Saturday, August 31, 2013

Mining an Old Claim

Several years ago, I was researching a story on modern day gold prospectors. One thing I discovered was that many of them that panned for gold or used sluice boxes would investigate old claims that expired years ago that nobody renewed because they thought the claim was played out.

According to my expert, it can take years for the gold to work its way out of the mountains and down
Photo By Marcin Chady
the river, but it will usually settle in the same places. So, it made sense to work an old claim.

As a writer, sometimes it helps to work an old claim. I'm thinking about this now because I ran across a manuscript I was working on several years ago. At the time my day job got in the way of me completing it. I looked it over and it's pretty good. So, I've put it in the queue of things to edit and publish. But it started me thinking. How many articles have I written over the years that could be updated and slanted for different publications. How many blog posts do I have of value? I'm considering collecting many of them into a book of essays on writing. I wrote a daily devotion for close to 10 years. Maybe a collection of devotions would be in order.

Then I have plot outlines, story ideas, pages of research for articles, novels and stories I never got around to writing. Some of them didn't take off because they simply weren't very good ideas. Some, however, I simply got sidetracked from and didn't get back to.

What's sitting unfinished in your files? What things have you written that could be repurposed in some way. Have a backlisted book that your publisher no longer carries? Why not get the ebook rights back and upload the file to Kindle yourself. Are there blog posts that could be collected into a book?

What old claim can you reactivate? There just might be publishing gold in them thar files.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Observations on Bicycle Book Publisher and a Career Consultant

Back in the 1980s. Maybe even in the late 70s a book came out calledWhat Color is your Parachute? I think it is now in it's 30th edition or something. I ran across my old copy of the book, and was reminded of the story about its publication. 

The interesting thing about this book is not that it was rejected many times before
Photo by Jay Phagan
being picked up for publication. We all know those stories. Wouldn't you have loved to be the editor that rejected Fodor's travel guides saying something like "Travel guides never sell." 

No, the interesting thing about this story is who finally published the book - a little company called Ten Speed Press. It was based in San Francisco and it published books about bicycles. That was it's whole catalog. That was its "brand." 

Of course, they took on the project for some reason I can't remember now, and the rest is history to use a tired yet accurate cliche. It became the best selling book of all time on Job search and made both them and the author many, many boatloads of money. 

But if you think about it, both the company and the author did everything "wrong." The company was well known as a bicycle book publisher. Their books typically sold in catalogs or to bike shops. They didn't have a distribution system for traditional bookstores. Besides, as a small publisher, they should have stayed in their "niche" and not defocus the brand.

Likewise, Bolles should have "known" that a company publishing books about "bicycles" couldn't do his book justice. 

Today, Bolles is a well known consultant on job search and his book is still in print 30+ years later. And 10-Speed press was acquired by Crown Publishing a division of Random house and publishes books about everything from cooking to sports and yes has some books about bicycles. 

The lesson is that it is okay to step outside your niche. Your niche is not your brand. The quality of your writing or publishing is your brand. Indeed, in order to grow, I dare say you must do something different. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

What Kind of Writer Are You: Planner, Pioneer or Pathfinder

If there is one common link between most writing teachers, it is the absolute belief in the one and only, absolute best way to write. Unfortunately, the other common link is that none of them agree on what that is.

Just look at plotting. Snowflakes, wagon wheels, heroes journeys, mountains to be climbed, formulas
to be followed. Act one, Act two, Act three, or is it five acts? I forget, and I've taught many of these myself. Most of them are useful. They are taught because they work. Just not all the time, and not for all people.

No, I'm not going to talk about plot. What I'm going talk about is something bigger than a single facet for writing. I'm going to talk about personality styles.

First, I'm oversimplifying. That cannot be helped. Do not think these are completely distinct. Within each category there will be overlaps. Some of us represent one style at one time and another at other times. I tend to be a planner for nonfiction writing and a pioneer or pathfinder for fiction. However, a bit of understanding of your own style may help you play to your strengths.


Maybe to understand these three styles. Let's think about what happens when you go on a long road trip. How do you approach that trip? Well, the planner, gets out all the maps and guidebooks, gets brochures from the Chamber of Commerce in each town they might pass through, checks on hotels in each city, reads the reviews of restaurants and attractions, figures out how much time it will take to drive from one town to the next, makes a daily itinerary, even makes the hotel reservations a month in advance. 

This person will approach writing the same way. They will do their research trying to anticipate every factual detail they will need to address in the book, article, or story. They will make detailed outlines of what happens in each scene or chapter. They will make up complete character dossiers, sketch floor plans for the buildings, maybe even take pictures out of magazines of people who look like their characters or scenes that look like settings from their books. 

This person will not start writing the first draft until they have nailed down every detail. Indeed, by that point the writing is almost an anticlimax. 

The strength of this approach is that they rarely suffer writer's block. They know what they need to write next. They also need less content editing. They have anticipated the plot holes and dead end subplots. They don't need to do a lot a fact checking later because they did it up front. 

However, planners can find themselves caught up in the planning stage so much that they don't get around to the actual writing. They may think there is just one more fact they need to find or they need to adjust the outline of a certain scene once again. 

Also, they are less likely to deviate from their outline even if the writing itself is feeling forced and the characters are acting out of character. Once written, the outline can take over the actual writing. 


Sometimes called the Pantser or "Seat of the Pants" writer. This person approaches each writing project as a journey of discovery. It's not that they don't do planning. It's just that their first draft is their planning document. They are not the sort to fly over a region and take pictures of the area first. They want to be on the ground. Having a character surprise them or discover a plot twist while writing is what they live for. 

This person often takes several dead end roads while writing, but that's part of the fun figuring out what does and does not work. Since, they have no specific plan in front of them, they are more likely to have difficulty recovering from writer's block. The planner can look at the plot outline and plug on even if they don't feel they are writing very well. The pioneer just has to stop or explore a different road if they can't figure out what the character is going to do next.

Pioneers need to be prepared for this and be willing to brainstorm many different approaches in order to move on. They also can benefit from jumping around in a story. Since pioneers go more on intuition than linear reasoning, it may be you are blocked on one scene because  your subconscious wants to write another.


Pathfinders fall in the middle between pioneers and planners. They don't have detailed outlines, but they do have a general plan. They know where the story starts and ends. They know that there are certain intermediate destinations they need to reach on their journey. They may or may not write these down, but they have thought them out before they start writing. They like being surprised by the characters and minor changes in plot and are perfectly willing to depart from the plan if that looks like it will work better. However, they don't like being totally unprepared for the journey. They know where they are going and the general path they will take to get there, but they work out the details on the road.

This person's strength is that they combine spontaneity with forethought. Thus, they have the benefits of each. However, likewise, they share the pitfalls of both. They can become so locked into reaching a certain "destination" point that they don't listen to their characters to change course. However, without a detailed plan, they have less to help them when they get stuck in a certain scene.

Admittedly, this paradigm is oversimplified. Some people might be planners when it comes to creating characters but pioneers with plot. They may do more planning with nonfiction and less with fiction or the other way around. Sometimes people have a very detailed plot "outline," but it is not written down, they simply see it in their minds eye. So, they may look like a pioneer, but they carefully planned the story in advance, they just didn't make a written outline.

However, this might help you understand a bit of your own writing style. If you don't do it the way the latest book says it should be done, don't worry. Your style may be different, but that doesn't make it worse.

I'll be exploring these styles in depth in my Writing YOUR Novel YOUR  Way course launching Monday. August 26. The course is just $10 for 15 self-paced lessons. For more information click here. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

The One and Only Absolute Rule for Writers

I end up mentoring a lot of new and beginning writers. Frequently, they approach me about some "rule" for writing - no passive voice, no head hopping, floating body parts, and the list goes on. I can nearly always find exceptions to each of these "rules." That makes them suggestions or guidelines and not rules. Even the "rules" of spelling, punctuation and grammar can be artfully ignored. Consider the work of James Joyce and e.e. cummings.
Photo by Eduardo

However, there is one absolute rule for writers. Ready to jot this down? It's very profound, very subtle, very esoteric. It is not something you might think of yourself. Ready?

Writers Must Write

I told you it was profound. I remember being at a writer's conference several years ago where the keynote speaker began by looking out over the audience and saying, "Why aren't you all home writing?" 

It was a good question. Writer's today have a lot of non-writing things to do. Marketing, personal appearances, book signings, social media, and the list goes on. Today, the writers I mentor are as likely to be asking about how to build a Facebook page or what to put in their blogs as how to build a story. 

At some point, though, we have to get back to basics. What is taking up most of our time? Is it blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting, speaking, pinning or is it writing? 

I can hear the objections now. "But you have to be doing all these things to sell books." To a certain extent that is true, but you have to be realistic about some things. Take blogging, for example. Average conversion rate for any type of social media per book release is about 1 percent. So, even if you have 1000 people following your blog (which is pretty high for most bloggers), that means you are going to sell maybe 10 copies of each book from your blog followers. 

Let's say your average blog post is 500 words and you do three a week. That's 75,000 words a year or a short novel. With virtually no promotion, if you self-published a novel of 75,000 words and kept the price reasonable, you could expect to sell 5 copies a month. Or 60 copies a year.
In other words, you would have to release six novels a year and announce them on your blog to match that in terms of sales. 

I'm using the most visible example and most easily quantified. However, consider how much time is spent on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and others. Yes, we need that presence. (I'm not so sure blogs are that important to marketing for my reasons you can see a previous post. Is Blogging Necessary. ) However, you need to keep your priorities straight. You can have a great wonderful platform, but if you don't turn out the copy, you won't have anything to sell.

And, as a writer, you cannot get obsessed with one book. You need to have volume. I don't mean becoming a hack, but it is important to have out a number of titles. I made this mistake with my first novel. I spent hundreds of hours promoting it, going on blog tours, guesting on websites and podcasts, plugging it on social media. So much so, I didn't have time to write the second book in the series which came out almost three years later. I had lost much of the momentum and still didn't sell as many books as I did just putting the book up on Amazon and optimizing for the Kindle search.

One author suggested you not publish your first book until you have two more to publish. I don't know that I would go so far as that, but you can't think only in terms of the book you have just released. You have to thing about the next three books. If someone likes that book, what are they going to buy next? There is a relatively finite audience for that first book immediately after publication. It continues but at a lower pace after that, but to build up an income base, you need several books producing lower sales over an extended period of time as well as new releases coming out on a regular schedule. If you are spending all your time promoting one book, you won't be writing the next one. 

So, what are we to do? We do have to be out there promoting our books. Certainly, indie writers more than traditional ones. Although, having been traditionally published, I know that if you are not a "name" writer, the promotional backing of the publishing company is minimal at best. 

I'm not saying forget promotion. However, we need to be work smarter. Watch your analytics on websites, browsers and facebook. How many people are you actually reaching through those venues. How does that compare to the time you spend on each? If you have 500 people following you on facebook, 700 on Twitter and 100 on your blog, then maybe you need to split up your time accordingly. Instead of three blog post a week, one every two weeks might suffice. Maybe you need to do more on Facebook and Twitter. 

Secondly, set a limit. How much time are you going to spend on marketing activities during a week? Start with how many hours you have to work on writing related stuff. Maybe it's 10 hours a week. Then I would say spend no more than two and a half hours or about 25%. If you look at your schedule and you find you are doing more, then you might have to cut down. I find setting a timer works for me. 

Third, just say "no." You will receive all sorts of "promotional opportunities." People will want you to guest on their blogs. Visit their blogs. See how many followers they actually have. If it is less than a few hundred, then you might want to turn them down. Sure you might sell one or two books, but if that takes away from you writing your next book, is that really a good economy. Any chess player knows you sacrifice the pawns to protect your queen. 

So, back to the beginning. The one rule for writers - Write!