Why designing a website will make you a better writer

Would you like to have an editor on hand 24/7 for all your blog posts? Does the idea that you could make every post a writing gem (even those you compose at 2 am as you desperately try to meet a deadline) appeal to you?

No, I’m not launching myself as a post editor trying to drum up business, nor am I encouraging you to sign up for yet another writing workshop.

I have a different suggestion: teach yourself to build a website.

I don’t have time! I don’t know how! I’m a technology idiot!

I know that’s what you’re saying because that’s exactly what I said a month ago, before I finally knuckled down and did it: I taught myself how to build a website without learning any coding. Today, I’m no expert at it, but I do have a simple website that meets my needs. Most importantly, though, the experience of building it helped me do four things:

  1. finally understand and apply some of those elusive internet concepts (like SEO)
  2. fully utilize blog tools like tags and readability
  3. boost immediacy and responsiveness of my site through personal administration
  4. eliminate fees to another party to maintain/update my website
You are not alone

The best news about achieving these things is that I had free help. You don’t have to struggle through the learning part alone. Videos walking you through setting up a website abound on the internet. Since my old website was already WordPress, using WordPress was an easy choice for my new site. After sampling a few videos, I settled on this one, because it has a companion site with the whole set of instructions printed out! (No more panicking because I couldn’t keep up with the video! Yay!) Likewise, as I learned about plug-ins, I watched additional videos to guide me. Trust me, if you want to do something on your site, there’s a video for it.

24/7 blog editing

This is one of the coolest things I’ve learned to apply. Because I uploaded Yoast SEO plug-in, I get a readability analysis as I write blogs. This handy program tells me when my sentences are too long, when I need to break up paragraphs, and when my vocabulary is too difficult for most readers. It even reminds me to use active, instead of passive, voice, and encourages the use of transition words for smoother writing. By heeding the readability ratings, I improve my writing skills (no matter what time of the night/early morning it may be!). Who knew that cranking out blogs could actually make substantive changes in the way you write?

Granted, building your own website isn’t for everyone, and I won’t hold it against you if you prefer to pay someone to take on the headache of creating your internet storefront. If you’re willing to give it a try, though, I know you’ll find a new perspective on how you write and how your website works.

Anybody want to share your own website designing experience?

What authors need to know: a view from the reviewer’s desk

© Royalty-Free/Corbis

I’ve recently been reviewing books on Netgalley. To my surprise, it’s been an educational experience for me as an author; by putting myself on the reader’s/critic’s side of the equation, I’ve learned a few truths that every author should know about 1) writing books, and 2) receiving book reviews.

Truth #1: Not every book is for every person. No matter how important your message or story, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. I keep thinking of the key question every writer gets when pitching a book for publication: who will want to read this book? Many of us (myself included when I began writing) believe that EVERYONE should read our books, that there is value in our work for every reader. But the truth is that people have different interests, and not everyone will want to read your book; that’s why the precise identification of those readers most likely to read your book is so critical to publishing your work. Authors MUST know their specific audience.

As a reviewer, I can choose from a multitude of topics, which means there are many excellent books I don’t choose to review for the simple reason that I’m not interested in the topic. Don’t take it personally when reviewers don’t rave about your book – it may be that your topic just didn’t hit a home run with that individual. Remember always that reading and reviewing is subjective, so while authors want and need reviews, you’re at the mercy of individual preference.

Truth #2: Not every writing style will appeal to every reader. Part of the joy of writing is to find your own voice, and when it resonates with your readers, it’s like winning the lottery. From a reviewer’s perspective, however, some writing styles are irritating, which then often result in poor reviews. (Case in point: as a former teacher of English composition, I can’t get through a book filled with incomplete sentences. When I find that in a book I want to review, I return the book rather than penalize the writer for her own voice. I’ve made that my rule based on my experience of receiving a poor review for one of my books wherein the reviewer said he didn’t read the book because he didn’t like my style in the first chapter! Again, it’s subjective, so don’t panic when you receive a review like that; if you know your audience, you can let that bad review roll off your shoulders, because you know something your reviewer doesn’t: your audience likes your style.)

Truth #3:  Your writing will improve by reading and reviewing other books. As a writer, every learning opportunity you take – even reviewing others’ books – will contribute to your store of ideas, craft, and understanding. Besides reminding me of the importance of audience, reviewing has reassured me that there is room in the publishing and reading world for many voices and many topics. As long as you continue to polish your craft and write engaging books, there’s room for you, too!

Is it time for a marketing tune-up?

Remember all those things you were going to do this year to update and enhance your online presence, like upload recent photos, add new publication credits, revise your bio? With 2017 approaching the half-way point, here’s a checklist to remind you to take the time now to tackle that list and mark off the tasks. Not only will it make you look active and engaged, but many social media platforms automatically post to your networks the changes you make to your profile, which means you get a boost in exposure. And that’s always a score for a writer…as long as it’s good exposure, that is!

Do the following for every site you use. And if you don’t already use a particular platform, maybe it’s time to try it: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Goodreads Author (https://www.goodreads.com/author/program), amazon author (https://authorcentral.amazon.com/), various genre sites (I’m listed on mystery sites like http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/ and https://www.cozy-mystery.com/ ). As the graphic above demonstrates, there are lots more than my short list, but I’m only human, so I’ve tried to focus on just a few. All I can say is “choose wisely.” And don’t forget your own website…but you already routinely update that, right? (If you haven’t, I bet you will now…)

  • Upload new profile picture. If you don’t have a professional head shot, you need to get one. Nothing builds credibility like a polished photo on your profiles. (And yes, you need something more current than your high school graduation photo.)
  • Update bio. Have you changed your state of residence? Become a grandparent? Won awards for your work? All of these items are important, as they can attract new readers who now feel you have more in common with them, or are geographically closer (which means they could reach out to you for an event!)
  • Add publication credits (books, articles, online blogs).
  • Upload the covers of new books.
  • Update events schedule: add new, delete old. If your last event was a year ago, don’t keep it there as a placeholder. If you have to have some copy, say ‘New events coming soon!’ and then get to work planning those new activities!
  • Switch out banner backgrounds for a fresh and/or seasonal look.
  • Upload new videos.
  • Make a video to say hi to your fans. It can be super simple. Make it fun and your fans will love it.
  • Make a series of photo posts using quotes from your books for fresh content you can use and re-use. (My go-to site for this is https://www.picmonkey.com/.)
  • Enter your name in the search engine of your choice and see where it pops up. You may be listed on sites you don’t know about; until I did this search, I didn’t know my books had been entered on several mystery listing sites, which prompted me to be sure to contact those site administrators to keep my publications current. Do you write romance? Self-help? Enter your name with those keywords and see what results. You might discover a whole new audience for your work, and with a timely tune-up, you’ll be ready to roll!

How to Refill Your Writing Tank

Feeling empty after finishing a manuscript or spending weeks marketing your books? Has burn-out become your default mode?

Then it’s past time for you to indulge in some writerly self-care. Here’s how I refill my tank:

  1. Eat ice cream. Lots of ice cream. It freezes all the synapses in your brain so you can’t think about writing, even if you wanted to. The idea is to give your brain a break, and ice cream does it every time for me.
  2. Read a lousy book. In fact, read two. It will remind you that anyone can write a book, but YOU can write a GOOD book. Pat yourself on the back. (Gratuitous self-praise is one of a writer’s most potent secret weapons when it comes to longevity in the writing business.)
  3. Go cliff-diving. (No, wait. That’s too much like writing – throwing yourself into a project not knowing where you’ll land. I guess that’s why I’ve never gone cliff-diving in real life since I do it all the time with writing. True confession: I just included it in the list to catch your attention…)
  4. 4. Take up a new hobby. Not cliff-diving (see #3 above). I’ve recently started weeding the yard, lopping off dead branches and building rustic furniture. Physical activity is good for the body, soul, and brain. (Hmmm… I just realized that my new hobbies all involve aggressive behavior: I get a visceral thrill from yanking out weeds, cutting off limbs and I absolutely LOVE drilling and pounding in nails. Let’s move right along…)
  5. Make something from Pinterest. Admit it, you’ve wasted time on Pinterest along with the rest of the world, oohing and aahing over charming hand-crafted items or exotic destinations or delightful food presentations. I took the plunge and here’s my result:(Hey, I didn’t promise it’s always pretty to refill my tank. I just offered to tell you what works for me. Sometimes, the most motivating thing I can do is fail miserably at something else and tell myself “Well, I can always write…”)
  6. Be a language vigilante. I love this one. I’ll make a point of reading every sign I see in a day and point out to anyone who’s within hearing the grammar/spelling mistakes. Big favorites are the ever-present “Your” instead of “You’re” as in “Your our most valuable customer” or “Thanks for you’re support!” I have to make a conscious effort not to carry a big fat red magic marker with me everywhere and circle the errors. By the end of the day, I once again feel like I have a firm grip on the English language, and it’s my duty to enlighten others how to properly use the written word.
  7. Thank God for writing. It’s a lot more fun than standing all day with a stop/slow sign directing traffic in a one-lane construction zone. Truly, I am blessed!
  8. Laugh! After all, God made you a writer, of all things! Talk about a great (make that OMNIPOTENT) sense of humor…

How to kick the insanity habit

insanityOne of my favorite definitions is the one for insanity that goes “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I’ve felt that was an accurate description of many of my book marketing efforts in the past twelve years; sending off press releases to local newspapers and rarely getting even a little paragraph tucked somewhere in the back pages comes to mind. I’m sure every author can add to that list of marketing insanity.

Out of frustration and (I’d like to think) the wisdom that comes from experience and age, I decided at the beginning of this new year that I was going to stop the insanity. In particular, I decided I was going to radically rethink my social media strategy and try something new.

My new idea?

Stop trying to sell books by posting about them, and instead, just have fun interacting with others in the online universe.

“WHAT??” you may say. (I expect that may be exactly what my agent is thinking this moment if he’s reading this post. Bear with me, Greg, while I explain. Either that, or dose yourself with good chocolate.)

You see, I’ve concluded that online selling doesn’t happen on social networks. I’ve accepted that the social media gurus who insist that social media is SOCIAL, not sales, actually know what they’re talking about. I know I don’t go book shopping when I’m chatting online with others. Honestly, do you? I’m online to be entertained, to be inspired, to share fun or sweet posts with my friends. And so that’s become my goal: I aim to have fun online.

And the weirdest thing has begun to happen: my followers are growing on all my networks. Granted, it just may be the cumulative effect of years of posting, but I have a gut feeling that it’s because I’m having fun. And people need fun these days. So instead of promoting my books, I post beautiful photos of my husband’s orchids, I share inspirational quotes/photos that move me, I craft witty replies designed to make people laugh, I repost/retweet links to articles I found really cool or helpful. For the first time in my social media marketing strategy, I’m just being me, Jan, not The Author Jan. And I’m really enjoying it.

So this is what I’ve learned from my switch in strategy: I can stop the marketing insanity because the most important thing I can share isn’t my books. It’s myself. And that’s ultimately what God calls me to do: share myself with others.

Of course, if my new followers’ curiosity gets piqued, and they check out my profile (which seems to happen a lot more often now), they’ll see I’m an author, and maybe they’ll end up on Amazon or my website to learn more, or even buy a book or two. I won’t complain.

Goodbye insanity. Hello friends. Let’s have fun!

How to make Amazon work for you

grand-central-stationAre you using your Amazon Author Page to increase your visibility and grow your audience?

You DO have a page, right?

If not, then drop everything else this very minute, and set up your free Author Page by visiting https://authorcentral.amazon.com. Seriously, you need to do this. It’s easy. It’s good publicity. And did I mention it’s FREE?

Basically, your Author Page is like a personal Grand Central Station that showcases your work and acts as a hub for your writing, providing links for fans to follow. Here’s a short list of some of the key benefits you’ll get from your Author Page:

  1. You can link to your blog here, making it readily available to a browsing reader who may have never heard about you or your blog before. In fact, you can enter multiple blog feeds for even more exposure; I link to my website blog and my Goodreads blog, for example.
  2. You can post videos in the Author Updates section. I’ve used it for a place to run book trailers and interviews. There’s no limit on how long you keep material on the page, so that means you get forever use from the marketing pieces you’ve created.
  3. You can list every book you’ve written, and all your book covers will show up on your page, along with links to each book’s buying page on amazon.com. It’s like having your own little store.
  4. Readers can ‘follow’ you right on the page and they’ll get notice whenever you post a blog or update or add a book. In addition, Amazon offers a variety of marketing options for authors if you’ve got a small budget; one example is here at http://indie.kindlenationdaily.com/?page_id=5460
  5. You can list your events schedule to maximize exposure.

Like every social media site, your Author Page also has a spot for your bio and photos. This is a prime place to list your other social media contact information for your website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. In fact, be sure to update this bio (and your book listings) on a regular basis, since Amazon won’t automatically add your new books to your page as they are published.  You are the curator for this little store, so be sure your material is current. In fact, after checking on my own Amazon Author page just now, I realized my newest release Heart and Soul (Archangels #2) wasn’t included. You can be sure that from now on, I’m doing a monthly check-in to see what needs to be updated or revised!

A final cool feature of your Author Page is that you can click on the Sales Info tab to get a feel for how your book is selling. My favorite BookScan data on the page is the Sales by Geography item; by studying that map, I can tell where my books have sold and it gives me ideas for localized sale pushes or event planning.

Are you using your Amazon Author Page for smart marketing?

Why you should write backstory you won’t use

cross-out-wordsA few years ago, I got the oddest suggestion I’d ever heard from an editor: write a few scenes between my novel’s characters that I wasn’t going to include in my final manuscript.

Say what?

I should deliberately spend time crafting scenes I was NOT going to use? How was that going to improve my book, writing scenes I wasn’t going to include in the final version?

Being the people-pleaser/non-confrontational  soul that I am, I didn’t question the editor’s wisdom, even though I thought it was nuts and a clear waste of time.  She was the editor, after all. She had to know what she was doing. So I sighed a great sigh of resignation and set to work writing scenes I wasn’t going to use in my book.

And lo! Before I even finished writing the first ‘unnecessary’ scene, I understood the point of the exercise: by creating more interactions between my characters, I was getting deeper into their heads and personalities. I was basically giving them a more complete personal history and backstory that would more accurately inform and motivate their actions on the pages of my novel. In other words, I was giving them life beyond the book, which would, in turn, make them very real within the book.

Crazy, huh?

Let me give you an example.

“This late-night conversation between Rafe and his mother doesn’t sound natural,” the editor said about a scene in my book. “Try writing another conversation between them that focuses on a different aspect of their relationship. Something from their past.”

So I did. I wrote a scene from Rafe’s high school football years, some 20 years prior to my book’s time frame. As I wrote, I imagined what this man might have been like before he matured, and how his relationship with his mother evolved. He was a headstrong teen then, and while he dutifully respected his mother, he couldn’t appreciate her wisdom at the time; that insight alone helped me revise the dialogue my editor had questioned in my book. It also changed the way I described the interaction between those two characters, and it influenced how I then changed Rafe’s interactions with his female colleague to better reflect his attitude towards women as learned from his mother.

Writing that little piece of personal history for Rafe was like shading in another part of a portrait or adding important information to a personality profile; because I knew his backstory better, I was then able to strengthen another scene in which he confronts a female assassin with conflicted respect, rather than brute force. My ‘unnecessary’ scene that I knew I wasn’t going to use actually helped me produce a more realistic hero.

What can I say? If ‘crazy’ works, I’ll take it. Especially when it improves my writing.

How about you? Have you found some crazy ways to improve what you write?