As book doctors, we have the privilege of traveling all over the country and connecting with organizations that help writers get successfully published. We’ve been hearing about GrubStreet for years, and when we started investigating, we found out what an amazing organization it is. So when we discovered that Katherine A. Sherbrooke, GrubStreet’s board chair, was coming out with a new book, Fill the Sky, we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, writers groups, and the joys and perils of switching from memoir to fiction.
The Book Doctors: We understand you’ve always wanted to be a writer since you were a kid. Why in God’s name would you want to be a writer?
Katherine A. Sherbrooke: I suppose in the same way a kid watching the lunar landing decides they want to be an astronaut, or the way the 1980 Winter Olympics spawned legions of hockey players. Witnessing something extraordinary makes you want to do it. Reading books transported me in that way. Plus, I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights, so space travel was definitely out.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
KS: I vividly remember being mesmerized by James and the Giant Peach, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I suppose in part because they opened my eyes to the power of imagination combined with ink and paper. One of my all-time favorites had to be The Velveteen Rabbit. Its metaphor of fraying fur and missing buttons as proof of love, of being real, moved me deeply.
TBD: How did you learn the craft of writing?
KS: I was blessed with incredible English teachers in my early days, and built a strong foundation for writing through (don’t laugh) diagramming sentences until I was blue in the face, and later learning the art of a well-written essay and the importance of good structure. While that gave me a certain confidence with the written word, creative writing requires a whole added set of skills. The first teacher was good novels, reading a lot of them. The rest I learned at GrubStreet, mostly getting feedback on my work from other writers so I could hear first hand what techniques were working and which ones weren’t.
TBD: Tell us about GrubStreet and your involvement with it. What have you learned about writing and writers from being involved with this organization?
KS: GrubStreet is one of the largest creative writing organizations in the country, open to writers of all levels. It is an organization that believes deeply in the power of narrative to transform us as humans, and the desperate need for us to hear stories from all walks of life, a mission very close to my heart. So I fell in love with them from the minute I walked in the door and immediately wanted to help. From a writer’s point of view, I describe GrubStreet as the lifeline of my creative pursuits. Many people think of writing as a lonely endeavor, and I suppose the actual act of sitting down and putting thoughts on paper can feel that way, but there is much more to the process than that if you are willing to give and accept help. I have found the most incredible community of writers at GrubStreet. This is a group of amazingly talented and generous people who truly want to help each other succeed. I have learned everything I know about what it takes to actually complete a novel and get it out into the marketplace through classes, conferences and the community at Grub.
TBD: You’re also an entrepreneur. We are too. What did you learn about being a writer by inventing and running a business?
KS: My co-founder of Circles used to say that there is a fine line between entrepreneurs and mad men: they both see things that aren’t there. Writing is the same. You have to believe that what you have to offer has a place out there in the world, even when it’s not finished, even if it doesn’t fly off the shelf at first. Entrepreneurship, in my view, takes a whole lot of really hard work, a good measure of luck, a legion of people keen to help the project succeed, and a willingness to take a deep breath and fling yourself off the cliff. Trying to get a book out into the world isn’t much different. Or maybe I’m still just crazy.
TBD: Your first book was a memoir, and it was about your family. After David’s memoir came out, his family didn’t speak to him for five years. What were some of the dangers and joys of writing and publishing your memoir?
KS: My parents had a classic, tumultuous love story leading up to their marriage that they would occasionally indulge me or my siblings by telling. We had each heard different snippets, but none of us had all the detail, all the various pieces. When my mother was overcome by dementia, I realized that I had to sit down with my father (who thankfully has an iron-clad memory) and get the whole story on paper before it was too late. The best part were the hours of conversation I had with my dad about his younger days, including touring through every corner of Newark, NJ with him to set the scene: where he grew up, his high school, his father’s old tavern, where they went on dates, etc. I walked away with much more material than fit in the book, but they were conversations I might never have had without that impetus. On the flip side, handing my own version of my parent’s love story back to my father to read was terrifying. Thankfully he loved it. He emails me all the time to tell me he stayed up all night to read it again.
TBD: How was it transitioning from writing non-fiction to being able to make stuff up and create a novel?
KS: Really hard! As restrictive as the requirement to stick to the facts felt at times while I was writing the memoir, I was handed a great cast of characters, a fantastic plot, and a setting that I didn’t have to invent. I added a little research to corroborate what my father had told me, and voila, my book was born. When I turned to fiction, having absolutely no boundaries on any of that made the process much harder, and take much longer. That said, it is really satisfying to have a new plot point or a new character pop into my head while I’m out for a walk and suddenly know that my story has taken a turn for the better. And having the license to explore through fiction things that have never actually happened to me is pretty amazing.
TBD: What was your inspiration for your new novel Fill the Sky?
KS: I love reading books that take me to a place or time I have never been to so I can learn through the ease of a great story. I was beginning to hunt around for a book idea when I happened to go on a trip to Ecuador with a group of friends to spend some time with local shamans. The trip was a life-changer for me, and it struck me as an incredible and unique setting for a novel. The premise is fictional (we didn’t travel there for health reasons) but all the rituals in the book save one are things I have actually experienced.
TBD: What is your next project?
KS: I’m at work on another novel. Stay tuned.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
KS: Find trusted readers, people who are willing to read your entire manuscript and give you honest and detailed feedback. They do not have to be writers; in fact, some of the best input can come from avid readers. But don’t just do this because you want applause and adoration. It is really important to be open to their feedback. It can be very hard to hear that a scene that had you weeping while you wrote it barely registered with your reader, or that your favorite character leaves them cold (and you may need several days or weeks to process what they have to say), but that is precisely the kind of input you want. I find it very hard to see my work for what it is without the guiding hands of intelligent readers. They are worth their weight in gold.
Katherine A. Sherbrooke received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and M.B.A. from Stanford University. An entrepreneur and writer, she is the author of Finding Home, a family memoir about her parents’ tumultuous and inspiring love affair. This is her first novel. She lives outside Boston with her husband, two sons, and black lab. Visit her online at www.kasherbrooke.com, Facebook, or Twitter.
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As The Book Doctors, we travel around the country, going to book festivals, writers conferences, and independent bookstores, and we kept hearing about Wordstock in Portland, Oregon, one of our favorite cities. When we looked at the roster of presenters this year, we were blown away: Sherman Alexie, Dianne Abu-Jaber, Carrie Brownstein. And our old friend Cathy Camper, who won our Pitchapalooza at Powell’s, the iconic bookstore in Portland, and now has two graphic novels out with Chronicle. So we thought we would pick the brain of Amanda Bullock, the festival director for Wordstock, and get some inside skinny on what makes Wordstock tick.
TBD: There are so many amazing writers and publishing professionals coming to this year’s Wordstock. We don’t mean to put you on the spot, but what are some of the things you are particularly excited about seeing?
AB: Thank you for mentioning this! We strive for diversity and inclusion in all aspects: genre, age, race, gender, geography, and so much more. It is definitely a hugely important part of our mission, both at Literary Arts and at Wordstock, and as a curator I am always working toward greater representation, diversity, and inclusiveness. I truly want there to be something for every reader at our festival.P.S. I’m also proud that we have great representation from independent publishers in our lineup!
TBD: David has performed at several Lit Crawls with the fantastic festival Litquake in San Francisco. We see you have one too. Describe the sheer exuberant fun of Lit Crawl for people who’ve never been to one.
AB: I was first introduced to Lit Crawl in New York, and it’s one of my favorite literary events. I’ve never believed that book events are boring — the cliché of a tweedy author in elbow patches droning on in front of a leather-bound library has never, ever been my experience at any kind of book event — but I love that Lit Crawl explodes that idea, that book events can be fun, and makes it super accessible by bringing literature “to the streets,” as they say. I think for readers, particularly those who don’t see themselves as a book-event type of person, it’s a wonderful introduction to the literary community. Book nerds are the most fun.
TBD: Portland has such a great tradition of artists and writers. What have you done to tap into that fantastic pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest?
AB: Half of our festival’s featured authors are Oregon writers! It’s not difficult at all to reach that goal, since, as you mentioned, we have such talented writers here. Literary Arts also presents the Oregon Book Awards and Fellowships, so we have a great pool of writers already part of the Literary Arts family. This year features past OBA&F winners or finalists Margaret Malone, Alexis Smith, Gina Ochsner, and many more!
TBD: People who’ve never put on an event like Wordstock have no idea how difficult it is. What are some of the joys and difficulties for you? And what are you going to do in terms of celebrating and collapsing once this thing is over?
AB: This sounds like I’m dodging the question but I swear it’s true: I love reading the books by the festival authors. Since I aim to program as diversely as possible, I’m often, of course, programming authors in genres I don’t read that often, and it’s great to find work I might not have come across if I wasn’t directing a festival in Portland.
I’ve mentioned a few times that the density of the festival is its strength — the sheer number of people — but of course, it’s so difficult to efficiently plan multiple venues and simultaneous events. We’ll always be learning how to do it a little better.
Last year I got a post-festival massage at Löyly, a lovely Finnish spa in Portland, and I’ll hopefully repeat that recovery plan this year… also whiskey.
TBD: We kind of hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
AB: From an events perspective: Be a good literary citizen! It’s much easier for a bookstore to say yes to an unknown or up-and-coming author if you have been a part of their culture before pitching your event. Go to events, shop there, put the time in before your book is even written so that they’ll know you. In fact, work at a bookstore if that makes sense for you. And support other writers in your area by attending their events. Engage with the community!
Amanda Bullock is the Director of Public Programs at Literary Arts, a nonprofit literary center in Portland, Oregon. She is the festival director for Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival and produces Portland Arts & Lectures. Prior to joining Literary Arts, she served as the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in downtown New York City. She is the co-founder and –organizer of Lit Crawl Portland, of the Downtown Literary Festival in NYC, and co-founder and –organizer of Moby-Dick Marathon NYC.
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We first met Jenise Aminoff at the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. She wowed us with her awesome pitch at our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books), and we were absolutely sure that she was going to be a published author sooner rather than later. Sure enough, her new book, A Witch’s Kitchen, is coming out, and we thought we would pick her brain about her road to publication.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
Jenise Aminoff: Yikes. There are so many ways I could answer that question. The simple answer is that I took a lot of classes. When I got to MIT, thinking I’d be a physicist or aero/astro engineer, I started taking writing classes as stress relief. Contrary to popular belief, MIT actually has a robust humanities department and an excellent writing program. At some point, I realized that I was enjoying writing much more than solving equations, so I changed majors. I have a bachelor’s of science in writing, and my thesis was poetry. Go figure.
One of the classes I took was Joe Haldeman’s Science Fiction Writing. He told us about the Clarion Workshop, so the fall after I graduated (and got married), I applied and got in. Clarion ’95 was an incredible experience, and a lot of fantastic writers came out of it. Josh Peterson attended having just won the Writers of the Future contest. Kelly Link (a recent Pulitzer finalist) sold her first story to Asimov‘s during Clarion. Nalo Hopkinson (won a Campbell and a Nebula and many, many more), Lucy Snyder (just won a Stoker), and Michael Warren Lucas have all gone on to be successful novelists. Bruce Glassco wrote the incredibly popular board game Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Going from that to the MFA program at Emerson College was a huge letdown, and I quit after one semester. But I needed a job, so a friend took pity on me and got me a job as a technical writer. Funny thing: if you tell people you have a degree in writing from MIT, they immediately assume it’s technical or scientific writing. Since then, I’ve been a technical writer, science writer, information designer, webmaster, grants writer, marketing content writer, and STEM curriculum designer.
For a long time, my fiction and poetry took a backseat to career and kids, but then a novel fell on my head. And I realized I was in trouble because I’d never studied long-form fiction, and novels are NOT just longer versions of short stories. So I found more classes to take: Odyssey Online’s Fabulous Dialogue in Fantastic Fiction with Jeanne Cavelos, Writing Middle Grade/YA Novels with Holly Thompson, and Odyssey Online’s Getting the Big Picture (novel revision) with Barbara Ashford.
All throughout this, I was keeping active in one way or another. I belonged to critique groups, live and online. I was a slush reader for Aboriginal Science Fiction magazine right after Clarion, and after the first Odyssey Online class, I became an editor for New Myths magazine. I ran a reading series with an open mic for nearly ten years. And I read and read and read, everything I could get my hands on about writing: Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Lawrence Block’s Spider, Spin Me a Web; Don Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel; Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Plot; and of course, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. I also joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and read their annual guide and quarterly newsletters and online articles.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
JA: Yikes squared. How long can this article be? I’m a VORACIOUS reader.
When I was still in the children’s room of the Ernie Pyle branch of the Albuquerque Public Library, I read Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, The Little Princess). At my school library, I read all the Happy Hollisters and the Oz novels, Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then one day, when I was nine, I stumbled across a new book, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. Yes, I know that’s not a juvenile. Someone had misshelved it, I suppose. But I checked it out, read it with avid interest, brought it back, and asked if there were more.
The children’s librarian looked at me. “You read this? Did you understand it?” When I nodded, she called my mother over, spoke to her briefly, then turned back to me and said, “Come with me.” She led me into the adult section of the library and placed in my hands a small paperback: J.R.R Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
I owe that librarian so much, and I never even knew her name. After that, I had the run of the adult section. My mother was a mystery reader, but she also liked Ray Bradbury and introduced me to him. I started reading the entire SF section starting with the A’s: Anthony, Asimov, Beagle, Bradley, Cherryh, Clarke, Donaldson, Doyle… Eventually, I looped back to juveniles and found Lloyd Alexander and Madeline L’Engle. Of these, the ones I read over and over and over were Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, all the McCaffreys, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and, in my teen years, Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle.
TBD: What are you reading these days?
JA: Still reading children’s literature, everything my girls bring into the house, plus a lot of stuff they don’t find interesting but I do. I’m currently investigating verse novels as an interesting form I’d never known about. Also adult SF, particularly Seanan McGuire, Cat Valente, N.K. Jemison, Daniel Jose Older, John Scalzi, and China Mieville. My husband is a history buff, and he hands me the well written stuff. I’m currently reading Sailing the Wine Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill. I’m also reading some basic psychology, articles on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs as a framework for structuring character development. I’m working my way through Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein. I follow several web comics religiously: xkcd, Girl Genius, Questionable Content, Mare Internum, Blindsprings, Kiwiblitz, and Phoebe and Her Unicorn.
TBD: How did you come up with the idea for your book?
JA: It fell on my head. Really. In my family, we make each other Christmas presents. Right after Thanksgiving 2013, my younger daughter asked me to write her a story with fairies and unicorns as her present. I thought, okay, sure, 10 pages or so. A couple of days later, I was watching my older daughter baking a cake. She doesn’t use recipes (that’s cheating), and sometimes her cakes are fabulous and sometimes they’re awful, but most of the time they’re okay. I thought, What if there were a young witch who just can’t figure out magic but is really good at cooking? And I started writing. And writing. And the story wouldn’t end. By Christmas, I had something like 50 pages written, and I knew then that it was a novel. I finished the first draft in time for her birthday in March, and it was around 50k words by then.
In A Witch’s Kitchen, Millie’s an apprentice witch who can’t cast a successful spell but who can cook amazing meals and scrumptious desserts. Her mother’s only interested in the magic, though, so Millie feels unappreciated and worthless. Millie’s grandmother comes up with the clever idea of sending her to the Enchanted Forest School, where she studies magic and many other things with fairies and dragons and goblins, reconnects with her half-brother, a wizard, befriends a pixie and an elf, and starts discovering that her cooking has value, and her magic isn’t so messed up as it seems. Ultimately, the novel’s about not letting other people define you.
TBD: What were some of the joys and perils of writing your novel?
JA: Joys and perils is a good way to describe it. On the one hand, it was glorious. Words just kept pouring out of me in this seemingly unending stream, and the big challenge was finding time in which to write. Fortunately, my employer decided to move to a new location which would have meant a 90-minute commute for me, so I gleefully quit and focused on the novel. But I really had no idea what I was doing. It felt like navigating a maze in total darkness using only my elbows. Characters would suddenly appear out of nowhere and take over the plot, and I’d later have to ruthlessly revise them out. And because this was my first novel, every niggling little idea I’d ever had, and every moral I wanted to pass on to my girls, showed up in one form or another. And I then had to prune and prune and prune. I have determined, empirically, that I am not a pantser. All those years as a technical writer, I suppose.
TBD: How did you go about selling your book?
JA: First, I joined SCBWI and looked through their annual guide, The Book, and their lists of agents and their sample query letter. I usually attend Arisia, the largest SF convention in Boston, and it so happened that in January 2015, N.K. Jemison was doing a pitch session, so I signed up for that. I really had no idea what a pitch was, so I read her the first paragraph of my query letter, and she had some good advice for fixing that up. Her assistant gave me some comp suggestions.
Then I went to the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield in April 2015, and I learned so much, my head nearly exploded. On the first day, I went to a query critique session with agent Kaylee Davis, and she had some very helpful advice. I was attending with my friend Dirk Tiede, who was also a first-time attendee, and he insisted I had to do the Pitchapalooza. I really didn’t want to; pitching in front of a huge crowd of people I didn’t know sounded absolutely terrifying, but Dirk was pitching, so I put my name in to be supportive. When you pulled my name out of that bucket, I was sitting on the floor in the back of the room, frantically revising that pitch using Davis’s advice. The sheet of paper I brought up was scribbled over and scratched out and rewritten. But I pitched it, and I won. I’m still stunned by this. I’d never even seen a Pitchapalooza before.
This gave me a lot of confidence. Taking what I learned at the conference, I revised the novel again, and I started querying in June, without a whole lot of success. My manuscript buddy Dana told me about Twitter pitch parties, and I tried a few of those and got a few lukewarm responses. And then my friend Elizabeth told me about the Young Explorers’ Adventure Guide, an annual anthology of science fiction written for children, mostly middle grade but also a little YA. I checked out the publisher, Dreaming Robot Press, and I noticed that they were accepting submissions for MG fantasy novels. So I sent them my query. They got back to me in early August expressing interest, and I called in my Pitchapalooza prize, a consultation with you. Thank you so much for holding my hand through that process.
Despite your and my best efforts, I never landed an agent, but I got a lot of good advice from Gay Haldeman and Jeanne Cavelos and Barbara Ashford, and I signed with Dreaming Robot Press in February 2016.
TBD: What was it like to do a Kickstarter campaign? What are some do’s and don’ts that you learned?
JA: The Kickstarter campaign was wild and terrifying and huge fun, all at the same time. I’d been involved in a failed Kickstarter before, but Dreaming Robot Press had done two successful Kickstarters in the past, and I trusted them to make it work. One smart thing they did was pair me up with a more seasoned author, Susan Jane Bigelow, whose Extrahuman Union series is now being republished by The Book Smugglers Publishing. One mistake they made was setting the goal way too low, at just $850. We funded it in the first seven hours, during our Facebook launch party! After that, I think a lot of people just thought, oh, it funded, I don’t need to support this, so getting more buy-in was hard.
I kept trying to come up with stretch goals. I offered to publish a companion cookbook, and we blew through that stretch goal within 24 hours. I then offered to do free school visits for every $1000 over the goal, but that was too high, and it looks like I’ll only be doing one of those. During the middle slump, I got the Kickstarter posted on boingboing.net, and that same evening Susan and I were interviewed on the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast. All that effort netted us a total of four new supporters. But at the end, we came in at $2101, which is a pretty good feeling and some nice early publicity before publication in September.
TBD: Many writers have used pen names. In fact, David published a middle grade novel using another name, but that was because his publisher basically forced him. Why are you using one?
JA: I posted a long essay about my pen name on my Facebook author page. Here’s the short form: Dianna is my middle name, and Sanchez is my mother’s maiden name, so it’s as much my name as Jenise Aminoff. Growing up, I never saw Hispanic names on the spines of the books I read, and I never found Hispanic characters inside those books. As a child, I never questioned this. It was obvious that science fiction/fantasy was a white thing, as so many things were then.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered black SF writers such as Samuel R. Delany (who was one of my Clarion instructors) and Octavia Butler. I started asking, where are all the Hispanic SF writers? I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but that was magic realism, and I didn’t really understand the distinction, why Hispanic speculative fiction needed its own little box. Thank goodness other Hispanic SF writers are starting to emerge now: Junot Diaz, Daniel Jose Older, Carmen Maria Machado.
I want my daughters to see Hispanic names on books. I want them to find Hispanic characters in books. I want other kids – white, black, Asian, whatever – to see them, too, and to understand that science fiction is for everyone.
TBD: What’s next?
JA: Right now, I’m in the middle of moving, but that’s starting to calm down a little, so I’m beginning to plan out my next novel. I have so many novels that have been simmering on back burners, it’s been hard to decide which ones to work on next. Right now, I’m outlining a MG urban fantasy which features cross-group characters: one black, one Hispanic, and one of mixed ancestry including Anasazi. It takes place in Albuquerque and addresses issues of culture shock and adapting to new environments.
At the same time, I really want to be working on a YA novel in which a Hispanic boy gets lost in an infinitely large discount store, encountering people from all over the world who are similarly trapped. There are so many fun things I can do with this, while also channeling a creepy vibe I haven’t really played with before. But this novel is much less fully developed than the MG novel, so I’ll probably work on that first. And I have a long, LONG list of other novels I want to get to, not to mention sequels to A Witch’s Kitchen.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JA: Ooh, now you’re playing dirty. Okay, here are the things I find myself telling people again and again.
- Go easy on yourself. Life is hard and crazy, and you never know from day to day what’s going to come along to sabotage your writing practice. Don’t feel bad about that, because your life informs your craft, and everything you do when you’re not writing is going to end up in your writing later. It’s great if you have a stable enough life that you can write a set number of hours every day, but if you can’t write every day, don’t let the shame of having failed prevent you from writing when you do have the time.
- That said, be persistent. So you didn’t write today. Tomorrow, find ten minutes to jot down ideas or do character sketches. Then, when you have a luxurious hour or two for uninterrupted writing, you’ve got material ready to work on.
- Don’t write alone. Find a critique group that’s supportive and dedicated, one that’s not overly harsh but also doesn’t pull punches, and one in which everyone is contributing more or less equally. These people are your lifeline. They will keep you sane. Critiquing their work will help you recognize what you should improve in your own writing. If you write kidlit, SCBWI has a critique group matching service you can use. If you don’t, Meetup is another great place to find groups. There are lots of online groups, too. Join the Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers in America Facebook group and just ask there. And if you can’t find a group that meets your needs, make one. That’s what I did, pulling together a bunch of people I met at that fateful 2015 conference. I love them all; I could never have finished my novel without them.
- Every first draft is terrible. Don’t lose heart. That’s what revision is for. I hate revising, passionately, and would rather go clean the bathroom or weed my garden. But revision is actually where things get interesting, when you pull together all the disparate threads of your story into a complex, well-woven whole. Think of revision as an endless series of do-overs. In time, you’ll get it just right.
Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI, and a former editor of New Myths magazine (www.newmyths.com). Aside from 18 years as a technical and science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. Her debut novel is A Witch’s Kitchen, forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2016.
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Imagine Being the Writer You Are Not…Yet
We first met Cathy Salit when she had an idea for a book. As the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, a company that helps individuals and organizations with all things related to human development, we knew she had a life-changing book on her hands. Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work can now be found in the business section of bookstores. But we think it’s a book that everyone interested in becoming a better version of themselves should read, especially if you’re an author without writing experience, or a writer without publicity and marketing experience. You’ll see why.
The Book Doctors: In your book, Performance Breakthrough, you talk about the idea that you can be who you are and who you’re not at the same time. Can you explain what that means?
Cathy Salit: We human beings all have an innate ability to perform, to project, to imagine, and to play. This ability is something we are able to exercise effortlessly as children. We play mommy and daddy and different superheroes, on different planets, different animals, and so on. It’s something that is not just a cute and wonderful thing about childhood; it’s also a very big part of what enables children to learn and to grow. But what happens is, at a certain point in our childhood, all that playing and all that experimenting gets pushed to the wayside, and now it’s time to learn and behave and to get things right. This is for a good reason, in the sense that you don’t want to play and experiment with how to cross the street. But we end up minimizing the part of ourselves that can, and should, and could continue to play and experiment. We develop our identities, our personalities, and define ourselves by our profession, who we love, what we like to do. Performance Breakthrough proposes that what it means to grow–to keep learning and keep developing–is to combine who we already created ourselves to be and who we are not yet.
TBD: With a lot of authors, especially of nonfiction, the first thing they say is, “I’m not a writer.” Either they’ve had careers that they’re writing about, and that career has not been writing, or they are people who have always dreamed of writing a novel, but they have a day job, et cetera. Using the principles of Performance Breakthrough, how does one take on the role of “Writer” while thinking that you are not one?
CS: What if they don’t have to own that they’re a writer? What if they just pretend to be a writer and not worry about whether they really are? A helpful concept is to creatively imitate writers, and that can include learning more about what it means to be a writer. One of the many, many things that I did to put myself in the zone of being a writer was reading books about writing by writers, like Anne Lamott and Stephen King, and creatively imitating and doing what they said to do. Number two, as a performer, I’m a talker. I’m a speaker. I pretended to trust that I could just write down what I would say, and that would be enough to get started.
TBD: Today, being a writer means more than just writing. It means being a salesperson, a publicist, a marketer. Many of these jobs are completely the opposite of what most writers want to be doing. Many writers are introverted and are not comfortable in these scenarios of having to publicize and market and sell their work. We’re curious about how you would talk about using the ideas in Performance Breakthrough for adopting these roles.
CS: Yeah, it’s hard! I am a salesperson. I am a marketer. And I find it hard. You can think about it as a scene in a new play that you’re in where some scenes are alien to you. Give yourself some lines to say. Those could include: I’m not used to speaking in public. I’m not used to doing podcasts, or being on the radio, so bear with me. You can be playful and honest about this not being your natural habitat. You don’t want to do that endlessly, but it’ll help make you feel more comfortable. Also, it will lower your expectations and relieve some of the pressure.
TBD: Do you have any advice for people who, like you, are translating a lifetime of work to the page?
CS: What occurs to me is the importance of voice. This might seem contradictory, but you can never stop being who you are. If you’re trying to put onto the page your passion, your work, don’t let the fact that you’re putting words on a page and having to use a medium that is maybe not your natural habitat rob you of your voice. Find a way to still be who you are, even while you’re being who you’re not. It’s back to our philosophy that you need to be both. You’re not just being who you’re not. You’re being who you are, too. It’s got to sound like you. It’s got to feel like you. You don’t have to impress anybody. One of the biggest compliments that I’ve gotten for my book is that people feel like they’re in the room with me. Perhaps that’s particularly important for my book because our work is of such an experiential nature.
Cathy Salit is the CEO of the innovative consulting and training firm Performance of a Lifetime and author of PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books). She is a speaker, facilitator, executive coach, instructional designer, and social entrepreneur. Cathy performs regularly with the musical improv comedy troupe the Proverbial Loons and, less frequently, sings jazz and R & B on any stage she can find or create. She lives in New York City.
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What’s the key to unlocking publishing doors? A great pitch! Earlier this year, we taught a live webinar on how to craft a pitch that’ll grab the attention of agents, publishers, booksellers, and readers. The recording is now available for everyone to view.
The Art of the Book Pitch
Learn the art and science of the seemingly impossible task of boiling your book down into 250 words or less.
- What is a pitch?
- Why is a pitch important?
- How do authors use pitches?
- Is a plot-heavy pitch good or bad?
- What is an elevator pitch?
- How is a pitch like a poem?
- How do authors use the pitch as a sales tool?
- And more!
DO YOU WANT NOTIFICATION OF UPCOMING WEBINARS? LET US KNOW.
We first became aware of Lin Oliver when we presented at the annual New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference. We learned she had co-founded SCBWI, and we kept hearing what a wonderful writer, great businessperson and generous human she was. So now that she’s launched her new book series, The Fantastic Frame, we thought we would pick her brain about books, publishing, writers groups and how to get successfully published.
The Book Doctors: We often coach writers in marketing their work. As a writer, film producer and executive, when do you begin to think about marketing? When do you start thinking about the audience, who’s going to read and love this idea?
Lin Oliver: The traditional view of the author is that we’re somehow sequestered in a cabin by the lake expressing our deepest truths. There’s still that general view when you talk to publishers. The advice is, “Write your best book and the audience will come to you.” But that’s actually a very Ivory Tower kind of view. We’re all writing to express ourselves and also to reach an audience, so you have to think about who the audience is.
It helps me to imagine an actual classroom of kids or myself at that age. Because I’m writing for children, I do want to know in whose hands this is going to wind up. It’s almost a creative question, but it turns into marketing real fast. When I’m conceiving a book or series, it is important for me to know, “Who am I trying to reach?” I have very specific goals in mind.
TBD: Do you feel that being in the world of Hollywood and working very closely with combining image and word has helped you as an author?
LO: Oh, a 1,000%. My training was writing television. It’s not only combining images and words; it’s looking at pace. You can’t assume that your audience is staying with you, so you have to create a pace that is lively, moves along quickly, and has cliffhangers built in. I was writing television before people started binge-watching HBO and Netflix, so you had to actually bring people back after a commercial. You’re trained to keep a good pace going and to keep them wondering. The question is, “Well, then what happens?”
The other thing that came from television is dialogue. I had to learn how to write narrative when I started writing novels because I was trained in writing dialogue. A lot of great picture books have come from people who’ve worked in television or animation because they’ve been trained that the image tells the story as much as words.
TBD: We often hear, “My book really picks up after page 25.” What advice would you give to writers with this syndrome?
LO: My strategy is to write the first pages and then cut them all. Bruce Coville, who’s a wonderful children’s book writer, always refers to “literary throat clearing.” You spend the first few chapters gearing up. The rule that we all follow is to start as close to the action as possible. The old rule is to begin on the day it’s different. My rule is to begin most of the way through the day it’s different. We don’t have long with kids, only a few pages. They need to be engaged.
Exposition is a killer. You feel like your readers need all the information on everything, but they don’t. It’s so much more effective when it’s natural to the scene. If you look at movies, you don’t really know what’s going on during the first ten minutes. You’re not quite sure how it’s all going to fit together, but you’re willing to go with it because it’s exciting.
TBD: Lots of people who are trying to get their kids’ book published write books that are didactic in nature; they misunderstand what kids want to read and what publishers are looking for. They pitch their book by saying, “Here’s a lesson for all you kids to learn.”
LO: That never works. Anyone who’s ever been a parent knows there are two surefire ways to clear a room: one is try to teach them something weighty, and the other is to reminisce. Both of those are problems with beginning writers, and neither one is the right frame of mind. This isn’t about sentimentality and nostalgia, and it’s not about teaching a lesson. It’s about entertaining and telling a story.
Take, for example, the series I’m working on now, The Fantastic Frame. I love art history. It’s enriched my life in every possible way, and it’s not taught in schools. Part of my motivation was to introduce the idea that art is going to make you happy. It’s going to make you richer and deeper, and it’ll give you pleasure. That’s not really didactic, but it’s a value that I hold. And that, I think, is the difference. These stories are all adventures. The old lady next door has a frame that sucks you into a great painting. You have an adventure inside a Rousseau, a Seurat, or a Edward Hopper, but I’m not there to teach you about color theory, art history, or the role of Edward Hopper in American Realism. We’re inside the painting so you can feel what it’s like to be in shadow and in light. You’re learning things, but you’re having an adventure first. If it’s not exciting and edge-of-your-seat adventuresome, then it’s not going in there, regardless of how much it might have to do with art history.
TBD: When we first published our book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, ten years ago, we called it Putting Your Passion Into Print because we feel exactly like you do. You can write the most beautiful sentence, paragraph, chapter in the world, but if there’s not a passion underneath it, why bother? Readers, viewers, and human beings respond to passion. They just do. So what’s next for you?
LO: The Hank Zipzer books, which I write with Henry Winkler, are now a series on the BBC. Henry and I also wrote four books in the Ghost Buddy series, and Amazon optioned them and had us write a pilot. They didn’t buy it, so it goes in the list of developed but not produced. We’re just going back into that, getting the notes from 27 different people, the ‘German Markets’ or whatever. It’s really nice to sit at your screen and write something you think is going into the hands of the right people.
Lin Oliver is a children’s book author and writer-producer of television series and movies for children. With Henry Winkler, she writes the New York Times best-selling book series, Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever, which has sold over 4 million copies and is a hit television series on the BBC. Their new chapter book series, Here’s Hank, is also a New York Times best-seller. She is also the author of the Who Shrunk Daniel Funk quartet, Sound Bender and The Shadow Mask, adventure/science fiction middle grade novels she coauthored with Theo Baker. Her collection of poetry, the highly praised Little Poems for Tiny Ears, illustrated by Tomie dePaola, is being followed with another poetry collection, Steppin’ Out: Playful Rhymes for Toddler Times. Her new chapter book series, The Fantastic Frame, debuted in April of this year from Grosset. Lin is the co-founder and Executive Director of SCBWI. Learn more at www.linoliver.com or follow Lin on Twitter (@linoliver).
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We met JoAnneh Nagler a few years ago. She was such a charismatic, wise, energetic evangelist for artists looking to become better business people and make better financial choices. Now that her new book, How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass, is out, we picked her brain about books, writing, art, money, and whatever else we could get out of her.
The Book Doctors: You do so many creative things in your life: writing, music, fine art. Where did that creative impulse originate?
JoAnneh Nagler: I realized I was artistic at about the age of seven. When I think about where my well of creative impulses lives inside me, I immediately think of the brilliant Dostoyevsky quote, “Beauty will save the world.” I guess that’s what I’m up to in my art life–to create more beauty in the world.
What’s telling, though, is that when I was growing up and becoming an adult, I didn’t think to value my creative gifts above my brain, or give myself permission to develop those talents so I could share them in a serious way. “Artists are poor,” I was told. “They fight with their families about whether or not to do their art, and they usually end up giving it up to raise a family or get a job.” That extreme thinking caused a lot of suffering in my life, until I found a way to live as an artist without losing it, quite literally.
In my book, How to Be an Artist, I use the term “artist” in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing all of the entrepreneurial stuff that creative people do. That means painters, writers, sculptors, musicians, actors, but also gallery owners, new-millennium bloggers, designers, inventors–you name it. And that’s important because there are millions of us creating with ambition. We’re not hobbyists.
Hence, the theme of my book: we need to give up the extreme thinking that we either have to starve or be a multi-millionaire in order to live a creative life. We need a new model of balance that helps us live a decent life and make art at the same time. That’s what I’m up to in my life and in my book.
TBD: How did you first become a published author?
JN: The road to becoming published began, for me, with an act of service. I had no real ambition to write a personal finance book. I had fallen on my face with debt, and I came up with a simple, five-minute-a-day plan to live debt-free–something so easy that I could keep my head in it without checking out. I started sharing it with friends, and my best friend came to me and said, “You need to write this down. This saved my marriage.” So I sat down to see if I had anything to say, and I wrote The Debt-Free Spending Plan.
Writing to be of service was the key that led me to the How to Be an Artist book: understanding that creating is unlike anything else we do in our linear timeline. It requires blocked out hours where we can explore in an undisturbed way, where we can craft something from scratch and experiment. It requires learning how to be of service to our artistry, and that means grabbing hold of a few tools we can apply simply and easily that will help us get our hands in our art.
TBD: What did you learn from your first book, The Debt-Free Spending Plan, that you were able to apply to your second book?
JN: I learned that if I’m going to offer helpful insights to readers, then I need to make them easy and practical in the real world. I want everything I offer to be workable in crazy, pressure-cooker, swirling lives. I’m essentially writing from my own failings in my books–from the stuff that I fell on my face over in art, money, time, motivation, love, crafting a life–stuff that had me face-first on the sidewalk sometimes. Now that I know how to navigate some of this stuff from having learned it the hard way, I’m hoping to offer a short-cut, a painless path for others. I’m offering easy-on-the-soul tools to help us get to fulfillment faster and with less pain than I experienced.
When I wrote The Debt-Free Spending Plan, I had no idea if anyone would publish it, so I wrote one hour a day, four days a week. I was beginning to practice what I now preach: that is, a balanced life, with a “slow, steady steps” approach to making art. That’s an important point about writing non-fiction for me: I had to live the principles I was writing about, both for the debt-free book and the art book, and I had to write from a place of my frail and flawed humanity.
For instance, I loved the 1990s books on artistic process that asked me to write in a journal every day, do ramp up exercises, even do my mending when I’m blocked, but realistically, I don’t have that kind of time. Most of us don’t. We have day jobs and families and crazy-busy lives, and we need practical strategies to get to our art quickly or we won’t get there at all.
So that’s what I crafted in How to Be an Artist: tools for managing time, work ethics, motivation, balancing a day job–even money clarity–so we can get to the stuff we love right now. I figured out for myself that it’s not the glory-outcomes that put me at ease when I’m pressed to create something; it’s getting my hands dirty, in my art, on a day-to-day basis.
TBD: Is this a cliché, or have I really noticed that many people who devote their lives to the creative arts seem to be not very good with money?
JN: It’s not a cliché. It’s true. But it’s not true because we artists are flawed individuals who flounder because we can’t get it together long enough to address our money or our lives. The truth is, we’ve been schooled in completely insane and culturally-wacked ideas about what it means to live as an artist, and we instill them in both kids and adults.
We’re told that if we’re a “real” artist, we should be willing to starve and struggle–tanking our life, essentially–in order to make art. And that doesn’t work. We’re sensitive creatures, and struggling is like running too much electricity through already delicate circuits–it sucks up all of the air in the room for making art, and it ruins our life, too.
The other end of the pendulum swing is the myth that a “real artist” is someone who’s had instant multi-millionaire success or has a grandmother’s trust fund to live off of and doesn’t need a day job. All of that is bunk.
Here’s the definition of a real, working artist: a person who works on his or her creative work on a regular basis. That’s it.
That’s the whole premise for my book–that we can learn how to put supports under our feet, live artistically, and have a decent life–not just for now, but for years of our life.
Specifically, regarding money, we artists need simple clarity–not so we can be good little corporate citizens or work on our credit scores, but so we can buy ourselves time. Money clarity buys us time; that’s the simple truth. It offers us the support we need when the call comes to go to South America for three months and teach music, or the inspiration comes to craft a 16 by 20-foot installation piece and we need to buy supplies. It allows us to answer our own artistic callings, plain and simple.
What we want to build is an artist’s life. Not a flash-in-the-pan idea that we’re praying is going to save us from having any more responsibilities in the outside world. So we have to give up the ‘kick-starter’ idea of making an instant, uber-splash and banish all of that cart-before-the-horse hype that says “do what you love and the money will follow.” All we own as an artist is our labor. We have no control over how the world will receive our gifts because we are blazing a brand new trail every time we create. But that’s why we do it. It’s all on us for one simple reason: no one else can replicate our own, exquisite creative voice.
TBD: Why do you think we live in a society where so many creative artists are asked repeatedly to give their work away for free?
JN: I think there’s an identity issue wrapped up in this question. For example, a friend of mine likes to say, “I’m a potter, and I fix cars to support myself.” That’s a very different definition than saying he’s a mechanic and does a little pottery “on the side.” And that definition affects what he charges for his work and how he approaches showing it. He is a professional potter. And he does something to support himself that he can live with. That’s the framework we need to make art over time.
We need to own our identity as an artist. When we do, it tends to make sense of our life choices, our day job, our timelines, and helps us professionalize our work as well. Why do we care if our work is professionalized? Because when we take our artwork out into the light of day we get more than a chance to sell it: we get feedback. We see how it lands on other people’s hearts. We see its value. We learn how to tweak and adjust and get better at expressing.
When I wrote my first music CD, I really didn’t know much about song structure and I had a tendency to over-write musically. I don’t think I was even aware that I was songwriting in the Americana-folk-pop tradition. By my second CD, I knew who I was writing for, and I knew how to get to the form quicker. That professionalization helped me finesse, and it guided me on how to value the product.
I had a mentor who asked me to monetize all the skills I learned songwriting, laying down tracks, co-producing, editing, supervising the mixing, and marketing that CD–meaning, I had to put down a dollar value of what those skills were worth in the outside world. And it woke me up–it was worth hundreds of thousands.
I’m saying we have to get better–and we will as more of us bring our work into the light with a solid support structure under our feet–at finding ways to pay artists, ways to earn. We are beginning to think more entrepreneurially, and as we get clear about our personal time, money, life structure and goals, we will learn the value of investing in the stuff that earns.
TBD: Follow-up: What do you advise artists do when someone keeps asking them to work for free?
JN: I do a lot of different things in my art life. I make music CDs; I paint large abstracts; I write plays, travel articles, and books. I still have things I’m dying to do: design clothes, for instance, and write novels. But I don’t know which ones are going to pop. All I know is that I need to answer the call when it comes, or I quite literally start getting agitated and dissatisfied in my daily life. (I have learned this the hard way.)
What I do now is set up my life like school: a handful of hours for my day job, a handful more for my family life and health, and then I map out the rest–my “flex hours,” as I like to call them–with the creative things I want to get my hands in. I never know which ones are going to earn. But if I’m supporting myself well with a day job or a situation I can live with–one that’s not creating struggle or angst in my life–then I’m free to explore whatever I choose to explore, and the results can take their own course.
That doesn’t mean I don’t lobby for the best earning power I can command, based on my work. What it does mean is that I’m not in a rush anymore to insist that my projects instantly deliver a payoff. I don’t use debt anymore, so I’m not pressed financially and I’m not desperate. I can choose whether I want to give away something to get exposure, or wait and hold back until my art pieces generate the kind of value-field I’m looking to play on.
I’ll give you a great example of this approach. As I said before, I wrote my first book by writing one hour a day, four days a week, and it took me a little over a year and a half to finish it. No rush, but not that long in the scheme of things, right? I was just setting aside some time to see whether I had something I really wanted to say. I also worked a couple Sunday afternoons a month recording music, and I wrote travel articles a handful of hours a month. That sounds like I’m just crazy-motivated, since I have another job teaching yoga, too, but it really was the use of a simple tool–a time map I describe in my book–that got me into the things I wanted to explore.
Without the intense cart-before-the-horse pressure to perform that I used to put on my creative work, my projects get a normal growth arc, like a kid. We can’t expect our artwork to save us in instantaneous glory, or to have the maturity of a twelve-year-old when it’s only a two-year-old.
Art needs time. It’s not a paved path to “success,” like going to medical school or getting a computer science degree. As artists, we’re building the path as we go. Yeah, it’s a drag that we sometimes have to give away stuff to get exposure. But when we’re supporting ourselves well already, we can choose to play in that pool–or not–depending on what our personal goals are. The point is, we’re building something, and that building takes time. We have to be willing to let that growth arc happen, and the way to do that is to put steady supports under our feet while we’re creating.
That’s a roundabout way of answering your question, but it’s the heart of it, I think. Simply put, our pleasure lives in living the life of an artist, not in the outcomes. We deserve to have that pleasure, and we can learn how to support it.
TBD: How do you personally juggle being an artist and entrepreneuse?
JN: I’ve had to get good at this, and it did not come easy–not by a long shot. I spent years burying my artistic gifts in business jobs, then, on the other extreme, quitting and living on my credit cards because I hated my life without art. I was a victim of the pendulum-extremes of our artist stereotypes, either by underearning and starving, or by burying my art. I was unhappy a lot and terribly frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to live with my gifts.
When I started taking the art life apart, the first thing I had to do was get a day job I could live with. That meant giving up the fast-money, “important” grant writing career (which was bringing me all kinds of grief and frustration) for a more humble yoga-teaching job, which ended up working incredibly well with my writing life. (It makes me get up from the screen and move around.) It meant I had to learn to live on less money and within my means so I could buy myself time to work on whatever I wanted to work on.
Then, with that foundation under me, I had to learn to set aside regular time for creating while having a job and a life. I use a time map that I can sketch out in five minutes, which I share in the book, which gives me moderate goals and buffer zones in case everything goes to hell and tanks my art time. I separate out the hours for creating and the hours for marketing, noting that though we’re all hyped up on it, tweeting twenty times a day is not creating art. It’s a different animal. I need the animal that calms me down–and that’s my art.
I want to keep increasing my earning power, but I need to be content while I’m at it–to give up angst-filled jobs and pressure-cooker situations and craft a life I can live with without getting nutty or being angry.
TBD: What gives you more pleasure, to write a great song or to make a shitload of money?
JN: Both. Truly, when I make money at my artistry–even small amounts–it gives me pleasure because it’s a validation of following my own guidance in the world. I’m being recognized for what I’m offering. But I can’t work from an outcomes-oriented perspective. That’s the point of setting aside time to craft art. I have to silence all of the outside voices–including the need to “succeed” monetarily–so I can hear the callings inside me and get them out. I have to work in both the ethereal, spiritual world of creating art and the practical, feet-on-the-ground realm of the birthing something onto the earth.
I’m not clueless though: I know that I’ve chosen to walk a path very divergent from what most other people walk. I’m ambitious, so even as I’m writing my “how-to” books, I see the arc of what I’m doing. I’m building a library of ways to help others with the stuff that made me fall on my face–hopefully in a very human tone with all of my failings and frailty present in the text–and my prayer is that it’s giving readers shortcuts for an easier walk than mine. My painting and my music are all about finding an intuitive kind of beauty, things that are not intellectual and encourage me to feel and intuit, rather than think. In all of it, I find, I’m coming to some kind of happy acceptance with being human.
Though my ambition certainly involves earning, and sharing, what’s at the heart of it is what my dear friend Mary Ellen (now about 97 years old) said to me once. She said, “See the faces of the people you’re going to help, the hearts that will be lifted up from your work.” That’s why I do what I do. And I support it with everything I need that will keep me in it for the long haul, for a whole life of this work I love.
Cheryl Strayed said, “We are here to build our own house.” I need–with all my heart–to have my house be a unique creation of my own hands, an un-replicated experience of what’s inside me. Who can say why I’m wired this way–to need this expression? I don’t know. All I know is that it presses on me, as if I’m pregnant with it, and I have to get it out. It’s what makes me happy and content.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers? And what advice do you have for artists who don’t want to lose their minds, shirts or creative compasses?
JN: I was the all-or-nothing girl for years: giant, swooning risks awaiting big-splash results that were supposed to lift me out of the bonds of daily life and responsibilities. I believed that if I loved my art enough I would be visited by glorious, save-me-in-a-moment success. Now I know that I have to build success, stone-by-stone, step-by-step. I have to craft the life of an artist first, support it, and then build on it, year-by-year. Since I’m an adult, I have to have a life while I’m doing it.
My advice for writers–and for all artists, really–is to stop over-expecting. To begin to apply the slow, steady steps approach to art–well supported, with permission to explore and discover and fall in love with the creative forces inside us. To live in balance, and to give ourselves the dignity of learning how. To give ourselves room to get what’s in us out, bringing the beauty of our art into our own soul, and then out into the world.
Our artist’s job is so clear: we are here to reflect back to the world the crazy, messy, lovely, challenging, exquisite beauty of what it is to be alive in our time.
I believe that happiness is in our own artistic moment. When we measure our success and wealth by our ability to get our hands in what we love, regularly and steadily, we are well on our way to building a heaven on earth.
JoAnneh Nagler is an author, painter, musician, and yoga teacher. She is the author of the new book How to be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt or Your Creative Compass, and the Amazon Top 100 Book The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Find her at: www.AnArtistryLife.com
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Author Websites, Blog Tours and Reader Demographics: Fauzia Burke Gives the Skinny on Online Marketing for Authors
When we wrote our book, The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published, the first person we asked to interview on the subject of online marketing was Fauzia Burke. Fauzia founded the pioneering online marketing firm FSB Associates and has been figuring out how to promote books on the World Wide Web since before most publishers and authors had ever performed a Google search. She’s worked with everyone from Alan Alda to Sue Grafton, promoting books across categories and genres. Her new book, Online Marketing for Busy Authors, is just the primer every writer needs to understand and make the most of online marketing today.
The Book Doctors: How do you figure out who your audiences are? And how far should you reach when determining multiple audiences?
Fauzia Burke: Understanding your readers is crucial because it will help you devise the best online strategy for you. Online marketing is customized and personalized. It is essential for you to know your audience so you can serve them best. You should know their age group, gender, interests, which social media outlets they use and where they hang out online. The more you know about them, the better your marketing will be. In my book, I have a worksheet to help authors refine their audience so they can market for their readers.
Some questions include:
- Is your reader male or female?
- What is their age range?
- What TV shows might they watch?
- What are some common values or traits of your ideal readership?
- Does your audience have a problem, concern or frustration that your book seeks to solve?
The identification of your ideal readers will play a major role in the quality of your online marketing plan.
TBD: How do you figure out where your audience lives online once you determine who they are?
FB: There are many sites that give you social demographics of each social media site. I use Pew Research and Sprouts Social. For example if your audience is women, you are more likely to find them on Pinterest. Younger users tend to use Instagram. Another good place to start is to look at who is already following your social media sites or visiting your website and aiming for networks that draws a similar audience. You can use Facebook Insights, Google Analytics, Twitter Analytics, etc.
TBD: Is an author website an important part of a publicity/online marketing plan?
FB: Websites are a crucial link between you and your readers. It is the one place, the hub, of all your activities. Your website is your opportunity to connect with your readers in a personal way. It is also where you have full control (unlike other social media sites) over your brand. Not having a website could be viewed as unprofessional, out-of-date, and not connected.
Despite popular belief, your website doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. You can keep it simple. WordPress is often recommended as a platform because it’s author friendly, easy-to-use and easy for people to find (has good search capabilities). Keep one thing in mind: It’s better not to have a website than to have an unprofessional one. If you have a website, make it good one.
TBD: Do authors have to blog?
FB: I consider blogs (like websites) the foundation of a digital strategy. Not only do blogs give authors the opportunity to stay connected with their readers, they also position the author as an expert. Blogs are also the absolute best way to drive traffic to websites. For book authors in a competitive marketplace, the need to blog couldn’t be higher. Consider the time you spend blogging as an extension of your job as a writer.
Blogging is a great way to share your knowledge, test how your content resonates, and collaborate with others. While experts may disagree on how often you need to blog, consistency is the key.
TBD: Do authors have to be on social media?
FB: I think every author has to make that decision for themselves. No one should be on social media if they don’t want to be or are only doing it to sell books. Social media gives authors an unprecedented opportunity to build a brand and create a community of readers. Here are some dos and don’ts that might help:
- You don’t have to do everything
- You don’t have to do the next shiny thing
- Look at the data for feedback (your digital footprint) and adjust accordingly
- Know your audience
- Don’t forget it’s a privilege to talk to people
- Be authentic
- Go for engagement
TBD: How important are author profiles on sites like Amazon, Goodreads and LinkedIn?
FB: I think they are all important to some degree. We should all have a completed profile on each site. Every author should grab their Amazon author profile. I think Goodreads is more important for fiction writers and LinkedIn is more important for non-fiction writers.
TBD: How should an author go about setting up a blog tour?
FB: If you are doing your own publicity efforts, consider developing an ongoing dialogue and relationship with the bloggers that cover your genre and niche. Share their information and be generous. Everyone appreciates a digital nod these days. Help them before you need their help.
Once you have searched the blogs that are appropriate for your book, you can pitch them a book for review or offer to do a Q&A or to write a blog that is appropriate for their audience. If you get some responses and the editors/bloggers request the book, your pitch is working. If not, you’ll have to try another pitch. Try connecting your book to something in the news or a new study. When you do get a response, pounce on it. Attention is fleeting and you don’t want to wait. If the editor/blogger asks for a book or an interview, accommodate them right away.
Then in a couple of weeks, follow up and make sure they got the book and ask if there is anything you can do to help. That’s the cycle. It’s not difficult. It’s not rocket science. However, it requires lots of time and patience. Contacts with the media are worth so much because a publicist’s relationship with an editor will cut the time and boosts your chances of getting a feature. If you are willing to put in the time, you can build the same contacts and relationships within your niche.
TBD: If an author has zero experience with publicity and marketing, what is the number one piece of advice you’d give him/her to get him/her going on the right path?
FB: I wrote my book, Online Marketing for Busy Authors, for just those authors. I hope that by giving them clear advice and priorities I have made things a bit easier on them. Here’s some advice:
Take heart and approach marketing with curiosity. If you are a overwhelmed by the rapidly changing world of online marketing, you are not alone. Remember all of us, experts and novices, are learning as we go. You don’t have to become a social media strategist to be effective.
Fauzia Burke is the founder and president of FSB Associates, an online publicity and marketing firm specializing in creating awareness for books and authors. She’s the author of Online Marketing for Busy Authors (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, April 2016). Fauzia has promoted the books of authors such as Alan Alda, Arianna Huffington, Deepak Chopra, Melissa Francis, S. C. Gwynne, Mika Brzezinski, Charles Spencer and many more. A nationally recognized speaker and online branding expert, Fauzia writes regularly for the Huffington Post. For online marketing, book publishing and social media advice, follow Fauzia on Twitter (@FauziaBurke) and Facebook (Fauzia S. Burke). For more information on the book, please visit: www.FauziaBurke.com.
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Six years ago, we went through the grueling process of launching our website in conjunction with the launch of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. It was hours and hours of work. And we had some serious blips along the way. For example, we decided to use the crowdsourcing design website 99Designs.com because we didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg. The good news was that for $500, we got a really nice looking site that functioned well. The bad news was that our designer was in Bulgaria and we couldn’t actually talk to him. So lots of things that we wanted fell by the wayside and it was, we’d say, about three-quarters baked.
This past year, with the launch of the updated edition of our book, we decided it was time to update our website as well. At the James River Writers Conference, we met a wonderful writer named Kris Spisak who had a web design company called Midlothian Web Solutions with her husband, Frank Petroski. Though they design all kinds of sites, they are partial to writers and understand the search engine optimization that is specific to author websites. We hired them and the redesign began. Again, it took countless hours of work. But this time, we had real partners and we’ve launched a site that makes us feel happy every time we look at it.
To get the site we wanted, we studied lots of other sites. Just like with your book, you need comps–comparable websites to the one you’re trying to build. On the content side, our comp site was one that wasn’t actually for an author but for a consultant in the nonprofit sector. On the visual side, we borrowed from all kinds of sites, but still kept the same color scheme and clean feel of our last site. Kris handled our keyword search, which is essentially an exercise is figuring out your audience and how to reach them. These keywords also help us with our blog posts, our newsletters and our workshops.
Why are we waxing on about our website? Because it’s crucial for you to have one as well. Check out the video to find out our Top Ten Tips for most excellent websites!