We might have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen in a story when we pick up a new book. Most of the time, we can judge that book by its cover – or if not, then by its reviews or word-of-mouth from friends.
Even if nobody else has read it yet, we feel fairly certain that a book showing a rancher and a schoolmarm in a chaste embrace will likely end with the couple getting married. Or a book showing a police badge and some crime-scene tape will likely end with the detective taking the killer to jail.
So if we already know the ending, how can there possibly be any page-turning tension along the way?
The very phrase “self-advocacy” in the context of my writing gives me shivers of trepidation. Will you follow me on social media? Read my latest essay? Blurb my book? Buy my memoir (someday), and then please, oh please, write a review?
I’ve never been good at asking for help, for anything. When my husband and I were dating in college in Washington, D.C., he had a car and I didn’t. Once, I told him I took a very inconvenient bus ride somewhere.
“Why didn’t you tell me you needed a ride? he asked.
“I didn’t want to bother you,” I answered.
“Karen, it’s me, Michael,” he said, looking at me incredulously. “Just tell me where you need to go and I’ll take you.”
So you want to write for magazines and websites…great! Writing articles can be an excellent way for authors to promote their work, build a platform, hone their skills, and get paid. How do you start? With a pitch, of course. But how do you make sure your pitches will land the way you want them to? Allow me to share with you some of the wisdom I have gleaned from over twenty years working in media and publishing, most recently as Editor-in-Chief of Writer’s Digest magazine.
After so much time on both sides of the editor’s desk—as a full-time freelancer, and as an acquiring editor – I’m confident I’ve seen the best pitches, and the worst ones. I’ve sentout both kinds of pitches in my own career too!
Here’s a list of some of the biggest OOFs! I’ve seen writers make (myself included). This list isn’t intended to shame anyone—I’m giving it to you so you can avoid making these mistakes in your career.
It’s a cliché that becoming a published author is like becoming a parent. The astonishing reality of this new creation, after all the months—or even years—of preparation. The swift change of identity. The joy and vulnerability.
As a parent by adoption, I’ve always been sensitive to this metaphor, finding it both illuminating and constraining. Unlike some who choose to adopt, I didn’t try every available means to conceive a biological child but switched paths fairly quickly because I believed—and still do—that raising a child was far more important to me than how that child arrived in my arms.
Even so, there were plenty of moments, especially in the beginning, when I heard myself grow defensive—“explaining” and justifying my choice, even though no one had asked.
It was a bit like that when I decided—after a single agent query that seemed destined to be the “one-in-a-thousand” exception to all the stories I’d heard, until it wasn’t— to publish with a hybrid press. As with motherhood, I had the means and the temperament to take this path.
Bringing my book to life felt more important than how, exactly, it got there. Once out in the world, its fate would depend on its merits and reception, not on its pedigree. Kind of like my kids, now that they’re grown.
My journey has been immensely rewarding, a lot of work and a lot of fun. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if my experience was like that of other new authors. Being a former researcher, I did what comes naturally. I asked.
Have you heard of the Aesop fable titled, “The Peasant and the Apple Tree?”
It goes like this:
“A peasant was cutting down an apple tree despite pleas from animals living in it. He stopped when he found a hive with honey. The Tree is now doing fine!”
All of us are very much like that peasant. When we see something that interests us, we stop and pay attention.
We need to remember this when building our author platforms. I’ve found there’s one question that helps me gain readers perhaps more than any other:
“How can I benefit my readers’ lives?”
When you can answer that question succinctly and clearly, you have the key to a successful author platform that will draw readers your way.
Selling Books is Hard and Only Getting Harder
Marketing remains the most difficult part of the writing life for most writers. The odds are against us. In 2018, Bowker reported that for the first time, more than one million books were self-published, which was an over 40 percent increase from the year before. That’s in just one year. And it doesn’t include the traditionally published books.
There isn’t a secret formula for executing the perfect book launch. There are numerous factors in play that are constantly changing, from news and popular culture, to the publishing industry, to what just plain work in marketing and promotion. But the real “secret success strategy” to book sales is very straightforward: give readers what they want! The challenges arise because reader expectations are a moving target.
As authors, it’s important to be flexible and adaptive to these changes and have a clear idea of how they play into our own marketing plan.
But while change is inevitable, there are still some key strategies I’ve tested and one, in particular, I want to share today. Though it won’t guarantee success, it has worked well for me and the authors I collaborate with, and I hope it can help you too.
Much of my workday at Bublish is spent talking with authors about the intersection of creativity and commerce—how to be true to one’s artistic intentions while writing work that is commercially viable.
Early on in these conversations, I encourage authors to take some time to articulate both their artistic and commercial aspirations—no matter where they are in their writing career. To me, this is very important work for all writers to do as early as possible. It’s an exercise that should kick off every writing career and every new writing project.
A writer should ask themselves: Why do I write? Where do I hope this creative journey will take me? And they should be as honest and thorough as possible in answering these questions.
Often I learn that this is the first-time the writer on the other end of the phone has engaged in such self-reflection. Up to our call, they explain, the story has led. They may have a vague sense of what they hope to achieve, but they haven’t taken the time to fully explore their intentions, motivations or desires when it comes to balancing creative and commercial interests. They are simply swimming in story ideas.
Readability is a critical part of editing that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Whether we’re imparting instructional analysis or immersing readers in elaborate fantasy worlds, knowing our audience’s preferred reading level is key.
What is readability?
Readability formulas are calculations which are written to assess the reading level necessary for the reader to understand your writing easily. Readability refers to how easy and enjoyable your writing is for the reader.
Good readability can make a reader quit in paragraph 1 or race through the whole story, so consider readability to make your work sparkle for readers.
Writers Rock When They Meet Reader Expectations
Readability grade level testing is common in elementary schools to categorize books. Length of sentence and the complexity of the words are measured, but grade-level appropriateness does not mean what age a person has to be to read it. Adults use preferred readability levels with different types of text.
Writers benefit from aiming at those levels and better engage their readers, but what age level should a writer use?
The idea of finishing a manuscript is exhilarating—especially if you’re in the thrilling rush of momentum that is NaNoWriMo. (Hope it’s going great, NaNoers!) But as rewarding as it is to complete a draft, most writers know that isn’t the end of the road, just the first rest stop. Before you reach your destination—meaning agents, publishers, readers—you have to get out of the echo chamber of your own head and see what’s actually on the page. And for that, writers need objective feedback.
Yet once you get that feedback—whether you’re hiring a professional editor, sending the manuscript to your crit partners, or soliciting input from beta readers—what do you do with it?
It can be overwhelming to look at pages of editorial letter (often upward of 6-7K words, if you’re working with me), dozens or even hundreds of embedded comments, or an array of varying opinions among your critiquers and readers and process it all, let alone figure out what (and how) to translate that to your story.
Here are my step-by-step suggestions for how to navigate editorial feedback and most effectively approach revisions.
Like many writers, I am fortunate to have a varied and interesting dreamlife. However, for almost a year after beginning our retirement travels I was unable to recall any dreams.
No dreams. No writing. Not good.
My dreamtime, normally filled with weird and thought-provoking scenarios, became a void. Sleep is playtime for the brain, and mine didn’t seem like it was having any fun.
If we don’t dream, we lose contact with reality.
Normally I’d remember enough of a dream for a short film, so not dreaming was a real concern. The most I’d recall upon waking was a fleeting feeling or snippet. In one, a kitten ran at me and jumped into my arms with such joy and force that it woke me up.
As I’d prefer not to be psychotic, I needed to know why the wonderful and sometimes frightening series of unconscious escapades escaped from memory.