Making It Up as You Go Along

July 13, 2010

La Crosse, Wisconsin

Phil Neumark, who’s cycling across the country and shepherding me as I accompany him for a few days, doesn’t like the noise and traffic on main roads. So he looks for state and county roads that go through towns and have more picturesque views. This requires him to supplement his map for the day by improvising, and asking for directions on which roads to take and where to stop for lunch.

People are always impressed with Phil’s mission and are as helpful as they can be.  They aren’t always right, which can mean climbing hills in vain, asking for more directions, and climbing the hills again to get back on the right route. But then, an adventure is what happens when things go wrong.

I had my first flat ever not long after leaving St. James, where we had stopped for lunch. It was on the rear tire which is harder to fix. Phil was too far ahead of me to help. Left to my own devices, had enough time elapsed, passing motorists would have spotted my bones, like a steer that didn’t make it, next to the bike. But the first vehicle I waved to, driven by Kathy and Laurie, two angels in distress, gave me a lift to our hotel in Mankota.

Writing and building a career involves asking for help and improvisation: choosing the right idea, word, agent, publisher, and ways to reach your readers. Not of your choices will work, but keep asking for advice and improvising, and you’ll get where you want to go. Assume that you will back into accomplishing your goals by trying alternatives that don’t work. What you will have left are the right choices for you.

Stay loose!

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Engaging Your Readers for Life

June 9, 2010

New York is a city where something exciting is going on all the time, most of it unsolved.

–Johnny Carson

Elizabeth and I are back from BookExpoAmerica and meeting editors in New York, and solving the mystery of why we go is easy. May in Manhattan heats up by the end of the month, but it’s a delightful time of year to be in the Big Apple.

The cozy, funky basement apartment we rent in a federal brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street in the West Village makes an enjoyable oasis from which to visit editors, promote our conferences, and meet with friends and family. (We also saw the wonderful production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta Jones.)

Going to BEA is the only way to get a sense of the state of publishing in one place. In addition to booths on the floor of the huge Javits Center showcasing publishers’ fall books, there are signings, free galleys, talks by authors, and panels on subjects of interest to publishers and booksellers.

Thanks to our marketing director Barbara Santos and the BEA, we had a booth for the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference (November 13-14, 2010; keynoters: Dan Millman and John Robbins; www.sfwritingforchange.org), and the San Francisco Writers Conference (February 18-20, 2011; keynoters: Dorothy Allison and David Morrell; www.sfwriters.org).

BEA was more upbeat this year than last, reflecting the improving economy. Even with 22,000 attendees, the convention is an annual reunion, because there are people, including out-of-New-York editors we only run into at BEA, as well as the unexpected pleasures of meeting people from around the country in a line, at a panel, or at an author breakfast. Booksellers and publishing people are in the business because they want to be, so their shared passion unites them as members of the family of the book.

Attending BEA, at least once, is a valuable experience for writers. It gives you a perspective you can’t get elsewhere on the business and the enormous flow of books into which yours will merge.

When we first went in the late sixties, it was held in the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. on the steamy Memorial Day Weekend. The holidays have always been the most profitable time of year for booksellers, so publishers used the convention to promote their fall books. Publishers had book jackets spread out on tables and special offers for  booksellers who ordered at the convention. I remember the air conditioning failing, but it was a bustling, relatively small event that gave independent booksellers the chance to meet with publishers.

The word from this year’s convention that stuck with me and will help you is engagement, because building communities has become as essential as writing, promotion, and having a platform. The web enables you to become engaged with potential book buyers who see whatever you choose to send forth into cyberspace: your site, your blog, your articles or short stories, your videos, your podcasts, and your profile and comments in social media and elsewhere.

Engaging a growing community of people you want to read your books is one of the web’s greatest opportunities for writers. Go get engaged. Your readers are waiting for you. Some of them will become life-long fans.


12 Ways to Excite Pros About Your Novel

May 13, 2010

A novel has been called a piece of prose that has something wrong with it. Here’s how to ensure your novel has nothing wrong with it: twelve ways to get agents and editors excited about your work.

            1. Your idea: new, creative, timely, informative, entertaining, transformative, commercial, helpful, aimed at a large, proven market

            2. Your writing: style, tone, humor, drama, inspiration, insights, voice

            3. Your irresistible first page: compels editors to turn the page

            4. Your readers: the community of readers who give you feedback while you’re writing your book and when you’re done

            5. You: your passion, commitment, track record, credentials

            6. Your platform, visibility online and off: blog, short stories, teaching, speaking, a blog, social media, networks

            7. Your test-marketing: a blog, podcast, e-book, self-published edition, serialization, website

            8. Your promotion plan: a list of things you will do, online and off, and how many of them, a budget

            9. Your book’s promotion potential: online and off, reviews, media interviews,   endorsements

            10. The markets for your book: consumers, libraries, subsidiary rights, reading groups

            11. Your future books: your book’s series potential, the synopsis for your next book

            12. Your book’s spinoff potential: merchandising products, short stories, music

There’s a Sipress cartoon in the New Yorker showing a medieval torturer in a dungeon standing in front of a guy being stretched on a rack, and he’s saying: “Don’t talk to me about suffering—in my spare time, I’m a writer.” Using these ideas will lessen your suffering on the road to publication.

I’m researching material for future blogs and looking forward to writing to you soon.


Learning to Kiss Change on the Lips

April 9, 2010

We owe a lot to Thomas Edison. Were it not for him, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.

–Comedian Milton Berle

A high-tech innovation can transform two guys in a garage into billionaires. The irony is that the big companies they build can’t innovate. No matter how profitable they are or how smart and creative their employees are.

Fear, size, jealousy, competition, how companies work, and the creative destruction of existing products and services help explain why innovation is hard for technocracies. So they buy innovation instead.

Thanks to techno-auteur Steve Jobs, Apple is an exception.  It’s driven by the vision of one demanding, relentless, irreplaceable man. Google understands the need to innovate or die, but its string of innovations have less impact and alienate companies whose territories they invade. Both companies also buy new technologies.

Technology used to advance in stages. There would be an innovation in trains, planes, and automobiles, and then they would remain at that level until the next innovation came along.

Today, we’re living on the vertical slope of technology trying to thrive during a time of accelerating change. The torrent of high-tech innovations is transforming publishing just as it’s transforming other media. But the larger any business, organization, or institution is, the harder it is to adapt.

In the eighties, writers were early adopters of computers. It took far longer for publishers to computerize. They had to create systems that were capable of both running a large business and carrying out the unique, complicated tasks involved in publishing every book. Publishers also had to integrate their systems so they could function together, a huge challenge that took years to accomplish and continues as technology evolves.

Paul Otellini, the CEO of Intel observed that: “It’s a lot easier to change when you can than when you have to.” As a multimedia, multinational conglomerate of one, you can innovate by changing what you write about to whatever

* most excites you

* is most salable

* you can most effectively connect with your readers about

You can change directions faster than publishers can, and you have more ways than ever to test-market your work to make sure you’re on the right track.

You have to balance building your visibility and credibility on subjects that you enjoy writing about and promoting with the need to be ready to take advantage of the next big thing.

You also have to balance change with stability, a growing challenge on the fun, scary, bewildering, exhilarating, accelerating ride during history’s most exciting century.

If you hang on tight, you can experience the thrills and spills as they happen and perhaps make a living writing about them.

Changes and innovations threaten the status quo, but they can also be an opportunity for

* changing how you work

* finding new ways to reach readers

* generating new sources of income

The future of writers who best communicate the perils and promise of life on Spaceship Earth is assured. I hope you’ll be one of them.