The Power of Punctuation

You might want to consider having a copy editor on retainer.

Late last month, a judge of the 12th Ohio District Court of Appeals ruled that a parking ticket be overturned due to—wait for it—a missing comma. The village ordinance refers to the unlawful parking of “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle for a continued period of twenty-four hours …” However, the vehicle that was ticketed was a pickup truck, not a “motor vehicle camper,” which the owner cleverly pointed out in her appeal. And the judge agreed. It would have been a different story if the ordinance had read, “motor vehicle, camper, trailer …” It wouldn’t even be a story if that were the case. This is the power of punctuation in living color.

I’ve long known the power of punctuation. Thirty years ago, as a secretary in the loan department of a bank, I typed real estate descriptions for mortgage loans on every pertinent document, as this was years before word processors and decades before computers with the time-saving cut-and-paste feature. My boss and I then read these descriptions out loud to each other, ensuring that each word, comma, and period matched the original. One mistake could have caused a ripple effect of grief and aggravation down the line. (Hmmm … perhaps this was my training for my current profession.)

I can’t help but wonder if the eagle-eyed Ohio woman was a copy editor. At any rate, let her experience be a lesson to you. The next time you get a parking or speeding ticket, be sure to have your trusty copy editor look it over. She just might find a loophole.

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .”

As another Fourth of July approaches, I’m struck by the sad reality that the true meaning of this holiday—our independence, our freedom—has been replaced with thoughts of camping trips, cookouts, and fireworks.

All freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights are precious, but the one near and dear to the heart of every writer is the freedom of speech and the press. Not only is this a constitutional right, it is also a privilege, one we too often take for granted in this country. My blood runs cold whenever I read or hear a news report about the imprisonment and, in many instances, the execution of authors and journalists who dared to write the truth, their truth. These brave writers, along with the tens of thousands of military troops who have sacrificed their lives, not to mention the sacrifice of their families, remind us that freedom is not free. Nor is it a license to abuse or endanger others. With freedom comes responsibility, the responsibility to respect one another and protect our common welfare while maintaining our individual integrity.

As you gaze upon Lady Liberty, remember what she stands for. Remember that you not only have the right to express yourself through your writing, you also have the privilege to do so. And the responsibility—to be true to yourself and to your readers, who need to hear your stories, thoughts, and insights as only you can tell them.

What you have to say matters—and you have the right and privilege to share it with the world. So don’t give up. Keep writing.

Blocked? Don’t Fight It

I struggled with writing this article all month. Ideas came to mind only to fizzle once I began researching them. Then when one finally took root, some unidentifiable force ran interference between the page and me while simultaneously tapping its wrist with its finger and the floor with its toe, saying, “C’mon! You have a deadline!”

Blocked when faced with the blank page yet pressured by the tick-tick-tick that sounded more like a time bomb than a clock filled me with panic and my head with “what ifs” that multiplied like rabbits: What if I don’t make my deadline? What if my article isn’t helpful? What if I sound stupid, or pompous? What if people don’t like it—or me? What if … what if … what if … ?

Sound familiar?

I’ve long ago learned that the creative spirit cannot be forced to perform according to my, or anyone else’s, dictates. Nor does it give a rip about deadlines. Rather, it’s like a stream of water breaking away from the river and carving its own path through dry land—it moves when and where it will and at its own pace. Trying to “push the river,” as I call it, only results in drowning in my own frustration. So, stymied, I did the only thing I could: surrender. And then I did the next best thing: I parked on the couch and lost myself in my current guilty pleasure: episodes of the series Brothers and Sisters, along with a hefty bowl of salted caramel ice cream. Since I couldn’t write, I may as well relax and enjoy myself, I reasoned.

After an hour of blissful escapism, there was a scene where Nora and Kitty were commiserating over a bottle of wine, when Nora said, “You won’t do anyone any good by pretending to be less than what you are.” I bolted upright as if struck by lightning. Grabbing my pen and paper, I began writing, “what ifs” finally in the backseat, where they belong.

I can’t explain how Nora’s well-timed words broke through my block, but I know it had something to do with my surrendering. A power struggle with writer’s block never ends well for the writer, as, like struggling in quicksand, the block will always win. Rather, I’ve learned the only way out is to lay down my will, give up the fight, and let the creative spirit lead me through the chaos of creativity—this time where it wants to go, not where I do.

I no longer view writer’s block as an enemy. Rather, it’s a reminder that once again I’m trying to play it safe and control the uncontrollable. I don’t know about you, but I like guarantees, such as readers’ and editing clients’ positive reactions, and am sometimes leery of veering off the beaten path. But playing it safe requires that I be less than who I am, and as Nora said, then I won’t do anyone any good. And doing others some good, even in a small measure, is why I write and edit in the first place.

The Necessity of Slowing Down

Fast food. Microwaves. Speed dating. Twitter. Life today runs like the scrolling electronic tickers at the bottom of financial television shows. And writing is no exception. Just the other day, I happened across a book online touting how to write, market, and publish a bestseller (of course) in less than three months!

I don’t know about you, but everything in me resists this frenzied and ever-increasing pace. Although I may appear calm and steady, inwardly my default setting is a cross between the Energizer Bunny and that aggravating, cymbal-clanging monkey who does a back flip every five seconds. Over the years, I’ve learned how to achieve and maintain my equilibrium, but the lure to the Land of Busybusybusy is relentless, ever nipping at my heels.

So hearing novelist John Dufresne speak about the necessity of slowing down this past weekend at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute was like chocolate raining from heaven. Referring to his book Is Life Like this? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, John said of the subtitle, “It’s a lie. I can’t do it.” (Apparently, his editor insisted on this subtitle over his protestations.) He then went on to say, “Slow down. Take your time,” and described his process for doing so. In the midst of my running from one information- and camaraderie-rich session to another, this successful, prolific author confirmed what my frazzled spirit already knew but needed reminding yet again: Slow. Down.

We’re told that moving at warp speed is a necessity if we are to achieve the fulfillment of our heart’s desires. But it’s a lie. All that brings meaning and beauty to life is not accomplished overnight. As it takes time for a fetus to develop in its mother’s womb before it’s ready to be birthed into the world, it takes time to create a transformative work of art, be it a book, a painting, a sculpture, or a rose garden. Ideas and stories, like babies and flowers, need time to incubate and germinate in the dark before they are thrust into the light of day.

So slow down. Take your time. Nurture your babies, literary and otherwise. Don’t push them into the world before they–and you–are ready. You’ll know it when you both are.

Book Review: Word Trippers 2nd Edition by Barbara McNichol

What a lifesaver for writers and editors alike! Fellow NAIWE member Barbara McNichol has compiled in one easy-to-navigate manual the most crazy-making words from A-Z that, yes, trip us up. No more scrambling through stacks of reference books, as now the answers we seek are right at our fingertips.

Who among us hasn’t agonized over “affect” or “effect”? “Lay” or “lie”? “Who” or “whom”? Word Trippers comes to our rescue, but it doesn’t stop there. It also includes homophones that trip us up, like vial/vile and waver/waiver. Excellent!

My personal word tripper is “comprise” or “compose.” I have sought several sources and have never found an explanation to help keep them straight in my mind. Until now. Thank you, Word Trippers!

Word Trippers 2nd Edition is a must for every writer and editor.

What Does “Self-Publishing” Even Mean??

As we embark on a new year, many writers are assessing where they are in their journey and determine where they want to go in the year ahead. For some, that means publication.

Most writers are familiar with traditional publishing, and usually the Big Five (formerly the Big Six) comes to mind: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. But a myriad of mid-size and small presses fall under this umbrella as well. Only a small percentage of manuscripts are accepted for publication each year, and with the Big Five, the author must have an agent prior to submission. There is no financial risk to the author, but he or she does lose his or her publishing rights for a negotiated period of time after publication.

But today, authors have a staggering number of self-publishing options available, which is a real coup for the thousands of books that otherwise would never see publication. However, along with the many options available, the term self-publishing is bandied about so freely that authors’ heads are spinning. And it’s no wonder. So what does “self-publishing” even mean??

First of all, true self-publishing is just that: you, the author, are the publisher. This means that you handle or contract out all aspects of the publishing process: editing, proofreading, design, indexing, printing, marketing, and distribution–in addition to writing a good book. You assume all the responsibility and risk, but you also receive all sales proceeds and retain all publishing rights.

The following options are also referred to as self-publishing. However, although the author does not assume all the responsibility, he or she still assumes all the risk with less profit and, in some cases, a loss of publishing rights, at least for a specified period of time, as in traditional publishing.

Print-on-Demand

As the name implies, books are printed when there is demand rather than authors stockpiling their garage with books that they need to hustle to sell. The companies that provide this service are ideal for the author who doesn’t have the cash, time, or inclination to do the printing, design, and distribution. Some POD companies allow authors to use their own ISBNs, which means that the author is listed as the publisher and can print his or her book elsewhere as well. In addition, authors can often set their own price, which, in turn, means higher profit for the author.

Subsidy (or Vanity) Publishing

In this option, the author relinquishes responsibility for all aspects of the publishing process for a fee paid by the author. However, with some companies, their ISBN appears on the book and they hold the publishing rights, albeit nonexclusive and terminable at will. The company sets the pricing, and the author is paid a royalty.

These options are considered self-publishing because the authors themselves are ensuring the publication of their book rather than waiting for a traditional publisher to accept their manuscript. The key is to be aware of the various options and their differences when one hears the term self-publishing. Also, keep in mind that the delineation between print-on-demand companies and subsidy publishers is oftentimes murky.

True self-publishing, print-on-demand, and subsidy publishing are viable options for the do-it-yourself author. However, do extensive research into each option before making a decision as to which path to pursue. Bottom line: know your options, research them thoroughly, and determine your responsibility and risk comfort level.

Reflections

As I reflect on this past year, I have had the privilege to bear witness to the achievements of many writers—and, in some cases, I have had the honor as an active participant in them. Some finished writing a book, and some started writing one. Some are days away from publication, and some are researching their options. Some created blogs and author websites, and some submitted to publications and contests. Some branched out and developed their skills in another genre, and some marketed their newly published treasure through readings, speaking engagements, social media, and book signings. And some are now brainstorming, researching, or actively writing their next book, and some are doing the same with their first book.

All of these are admirable achievements, and each one was accomplished through perseverance, commitment, and desire to communicate to the world through the author’s gift of writing. I applaud them all and am blessed to have each one of them in my life.

Wherever you are in your journey, I celebrate you. May you follow your heart in 2015.

What Does Your Brand Say about You?

What immediately comes to your mind when you hear or read the following names: Oprah? Stephen King? Joel Osteen? Most likely, it is an image, a concept, or a word. But whatever the form, that is that individual’s brand, or, in other words, what he or she represents or stands for.

To those familiar with Oprah, Stephen King, and Joel Osteen, the words talk show host, author, and televangelist are synonymous with their respective names. However, what these individuals do is not their brand. Their brand is that one quality they bring to what they do. For Oprah, living authentically is the quality she brings to every TV show she produces and every issue of her monthly magazine. For Stephen King, scaring us all half to death is the characteristic of the majority of his books. And for Joel Osteen, the positivity of faith for financial success, otherwise referred to as the prosperity gospel, is the theme of his broadcasts and books. All three of them stand out from others in their field for something specific. That “something specific” is their brand. And most people know them not only for what they do but also for what they stand for. That is an effective brand.

Here’s another way of looking at this. As I was writing this article, the image of a branding iron kept popping into my head. Ranchers place their unique stamp on their cattle to set them apart from the cattle of other ranchers. So I ask you: What is your stamp that sets you apart from other writers? What do you want to be known for?

Your brand derives from who you are, not from what you do, so determining your brand may require some soul searching. In doing so, don’t be afraid to ask those you trust what they see is your stamp or “something specific.” Oftentimes, others can see it better than you can.

Marketing

Last month, I wrote about the importance of writers having their own storefront, or website. So this month, I want to address how to drive traffic to your website. In a word, marketing.

I confess that marketing felt dry and impersonal to me, as it tends to be data driven, which is not my forte. I am a words and people person, not a numbers person. However, while attending the Wisconsin Book Festival last week, I had an epiphany that led to a new perspective: Marketing is about making connections with people and attracting those who are the right fit for you and your work. With that in mind, four elements are key.

Key #1: Know Your Market

Market research is vital or you will end up trying to appeal to everyone, which is impossible, or you will turn yourself inside out trying to connect with readers who are not the right fit for your work. Writers of horror will most likely not appeal to readers of romance. And chances are memoirists will not draw a following from the sci-fi crowd, no matter how moving and well written the story. And be specific. Are your readers men, women? Or does your writing speak to both? What is the age group? Children? Young adults? Middle-agers? Octogenarians? Are they professionals, blue-collar workers? Are they retired? Married? Single? Divorced? Empty nesters? Parents of young children or teenagers?

Key #2: Find Your Market

Where do readers hang out?

  1. Book festivals
  2. Indie bookstores and coffee shops–Introduce yourself to the owners and ask if they would be willing to allow you to give a reading/book signing at their store or shop. Also ask if they would be willing to stock your books.
  3. Libraries–Ask if you could do a reading/book signing or presentation.
  4. Writers’ conferences–Offer to be involved in a panel discussion, give a presentation, lead a workshop, and/or have a table at its book fair.

At all of the above, be sure to hand out business cards that includes your web address and have a sign-up sheet to gather e-mail addresses of attendees.

Key #3: Maintain Contact with Your Market

Options abound: print and e-newsletters, blogs, and social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google +. But don’t overwhelm yourself thinking you have to do them all. Choose one, two, or however many you can sanely manage. But whether it’s one or four, be consistent. Using only one platform regularly is far more effective than using four occasionally. Try whichever platform(s) appeals to you to find your own comfort level. The more comfortable you are, the more likely you will use it consistently.

Key #4: Grow Your Market

In addition to the suggestions in #2 and #3, follow blogs of agents and other writers in your genre. Make comments on their blogs and ask if you could write a guest post on their blog. And, of course, offer the same to them. This promotes good will and helps increase exposure for you both. It’s a win-win, the best kind of exchange there is.

Marketing is not only a business strategy for those who want to sell books or a service. Marketing is also a connecting tool for those who have a message they want to get out into the world or stories they long to share. And be creative in your marketing. Come up with your own ways to connect with people.

Author Website: Your Storefront

Two weeks ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance who is also self-employed. A massage therapist, she rents space in a salon on Main Street in her city. We discussed the perks and perils of self-employment, and then the subject turned to marketing.

“In order for people to remember you, you have to be in front of them all the time,” she said, slapping her hands as punctuation. “How do people know about your business?” When I told her online, she said, “Eeuwww! Then you can’t use your personality! With me, people can see me!”

The next morning, I had a phone conversation with a business development manager of a regional publication who remarked, “You really don’t have a business.” My hackles raised, and I said, a bit steely, “Yes. I do have a business.” “Well, I mean you don’t have a retail business with an actual physical location.” “You’re right,” I told her. “I don’t have an actual storefront, but I do have a business.”

These back-to-back conversations got me thinking. Frankly, I was shocked that in our cyber-digital world that these two businesswomen held the apparent notion that physical presence is everything; that real businesses have an actual brick-and-mortar storefront with the owner’s physical body inside. To me, this smacks of “Build it, and they will come.”

Authors, editors, and web designers—those whose business is intellectual property rather than the sale of tangible products or services—often do not set up shop in the mall, a business park, or even a quaint artsy district. But to believe that they do not have a viable business is pure baloney (actually, its more colorful counterpart). First of all, renting space, and the overhead that goes along with that, would not be financially wise for these types of businesses. And all savvy business owners must be financially wise, especially in the early years, or they won’t be in business for long.

But both of these women did make a good point: all businesses need to be visible. And that includes yours, Authors. So what is your storefront? Your website. And it is vital that you have one.

I told my acquaintance that I do use my personality online—through my words. But it’s more than that. Everything from the colors, the font, the graphics, the pictures, the design, and all the bells and whistles we choose to have on our website reflects our personality and speaks of who we are. Our website not only tells the world what we do and have to offer, it also tells the world who we are as a real, live, in-the-flesh human being. And that is whom people connect and want to do business with and buy books from.

Setting up shop in cyberspace is the first step in becoming a business owner as an author. And don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have a real business!