Thursday, February 20, 2014

How a Platform Works for Writers

How a Platform Works for Writers

We’ve all pictured it: writers sitting reclusively in a cabin in the woods, sometimes handwriting a novel (yeah, right), sometimes using a typewriter (okay, it’s been a while), or sometimes using a Macbook Pro (that’s more like it). Outside of any sexism, we often picture this writer as a man with a beard and in his pajamas because we romanticize the notion of a writer who has been in seclusion for so long that it’s okay to lose a few social norms, and he’s writing in such a fury that he’s even absconded basic hygiene. Even cynic writers embrace this image because all writers –all of us- love this idea that the novel is so intense and so important that we must get it out, must get it on paper or typed before the idea fades, before the potential for the Pulitzer or the Nobel Prize for Literature gets lost into the folds of our gray matter, only later to come back as vaguely as a wisp of smoke. We love the idea that a human –bearded male or not- can be rewarded for sacrificing relationships and “real work” to the idea that he or she can write something beautiful and amazing, that this person can get a hefty advance, a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, a promotion from Oprah, and a gaggle of awards –and then recede back to the cabin in the woods to do it all over again.

But these days are gone.

The extinction of the reclusive writer is something that is lamented, because writing is hard. No one tells you that when you see images of a writer sitting down and typing out “It was a dark and stormy night…” No one tells you that it doesn’t just flow from you, that it’s like a long-term relationship that you need to work at and commit to, even when it’s not interesting anymore. No one tells you that writing your novel has to happen around life –around potty training, writing assignments for school, and around the pressured, unrealistic deadlines your boss gives you. Every writer wants to be the reclusive writer because that means that you can shut out the rest of the frustrating world to do the thing that you want to do. That is a dream, my friends.

Some writers blame technology for the death of the reclusive writer. After all, because of technology, the publishing world demands more now of a group of people who would rather be left alone, thankyouverymuch. But let’s look for a second about how the market is changing: readers are busier than ever. Why do you think eBooks available on smart phones and iPads have done so well? Readers are busy people, people who –if they read at all- need to get their hands on a book fast.  There are fewer and fewer bookstores and libraries, and there are more and more technology-savvy readers who will read whatever they can get their hands on –and sometimes that isn’t just the book. Readers –just like many users in several categories- demand information immediately, which could mean lower-quality books being written faster (rare) or permission for the writer to take longer writing higher-quality books as long as the reader can indulge themselves with other information about that writer –often that writer’s life.  

You might ask how this affects the writer. Well, with the book world changing, publishers are far more selective about who they pick up as new talent and who they keep as old talent. They want their writers to have something called a “platform.” For established writers like James Patterson, a platform is Facebook, Twitter, a website, and a blog (though we’ll discuss other technological platforms here in just a minute). A platform for a big writer like James Patterson is important to keep the readers engaged between books. But that’s not all a platform is essential for: it is life-giving for the new novelist.

A new writer cannot be picked up without a technological platform. A platform is an online presence that not only engages readers, but it’s also something that the publishing houses see as (near) guaranteed buyers. For example, if you have 300 friends on Facebook, the publisher sees this as okay, but not great, because that’s only 300 books sold. It might sound like a lot, but publishers would really like to sell tens of thousands of copies of a book title, and if only your friends on Facebook buy that title (and, of course, you know that you’re not going to get all 300 to buy your book), it’s just not enough. It might be nice that a big writer like James Patterson has a Facebook, a Twitter, a blog, and a website, but the new writer must have these. Say you have 300 friends on Facebook, you have 500 followers on Twitter, you have 50 readers a week on your blog, and you have 10 readers a week on your website. That’s nearly a thousand people a week that you have potential access to –and nearly a thousand looks much better than merely 300 first time buyers.

Whether you’re a new writer or just new to the technology game, you’ll find that a blog, a website, Facebook, and Twitter are excellent engagers –and you can even throw in Instagram and Tumblr. Your readers, now, feel somehow connected to your life. You might be posting an Instagram photo of you writing at a coffee shop, share it on your Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, and you followers will get excited. In the Information Age, your readers don’t want a prickly, reclusive writer that doesn’t connect to his or her audience: a reader wants to feel like a follower, to feel like a supporter, to feel important to a writer’s career. What many writers of today don’t realize is that those supporters really are essential to his or her career –in fact, the fate of your novel could depend on something as seemingly unrelated as how many people “like” your Facebook page.

If you're compelled to help a girl out, be sure to like my Facebook page: there's a link to it on the sidebar :) 

Monday, February 17, 2014

How to Write When the Bullets Are Flying

I used to say that you should never write at home. After all, you're surrounded by all of these things you like, because -after all- you chose to put them in your house.

And then I used to say that you should never write in a coffee shop because you're constantly around distractions. There's people coming in, people going out, and there are people who escalate in rudeness -I mean, volume. You have the pounding of the espresso being cleaned out, the hiss of the machine, the rattling of the blender, and this is all of the noise on top of the din of whatever music the barista selected.

Now I'm back to writing at home. Both places are equally distracting, but at least I don't have to spend money at home. (And now I have the pug puppy so I would rather be home to keep her company and take her outside when she needs to.) When Jonathan Franzen published to much critical acclaim Freedom, I remember he was featured in Time magazine. More memorable than popular adages that writers throw out or advice on how to tackle a long-term project, I remember him sharing with America what his writing room looked like. I was shocked at how sterile it was. Take a look.
I mean, finding time to write and overcoming distractions might be hard, but it's not insurmountable... Or is it?

An avid reader of Writer's Digest, I read an article a few years ago from a freelance writer. I hadn't yet embarked on that adventure myself, but I attended a workshop during residency at Goddard College on how to be a freelance writer, and I was intrigued to learn as much about it as possible. The writer of this article (his name escapes me now that I've had a few thousand names circulate since then) offered memorable advice: "If you're going to be successful, you need to learn to write when the bullets are flying."

Okay, how many of us require absolute silence when you're writing? Yeah, that was me, too. I couldn't picture what writing while the bullets were flying looked like.

This writer continued: he said that he was a stay-at-home dad who was a freelance writer, and if he wanted a paycheck that week, he had to figure out how to write articles around let's go to the potty, around tantrums, around fights, around getting dinner ready, and around welcoming mommy home from work. I have new respect for you, you parents who juggle writing and/or grad school, novel writing, and freelance writing: my puppy is now seven months old and while she tries my patience while writing (sometimes with gregarious efforts to get my attention), she's still just a dog, and not a gaggle of mini-me's who pull on each others' hair, throw tantrums, and destroy the bathroom.

So how do you do it?

Every writer has distractions, whether they're children, puppies, or (if we're being honest) Netflix. Distractions are a natural part of life (especially now that technology is so pervasive in our culture), and you as a writer need to find a way to overcome that.

Here's your challenge, writers: learn to write while the bullets are flying. Find a way that works for you. Here are some tips that I've found some help from:

1. Start the day with writing. You may or may not have plans for how the day is going to go, but I promise you it'll fill up nonetheless. Start the day off by writing so that even if you do get sidelined by your distractions plans, you'll have something done.

2. Make sure your friends and family know your priorities. Probably the hardest thing for a writer to say to friends and family is, "I can't because I have a lot of writing to do." Sometimes because people think you're a writer, they think that all you do is sit around in your pajamas all day, or that when you sit down to write, it comes pouring out of you. Treat your writing (whether creative or freelance) like you're clocking in to a brick-and-mortar store: your boss in retail doesn't want to you take a bunch of breaks and to be late coming back from lunch, right? So your freelance boss doesn't want you to, either. And your fiction boss (you), will be happier when you meet your goals. Writer's shouldn't be loners who live in the woods and only come into town once a month for supplies, but you should make sure that your work time balances out your play time.

3. Reward yourself. When you're putting off your friends until tomorrow and you're kicking butt on these deadlines regarding things you've written that you're not remotely interested in (yeah, true fact: to be paid for your pen, you often have to write about stuff that is mind-numbingly disinteresting), you need to reward yourself. Watch an extra episode of your favorite show, or take an extra long time to make dinner. You worked hard: you deserve it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Check It Out!

I'm being published again :)

If you've been following me for a while, you know that I love Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell. Coming from someone who used to work in a bookstore, it brings back some great memories. Okay, some not-so-great memories, too, but there are some really funny, weird things that happen in bookstores that you never anticipate when you submit your resume. If you want to take a look at some of those funny stories, check them out here and here.

After I read the immensely fun book (several times, in fact), I emailed Jen Campbell to tell her how much I loved it and I started following her on Facebook. When in the last year she asked for some contributions regarding bookstores, I thought, "Why not?"

When Prescott, AZ, lost our Barnes&Noble, we got an indie bookstore called Peregrine Book Company. While I could have written about plenty of lovely bookstores I've been to -Powell's Books in Portland, Insatiables in Port Townsend, Vroman's in Pasadena, Bookman's all over Arizona, or Changing Hands in Tempe- I thought that it would be an interesting angle to discuss the transition from one store to another store, especially when it was a transition from a corporate store to an indie store.

The book my piece is featured in is called The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell and is expected to be out in October in the UK. Check it out!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

How to Use YouTube to Get Your Students to Connect

I hate technology. I say this all the time (though, yes, I do identify the hypocrisy of one saying she hates technology as she uses a blog, Facebook, Gmail, and her iPhone), but I also have to admit when it makes your life easier. Enter YouTube.  

This ever-changing technological world has a number of new ways of doing things without as many suggestions for doing these new things well. More and more colleges are offering online classes, but several students get lost in the cracks. Some students are transferring from one learning platform to another, which causes a learning curve, and some students are transitioning from in-person classes to online classes, getting lost in the world of 1s and 0s where there is no face-to-face interaction for lectures much less for asking and answering questions. But can you believe that YouTube is the savior in this situation? If you’re an instructor having a hard time getting your students to connect, take a look at why YouTube could be the best thing for your online classroom.

It Works
I teach creative writing at a local community college in Arizona. Our town is small and rural, and students from all over Northern Arizona take online classes that are either transferrable for their degree, or their taking creative writing classes as a way of providing an educational challenge to meet their often rural lifestyle. Some students have informed me that socializing with the students in our online class is the only socializing that they get, based on where they live.

When I first started teaching online classes, I merely used the online educational platform –Blackboard. In fact, it was all I could manage considering I had never done this before and I felt I was juggling many balls in the air. If any student thinks that I require too much online posting in my discussion boards (yes, I do), they don’t realize that it’s infinitely harder for me to read all of them and grade all of them. That’s fine –I’m not complaining, I’m merely stating that teachers put a lot of work into discussion boards. I might add that the discussion boards seem to be the only thing that the students are reading, so they have no idea how much work I’ve put into the Assignments tab, or into the weekly update tabs, and the only other thing they read is the Announcements board, and even that is because I click on the option to email the class immediately.

So if I was putting all of this work into Blackboard, how come I still got emails from students reflecting that they couldn’t connect to the class? I mean, they have 3 discussion board posts a week, and for each post I require 250 words of an initial reply and three 50-word replies to their classmates. So if 9 of the 12 posts weekly are replies to classmates, then how come they can’t connect? And if I’m replying to almost every post and posting weekly memos on Announcements and they feel like they’re not connecting or getting enough instruction, what more can I do that I haven’t already done?

Enter YouTube. This is the second semester I’ve been posting weekly updates as YouTube videos. Instead of typing out announcements with important information for the class, I’ll film a video on my MacBook Pro and then upload the file to YouTube. Then I can post the YouTube link in the announcement and mail it out. Student can’t speed-read and miss information in a YouTube video, and they can see a face which makes them feel like they’re getting the benefit of human interaction. Since I’ve been using YouTube videos, I have noticed a spike in interaction among the discussion boards. While students aren’t posting their own YouTube videos, being able to see a face (my face) has been enough for them to feel a sense of community and therein a sense of loyalty to the members of the community.

How to Do It
If you want to use your own YouTube videos to create a sense of community and a human face in your online class, follow these instructions.

1.     Your video shouldn’t be too long or too short. It should be short enough that your students can make time to watch the video, but not so long that students see the time clock on the video and decide they don’t have time for it. A nice minimum time is about 3 or 4 minutes, and a good maximum time is about 15 minutes, definitely not exceeding 20 minutes. Also, make sure that everything you say is poignant and relevant to the class. Students are less likely to watch the whole video if they think that you’re rambling or if what you are saying isn’t relevant to them.
2.     After you film your video in PhotoBooth, right click on the icon of the video and select Export. This will save it as a file on your computer. TIP: Save it as a file that you’ll want it to be saved as on YouTube. When I save a file for my class, I’ll usually start with the section number, and then I’ll name the video based on the week right after the section number, and the term (ex. Spring 2014) at the end of the file name. This is a great way to file because there will not be any duplicates.
3.     Go to www.Youtube.com and sign in. Once you do, there is a button on the top: “Upload.” When it takes you to the new screen, click “Select Files for Upload.” Once you click on your file and the process begins, it predicts what your url is going to be. After your file is loaded, you can select which thumbnail of the three that you would prefer.
4.     Copy and paste the url to wherever you need it to go. This is often where I paste it in Announcements on Blackboard.

Not Teach Online?
If you don’t teach online, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use YouTube for additional resources. For in-class classrooms in any grade, you can use clips of pre-exisiting YouTube videos as a great way to focus or to access your students. Find what they like and play it as a way of getting their interest.

Another thing you can do with YouTube videos is to film segments of your lecture and post them on YouTube so that your students can have additional resources for studying. Here’s another great tip: if your lecture is, for example, on a story arc and the video records every basic element of that story arc that you spend every year describing, you can play the video or direct the students to that video instead of prepping that lecture every year. YouTube can save you a lot of time if you let it.