by John Peragine
As the date of the launch of my novel, Max and the Spice Thieves, approaches I have been seeking and receiving reviews. Every time I see a new one in the mailbox, I cringe a little before opening it. I brace for the worst and hope for the best.
There is a certain amount of courage that is needed to send your “baby” out into the world, not only to be read but to be judged. On purpose, no less.
Before I was a full-time writer, I was a symphony musician. Since I was a boy, I played the flute and had many years of lessons and education. By the time it was performance time, I would have rehearsed with the orchestra for two or three weeks. As I sat down, I still worried about missing a cue or hitting a wrong note. As the piccolo player, there was no hiding in the orchestra. If I played at the wrong time or missed a passage, it was very obvious. 99.99 percent of the time, I played well, but it did little to help me reduce my stress for the next performance.
Sending a book out, and having someone read it, is my live performance. When I finished a piece with the orchestra, the conductor motioned with his hand, I stood up, and there was applause. When I type “The End,” there is no such applause or feedback, and so reviews take the place of the applause.
How To Protect Yourself
Coming from a music and theater background, I often heard, “Don’t read your own reviews.” For many years, I believed this advice is to deter people from getting an inflated ego, but now I think it was for a different reason: to protect your confidence.
Even one bad review can wheedle away at your self-confidence and allow the fraud police to step in and whisper in your ear, “You see, they hate it. Give it up. You’re not a writer. You’re a fraud.”
There have been times I have read a review and heard those very words in my head. So, maybe I shouldn’t read my reviews? I don’t think that is the answer. Instead, I have to read them with the right mindset.
Not Everyone is Going to Love It
I have accepted (or I am learning to accept) that not everyone will love my book. To me, it is like taking my human baby out for a stroll in the park and someone coming up and saying, “Damn, that’s an ugly baby.” It’s tough, right?
But the truth is that not everyone will love my book. I have broken down the common reasons for this:
1. My book just wasn’t good enough. It could mean I need another edit, a better cover, or a rewrite. I have to watch for patterns of many reviews saying the same thing, determine they are right, and then being willing to do something about it. This is why authors MUST get reviews early and allot at least 90 days before they release their book so they can make changes before the book goes live.
2. The reviewer is a troll. You know, someone who just likes to trash another person because they are a coward or a bully. These are easy to spot, as they are usually one or two sentences, and from their remarks, it is obvious they never read the book. Moving on.
3. Jealously or competition can be a motivation. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. An author may trash another author to try to bring the book down and reduce its rating. If you know that this is happening, you should contact whoever is in charge of the platform for the review and report it. Most readers can recognize these types of attacks. Again move on.
4. It just isn’t their type of book. This is the category that most less-than-stellar reviews fall under. It’s not you, it’s not your writing, they just don’t like your book, and that is fine. You want honest reviews. Accept it and move on.
Reviews are Important
Sometimes people skip asking for reviews. They fear people are not going to like it. They may or may not like it, but reviews are very important for a couple of reasons.
First, they provide you with feedback about what works, what doesn’t work, and what your readers are craving. If they like a particular character in your first book, you should definitely consider putting more of them in your second book. If Jar Jar Binks appears in your book, then you should kill him off quickly and in a satisfying way in your next book.
Second, you are building buzz. You are getting people to talk about your book and hopefully convince them to buy a copy when it’s available.
Third, it adds credibility to your book. Good blurbs make your book worth reading. Adding these to your book listings, your cover, and inside your book make it look desirable.
Having a few imperfect reviews makes the other reviews look more authentic. No one gets all five stars, and it could look like to readers that you only had friends and family review your book.
Less than perfect reviews can trigger me a bit, but then I sit and analyze the review further and remember that someone on the other end cared enough to read my book and then sit down and write a review. And for that, I am grateful.
Where do you get your reviews? What is your best “bad” review? Please share your stories down in the comments!
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John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine Enthusiast, Grapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.
John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. You can learn more about his books at JohnPeragineBooks.com.
His newest book, Max and the Spice Thieves, will be released on April 20, 2021. Click here for a free first chapter.
by Barbara Linn Probst
I recently read an essay that summarized American painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s views on how to be an artist. Her first principle was: Observe the world around you—closely, hungrily.
That advice seems equally apt for a writer. Before we can write, we need to look, to see fully and well.
What does that mean exactly?
Is it more than accuracy—the 20/20 vision that indicates that we’re seeing what is “actually there” at a standardized distance?
Here’s what the American Optometric Association has to say:
Having 20/20 vision does not necessarily mean you have perfect vision. Other important vision skills, including peripheral awareness or side vision, eye coordination, depth perception, focusing ability, and color vision, contribute to your overall visual ability.
The American Optometric Association is clear: you might think you have “perfect vision because you can see objects at a distance of twenty feet, but that doesn’t mean you’re seeing what’s in the margins—or the colors, patterns, and movement that might, in fact, be only inches away.
As a writer, the parallel is intriguing.
To be a writer, I have to watch. I need to notice, take in, and respond to the world around me—in multiple ways, not just from a single perspective. Then, my imagination and purpose and voice can guide me as I incorporate the raw material of those impressions into the story I want to tell.
So I ask myself: What kind of vision do I have? Are there aspects of vision I tend to dismiss? Can I see more?
Aspects of vision and the craft of writing
Peripheral vision lets us see the stuff in the margins, outside our range if we’re only attending to the center of the image. For a writer, this can mean turning our attention to a minor character—to offer contrast, ease the tension, delay resolution, provide information, or plant a seed that will germinate later. In other words, the detour has to have purpose. Otherwise it’s just meandering—which means it’s something the reader will skip, appropriately.
Macro vision is like the wide-angle lens of a camera, illuminating the broader landscape. By stepping back, we can see things in context; they might lose their detail, but they gain in meaning. For a writer, this means paying attention to the setting: era, culture, climate, landscape. It doesn’t mean spending pages and pages describing the town where the story occurs, but it does mean pulling back (at times) to keep your story anchored in a time, place, and way of life. A “macro” sentence or two can introduce a scene, orienting the reader, or help to clarify why something has a particular impact.
Micro vision is just the opposite. It lets us zoom in and focus on the details, things we never could have seen from twenty feet away. Anomalies and unique aspects come into view, and things we thought were the same turn out not to be. For a writer, these are the tics and traits of our characters, their signature phrases and gestures, and the descriptive details that bring a scene to life.
We can’t include all the details; that would clutter and overwhelm, to no purpose. So we select. In the dinner table scene, we note the chipped Blue Willow plate because it evokes a relevant memory for the protagonist, or represents something, or will be important later. By emphasizing a particular detail, we signal: This matters.
Depth perception lets us know where things are in relation to each other. Without it, everything seems equally near and important. A writer uses depth perception when she brings something forward that had seemed minor or peripheral, drawing the reader’s attention away from the foreground. A sudden noise or a sharp movement—and something new jumps forward, capturing our attention, causing other elements to recede.
Color perception allows us to see hue, brightness, contrast; the more nuanced our color perception, the more we can differentiate shifts in tone or intensity. A culture’s color vocabulary—where it splices to make new words and where it lumps under a shared label—reveals what’s important. On the island of Mindoro in the Philippines, for example, there are no words to differentiate by hue, as we do in English. Instead, “colors” are named according to their lightness, darkness, freshness, and dryness—which makes sense for tropical forest-dwellers.
So too, the complexity of a writer’s lexicon can reveal what matters in the story. Are specific words needed to differentiate how the protagonist walks, opens a door, or replies at different moments in the story? A neutral word like said tends to be invisible, while a more precise word like muttered or snapped adds emotional meaning. We wouldn’t want our characters to constantly mutter, blurt, shout, or whisper, of course; sometimes neutral is better. But the more words we have to choose from—the finer our gradations of perception—the more purposeful our choices can be.
Coordination between the two eyes and among these aspects. Finally, there’s the integration among these elements. One aspect of vision may dominate at one moment, another at the next moment, but the shifts happen naturally as we move our eyes and look out at the world.
It’s the same with writing. One passage might be terse and direct, another more lyrical, yet the transitions need to seem natural. So too for the interweaving of interiority, exposition, dialogue, and action. It all needs to be seamless, serving the whole. As readers, we know when the writer has inserted a chunk of commentary or backstory that doesn’t belong.
As an exercise, I opened a novel I admire and looked for examples of each of these lenses. To my delight, they were all there. Then I dared to do it with my own book and saw right away that there are certain lenses I employ often and well, and others I rarely use.
For example, because I write in close third person, I don’t use “macro vision” as much as I might. The small settings are full of life, but there’s not much sense of era or the wider geography. Interestingly, however, in my new WIP place is central to the story. I can’t say that I did that “on purpose,” but it feels good to know what something in my subconscious must have known that I was neglecting this kind of vision.
What about you?
Are there “ways of seeing” that you tend to rely on, and others that you tend to avoid?
Think about a scene you’ve been struggling with. What would happen if you shifted to a different lens or added a lens? How might you expand your ways of seeing?
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launches in April 2021.
Barbara has a PhD in clinical social work and blogs for several award-winning sites for writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/
by Angela Ackerman
Most industries are competitive. Athletes go head-to-head for the medal or trophy. Car companies vie for market share as do grocery stores, restaurants, and delivery services. Reality TV show contestants duke it out for prize money, prestige, and in some cases (ugh) roses. And our favorite retail Godzilla, Amazon? They compete with everybody.
Know who isn’t your competition? Authors.
Sure, on the surface, it appears a competition is taking place. After all, look at the sea of books on the market, the sky-high submission piles. Think about how we need to list comparable titles when we pitch our work to agents and how past book sales and current platform numbers carry weight acquisitions decides which author will receive a contract offer.
Is it true that agents only take on certain clients and publishers only publish certain books? Yes. But the “I’m competing against other authors” idea is a sacred cow leftover from a time when keeping authors divided suited a publishing monopoly (that has thankfully been broken).
Other authors aren’t competition, they’re ASSETS. Here’s why.
- Of the bazillion books out there, only a small fraction are ones your exact audience may be interested in.
So, skip any hand-wringing over how flooded the market is -- it doesn’t matter. You only need to consider books like yours. And even then, far from being your competition, these books and the authors attached to them can HELP YOU SELL MORE BOOKS. Which brings us to…
2. Your goal is to find your audience. Other authors are a gateway to them.
What now, Batman? Yes, that’s right…your so-called competition has been there, done that and has the t-shirt. They’ve found their readers. In fact, every day they reach more. So, if you do your research and find authors who write books a lot like yours, their readers can become your readers.
In today’s world, authors have online platforms to reach readers no matter where they live, giving you a starting point for finding and connecting with your potential audience. Pay attention to where comparable authors spend their time and you’ll find potential readers. It might be a Facebook group, Instagram, special interest forums, blogs, etc.… Wherever you see authors who write similar books to you spend their time with readers, this is also a good place for you. Start spending time getting to know people in this space.
Don’t jab promotion at people, just join the conversation, enjoy common ground, and build relationships. If this truly is your audience, there will be topics that tie into your books that will be a subject of conversation and because that’s what you write about and are interested in, you’ll have lots to contribute. Eventually it will come out you ALSO write books about X and sooner or later, folks will check you out. And hey, while we’re talking about how established authors in our niche can help us…
3. Each author is a megaphone to their audience, meaning marketing collaborations with certain authors can help you build your readership more quickly.
When you research other authors to find ones in your niche, read their novels. Is the genre, style, and content a match to yours? Is the book well-written? Can you see yourself recommending this book to people?
If the answer is yes, this author may be someone you wish to collaborate with. If your values align, cross promotion will be a win-win. They encourage their readers to check you out and you do the same for them and you both gain new readers. So, find a good author match and think how you can help THEM sell books and gain visibility.
But wait…that doesn’t sound right. Shouldn’t I be trying to sell my own books, not someone else’s?
Glad you asked, because this ties into a truth we all have to bend our heads around:
4. No matter how fast you write, readers read faster.
One dangerous mistake we can make with our readers is to only think about US, not THEM. It’s ALWAYS about them, which means we need to take care of our audience even after they’ve finished reading all our books.
It takes time to release the next book, and in the meantime, our readers need good books to read. If we do nothing to stay in touch, they might forget about us and the next book, but if we make it a priority to give them more of what they love, we stay on their radar. Recommending books we know our readers will love shows we want them to have a great reading experience over and over again, whether it’s our book or not.
So rather than fearing losing our readers to someone else, we should encourage readers to seek out specific authors. Not only does this encourage reader loyalty, it’s also a great way to gain new readers ourselves. How? Because other comparable authors are in the same boat, and they will be looking to recommend books to their readers, too. Reciprocity is something that’s hardwired into us, so if they see us openly pushing people to their books, they will want to do the same in return. This brings us to a final point:
5. Other authors have a wealth of knowledge we may need.
There’s a lot to publishing and marketing well, and we’re all constantly running into new situations that exposes a gap in our knowledge. Maybe we’ve never tried for a Bookbub and so don’t know the tips and tricks. Or we’re just starting out with newsletters or Amazon ads and have no idea how to do either right. What’s better in these cases – spending a bunch of time and money on research, courses, and trial and error, or talking to another author who is successful in that space and asking them to point us to the right information?
And just as others can use their experiences to help us, we can do the same for them. A rising tide lifts all boats!
Honestly, this is just the tip of the ice cream scoop as far as why authors are assets, so I urge you to think about your own genre and who fits your niche. Reach out to your not-competition. Consider ways you can help them, and how you can collaborate to gain bigger readerships!
One last thing: When it comes to marketing collaboration with other authors, be picky. This post will show you what to look for to make a good match.
What was the best advice another writer shared with you?
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus and its many sequels. Her books are available in eight languages, are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold over half a million copies.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Writers in the Storm has always been a labor of love for everyone behind the scenes. Yes, it's work to keep up a thrice-weekly blog for more than a decade, but it usually doesn't feel like work. And the personal rewards are enormous.
I haven't taken a poll of all the other behind-the-scenes peeps, so this is a window into my own journey and my perspective on the magic of WITS, and of giving back to your fellow scribes in some capacity.
I do it for the love...mostly.
The Magic 6 Ingredients
When I sat down to think of why I've been happy to be a part of the WITS Dream Team for ten (coming up on eleven [eek!]) years, I boiled it down to six things.
Writers couldn't do what we do if we didn't love finding out about all the things. We are all about learning.
The writing wisdom of the contributors here at WITS has been mind-blowing. And just think, I get to see all their posts first and do my own small part in making them compelling. Score!
In April 2010, when this blog began, I was about a hundred months pregnant. (My daughter was born two weeks late, at the beginning of that May.) I was pretty beat up by that traumatic high-risk pregnancy and ready for a change of pace. I still had a foot in the technical training world and I needed a break from that too.
My work here at WITS (and at my own now-dusty blog, More Cowbell), kept me sane in the aftermath of that crazy pregnancy and during the early days of motherhood.
What I never expected was that blogging would change my life. That it would cement my writing voice. Or become my superpower. I would never have foreseen that blogging would be the gatekeeper to a successful copywriting career.
Takeaway: Just because it's your volunteer side hustle doesn't mean it can't also be the start of a new career.
Most of us extroverted writers know a LOT of other writers. We go to conferences and workshops and meetups, and start collecting writing pals. True fact: I met the entire current behind-the-scenes team via a Writers Digest Novel Writing conference in 2016.
Now fast-forward to the time of COVID...
There are no in-person writing conferences. However, there are wonderful online seminars and classes, and online writing sprints on social media, etc. Our own John Peragine has Zoom cocktail parties. And here at WITS, we have a rocking comment section.
Takeaway: Even if we don't ever see our online friends in person, their friendship is still deep and comforting and true. Be sure to spend time with your writing friends, even if it's only virtually.
3. Writing Focus
Writing focus is a sometimes unattainable goal for me. I'm an Attention-Deficit Writer in the best of times, and this last year was not the best of any time.
2020 was a year of 14-16 hour workdays in our house. My husband and I both have multiple day jobs, there was homeschooling (*shudders*), and the craziness of feeding a family multiple meals daily.
Yes, we know we're beyond lucky to have jobs, but writing focus poofed out of existence sometime in May.
WITS was a godsend for me through all this. Three times a week, I had to focus on writing, or at least get a post up. At least once a month, I had to focus on my own message to write my post.
Truly, I can't convey how important this community was to me in 2020. Y'all helped me remember: I am a writer (even when I didn't feel like one).
Takeaway: Do whatever you must to reserve time and space for your writing, even if sometimes that means: "volunteer in the writing world."
It takes a consistent team of four or more people to manage Writers In the Storm. Each of us "take over" the blog a few months each year and all of us pitch in when then anything goes wrong.
Illness. Broken networks. Late or missing posts. Storms.
All of those things can and will happen in almost 11 years. Year after year, the blog team rolls with it all and helps lift one another up.
Takeaway: It "takes a village" to make magic.
5. Supportive Readers
I shudder to imagine the loneliness of 2020 without the comments section here on this blog and in some of the other online spots I hang out in.
Y'all stop in and visit us each week, and share wisdom, tidbits, and links in the comment section. It fills lil' ole extroverted me right up.
The wonderful people I've met during my tenure at WITS just make me sparkle. And did I mention that the resources shared in the comments section are GOLD?
First of all, y'all actually appreciate those off-center posts I write. (Ex: The Bikini Wax Theory of Writing.) Plus, all of the elements above add up to a tremendous amount of fun. Many, many thanks to all of you - both readers and contributors. It says a lot about you that this endeavor has stayed fun for this long.
Do you do volunteer work of any kind? If so, what kind? How do you give back to other writers? Which of the six reasons resonates with you? Please share your stories with us down in the comments section!
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By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 18 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
by Eldred “Bob” Bird
There’s no doubt 2020 has changed some of our writing habits. In the years BC (Before Covid), one of my favorite writing exercises was people watching. I’d tote my laptop to parks libraries, pubs, and a whole host of other public places. This is where I found inspiration when building characters or looking for new and interesting ways to represent human interactions in my writing.
I paid close attention to things like body language, facial expressions, and all the little nuances that set someone apart and made them stand out from the crowd. I listened in on conversations and tried to guess where the person talking was from based on their accent and use of slang. I made up stories about the couple whispering at a table in the dark corner of the bar. This was my creative playground.
But then things changed.
Bars and restaurants are now half deserted or closed, faces are covered, and social distancing and mask-muffled voices makes it difficult to eavesdrop for those little tidbits that helped me bring my characters and dialogue to life. This ‘New Normal’ was crippling my creativity. So, what’s a writer to do during a pandemic?
Adjusting to the New Normal
If there’s one thing we writers are good at, it’s using our imagination. It’s the bread and butter of our existence. I figured if I applied some of that imagination, I could find a new approach to people watching and get my character hunting back on track. Here are a few solutions I came up with.
The Big Cover-up
Masked faces are one of the biggest game-changers, but instead of worrying about what I can’t see, I now pay more attention to what I can see. Not being able to focus on full facial expressions has made me much more aware of just how expressive the eyes alone can be. Cheeks elevating, eyebrows arching and scrunching, pupils dilating and shifting around the room, foreheads wrinkling—all tell me something about the emotional state of the person I’m observing. I’ve also noticed an increased use of exaggerated hand gestures.
How someone wears their mask may also give character clues. Is it below the nose? Are they wearing a cheap disposable mask, or a high-end reusable one? Is it colorful, or basic black? Maybe they’ve personalized it or refuse to wear one at all. These details speak to the personality of the wearer and help to develop characters as well.
The proliferation of work-at-home and video conferencing has given us a peek in the windows of our coworkers, family, and friends. Instead of gathering in conference rooms, cubicles, restaurants, and bars, we sit in front of a screen with a camera pointed at our faces and into our private spaces.
Video conferencing has made me more aware of who has pets (and spoils them), who has kids (and how those offspring behave), and what kind of knick-knacks everyone has on their desks and tucked in bookshelves. Paying attention to what’s going on in the background has given me all kinds inspiration for personality quirks and created questions for my imagination to feed on. Even what virtual backgrounds someone chooses to display can tell me something about them. It also makes me wonder what they might be hiding (like the disaster area in my office).
Into the Great Wide-open
I’ve learned a lot watching how people handle the new normal inside. I’ve found it just as informative to observe how they act when they get outside. People watch in the parking lot of your local supermarket for an hour and you’ll see what I mean. Everyone has their own little quirks.
Some people don the mask before getting out the car, while others wait unit the very last second when they get to the store entrance. Then there are those who argue with the employee at the door because they don’t want to wear one at all. My favorites are the ones who rip off their masks as soon as they step outside. They scrunch it tight in their fist and draw in a deep breath, as if they’ve been deprived of oxygen and are about to pass out.
There are also those who wear the mask in their own car even when they are alone. I imagine these folks masking up before stepping out of the house and keeping it on until safely locked back inside. These are the people we used to make fun of for always have a bottle of hand sanitizer in their pocket. Who’s laughing now?
Some Final Thoughts
Just because we’re not currently allowed to get too close to other people doesn’t mean we can’t still watch them. We just have to watch in a different way. Pandemic or not, the world changes every day, and we are constantly changing with it. I’ll admit it’s usually a gentler curve rather than the left turn we’ve been dealt, but the bottom line is we will adjust and survive, as we always have.
Has 2020 altered your writing habits? How have you adjusted to the changes?
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.