 24/7, and if you leave it for a day or two to nurse along another genre, you find yourself playing catch-up when you get back to the newborn. I’m guessing it’s like having twins-one person can’t really hold two babies equally well, so there’s always some juggling going on. Same thing with two genres: you end up feeling like you haven’t been as successful as you could have been with just one book. At the very least, you don’t sleep much, because you’re trying to do the work of two marketing departments in one body.
  2. Plus: Working in two genres is exhilarating! You get to double the people you meet and the interests you cultivate. Your horizons expand and life is so rich with new experiences, it takes your breath away. It’s wonderful to be a writer!
  3. Minus: Publishers are very hesitant to take a chance on you in a new genre. The more you’ve established yourself in one genre, the less a publisher wants to take the risk of launching you in a different direction. Publishing is a business, and publishers have to respect the bottom line.
  4. Plus: If your genres share something in common (mine share humor and a love of nature), your fans of one genre are more likely to follow you into new territory, giving you a base readership on which to build and a headstart on creating a new platform.

Have you had any experience in multi-genre writing? Any insights to share?

Sing it, Lamb Chop!

projects.latimes.com

projects.latimes.com

This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.”

If you never watched the fabulous Shari Lewis perform with her puppet Lamb Chop, you might not know this delightful ditty from her Emmy-winning show that ran on PBS from 1992-1997. My youngest daughter enjoyed watching it as a toddler, and since I got to join her in front of the television, this song found its way into my permanent recall bank.

For better or worse, the tune takes over my head every time I have a task that seems never-ending.

Which is my way of introducing my topic today: platform building.

You see, platform building for a writer doesn’t end when your book is published. Instead of thinking of platform building as the first step toward publication, I now see it as the task that underlies the entire creative, marketing, and career development process. As long as you write, it doesn’t end.

But instead of looking at that task as an overwhelming, time-consuming responsibility, I’ve chosen to see it as the lifeblood of what I do.

My platform is my path to accomplishing the work that gives my life meaning. In my case, I want to bring people into closer communion with God’s creation, and I do that through the written word, telling entertaining stories about nature, and in particular, about birding and dogs.

Using this perspective motivates me to continue, and expand, my platform-building. Here’s a quick snapshot of what that looks like for me.

My first book – a small treatise about finding meaning in life – led me to discover my own passion: writing about engagement with nature. To market that first book, I gave retreats and workshops about identifying what you love and what God calls you to; as a result, I added speaking opportunities to my platform. Then I began writing my Birder Murder Mysteries, a light-hearted series about a birder who finds bodies (incorporating my own passion for birding and mystery). To sell books, I began reaching out to birders around the country (and the world!), connecting with them online, attending birding events, sharing information and becoming interested in conservation issues. That influenced additional books in the series, and led to more interaction with like-minded nature-lovers, which has both enriched my writing and my life with speaking/marketing opportunities and new friends. Six years after my first Birder Murder was published, I now have plenty of ideas for future books and venues to market them, as well as a list of birding hotspots to add to my bucket list of personal adventure.

My memoir about my dog is building a new addition to my original platform, giving me more places to talk about nature and to sell all of my books. I’ve begun volunteering with my local Humane Society because of it, and I now see all my writing as advocacy work for improving the human-nature connection. Yes, I know that my platform building doesn’t end, but neither do the rewards I’m finding when it comes to new experiences, learning interesting things, and contributing to my world.

What joys are you finding in the never-ending task of platform building?

The Story of My Life

whisperingOne of my favorite parts of speaking to audiences is telling them the true stories behind the stories.

When I talk about my murder mysteries, I talk about the incidents in my own life that inspire plot lines and settings. While I haven’t personally murdered anyone (nor do I plan to), my fictional characters’ motives and subterfuges stem from simple human traits we all share. Who hasn’t experienced confusion, envy, jealousy, greed, the desire for revenge? Just because the extent of my envy might be a girlfriend’s new hair cut doesn’t mean I can’t extrapolate that feeling into the murderous intent of a killer, right?

Okay, that might be quite a bit of extrapolation, but you get my drift.

Where the real fun comes in, however, is sharing with readers the snippets of my experience that I insert right into my novels. For instance, in my third Birder Murder Mystery, my protagonist goes on a weekend birding trip to Fillmore County in Minnesota, which is based on an actual birding trip I took to that county many years ago. Spending time with other birders not only gave me a chance to add to my own life list of birds, but it provided some snappy, funny conversation that I then used in my book. I’ve found more than once that real life makes for the best fiction.

Another example: in my fourth Birder Murder, my characters are in Flagstaff, Arizona on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The setting was inspired by a trip I took with my middle daughter to tour the NAU campus when she was making college plans; the hair-raising flight into the city, the conversation with an old hippie cab driver, and the fact that NAU is surrounded on three sides by graveyards, all come directly from my trip. As a mystery writer, how could I NOT set a murder mystery where everyone KNOWS where the bodies are buried?

The most transparent example of how my writing chronicles my own life is, of course, my new memoir about how my dog helped me overcome anxiety, including a fear of dogs. Yet even since the book was published in April, I continue to find nuggets of meaning in my own story that I didn’t recognize while I was writing it: we adopted Gracie on the day before Easter – the eve of Resurrection. So now I tell audiences that my dog not only helped me experience my own spiritual and physical renewal, but the book about her is also changing my career in unimagined ways. Too bad I didn’t know that part already, because it would have been a nice epilogue…gee, maybe that’s the next book.

When I share my real stories with groups, I realize that the writing advice I first heard as a child is true: write what you know. I just didn’t understand how I could make my own experiences book-worthy…until I threw in the imagination to make my own stories part of someone else’s.

In what ways does your writing chronicle your life?

 

How To Create An Author Press Kit

ImageOne of the most effective strategies for book marketing is to create a press kit. This costs no money, but it’s a worthwhile investment of time because the kit will be used from pre-launch throughout the full life of the book.

WHAT IS AN AUTHOR PRESS KIT?

A well-designed author press kit serves as an easy-to-read source of information about a particular book. The goal is to convince folks to read this book and to share it with others.

Of course, the author’s unique skills should be highlighted as well, because media outlets need a reason to interview an author OTHER THAN the fact that their book is for sale. In other words, what makes THIS particular author worthy of air time/ink/review/shelf space?

WHO READS THE PRESS KIT?

The kit should be designed to reach:

  • Bookclubs
  • Booksellers
  • Print and online editors (magazines, newspapers, review sites, etc.)
  • Media outlets and journalists (print, radio, web, podcast, etc.)
  • Librarians
  • Readers (as far reaching as possible but target specific readership)
  • Reviewers (both professional and arm chair)
  • And anyone interested in the work

With millions of books on shelves/cybershelves, the kit must convince people to choose THIS ONE.

HOW TO CREATE AN AUTHOR PRESS KIT:

An author press kit consists of five components.

  • Cover Art: A high resolution jpg of the book’s cover.
  • Sell Sheet: A quick list of the book’s publishing information. Include back-cover copy, the specific editions of the book and availability; date of publication; name of publisher; and a general scope of the marketing/promotion plan (regional vs. national tour, blog tour, media interviews, advertising campaign, publicist, etc.). Give folks an idea of how much effort is being put into this campaign and be sure to include contact information for author and/or publicist.
  • Press Release: This serves as the official press release for the book. Follow the traditional format and exhibit professional know-how.
  • Interview Q&A: Provide a sample interview. Let this show the author’s personality, interesting background, or special skills. Offer something unique that would engage listeners/readers.
  • Sample Chapters: Link to a free chapter or two on Scribd. Offer a sneak peek that showcases the author’s talent and the tone of the book.

HOW TO SHARE THE PRESS KIT?

Once the kit is complete, convert it to PDFs and organize a PRESS KIT folder.

  •  Upload pdfs to an author website for easy download.
  • Before launch, research bloggers, media outlets, libraries, booksellers, bookclubs, etc. and create spreadsheets for each. Send email or postcards to these targets inviting them to download a free author presskit with sample chapters of the soon-to-be-released book.
  • Also share links via social media and other sites geared toward reaching readers.

With a little effort, a proper press kit can impress and intrigue. If done right, the kit will lead folks to a new book before it ever hits shelves.

Julie Cantrell is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Into the Free and its sequel, When Mountains Move. Learn more: www.juliecantrell.com

Should a Non-Fiction Author Write Novels and Vice-Versa?

Gift Wrapped Package

Are Shiny Objects Calling You?

One of my coaching clients has to guard against his propensity to chase every shiny new object. I can identify with his temptations, as I struggle with similar ones in my writing. Can I author both fiction and non-fiction? Can you? Let’s explore the question, and see if we arrive at the same conclusions.

Recently, I had a conversation with my literary agent that went something like this: 

Me, “I’m grateful my non-fiction books are selling, and my platform is building in the genre, but I have these two great novel ideas. What do you think? Would it be okay for me to pursue them?”

Alice, in a gentle tone after taking a deep breath, (I’m sure praying for patience with this crazy, bling-chasing author she has to deal with), “We normally recommend trying to stick with one genre. Otherwise it confuses your audience.”

“Could I do it using a pen name? I have one picked out.”

“Possibly. But then you’re using twice the energy to build two platforms simultaneously.”

That sounded like a whole lot of work to me.

Alice, “Can you turn your novel ideas into non-fiction?”

“Fiction is more fun to write.”

“I’m sure. But why don’t we focus on finishing your current book, then revisit this when you’re done?”

She’s a wise woman. I’m sure she believed the luster of authoring fiction would fade with time. And to a degree, she was right.

I’ve since researched the subject further, and found there are some common concerns and benefits listed from those with vast experience and knowledge. Publishers, agents, and even high-profile authors said much of the same. Here are the highlights of what I learned about the subject.

Keep Your Promises

Reader Expectation Can Drive their Trust

Cons:

1. Most readers will try a favorite author’s book in a new genre once, but if they don’t like it, may not buy any books written by them again. Including those they loved before.

2. Loyal readers often feel betrayed by the switch, and never regain trust. Genre confusion can cause authors to lose whole segments of audiences who now view them as promise-breakers.

3. If you switch genres, and the new book tanks, it can take years to rebuild publisher confidence and marketing momentum.

Pros:

1. Writing too much of a similar thing can cause an author to sound scripted, formulaic, and stale in later books. A change in the creative landscape can infuse fresh dimension into their craft.

2. Opportunities to cultivate new audiences grow with change. For example, if you write murder mysteries, but switch to a practical how-to, you chance reaching people who won’t read the mystery.

3. Authors like C.S. Lewis successfully carried their voices into cross-over markets, reaching many more people. If you are careful to stay true to your writing self, you potentially could do the same.

Old TypewriterAfter talking it over with my agent, researching, praying, and much pondering, I think I’ve had a change of heart. Turning my novel ideas into non-fiction is feasible. And I know successful writers are teachable and flexible. If I want to thrive in the writing world, I need to mirror those traits, and listen to those with voices of wisdom.

Down the writing road, I may change my mind or the market may shift, but at this point, why mess with success? I’d hate to have a shiny new object deflect me from the blessings I already have.

Do you think it’s wise to write fiction and non-fiction? Why or why not?

 

How to Craft for Your Crowd

reading boysAudience. 

Every writer knows that keeping the audience in mind is essential to effective writing: you don’t include high tech specifications or advanced optical principles in a children’s picture book about microscopes, just like you wouldn’t fill your historical thriller fiction manuscript with footnotes citing the research behind your story.

But other than considering what your audience expects in style or format based on genre, how often do you start your writing project by putting the reader first, instead of the story you want to tell?

Over the last nine years (and eight books) as my writing career has developed, I’ve noticed a subtle shift in how I craft my writing. Whereas my first book – an exploration of Christian vocation – was the book I wanted to write covering what I’d learned from researching and reflecting on Scripture, I didn’t understand how to make it compelling reading for my audience, even though I sincerely wanted to communicate my own enthusiasm on the topic with my readers and believed they would benefit from it.

Big surprise: even with a national publisher, the book did not do well. I needed to regroup, and start over by clearly defining my audience, and putting their need – be it entertainment, information, or inspiration – first. Only then could I take the story I wanted to write and frame it meaningfully for my readers, because if it didn’t answer their need, they wouldn’t read, no matter how much I wanted to share it.

I had to put others first. I began to pay more attention to what readers liked to read and why, rather than focusing on what stories I wanted to tell.

I applied that approach when I created my Birder Murder Mystery series. As a bird-lover and mystery fan myself, I knew there were no cozy mysteries about birdwatchers; I knew if I wanted to satisfy that audience, I’d have to weave together a specialized knowledge of birds, engaging characters that reflected the eccentric personalities who enjoy the sport, related issues of conservation, and accurate depictions of place. That meant I needed to do research to fill in the gaps of my own knowledge to craft stories that met those demands. Using that formula, I’ve written six books in the series and acquired a loyal readership that enjoys “virtual birding” with my protagonist.

Likewise, with my girl-meets-dog-and-finds-healing spiritual memoir, the first task I completed was examining my experience to identify how others could relate to and benefit from it. By putting the need of others first, it helped me organize the book’s content: a blend of memoir, current research, spirituality, and humor. Otherwise, I may have written a straight narrative of how I learned to love our dog, which would be a nice story to share, but not unique enough to warrant publication.

The next time you sit down to start a writing project, ask yourself these questions first:

  1. What does my audience need from me?
  2. How can I be of service to my audience with this writing project?
  3. How do those answers help me craft my content?

I think you’ll find that putting others first is not only considerate, but a great way to write a book your audience will value.

Two Writers Walk Into This Bar . . .

Celebratory drinkWhat happens when two writers unexpectedly find themselves with a free evening together?

A nice dinner and a glass of wine? Laughter and bonding? Sharing experiences from both on and off the author trail?

Yes. All that, and new marketing ideas, too.

At least that was my experience two weeks ago when my agency colleague Anita Agers-Brooks made a short-notice trip my way and we were able to spend a few hours together – hours that had no agenda other than getting to know each other. And even though we write in different genres (Anita is a leadership guru, while I write humorous mysteries and memoir), we had much to offer each other in the way of marketing and business ideas. Here are a few nuggets from our impromptu party to spark your own ideas:

  1. Writing is a business. Do you treat it that way? Anita reminded me that I needed to file paperwork to become an LLC (limited liability company) as legal protection of my assets. We live in a litigious world, and a writer must be a good steward of her assets both spiritually and financially. As Anita pointed out, if you wait to protect your business till someone sues you (yes, it can happen!), you’re already too late. (And be sure to include Errors & Omissions insurance while you’re at it.)
  2. Goodreads.com is a publicity goldmine. Are you on it? For my new book release, 658 people entered my giveaway drawing for 3 free copies. That’s a lot of eyes on my book the day it released. And giveaways are just the tip of what you can accomplish on Goodreads. (Read this marketing tutorial on using Goodreads.)
  3. Pay attention to casual comments. After a pastor told Anita her book would be a good topic for a sermon, she found a template online for sermons. She plans to fill it out using her book and then share the template with pastors. She’ll get her message presented by pastors, and she won’t even have to be present! (Does that qualify as bilocation – being in two places at the same time?) I’m going to take her idea and see if I can make it work for me.
  4. Take ownership for your promotional campaign, because ultimately, the book is your baby. Both Anita and I have been surprised by the limitations even large publishers can have when it comes to marketing; our publishers can pull some big coups for us (Anita spoke to a filled college auditorium thanks to her publisher, and I’m getting phone-in radio interviews thanks to mine), but the local press and on-going events calendar that make up the bulk of your PR efforts remain in your own lap, not to mention getting your launch team recruited and equipped to spread the word.
  5. Learn from each other’s experiences. After spending an evening with a writer in the same phase of our careers, I feel like I may still be in the same boat. But now I know there are other boats traveling along beside me, happy to share their own tips and advice. In fact, maybe a small-group marketing retreat would be a good idea. Hmmm….

(FYI – I was kidding about the walking into a bar. Anita and I did walk around a golf course, however. The air was much fresher.)