Words for Writers

AWARDS ANNOUNCEMENT – A Woman of the Sea

AWARDS ANNOUNCEMENT – A Woman of the Sea

Holy, smokes, guys! This is absolutely WONDERFUL news to wake up to on my Birthday!

I am absolutely floored and extremely thrilled to announce that my historical queer time-travel romance “A Woman of the Sea” has won a 2019 Watty Award for Historical Fiction!

A big, big thank you to Wattpad, all the judges and everyone who worked so hard on the awards, and to my fellow winners – congrats! Thank you for letting me share my stories with you all, and thank you for believing in the importance and power of fiction

. You can read the story here and view all the winners here or shelve the book on GoodReads here.

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JM FreyAWARDS ANNOUNCEMENT – A Woman of the Sea
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series

I know I’ve discussed this little a bit in other articles before, but I wanted to talk specifically about the process of plotting a multi-book narrative. And how to make the ending satisfying because, from an emotional standpoint, this is the moment both you and your audience has been waiting for – the time when all the hints, all the adventures, all the hard work and suffering your characters (and you!) have gone through pays off.

First, let’s talk about the logistics of a series from a career point of view.

When do I start planning the series?

This is a complicated question because, depending on where you are in your career and in the book-writing process, the answer will be different.

If you’re an already-published or already-represented author, then you’re likely already quite familiar with the process of pitching a book to your publisher/agent. Pitching a series is not much different, except that you’d need to write a synopsis for all the books you plan to write in the series, and create a pitch document for the series as a whole, as well as for each individual book.

If you are querying agents or publishers for the first time though, it’s a different process. The first thing I would recommend you do is not write the series.

This seems counter-intuitive, if you plan to pitch the book you’re querying as the first in a series. But trust me. There are reasons:

  • What if the agent/editor/publisher comes up with something better? In discussing a novel with you, inevitably – if you are talking about doing a series – someone is going to say “So what’s happening in book two? What if you do XYZ?” and it’s very possible that this new idea might be a stronger choice or provide a more interesting outcome. In that case, you’ve wasted what is probably years on writing something that you may end up scraping.
  • You’re writing into a void, and without guidance. Your writing will improve as you work with your editor/agent on your first novel. Everyone would rather you wrote book two after having done all that work with your editor/agent, because it will inevitably be a stronger, better-written manuscript. It’s much better, and so much easier, to write a strong first draft than have to go back and rewrite a weak one. Or a whole series of already-written books.
  • Things can change in edits – a small change in book one can have a ripple effect in all the rest of the books, which can open you up to the risk of terrible continuity errors in later books, or even whole swathes of plot points or character moments that will need rewriting.
  • What if they don’t want the series, and only want the first book? It happens. (It also happens the other way around, too – the Accidental Turn Series was never meant to be a series, and I had never planned to write more than The Untold Tale.) They may ask you to put a less open ending on the book and just wrap it up, so there’s no further story to tell.  In that case, you’ll have wasted your time on the other books in the series, which can’t be published because your publisher likely has right of first refusal on works set in that IP, and has refused them. 
  • Your publisher may want to wait to see how book one does before investing more time and money in further books with you. And they may only want one or two more – even if you planned, say, five. You may need to restructure your story ideas to fit a smaller, or larger, number of books. It’s much easier to do that if the books don’t exist, because you don’t have the pressure of trying to make what already exists either squash or stretch.

So how do you get across to a publisher/agent that you’re querying that this is meant to be the first book of a series? These are the nine most important words for pitching a series: “This is a stand-alone novel with series potential.”

So what does that mean? It means that 1) you have to write a book that is fully contained, with a satisfying ending in and of itself, 2) that has enough plot seeds sown and open points where future plots could anchor that it could be the first of a series, 3) but not so many that if those seeds never get to grow or those open points remain gaping, it feels like a cheap and unsatisfactory ending. Think of it as a made-for-tv-movie that is also a back-door-pilot. If the MFTVM does very well, the producers may spin it out into a TV series. If it doesn’t, it remains just a movie. So it has to be both satisfying and stand-alone, but also useful as a kicking-off point to a longer and more involved narrative.

What’s different about writing a series?

The first, and most obvious difference between writing the books in a series and any other stand-alone  book, is that you have to draw the story out, and then finish what you start. Everything you set up, hint at, or have happen in previous books has to work toward the final climax scene in the final story, while also still providing satisfying novels individually.

It’s a lot to remember, and a lot to make pay off. (This is why I have a whiteboard wall and a pin-board in my office, so I can keep notes to myself about things I seeded when I started book one). 

And on top of that, you need to avoid Mushy Middle Syndrome – that is, writing books that happen between the first and last novels in the series that are clearly just made up of filler.  Each individual book in the series needs to be a whole story itself as well as part of the structure holding up the bridge of the overall narrative, and just as strong (ideally stronger) than the first book in the series.

 But how can you not only do this, but do it well?

As a Pantser at heart it pains me to say it, but the best way to make sure your foundation is solidly laid (and that you won’t have to go back and rewrite huge swaths of earlier books), you’ll need to Plan. At least a little.

As a trained playwright and screenwriter, I personally choose to write my books according to the three-act structure. 

Writing a book with the three-act structure generally looks like this:

When writing a series, each book will be structured to have three Acts.

BUT, when you are writing a series, (let’s say a trilogy for simplicity’s sake), each book itself becomes an Act in the narrative of the whole story.


So when you’re planning each book, not only do you have to write a whole, complete, compelling novel in and of itself (with no saggy middle book!), you also have to ensure that the tale you’re telling in each individual novel serves the overall narrative as well. Which means the final book in the series will be especially fussy to plan, because it must function both as a stand-alone novel, but also behave like the third act of the series and wrap everything up satisfactorily, and in a way that is not rushed.

To complicate things, you need to figure out what kind of story you’re telling, and what the structure tropes are for that particular narrative style. Going with my above example, The Accidental Turn Series is about a quintessential Tolkien-esque fantasy hero who never knew he was the main character all along, so had been acting like a sidekick. As such, each book follows the Hero’s Journey narrative map, while the characters deliberately attempt to escape from the Hero’s Journey cycle:

So each individual book looks like this:

But when you blow it out into the full series, the Hero’s Journey for each book looks more or less like this:

As you can see, some of the narrative beats overlap, because if there was a clear division between books, it would mean the first book has no real ending, the second book is filled with adventures that don’t culminate in any kind of climax, and the third book would be mostly denouement and return. So you do need to balance where the Revelations happen, how often, and how they drive the plot of not only that particular novel forward, but that of the whole series.

Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, or the only way you can divide up a series.  For The Skylark’s Saga, as a two-book series, I organized it like this:

Which meant a lot of conversations with my editor, a lot of scribbling on that white board, and what turned out to be a whole heck of a lot of rewrites, as the original ending wasn’t strong enough to finish off a duology and we had to reformat the final act of book two a few times.

No matter how you plan to plot your series, knowing which story structure you plan to use is vital, so you can mirror that structure into the layout of the series as a whole. Beyond the Three Act structure, This article offers a few more options for how to layout the narrative foundations of your novel.

For my next novel, The Maddening Science, (which is going to be a stand alone), I’m venturing away from both the Hero’s Journey and the Three Act Structure. I’m not sure exactly which model I’ll be using, but Steve Seager lists some other fascinating possible story structures that I want to explore in more depth before I swing into this novel for NaNoWriMo

I’m also really into the way Alan Moore structured the overall graphic novel Watchmen. I’m enamored with the idea of seemingly disparate stories coming together to create a solid understanding of the world and a shocking realization as the climax is playing out. All the different tales come together in the end to form one picture – like different coloured threads knotting together to form a friendship bracelet – and that is what I’d like to explore in terms of storytelling next.

Shall we call this the Woven Structure? Maybe let’s see if I can make it work before we name it.

The point is, no matter which structure you use, having a solid understanding of how it works, and which beats you’re going to put in which books, is an extremely important part of planning a book series. Mapping the structure of the novel onto the series as a whole is a simple (if brain-knotting) way to ensure that the series conclusion is not only satisfying, but gripping.

Okay – so we’ve talked the plotting.

But what about the emotional payoff?

So here’s the meat of series. You have to satisfy all the promises you made in the prose of the previous novels.

I’m not saying this means you must create Happily Ever Afters for all the heroes and Come Uppances for all the baddies. Nothing so trite. I am saying that you have set up expectations in the prose that things that are brought up, actions that occur and events that happen, will be resolved.

For example, Lucas couldn’t just tell the viewers that Darth Vader is Luke’s father and then not address it in the later movies, and not resolve Luke and Vader’s relationship in the final climactic battle. It’s a revelation that promised satisfaction to that emotional arc, even if viewers had to wait for the next movie for that satisfaction.

There’s also this article on how to use the Chekhov’s Gun approach to plant promises in your text, and explains the concept in further detail. But it boils down to this – make sure you’re closing all the doors, tying up all the loose threads, and addressing all the questions. 

Again, this doesn’t mean you need a seven-chapter denouement or an explanation of what happened to each character as the adventure ends. It just means that the ending you choose to give the novel has to end the series well, and leave readers content with the information that you chose to impart, and a feeling of being happy with knowing all they know.

As a big fan of fanfiction, I’m also okay with writers not closing every plot off. It is nice to have space to think about what might happen next, especially with side characters whose endings might not have been explained in greater detail or happened off screen.

To make sure I don’t miss anything like this, every time I make a Big Promise in my novels, I write it down on my whiteboard. Example: “Kin and Bevel have to talk about Bev’s desire to be a father / possibly agree to have a kid?” This was brought up in book two of The Accidental Turn series, as well as in the novellas Arrivals and Ghosts, in the short story Health, and the final novel. This promise was satisfied in the novella Magic, and finally tied up in the short story Pride (all of which can be found in The Accidental Collection).

These don’t have to be detailed notes – just a scrawl on the wall is usually enough to remind me when the time comes. And who doesn’t like checking things off a list when you’ve accomplished it?

There are lots of ways to make sure your final book packs an emotional punch. I asked fellow writers on Twitter to chime in, and these are the tips they offered:

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Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE

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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Create a Pitch Package

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Create a Pitch Package

What is a Pitch Package?

Also called a Bible, or a Pitch Doc, this is a collection of very specific documents and write ups, which you’ll need along the publishing and marketing journey. But why do you need it?

Because agents, editors, publishers, and marketers are going to ask for it. The documents that you create for this package will help a publisher or agent decide whether they’d like to take you or your book on. But these documents will also have a second life in supporting the work done by your publicist, marketing team, and yourself when it comes to hype your book sales.  It can even have a third life as being the basis for a pitches used by your foriegn rights agents and / or dramatic rights agents, and if you snag a dramatic adaptation option, in the film / TV Bible or Pitch Doc.

In short, they’re dead useful, if… involved to create. Here’s what I try to create (and suggest you have) in every Novel Pitch Package:

 

  • The manuscript

 

The totally complete (betaed, edited, polished) manuscript. If you’re not done writing the book, don’t bother pitching it. You never know when someone is going to ask for the full within hours of you submitting the query, and if you don’t have it ready, you’re not going to look very professional, and thus worth taking on.

  • Super polished first 100 pages

Some agents / publishers ask for 3 chapters, some ask for five, instead of asking for the whole novel all at once. Make sure you have a few files separated out of

– just the first three chapters
– just the first five
– and just the first hundred pages.

And make sure they are super-polished. These are the chapters that will speak for the whole of your novel, so make sure they’re on their best behavior.

 

  • Synopsis (5 page, 3 page, and 1 page)
    I’ve already covered how to write a synopsis pretty extensively here, so go have a look-see at that article when you’re ready to write your Synopsis. Make sure you write one in all three lengths, as you’ll want to have them prepared for whatever size is requested.
  • Back Cover Copy

 

This is the one-paragraph description of the book that is simultaneously a sales pitch and a way to hook the person holding your book (or reading the description on a website), and entices them to buy it. It should be in the voice of the book, snappy, easy to understand without leaning too heavily on tired cliche, and leave the reader wanting more. For examples of cover copy for my books, check out my store. Sometimes I write this before I finish the novel, sometimes I write it after, but always make sure you really work this item to make sure it’s polished, intriguing, and accurately describes the book as it is, not as you intended to write it.

 

  • Query paragraph

 

Very similar to the Back Cover Copy, this is the paragraph you put in your query letter to introduce the book to an agent/publisher/editor. Besides the hooky pitch, this paragraph should also include: word count, genre, age-range, whether it’s a stand-alone or has series potential.

 

  • Elevator pitch

 

Now that you have your hooky pitch paragraph, condense it down into a single sentence. I know, brutal, but so dang useful. This is called an elevator pitch because it’s what you would use if you had the length of exactly one elevator ride with a high-level executive to get their buy-in. An example of this would be: “Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Avengers in a graphic novel about a blogger who goes on dates and imagines her beaus as various superheroes based on their quirks and failings. But when her dating blog becomes viral-popular, our heroine must face the consequences of fame at the expense of others.”

  • Character breakdown (with pronunciation guide if they’re not contemporary names)

This is a list of the major characters in the book, and a small paragraph about each of them including their name, age-range, and possibly their gender and/or sexual orientation if it’s important to the story. You can choose to include an image like an illustration you make or commission, or an actor / stock image model, but keep it small, and consider that readers often prefer to imagine what a character looks like for themselves, including agents/publishers/editors. Talk about their role in the store, their driving desires, and why this story has to happen to them, specifically, and not another character. This would be something like:


“Kalp: An alien from a broken world, he as elected to identify as male on Earth. A refugee grateful what meagre aide the people of this world can offer, Kalp takes on a job as a translator for The Institute, working with humans Gwen and Basil to reverse engineer technologies from his homeworld to help solve climate and social crises on this new one. Close proximity breeds affection, though, and Kalp can’t help his growing attraction and tender feelings toward his colleagues. He worries that that his feelings are only born of pathetic gratitude, and struggles with whether he should declare himself and risk his position at the Institute, and the friendship he so desperately treasures.” 

  • Comparable titles

Not every agent / publisher asks for this, but it’s always very good to make up a list like this, if only for yourself. This is a list of books like yours, who wrote them, when they were published, and if that title is good to use in marketing because it was a hit, or if it’s too obscure, dated, or flopped. Separate the list out into age range, genre, and non-book comparisons. (For example, “Middle grade” is the age range, “episodic adventure” is the genre, and non-book comparisons for a Middle grade adventure (such as Adrienne Kress’ The Explorers series) would be The Goonies, Kim Possible, and Spy Kids. Feel free to cite books outside of your age range or genre if they replicate the tone, mood, or themes, but make it clear in the list that this is the reason you’re citing them. Keep this to about one page.

 

  • Marketing ideas

 

Do not send this with your initial pitch / query. Firstly, only ever send what the agent / publisher / editor asks for, and send all of what they ask for. Secondly, this isn’t something that you should really send to anyone until someone on the marketing team says “Do you have any marketing ideas?”. Why? Because you job is to write the book. It’s everyone else’s job to sell it, and swerving into their lane may come off as arrogant or unprofessional. Having said that, it’s always a great idea to have a “Swipe File” – that is, a folder of cool ideas you’ve seen other authors or artists use – and a list of “Things it may be neat to do”, so that when it does come time to discuss marketing (after the manuscript is signed, revised, and locked), you are prepared and have some awesome ideas to bring to the table. Also, put things on this list of varying price points, and be aware that pretty much everything costs money or time. (Book displayed face-out in a major bookstore chain = $$$; setting up an ebook review blog tour = ⏰; creating and printing bookmarks = $ & ⏰)

 

  • Personal reach

 

It sounds a bit crass, but this section is basically a list of who you know and which relationships you can exploit to market your book. Know some TV producers, or someone who does a podcast that would let you come on to talk about your work, or still in touch with your MFA prof and have the ability to go in and do a guest lecture? Also list your social media follower count and explain how you engage with them, and what the main topics of conversation are, your newsletter reach (if you have one), and if you’ve self-published anything, how many units you’ve sold and what kind of reader engagement it’s produced. Include reads and votes for previous novels and stories on fiction sharing sites such as Wattpad, Tapas, Tappy Toon, Raddish, etc., as this counts as an audience you could market your novel to. 

  • Biography

Write a 100 word, a 150 word, a 300 word, and a 500 word version of this. Cite any previous awards or achievements that relate to writing (Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year, or Watty Award for Best Romance, or High Honours at the Pop Culture Confrence, or even Over Five Thousand Reads on AO3, or Best Angst Story in the Good Omens Fanfiction Awards), and any other completed works (“has self-published three novels, and completed a PhD thesis in astroradiology”, or “writer of a weekly advice column in the local newspaper”, etc.).  Including why you are the only person who can tell this story this way – for example, if this is a story about a doctor, and you are a doctor, say so. I wrote my MA Thesis on Mary Sue Fan-Fiction, so when I talk about my meta portal-fantasy series The Accidental Turn, I always talk about that thesis – I’m uniquely qualified to write the book I did because I wrote that thesis on Mary Sues.

  • Additional materials

Again, don’t send this unless you are explicitly asked for it, or you’ve developed enough of a relationship with your editor / agent that you know it will be welcome, but do absolutely keep a folder of “stuff” that doesn’t fall into any of the categories above, such as:

-maps you may have hand-drawn or computer-generated
-some cover art ideas, or a collection of covers for other books that you think are a good example of what you were thinking
-character sketches or commissioned art
-stock images, moodboards, or aesthetics posts
-deleted scenes or alternate endings/moments
-playlists

BONUS

 

  • Screenplay Treatment
    I’m gonna put a big fat caveat on this one, and say that as a novelist this isn’t actually your job. If your novel gets picked up for a dramatic adaptation, you may be asked to write a treatment then, but honestly it’s the screenwriter who should be writing the treatment, as it’s the map to the screenplay itself. Having said that, I did once have an agent ask me to write a screenplay treatment for my novel to make it easier for his entertainment agent to pitch. As I have experience as a screenwriter, I did it, but it didn’t quite feel like something that ought to have been on my plate. So if you want to take a crack at writing the treatment, you can find out all about the process here. (I mean, basically, a Treatment is pretty much the exact same thing as a book Synopsis, with specific formatting requirements and more focus on the fact that film is a visual medium.)

 

So there you have it. 

Remember, while you’ve put together all these materials, only send agents / editors / publishers what they ask for. To do otherwise looks like you couldn’t be bothered to read or follow their directions, which does not make them want to take you on. 

You may create a document that you never, ever use, and that’s okay. It’s a good reference for you, and a good artistic exercise; no work you do on your novel is ever wasted. I’ve found that even if I thought I would never use it, there are times that I dive into my Pitch Package folder years after the book is out to fetch one of my assets for something or other.

Have fun putting together your Pitch Package, and best of luck out there querying!

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Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS posts here or ASK ME HERE.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Create a Pitch Package
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WORDS FOR WRITERS – How To Write a Synopsis

WORDS FOR WRITERS – How To Write a Synopsis

Having to write a synopsis is the single worst part of being a write. THE WORST.

I see you “tagged in a negative review on Twitter” and I raise you “having to condense 80k words worth of my beloved precious lyrical story baby into a summary.” Bad reviews happen, but they happen to you, they are not of your doing. But a synopsis? This is a torture you must visit upon yourself.

(Can you tell I love writing these things? Ha!)

Okay, seriously, a synopsis is hard. But you know what?

A synopsis is the most valuable tool in your pitch package.

I promise. Really.

Beyond being a really great intellectual exercise for you as a writer to use between drafts (“Does the book I actually wrote match the book I think I wrote?”), a synopsis is an invaluable tool by everyone else on your publishing and marketing teams too.

How?

  • If you are unagented, potential agents use them to assess the quality and content of your story, and of your ability to use writing as a medium to communicate. It helps them decide if this is a novel they want to try reading, or something they’d like to pass on.
  • If you have an agent, then the synopsis helps them have a blueprint of the story you’re trying to tell, so they can help guide you through revisions. It also becomes a valuable part of their own pitch packages for publishers.
  • Publishers review the quality of your writing and your stories to see if they’d like to read your book and / or sign it. Editors use it as when their pitching to their higher-ups in favor of signing you, and also to extrapolate potential series value. And like an agent, they use it as an outline for guiding revisions.
  • The marketing team at your publishing house uses it in their packages to entice reviewers, as the basis for blurbs and press releases, and to help craft back cover copy and ad copy.
  • Reviewers sometimes read the synopsis for the first book in a series if they’re asked to review the second, so they know what happened in advance. They may also refer to a synopsis after reading a book to help write their review.
  • The synopsis is sometimes given to moderators, speakers, and interviewers who won’t have the time to read the whole book before engaging with you for press.
  • Adaptations agents / entertainment agents / producers and screenwriters, and anyone else working on any sort of adaptation of your work may use it in their own pitch packages, or as a guide for what you the author consider the spine of the story, and all the same reasons literary agents do.

So, it’s really important.

It’s also important to know what we’re talking about when we say “synopsis” here. Sometimes the term ‘synopsis’ is mistakenly used interchangeably with Back Cover Copy or Pitch Copy or Hook Copy to mean the small paragraphs on the back of a book or in marketing materials.

A synopsis is actually a 1 to 5 page summary of all the major characters and events that happen in the book, including the ending (surprise your readers, not your agent.) This isn’t the ad copy you use to hook a reader, this is the full narrative laid out in easy to read language.

Sounds a lot simpler than it is, because it’s often difficult to figure out which parts of the narrative should be mentioned in the synopsis, and which shouldn’t.

Here are my biggest synopsis-writing pieces of advice:

  • Echo the voice of the book.
    • A synopsis is commonly written in third person present omniscient (“Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit of the Shire”), but can sometimes work in another tense and POV. 
    • Most importantly, use the same words, the same style of sentence structure, and the same idioms as your narrator or main POV character. The book should sound like the synopsis. 
      • Example – Book text: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
      • Example – Synopsis text: “Bilbo Baggins is a gentlehobit of good breeding, and he, like the rest of his kind, is very much not interested in Adventures, thank you very much. They are nasty things that make one late for dinner. So when the wizard Gandalf the Grey arrives at his doorstep with thirteen dwarves looking for help reclaiming their lost homeland, Bilbo is more than a little miffed.”
  • Create three different versions in three different sizes, and write the longest version first.
    • Write the 5 pager first. It’s much easier to trim down than pad a synopsis, so get it all in the big one first. Then trim to 3 pages, so you have that version on file. Then trim to 1 page. By then you’ll know what’s the really important stuff.
    • Start by writing a character/story introduction paragraph.
      • Basically, “this is who the character is, and where they are in the world and in their life, and why the following events will be welcomed/hated/a burden/etc.”
    • Then, ignoring the length of the synopsis for now, write one summary paragraph per chapter in the book.
      • Sometimes all the events in a chapter need three or four sentences, sometimes it needs just one.
      • Be clear about motivations. Not just “Bilbo doesn’t want to be seen with the dwarves,” but “Bilbo is embarrassed to be seen with raucous, rowdy dwarves while within the boarders of the Shire, where his reputation as a staid and reliable gentlehobbit is at risk.”
    • Then write a final conclusion paragraph that explains how the world and people in it have changed as a result of what they’ve experienced. 
    • If you go over 5 pages, go back and start tightening it up.
      • Decide if every event needs to be reported, and cut those that don’t.
      • A good rule of thumb for this is to only include events that directly effect the outcome of the climax, or directly effect the main character’s emotional arc.
  • Focus on Cause and Effect.
    • Lay it out as: THIS happens and as a result, THAT happens, and as a result THIS OTHER THING happens. Show the reader how the plot interlocks, one action after another, and how they all build to their inevitable climax.
  • Also focus on Character Growth.
    • Zero in on the lead, and maybe one or two side characters.
    • How have these events changed these people, their beliefs, and their perspectives. Tell us where the characters end up.

And remember, however difficult it may be to distill your baby down into so few pages, it will totally be worth it in the end. Polish, refine, get beta readers, and work your synopsis just as diligently as  you do your book, and I promise you won’t regret it.

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Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE.

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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How do social media and writing/publishing work together?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How do social media and writing/publishing work together?

Today’s topic suggestion comes from author Tina Chan. Thanks, Tina!


Okay, okay, so we’ve all heard it before – you need to get your social media in order if you’re going to be a writer in the 21st century. Here is something to keep in mind when you finish your book and start the process of querying (either to publishers or agents), or alternately begin the process of self-publishing your book: You Will Be Googled.

There’s lots of great articles out there about How To Win At Social Media (and how to make sure that when you are Googled, what potential publishing connections find leaves them with the best impression of you as a writer), so I’m not going to repeat that advice. Instead I’m going to dig down a bit and answer the WHY.

WHY must you Win At Social Media as a writer? Why must you use it at all?

What’s the point?

Why can’t we all just live in our little cabins in the woods and worry only about the writing part of writing, and let the publisher’s marketing team take care of everything else? Why must we be as accessible and as for sale as our books?

Well, partially because that’s how it’s always been. For as long as books have existed, the author has been held up as a selling point as much as the tale itself. This is part of being a published author, like it or not.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels sold well not only because it was an enchanting (and moralistic) tale suited for the children of the upper classes, but also because of his connection with his intensely private patroness, Henrietta Howard, and the gossip people loved to spread about them – and he didn’t quite deny. Beatrix Potter was unaware of her own early monetary success but was a consummate storyteller who entertained at parties, and who had family and friends clamoring to know what the next book was about and telling their friends. Charles Dickens did speaking tours, and was as known for his critiques and the weekly journal he edited for decades and his time in facinating prison as much as his novels. The Claudine books may never have done as well if they had originally been touted as being written by Colette instead of the scandalous, society-going, gossip-magnet Willy.

Each of these writers used their social influence to sell their work.

Writers always have; writers always will.

But we have an advantage that Jonathan, and Beatrix, and Charles, and Colette & Willy didn’t – we have social media to help us. And it’s free. (After factoring in the cost of devices, internet access, and software licences, of course).

Paid ads and print placements still exist, but while social media marketing can be fast-paced, exhausting, and sometimes frustrating, unless you elect to pay for digital ads, the only cost is in sweat equity.

And it comes with some distinct advantages that old school marketing doesn’t:

  • Social media is in people’s faces all the time. Our phones are always in our hands. More people scroll through social media on their commute to work than read the newspaper. Your marketing efforts – be they paid placed ads in a feed, or a conversation in comments, or an article you posted, or a call to action tweet – are literally right at their fingertips.
  • Again, it’s free. Unless you’re electing to purchase ads or specific software (and in the world of apps and startups, you can usually find something that does the equivalent of what you need – or at least close enough – without the high price tag. e.g. Canva vs Photoshop.)
  • It can be automated – thanks to Hootsuite, MailChimp, and other similar platforms.
    • You can spend a day setting everything up and let the automation handle posting at the right times, on the right dates.
    • There are now hundreds of low-cost promotion services as well, which will handle promoting your book to their feeds and newsletter subscribers, operating your sales and giveaways, arranging blog tours, etc. If you’re in the financial position for it, consider farming out the flogging. (Just check that they can actually do what they’re claiming, beware of extravagant promises, and review WriterBeware before you give any of them your money.)
  • Contrary to what common Social Media best practices teach us, the internet is a great place to provide long form advertisements and advertorials, as well as a place to provide whole or excerpts of short stories and books.
    • Lots of people are more inclined to buy a book if they have the chance to read some of it first, or at least get a sense of a writer by reading longform posts.
    • Most people only watch the first 5 mins of a video or read a 500 word blog post. But because there is actually no time limit on the internet, you can make your blog posts and videos as long as you personally want.
    • This also means you can post whole bundles of text as well – full chapters, long scenes, whole novellas and short stories. Obviously you can’t do it directly on social media, but you can link to places where the stories are hosted – Wattpad, Inkitt, Tapas, TappyToon, Archive of Our Own, Webnovel, RoyalRoad, Gravity Tales, etc. or even your own blog. It will be less discoverable on your own blog, but the links to the buying pages are right there on your own website.
  • Social media is a great place to build a rolling campaign or build groundswell – it’s much easier on social media than in traditional print/TV/radio marketing to start dropping hints every day of an upcoming project to build interest and speculation (for example, Taylor Swift’s lead up on Instagram to the drop of her music video “Me!” – though this may be a case where leaving room for too much speculation bit her in the nose. Some fans were very disappointed when they realized it was just a music video drop and not a clothing line, or that Swift was planning to come out as bi.)
  • It’s a great way to establish and reinforce your brand.
    • For me, that’s trope-challenging writing, academic-style engagement with fandom topics, and literary-style prose in a SF/F world. I carry that over into my social media and marketing by talking about those very things, yes, but also by engaging with other media that tackle those topics the same way – movie reviews, book reviews, current events, etc.
    • It gives you a place to do more than just shout about your books desperately (nobody wants to be around desperation), and instead provides you a subtler way to market your work by interacting with people. As my agent is fond of saying, Twitter is a Cocktail Party – keep it light. Talk to others. Engage, engage, engage. Build your audience organically.
    • It also provides you the ability to invite people to view (a curated) slice of your life. You can give people a peek into your wiring processes and behind the scenes.. You don’t have to TMI or share everything, but look, I follow Neil Gaiman as much for info about his books and series as I do for behind the scenes shots of David Tennant being a devilish goof, and Neil’s bees and dogs.
    • BRANDING. I keep the color palette of my social media sites, posts, headshots and website consistent so it’s obvious all of this combines to make the person who wrote those books.

Outside of the advantages that Social Media provides you in Marketing your work, it also straight up makes it easier for you to be a productive writer (if, you know, you can ignore the siren call – ironically – of social media). You can:

  • Find new writing software that works for you. I wrote Triptych, the first draft of The Skylark’s Song, and my first screenplay in Microsoft Word because that’s what came free on my computer when I bought my first laptop. And there was So. Much. Scrolling. UGH. I have since discovered Scrivener for novels (oh my god, I never write chronologically so the binder feature is so damn useful), and I have adopted CeltX and FinalDraft for comic and film scripts (intuitive formatting! Auto-fill production binders!) I know other authors who dislike Scrivener, and use something else, and screenwriters who hate FinalDraft. The point is, finding a software that works with the style of writing you do means that you’ll spend more time creating and less time futzing.
  • Collect media
    • Create an inspirational Pintrest board
    • Create writing playlists or inspirations playlists on Spotify, 8Track, etc.
    • Track articles and images on Tumblr
  • Find and contact festivals, events, and conventions. There’s something happening every weekend, all over the world, and you can find information about the events all over social media by following hashtags, groups, or simply asking.
  • Easily join social media contests (like #Pitchmad) that help you get your work in front of agents and editors.
  • Research and submit to festivals and writing contests.
  • Join writing motivation communities like NaNoWriMo or join in on impromptu or organized word sprints voa tracking hashtags or joining fan groups, writing groups, or lists.
  • Easily access research materials
    • GoogleMaps
    • Special Collections
    • Academic Articles
    • Book Excerpts
    • Blog posts and social media of subject experts like pediatricians, law enforcement officers, and historical textiles scholars (and the email addresses or DMs of said experts if you approach them politely).
  • Find or build your own writer’s community
    • Websites offering curated groups or circles
    • The ability to find and interact with beta readers and sensitivity readers
    • The ability to talk to other writers and ask questions, like at AbsoluteWrite, Duotrope, or WriterBeware but also by following hashtags like #writerscommunity or #amwriting
    • The ability to build organic groups of beta readers and critique partners through chatting with one another via social media.
  • Accountability – if you tell people about the book publically then you have to finish it, right?
  • Gives you the chance to build groundswell readership – publishing sites like the ones previously mentioned allow you to revise and rewrite a whole novel in real time based on reader feedback. (Pros and cons to that – I find it frustrating and stressful and disingenuous. Other writers find it stimulating, and exciting, and that it helps them produce their best work.)

And most importantly:

Social Media makes barriers of access permeable.

 

What do I mean by that?

I mean that Social Media has opened the lines of communication and access between authors and the people who buy their books. And authors and publishers. And writers and agents. And authors and reviewers. And authors and research materials. And authors and resources. And authors and their writing community. And, and and…

You can now talk and sell or pitch directly to readers, or book stores, or agents, or publishers. You can talk to other writers directly, or subject experts, or researchers.

It also means that people who traditionally blocked from this access (or had higher hurdles to overcome to gain access) due to their geographical location, disability, ethnicity or cultural background, income, etc. have more equitable opportunities and access to these same people and resources.

Social Media gives writers:

  • Direct access to publishers, editors and agents via
    • Organic conversations online, including the ability to ask clarifying questions regarding submissions or comment on articles or posts
    • Online Pitch competitions
    • Advice blogs and columns
  • The ability to share ARCS and review copies to a larger number of people, and  gives the actual audience and readership a platform to discuss a book, or trends in publishing, or tropes.
    • While there is immense value in trained critics and reviewers, there is also immense value in the audience speaking for itself. (Just look at how much Venom was panned by critics but embraced by the general audience. There can sometimes be a disconnect between what the critics hail as worth investing in, and what the audience does.)
    • This also has made the field more equitable in terms of which books get reviewed and what kind of buzz they garner. Selfpubbed or indie/small press publishers can’t always afford to (or even qualify to) submit to all of the big industry trades that require print copies to be mailed in, or require a fee. However, the rise in indie hobbiest book bloggers online means that a book can still be reviewed, making book review culture more of a meritocracy. Books with big financial marketing backing are now not the only ones that are being buzzed.
  • A megaphone and a platform for #OwnVoices
    • With direct communication with readers, agents, and publishers, those writers who have previously not had as much access to publishing opportunity or who were gatekept out of the community can speak up, and communicate directly with those who want their books.
  • Authors working with a disability – both physical or mental – can use social media platforms to have greater accesses to physical spaces (such as a library with lots of stairs but no elevators), or utilize software (like text-to-speech or screenreaders) to write, research, and pitch their novels. We can also use social media and new software technology to say, give a presentation to a school that our disability or mental health may keep us out of, or to read our book outloud to children on our behalf, or to take meetings without having to navigate travelling to the agent or publisher’s home base.
  • It also makes accessing research materials, locations, maps, images of places, and speaking face-to-face with agents/publishers/fellow writers without having to travel easier for authors at a financial disadvantage or from a low-income background.
  • Utilizing story sharing sites like Wattpad allows writers to tap into not only a community of fellow writers and their shared experience, but also have the advantage (dubious or not, as I mentioned above) of getting real-time feedback and critiques from the readers themselves. They provide the ability to workshop and live-edit a story as it’s being written.
  • As the resurgence of episodic storytelling like Game of Thrones has proven, humans love cliffhangers and ongoing stories and the joy of guessing what comes next. Social media allows writers to return to the early print publishing tradition of serializing a story – dolling out parts week to week, or month to month, without the increased costs of physically printing all those little chunks.
  • Allows authors to give things away to readers more easily – to find and reward those readers who like swag, prizes, letters, personalized emails, copies of their books, etc.
  • And it allows readers to give authors things (fanart, presents, feedback, thanks, letters, etc.) more easily as well.
  • Allows readers and fans easy access to author’s appearance schedule, and one that can be kept up to date more often and more swiftly as well.
  • Gives writers the ability to run a Fangroup or website for other people to discuss topics around your work with one another, like the fan groups and trade magazines / fan zines of old but more interactive, with a microphone for everyone.
  • And lastly, it connects writers directly with people who are willing to be sensitivity readers, and a much easier way to find them.

So while the lure of Tumblr is great when you’re in the middle of writing stall, and you may lose enough productive house to Instagram that you curse social media for ever being invented, remember that there are a lot more benefits to having it as a writer than not.

But don’t just take my word for it.

I asked my authorfriends way they used of social media, and they replied:

Alex White: Social media is how I got off the ground, making my contacts and creating an author brand. I use social media as a way to interact with fans, create community, and so on. And I’m pretty sure that’s despite my being terrible at it!

Alexandra Perchanidou: Asking opinions during research/drafting, research EVERYTHING that has to do with plot, depending on the world building. [Social media also provides you access to] Mentors: following the life/career of any author you aspire to emulate and learning from them without having a formal mentor/mentee relationship.

Wendy Lynn Clark: Co-workers: if you are full time writing, social media is listening around the water cooler to news, trends, etc. They will also celebrate your successes and empathize with your failures.

‘Nathan Smith: Social media allows networking from within marginalized identities on a much, much easier level than before—I can find other queer writers, readers, publishers, editors, cover artists, you-name-it, and bypass (some of) the frustrations of being queer in a non-queer environment. It also allows those voices an opportunity to have virtual meetings/discussions/dialogs that are so plentifully found in places like cons/festivals/events, but rarely inclusively.

Mike Perschon: Social media made my career, insofar as publishing and presentation opportunities. I’ve only once had to submit an article for publication. Every other publication I’ve made, and many events I’ve attended as a guest-of-honour or keynote came to me via Twitter or my blog.

Derwin Mak: Social media was helpful for me in that there are Facebook groups about anthology calls for submissions, and that’s how I found out about some markets. I’ve also seen writers develop a certain type of online personality to appeal to an audience, that is, selling the author as a personality/celebrity versus selling the book itself. However, I’m not convinced that going on social media to develop a reputation as a certain type of personality actually helps to sells books. Some writers aggressively pursue a left-wing persona, and some writers aggressively pursue a right-wing persona, and they get plenty of likes and followers (and dislikes and trolls), but how many of those followers actually buy their books?

A.J. Phoenix: Wow. Loaded question. There’s so many ways in which I know social media helped me. In fact, given that I go by a few nom de plume, I’m not sure I’d be an author if not for the internet. I was able to test out my original, unedited work with audiences over social media. I built my own community/brand, email list, and ARC team through social media. I met and learned from other authors in my genre because of social media. I learned how to advertise through the internet and social media. The list goes on. I’ve only touched upon the tip of the iceberg of what social media can do for an author.

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Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How do social media and writing/publishing work together?
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