books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Does Social Networking Make You Feel like You’re Back in High School?

A friend who saw the film The Social Network last week said she had one of those back-in-high-school nightmares afterward. You know the kind: you can't remember the way to class, haven’t studied for the Algebra test, and suddenly realize you're still wearing your pj's. You may be a successful fifty-something attorney like my friend, but you wake up feeling like a helpless adolescent, trapped in a maze of strange hallways, irate teachers, and jeering bullies.

My friend isn’t alone in having that reaction to social media. A number of bloggers have written recently about how Twitter feels like a teen party where the popular kids act like you don’t exist. Author Michelle Davidson Argyle wrote in a February post, “It’s like I'm stepping into my high school gym again. The same insecurities come back. The same panic sets in.”  

This isn’t surprising. Social networking sprang from the corridors of colleges and high schools, and entering Cyberia can feel a lot like being the new kid in school.

Everybody seems to know the rules but you.

I especially get this feeling from Facebook: until you learn the ropes, you’re subjected to public humiliation (emails that “Anne likes Earth Girls are Easy” go out to your boss and everybody on your list of potential clients.) Then cyberbullies set nasty traps, posing as your friends: “Mildred (your octogenarian neighbor) just answered five questions about Anne’s sex life. Click here for answers.” If you click, a similar message goes out to five random contacts from your email address book, including the agent you queried last week.

It’s like going to a school run by Lindsay Lohan’s Mean Girls.

Blogging doesn’t feel quite so scary to me. Of the three main areas of social networking—Facebook, Twitter and Blogging—blogging feels the least high-schooly. Maybe because it doesn’t have so many rules. (Or so many bullies—at least not in the part of the blogosphere I visit.)
But having no rules can be uncomfortable too. Most people would at least like a map of the campus. That may be why my “how to blog” posts are popular. (Thanks for all the comments, links and follows!) A lot of people are hungry for information.

I caught a little flak last week from readers who thought I was being high-handed in dictating how people ought to blog. Those people may be dealing with that “new kid in school” feeling and don’t like being told they’re wearing the wrong outfit or should have studied for some test.

So I apologize. I went to three different high schools and I’d never want to inflict that feeling on anybody.

I should clarify a few things. First, I’m “writing about writing. mostly.” If you’re a photographer or a musician or a visual artist, my advice is probably way off. You’ll notice I never post pictures or videos. That’s because 1) I want to focus on verbal content. 2) I’m the world’s worst photographer and don’t even own a camera. 3) I’m a lazy slow blogger. It takes less time for me to write content than surf for public domain visuals.

And as for my advice—I only mean to make suggestions. I’m not the blog police. I’m an authority-questioner myself. I never met a rule I didn’t want to break—or at least poke at a little. In fact, I offered my initial “how to blog” posts as an antidote to sites like “Blog Tyrant” and “Blogging Boot Camp,” where the advice is of the “tough love” variety.

If my tips don’t resonate with you, ignore them. Or better yet, challenge me in the comment thread and start a discussion. Prove me wrong. I love that stuff.

For instance, I’d probably tell you that posting a picture of your dog’s daily dump on your blog wouldn’t be the best idea for an aspiring writer.

But this is the InterWebz, where a blog like that could go as viral as LOL cats. Daily Dog Dump guy could get a book contract and a TV series while I’m still stuck in query hell.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the 21st century writing world, and it does trigger the same fears as a new high school. Maybe you’ve finished a novel or won a contest and you’re feeling pretty good. So you’re ready to leave Middle School, where you’ve been top of the heap, and move into the higher grades of the professional writing world.

And here you are: a nobody newbie in the vast school of writerland. You get no points for finishing that novel or winning that prize. Other people have twelve novels and fifteen prizes. You must ingest a huge amount of information—queries and synopses can feel a lot like algebraic formulas and French verb forms—while simultaneously “building platform,” which means learning the (mostly unwritten) social rules. Without looking needy or nerdy or irritating the cool kids.

And yes, there are cool kids. Neil Gaiman has a million and a half Twitter followers and follows 666 (there’s got to be a story behind that number.) Kevin Spacey has nearly two million and follows 11. You’re never going to get to sit at their lunch table. (But hey, I know a guy who went to high school with Kevin and says he wasn’t all that cool.)

So what do we do?

My advice is to confront the high school fears and let them go. You’re a grown-up now. Think of a new metaphor.

I told my friends who felt bad about being ignored on Twitter not to think of themselves as ostracized high school dorks—but wizards with invisibility cloaks.

The others don’t see you, but you see them. There’s power in that knowledge. You can listen in on conversations without anybody knowing you’re there. (You can learn a lot by following agents’ and editors’ tweets.) Once you’ve picked up enough information to feel secure, take off the cloak and enter the conversation.

Tweets and blogs are simply places to be yourself online—so people can get to know you. You do have to pay attention to things like copyright laws, but if you’re not breaking the law, anything goes. Whatever works for you, works.

Ignore everything else. It’s NOT high school and nobody’s going to give you detention or steal your lunch money. Especially not me.

So what about you, fellow scriveners?

  • Do you hate hearing a bunch of blog rules?

  • Does Twitter make you feel like the friendless dork at the homecoming dance?

  • Am I going to flunk Social Networking because I hate Facebook?

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Again, thanks, everybody, for helping me reach 400+ followers! And a special thanks to author Kathleen Valentine whose link to this blog ended up in the Dallas Morning News yesterday!
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It turns out this topic was more timely than I realized. Today (March 28) the American Academy of Pediatrics says Facebook causes depression in children. I think that probably goes for our inner children as well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

400 Followers!

Actually, at this writing, it's 402. Thank you so much, new followers--as well as loyal, long-time blog friends--for making this little once-a-week Slow Blog successful. Over 600 hits yesterday! Every single reader is important to me, and I plan to visit all your blogs as soon as I can get to them. Welcome!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

7 Dos and 7 Don’ts for New Bloggers

Nathan Bransford has spoken. He says it’s never too early for writers to start using social media. Perhaps one day we’ll all be issued Twitter accounts in the womb.

Since Nathan is a Thought Leader in our industry (according to Klout) I have a feeling a lot of writers are scrambling around this weekend, trying to set up blogs.

If you’re a non-geek who doesn’t have a clue where to begin, I wrote a post last December on How to Start a Blog that people have found useful..

Here are some further dos and don’ts for creative writers who are thinking of plunging into the blogosphere.

DO’S

1) DO read a bunch of other writers’ blogs before you start. Decide what you like and don’t like. There is no one right kind of blog. What appeals to 20-something fantasy readers may turn off 30-something romance readers or 60-something mystery readers. That’s as it should be. You want to attract readers with similar interests to yours.

2) DO comment on other blogs. If you don’t have much blog experience, I recommend spending a few weeks commenting before you start your own. Nathan wrote a great guide to blog comments that will help if you're nervous about joining in. If you get your name known as a commenter first, you’ll have potential blog friends. And maybe you can avoid that awkward phase when you only have three blank-faced followers, one of whom is your mom. (But never beg for followers. Pathetic is not an image you want to foster.)

3) DO remember blogging is about making friends. As Nathan has “trademarked, patented, and paid to have etched into the moon…SOCIAL MEDIA IS SOCIAL.” Offer interesting content that gives something of value to the kind of people you’d like to get to know. Visit people who do the same.  

4) DO put your name in the title. Yes, I know 90% of writerly blogs have cute titles that don’t contain proper names. But think about it: if I enjoy your blog and want to revisit, I probably won’t remember if yours is the one called “Musings and Murmurings” or the one called “Mumblings and Mutterings.” I’m going to remember your name (hopefully) and maybe your subject matter (“Mysterious Minneapolis.”)

But your name is best. That’s what you want people (and Google) to notice. Social media guru Kristin Lamb even recommends changing your title if it’s impersonal. She changed her own blog moniker from “Warrior Writers” to “Kristin Lamb’s Blog.” and says it’s easy. You don’t have to change the address, just the header.

5) DO think of blogging as journalism. A blog is like a newspaper column: more personal than straightforward reporting, but not as confessional as memoir. Posts should be short (300-1000 words) and informative.

6) DO blog on a regular schedule. You don’t have to blog every day, or even every week. But you do need to let people know when to expect a new post from you and follow through. Keep some saved posts in the draft folder for times when something comes up.

7) DO use SEO tags. Yes, my eyes glaze over too when people talk about S(earch) E(ngine) O(ptimization). This is what you need to know: Google reads tags. Those are the little categories you put at the bottom of the post. So if you’re writing about your zombie fiction set in Minneapolis, tag your blog with “zombies, Minneapolis, Minnesota horror stories, and Your Name.” When somebody Googles any of those things, your blog will come up.

DON’TS

1) DON’T use your blog as a personal journal.
  • Or a notebook for your work in progress.
  • Or a message board to beg for critiques or praise.
  • Or a stage to pound your chest and say “look at me!!”
I repeat: you’re looking for friends. Not psychotherapists. Not critics. Not minions.

2) DON’T post unpublished fiction or poetry—unless you never intend to publish it elsewhere. Even if you get loyal followers to read your WIP, you’re jeopardizing your future career. Putting something on a blog is publishing. You’ll never be able to sell first rights to a story or poem, and there will be copyright issues with a chapter of a book you plan to sell later.

EXCEPTION: blogfests and contests. Usually these require only a snippet of a scene and they’re fun and allow writers a taste of each others’ creative work.

3) DON’T start with a barrage of posts. Slow and steady really does win the race. Don’t succumb to the pressure from the professional blog gurus. You’re not trying to be The Daily Beast. If you post every day, it’s hard to cut back. But if you only post every two weeks, that’s what people will expect. You can post more later. It’s easier to give than take away.

4) DON’T be unprofessional. Remember publishing is a business—not that different from manufacturing widgets (alas!) So don’t put anything on the blog you wouldn’t want your future boss publisher to read.  

5) DON’T box yourself into a too-small niche.  If you’re starting a blog long before your book comes out, or even before you’ve written one, as Nathan suggests, you won’t have a clue where your career might take you. But you do know who YOU are. That’s what your blog should be about. Love horror movies? Classic mysteries? Pizza with anchovies? Write about it. You’ll draw like-minded people. When you write your mashup of The Mysterious Affair at Styles with anchovy-loving zombies, you’ll have a ready-made audience.

6) DON’T act like a rock star from Mars. Nothing is sillier than an unpublished writer pontificating about an unfinished, unpublished book to non-existent fans. Or blabbering about stuff she knows nothing about to an audience of nobody.

7) DON’T Monetize. Or take advice from blog gurus who do. They’re not talking to you. They’re talking to people who want to blog for a living (a precarious effort these days.) I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it because you’ll read conflicting advice. Maybe later, after you have a following, your peeps will love you enough to tolerate a few discreet ads, but right now you won’t make enough money per month to buy a Venti at Starbucks, and you’ll label yourself a cyber-hooker. Save your purity for your future true love—your own books.

If you want in-depth information on blogging and all things social media, I recommend Kristin Lamb’s book We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.

Anybody out there about to start a blog? Any questions? Fellow bloggers—what advice would you give them?


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Slow Blogging Works: A Blogiversary Success Story

It’s been quite a week. Let’s hope we’re done with disasters for a while. To my neighbors who got evacuated at 7 AM on Friday—and to the tens of thousands affected by the horrors in Japan—my heart goes out to you.

I started this blog exactly two years ago today: March 13, 2009. I probably shouldn’t use the word “started.” It was more like I oozed into it.

My expectations weren’t so much low as non-existent.

It was a pretty abysmal time in my life. My publisher had gone under, leaving me out of print, unpaid, and stuck with an unpublishable third book in a series. Soon after, the popular ezine where I was a columnist ceased publication. Most of the magazines that were my bread and butter were going belly-up or no longer paying. I wrote another novel and rewrote the others for the US market, but couldn’t even get a partial request.

I feared nobody would ever read my words again.

I started surfing publishing blogs to find out why my queries weren’t getting nibbles. (They sucked. Seriously.) I haunted agent blogs, especially Nathan Bransford’s. But commenting was difficult without a Blogger profile, and the easiest way to get one was—start a blog. VoilĂ .

I left a short, dismal post and promptly lost the whole thing for a month and a half.

Then I started reading about how even fiction writers need a platform and Web presence. So I Googled around, found my blog and posted an article I’d written for a local paper about six months before.

And forgot it again.

Then I had one of those life-is-short medical wake-up calls and decided it was time to do something—anything—to get my writing going again. So I posted a couple of updated versions of my old columns. I started getting comments. And an invitation from Emily Cross to join the Writers Chronicle forums, which brought some followers. I was amazed.

I was even more amazed when the third or fourth post got a visit from agent Janet Reid—the Query Shark! She even said the post was “nicely written.” OMG, how I basked.

So every Sunday, I’d write a post. I’d never blog more than once a week, since I was concentrating on a new novel now my confidence was beginning to come back.

I had no idea I was “slow blogging” until Lee Robertson left a comment telling me about the Slow Blog Manifesto

Sometimes people would read my posts; sometimes they wouldn’t. I was completely clueless about reading and following other blogs, or responding to comments in the thread. Or anything like using Twitter to drive traffic. I thought if I just sat here, people like Janet Reid would continue to stop by. But I soon learned that lightning doesn’t strike the same blog twice.

But a few months later, I got a rare Google alert. A blogger named Sierra Godfrey had included one of my posts in her “Google Roundup.” I went over to her blog and made friends.

On her blog I met the Literary Lab triumvirate and one sleepless night decided to submit a story to their first anthology, Genre Wars. They accepted it. My fiction was in print again. That felt great—so great that I submitted a post to a contest Nathan Bransford was running for a guest blog spot.

I won! (You can read my post here.)

Less than a year after I’d written my first dismal post, I was guest blogging for the most popular blogger in the publishing industry. I got other invitations to guest blog and a couple of mentions in Jane Friedman’s Best Tweets.

I even got the attention of one of my long-time idols, Pay it Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde. She commented on a post and asked if I’d be willing to mention a workshop she was giving on a similar subject.

Nearly everybody who signed up for the workshop came through this blog.

Catherine was impressed. She asked if I’d like to collaborate on a book for writers—a combination of the kind of advice I give here and the stuff she teaches in her workshops: equal parts instruction and inspiration.

Squeee!

She didn’t have time to work on it right away, because she had two new books coming out, but I knew she’d follow through. We both saw my blog as a key component of our book proposal, so I started doing more research on how to have a more professional blog.

I found most “how to blog” advice came from professional marketers and full time bloggers with a “boot camp” approach. So I spent months visiting hundreds of blogs—to see what worked best for creative writers. In November, I wrote a four part “how to start a blog” series. (Part I here. Links to the others in the sidebar.)

It went viral. Two internet marketing gurus pronounced my series the best place to learn basic blogging. I was tweeted and retweeted. I was getting 1000 hits a day.

In December I got a Google alert saying blogsbusiness.net had valued my blog at $25,000. (Right—who’s going to buy it? But it was kind of nice to hear.) Offers from advertisers started appearing in my inbox. (Not that I’m going there.) But when I was asked to join the staff of the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog and invited to teach at the Central Coast Writers Conference, I realized I what a difference my blog was making in my writing career.

For the past couple of months, Catherine and I have been working on our book. I’m happy to announce we’ve now finished our proposal. Working title: HOW TO BE A WRITER—and survive with your spirit intact. (Watch this space for more info.)

I still can’t sell my novels, but I have a couple of pieces of an old one in the latest Literary Lab anthology, Notes From Underground. And I’m getting ready to query my new one, which I feel really good about.

And most of all, I have you, my fantastic blogging friends. I feel I’ve connected with people of my own tribe here—all those other writers I used to have to go to a conference to meet. Blogging hasn’t just improved my chances of restarting my career, it’s enhanced my life. (I’m going to write more about this in a guest blog over at Sierra’s next month, while she’s ushering another whippersnapper onto the planet.)

And on this blogiversary, I’d like thank you all: Emily, Lee, The Literary Labsters, Sierra—and Catherine, of course—plus every single one of you who has followed or commented or even just lurked here for a quick read.

THANK YOU! YOU’RE THE BEST!!

You’ve helped me prove that a “slow” once-a-week blog can succeed.

I’d love to hear your stories. Bloggers out there—what got you started? Non-bloggers, would you consider starting one, knowing you only have to post once a week?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Butterfly Syndrome: Do You Have Trouble Committing to a Writing Project?

 Several readers have emailed me recently with questions I often ask myself:

1) How can I tell if a new writing project is going to be marketable?
2) How do I stop bouncing from idea to idea, frittering away my precious writing time?
3) If I don’t know what to write, does that mean I’m not really a writer?

A reader who calls himself evildemonspork—which I think shows a lot of promise right there—wrote this in an email:

 “I always start stories—creating grand worlds in my head…and then a new one pops in, and I feel compelled to write that instead. The leaping from one to another, without getting more than a chapter done, is one of the things that drives me crazy. I have a lot of ideas and no time to do them all, making me feel like I'm wasting my talent. It gets me frustrated and wanting to stop…even if stopping is not what I really want to do.”

All I could say to him was, “Dude, welcome to the club!”

I call this stage of writing the “butterfly syndrome.” It happens to me when I’ve recently finished a manuscript and the first rejections are drifting in. Like right now.

I want to start a new project, and I’m tired of hearing, “Great writing. Couldn’t put it down. But I can’t sell this right now. Have you got something more steampunk/zombieapocalypse/crafty-cozy/serialkiller-noir/SouthernGothic-with-fangs?”

I’ve never written to trends—following advice I heard many years ago. But these days, trends appear to rule. Why not write something editors are actually looking for?

So I’ll try sprucing up a half-finished mystery with some zombies, or maybe a serial-killer quilting circle. Maybe rewrite my Sherwood Forest tale with corsets and zeppelins. Or outline a new cozy series set in my hometown. Something I could self-publish and sell at craft fairs.

Then I’ll tell myself I should stop trying to write for adults: YA is where it’s happening. YA is exciting and hip. YA writers can publish literary fiction even when they’re not personal friends with the editorial staff of the New Yorker. Hey, I read mostly literary fiction. Maybe I should let myself write it?

But after a day or two on a new project, I’ll think—“Do I really want to spend a year on this? What if it ends up being as untrendy as my last six novels?

So I run off to the next idea. And the next. And then write nothing at all.

Poet Sylvia Plath wrote about this writerly dilemma in her novel The Bell Jar. She told a fable about a fig tree where her heroine sat looking at dozens of ripe, juicy figs, each representing a direction she might take.

She wrote, “[I was] starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose, but…as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Well, I sure don’t want my figs to get wrinkled and black and ploppy, and obviously, neither does evildemonspork. But we’ve been trapped in our own fig trees, paralyzed by our inability to choose. 

As you might have guessed, my personal writing paralysis manifests as surfing through the publishing blogosphere. I’m constantly looking for hints as to what might be less likely to produce those “not trendy enough” rejections next time. But I always end up more confused. Some agents say the future of publishing is dystopian apocalyptica; some are begging for merperson romance; and others want nothing but steampunk, and plenty of it.

That’s why I was overjoyed to run into agent Jim McCarthy’s “I Hate Trends” piece on the DGLM blog last week.

“I think right now we’re stuck between a few [trends],” he says. “Certainly lots more people are writing young adult because they’ve heard that’s where the money is. That also explains the sudden presence of lots and lots more YA agents. Vampires/ demons/ werewolves and other creatures of the night still regularly show up quite a lot in my inbox; there’s also a lot of dystopian stuff trying to cash in on what’s happening RIGHT NOW; and there is a small but dedicated group who are still trying to make steampunk happen (ah, the trend that never was). But by and large, a solid half of everything is always by people writing to the market in the most concerted and obvious way possible. No matter how often I tell people the biggest books don’t follow the trends but instead create them, there will always be someone who’s all “ZOMG, I wrote the next Twilight!”

Eeeeuw, who wants to be the faux-Twilight loser?

Mr. McCarthy repeats the advice I heard in my youth: don’t follow trends; set them.

To evildemonspork, I passed along another piece of advice I heard in some long-ago creative writing class: No time spent writing is wasted. Eventually one project will grab you and refuse to let go.

And a few days ago, that’s what happened to me. I heard a clear voice in my head that compelled me to drop everything and let the words flow. Two hours later, I had ten pretty good pages, and a forthright seven-year-old girl named Brodie living in my head.

My muse was back. And in charge.

Of course, Brodie doesn’t drive a zeppelin or live in a decaying Louisiana swamp with apocalyptic zombies. She’s a tough, funny little girl who wants to be an evil ex-girlfriend when she grows up. She’s not going to let me write to a trend whether I want to or not.

And who says evil ex-girlfriend lit won’t be the next big thing?

It was a reminder that we’re not as much in charge of what we write as we (or agents and editors) think we are. We don’t always choose our projects. Sometimes they choose us. And we have to put in some butterfly time in order for that to happen.

So keep flitting around until you hear that little voice in your head that won’t go away. It won’t be anything you expect. But it will flow. And you won’t be able to stop it. And that will be bliss.

It is the only good reason to write. The rest is a total crapshoot.

So in answer to those questions:

1) You can’t.
2) Go with it. It’s part of the process. The more you write, the better you get.
3) Yup. You're a writer. Butterfly syndrome is part of the package. More on this in my post “How Do I Know I’m A Writer?” 

How about you, fellow scriveners? Have you suffered from butterfly syndrome? How did you choose your current project? Or did it choose you?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Notes from Underground is Out!

The long-awaited new anthology from the Literary Lab debuts today. NOTES FROM UNDERGOUND is now available. It’s $10, either at amazon or through the Literary Lab or CreateSpace. All proceeds go to the Writers Emergency Relief Fund.. A REALLY important resource for writers. You'll be doing all sorts of good if you buy one. A bit more goes to them if you order through the Literary Lab--and there’s a 15% discount if you sign up for their mailing list.   

It has work from so many of you—and two excerpts from my novel THE ASHTRAYS OF AVALON. Love the cover!



Can't wait to read everybody's edgiest work! 

On a sadder note, Pay it Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde has had her Amazon page attacked by trolls working for a bullying, estranged relative. (Even when you're a grown-up, bullies from your childhood can make your life hell, thanks to electronic media.) You can help her by going to the amazon Jumpstart the World page and clicking on the actual reviews as "helpful" http://amzn.to/fcX0IY and the personal attacks as "unhelpful." Pass the word on.

All writers are vulnerable to Amazon troll attacks—so here's a chance to Pay It Forward.