Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Branding. It's not about Genre

The other night as I was about to fall asleep I was thinking about branding. Hey, I'm not married. There's not much else for me to think about in bed. (I know too edgy for CBA, but we're wild and crazy indies). Seriously, odd things pop into my brain right before I fall asleep.

I figured out what bothered me about the small press/indie/agent view of branding. They tend to tie the brand to product and not positioning. Let me explain a bit. What we hear about branding is that you
Photo by Rob and Stephanie Levy
need to produce similar products over and over again. Stick to one genre, write only fiction or only nonfiction, always do sweet or always do edgy, make your covers bear a similar theme. These are all marketing concerns and we can debate how valid each of them are, but they do not address the quintessential essence of branding in the Marketplace and that is Positioning.

Think about brand names. If you are my age (61 soon to be 62) no matter  how upscale Penny's have become, in your mind it was good, but not great clothes at a low price. A J.C. Penny suit or dress was more like Sears or Family Fashion or TJ Maxx. I know, most of my clothes when I was growing up came from Penny's. Compare that with Macy's or Neiman Marcus. Those brands say, "a fool and his money..." ooops sorry. They say "We've got good stuff but you are going to pay for it. Be sure to bring your gold card or don't even expect to breathe the air in here."

Neither of those are good or bad images, but they are definitely different. Playboy and GQ are both mens magazines, but quite different brands. The Same for Cosmopolitan and McCalls and Ms for Women's magazines.

Positioning then refers to image, but more specifically the image that is unique about your business. Not about your books specifically, but about your line of books. What makes your mystery novel different than what Agatha Christie or Lillian Jackson Braun wrote? How is your romance series different than Love Inspired or Harlequin___ romances?

It's like that terrible question you always had to answer when preparing a proposal for a publisher. How is your book different from what is already on the market? I hated the question. Now, I totally understand it. I'm working on revamping my brands to address that question. I've got some ideas, and I'll let you know later.

It's not about how many products you have or how different they are. It's what image people have of your brand regardless of the product you make. Mercedes Benz builds cars and trucks, but the image is alway quality, luxury and durability. Honda does the same and the image is economical, dependable.

I'm asking myself what is my uniqueness. And I'm building from there. What about you?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Reality Based Planning

Everyone says you should have goals. Annual, weekly, daily goals. Some even go so far as to say you need an action plan for those goals. For instance, write 700 words a day or spend an hour a day on marketing. Yet, I would say most of the goals people set for themselves are unrealistic and they doom the person to failing to meet those goals. Consequently, they feel guilty. A better approach is reality-based goal setting.

You will recognize parts of this because I've been talking about my own brush with this type of planning. Your implementation of this approach might vary, but I strongly advise that you consider the principles behind this approach as you make plans for the second half of the year.

A Time-Based Approach

Too often people choose goals based on the projects they want to complete without considering the time it will take to complete those projects. No matter how motivated you are, if your project will take four hours a day every day to complete and you work 8 hours a day, sleep 8 hours and spend 5 hours a day on essential chores, you are not going to complete that project in a year. As Scotty would say, "I cinna rewrite the laws of physics Cap'n."

So,  your first step is estimating the time each project will take to complete.

Estimating Times

If you don't know how much time each project or part of your project takes, then you a flying blind trying to set meaningful goals. Before you get into a lather about how you can't make predictions about creative processes, etc., I will affirm that is true for any one project. However, creativity is not a mysterious, fragile, and unpredictable thing. It is a skill developed through years of practice and training. That means it develops a type of regularity over the long run. While I can't say with any precision how long it will take to write one novel, I can be fairly accurate in my estimates of how long it will take to write three novels and be even more accurate with estimates of time to write 10, 20 or 30. 

We are talking about averages here. If I know that on average I write at a rate of 20 words a minute or 1200 words an hour and an average novel for me is 75,000 words, then I know that it will take about 65 hours to write a first draft of my novel. It may be a few hours more or a few hours less, but it will be very close to that. I can figure the same for the other stages of novel development, plotting, developing characters, editing, etc.

Look over your previous projects make an estimate of how much time each took and work out an average. It won't be precise, but it will be good enough for planning purposes.

Make a List of Projects and Activities

Start with a list of things you want to complete within a certain time frame. We are close to the beginning of June. That leaves six months until the end of the year. It is a good time to do some mid-year planning.

So, what do you want to accomplish between now and December 31.

This can be specific like specific novels or nonfiction books. Or they can be specific but less defined like "three novels" instead of three specific novels. 

My goals are to write three new novels, edit two completed novels and edit one of my new novels by the end of the year.

Your goals may be more or less ambitious than mine depending on your circumstances. I'm guessing I can do these things in the time I have available. But my advice is to think big, then you can trim it down later.

Add it Up

Now, take each of those projects and figure out how many hours each will take. This will give you a lump sum for each project.

So, I might have

Write two novels 75 hours each for a total of 150 hours
Edit Three novels 50 hours each for a total of  150 hours

And so on.

Check your Calendar

Now comes the reality part of this. It's great to know how much time your plans will take, now we need to find out what that means on a daily basis.

First, if you want to take weekends off, eliminate them. Then eliminate holidays you will be spending with family. Next consider personal holidays. Birthdays, Anniversaries, is someone having a wedding this year, is someone having a baby? Add in days for Baby showers, wedding showers, rehearsal dinners, etc. Do the same with planned vacations, family reunions, etc. Anything that would eliminate the day.

If it is something that would just eliminate half a day then just add it as .5 day.

When I did this, I ended up with 161 days. So writing two novels is 150 hours. I simply divide the number of hours by the number of days. That is .93 hours or about 55 minutes per available day. About the same for the novel editing. So that's close to 2 hours a day. I might not be able to do that in one setting, but I might be able to do it in two or maybe four 30 minute segments.

When you get all your numbers, take a good hard look at them. Odds are you are going to have more projects than time available to complete them. So, you can cut down on either the number of projects or the number of days you took off. Maybe you took off little league soccer practice. Well, you might just decide your writing is more important than being the third assistant coach mostly in charge of inflating the soccer balls. Or you might decide that book club every thursday night might be something you could drop.

Odds are, you are going to have to do a little of each. But finally you figure out how much time on average you can spend a day and how much that will accomplish. Now, you have reality based goals. If I write 55 minutes a day and edit for the same amount of time, I will complete my goals. That gives me as much predictability as I can have.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Whose Responsible?

I've noticed a disturbing trend among writers. It's a basic failure to take responsibility for their own writing. Just consider the layers of editing indie authors outsource. First, there's a developmental editor who fixes plot holes and makes the characters more believable. There's the content and style editors, who fix scenes and rewrite sentences so they are more powerful. Then there are the proofreaders who check your spelling and punctuation.

I could imagine what one of my journalism or creative writing professors in college would have said if I told them I needed more time on my assignment because I hadn't gotten it back from the developmental editor. Actually, I prefer not to think about that because I don't use that kind of language.

Photo credit J. E. Theriot
We tell our students in school (I was a teacher for 30 years) to do their own work. Why? Aside from the ethical issue of taking credit for something you didn't do, it's also the only way you are going to learn. If you can't fix plot holes on your own, why are you writing a novel? Go back to school, read some books, take a course in novel writing, get a mentor or tutor and learn how to create a plot without plot holes and how to spot them yourself.

There are wonderful books out there on editing fiction and nonfiction. One of the values of doing this yourself, is that by editing your own stuff and spotting your own problems, you will make fewer mistakes in future first drafts. You don't only learn by doing. You learn by making AND correcting your mistakes.

You will learn more about creating compelling characters and engaging plots by wrestling with fixing those plot holes and revising the characterization yourself than by letting someone else do it for you. And if you don't learn how to spot them now, you never will if you depend on someone else to point them out to you.

I'm not saying that editorial services are without value. I frequently employ a proofreader to save time correcting spelling and punctuation and streamline my productivity. However, I can proofread my own copy. And, if I don't do a very good job of it, I'll get dinged in the reviews for it, which helps me improve.

But it is not only in the area of manuscript preparation where writers evade responsibility. We also do so when we fail to write. No one wants to take responsibility for managing their own writing time. I hear it all the time. I couldn't write because the kids keep pestering me when I'm working. I remember when my Dad or Mom were busy, the other took care of me when I was tiny. And once I got school age, they could say, "I need to work, pleased don't interrupt me." I knew not to bother mother when she was on the phone or Dad when he was working with power tools in the garage. Now, if a kid can learn to do that, they can learn not to bother Mom or Dad when they are at the computer.

Sometimes the finger is pointed at the spouse. "They don't understand my need to write." And why should they? They aren't writers. I'm sure there are things they do that you don't understand. I can't understand people sitting in front of a TV watching a bunch of people fight over a misshapen ball yelling "Go Defense!!!"  I mean, if you like football so much why aren't you playing the game instead of watching someone else?

If someone, then, doesn't understand my passion for writing, I just think football or scrapbooking or fishing or rollerblading or other things I don't understand. But reasonable people can and do negotiate time for others in their households to spend time doing things they enjoy. Sometimes when I ask people if they have tried to negotiate time for writing, they admit they haven't even tried. Even the Bible says, "Ye have not because ye ask not." If you haven't made the effort, then it is your fault you don't have the time to write and not theirs.

The same goes for other simple expedients like telling teenagers that you are going to write for 30 minutes and don't disturb you until you finish and then shut the door. They are intelligent and mature enough to leave you alone. If not, this is a good way for them to learn that maturity and intelligence. But many times, people don't even try.

This extends to the job as well. I know I've been guilty here a lot. I am terrible at taking on extra duties at work, even though I was on salary and those extra duties were essentially unpaid hours. Of course, the core problem was pride. I liked thinking I was indispensable. However, I notice the college is still standing nearly two years after I retired. But I can't blame my boss when I took on jobs I didn't need to do which took away time I could have spent writing.

Likewise, many of us won't change our habits. I was one of those who thought I needed to sit down for at least an hour to get any work done writing. Now, as a journalist, I often wrote on the fly in 10 or 15

minute segments but somehow I thought novel writing or "literary" writing was different. Then one November, I decided I was going to do National Novel Writing Month and accept the challenge to writer a 50,000 word novel in a month. But about a week into the month I got sick. I could only sit up for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. So, I said, I'm going to do as much as I can during those 15 minute segments, and I completed my second published novel's first draft never writing for more than 15 minutes at a time. I was responsible for how I handled my illness. I chose to work around it.

Now, it would have been equally valid had I chosen to ditch the novel. But I couldn't blame the illness. I had to take the responsibility myself. And don't think I'm pointin' fingers at anyone here without seeing those three pointing back at me. I know I had to take back my own responsibility for both writing and setting boundaries that allowed for that, but also setting boundaries on my writing which allow for other things.

So, I know how unpleasant this is to hear, because I've been hearing it myself for a few weeks. Now, I'm sharing it with you. Circumstances do not control your writing. How you respond to those circumstances do.