Saturday, September 27, 2014

Who Cares?

Lots of people think they have a story that everyone will want to read. But unless you’re a  celebrity or have done something extraordinary, no one cares. You could be the best writer in the world, but if your story doesn’t grab readers, it won’t matter. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your story will be interesting to anyone beyond your family and close friends. And even they may not be interested.

Many writers truly believe that their story has the makings of the next New York Times bestseller, whether it be a messy divorce, their battle with cancer, or the adventure of a lifetime. But most of the time, their story lacks what it takes to make it big.

Those that have endured a traumatic experience often feel that the experience, itself, is enough to a make a story engaging. It isn’t. What’s needed is a hook, something to draw the reader in and keep them there. How much you’re involved in the story is irrelevant. What matters is how it affects the reader.

Once there was a woman whose husband had died after a failed operation. She blamed the surgeon and wanted to lash out at him by writing a book about the incident. What she didn’t realize was that she wanted revenge, not to educate her readers on how to avoid a similar situation or what to do if the same thing happened to someone they loved. This beginning writer wrote her story and then paid $8,000 to a vanity publisher to have it printed. What she ended up with was a room full of books and no way to sell them.

But in today’s digital world, you could write a book and put it on Amazon for next to nothing. So it’s important that you write your story with your readers in mind—what’s in it for them, not what’s in it for you.

Another problem with the scenario above is the word “beginning.” As a beginning writer, and most likely one who hadn’t written anything before, the woman would have lacked the writing skills and research expertise to enable her to do a professional job on her book.

A lot of seniors fall into this category. They feel that because they’ve lived a long life,  everything they have to say is interesting. They read memoirs of famous people and say to themselves that they could write a book just as good. But most of the time they can’t. The situation leads to a lot of frustration and disappointment.

So what does it take to hook your reader? First, your story doesn’t have to be earth shattering, but it does have to relate to readers on their level. It has to offer them something—information, advice, hard facts—that will allow them to apply whatever happens in the story to their own lives. This applies to both non-fiction and fiction.

Many beginning writers chose to fictionalize their stories to avoid having to be associated with them, thus avoiding the possibility of getting sued. Even if you turn your true-life story into a novel, you still have to relate it to the reader. And if your characters are anything like the real people in your experience, you could still get sued. But frankly, a non-fiction version will offer a lot more credibility since it actually happened to you.

Professional writers target their readers. They usually don’t write to a general audience, but to a specific group of readers—men, women, young, old—who would most likely benefit from what they have to say. True, bestselling books often get read by a large audience, but they weren’t written that way. They were first written for a specific one and then got picked up by other groups when the book became a viral hit.

So before you pour your heart out in a book that may not go anywhere, think about what you have to offer your readers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Focus on Your Reader

Throughout your schooling you were taught one thing—that the writer is the most important part of the process.  But when you decided to start writing, expressing your ideas and thoughts, you discovered that not so many people wanted to read your work. In fact, it may have felt as if no one was interested. To make sure people are interested, you must focus on them, your readers.

Sure, the ideas you work with mostly originate with you. Many beginning writers keep journals in which to record their ideas and their musings. But no one reads your journal but you. When you write for your readers, you have to look at your writing in a whole new way.

When you record your innermost thoughts and experiences in a journal, you do it in a highly personal and uncensored manner. But often these writings are haphazard and unorganized. They make sense to you but to your readers they appear chaotic and disorganized. That’s because they were never meant to be shared with your readers.

Keeping a journal can be a healing process after a traumatic experience. It can guide you through the early stages of becoming a writer. It lets you see your mistakes and bad habits and the patterns that develop so you can correct them later on. But keeping a journal won’t improve your writing because you don’t pay attention to style and technique, two things your readers look for and want to see in whatever they read.

Learning to write for publication is somewhat difficult for the average beginner. You wrote all those compositions in school for one reason—to practice the writing skills you were taught. If you could go back and read them, you’d discover that they are probably boring and don’t speak to you at all.

So to write material worthy of publication, you must make a definite shift in how you interact with the reader. What the reader wants and needs is of the upmost importance. Your creativity will have to move from self-orientation to interaction. Whatever your motivation, you need to move from daydreaming to a purposeful way to express your thoughts and feelings so that your readers will empathize with you. When you tell a story, you must engage your readers—you must make them feel a part of it.

There are a lot of people who go through a traumatic experience. They’re either overjoyed or deeply hurt by it. For those who come through feeling a sense of euphoria, sharing that with readers may be an uplifting experience. But those who are deeply hurt only want to lash out and blame everyone. Sharing that with readers turns them off because there’s nothing in it for them. Writing a memoir can be cathartic, whether or not writing makes you feel better is secondary.

There are many reasons to write. Ask yourself why you want to write. Is your goal to entertain or inspire foster understanding or inform? To make your article or story hit home with your readers, it must first be meaningful to you. It must satisfy your own curiosity.

Not only are you a writer, but you’re also a reader. You have the opportunity to see any piece of writing from your readers’ perspective. First and foremost, you must make whatever you're saying clear. You need to transform your ideas and facts into something that better serves others. By taking your specific circumstances and tapping into universal themes, you can create a story that's more relatable to your readers. And in doing so, your story transcends yourself and becomes meaningful to others.

So before you write anything, ask yourself who will be the main audience. How old are your readers? What gender are they? What demographic group do they belong to? How educated are they?

Paying close attention to the answers to the above questions will not only make your writing better, it will also make it read. And isn’t that the goal of writing for publication in the first place?

Friday, September 12, 2014

When Should You Quit Your Day Job

People daydream. Writers daydream even more. Perhaps you’re sitting in your cubicle right now dreaming of the day when you can tell your boss to stick it and take up the full-time life of a writer.  Lots of people do it, so why shouldn’t you?

Daydreams keep you on an even keel. They help balance the frustrations in your life. They give you hope. But what they don’t tell you is just how you’re going to make it after you quit your day job.

Believe it or not, the writing business ain’t what it used to be. Publishers are paying writers the same amount for articles and stories as they did 30 years ago. Advances for books are actually less today than they were 30 years ago. What business do you know that hasn’t given its employees a raise in 30 years? The answer is none. Even burger slingers at McDonald’s have seen increases in the minimum wage.

The problem with most writers, yourself included, is that you have no idea what’s happening in this business. Your daydreams take you to some far off glamorous place where you see yourself making the big bucks, like all those famous writers you read about. You effectively don rose-tinted glasses and see the world through a fantasy-like haze.

Well, it’s time to come down to Earth. Take off those rose-colored glasses and see the writing world for what it is—a rather gruesome place to make a living. Well, it may not be all that bad, but it’s not what it used to be.

If your goal is to become a full-time writer, you need to plan ahead. Getting one or two articles or stories published is a start, but it won’t earn you a living. Oh, but you plan to write books and make lots of money. Better think again. Writing books for most writers is a labor of love. If you’re lucky, you’ll sell one book a year, but the reality is that it may take you several years to sell a book in today’s market. And don’t forget the 15 percent your agent will take and another 20-30 percent that the IRS will take, and you aren’t left with much.

But you say you don’t have to wait that long with ebook publishing and outlets like Amazon’s Kindle. If you’re selling a book for $2.99—the average price for an ebook—just think how many books you’ll have to sell to equal your current salary.

So unless you’re insane, don’t quit your day job until you’re making enough money from writing to pay at least some of your bills. If you have a family, that may be never.

The solution to this vexing problem is to diversify. Writing, at least the type of writing you’ve been daydreaming about, can’t be your only source of income. You’ll need to put on your creative thinking cap and come up with ways to supplement your writing income.

The first rule is to try not to do anything that isn’t in some way connected to your writing and what you write. You could do other types of writing, such as copywriting, public relations work, or screenplays. You could also capitalize on the subject matter you write about, especially if you become an expert in a certain area. Armed with the knowledge you’ve gained from writing articles and books, you could develop courses and lectures. Yes, there is that old adage that those that can’t teach. But don’t you believe that for a minute. In fact, those that can have more insight and are better teachers.

You need to look at the bigger picture. Think of all the ways you can make money from your writing. Then work like hell. Only then should you quite your day job.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Asking for Feedback

Writing is a solitary and usually isolated venture. But if you keep your writing to yourself, you’ll never know how readers will react to it. Soliciting feedback can be a slippery slope, even for a professional.

It’s one thing to solicit feedback for your writing, and quite another interpreting it. Who gives you feedback is as important as the opinions they offer—and that’s the key word, opinions. If you take everything everyone says about your writing at face value, then you’re sure to fail.

Many writers got into writing because friends of theirs told them they had a knack for it. Have you heard statements like this: “You communicate so well.” “I can’t put down anything you write until I finish it.” “You’ve got a real gift.” All are words of encouragement, but they’re not constructive criticisms, and that’s what you want and need to improve your writing.

The first step to receiving usable feedback is to determine just who you want to give it. Ordinary readers just won’t do. What you need are expert readers—people who will read your work critically and offer suggestions for improvement. They can be other writers or editors or people who are knowledgeable in your subject area. The worst ones are probably academics—English teachers, researchers, etc. Academic has it own set of rules, and, for the most part, they’re very different than those of general writers—those who write articles, non-fiction books, short stories, and novels. You’re not looking to just have someone catch mechanical mistakes like spelling and punctuation, but instead you need to have these readers give you feedback on the content, plot, and general organization of your work.

To make the most of feedback, you need to follow the Writing Cycle. This is a eight-step method that each piece you write must follow. First, you need to think about what you’re going to write. Second, you need to focus your idea. Third, you need to organize it in a logical manner. Fourth, you need to write a first draft—get everything out on the paper. Fifth, you need to seek feedback. Sixth, you need to adjust your work and add details if necessary. Seventh, you need to revise and polish your work based on that feedback. Eighth, you need to proofread your work.

Getting feedback for most writers means letting someone else read what you’ve written. But in the feedback stage above, it’s not about reading your rough draft. Instead, it’s about telling the other person about your idea, then having them ask questions based on what you’ve told them about what you’ve written. If you do want someone else to read your work, you’re going to have to proofread your rough draft before they see it.

At this stage, you need to go back and make the adjustments that the person or persons has suggested. Then put your work away for a awhile. Let it sit for a couple of days, a week, even a month. Then take it out and read it as if you are the reader. Mistakes and misplaced content will stand out. Make it right based on your own opinion of your work.

Now it’s time to expose it to a select audience—to test market your work. If you were writing a children’s book, the logical test group would be children of the age to understand your book. You’ll know immediately after they’ve read it if you’re on the right track. For mysteries, other mystery writers and mystery readers are your target group, and so on.

Many people are on Facebook and other social networking sites these days. But these are not the people you want to read your work and offer feedback. First, people on Facebook, for example, usually skim through posts and don’t read anything at length. Second, these are not people with astute opinions.

You might consider joining a writing group. However, members of these groups have a tendency to stroke each others egos and probably won’t offer any useful feedback.

So selecting the right readers for your work is crucial. These should be people you trust will give you their honest opinion and offer constructive criticism—criticism that will help improve your work. Never ask if they like your work. Instead, ask specific questions about characters, plots, and general content and organization.

In receiving criticism, it’s essential that you remain clear about retaining ownership over your material and letting go of what may not ultimately work. Only then can you successfully sort through responses and weigh the validity of comments that might improve your work versus those that may be clouded by a particular reader’s personal taste, bias or overall reaction to content. Everyone, even experts like editors have opinions. After writing regularly for a publication for seven years, a new editor told a writer he couldn’t write. Now how can that be? That’s the power of personal opinions.

You can’t listen to everything everyone says about your work. The more general the reader, the less useful feedback they’ll offer. The most helpful feedback comes from readers who want you to succeed. Rather then change your work, they want to help make it better.