Blogging: To Thine Own Self Be True

Happy 2017 to you all!

For my first post in this new year, I want to introduce another form of publishing that is often overlooked: blogging. For those of you who have been considering starting a blog yet have been too intimidated to try, the experience of Karin Schmidt, my good friend and guest post contributor this month and prolific blogger at A Million Little Memoirs: Life Journey Recalled Through Memoir, will inspire and motivate you, and her advice will give you confidence. Blogging is typically viewed as a means to build your platform and writing résumé. But as you will see from Karin’s story, blogging offers many more joys and opportunities.

 

The first thing I did when thinking about blogging was watch the movie Julie and Julia. It’s the true story of how writer Julie Powell blogged while cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The result was a book deal (2005), a movie deal (2009), and being launched as a writer. My goals were less grand, but her experiences helped me in some surprising ways to find my own path.

In the movie, Julie let the whole experience unravel her life. She worried about who was reading her and if she was disappointing her readers. She had self-described meltdowns that wreaked havoc on her life, her work, and her marriage. This insanity was something I knew I wanted no part of.

I was sure of only one thing. If I was going to do this, it had to be for me. I wanted my work out there and thought this might give me a sense of accomplishment. If I were read, that would be icing on the cake. And if I received comments, that would be the sprinkles. Writing friends reminded me that once a piece is on a blog it is considered published. I decided I could live with that.

Lastly, I found help. I found someone with computer skills and her own blog. We met once a month, and she constructed my site. In between sessions, I began to post my writing and became more comfortable with the program. It was money well spent.

There are several different programs for designing and maintaining a blog with comparable options for layout and easy navigation. The programs keep statistics to check such things as number of visitors and an online support network for questions. I chose WordPress because I liked their layout and choices.

But I don’t think of what I do as blogging. To me, blogging is short, off-the-top-of-your-head musings. And that’s much different from what I do. I consider my site a website. My pieces are essays, personal essays and memoir essays. Each piece is a complete story. I pay no attention to word count; I’m just interested in telling the story.

I have over a dozen pages on my website so my stories can be posted into the appropriate category. I have a page for family stories, another for retirement essays, as well as for work, girlfriend, health, poetry, and even a page about writing. I’ve been doing this for two and a half years and have 135 pieces posted. For any piece that was previously published elsewhere, I’ve included the date and place of publication at the beginning of the post. This process has me writing nearly every day and always working on something.

I was curious about Julie Powell’s life after her blog, and her follow-up story has an interesting lesson for all writers. Julia Child’s editor says that Julia didn’t appreciate the expletives and other personal matters Powell included on the blog. Child would not endorse the book or meet her, saying Powell was doing this as a joke and seemed “flimsy.”

Julie Powell is now famous enough to be on Wikipedia. But perhaps she’s more importantly an example of why it’s imperative to know yourself and your goals before putting your material on the Internet in whatever form you choose. I’m energized and motivated to write all my stories. Now I have a place to put them. I keep doing it because it fits my writing goals. But I’m also careful of the impression I’m making.

 

 

Writing Contests

For my final post in 2016, I’m honored, once again, to have Ed Abell, author of the award-winning My Father’s Keep, to guest post. Writing contests are a commendable avenue for authors to build their platform and their writing résumé, and Ed’s experience shows how gratifying they can be after all those years of toil and tears.

 

I chose to self-publish because I wanted to be on Amazon and Kindle. That’s the marketplace. These days, even if a publisher did pick my book, I’d still have to show them a marketing plan and self-promote the book. The print-on-demand strategy worked for me.

The bad rap on self-publishing is that anyone can do it and so much of it is crap. So the question becomes, how do you differentiate yourself in that arena? Five-star reviews on Amazon help, but those are mostly friends (bless their hearts). Finishing well in writing contests meant validation from peers and recognition beyond my circle of friends and family. That’s, of course, if I won anything at all.

Between ads in Writer’s Digest, surfing the Internet, and Diana Schramer flagging opportunities for me, I chose fourteen different contests to enter. Each one had different costs and categories. They encompassed regional, national, and international. My book is a creative nonfiction memoir. It was entered as nonfiction, memoir, relationships, and sometimes the contest categorized it themselves. One was even mountain-specific because my story is told during a trek to Mount Everest Base Camp. (Just being included in the twenty-two books under consideration for the Boardman Tasker Prize was a victory.)

All had different rules for application and timing. Some wanted several printed books, some a gifted e-book, and some a PDF file. I made a chart to follow all the instructions and, most importantly, the timing of the contest results.

I had no idea about my chances. What I did know is the process of writing had taken four years and thirty-eight rewrites. I had used beta readers (people who didn’t know me to read the book and comment) and Diana Schramer as my professional editor—the last being so very important in producing a quality product amongst the self-publishing mob.

Months later I’m at our cabin. No Internet and undependable 3G. My phone beeps; an e-mail had arrived through the pine trees:

“Congratulations, Mr. Abell. The Paris International Book Festival is happy to inform you that you have received an Honorable Mention in the General Non-fiction category for your book ‘My Father’s Keep.’”

Fourth in the world in that broad category still busts by buttons. In all, I’d win two international and two national awards for both the paperback and the e-book. One of the gold medallions proudly decorates my book cover.

Did my sales skyrocket? No. But my mission all along was to write a good book, now an award-winning book.

I have included a review from a losing effort. I did not place in this contest. Please note the scores and comments about the editing. Good luck to all.

Judge, 22nd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards

Books are evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “needs improvement” and 5 meaning “outstanding.”

Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 4

Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 5

Production Quality and Cover Design: 4

Plot and Story Appeal: 4

Character Appeal and Development: 0 (Non Fiction)

Voice and Writing Style: 4

Judge’s Commentary:

‘My Father’s Keep’ is beautifully written, well structured, and well edited, a professional and worthy book on every level.

The author tells his story without delving into pathos or cliché and the framework of the trip through the Himalaya works beautifully with the subject matter. The fact that, in the end, he got his dad’s ashes to the summit of Everest really hits it home. And it’s a great testament to the book that the author realizes and portrays what a good conclusion this was for him without any hand wringing about not making it to the summit himself. A lot of writers would have fallen into that trap.

The author weaves in scenes from his boyhood, and it works well as he makes his journey. Despite his family’s challenges and the damage it did, many of those scenes are fond memories and as the book progresses, have much more of an impact in the context of the rest of the material. Both the short scene where the author climbs the cliff near Lake Michigan and the one where his dad drives him back to college after his girlfriend have broken up with him hit the reader in the heart. The author’s skill at selling a scene without overwriting it really works here.

The cover, font and interior structure are all professionally done. The fine and professional editing of the book are also a big plus and a rare find in self-published work.

Overall, it is a beautifully done, professional book that would be at home on any bookstore shelf.

 

 

 

 

 

Freedom of Speech: Right, Responsibility, and Respect

This month, on November 8, the most contentious political campaign, certainly in my lifetime, came to an end. However, the rhetoric of hate incited during the campaign remains, and has even increased, in its aftermath, and violence is not only a threat but also now a frightening reality. Also frightening is the threat to oppress and imprison those who exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech and the press as declared in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That being said, with this freedom comes responsibility. While we have the right to express ourselves in speech (and writing), we do not have the right to threaten the lives or well-being or actually attack those who disagree with us or whom we deem as different, bad, or wrong. Along with responsibility, freedom of speech demands respect—respect for the viewpoint, religion, and lifestyle of others, and their right to express them.

This also includes respecting the creative works of others. Freedom of speech does not give us the right to use another’s written words for our own ends without the originator’s (or in some cases the publisher’s) permission to do so. Not obtaining this permission can result in legal action due to copyright infringement. As a legal studies major, I am hypervigilant with regard to this issue, often leaving the comment “Please obtain the necessary permission to reprint, if necessary” in the margins several times throughout the manuscripts of my clients. Authors typically mean no ill will; they simply are not aware of the necessity of receiving the proper permissions or of the potential legal consequences for failing to do so. One of my responsibilities as a copy editor is to bring this vital issue to authors’ attention and hopefully spare them a world of legal woe.

Authors often ask me what requires permission, what doesn’t, and where to go from there. I have found the following excellent sources:

  1. Author’s Permission Guidelines from The University of Chicago Press
  2. “Is It Fair Use? 7 Questions to Ask Before Using Copyrighted Material”
  3. “Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter”

Freedom of speech is our constitutional right, and threats of the oppression of this right and of imprisonment for exercising it makes my blood run cold. At the same time, we must remember that freedom is not free; along with the right to freedom of speech, we must do so responsibly and with respect. Freedom is only freedom if it applies to all.

Don’t Bypass the Copy Editor Revisited

In March 2011, I wrote a post about the necessity and wisdom of an author hiring a copy editor whether he or she chooses to self-publish or go the traditional route. Now almost six years later, I still stand behind my reasons for doing so, and with more vehemence, as the publishing landscape becomes more populated and competitive with each passing day. Yet I’m constantly struck by the following reasons authors often give for their not needing to hire a copy editor for their work:

  1. I have an English degree. (Implication: I know how to write.)
  2. I’m a teacher. (Implication: I know how to write.)
  3. I’m an editor/proofreader. (Implication: I know how to write and edit.)

Let me go on record. I, too, know how to write as well as edit, but if and when I write a book, I will definitely have another editor copyedit it. Why? Two reasons: 1) I am not perfect, so there will be errors, and 2) I won’t be objective about my work. Sure, I will know what I meant to say and in what tone, but did I adequately do so? Even the most eagle-eyed of us have a blind spot when it comes to our work. We’re simply too close to it and often too attached to see it clearly and objectively.

Earlier this month, I attended the fall conference of the Wisconsin Writers Association of which renowned, prolific author Jerry Apps was the keynote speaker. One of the many nuggets of wisdom he shared was “You cannot edit your own work,” and listed the same reasons I have. Having written over 35 books and 800 articles, Mr. Apps certainly is an authority on this subject. And his notable humility is an example for us all to emulate.

It is humbling to be on the receiving end of a good copy editor’s scrutiny and analysis. (“Good” defined as knowledgeable, accurate, and experienced in his or her craft as well as open to learning and correction.) And a good copy editor is no stranger to being on the receiving end of said scrutiny and analysis. I have had this experience myself, and although it pained me, I was deeply grateful for the second (and third) pair of eyes to help trim and polish my work—and for the reminder that no matter how skilled I am at my craft (writing and editing), I need the expertise and objectivity of my fellow copy editors and proofreaders. And so does each and every author.

Remember, a good copy editor is your friend. He or she is your publishing partner, hired to polish your manuscript so it shines like a diamond when it is presented to the world. And that, by the way, reflects very well on you. So I reiterate: don’t bypass the copy editor on your way to the press!

 

Guest-Posting Trifecta

In my September 2014 post, I stressed the importance of having a storefront, which for authors (and freelance copy editors, proofreaders, cover designers, and web designers) means a website. Next to an engaging, meticulously edited book, this is your first order of business. But once you’ve done so, how do you let people know you’ve set up shop in cyberspace? Can’t you just “build it and they will come”? Ah, if only that were so.

But don’t despair, for there is the most effective and quite simple strategy that benefits not only your business or blog or both but also that of other industry-related businesses. This strategy is called guest posting.

Guest posting is just what it sounds like—you post an article as a guest on another’s blog. In my case, I saw an invitation on Twitter from a self-publishing company for authors, editors, and cover designers to post an article on the company’s blog. I contacted them, pitched my idea for an article, and received the green light. From that one guest post (April 13, 2011, “Don’t Bypass the Copy Editor”), I have received business from clients I might not have met otherwise. But there’s no need to wait for an invitation. Just contact the owner of the blog on which you would like to post and ask if he or she welcomes guest posts and go from there!

The beauty of guest posting is not only its ease and simplicity but also what I call the guest-posting trifecta: publication, marketing, and goodwill.

1. Publication

This is the dream and goal of every writer, even those who may not be concerned with book sales, such as freelance editors, proofreaders, cover designers, bloggers, etc. Writers are communicators and connectors, but in order to so, they need readers. I have writer friends who tell me they aren’t interested in publication, yet they are prolific bloggers. Guess what? Without realizing it, they are already published! And there is no better way to increase readership and thus communicate and connect with even more people than guest posting on another’s blog.

2. Marketing

Ugh. Just the word, along with its sister “networking,” strikes dread if not terror in the hearts of most writers. Yet guest posting is a fabulous way to market yourself and your work, all through the written word—your chosen medium—and from the comfort of your own computer. Music to your ears, right?

3. Goodwill

All business is competitive, and book sales and blogging, as well as the business of freelance publishing professionals, are no exception. But it doesn’t need to be adversarial. Guest posting actually inspires goodwill between the site owner and the guest rather than pitting them against each other. And this goodwill is paid forward when the guest then welcomes another to post on his or her blog. As I see it, we are all on this journey, so why not help one another succeed?

The best part of guest posting is that it’s a win-win. You and your book, business, and/or blog gain exposure, as does that of the site owner when you promote your post through word of mouth, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. So don’t be afraid to reach out to other site owners (including yours truly!). Many of them would love new content and, like all savvy business people, the opportunity to expand their readership.

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.

Burnout

“If you don’t take some time off, your work is going to suffer.”

This inner admonition sliced through my murky, overwork-induced fog, snapping me to full, present-moment attention. The last thing I want is for my work or my health to suffer, and I had been diligent about taking time for and good care of myself. Still, my workaholic tendency to forge ahead like a steamroller gaining momentum had kicked in without my realizing it, and I was dangerously close to hitting the wall.

I was burned out, a very real condition that entrepreneurs of all stripes—and that includes writers—are prone to when their passion, coupled with an overdeveloped work ethic, blinds them to the reality that they are driving themselves way too hard.

Two months ago, I wrote that today’s authors are expected to be entrepreneurs; gone are the days when writers focused solely on writing and PR and marketing people did the promoting and marketing. Alas, today’s authors are responsible for it all, whether they traditionally or self-publish. Running in all directions and wearing all the hats, which for some may be exciting and invigorating, can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, cynicism, depression, and a host of other maladies if one is not mindful of maintaining balance and a healthy perspective.

I’m grateful I took heed before my work had suffered and/or I had done serious harm to my physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Perhaps the fact that I was aware of my tendency to overdo helped me hear the instruction to slow down and pay attention to it—before it was too late.

And that’s the key to avoiding burnout: know thyself. First, know your basic nature. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you need regular downtime to recharge your batteries. Second, know what downtime means for you. For some of you that may be white-water rafting with forty of your closest friends, for others of you that may be curling up with a good book with nothing but silence and solitude for companions. And third, know those pitfalls that ensnare you and those temptations that lure you into the rocky shoals when you least suspect. One of mine is “Oh, this will only take a minute.” Before I know it, an hour or more is shot because, along the way, I’ve stumbled across a few more things that “will only take a minute.” And, of course, this is in addition to that day’s initial to-do list.

Finally, take time for yourself daily, or at least weekly, and do those things that relax and refresh your mind and body and revive your spirit. And above all, listen to your inner wisdom. Loving what you do will result in a heap of ashes if you don’t love yourself first.

Platform and Marketing: The Difference

Recently on Facebook, one of my friends posted a photo of his book cover with the caption “On sale now…” What immediately followed, along with the 51 “Likes,” was a flood of comments: “Where can I buy it?” “Where is it on sale?” “Is it on Amazon?” “Is it available in kindle version?” “I want it on kindle version too!” One of his friends even shared it on his own FB page, saying, “He’s finally publishing!”

I, too, was excited. I read his rough draft two years ago and encouraged him to publish. This man is a survivalist and a world traveler and has tales to tell that not even Hemingway could have made up. I read further through the comments, hoping to find out where his book is available.

Then I came across his comment: “its not for sale … i just put it up there as a joke.” This, too, was met with a flurry of comments, one of which summed up the collective outrage: “yer a #@* … that would be a book a good few folk would like to read.” Frustrated, I couldn’t resist adding my own two cents. I wrote, “You have what every author dreams of—a market and a platform. You really ought to publish your book.”

In publishing, the first half of the battle is, of course, writing a good book; the second half is platform and market. Writers are often confused by what is meant by platform and market, and sometimes think they are the same thing. But they are not. Platform is an author’s visibility and reach to a specific audience to whom the author has a reputation as an authority in a specific area. Using my Facebook friend as an example, his platform is solid, as he has high visibility and reach with at least 300+ “friends” on Facebook that span the globe. In addition, his blog and YouTube videos, all pertaining to his adventures in the wild and life on the road and showcase his survival skills and gift for storytelling, have a significant following.

Market, on the other hand, is the group of people who want the information, stories, etc. from that author and will buy his books, attend his speaking events/book signings and seminars/webinars, and tune in to his televised or broadcast interviews. Again, using my FB friend as an example, his market is other survivalists/world travelers (and wannabes) along with personal friends who are salivating for his book, which is filled with salacious yarns and fascinating yet highly practical survival tips and techniques.

In traditional publishing, agents and editors are looking for authors who have a solid platform and an eager market clamoring for their book. And in self-publishing, these are just as important. But don’t despair if you don’t yet have either one. Building a platform and finding your market takes time, patience, persistence, ingenuity, and consistency. Keep showing up and don’t give up. My FB friend’s platform has been literally years in the making. And now it’s paying off.

The Write Stuff

One of my favorite people, agent-turned-author Nathan Bransford, blogged last week that writers “kind of have to have” an addictive personality. In his view, compulsive drive is necessary to finish something, whether it is a book or a crossword puzzle. My immediate reaction to Nathan’s premise was “No, they don’t!” as the stereotypical image of a writer well into his cups slouched over his keyboard with a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a burning cigarette within easy reach filled my head. We certainly have our literary greats who fit this profile, such as Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but not all writers have addictive personalities. Or do they?

I recently spoke with one of my clients, a twice-published author, who said, “I’m finding that I’m now running a small business, whether I want to be or not.” And she was so right. Published writers today are–and must be–entrepreneurs. So this got me to thinking. Nathan says that writers “kind of have to have” addictive personalities, and I’ve long known that in today’s world published writers must be entrepreneurs. Is there a connection between the two?

Fueled by curiosity, I hit the Internet to research the characteristics of addictive personalities and those of entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by my findings. Both addictive personalities and entrepreneurs are:

  1.  Risk takers
  2.  Nonconformists
  3.  Passionate, at times even obsessive

Of course, this is not to say, or even imply, that all entrepreneurs are addictive personalities any more than all addictive personalities are entrepreneurs. What it does say, though, is that there is a connection. But whether these common traits prove to be the right stuff (self-empowering) or the wrong stuff (self-destructive) depends on various factors. But that’s a topic for another time.

None of us are perfectly well-adjusted; we all have our guilty (and not-so-guilty) pleasures and proclivities that we believe we can’t live without. The difference is the degree that we can’t live without them. So in the interest of good mental, spiritual, and literary health, all writers would be wise to tack to the wall above their writing space The 12 Steps of Queryers Anonymous, one of the most clever posts I have ever read. Of course, my personal favorite is Step 6: Became entirely ready to pay freelance editors to fix our manuscript.

I’m assuming that Nathan Bransford was referring to writers who seek publication in some form, and I’ve taken the same approach here. But remember: being a successful writer is how you define it for yourself.

Writing Groups: The Right One

Last month, I attended the UW-Madison Continuing Studies Writers’ Institute, which was tremendous. The last presentation of the Institute was a panel discussion about how to keep our enthusiasm for writing alive after the conference. Spending two or three full days attending back-to-back sessions all pertaining to writing-related topics, surrounded by and hobnobbing with editors, agents, bookstore owners, published authors, and other writers, breathes new life into our writing dreams. We realize once again that, yes, they are possible. We, too, can one day be the next Michael Perry or Anne Lamott, and we are flooded with renewed passion to make those dreams come to fruition. But then we get back to our everyday lives, and before we know it—poof!—our enthusiasm and passion—along with our dreams—have gone up in smoke.

So how do we maintain our passion and enthusiasm for our writing post-conference? At the top of the panel’s list: join a writers group if you haven’t already done so.

A good writers group does several things:

  • takes you and your writing seriously
  • encourages and supports your accomplishments
  • helps you become a better writer through praise and constructive criticism
  • helps you stay focused by providing a deadline—the kick in the pants all writers need
  • refers you to copyeditors, proofreaders, cover designers, editors, agents, and writing classes and conferences

Having a consistent, equally committed group of people in your corner, and you in theirs, is a key factor that fuels the flame of enthusiasm in a writer’s spirit. Without it, all writers—and their writing dreams—perish.

However, notice that I said a good writers group. By “good” I mean one that is the right fit for you. For example, if you prefer a more structured format, a loose, informal one will most likely set your nerves on edge. And if you’re a gregarious Chatty Kathy, a group of serious No-Nonsense Neds will not be your crowd. As with dating, where we all must fish awhile before finding and hooking the “right one,” sometimes writers must shop around before they find the group that is the “right one.” So be patient. As in dating, the right one is worth the wait.

For those of you who don’t yet have a writers group, here are some helpful resources to aid in your search:

  • your local library
  • independent and big-box bookstores
  • writing.meetup.com (search by zip code)
  • www.writerscafe.org
  • start your own, in person or online Continue reading