Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Contrary to what everyone says about me, I'm not perfect.

Okay, actually no one says that about me. But feel free to start the rumor.

Striving for perfection, or at least trying to be the best you can be, is an admirable goal. Unfortunately, it isn't easy. Not due to lack of effort, but lack of subjectivity.

As a wise man once said, "A man's got to know his limitations." That wise man was Dirty Harry. And he's right.

Recognizing our own flaws, and then acknowledging that they need to be fixed, is hard to do.

One of my Achilles' heels is email. I just can't keep up. I answer the quick ones, but the ones that require more in-depth replies or scheduling issues get put off until I have an InBox of ninety-four urgent messages that all need to be answered yesterday.

Perhaps it's a discipline thing. Or perhaps it's a time issue thing. The fact that I don't like answering most email is also a factor. Whatever the case, I suck at email response.

My de facto coping mechanism for this flaw is to wait until the email piles up so badly I have no choice, then I'll waste two days answering it all. This adds unnecessary stress, hurts my career, and is just plain bad business.

But I'm halfway to fixing it. Because I've identified the problem, and the poor way I handle it, I can now try to brainstorm a solution. Here are some options:

1. Hire an assistant. While this would be helpful, I don't have the funds for it. And much as I would like having someone constantly remind me what I need to get done (another big Achilles' heel of mine is forgetfulness) I'm simply not at the stage in my career where it is necessary. I can still handle everything myself, I just don't.

2. Become less accessible. I see the allure in this. A lot of my email is fan-related, or new writers seeking advice. I open myself up to this because it's a way to help spread name-recognition, word-of-mouth, and brand awareness. I'm not a bestseller being bombarded with hundreds of emails a day, and seclusion could hurt more than help. So for the time being I'll keep public email address, and still allow people to contact me directly.

3. Schedule time. This makes the most sense, because it is within my power and budget. If I've established that answering email is important, then I have to devise a plan to get it done.But deadlines and travelling make consistency impossible, and uninforeceable.

4. Garbage in, garbage out. This is probably the best idea, and something I can certainly keep up with. As soon as I get an email, I should answer it immediately. Then I'll never get behind. But there's also a good chance I'll never check my Inbox again.

5. Schedule GIGO, adjusting accordingly. Now we're cooking. If I vow to answer email when it comes in, and chose to answer email at a semi-regular time (such as whenever I boot up the computer, when I wake up, or right after I finish writing my quota for the day) that addresses all of my concerns.

So I'll go with #5. But even though I have a semi-solution, there's still a chance of lapsing. Assuming I have very little self-control (a good assumption) what can I do to make sure I stick to this protocol?

Please hit me with your answer, and then take the opportunity to reveal one of your Achilles' heels, along with potential solutions.

A wise man (not Dirty Harry) once said, "There are no problems, only opportunities." Ask yourself what needs to improve about your career, then challenge yourself to do something about it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Escaping The Vacuum

My mom has said on more than one occassion that when I was growing up she didn't know if I had the biggest ego in the universe or no ego at all.

I think that's a trait many writers share.

On one hand, we have the hubris that our words are not only important enough to put on paper, but that other people should take time to read them.

On the other hand, we are constantly in fear that we suck hard.

Unlike stage actors or musicians, where feedback is live in front of a group of people, writers get very little in the way of approval from their audience.

Sure, there are reviews. And if we're lucky enough to get published, there can be fan mail. But during the months it takes to write a book, we're usually working in a vacuum. The writing process is solitary, and feedback is often internal and fiercely critical.

This lack of confidence in our own abilities makes us work harder to make the book better, but it also causes a lot of worry and stress. We all face a perpetual teeter-totter of thinking what we just wrote is pretty good, then thinking it will never be published and the world will realize we're frauds.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

I've extolled the value of peer groups in the past. Having friends, family, and peers critique your writing is the fastest way to improve. But it works for more than the finished story.

Asking a trusted peer to read a work-in-progress can be a huge help. It can clear up nagging doubts, get you through a part where you're stuck, force you to regroup, and aid in motivation. A writer friend saying "This is great" ranks only below "I love you" in the most important words you can hear.

I'm lucky that I have half a dozen professional writers on speed dial, and if I get stuck, they're happy to help me out. Naturually, I return the favor. It's a combination of tough love, enabling, and a mutual admiration society, and it is one of the true joys of this business.

Don't have anyone to help you when you're wallowing in despair? Here are some tips to find that special someone.
  • Join a writer's group. Most colleges, libraries, and bookstores have some sort of weekly or monthly gathering of writers. If they don't, offer to start one.
  • Next time you're among writers (convention, conference, writing class, literary talk) introduce yourself to them. If you find someone with similar interests, offer to trade manuscripts.
  • If you're a published writer, and have published writer friends (you can meet them at book fairs and writing conventions, usually at the bar), ask if they'll swap WIPs with you.
  • Show your non-writer friends to critique like a writer. I have a download on my website that teaches how.

Book don't have to be written in a vacuum. Talking with peers can be encouraging and inspiring, even if it only amounts to a few kind words to help you trust yourself.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Who Knows You?

Successful diseases are spread by the infected rather than soley by the carrier. A carrier can only do so much. But if one person can make ten people sick, and those ten can each infect ten others, and so on, you have a a pretty successful disease.

Of course, people can become immune to disease. To survive, the disease must have the ability to mutate, spreading itself in a slightly different form.

Take the common cold. Chances are, we've all had a cold before. Probably several. They're all related to one another, but different enough that our antibodies can only fend of specific viruses. We get infected again and again.

It's no coincidence that viral marketing works in the same way.

We all want to be successful diseases, and infect others. Our pathogen is our writing. Our means of transmission include the Internet, bookstores, libraries, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and most importantly, other people.

But are the things we're doing actually doing anything at all?

Writing is a tough business for many reasons. Judging a writer's success proves tricky.

Is success about how much money the writer makes? How many copies of his work are in print? How many pieces of paper his name is on? Or is it more subjective, like how many awards he's won, or how the critics have embraced him?

For the sake of this article, I'll concentrate on a specific form of success, and the ways it can be verified.

Success = Name recognition.

Ultimately, your work sells your work. Or, more specifically, whether someone likes your writing or not plays a large part in if they'll ever read you again.

But for them to read you for the very first time depends on them discovering you.

It may be in a bookstore, browsing. As writers, we have little influence over this, unless we visit as many bookstores as we can and sign stock, and make sure our publishers get us on the shelves (easier said than done.)

But I believe that savvy writers put a lot of their marketing efforts into spreading awareness of their name and brand.

In short, I can't make someone buy one of my books, but I can make people aware that they exist.

Generally, the more people aware of a writer, the more successful he is. A percentage of people who know about you will seek you out, buy your books, and tell others about you, perpetuating the cycle.

To be a successful writer requires fame.

Looking at writers who have become successful, and comparing them to viral successes on the internet, I've found many comparisons.

A successful book is a lot like a successful YouTube video, or meme, or chain letter email. To reach a lot of people, the same things have to happen.

1. It Must Have Appeal. This is where your craft and talent come in. There has to be something about the work that interests as wide an audience as possible.

2. It Must Have A Distribution Network. The work must be available. The more readily available it is, and the easier it is to get, the more people it can reach.

3. It Must Be Talked About. The internet makes it very easy to share information, on two main levels. The first is through direct communication such as email, chat, message boards, and usenet, which allow us to share things with our friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers. The second is by being an authority, where people come to your website or blog and seek the information you're offering.

Both facilitate viral activity.

Real life counterparts to the net are water cooler conversations, telephone calls, and the media.

Becoming famous means being shared, and sharing occurs wherever communication does.

4. It Must Change. While there is an ever-increasing audience for fame, as more people are born every day (which theoretically means you can write one book that will continue to sell forever), a more reasonable approach is to re-infect the same people who have already been infected. That means offering them something new. This keeps the person, or the brand, famous.

In a perfect world, this four part cycle feeds on itself, growing and expanding as more people get in on it. People discover something (a book, a video, an email) and pass that information to others.

If enough people become aware of that information, fame happens.

If fame is big enough, money usually follows.

Now, we all have some fame. We're famous to people who know of us. Becoming more famous means getting more people to know of us.

In some cases, this happens ass-backwards. If a corporation has a lot of money, they can spend that money to make people aware that things exist. A writer can become famous if given enough of a push by his publisher.

But most publishers don't do this with most writers, and there are a lot of famous people who became that way for reasons other than a gigantic ad or media campaign.

There are YouTube videos that have been seen tens of millions of times, and emails that have circulated since 1994 and are still going strong. No advertising or big corporation necessary.

Anyone and anything can become famous. Which begs the question: What are you doing to help spread your fame?

1. Write Something Good. Sure, this is obvious, but it's also the most subjective. What appeals to one person may not appeal to another. Your goals should be to please your intended audience. The bigger the intended audience, the likelier the potential for fame.

2. Make It Available. Once you've written something good, you have to get it to people. The free and easy way is the internet. But we make our living in print, which means submitting to editors. If editors don't want it, perhaps it isn't good enough. Keep writing, keep improving, keep submitting.

3. Get People To Talk About It. This is what causes fame. It's also very hard to do, and even harder to judge the effectiveness of your efforts. In a complex system, cause and effect aren't easily distinguished.

But there are ways you can push the issue, and to check how well you're doing. On the net:
  • Google Yourself. Put quotes around your name and see how many people mention you on the web.
  • Technorati.com. How many people are aware of your blog?
  • Statcounter.com. Who is seeking you out?
  • Marketleap.com. Who is linking to you?
  • Email. Who is reaching out to you?

The higher the numbers, the more famous you are. If your numbers are low, figure out why. Is it because no one wants what you're offering? Or because no one is aware of what you're offering? How can you fix either situation?

In real life, the ways to check your progress are:

  • Media appearances. Are you on the radio and television?
  • Public speaking. Who asks you to speak, and who shows up?
  • Book signings. How many people come to see you?
  • Events. At book fairs, conferences, conventions, what kind of crowd do you draw?

Elsewhere in this blog, I lecture at length about ways to improve your writing and your name-recognition, so I won't repeat them here. This article isn't about how to become famous. It's about the importance of fame and how to monitor it.

Every time you sell a story, speak in public, or post a blog, you have the potential to reach new fans and spread your fame. They may seek you out again, if your story/speech/blog is good enough.

But it will take a very long time to become famous if you're recruiting fans one at a time.

If your story is so good that it gets passed around, if your speech is so terrific that it sells fifty books to people who hadn't heard of you previously, and if your blog is so relevant that people reference it in other blogs, then you have a much better shot at fame.

So ask yourself these three questions.

1. Who knows you?

2. How can you get people to know you?

3. How can you make these people spread the word about you?

It all begins by looking inward and analyzing what you're doing.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bad Stories

I'm a judge for a writing contest, being held by an organization that shall remain nameless.

Being a judge involves reading over a thousand short stories written by newbies.

It's a painful job.

Ninety-nine percent of the entries share similar problems. These problems occur with such frequency that I've decided to write a story to illustrate them.

In the following short, try to spot all of the things that would make it a losing entry:


It was a very sunny day in the spring of 2004 in fact it was so sunny, that even the sun had to wear sunglasses! It was on this very sunny day that I first met my wife. Her name was Rhoda, and she loved life. She lived in a house at 8786 Cranberry road, with her mother and three dogs named Sharpie, Bull, and Doxie, who are a Sharpei, a bulldog, and a doxhund. Boy were those dogs trouble! Yes they were! Trouble spelled T-R-O-U-B-L-E with a capitol T! But Rhonda loved those dogs, so much, that I never would have guessed, how it all ended up. And, boy, did it end up, bad! On a very cloudy day in the fall of 2006, Rhonda took the dogs out for a walk, but you can actually say that they walked her. Those were some frisky dogs! As they all walk to my house, Sharpie sniffe d out a skunk and got squirted, which smelled even worse. Sharpe thought it was a cat, but he sure was surprised! When Rhonda brought the dogs into my house, boy was I ever really very upset.
"You need to get that foul smelling pooch into a bath of half tomato juice and half vinegar and half baking soda!" I loudly exclaimed with a huge frown creasing my unhappy face.
"But Sharpie is allergic to tomato juice!" proclaimed RHonda as she stamps her foot and pouts with her hands on her hips cocked out like a diva.
""I not asking the pooch to drink any tomato juice, just take a bath in it!" I loudly laughed hard.
The next week I proposed to Rohnda, and we were married at St. Vincent's Church on 472 Smith street on a very sunny spring day and Sharpie was supposed to be the ring barer with a little pillow tied to his back but guess what? He got into another skunk right before the ceremony! That screwy pooch just didn't learn better! So Sharpie comes runnin down the isle and everyone in the church is holding their noses. They were literaly in the pews saying PEE YOO. Now I wasn't going to say my vows wearing a light tan medium wooden closepin on my nose, so I told my best man Zeke to take Sharpie out of that church but make sure to bring back the rings so we coudl still salvage this disaster. Four minutes later, Zeke locked out Sharpie outside the church but guess what?!? Now he smelled like skunk! I should have known to bring some tomato juice to my wedding day!
I told him ""Sorry Zeke my best man but you have to wait out outside the chucrh with Sharpie" I said funnily because I am holding my nose! Everyone laughed especially my bride as Zeke stomped dejectedly out of

the church like an unclean leper. He felt so terrible he wanted to go jump in a lake, and he thought maybe he should because that will get some of the skunk stink off but he couldn't because the tuxedo was rented!. The next year Rhonda died of pnemonia and cancer, but I still have the dogs to remind me of her, and I love little Shapie but I always keep some tomato juice around just in case!


And yes, unfortunately, some of the stories are this bad. But mostly this is an amalgamation of the many things wrong with newbie short stories.

Some of the errors are obvious. Some are a bit harder to spot. But there are close to a hundred faults, any one of which would make me stop reading and file the story in the trash.

How many can you spot? I'm not looking for a blow-by-blow list, but rather general rules, such as spelling problems and changing tense.