To Blog or Not to Blog, That is the Question

The following is a guest post from Rachelle Gardner, a literary agent with Books and Such. It was first published on her blog at www.rachellegardner.com.

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Standard wisdom used to be that authors, both fiction and non-fiction, should build relationships with readers through blogs. As social media and online marketing have evolved, my thoughts on blogging have changed.

The proliferation of blogs in the last ten years has made it increasingly difficult to stand out in the crowd. Many authors are blogging faithfully but it doesn’t seem to be increasing readership of their books; in fact most of their readers are other writers. One good indicator blogging might not be for you is if you have a hard time figuring out what you should write about.

So, how do you decide if you should have a blog?
Have a blog if:

  1. You have something important to say and it seems people want to hear it.
  2.  You understand that blogging is about offering something of value, NOT about promoting yourself and your books.
  3.  You enjoy blogging (for the most part, anyway).
  4.  You find blogging contributes to your creativity and enthusiasm for writing your books, rather than sucking all the energy out of you.
  5.  You can find the time for blogging without it completely stressing you out.
  6.  Your books have a highly defined target audience, making it easy to target your blog.
  7. Your books are topical (especially non-fiction), so that you have a clear and obvious theme for your blog.

Don’t have a blog if:

  1. You keep asking yourself and others, “But what should I blog about?”
  2. You only want to blog to promote your books and/or because you think you “have to.”
  3. The whole idea stresses you out.
  4. You honestly don’t have the time in your schedule to blog regularly.
  5. You’ve been blogging for a year or more, and haven’t built up to a traffic level that seems worth it.

Here are some alternatives to blogging when it comes to online networking and promotion.

  • joining a group blog
  • sending email newsletters
  • using Facebook effectively
  • leveraging the various ways Goodreads offers for promoting books
  • attracting a readership through Pinterest and/or Instagram
  • having an effective LinkedIn profile page

If you don’t want to blog or be engaged in online promotion, should you self-publish instead of seeking a publisher?

I get this question from writers frequently, and my answer is: What would be the point of self-publishing a book, if you have no intention of promoting it? Who will buy it? With millions of books available for sale at any given time, what’s your plan for letting people know that yours exists?

Blogging and other means of online promotion aren’t just hoops that publishers want you to jump through. They’re real and necessary methods of letting people know about your book. So if you have no intention of letting anyone know about your book, through a sustained, long-term promotional plan of online engagement, then think carefully about whether you want to write a book for publication. If you build it: they will NOT come. You must promote it.
Do you blog? If so, how’s it going? If not, why not? 

Rachelle Gardner is a literary agent with Books and Such Literary Agency based in California. In addition, she is an experienced editor, writing/publishing coach, social media coach, and speaker. She has been working in publishing since 1995. Find her at http://www.rachellegardner.com. 

5 Ways to Break Up a Writing Iceberg: The Book Proposal

I remember the day well.

After four years, hours and hours of writing, time away from my kids, countless books read on craft, writing classes Spring TX, and two professional edits, I finally finished my 260 page memoir.

“Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world.”- Tom Clancy

Mr. Clancy’s quote, once my eyes stumbled upon it, coaxed a satisfied sigh from my gut. I closed my eyes, imagining myself at the helm of a ship, arms stretched out like Rose and Jack from The Titanic.

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But seriously, like the next day, my excitement and feelings of great accomplishment hit an iceberg when I forced myself to pay attention to two words that had floated around my mind throughout the project:

BOOK PROPOSAL.

If my manuscript is the Titanic, then the book proposal is the iceberg.

A book proposal is a thorough description of a manuscript, the market it would serve, and a sample of the story, usually the first two or three chapters.

And something I had no idea about until my manuscript was nearly completed.

Once my manuscript was finished, I assumed I could change the sail on my writing ship, pound out a quick proposal, and venture into new waters of querying agents.

Not so.

I had no idea about the painstaking amount of work a thorough, well-written, well-representing book proposal entailed. It took time and several confusing revisions to write an acceptable book proposal.

So here’s some advice, sailor to sailor:

1) Discern the genre. Book proposals, and when to submit them, are different depending on fiction or non-fiction. Fiction and memoir manuscripts should be completed before the proposal is submitted to an agent or a publisher. Non-fiction books can and do sell on proposal with a couple of chapters to provide the flavor and quality of the writing.

2) Work on your proposal while you are writing your manuscript. I should have started researching book proposals right away. Writing the proposal while working on the manuscript would have provided needed focus. A proposal can be a great map of where you are in your project, and where you need to go.

3) Write well. Your book proposal is probably the first writing sample a prospective agent or editor will see from you. Don’t rush. Let the voice rendered in your manuscript seep onto the proposal page. Agents and editors see many proposals. Take the time and attention required to make your proposal flawless and flavorful.

4) Stick to the basic elements of a proposal. Some include a cover page, an overview of the story, the hook, a biography of the author, marketing strategies, chapter summaries, and sample chapters.

I purchased a template from a famous author. It was a great way to get me started, but once an agent was landed, she preferred I use her agency’s template. Though similar, it wasn’t quite the same. Realize that an agent or editor will probably want you to tweak your proposal.

5) A successful book proposal requires research. Learn from the best. Check out:

Terry Whalin’s Book Proposals That Sell: 21 SECRETS TO SPEED YOUR SUCCESS

Have you written a book proposal? Are you in the process of writing a book proposal? Any advice? What’s been the most challenging part of the process? Please share with your fellow sojourners.

The Slow Loris Road to Publishing

I’m what you might call the slow loris of book publishing.

 Are you familiar with the slow loris? I know it sounds like a Dr. Seuss character, but the slow loris is actually a real animal – a tiny primate with big, puppy-dog brown eyes and a round head (so far, nothing in common with me, in case you’re wondering). The slow loris is also described as a slow and deliberate climber.

Yup, that’s me: the slow, deliberate climber.

It took me two and a half years to write my first (and at this point, only) book. In my defense, I also had a toddler and a newborn at the time, as well as a part-time job, so I wrote only in the very early mornings and in the evenings, after the kids were tucked into bed. I wrote every day, slowly and deliberately ticking off chapters one by one until I had a completed manuscript. I marvel at writers who crank out two or three books in a single year. I know people that do this, and they are very good, fast writers. I am not. I am methodical, and my editing is nothing short of painfully laborious.

After I finished writing and editing my book, it took me another two years to land an agent. Again, I was slow and deliberate in the querying process. I purchased The Guide to Literary Agents and The Christian Writers’ Market Guide, and scoured the exhaustive lists of agents, categorizing each with the letters A, B or C. “A” designated a top-choice agent; “B” were the agents I considered good, but second-tier; and “C” was reserved for those I might query in desperation. I researched the agents online and then crafted a personal query letter for each. I queried most of my “A” list and some on the “B” list before Rachelle Gardner (top of the “A” list, by the way) offered me a contract (truth be told, I queried her twice).

 “Whew!” I thought, after I’d finished cartwheeling across the living room the day Rachelle offered me representation. “Now the process will finally start moving along! Let’s roll, baby!”

I assumed once the manuscript was out of my slow loris hands (claws?) that the pace would accelerate.

That was last February.

My memoir has not yet sold to a publisher. I’m not saying it won’t sell eventually. I am simply stating that in the nearly 365 days since I accepted representation from Rachelle, it hasn’t sold. As it turns out, Rachelle chooses the slow loris approach, too, if the market demands it. Sometimes, as she noted in a recent post, publishers aren’t in the market for a particular genre (in this case, memoir), so she puts the manuscript aside and patiently waits for a better opportunity.

I admit, being the slow loris is frustrating at times. I see some of my favorite authors publish one book, and then a second, and I wonder, “What about me? What about my book? Why doesn’t my book sell?” Doubt creeps in. And insecurity. I begin to question my ability as a writer, my story, even my choice to pursue this publishing dream.  I contemplate ditching writing all together and taking up needlepoint.

In the end, though, I continue to stick with it. After all, slow lorises, in addition to their slow, deliberate climbing skills, are also known for their ability to cling to a tree in one spot for an exceptionally long period of time, patiently waiting for the perfect meal to wander into proximity.

“Everything in its own time,” Rachelle reminds me.

I’m patient. I can wait.  I am a slow loris.

{For the record, the slow loris is also the only mammal with a toxic bite. Just saying.}

What animal would you choose as a metaphor for your journey to publishing or your writing style {please don’t say cheetah or I may die a little inside}?

Resolved to Clarify

Over the past week, we’ve been inundated with articles, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates about New Year’s resolutions. To make or not to make them – that seems to be the question.

Just what is it about a brand new year and vowing resolutions?

Many writers tend to possess the maddening, albeit necessary, drive to be word smiths. To grasp precise definitions that give life to our stories. Sound familiar? Welcome to the club.

After reading and hearing people opine about resolutions and maintaining resolve, I headed straight to the bookshelf. I found my old dog-eared, yellowed copy of The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, and flipped back to the Rs. Not able to recall the last time I looked up the word resolution, I was completely unprepared to find this definition:

Resolution: the fineness of detail that can be distinguished in an image.

I re-read that definition several times before the full meaning sunk in: A resolution needs to contain such precise detail that it evokes a vivid mental picture.

In our techno-age, we relate resolution to pixels in an image. High-definition on a movie screen. Something so clear that details pop. Brilliant color that ignites our senses.

So why do we craft our New Year’s resolutions with vague language and colorless imagination?

Resolving to “get published” isn’t really a resolution – it’s a dream (and a pretty good one, I might add). But those two words lack fineness of detail and contain faceless people and blurred images. But resolving to attend the next local writer’s conference in order to network, learn the craft of writing, and pitch an agent or publisher stirs a focused mental picture. You can see the steps to take.

I’ve resolved to read through the Bible in 2012. I’ve already got my Bible reading checklist tucked in my Bible ready to go and an alarm set on my cell phone to alert me when it’s time to wrap up and get ready for work. I can clearly picture my quiet time each still morning as God whispers life into my soul. Just writing that brought to mind the comfy, overstuffed chair in my study where that wondrous, transforming time will unfold.

The bottom line? If you’re going to make New Year’s resolutions, add as much detail as you can. The more vivid the picture, the more focused your striving becomes. 

If you’re having difficulty seeing it, you’ll have difficulty attaining it.

Blessings to you and yours in 2012.

Let’s chat: If you’ve made resolutions, do you see fineness of detail that can be distinguished in an image? 

The Tough Critique

My best friend of more than 30 years was one of the first people to read a draft of my manuscript. I packaged all 299 pages in an envelope, mailed them 1,500 miles to her home and then chewed my nails ragged while I waited for her response.

I stalled for what I considered the proper amount of time. And then finally I couldn’t bear it any longer. I picked up the phone and dialed her number.

“Soooo…what did you think?” I blurted when she answered. I tried not to sound desperate and sweaty. “Do you like the book? Have you finished it? What do you think so far? Seriously, you can tell me the truth. I mean it!”

I waited.

Silence lay heavy, like a suffocating blanket suddenly strewn over the vast plains between us .

“Well…” She hesitated. A dull ache began to gnaw in the pit of my stomach.

“Well…to be honest, I, um, I put it down, and I’m having trouble picking it back up again,” she offered quietly.

“What? What?! Are you kidding me? You’re having trouble picking it back up again? What does that mean? Are you saying my book is boring or something?! What, like Reader’s Digest boring? Like Henry James boring? Like iphone manual boring?!”

I didn’t actually say those things aloud, of course. My actual response went more like this:

“Okay.”

 Deep, shaky exhale.

“Okay, so tell me more. What exactly is the problem? Can you be more specific? Which part is bogging you down? Does it go awry at any particular point, or is the whole thing giving you trouble?”

During that difficult conversation I learned that Andrea had enjoyed a lot of the manuscript, especially the anecdotes, which comprised the meat of the memoir. But when she got to the sections that delved into Biblical instruction, she lost interest.

I give her credit for her honesty and courage. Although Andrea knew exactly how important this writing endeavor was to me and exactly how insecure and fearful I was, she told the hard truth because she knew in the long run that it was important that I hear it. (Granted, she could have phrased it a bit more delicately. Then again, I did hound her like a salivating Saint Bernard). 

But I admit, it was a hard truth to swallow. And even though we had a fruitful and constructive conversation, and she didn’t deem the whole book an abysmal failure, when I got off the phone that afternoon I felt a weight on my chest like a stack of crumbling bricks. What’s more, I didn’t take her advice – I made none of the changes she suggested.

The funny thing was, in the end, she was right.

A year later, when I paid a professional editor to review my manuscript, guess what he advised? That’s right: he suggested I cut all the instructional sections woven into the book because they “interrupted the flow of the story.” And later, when Rachelle Gardner accepted me as  client, she admitted that the book wouldn’t have appealed to her, had it included all the Biblical analysis and instruction.

Andrea had been spot-on in her observations, and she had been honest, courageous and diplomatic in her critique. The real problem was that I simply hadn’t been ready to listen.

Let’s chat:  How do you decide who critiques early drafts of your writing? Have you ever received a negative critique from a friend? How do you balance a critiquer’s opinion with your own ideas? How do you know when you are ready to have your writing critiqued?

Writers — Develop a thick skin!

Do you remember how you felt the first time you confessed to someone that you wanted to be or was a writer? Did you heart pound and your palms sweat? Mine did.

Develop a thick skin if you want to be a writer.

Becoming a published author almost seemed too lofty a goal for little old me to aspire to. What would people think? Would they laugh at me? Scorn me? Ask me why I thought I could ever be successful?

When you made your proclamation saying you were an aspiring writer did the words tumble out in a torrent of excitement or did you choke them out, fearful that one day you would be forced to eat them, a bitter morsel?

Chances are, after a while your friends and family get onboard with your plans and even inquired about your progress or encouraged your efforts. And that’s a good thing. Because after you’ve overcome that initial fear of telling others you want to be published, you actually have to put your work out there for critique and for submission, and then you really need to toughen up and not let the barbs of critiques or the arrows of rejection take you down—at least not if you want to be successful.

Take heart. Be brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Find a quote or a verse of scripture that will speak encouragement to you. I know some writers who have inspirational quotes tacked up in their writing area or committed to heart. Bible Gateway or Quote Garden are good places to find words of emotional sustenance. This verse kept me writing and writing.

When you first expose your writing for someone to look over, be brave and be humble. Just because you arranged words together on a line, doesn’t mean that you’re going to get the next big literary prize—not even if your mother/spouse/best friend/child says so.

Putting your work out there for critique requires you to be humble enough to take suggestions and comments. One thing I’ve discovered is that you can’t defend your work. When I hear someone who submitted work for critique begin to defend or explain their work, then I know they’re still pretty green. They don’t want anyone to change a word or tweak a sentence. But the truth is, when your work is finally published, you won’t be able to sit alongside your reader and explain every scene. If your first readers don’t understand what you’re trying to say, then rewrite it.

Sometimes it’s hard to receive a critique, but it doesn’t kill you. You’ll be okay, the sun will still shine, and you’ll still be loved and respected by those who care for you. Our agent Rachelle Gardner wrote down her thoughts about being thick skinned on her blog. Take a look, be encouraged.

It’s difficult to hear negative words about the story you labored over. If you’re frustrated, that’s okay. Take a walk, call a friend, and write more words. Just keep moving forward. But don’t be too discouraged, there are always (or there should be) good points raised during a critique.

Becoming published won’t happen if you don’t work at it. Remember, some people dream of success, while others actually do the work to accomplish success. So write on!

What advice do you have to overcome the pain of critique/rejection?

Celebrate!

Let's all celebrate! (Pic by Photobunny)

Today is both my birthday and my agent, Rachelle Gardner’s birthday. Reason enough to start a party!

As if that weren’t enough, as a bonus to really get in the mood to celebrate I have a few words of wisdom from Rachelle about building a career rather than just selling a book.

I was one of Rachelle’s first clients and right from the start I knew there was the potential for something special. It started with the way Rachelle chooses her clients, the writers.

Rachelle has never been afraid to take on a new author. She now has about 50 clients, 90 percent of whom are new authors, which says something wonderful about her approach to the publishing business. Her intention is to build a strong roster of credible writers rather than make the quick sale. That takes time and talent on both the author and the agent’s part and can be just as rare in an agent as it is in a writer.

“It’s great for me because as agents go, I’m still one of the newer agents, coming up on four years, and it’s kind of neat for me to help build writers from the ground up,” said Rachelle. “Now, keep in mind, I’m making very intentional decisions,” she added, as she looks for writers who have something to say and are willing to work with her.

I’ve had agents before, good agents who quickly sold my work but I’d never had anyone speak to me in terms of a career. Not only in general terms but specific steps I could take if I was interested in making a decent living. Rachelle was doing that from the start even while we were talking about the project at hand. She was taking the long view of me as a writer.

That approach was going to take more work and a lot more patience but has the potential to payoff with steadily rising book sales.

That’s like gold in this business. Continue reading