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?

Travel to Write, Write to Travel

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” St. Augustine

I’m an Irish girl, both by heart and by blood. As a teenager, I remember dreaming of visiting Ireland and Scotland and seeing the hallowed halls of my ancestors’ castles. The idea is more romanticized than real – the Lynch castle in Ireland is now a bank and the Chisholm castle in Scotland is a renovated weekend getaway.

Kariss - IrelandAs a kid, I loved studying the old folk tales, imaginative stories of the tricks and heroism of the wee folk. I grew up on a steady dose of faith and fairy tales. One nursed my convictions, the other my creativity. Three years ago, my dream came true. I spent three weeks on the British Isles. I didn’t see any of the wee folk, though I walked through the fairy gardens at Blarney Castle.

But this rainy tour wasn’t the beginning of my adventures. The travel bug bit me in middle school, and since then I’ve tried to visit new states and new countries, fascinated by the culture. Nothing stimulates my creative side more than exploring new sights, scents, and scenery.

Over the years, I’ve learned this serves me in my writing. All the sensory details, the tiny quirks, the cultural differences influence my settings and characters. I’m learning to identify different textures, not just what they look like but how they feel. I identify different scents with different people and memories. Color takes on vibrancy all its own, enhancing character features, scenery, and what the character experiences.

My travel stimulation reached new heights when I visited Haiti a couple of years ago. I had written and finished my first book, Shaken, which is partially set in Haiti around the time of the earthquake. I researched, talked to those who experienced the earthquake and those who visited before and after, and watched documentaries and the news. But when I finally had the chance to experience this tiny island for myself, I walked away changed with a perspective that enhanced the editing of Shaken.

Kariss - HaitiI remember the stifling humidity and heat as I stepped off the plane. Haitian men stood waiting in the small hangar where they tried to take our luggage off the conveyor belt and then quickly exit to the street as we chased them, hoping we would pay them to get our luggage back. While corralling our luggage was a challenge, I silently cheered their ingenuity and resourcefulness in a poverty-ridden city.

I caught my first glimpse of Port-au-Prince as I hopped in the back of a pick-up and gripped the seat as we played chicken on a two-lane highway, winding past people walking less than two feet from the side of the road. An old man bathed in plain view. Women balanced enormous baskets or jugs on their heads as their daughters trailed behind them with smaller cargo. The air reeked of garbage and burning plastic. Plastic bags that used to hold water littered the street.

Kids ran past in oversized American hand-me-down clothes or no clothes at all. Buses called tap-taps, that looked like a skittle pack blew up, wove in and out of traffic, people hanging onto the back of the cab. The people are down-to-earth and friendly. Those that work, work hard, and the kids are curious and intelligent.

ShakenWhile travel shows me the differences in this wide world, it also shows me the similarities. I noticed that the cement block homes on this tiny island resembled the colored homes in Ireland. I learned that cultures are not as different as we think, that people are people, no matter where you go. I learned to look at the human condition, the driving motivations behind actions, the heart, the hurt, the dreams.

Travel shapes my writing. Haiti certainly shaped Shaken, and adventures I had years ago in Ukraine shaped a few scenes in Shadowed, book two in the Heart of a Warrior series.

So, let the travel bug bite hard, and choose one new city, state, or country to visit each year. What places, people groups, or cultures have influenced your stories?

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?

Want to Write a Book? The Next Patch of Light

file6041243276582I was privileged to attend my former advanced memoir workshop a few weeks ago to share my publishing journey, both with my first memoir that came out in August of 2013, and the news about recently signing a book deal for a second memoir. As I talked through the six years it took to publish my first book, as my fellow writers threw questions at me left and right, “How did you find an agent?, what did you do to build a platform?, how do you plan to structure your current project?, how do you even go about writing a book?, a thought occurred to me.

If you want to write a book…If you really want to do this…

Step into the next patch of light.

That, my friends, is the best writing advice I have to date.

I’ll let you in on an author secret. We all started at the beginning. And I think most of us make this life up as we go along. Even New York Times best-selling authors, at one point, stared at the cursor on a blank page.

Still afraid?

Step into the next patch of light.

Are you already a writer, a person who has honed her craft and has literary muscles? Have you always been interested in memoir and look!, your uncle gave you a book on writing memoir for Christmas? Were you walking down the street when you stepped in a mud puddle, and while stopping to shake off the mud you happen to notice an ad on the flag pole in front of you for a writing class in your neighborhood?

Any of those instances may be your next patch of light.

You have to start somewhere, so look around and see where you stand. Stephen King said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

If you hope to publish a book, than do what’s in front of you today. Don’t worry about a two-year plan complete with a detailed description of how you’ll construct your book while you also build your platform and research literary agents. (If you are naturally a person like that, email me, OK? I may need a little help.)

No, do what is in front of you right now. And when it’s time (and you’ll know it is time because you’ll itch for something else, or get bored, or curious), look ahead for the next little patch of light. Pay attention to your surroundings: follow authors on Twitter, look out for workshops, read blog posts for fun, pick up a book at your local independent book store on a Saturday afternoon that might apply to your writing journey. Any of these things could be your next patch of light. And before you know it, (and trust me, if you follow the patches of light, you will move in this direction and it is crazy and cool at the same time) you will be writing a book.

But for today, resolve yourself to take it one step at a time, and pay attention to the writer light in your life.

The Trick to Becoming an Author

Pavillion_d'Armide_by_A._Benois_05The other day, a colleague asked me if I thought the burgeoning popularity of memoir-style books of the sort I had published had to do with the fact that the people who read them wanted to write such books themselves.

Reflecting on what he asked, it occurs to me now that—the underlying argument being that my writing’s appeal had nothing to do with my writing itself but only the envy of my readers and that the underlying argument of my readers’ envy being that anyone could write as well as I could—I should have gotten offended. But I didn’t. (Thanks, surely, to the Holy Spirit, who tries to protect me, usually in vain, from bouts of narcissism that make me think I’m a great writer and cause me to take offense at any reminder that I’m not.)

I didn’t get offended, too, because I knew, as anyone who’s ever published a book of any sort does, that what he said was true. We know it from the people who show up in our doorways wanting publishing advice. We know it from acquaintances who know about our good luck as writers and come up to us in the grocery store, or sitting at the vet’s office, or walking to our cars after church, and want to tell us their latest book idea. We know it from the mail we get when our books come out. Fast on the heels of a fan email, if not within the fan email itself, comes a question about how to get the fan’s own work published.

Everyone these days has not just a story in them, as they used to say, but a published book—even though it’s rarely written or even begun. All it takes to write a book, the would-be writer hopes or believes, is an idea and the need to tell it. What happens between that and getting something published is a trick they plan to learn from established writers.

But there is no trick. Just the arduous and time-consuming work of writing and rewriting and sending stuff out and waiting and trying to believe there’s a chance that someone who makes a difference in the world of publishing likes it and finding out there mostly isn’t (or, if you really are lucky, that there might be a chance with some major changes to what you’ve written) and then writing and rewriting again. That’s the part no one wants to hear or even know about. That to be a writer is to write. Period.

They’re like Simon the Magician, that guy in the book of Acts who—though Luke makes clear that he’s a genuine believer—tries to buy from the apostles the trick of touching people and thereby filling them with the Holy Spirit.

“Just teach me the trick of getting published!” EveryWriter begs. Often, as Simon does, they even offer to pay for the trick.

But there is no trick.

Sermons on Simon’s story often go on about how wrong-headed Simon was, thinking to buy the Holy Spirit, and sometimes they posit that Simon wasn’t really a believer at all, even if Luke says he was. But such sermons miss the point, I think—whether it’s the gift of writing we’re talking about or of imparting the Holy Spirit. Being a servant of the word, or the Word, is not a magic trick. You have to get out there and do it.

Hard Work--George Herriman 1907-11-24That said, I remember having had the same response to other writers’ writing—not just to their memoirs but to their novels and even textbooks. I’ve thought to myself, if they can do it, why then so can I. And so began this article and that book. So began my current writing project, a novel–my first. So began, indeed, my entire career as a writer.

If others can do it, so can you, but don’t sit around hoping to discover some trick to make it happen effortlessly. If you want to write, if you want to inspire others, if you want to fill them with good news, with the very spirit of God, you’ll just have to get out there and do it.

5 Writing Rules I’ve Learned from Pixar

file0001212587536My family adores Pixar movies. Every year, we look forward to their latest release, impatiently marking time until we can immerse ourselves in whatever new world they’ve created. We’re such fans of the studio that we even have their Digital Shorts collections.

As a mom of youngsters, I’ve spent countless hours in theaters watching duds [I'm not naming names, but I just saw a new movie from another animation studio, and it was a real turkey. BTW, whoever brought the disaster called Gnomeo and Juliet onto the big screen--I want those two hours of my life back. And my money, preferably with interest.]

However, I almost always enjoy Pixar flicks. The minds that dreamed up Monsters, Inc. and Cars inspire me. Because I have the privilege of teaching writing to aspiring authors, I’ve begun to study Pixar’s methods in order to share them with my students. What have I learned?

1) Story is king.

The Pixar folks spend years perfecting the story of their movies before they ever move on to the animating process. Wow.

In my own writing journey, I’ve learned not to “tell” (relate things that happened so readers can understand how that situation changed me) and instead  “show” (include dialogue, characters, and movement). No matter what genre you write in, good storytelling is essential. Today’s art consumers are savvy, busy, and distracted. I know, because I am one. We want to be swept away by a immersive tale, not be told what we should learn from a situation.

2) Be tenacious.

Wall-E and Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton admits that in the early years, Pixar employees created mostly by instinct and made a lot of mistakes. However, they wouldn’t give up or give in to the pressure to do what had been done before.

They also work like fiends to get the characters and settings right. I found a few stats which blew my mind. There were:

  • 3,473,271 individually animated hairs on the Lots-o-Huggin Bear from Toy Story 3
  • 2,320,413 individually animated hairs on Sully in Monsters, Inc. (It took 11 to 12 hours to animate a single frame featuring Sully!)
  • 1,150,000 individual hairs rendered on Ratatouille’s hero, Remy.

Wow again.

3) Invoke wonder.

Pixar has mastered this. The writers and animators help us feel again what we often felt as children–awe, gratitude, and joy.file0001384956880

Here’s an exercise: Think about the first time you tasted ice cream, if you can remember it. Or the first time you saw something that took your breath away. Now write about it.

Wonder is ineffable, but if we can draw on it and re-create it in a scene, we’ve captured our audience’s attention immediately. They will follow us almost anywhere we lead them.

4) Take risks. A rat learning to be a chef? Preposterous. A film about a robot from the future with no dialogue for 45 minutes? Absurd. Kids’ movies beginning with the death of characters? Totally insane.

But they work. They work because the guys and gals behind those stories make us forget we’re watching animated films. They work because–due to great storytelling–we care about the characters, and we relate to them in some way. Which brings me to my last point.

5) Do your homework.

Too many films are built on flimsy premises. While the finished products might be technically sound, their foundation is cracked, and the outside shiny-ness simply can’t make up for creaky scaffolding, bored talent, and cheap materials. Often, the stories are weak and the jokes seem more important than plot.

Audiences can tell when authors know what they’re doing and when they don’t. We don’t have to write only about what we’ve learned from our experiences, but we have to make time for research, education, and paying our dues. Even after all his success, Stanton told an audience in 2012 that he had recently taken an acting seminar to learn more about what drives characters.

I respect that. I bet you do, too.

Want to Write a Memoir? Read These Books . . .

????????????????

 

Now that I published my memoir, I’ve received a few inquiries about how I accomplished my goal.

Good question.

The genre of memoir is tricky. I worked on Sun Shine Down for four years and then spent another two years writing the book proposal, finding an agent, and landing a publisher.

Here are a few questions I get about writing memoir.

“I have a story to tell, but how do I get started?”

“What is your advice about writing?”

“Any words of wisdom regarding the publishing world?”

I am by no means an expert, but here is my best and most basic advice for those who want to write memoir (this goes for breaking into the publishing world as well because if your book isn’t at its best, you won’t break in): 1) Read a lot 2) Write a lot and 3) Find a class or a group of people to read and critique your work.

In this post, I’d like to tackle my first piece of advice: read a lot. Here are three books every budding memoirist must read.

Situation and the story

In “The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative“, Vivian Gornick explains the art of writing personal narrative by reviewing key elements like the persona (or narrator) of the writer, her writing voice, and the importance of knowing who she is at the point of writing. The book is broken up into four parts: Intro, Personal Essay, Memoir, and Conclusion. Gornick draws examples from famous books and essays, explaining the situation and story of each, thus causing the reader to pause not only to appreciate beautiful words, but also to break down and understand what makes a memoir or essay sing .

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” Gornick writes. “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” (page 13)

My copy is covered in red notes and underlining. There is just so much good stuff in this book.

writing the memoir

If your not certain about the ins and outs of memoir, this book is for you. On the cover of Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington, it states the book is “A practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and the ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories.” My writing instructor at Story Studio Chicago, where I participated in an advanced memoir workshop for two years, uses this book with her beginners class. In my opinion, it is a book even the most seasoned writer can glean knowledge from. The table of contents includes chapters on finding form, dealing with the truth, writing about living people, and getting feedback on your work. It also has short writing exercises at the end of each chapter.

“Telling your truths — the difficult ones and the joyful ones and all the ones between — is a big part of what makes for good writing. It is also what brings you pleasure in the process of writing.” (page 74)

If you write memoir or want to write memoir, this book must be in your library.

Handling the truth

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart just came out this year and I picked it up a couple of weeks ago. This book is not so much about the ‘how to’ of memoir, but more about the value of the genre of memoir. It is broken up into four parts: Part I: Definitions, Preliminaries, and Cautions, Part II: Raw Material, Part III: Get Moving, and Part IV: Fake Not and Other Last Words.

“If you want to write memoir, you need to set caterwauling narcissism to the side. You need to soften your stance. You need to work through the explosives — anger, aggrandizement, injustice, misfortune, despair, fumes — towards mercy. Real memoirists, literary memoirists, don’t justify behaviors, decisions, moods. They don’t ladder themselves up — high, high, high — so as to look down upon the rest of us. Real memoirists open themselves to self-discovery and, in the process, make themselves vulnerable not just to the world but also to themselves.” (Page 8)

See … you need to buy this book.

Attempting to write and publish a memoir is an arduous task. Start by writing, sharing your work, and reading these three books.

“Penetrating the familiar is by no means a given. On the contrary, it is hard, hard work.” (page 9)

Right on, Vivian.

I would add that it is worth it, if you are up to the task.