Friday, December 15, 2017

Becoming a Marketing Machine--What It Takes to Promote Your Book

The blog will be on holiday pause until January 5.  Whatever you celebrate, enjoy the season!

It's hard for writers to hear this:  writing your book isn't your only job in becoming an author.   
Once you've completed your manuscript, put it through revision, secured an agent or not, and sold it to a publisher, maybe you think you can relax back and let everyone else handle the nasty details of getting it into readers' hands.  When I began publishing in the eighties, that was the case.  But it's not true anymore.  Now writers need to learn all about marketing and promotion.  It's part of being an author.
Some writers excel at this, whether from natural skills or inclination.  I was never good at it--I had to learn it the hard way when the publishing industry switched from giving a writer publicity funds and support, the "we'll take care of everything" line on your contract, to "what will you do to sell your book?"   I had to hire people (publicists) to help me.  I had to learn how to get blurbs, get reviews, appear at book signings and on television and radio interviews.  When the internet became the best method to promote anything, I had to get up to speed on social media and online book review sites (Goodreads, Shelfari).   None of it was fun for me, a natural introvert who just wants to write.  But I knew it was the only way my books would get in readers' hands.
This week, I wanted to talk with a writer whose book, You'll Like It Here, was his publisher's top seller after it launched in November 2016.   Ed Orzechowski believed in his story so much, he became a marketing machine.  He detailed what he did and I was impressed by all his efforts.  You may not want to do this much for your books, but perhaps Ed's plan will give you some ideas about what you could try.
It helps to know that Ed's book is about Donald Vitkus, patient at the infamous Belchertown State School in Massachusetts.  Ed wanted Donald's story to be heard.  So here's a list of what he did: 

1.  Before publication, Ed secured blurbs from the federal judge who had heard the class action lawsuit about conditions at Belchertown State School, and from an advocacy group. The writer for the organization wrote a review for its blog.
2.  A month before the launch, Ed posted a "Coming Soon," announcement on his home Facebook page. At that point, he  didn't yet have a separate Facebook page for the book.
3.  He also began building his website through GoDaddy (a learning curve, he says), and once the site was up, he posted an announcement about the new website on Facebook as well.
4.  Prior to the launch, Ed's publisher, Levellers Press, created a Facebook Event (Ed says he didn't even know what one was) to announce the upcoming launch. Steve Strimer, who heads Levellers, booked a local hall. Ed emailed everyone in his address book: family and friends (Donald's wife Pat did the same); people he knew from teaching, including faculty and students; members of the developmental disability advocacy organizations that Ed's wife and he belong to, local, state and national; a couple of writers' groups; all the media contacts he  had through freelancing; his high school Class of 1963 (he had the list from being on reunion committees). The result was a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 200, the biggest launch Levellers ever had.
5.  From day one, Ed's book has been featured on the Levellers Press website. Steve arranged for a small book blurb in The Daily Hampshire Gazette's weekend magazine, and an interview on a local morning radio show. He also placed Ed's book with Broadside Books, an independent bookstore in Northampton, and in the two copy shops he operates. Several months later, he put it on Amazon, and a few months after that, as an e-book, too. Ed established an Amazon author page, and about a dozen readers posted reviews. Levellers supplied him with business cards, bookmarks, a table display poster, and promotional book copies.
6.  Ed's former editor (from his freelance journalism days) arranged for a sizeable piece in The Springfield Republican.  Ed sent releases to a regional weekly, and they did articles. A reporter for the senior center's newspaper did a piece, plus another one for a regional arts magazine.
7.  Ed sent news releases to New England Public Radio and WGBY (PBS) in Springfield, and they responded with significant interviews. Donald and Ed were also interviewed for a half-hour program on the Upton Public Access channel.
8.  Ed sent announcements to a few local libraries, who invited him to do book events.  He says "I discovered that librarians are hungry for local author events," and word started to spread. Librarians began contacting him, which he never expected. Some have paid for travel and even provided stipends. He's presented at 16 libraries now, and many of the small towns had the best turnout and participation. The Central and Western Massachusetts library consortium now lists 33 copies of his book in circulation, with several currently on hold. "Hard for me to believe," Ed says. 
9.  He did a book giveaway on Goodreads.  
10.  He only did one reading in a bookstore (not Broadside), and it was well attended.   He sold a number of books at the event and later on consignment, but the profit is marginal.  He also did more focused readings for book groups, historical, and support organizations for parents of children with developmental disabilities, which are the most satisfying.
11.  He participated in writers' panels at three western Massachusetts colleges, and began reaching out to colleges that offer human service and psychology programs, mostly word of mouth, but he plans to do an e-mailing.  He says, "I would love to have Donald's story incorporated into college course reading lists, maybe even high schools. One of my former students, who now teaches high school herself in New Hampshire, has used my book for a summer reading program."
12.  He developed a PowerPoint presentation to accompany his readings, with photos of the institution, Donald, and records.   He teamed up with a local photographer for an event at Historic Northampton, who exhibited his photos of the former Northampton State Hospital, and Ed discussed Belchertown State School.
Ed says, "Until a couple of months ago when his health no longer allowed it, Donald always appeared with me, both to speak and sign books. He was always a big hit. People who have attended our readings and signings often have some tie with developmental disabilities or former institutions. They have intellectually disabled children, know someone else who does, or they've worked or volunteered with this population."
13.  Since the launch, he's done about 40 events promoted on his website, home Facebook page, You'll Like It Here Facebook page, and Advocacy Network's page. Ed's website has Facebook and Twitter links, and an email to contact him.
Ed says, "I've found that one event leads to another. Someone who comes to a library reading invites me to a book club, organization, etc. It's amazing to me that, after the ball got rolling, people started to seek me out."
Why do all this?  Of course, to get your book out there.  But also for the amazing experience of someone coming up to you at a library event or bookstore and telling you how much they loved your story.   
So if you're still writing your book, it does help to begin noticing this other task for would-be authors. 

You may not tackle it as Ed did, but you might.   And if you haven't already checked out his book, or want a gift for someone interested in social justice, click here for more information.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Writing about Sex, Intimacy, and Other Dangers

Sex is hard to write about.  I've written two sex scenes in my life so I'm no expert, but I found each extraordinarily difficult.  

The main challenge was not any reservations about including sex scenes in my fiction but how to make them reveal more about character than the character's actions.  That's my personal preference as a reader, as well as a writer, and it may not be yours.  You may be a Fifty Shades of Gray kind of writer and reader, and more power to you.  But I wanted to address the topic, especially after a coaching client sent me this email.
She was reading through her first novel's rough draft, preparing it to send me for feedback.  She came across intimate scenes (her words) that she'd written about the character on her honeymoon, and she had some concern about how they read.  "Too graphic," she said.  "A  bit much for me."
She wondered about how to craft scenes that are intimate but leave something unspoken, that kept the mystery in.  She wanted to reveal more of the character affected by sex and intimacy than about the act. 

In most characters' lives, sex is a dangerous act.  It might be a way for a character trying to prove her coolness or it might be from numbness to the effect or it might be for power.  There's usually an effect from it--at least in literature, if not in life.  Effect on character moves a scene from graphic to literary, where scenes of intimacy or eroticism that have more to do with the human being experiencing it and living with its aftereffect than the mechanics.     

Writing sex scenes brings up our own awkwardness with the topic.  I know many writers who can kill characters much more easily than put them naked on the page.  Sex is loaded, whether from our history, culture, or personal preferences.  It's not easy to write any kind of good sex scene, no matter whether explicit or subtle. 
Totally your choice, whether to include it in your book, of course, but if you do, study up.  Research:  How do expert writers write sex and intimacy scenes?  How much do they veer towards the specifics?  Do they use names for body parts or just allude to them?  Do they show all the steps? 
And most important, at least to many readers, what does it all mean, in the end?  It is about power, love, healing?  Is it the sex only, or is it about the tension between two characters before and after, the disappointment or joy?  What's the point of the sex scene?
This week I had the pleasure of researching a bit on my own.  So many great articles, arguments, and examples of writing exist online, so this week, I'll share three favorites.
Lit Hub (The Best Literary Writing about Sex):  Great excerpts from the likes of Eileen Myles, Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen, and others.    
Lit Reactor (Five Literary Sex Scenes You Wished You'd Written).
If you're writing YA (young adult), here's an interesting take on sex scenes for younger readers from The Conversation.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Feedback Says My Writing Is "Dense"--What Does This Mean and What Can I Do About It?

A student in my online classes is writing a futuristic thriller about memory loss.  I've enjoyed reading her chapters in class and so have her classmates.  But recently she emailed me about some feedback she'd received that she didn't understand.  She said she couldn't find much information about online, so she was hoping I could help her with what to do with the comments.
Readers have told her that her writing can be dense and hard to get into.  As a thriller writer--and someone who is very comfortable with action scenes--this confused her.  "For my book to be accessible I want to make it as quick and easy to read as possible," she told me.   "I've tried to make it fast paced because that grabs people's attention."

She's also tried to minimize description because, she says, "when it's done poorly it slows people down," and I agree. 

So why do some readers say that her writing is dense?

Dense, by the way, doesn't mean stupid, slow, not getting it, or any of the other slurs we might have used (or still use).  In writing lingo, it refers to writing that feels thick to the reader, difficult to absorb.  Dense writing can appear in a couple of ways.

1.  When a piece of writing uses a lot of big words or complicated terms--think legal language or tax forms--it can read "dense" to us.  It takes work to figure out what the writer is trying to communicate.  I once read an article about what happens in the brain when we repeatedly encounter words we don't know or writing that feels too complex to easily understand or makes us work too hard.  The brain literally turns off.  It stops absorbing meaning, or even trying to.  This can even occur when we're reading and a word pops up that we don't know.  Our brains just say, "Nope," and begin right then to disconnect from the emotional impact of the writing.  Imagine a whole paragraph like this, or a page or two.  Not a pretty sight.  This is dense language.  Language, or word choice, that feels unnecessarily complex.

One of my students years ago was a published poet.  He was trying his first novel.  He brought his love for words, especially complicated, poetic words, into his fiction.  At first it was interesting.  Then he began getting feedback from the class (and me) to ease up on the love of language.  Stop trying to make everything beautiful and intense and interesting, and make sure the words he chose actually served the story.

He backed off a bit from the poetry, chose simpler words and structure, and the story blossomed.  Once the story was intact and working, he could go back in and add his poetry.  It was a big wake-up call for him and changed his writing.

Another way dense writing appears is too packed with events or information in too small a space.  One editor I know calls this rat-ta-tat-tat writing.  This happens, then this happens, then this happens with nary a pause for a breath.  If you write like this, and my student who posed the initial question for this blog article might, your goal is to keep things moving fast.  But realize that readers need time to actually "see" what's happening and "feel" the character's reaction. 

They need what's called beats.  Beats are the small pauses between events or dialogue lines that allow us to absorb the meaning.  Beats are a big part of screenwriting, and novelists and memoirists are learning to use them too.  When I add beats, I can do it intuitively, for the most part--although we are all most blind to our own writing.  But if I can't, I grab a favorite published book and read a page aloud to get a feel for where those pauses, those beats, occur.  Then I read a page of my own writing and see if I can sense where the pauses should occur.

Nonstop action isn't all that fun to read, truthfully.  After a while, it's just rat-ta-tat-tat.  And who needs that.

2.  Dense can also have to do with the visual appearance of paragraphs and sentences on the page.  Dense prose means too little white space.  Novelist Alexander Chee has a great technique for seeing this:  print out a chapter and placing the pages end to end, then squint to see the balance of text and white space. 

If you see pages with thick chunks of text, see if you can break them up.  Conversely, if there are lots of one-line paragraphs, consider adding beats to create some density. 

It all comes down to a perfect balance.