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.)

Why Should I Go to a Writer’s Conference?

I believe there are three compelling reasons to go to a writer’s conference and as many, or more, conference “genres” to choose from.

Mount Hermon Azalea

Mount Hermon Azalea

  • You will dwell with a community of writers. The benefit is not only the chance to meet other people who think like you, but you will gain affirmation, encouragement and support. Perhaps you will meet a Facebook friend or an online writer’s loop member face to face for the first time and a lasting friendship blossoms. Or you might sit next to someone at dinner   who writes in your genre or lives nearby and a friend and/or critique partner is found. “A generous man will prosper, he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” Proverbs 11:25.
  • There is no better place to learn the writing craft. Most conferences will have an ???????????????????????????????array of workshops and tracks for every level of writer, whether you only have a vague idea about what you want to write or you have a whole drawer full of manuscripts. You can learn specifics about the publishing world from editors and agents and gain insight to what each is looking for. And you can learn from authors who have found success and are generous in sharing what they have learned along the way. “For wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul, discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you.” Proverbs 2:10-11
  • You will have the opportunity to make an appointment with an agent, editor or mentoring author. Beyond learning, building relationships is really the core and the blessing of writer’s conferences. Editors and agents are very interested in finding excellent writers who they enjoy on a personal level as well. The ability to work together is almost as important as your ability to write. If the thought of sitting down
    A meeting waiting to happen.

    A meeting waiting to happen.

    and chatting with an industry professional fills you with anxiety, say a prayer, take a breath, and know that the person you are talking to is interested in what you have to say and wants you to succeed. One of the biggest blessings I have found at conferences of any size, is that those who are there to instruct have a big heart for what they do, and are glad you are there. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

There are many conferences to choose from, Christian and secular. And there are many good secular conferences so don’t be afraid to attend and be a light to the world. But if you desire to write for the Christian market, you really need to also attend Christian conferences. I like to break them down by size, and each has its benefits. I’ve attended the Romance Writers of America conference (this July it’s in San Antonio!) and a plus is meeting with the Faith, Hope and Love Chapter.

  • The small, weekend workshop. You can usually find one of these close to where you live, and they often are the best place to dip your toe in the water, or your pen into
    Beachside 2011      The Weight of Words

    Beachside 2011 The Weight of Words

    the ink. Especially great for newbie writers. and also those who write because they love to, but don’t necessarily aspire to be traditionally published. Choose one that is lakeside, beachside, or mountaintop for an extra dose of inspiration! My favorite is Bob Welch’s Beachside Writers with Jane Kirkpatrick. They are a dynamic duo and the weekend offers a unique blend of learning the craft and practicing your writing skills. It’s on the Oregon coast in Yachats, and I try to go as often as possible.

  • Regional conferences. Once again, most likely you won’t have to travel far to find a writer’s conference that is still small but offers much to the writer who wants the chance to meet editors from publishing houses and magazines, agents, librarians, freelance editors, and multi-published authors who enjoy “giving back” and sharing techniques or writing methods they’ve learned along their journey. Most likely there will be an amazing keynote speaker. I have just returned from the Mount Hermon
    Mount Hermon Check-In

    Mount Hermon Check-In

    Christian Writer’s Conference in Santa Cruz, CA. Author and speaker Glenna Salsbury was the inspiring keynoter this year and next year Author Robin Gunn will be speaking. The campus is in the redwoods, with dogwood and azalea in bloom, and I can’t imagine a more beautiful spot to be inspired to write. The sense of being among a community of writers is awesome, and as you drink in the beauty and tranquility you can’t help but experience God’s presence. And  the Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference has fantastic conferences ranging from one-day to a full four-day conference in Portland with keynote speakers such as Author Jane Kirkpatrick, Allen Arnold of Ransomed Heart Ministries and Author Dan Walsh.

  • National conferences. This is where you will find a compendium of knowledge about all aspects of the writing world. It’s most likely located at a conference hotel and
    Enjoying friends at ACFW

    Enjoying friends at ACFW

    maybe only occasionally near you. But it’s worth the time and effort to attend. The pace might seem hectic and you will literally fall into bed each night, but you will come home filled with enthusiasm to finish the book or start the next one! My favorite one is the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Conference, held this year in beautiful St. Louis, MO, with keynote speaker, Author Lauraine Snelling. The conference dates this year are September 25 – 27th. And remember, if you feel overwhelmed, there is always a chapel or prayer room arranged at ACFW with Brandilyn Collins and volunteers there to pray with you and/or beside you.

I’d love to know if you have attended a conference or if you are planning on attending one in the future. Which are your personal favorites? Why? If you’re attending one for the first time what do you look forward to the most? What do you fear?

Working with an Editor

Kariss manuscriptsThey say that all good things must come to an end. Sadly, the same holds true in writing. As you turn your manuscript in to the publisher, you abdicate your position as ruler of your own fictional kingdom in favor of an advisor who tells you all the wonderful things you did wrong and how you can fix them. (For example, my editor would have asked me who “they” is in that opening line.)

But this “bad” thing doesn’t actually have to be bad. In fact, think of it as iron sharpening iron. Who knows your story and characters better than you? And who better to help you improve than an unbiased person who likes to read and knows a whole lot about writing and how to craft a story?

I am by no means an expert, but as I edit my second book, I realize how much I learned while editing Shaken. As you prepare your book for the editing process, here are some ways to prepare yourself, as well.

1. Check your pride at the door.

First of all, realize your editor is there to HELP you, not hurt you. Don’t take it personally. I thought I understood that, but I didn’t really grasp it until I received my first round of notes. Then my pride took a nose dive and shattered in a very ugly pile around my feet. This process is meant to refine both you and your story. I tend to write in a steady stream of consciousness, wrapped up in my story world. It takes someone looking at it from the outside to show me where the issues are and help me to change them.

2. Kill your darlings.

In Texas, we call this “killin’ your darlin’.” Your editor believes in your story, too, or they wouldn’t spend countless hours helping you. They want to make it better, but sometimes that means cutting important characters or scenes you love. This is the part I hated in the editing process.

It is challenging to dig into your story, delete scenes, and create new ones where you originally imagined something different. There were times my editor suggested a line of copy or dialogue that made me cringe, not because she wasn’t right, but because it wasn’t in the exact voice my character would have said it. Here’s where camaraderie came into effect. She could see the holes. I could keep the story true. We made a great team. Killing my darlings made my story stronger.

3. Fight for your story.

This may seem to contradict the previous point, but trust me, it doesn’t. Like I’ve said before, NO ONE knows your story or characters better than you. Here’s where discernment comes into play. At the beginning of the editing process, my editor asked me to cut several characters. No matter how much I played with this request, something didn’t sit right. So I fought for these characters, explained the role they would play in future books, and stood my ground. I knew keeping them would benefit the story. Once I explained their importance (and not just my emotional attachment), my editor listened and immediately replied with ways I could make these characters even stronger than what I had in mind.

It turns out that the characters I fought to keep have been some of the favorites for readers. If you know in your gut something needs to stay, fight for it. Just make sure to check your emotional attachment at the door and identify exactly why this piece adds to the story.

So, take what I’ve learned. Add your own insight. And I’ll add to the list after I finish this round of edits. I never want to be a bratty author who says I know best. I do want to collaborate. Yes, I know my story, but I need people who will help me make it better. I’m pretty excited about the possibilities. Bring on the next challenge.

What lessons have you learned while working with your editor?

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.

Are You a Story Crafter or a Storyteller?

Are You a Story Crafter or StorytellerIn many ways, the world of book publishing parallels that of musical performance. Both are beautiful, exhilarating, and demanding. And both can sap creativity. Where the ultimate product is art, inevitable conflicts between the needs of business and creative expression exert themselves. When it comes to breaking in those with technical brilliance have an advantage, but to rise to the top, something else is needed.

I once represented my college as the soprano member of a vocal quartet in an honors choir made up of students from colleges throughout the western United States. We prepared on our own, and then met for three long days of intense rehearsal. Yes, there was glitz and glory in our single performance, but it wasn’t that I remember most about the experience but something thathappened during one of the rehearsals.

I don’t even remember which musical passage we were struggling with at the time, but our accomplished director refused to let us get away with good enough. He pushed us, irritatingly so, until in a moment of delirious harmony, glorious sound filled the rehearsal chamber. In the awestruck silence that followed tears pricked my eyes.

Our director thumped his chest. “Ever feel that?” He paced before us, meeting eyes. “You all have a lot going for you, but no matter how technically brilliant you become, the ability to feel the music is what will help you most. Never lose that.”

I have never forgotten his words. In my studies I knew students who could execute a passage of music to perfection but who lacked the passion to bring it alive. By contrast, I have seen a graying grandmother with a quavering pitch move an entire congregation to tears with her simple song. I say this not to invalidate the quest for excellence but to illustrate that feeling the music always trumps craft.

In writing, there is storytelling and story crafting. Yes, we must strive to perfect our craft and even consider our market’s wishes, but it’s even more important to tell a story that resonates on a deep level. If we lose our passion for story, we will also lose readers. It’s not enough to hone our craft until it shines. Producing a story that sings should cost in terms of creativity, drawn as it is from our very soul. It is this that separates artists from artisans.   

Because writing does not exist as art alone, however, I will add some technical tips for engaging reader’s emotions. I almost hesitate to do so, in case anyone latches onto these techniques as the way through. They illuminate the story path but are not the path itself.

Tap a universal experience.  A mother’s arms, teenage acne, and rejection in love are but a few commonalities to which we all can relate. Writing about universal experiences in an evocative way breathes life into writing.

Write to the senses.  Use taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound to bring a fictional world to life. The more vividly you imagine your story’s scenes, the easier this becomes.  

Show rather than tell. Create fully-realized scenes readers can step into. Narrative has its place to help in pacing as it skips us past unnecessary details, but most often passages of telling would be better if written as scenes. I got tired of hearing this advice given by rote with no explanation of how to do this, so I filmed the video 5 Ways to Show Not Tell in Fiction Writing for my Live Write Breathe site for writers.

Create a sympathetic situation for your main character. The reader wants to identify with and care about the main character. Provide a gripping opening scene to meet your reader more than halfway. Be careful here, though. There’s a difference between engaging a reader’s emotions and manipulating them. Being faithful to your true story will guide you. 

Have someone react. Not allowing room for reaction is a common failing, but this technique is so powerful it should never be ignored. As an example (spoiler alert), in the movie The Hunger Games, when Rue dies, the heroine grieves for her. If she didn’t, we wouldn’t feel the loss as deeply as we do. The riots that break out are also a reaction that stirs our anger at the injustice of the games.

Watch this part of the movie, and then imagine the scene with minimal reaction and you’ll see what I mean.

Hone your craft. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than clumsy storytelling, so do study craft. But remember that craft is no substitute for inspired storytelling.

There will always be tension between the business and art of writing, but that doesn’t have to be bad, not when you consider that the best fiction marries fine storytelling with excellent story crafting. It is even possible to thrive in the tension between business and art.  

WayFarer Tales of Faeraven 2 by Janalyn VoigtToday, January 3rd, marks the release of WayFarer, book two of my epic fantasy trilogy, Tales of Faeraven. In celebration, for today only my publisher is offering a discount of 50% on purchase of WayFarer from the Pelican Books site. 

When I first started writing this trilogy without agency representation or a publishing contract, fantasy was a hard sell, but this was the story I felt. It’s been a rough journey to publication, but well worth it.

What about you? What story sings within you?