Editing has always been a critical factor regarding any book’s success. This has NOT changed. If anything, proper editing is a complete game-changer now more than ever in the history of publishing.
Because too many writers fail to appreciate just how vital proper editing is. They skimp on the editing for the sassy cover and the cool promotion material.
Problem is, no one can get through Chapter One without risking a brain bleed.
Who cares how amazing the story is if we (the reader) keep getting jerked out of the fictive dream?
More importantly, in a world drowning in bad books, those rare jewels—books well-written and properly edited—shine like polished jewels scattered on chunks of asphalt.
Readers glom onto authors they know they can TRUST for great stories, professionals who went the extra mile to make their product the best it could be.
Alas, there is a common fallacy among many emerging writers. They believe (very mistakenly) that authors only write the books. Then, once finished, agents will fall in LOVE and someone else will do ALL the editing.
*clutches sides laughing.*
Yeah…no. And woodland creatures don’t help with housework. Sorry to break the news. Bummed me out, too.
The hard truth is the onus is on us (writers) to make certain our manuscript is properly edited before sending a query. Remember, agents are actively searching for reasons to STOP reading. Self-editing skills can mean the difference between a sweet deal or a spot in the slush pile.
Even if the story is amazing, agents know editing is time-consuming and costly. This means they’re more likely to wait for another ‘amazing story’ that doesn’t cost as much as a Caribbean cruise to get bookstore ready. They’ll be far more likely to sign an author who possesses solid self-editing skills.
But what was that old saying?
You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Applies to agents and to readers.
Self-publishing is a whole new level and new devil. If we’re doing our job, the self-published novel should be at least as good as anything legacy published. This means we bear the burden (and cost) of making sure our manuscript is the best it can be.
Superior editing makes the difference between releasing a novel versus unleashing one. Many emerging writers—once the novel is ‘finished’—make some major errors when it comes to ‘editing.’
Here are a few biggies:
The writer actually believes the novel is finished and hits PUBLISH (Ahhhhhhh! NO!);
Emerging authors fail to understand proofreading is NOT synonymous with editing. Proofreading is merely one type of editing;
New authors don’t research how much good developmental editors/substantive line-editors charge for services.
Since all novels require editing, the more we know how to do ourselves, the lower our costs will be. Trust me. Y’all do not want to pay a developmental editor to turn a 90,000 word mess into something readable (forget publishable).
Feel free to do this, but be ready to cough up a few thousand dollars and part of a kidney.
A more cost-effective option is to understand plot and the mechanics of story so we can repair the flaws ourselves. Sure, a good developmental editor will spot the massive plot holes and guide us how to repair them, but (again) it’s gonna cost us.
Additionally, we can pay someone to insert all our proper punctuation and correct poor grammar, OR we can learn how to do this stuff ourselves. Then we’re only paying for a proofreader to catch what we missed or goofed.
Trust me, no matter how good the writer, we ALL miss/goof stuff.
Self-Editing and ‘Cost vs. Value’
As I already mentioned, good editors are NOT cheap. There are also many editors who charge by the hour. If they’re spending their time fixing oopses we could’ve easily repaired ourselves?
We’re burning cash and time.
Self-editing can be a real life (and cash) saver.
Yet, correct the problems we’ll be discussing today, and editors can more easily get to the MEAT of our novel. This means you will spend less money and get far higher value.
Over my career I have literally edited thousands of works, most of them written by emerging writers. My particular specialty is content and developmental edit. Though I’ll correct punctuation and spelling as I go (because I am OCD and generous) MY job is to make a STORY the best it can possibly be.
Problem is, most of the time I can’t even get to the story because it’s obscured under layers of bleh the writer could have removed in revision.
#1 DIY Adverb Removal
Despite what you might have been told, not ALL adverbs are evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly?
***Wow, glad the author explained how ‘whispering’ works.
Ah, but if a character whispers seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn’t inherent in the verb. Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones.
Either we need to choose a stronger verb, or we’re treating the reader like an idiot.
If a character walks quickly to the train platform, then choose a verb that means ‘to walk quickly’ (stride, jog, hurry) and use that one instead. If a character yells loudly, ditch the loudly.
We understand how yelling ‘works.’
#2 Cut the Cray-Cray
First and foremost, readers want a STORY. Stories are more than loads of ‘pretty writing’ using thousand-dollar words. Stories are about problems. A character thinks life is fine, then PROBLEM. The character then must struggle, grow, evolve, make choices to eventually SOLVE the problem (win, lose, draw).
Pretty description is optional. Big words are also optional. Alas, if we want to be a writer who uses description then we need to wield with economy.
Few things make me as giddy as a glorious line of description or a new vocabulary word. Many readers (and writers) are like crows.
When describing a miserable afternoon in late 19th century Chicago, the author had many options of how to do this. Instead of, ‘The day was humid and stifling,’ Erik Larson wrote, ‘The air hung with the heavy stillness of a tapestry.’
There’s nothing, per se, wrong with the first description. But Larson’s line was far more visceral because he made use of multiple senses simultaneously.
But some writers take similes too far.
I’ve seen writers who’ve used so much ‘wordsmithery’ that I had no idea what the hell they were even trying to say. The goal of a novel is to hook readers into a dramatic narrative, not prove we own a thesaurus.
***Word on the street is the NSA is contemplating either revoking Sean Penn’s permission to own a thesaurus OR they want to weaponize his writing.
Metaphors and similes are fantastic literary devices, but need to be used with intention. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn’t ding us for using forty-two metaphors in five pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, NOT prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.
When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what’s called ‘purple prose.’ Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes.
Pick THE BEST and CUT THE REST.
Any kind of description must serve the story and propel the dramatic action forward. If it doesn’t do this? CUT!
#3 Cut the Stage Direction
Again, the more time an editor devotes to a project the higher the bill. Also, if an editor charges by the page, we could be paying for a lot of filler we could have removed ourselves.
Alfred Hitchcock said, ‘Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.’ Readers don’t need every single step of a day. We live it, why would we read it?
Yet, I see a lot of samples like this:
Fifi opened her eyes at dawn. She pulled back her covers and placed her feet on the floor. Padding across the room, she reached for a robe hanging on her door. Her stomach growled, so she went downstairs and opened the fridge for the carton of orange juice, then grabbed a glass from the cabinet. Turning around, she searched for a granola bar….
OH, GET ON WITH IT!
An editor is going to cut all of this because NOTHING IS HAPPENING. Also, readers pretty much know how the whole ‘getting juice’ phenomenon works. They don’t need a blow-by-blow.
Fifi reached out her hand to open the door.
Unless Fifi has telekinetic powers, do readers need the direction?
Filler pads the word count, but it also pads the editing bill. The verbs turn, look, grab, pull are possible red flags you’re doing too much stage direction. My advice is to do a Word Find and search for these verbs and their variations (I.e. look, looked, looking). See if the action is necessary or if you’re holding the reader’s brain.
If you’re holding the reader’s brain? Return it, please.
#4 Beware of Painful & Alien Movement of Body Parts
Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.
His head followed her across the room.
Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.
#5 Ease Up on the Physiology
Fifi’s head pounded. She ran for the door, her heart hammering and wild pulse beating relentlessly in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs. All she could do was gasp. Panic made her throat clench and stomach heave. Mind numb, she reached for the door, fingers trembling.
GET TO IT ALREADY!
After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out. That and I read a lot of samples where the character has her heart pounding so much, I’m waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment.
Physiological reactions can become echoes. If every page the character has her stomach churning, roiling and rolling, our reader will need an antacid before finishing the chapter (provided she finishes at all).
I strongly recommend a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone’s heart is pounding, that’s okay. We just don’t need to be told this over and over and…over.
We (readers) assume the character’s heart is still pounding until she’s out of danger.
No need to remind us.
#6 Odd Sentence Construction
In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many emerging writers will craft sentences like this:
With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.
First, this is backing into the action. Though technically correct (enough), it’s easy to lose a reader if we have too many sentences like this. Active sentences are the easiest on the brain and keep the reader immersed in the fictive dream.
Then there are the picky issues with the example above. For instance, when we use the word ‘down,’ then ‘on’ is redundant.
Also, Jessie is either ironing or not ironing. ‘Started’ is overused and makes sloppy writing (this actually goes back to the whole stage direction thing).
Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.
Another way writers will vary the beginning of sentences is they’ll default to what’s known as passive voice.
The door was kicked in by the police.
Police kicked in the door.
If you go through your pages and see WAS clusters? That’s a HUGE hint that passive voice has infected your story.
Many writers end up with strange sentence construction because they realize every sentence is starting with the character’s name or the appropriate pronoun. They’re trying to ameliorate the repetition of Jessie, Jessie, Jessie, she, she, she. The problem, then, is not sentence construction, rather the writer needs to open the lens of the storytelling.
Remember our character doesn’t need to be the subject of every sentence. We’re telling a story. This means we can work with setting, other characters, etc.
#7 Get Rid of ‘Clever’ Tags
Ideally, if we do a good job with our characters, the reader should know who’s talking without tags because speech patterns differ. If all our characters ‘speak’ the same way, that is an issue we need to remedy.
Yet, we can’t always do this, which means we can use a tag. Tags are fine, but keep it simple. This isn’t the place to get clever.
Kristen is away at a conference in San Francisco….so that means today, you get ME! And despite what the title implies, I’m not here to talk about the failed New Year’s diet (ask me if I even bothered).
No, today, you get a super special fun rant from me about food in the fantasy genre. Why? Because I can. But also, because it’s a real problem.
Not to mention that our characters are going to end up with some serious nutritional and health issues if all they ever eat are bread and cheese.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some bread and cheese as much as the next person. But…even if the story is loosely Ye Olde Faux Medieval, there seriously has to be more than just bread and cheese in the larder.
It seems like such a small thing, doesn’t it? Of course Our Heroes are going to pack food for their quest or steal it along the way (or buy it...why do they never have money to buy stuff?). Bread and cheese seems simple and safe to use. Yet, these details, as seemingly throwaway as they are, define the difference between amateur hour and professionals.
Because why have bread and cheese when you could have dried figs and honey, sweet spiced mead, smoked meats with cracked pepper crusts, and hard savory biscuits that soften when used to soak up the juices of any meat or stew cooked over the campfire?
The Locavore Diet
If we are dealing with a fantasy setting that is pre-any-kind-of-industrialization (magic notwithstanding), then there are certain things we have to keep in mind.
Good world-building includes consideration of climate and geography. Do characters live in tropical mountains regions or cold mountain regions? This question naturally leads us to comparisons with more familiar, Earthly parallels. For example, tropical mountains could easily be the rain forests and mountains of Rwanda and the Congo. Cold mountain regions could be Scandinavian or maybe Inuit.
While we might not be writing an exact transposition of those cultures into our fantasy world, there are some hard facts about climate, farming, and resources that we need to understand, and real information about those regions can help us. Year-round farming may be possible in the tropics, but food spoils faster in the heat. Farming is a bigger gamble in cold climates as there is just one shot at a growing season. On the other hand, characters have a refrigerator right outside their door for nine months of the year.
Geography and seasonality also determine the nutritional profile of a character’s diet. Colder climate settings could mean increased meat and dairy, possibly with fish and root vegetables. This is a diet that also happens to suit the body’s ‘insulation’ and energy expenditure needs to survive the cold. Warmer climates provide an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, all which have high water content which help keep the body regulated and healthy.
Locals might drink well water and be okay, but Our Question Heroes From The Kingdom Next Door probably shouldn’t. Without indoor plumbing, sewage systems, and water filtration, I’m pretty sure that giardia would also still be a thing. And magical springs are a whole other headache. I mean, what is the bacteria in our digestive tract supposed to DO with enchantments?
Too much? TMI? Whatevs.
Ye Olde Tupperware
Going back to the whole pre-industrialization thing, let’s stop for a moment to consider food storage.
On the one hand, it’s kind of awesome to think of a world that’s by default 100% organic and 100% non-GMO (mostly because they don’t have any other choice). Also, there’s no low-fat anything unless it’s a vegetable or straight-up starvation. And there’s the eternal toss-up between dying of hypertension/heart disease because of all the salt used to preserve food or dying of some really nasty gastro-intestinal parasite (that wears a little wizarding hat because hey, magic!) because Guidwyfe Jellichoe wanted to try this new-fangled thing the traveling physick had mentioned called a ‘low-sodium diet.’
In very general terms, food preservation breaks down into a couple of processes: salting, smoking, spicing, and sun-drying. There are probably more, but let’s just roll with these for now. The mains goals of preservation are to remove moisture or change the chemical balance to slow sensitivity and decay. Each has pros and cons that are dependent (you guessed it!) climate and geography.
Salting gives us delicious things like salami and bacon, but there was a time when salt was either hard to come by or fairly expensive if you didn’t live close to the ocean. Smoking works, but it’s pretty miserable to do when you live in 100F heat with matching humidity. Sun-drying is only as good as the number of hot, sunny days that coincide with a harvest. Using spices is one of the ways people change the chemical balance of food. An example of this would be making curries – which, incidentally uses spices that only grow in those climate regions…which is kind of a neat trick on nature’s part, though I still take issue with covering 2/3 of the world in UNDRINKABLE water. LOL
If Our Heroes need to take food with them, how are they going to carry it? What kind of pre-industrial packaging are we going to have? Leaf-wrapped lembas? Hard, smokey cheese wrapped in linen? Wax-sealed clay jars for wine? Again, think about the impact of geography and season on the food storage and transportation options for Our Heroes.
Have a Snickers, Cait
I know that I tend to be a little over-enthusiastic about going down research rabbit-holes. It’s the frustrated ivory tower academic in my soul. And the beautiful part about fantasy is that it really doesn’t require all that much research.
But, it DOES require the time and effort to think things through. Just because we are writing fantasy doesn’t mean we get a pass on facts, logic, and realism. If anything, it SHOULD hold us to an even higher standard of rigor in order to help the reader become fully immersed in the world and invested in the characters.
Thoughtful, unique details can make a moment come alive. Illogical or trite details can turn a reader off faster than Gollum can say, “Sssssally sssssellsss sssseashellssss.”
Just a little time spent with Dr. Google, Professor Wikipedia, and Head Librarian Google Books (all free except for some parts of Google Books) will be worth its weight in cursed dwarvish gold when it comes to creating a fantasy world that readers want to visit again and again and again…
Have a Snickers, Cait (Redux)
No matter how ranty I seem, teaching about fantasy world-building is one of my favorite things to do (no joke). And, this Friday, I’m teaching one heck of a class on it. Three hours live (plus recording) of 1,001 things you can do to make your fantasy world stand out from the crowd (something that no amount of newsletter advertising or Rafflecopters can do for you long-term…).
Taught by USA Today BSA Cait Reynolds February 22nd, 7-10 PM EST ($99)
THIS IS A 3-HOUR CLASS BECAUSE THERE IS LITERALLY SO MUCH TO COVER! (Remember, you also get a recording of this class to keep forevernevernevernever)
Come prepared to take LOTS of notes and ask lots of questions!
This class will cover a REALLY wide range of topics, including (and certainly not limited to):
WTF is etymology, and why does it matter?: What are the fundamental rules of creating names, vocabulary, and language;
This land is your land…: We will dig into geology, geography, cartography, and probably some other ‘graphy-s’, and how to use them literally in world-building;
Keeping it real: Tips and tricks for keeping your characters relatable to readers, even if they have tentacles/magical powers/chip implants;
Trope is as trope does: What elements of fantasy are ‘required’ for the genre, and how to separate those from the eye-roll-inducing tropes (I’m looking at you, servant-girl-turned-magical-warrior-princess!);
Thinking it up vs. thinking it through: Just because it seems like a cool idea to have glow-in-the-dark dragons doesn’t mean it actually is, and who knew it would come back to bite you in chapter 17, stalling out your book, and…yeah…or, how to spot ye olde speed bumps before they wreck the carriage;
DETAILS ARE FUN!: This is the motherlode of all the different nitty-gritty details that either lure the reader into the deep end of immersion or leave them cold in the kiddie pool;
Yes, ads, marketing and promotion campaigns sell toilet paper, soap, and toothpaste because seriously…who is NOT USING this stuff? When it comes to influencing what folks do with their free time, however, it’s a whole other game.
Writers are unique as well. Yes, we really are special unique starfish. And, since we are responsible for producing the product, we need a social media approach that leaves time to write great books.
This said, what’s the critical element that makes a book a mega success? Is it lightning in a bottle? Black magic? Voodoo? Can we buy it on Amazon? Is it banned in Georgia?
No. The answer is actually pretty simple (though simple and easy are NOT synonymous). Writers have to get out in the metaphorical boat.
We had a saying when I worked in sales: Fish where the fish are.
If we want to sell more books, we must learn to fish, and the fish are schooling on-line. And trust me, I know it’s tempting to take shortcuts.
Yet, there’s a marked difference between a legendary angler like Jeremy Wade who goes after a very specific fish to catch and release…and that weird third cousin who tosses dynamite in a pond then collects whatever floats to the surface.
Approach and technique make all the difference in our results. But first…
Field of ‘Dream On’ Marketing
A lot of authors don’t even want to get in the boat let alone learn to fish. They try to apply the ‘Field of Dreams Plan’ to sell more books.
If I write it, they will come.
No. No they won’t. Sorry to break the news. No one cares about our book simply because we’ve published one.
There’s Netflix, Fortnite, YouTube, Instagram, Tinder, and Candy Crush. Also, the final season of Game of Thrones in April—Spring is Coming—and we need to refresh our memories and who exactly all three hundred four characters are. Right?
Suffice to say, writers have had a tough time inspiring humans to read since before the radio was invented. The 24-7 Global SHINYfest is certainly NOT helping. This is why, if we want to sell more books, we cannot simply publish the book then slap down some cash for some Facebook ads.
When we settle for this approach, we’re essentially saying:
Hey, why don’t you devote an average of 11-15 hours you don’t have, to sit still and do an activity you believe you hate? Oh, and PAY ME!
Yep, they’re right on that.
No, no…I can see through their window. Nope, they’re on Netflix. My bad.
Seemed so promising with that 3-D dragon sparkle cover.
Writing excellent books is a fantastic start for those who want to sell more books. But, don’t get too excited. While a great book is a fabulous start, there’s more work we need to do to locate and cultivate our audience.
How Do We Move the Needle?
Yes, I know the above statistics look grim, but as Mark Twain once said, ‘There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ Numbers are wonderful, but they’re a guidepost not gospel.
Sure, data is useful because, if research showed that 96% of all Americans read three books a week and we still weren’t able to sell any books? Probably safe to say writing books is NOT our strong suit. Maybe look into cosmetology school or underwater welding.
Ah, but, when the numbers are low—19%—it’s easier to accept that, when faced with an ambivalent marketplace, we’re going to have to think and do things differently.
We need to work smarter, not harder. If you want to captivate a reading audience, you must do these three things.
Intentionality: Social Media on Porpoise
*bada bump snare*
First, if we want to sell more books, we have to ditch the ‘Field of Dream On Marketing Plan.’
Times have changed and buying habits have as well. As I said earlier, Fish where the fish are.
When it comes to 21st century publishing, if authors don’t have a strong digital presence (brand), we’re not even in the right place to be successful. It’s like trying to fish on dry land…which does NOT yield a tasty catch and just makes us look ridiculous.
So please, get on-line. Your future fans are there and waiting to discover you.
Secondly, stop devoting huge efforts marketing to people who would define themselves as ‘avid readers.’
Why? Because every author out there is trying to sell books to the same limited population, a limited population only capable of buying and reading so many titles.
Additionally, marketing to ‘readers’ is a doomed plan when we apply basic logic.
I just mentioned there are fewer ‘avid readers’ than ever before, but—thanks to self-publishing and indie press—there are more ‘published authors’ than ever before. Fewer readers compounded with exponentially more titles for sale.
See the problem? Basic MATH.
These digital waters have been overfished to the point that anyone who’s still fishing there is likely starving.
Our odds of success will vastly improve if we learn how to make converts, which brings me to my third point.
Remember, the 19% stat only represents people who don’t need to be coerced to read.
The other 81% of literate humans in need of being informed or entertained CAN read, they’re simply choosing NOT to read. This group just needs convincing. A little seduction. Build a relationship. Tell them they’re pretty and ask about their day.
Put out better bait.
***Cat videos are marvelous, FYI.
Yes, it’s more ‘work’ but what (legal) long-term relationship doesn’t require consistent emotional investments?
Every dark horse runaway success has one common denominator:
These authors/books were able to convert millions of fans from the ‘NON-READER’ population into the ‘THEIR READER’ population.
There are converts who will claim they ‘don’t like to read,’ but they own every Harry Potter book (in hard cover) and will read anything and everything J.K. Rowling publishes forever and ever AMEN.
Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t launch to stratospheric success because it scored rave literary reviews from elite book critics. 50 Shades did what other books didn’t or couldn’t.
E.L. James’ books moved the needle in a MAJOR way because 50 Shades converted disinterested ‘non-readers’ into ‘die-hard devotees.’ Devotees that then set suburban bedrooms and sales records on fire.
Change Tack for the BIG Haul
When we want to sell more books, converts are key. Yes, avid readers are wonderful to have as fans, because they (we) read all the time. We enjoy books, buy books and most of us need a twelve-step program and a sponsor because of our book-buying habit.
This should be awesome, right?
Hold on there, Sparky.
While us avid readers inhale books faster than a line of cocaine at a West Hollywood party, we’re not exactly blown away when we find a book we can finish. We don’t feel our world just tilted on its axis because we enjoyed a novel. It takes a ridiculously amazing book to get us amped up.
For the person who believes she hates reading and doesn’t understand why anyone would read a book unless there was a mandatory test at the end? When SHE finishes a book and LOVES it? This person becomes positively EVANGELICAL and tells everyone who will listen to buy it.
***Oh, and this sort of ‘catch’ is easily caught with kitten videos, funny memes and just talking about what y’all have in common. No ookie ‘self-promo’ required. People buy from who they know and LIKE.
Also, as authors, our social media activity can’t be outsourced. We aren’t a faceless company like GEICO or Starbucks. People expect they’re interacting with US on-line, thus paying someone else to pretend to ‘be’ us is a bait-and-switch that smacks of catfishing.
No one in the history of ever enjoyed being catfished.
Social media activity also can’t be solely automated, because that’s called rude…I mean spam.
How many of us have emails dedicated for the stuff we don’t want? We use spam filters, and gripe to anyone who’ll listen when forced to sit on the phone interacting with a robot.
So then WHY would this be a good plan to do to our (potential) readers?
Hint: It isn’t.
Why would we serve what even we don’t want to consume? Exactly. An automated tweet or post here and there? Fine. But go easy on this.
If we wanted to try to connect with an automated message and never a human? We’d call our cable provider’s customer service line. At least there we could mock the irony of the name…and drink heavily.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Ken.
Often, when I mention brand and platform, writers assume I am talking about promotion and marketing (ads). That is not only a false assumption, it can be a fatal one.
When we (regular people) hop onto Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook or whatever social site, only to get barraged with book spam, a big reason it annoys us is because the author hasn’t taken time to build rapport, earn our trust, and gain permission to sell us stuff.
I kid you not, I signed in to LinkedIn for the first time in like a YEAR the other day and, in less than an hour, some author sends me PM with a link to buy his book. No introduction or hello or liking my stuff or asking if I had pets…
HERE! BUY MY BOOK!
….sure. Right on that. Nice to meet you, too.
*grumbles* *now remembers why I hated LinkedIn*
When approached this way, the promotion either becomes white noise (invisible), or worse, an irritation (negative branding). Writers trying to create a brand by serving up copious book promotion will create a brand all right.
The brand of self-serving @$$hat.
The sight of the author’s face or book might even be enough to spike our blood pressure. We are far more likely to block than buy.
Why? What went wrong?
For promotion to be effective, we have to understand what a brand actually IS.
If we don’t understand what a brand is, then promotion becomes an exercise in futility. Why? The most effective use of promotion—marketing, ads, contests, etc.—is to extend the reach, visibility of an already existing brand.
Sure, some companies will flood the market (prime the pump, so to speak) to launch a new product, service, business that no one knows about, but this is ridiculously expensive and extremely risky. It’s also being done less and less even by companies who have the cash to take this approach.
Brand is not what it used to be.
As Seth Godin said back when the entire concept of branding was being tipped on its head, ‘A brand used to be something else. It used to be a logo or a design or a wrapper. Today, that’s a shadow of the brand, something that might mark the brand’s existence. But just as it takes more than a hat to be a cowboy, it takes more than a designer prattling on about texture to make a brand.’
Even BIG companies these days are going to social media to create the stories, memories, interactions, sets of expectations, conversations and interactions that—taken as a whole—comprise a brand.
Once the brand is defined, the audience cultivated and a rapport established…THEN promotion and ads can be an asset.
Before all this prep work though?
The days of dropping tens of millions for promotion and ads are gone. It doesn’t work in our modern culture.
In fact, static marketing and traditional promotion had already begun declining in effectiveness with the rise of direct marketing (junk mail).
The barrier to entry for ‘marketing’ fell away with the invention of cheap laser printing.
This opened up advertising and promotion to companies that didn’t have a bazillion dollars to spend on promotion. Right after the inception of Web 2.0 (birth of social media), this decline in effectiveness compounded exponentially.
Even though experts like Seth Godin (and upcoming experts such as myself) wrote post after post discussing how the nature of brands had changed and promotion had to evolve as well, this didn’t stop the big boys from throwing their weight around.
Because if a crap-ton of expensive promotion had worked for a hundred years or more, why wouldn’t it keep working?
Um, because the world was (is) different. The audience had changed and promotion had to change in order to reach an audience that had long moved on.
What’s in a Name?
Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Pierre Lognoul
The formula for a brand is simple:
NAME + PRODUCT + EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE
The last part is critical. In fact it might be the most critical.
Why do you think corporate empires pay so much for image consultants? Sure, Mylan once had a great reputation as a pharmaceutical company until they got greedy and decided to line their pockets at consumers’ expense.
A few years ago, if we heard the term ‘epi-pen,’ we might have experienced good emotions. Oh it is a life-saving drug. Helping kids with peanut allergies. My cousin had an epi-pen and it saved her life.
Nowadays? Different story. Once consumers found out the top execs had been giving themselves HUGE pay raises while hiking the cost of the only ‘known’ drug of its kind from $100 in 2007 to over $600 by 2017? Everything changed.
See, the company had a great product and had managed to create a rapport with consumers and build a relationship founded on trust. But then Mylan good greedy and took advantage of their consumers, which destroyed the relationship, obliterated trust and—in short—destroyed their brand.
No amount of promotion in the world can repair this. Why? Because this is an excellent example of the order of operations: product–> relationship (platform/audience) which leads to–>promotion–>sales.
I use this example to demonstrate that, while product is essential, brand is more than just the product. Promotion can’t take the place of building and maintaining a strong relationship.
This example is also to illustrate how important emotional experiences with a brand can be, that it has never been just the product.
It isn’t just about a book anymore.
Why Are Brands So Important?
Most of us don’t have time to research each and every purchasing decision and thus, we as consumers, are prone to rely heavily on brands. Brands let us know what to expect.
When we buy Dolce & Gabbana shoes, we expect a certain quality. We go off the name and do far less inspecting and road-testing than we would for a designer/manufacturer we’d never heard of.
We are willing to order ahead of time and pay full price and even ridiculous prices for Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, Prada, Versace, Harley Davidson, Porsche, Tesla, Apple products, John Deer, etc. So on and so forth.
But all of these companies (brands) did the same thing. They began with a solid product linked to a name that promised a unique experience. The name Harley Davidson would be just a name unless it came with a very distinctive type of motorcycle (LOUD).
But a name and a product alone are not enough.
What is a Platform?
Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Alex Santosa.
Platform is tethered inextricably with brand. If brand is the product, then platform consists of those most likely to consume that product because they emotionally identify with the brand.
Trust me, Harley Davison is not worried about consumers who love Vespas. Sure, they are both motorized bikes, but they are selling vastly demographics and experiences.
Authors are doing the same.
We know who Stephen King is because of his brand (which is a direct result of his products–stories). Because of his brand (tons of books, screenplays, short stories) we know if we are part of his platform or we aren’t.
If we are the type of reader who loves a riveting women’s fiction? King isn’t trying to court us. Why? We might know his brand, but we are not part of his platform.
Stephen King is not worried about Liane Moriarty and Liane Moriarty isn’t worried about Stephen King. Different products, different audiences.
In the old days, there was only one way to create a brand (and consequently a platform) and that was the books. Lots and lots of books (brand) cultivated a body of people who liked our writing/voice (platform). Today that is still a great plan.
With so much junk floating around, when readers find a writer they enjoy, they stick like glue.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Craig Sunter
Consumers (code for readers) still do this. This is one of the main reasons that we need to keep writing. Stop promoting ONE book. ONE book is not enough to create a strong brand/platform.
A brand is a collection of emotional experiences.A platform is simply those who will enjoy that experience.
Modern writers hold the advantage here.
Before the digital age, it was practically impossible to create a brand outside of the books, because the book was the only source of emotional experiences with the author.
Readers rarely had contact with an author beyond the books. Book signings, maybe magazine or radio interviews gave only slight glimpses of the author beyond the book. Today, with social media? That is no longer the case.
Every blog, tweet, podcast, Instagram post, YouTube video, etc. collectively serve to create the overall brand.
Yet, I want to stop here because there are two HUGE problems I want to discuss.
Problem #1: Please, STOP WRITING
One thing that’s really begun to stand out to me is that far too many writers are…writing. Bear with me. Writers, or authors, are storytellers. Great, you have 80,000 words. That doesn’t mean you have a story.
Writers don’t only write words. We create profoundly emotional experiences…and happen to use words to do this.
Yes, this section is a bit of a segue, but trust me. This small side trip is vital.
I cannot count how many editing samples I receive that are writing, but are NOT stories. This is a BIG DEAL. Authors are in the business of selling stories, not word count.
Let me illustrate, and bear with me. I am riffing this:
Example One (Writing):
Fifi woke up at six in the morning. She reached out her hand to turn off the alarm on her phone, then she pulled off her covers. Sitting up, she put her feet on the floor, stood and walked over to her closet to pick out what to wear today. She caught a glimpse of her auburn hair and peridot eyes in the closet mirror and chose a purple sweater with a gold scarf.
Turning, she walked over to the bathroom, turned the knob and opened the door. Reaching out her hand, she turned on the water, then turned to hang her clothes on the back of the door. Turning back, she stepped into the spray and used her new shampoo, the one that smelled of jasmine and periwinkles.
She washed her long hair twice, because the directions said so, and followed with a deep conditioning treatment because she needed the extra three minutes to go over all she had to do at her new job in customer service at MyNet today.
Example Two (Storytelling):
The ear-splitting blare of a foghorn dragged Fifi from Chris Evan’s embrace right as he was about to kiss her. She did everything she could to remain in the dream, the one where Captain America had somehow fallen madly in love with the newest customer service representative for MyNet, but it was no use. Fifi reached for Cap one final time, and a split second before she could plant one on him…Cap was crushed by an ocean-liner that fell from the sky.
She bolted up in bed, now wide awake and wondering if she was now scarred for life.
Cursing, she rifled through her duvet and through the piles of clothes on the floor. She had to find her phone and turn off that god-awful noise before she lost it. A fog horn? Why on earth had she chosen a fog horn?
Then that small, annoyingly responsible voice in her head reminded her how she’d slept through the Zen wind chimes, the less-Zen piano riffs and the birdsongs? Why had she even bothered? It was either the fog horn—turned up to max volume—or be fired two weeks into her new customer service job at MyNet.
Example One is writing. A lot of words and nothing happening. Were any of you hooked? TONS of stage direction.
Hint: We all know how the whole ‘door opening thing’ works. We don’t need a ‘writer’ to tell us she reached out her hand, turned the knob and opened the door.
Sure, this is GREAT for making a daily word count that makes us feel all productive, but this is a section of words, NOT a sample of a story.
Stories are about people who have PROBLEMS. Plots are how the core problem (and all the smaller related problems) are solved. Stories are about beating the odds, overcoming adversity.
Our modern world is being BURIED in ‘books’ with more filler than a dollar menu burrito. We’ve got to do BETTER if we hope to stand..
Secret-keepers have what it takes to be legendary storytellers. Stories aren’t solely about pretty writing, glorious description, or witty banter. Excellent stories are about one thing and one thing only….CONFLICT.
Want to know the secret ingredient that turns responsible adult readers into reckless maniacs willing to stay up until DAWN to finish a book…on a work day?
Secret-Keepers Resist the Urge to Explain
Secret-keepers learn to resist the urge to explain, which we’ll talk about in a moment. Before any deception even comes into play, we—as authors—must make sure we cast jacked up people in our story. To be blunt, perfectly well-adjusted, responsible people are dull.
We want to deliver a powerful story not a powerful SEDATIVE.
This said, it’s tempting for us to create perfect protagonists and pure evil antagonists, but that’s the stuff of Looney Tunes cartoons and low budget 70s Spaghetti Westerns…not great fiction.
First of all, we want our characters to ‘feel’ real. In order to feel real, they must come with baggage (um, like real people do).
In some genres this baggage may be carry-on only (I.e. cozy mystery). Other genres require a cast with enough baggage to require military aircraft hangars (I.e. literary fiction, certain types of speculative fiction).
Also, remember that life isn’t black and white. We’re wise to appreciate that every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses and vice-versa. When we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler.
Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.
One element that is critical to understand about legendary storytelling is this:
Everyone Has Secrets
All good stories hinge on secrets.
I have bodies under my porch.
Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge (again look to genre). Alas, the skilled author understands how powerful secrets can be and hones his/her abilities to be superior secret-keepers.
Skilled writers never part with anything the reader doesn’t work for.
Real Self vs. Authentic Self
We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Star Wars t-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.
We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers.
This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, ‘Grandma! TMI! STOP!’
No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.
Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others.
In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography.
Yet, as the daughters grow into women, the mothers see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are all thousands of miles away from the past (China).
The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the ‘perfect version of themselves’ they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).
The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.
Secret-Keepers See & Craft the False Face
Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be complete psychopaths using the false face for personal gain/entertainment (great fodder for incredible villains).
Other characters who seem loving, generous and selfless might be acting out of guilt, shame, or as penance, not out of any genuine concern for others. The over-achiever who excels at everything might not be at ALL confident, rather terrified and haunted by feelings of being a fraud.
We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.
The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet.
She wants others to think she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.
Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.
What is the secret your MC will do ANYTHING to protect? Find that, then expose her.
Secret-Keepers FEAST on False Guilt
Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.
Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. Ree has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?
Dolly has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.
Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train uses false guilt for max effect. MC Rachel’s entire life is a lie built on a foundation of authentic shame (she’s a raging alcoholic with no job pretending to be functioning) and false shame (her alleged ‘sins’ that have driven her to the bottle). Her desire to right a wrong she has nothing to do with (solve the murder of a total stranger) is, again, propelled by shame.
Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper
Secrets are SO powerful when it comes to storytelling, which is one of the reasons I HATE flashbacks. Oh, but my readers want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such.
No. No they don’t. They want to be tortured. Just trust me.
And, for the record, flashbacks are not the same as non-linear plotting. Also, the flashbacks I loathe are what I call ‘Training Wheel Flashbacks’ (since the sole reason they exist is to prop up a weak story).
What is a Training Wheel Flashback? It’s when any POV character is ‘thinking back in time’ for the sole purpose of EXPLAINING and diffusing tension. You spot one of these suckers?
Before AT LEAST 2/3 of the way through Act Two, any shift back in time should ideally present MORE conflict, questions, unresolved issues. Should you part with any answers, my advice is to replace them with at least two more..
It’s winter here in Texas, which means almost next to nothing since Texas is a female state. Today, I think I will be SPRING! No…winter. Wait, why not BOTH?
While the temperature is all over, and most of the time we have no clue what to wear each day (aside from one of everything), the plants and animals at least seem to have a plan. They go dormant, hibernate and basically take time to REST.
**Sorry about the four-letter word.
Rest might seem an odd topic for the first week of January when everyone is ALL SYSTEMS GO. Yet, failure to appreciate the importance of R&R is why I believe so many people fail to ever reach those goals, meet those resolutions.
We can fall into all-or-nothing thinking and that is a fast track to burnout.
Ask me how I know.
Last time, we talked about New Year’s Resolutions and why it’s imperative to choose our pain. Because anything worth having or doing in life involves some sort of pain.
We exercise agency when we can embrace the process as much if not more than that glorious—and often short-lived—summit. Now that we’ve addressed pain, let’s talk about peace.
Trees go dormant for a lot of reasons, but the best one is TO STAY ALIVE. Metabolism slows and the tree goes into a sort of hibernation to survive the cold months and low sunlight levels.
But trees also go dormant because it’s impossible to be fruitful 365 days a year. There has to be some time to REST.
Plants are smarter than some of us *points at self*
Ferris Jabr wrote an excellent article in Scientific American, Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime that I recommend reading in its entirety. Our modern Western culture’s puritanical devotion to chronic busyness, in my POV, is nothing short of psychotic.
Though study after study empirically demonstrates that humans are not created to be ‘perpetual doing machines,’ the data does little to deter our world’s increasing determination to pile more on our plate.
Our workplace has begun reflecting our world…borderless. The 9-5 workday is relic of our not-so-distant-past. In 1989, we got mail…in a mailbox or in a ‘finite’ In-Box (which was a LITERAL BOX). We could leave work at work, read our mail and see our in-boxes actually EMPTY.
This gave us time to rest. Really rest.
Now? We wake daily to digital avalanches. Data poured over us from reservoirs with limitless capacity, all dumped into a human brain that can only hold so much. Our In-Boxes never empty…ever.
I gave up on my Yahoo e-mail and finally just let it go feral a few years ago. It’s easily at over 100,000 messages by now. Every SUPER IMPORTANT message promises to only take a couple minutes.
Now multiply a couple minutes by twenty or fifty. We maybe make it through our URGENT messages just in time for…another meeting. We eat breakfast and lunch over our keyboards or in our cars while listening to voicemails and memos.
By the end of the ‘work day,’ we aren’t even close to ‘finished,’ but frankly we wouldn’t recognize finished if it peed on our leg.
Finished is the Bigfoot of the modern world.
Since we aren’t ‘finished’ we take work home. Work bulges over its boundaries into our marriages and family lives where we check our phones instead of paying attention to what our significant other is saying or our children are asking. We do all of this because we are ‘working hard,’ but are we?
Yes, I am a Corporate America Refugee.
This same ideology has oozed into the schools. Children are plugged into iPods and tablets and computers all day with no play. They come home and the homework is often another two to three hours.
As they get older, this additional work seeps into weekends and holidays. All the while, rest is moved further and further down the priority list.
Then, if we add in how human ‘socializing’ has shifted over the past decade, we have a Molotov Cocktail for a meltdown or burnout. I grew up in the 80s where every academic hailed how computers would usher in Utopia. Get your kids on a computer early, the earlier the better.
Companies sold widgets and gadgets to parents and schools so young malleable minds could leap frog into the future and reap the boundless…
This probably sounds insane coming from a ‘social media expert,’ but social media is making us more antisocial than ever before. Granted this is merely my professional opinion, but I stand by it.
When we do get a chance to rest, where do we choose to GO? We scroll Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever the social platform de jour happens to be.
We’re not hibernating, we’re hiding. Hiding from responsibility, overwhelming email chains, all the demands that assail from every angle.
Like rats in some deranged experiment we tap buttons, get superficial dopamine highs off likes and loves and emojis. Speaking of emojis, we tell our young children to ‘use their words,’ and meanwhile we communicate using happy faces and anthropomorphic piles of poo.
Instead of having coffee and talking and, more importantly, listening, we trade authentic and healthy social time for the artificial easy substitute. Aspartame adventures, saccharin smiles, and partially hydrogenated conversations.
Instead of rest, we scroll and tap and like and on and on and we’re as bad as a toddler who refuses to part with a pacifier. If, for a second, we can’t find our phone, check our messages, look at what ‘amazingness’ everyone else has posted on InstaSnapFace…we panic.
No Rest for the Weary
Invariably, all this busyness has a cost. One cost is that stress, like alcohol, impairs our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain we use for making sound decisions.
There’s a reason we have designated drivers if we’re going to imbibe while out on the town. The reason is because after one or two drinks we might not ‘feel’ impaired, thus because we don’t FEEL impaired, we make bad decisions.
Same thing with all this busyness.
We’re constantly checking email, Messenger, messages left on 42 social sites and this behavior—like drugs or booze—impairs our ability to discern we’re tired…or that we’re teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
We also make a lot of bad decisions.
***This explains the success of sites like Tinder SO much #LandOfBadDecisions
Fundamentally, the speed of our lives isn’t allowing enough interstitial time—code for REST BREAKS—for us to process all the influx. Downtime is critical for us to make sense of all the information we’ve ‘taken in.’ We sort through ideas, tie loose connections, note patterns, and ‘hot wash’ our decisions.
When we rest, our brain shifts into another mode that sifts through conversations, seeks ways we could improve, where we messed up, what we could do better.
In ways it reminds me of my childhood when my mom helped me clean my room (since FEMA was unavailable).
She’d dump out all my dresser drawers and we would sort through clothes that no longer fit, needed repair or were plain worn out. Then, the good stuff, we folded and organized and it made room for NEW STUFF.
Same with the toys.
We’d sift through what was broken to trash, or what didn’t interest me for donation.
I’d always find Barbies and Barbie clothes (and a crap ton of Barbie shoes) all buried places where I couldn’t enjoy them. Mom and I would return pieces of games back into their correct boxes so, instead of the games simply taking up space, I could actually play them with my friends.
Our brains do the same thing. Rest allows the mind to sort, sift, repair, reconnect, and get JIGGY creating and thinking and innovating!
We’re In Charge of Rest
The irony of all this is that we’re the ones choosing to run about like kids hopped up on Dr. Pepper and Pixie Sticks.
Just say, ‘SIT!’
Now, I get that a lot of us can’t fully control our workplace @$$hattery, so we’ll simply have to accept what we can’t control. Ah, but when we DO have time off, we can use our interstitial time more wisely.
***Yes, I learned a new term and it makes me sound super smart. ‘I have to go manage my interstitial time,’ sounds so much cooler and grown-up than ‘I need my blankie.’
Suffice to say, I’m all for some goofing off on Facebook or YouTube. I do that myself. But my advice is to use a timer and limit how long we’re in cyberspace.