Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Five Habits for Writers to Avoid


“Much that is learned is bound to be bad habits. You’re always beginning again.” W.S. Merwin

We have this mistaken idea that bad habits are the result of some weakness, some character flaw. But our least helpful writing habits are more likely to result from things we’ve inadvertently learned. That means there’s this good news—once we’ve identified these learned behaviors for what they are, we can unlearn them.

Here, five habits we writers would do well to banish:

Comparing our progress with others: As writers, we’re each on our own journeys. None of us will move along exactly the same trajectory toward exactly the same end. So while it’s fine to be inspired by the success of other authors, it’s silly—and potentially demoralizing—to expect our successes to follow theirs. In truth, some of our most significant accomplishments happen on the page, in relation to our craft, and these may happen in ways that aren’t immediately acknowledged by anyone but ourselves.

Making excuses: You want to write, but you don’t have the time. Or you don’t know how to start. Or your kids keep interrupting. Writing doesn’t have to be your top priority, but should it really be your last? Alice Munro, one of the most brilliant authors of our era, wrote her early stories while her children were napping. Even if you can only write for ten minutes a day, that’s a start.

Getting in a rut: You keep at your work, but you sense it’s flatlining—characters languish, story lines run on and on, language sounds wooden. While persevering is admirable, it’s also helpful to do a reality check every now and then. If you’re in a rut, come at your project from another angle. Take a workshop. Get some coaching or editing advice. Study a craft book.

Sharing too soon: Agents and editors see this problem all the time—writers have a good concept, but it’s poorly executed. Or they have nice execution, but the concept’s not fully developed. In either case, the problem is the same—the work went out before it was ready. When you think you’re finished, wait. Days, weeks, even months. When you return to the project, you’ll see the flaws, and you’ll have new perspectives on how to correct them.

Losing touch with the joy: Beneath the hard work of what we do, there’s the joy of discovery, of creating beauty on the page, of engaging readers. If you find yourself losing touch with that joy, take a step back. Allow yourself to write something just for fun. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey.

For more on becoming the writer you hope to be, see Deb’s Write Your Best Book.




Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Successful Author: Proposing a Book



In a pursuit—and an industry—that can be incredibly inefficient, book proposals cut to the proverbial chase. They’re tidy and focused. They get straight to the point—with millions of books competing for a reader’s attention, is your project strong enough to stand out?  

In traditional publishing, book proposals are how you pitch your nonfiction projects to agents and editors. But parts of the proposal process can be incredibly helpful to authors of fiction as well, and they can also be helpful to authors who publish on their own.

A proposal forces you to think about how your book fits in the marketplace. You shouldn’t do this sort of thinking too early in your project—it can potentially stifle your best creative impulses. But at some point, the market will bring itself to bear on the success of your book. A proposal is a vehicle that allows you to successfully navigate the market.

Even if developed strictly for your own purposes, a proposal makes you see your book as readers will see it. It’s your game plan for wooing your readers, for courting them, for convincing them t how beautiful their lives would be if only they gave themselves over to you and your book.
If you’re writing to submit to an agent or editor, there are lots of resources to guide you through drafting the components of a convincing proposal. Here, I’ll focus the three aspects of a proposal that every writer would benefit from addressing. Much of this information comes from literary agent Jeff Kleinman, who’s one of the best in the business.

Positioning: In a book proposal, Kleinman suggests devoting one or two pages to showing how your book fits in the big world of publishing. Search for hugely successful books by authors whose credentials, marketing reach, and style/angle/worldview are similar to yours. When positioning your book, don’t concern yourself with the subject matter. Positioning is about the ways in which authors like you connect with their readers, regardless of topic. If you’re unknown, if you’re up and coming, seek out authors whose careers have been catapulted by breakout books and discuss (briefly) the ways in which you and your work are similar to them and their (incredibly successful) work.

Market: This section of the proposal (2-8 pages if you’re actually writing a proposal) is where you prove that you know the audience for your book—and you know how to reach them. You might think of this as the Research and Development (R & D) phase, not for the book itself but for the book as a project. Your goal is to prove that you're the best person to write this book, not so much from the standpoint of knowledge or craft but because you'll be its strongest advocate. Maybe you have a blog following, or you give lectures, or your cousin who writes for a Big Name Newspaper likes to consult you for articles that relate to the book you’re writing. This is not the place to be modest. If you have no connections, no platform, then think of your readership in terms of an author whose work is similar to yours. Hoping to reach readers who love Jane Bestseller’s books? Figure out who those readers are and how Jane reaches them, then lay out a marketing plan in which you’ll do the same.

Competing Works: Where will your book be shelved in a bookstore? On those shelves, which titles will be its closest competitors? You want to show how the book fits and, at the same time, how it stands out from the rest. Without disparaging another author or book, explain why a reader would buy your book instead of a similar title. Kleinman suggests completing this sentence: “My book is the first book that…”


For more on how to write and publish your book, check out Deb’s What Every Author Should Know and Write Your Best Book.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Book Promotion: Who’s Your Audience? (And How Do You Reach Them?)



Beginning in the 1990s, two essential questions became central in public school writing curricula. All over the country, young writers were asked to consider them with every piece of writing they generated:

What’s your purpose?

Who’s your audience?

These are fundamental questions for every writer—so fundamental that they tend to be overlooked by those of us who write professionally. Somehow, we think success should be more complicated. But ask any agent, editor, or publisher. Though they may use different language when they speak of these factors, they evaluate and market projects according to audience and purpose.

There are nuanced ways to answer the question of purpose, but there’s one overarching purpose that agents, editors, publishers, and readers seek—they want authors who write the best book they can possibly write. Yes, reading is a matter of taste, but within various categories of taste (we call them genres), readers recognize best books—those that stand out from the rest.

Writing your best book is so important that I’ve written a whole book about it. Claim it as your overriding purpose and you won’t go wrong.

Let’s consider the question of audience. You’re writing because there’s joy in the journey (no matter how crazy), because you love the discovery, because you celebrate language and story. But you’re also writing to be read, and that means you need an audience.

When pressed, many authors will say their audience is everyone. It might sound smart to claim the broadest possible audience—everyone will buy this book! But that’s not how it works. When agents, editors, and publishers evaluate a book, they think exactly like everyone else in retail industries that can only sustain themselves when they connect consumers with products. They think in terms of target markets.

So the question boils down to this: Who exactly are your potential readers, and how can you best reach them?

When you don’t take the time to address this two-pronged question and build strategies around the answers, you’re going to waste a lot of time and energy on all sorts of wrong-headed marketing. So grab a pen and paper—right now—and take a few minutes to identify your potential readers—your audience strands—and the best ways to reach them.

By way of example, here are the results of the most recent audience strand analysis I did for myself and my books. Note that in addition to identifying each strand, I also consider the ways to most readily reach these readers. Note, too, the benefits of looking at the strands in reverse. Certain outreach activities may be targeting strands you don’t intend to reach—readers who’ll never buy your books:

Friends and fans: The easiest audience to reach, these are also likely to be the strongest and most consistent advocates for your work. They’re loyal, they love you, they love your work—as long as you’ve achieved your purpose of writing your best books. You cultivate personal connections with this audience—some are already within your circles of friends and family, and the rest come into the broader circle of fans as a result of meeting you at events, workshops, and conferences. But let’s be honest here: it’s not just about meeting you; it’s about genuine relationships and respect. To reach this audience, get out and about, but make sure your interactions are ones that allow people to get to know you and your work in meaningful ways. Simply pitching your books and passing out swag to every reader you can nab at an event isn’t target marketing—it’s human spamming.

Emerging writers: I blog about writing because I teach writers, I coach writers, and I write books for writers. But there are lots and lots (read tens of thousands) of writers who blog about writing because they heard somewhere that they should blog and they guess (hope) that maybe their readers will want to know how they do what they do. Truth is, it’s only when you’ve got a large fan base that you’ll have a subset of readers who care about how what you do what you do. And even then, most of them won’t be looking for how to become writers, so they won’t be interested in generic how-to posts on developing characters or adding tension to a plot. If writers aren’t your target audience, don’t waste your time marketing your work to them.

Frugal readers: E-book discounting has grown this subset of readers into a gigantic industry. Many are voracious readers, often of genre fiction, who don’t like paying full price for books because they read so many. Among frugal readers are also people who live for getting deals on anything and everything—for them, half the fun of shopping is getting a great deal, whether or not they’ll ever use (read) their purchase. By reaching frugal readers through well-orchestrated promotions of your discounted titles, you stand to gain social proof in the form of (temporarily) elevated sales rankings with online vendors. Thus, outreach to frugal readers may help you get noticed, however briefly. It might even build friends and fans base—but only if you’ve written a stand-out book. Self-published writers in particular make the mistake of pouring all of their energies into reaching this audience strand, which is a fickle submarket at best.

Regional readers: Lots of us like to read about the places where we live and the places we visit. Far and away, my bestselling titles are with a publisher that markets very, very effectively to this market. To expand this readership even more, I stay active in regional events and use regional hashtags in some of my social media posts.


Like-minded readers: Considering both the content and style of your best work, how would you describe your ideal readers?  Mine are culturally and environmentally conscious. They’re concerned about what’s potentially lost if we don’t have the sense to preserve it, and conversely, they value the lessons we learn from history. They value love in all its complexities, compassion, joy, and nature. They embrace books that shine in terms of language, story, and concept. I connect with these readers primarily through organizations, associations, and publications that cater to these interests and encourage these sensibilities.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Sustainable Writer: What’s Your Return?




“It strikes me that in America we don’t much have a ‘sacred’ place or role for the isolate artist any longer. Everything has been sucked up into marketing and celebrity and the almighty commodity—so if you are a writer, you are meant to sell something. If it sells, it has worth. But in my heart of hearts I just want to sneak individual books into the pockets of sad people. Or stuff pews with them! Because writing gave me a place to go and be and grow when I wanted to give up. And I’d like to put my foot in the doorway so that others might find this place too.”

~ Lidia Yuknavitch, interviewed by editor Rhonda Hughes

Gig is Geoff Nunberg’s choice for Word of the Year for 2015. In his commentary on the word, he notes that our job-based economy is disintegrating into a series of gigs that represent not so much freedom as instability. Juggling gigs is a fact of life to those of us who make our living with the written word—those of us who, like Lidia Yuknavitch, long to sneak our work into the pockets of sad people. 

The gigs are relentless—demands made by an industry, by a culture, that can’t accommodate the sneak-to-pocket method of connecting writers and readers. They come courtesy of your agent, your publisher, your publicist, and your own oh-my-god-I’m-an-author-what-now research. Social media gigs. E-newsletter gigs. Website gigs. Book launch gigs. The demands of wish-and-star gigs that offer little of substance to sustain an author are among the reasons so many give up the pursuit of their craft.  

A radical alternative: Embrace the role of isolate artist, expectations be damned. This makes for short-term bliss, the kind you get from a stint at a retreat or a residency. Sadly, it’s not especially sustainable. If you want your work to be read, the gigs keep on coming. 

Another radical alternative: Take a cue from the business folks. You know, like your publisher, who annoys you to no end with concern about Return on Investment (ROI)—because your publisher is fearless about the fact without ROI, you can’t stay in business.

I know—we artists aren’t supposed to muck up our creative brains with business-y concepts like ROI. But if we don’t, gigs get way, way out of hand, and our writing life becomes unsustainable.
Evaluating ROI is quick, easy, and potentially life-changing for anyone who has (or wants) a career as a writer. Start by listing all of your gigs—those you’ve undertaken and those you’re contemplating. Social media, blogging, producing an e-newsletter, maintaining a website, engaging with other writers, that sort of thing. 

Then consider what each gig costs (or would cost) in terms of money, time, and (this one’s important) joy. Because if we don’t do this for joy, what’s left?

After estimating the costs of each gig—on paper, not just in your head—evaluate the return, in terms of the things that contribute to your own personal measures of success—money, joy, growth, prestige.
Your ROI analysis will yield surprises. We’re creatures of habit, so we keep at gigs even when the results aren’t that great—especially when we hear that you “have to _____” in order to succeed as a writer.

When you factor joy as well as time and money into your ROI analysis, you’ll make your own smart choices about each of your gigs. Activities that yield little return for the investment will be trimmed back, modified, or phased out. 

And don’t worry—you can evaluate ROI and still be an artist. A smart artist, whose gigs are more about freedom than instability. A sustainable artist.

For writers looking for a good Return on Investment, author Deb Vanasse is teaching Craft Intensive: Masterful Writing, an online workshop that begins January 25.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Successful Writer: Take Your Writing to the Next Level



Ah, the New Year. At its launch, we make our best stab at ditching old habits and acquiring new, better habits that—with any luck—will propel us toward our goals. For writers, that means taking our writing to the next level—the “breakout” story, essay, or book.

Ah, but the fail rate. By the calendar, we’re still in the honeymoon phase—research shows that the during first two weeks of the year, we’re all in with our resolve. By February, we’re starting to slip. By December, most of us are back where we started, or even further behind.  

It doesn’t have to be that way. “Making resolutions work is essentially changing behaviors,” says Ray Williams, writing for Psychology Today. “In order to do that, you have to change your thinking and ‘rewire’ your brain,” a process that involves the creation of new neural pathways through new ways of thinking. If you want to succeed with your resolutions. Williams advises setting specific goals, taking small steps, having accountability buddies, engaging new thought patterns, and celebrating your success between milestones.

Easy enough, but also easier said than done. Structure, guidance, and coaching make the difference between the best of intentions and actually getting the job done—that is, taking your writing to the next level.

With this in mind, I’m offering a three-week online writing workshop, Craft Intensive: Masterful Writing, through 49 Writers, where I’m proud to be part of the 98% instructional excellence rating. Together, we’ll work on developing new thought patterns to propel your writing to the next level. After determining what that next level means for you, you’ll implement strategies for honing your craft, and as part of the process, you’ll undertake a guided study of the techniques used by the writers you most admire.

After a long hiatus from distance learning—it was one of my specialties when I taught fulltime at the University of Alaska—I’m excited to be involved in it again. I especially enjoying designing workshops that integrate online learning with low-tech interactions, using ye olde phone lines for sharing inspiration and ideas. And there’s this ulterior motive—while I’ve happily relocated to the Oregon coast, I’m eager to stay engaged with writers in Alaska and to meet new ones from around the country.

Together, let’s bust the Resolution Odds, building new patterns to take our writing to the next level. The three-week online workshop begins January 26. Discussions by conference call will take place on Tuesday evenings from 7 to 8 pm AST; recordings will be available for those who miss the live events.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Her next book, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold, comes out in April, 2016. She is also a staff writer for the IBPA Independent.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Trends in Writing and Publishing: What to Look for in 2016





It’s that time of year when we feel compelled to look forward and back. Individually, we assess the progress we made last year toward the goals we’d hoped to achieve—you know, the ones in your business plan (writers, you do have a business plan, yes?) as we draft new plans for the fresh new year ahead.

It only makes sense that we accomplish all of that with a nod toward the context in which we work—the greater world of crafting and publishing books. Of course, there is always this caveat—none of us has a crystal ball. Still, there are trends to be watched for.

In looking ahead, I draw on what I’ve learned from nearly 20 years in this industry, working with six different publishers and three literary agents on 16 books. I’ve also benefited from my position as a staff writer with The Independent, a publishing trade magazine, though the views expressed here are entirely my own.

Here, in no particular order, are trends worth watching in 2016:

·         Balance: Digital sales leveled off in 2015, and print sales were bolstered by, of all things, the adult coloring book phenomenon. In 2016, we should see balance that restores, at least in part, a sense of normalcy to writing and publishing. Expect a lot less hand-wringing and wrangling over who’s going to come out on top. As many observers have been quietly pointing out for years, there’s room at the expanded publishing table for lots of diverse participants.

·         Settling: As some of the frenzy diminishes, we can enjoy a more expansive sense of purpose. 2016 may indeed be the year when authors and publishers and everyone else in the industry draw the biggest collective breath they’ve taken in a good long while, followed by a sigh of relief. At last, we can point ourselves back toward our root. We can quit worrying ourselves to pieces over fluctuations in the marketplace and focus again on our first love—creating great books.

·         Fewer Players: No matter how you publish, chances are you’ve experienced diminishing returns in the past few years—lower advances, fewer sales, smaller checks. The bright-eyed optimism with which many ventured into publishing during the last several years has been tempered by the hard truth that our world is populated with many more books than will ever find readers in numbers significant enough to sustain their creators. Authors will continue to drop out of the business, and on their heels will be many in the burgeoning author services industry.

·         More Personal: No doubt about it—the Amazon behemoth is here to stay. But part of Amazon’s success is how they manage to be big and small all at once by catering to a customer’s individual tastes and desires. Authors and publishers may not be able to beat Amazon at its game, but they’re learning that they can best Amazon at its own game, interacting in more significant and creative ways with their readers.

·         The Unexpected: In the Information Age, the same dichotomies that governed 2015 will prevail through the next year and beyond. Hyped trends (Star Wars, Go Set a Watchman) are to the publishing landscape what corn is to an Iowa interstate—an ubiquitous blur that threaten to make us forget why we came.Thankfully, there’s always the potential for a surprise. For that reason if nothing else, long live the coloring book!

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Her next book, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold, comes out in April, 2016. She is also a staff writer for the IBPA Independent.