Writing in Public: Crafting a Professional Image

(c) Can Stock Photo/ Kesu
(c) Can Stock Photo/ Kesu

There’s a saying: Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Well, writers often work in comfy sweats or their pajamas, but the underlying concept still holds true. Writing is a business like any other, and even if you can do the job in solitude, you will eventually need to create a network of colleagues and readers in order to advance your career. You want to consider your public image long before people know who you are, because the things you say and do now — whether in the real world or online — set the scene for your future.

Presenting a professional image starts before you sign onto social media. It starts with determining the image you wish to portray in all facets of your writing career, and that’s something you should think about before you have a book deal. Your professional image affects how you interact with your critique partners — even if they’re your friends, the way you portray yourself in a query letter or at a writer’s conference, and how you handle both your successes and your failures.

Some aspects of being professional might seem obvious. We’ve all seen the writer on Twitter who phrases something poorly or offers up an unpopular opinion and finds themselves in a fast-escalating situation because they refuse to apologize or back out gracefully. There might be name-calling and other rude behavior that’s easily pegged as unprofessional. But what about the less obvious aspects of the job? Here are a few things to consider when you’re fashioning your own professional demeanor.

Treat writing as a job, not a hobby. If you reach the stage where you’re sending out queries, you need to present yourself in a professional, business-like manner.

  • Have your own email address using your own name. There’s no reason to use your joint family email account with your spouse’s name in the From: field. Save that for personal communications, and get yourself a gmail or yahoo address that’s just for you.
  • Do your research. Send submissions per an agency’s guidelines. Be sure they’re looking for the sort of material you’re querying. If you’re cutting and pasting your query letter, double check that you’ve updated both the email address and the name of the agent before you hit send. Don’t forget to proofread.
  • Be sure to follow up with an agent if you receive an offer of representation from someone else, and either thank them for their consideration or ask if they can decide on your material within a reasonable window (depending how soon you need to respond to your existing offer). Don’t leave an agent to read your work a few weeks down the line only to discover it’s no longer available for representation.
  • Keep in mind that a writing career can span decades and you are building a community. You may work with a person down the line who initially rejects you, so maintain good relationships even if you’re not teaming up right now.

Use common sense at public events. If you’re attending readings, conferences, lectures, or any other event where you’ll be representing yourself as a writer, keep your business hat on, even if you’re there with friends and being social.

  • If there’s alcohol, don’t over do it. You don’t want to lose control of your actions or what you’re saying.
  • Be prepared to network. Have business cards with you that include your website and email address, and keep a small notebook and a pen or pencil handy.
  • Be aware of any behavioral guidelines set down by the organizing body, and be sure you adhere to them.
  • Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself if harassed or put in a vulnerable position. Part of being professional is holding other professionals to the same standard.
(c) Can Stock Photo/ marish
(c) Can Stock Photo/ marish

Approach social media as if dealing with a group of gossipy teenagers. Understand that as nice and intelligent as everyone might seem, there will always be a few people out there looking to get the dirt, to start an argument simply to gain a higher profile, or just to be mean.

  • Keep the business details of your business to yourself. I don’t mean you shouldn’t announce when you’ve signed a book deal, but be careful not to discuss it before you know it’s finalized. If you’re unsure what’s safe to disclose, you’re better off not sharing it. But you can always talk to your agent or editor to find out when certain information — that you’ve sold the book, what your cover art looks like, your release date, etc. — can go public.
  • Never talk about the who/what/where while things are still in play. When your agent has your manuscript out on submission or is negotiating a deal, you should never discuss the process online: not which agents or which imprints or how you think it’s going. It’s tempting to get excited and want to provide updates, but editors can go online, too, and you don’t want to inadvertently weaken your agent’s ability to negotiate by giving away vital information. So keep it off your blog and Facebook and Twitter.

Remember that the internet rarely differentiates between your private and professional selves. Once you put yourself out there wearing your writer’s hat and people get to know you, it will become impossible to have personal moments online except in spaces you lock down. Take precautions to stay safe.

  • Consider maintaining a friends-and-family-only Facebook page separate from your author page, with security settings that keep anyone else from seeing your photos and vacation chatter. Only “friend” a small, select group of people. This will give you a place to engage with those you love without worrying about policing yourself.
  • Be careful about announcing easily identifiable information about yourself on the internet, such as landmarks near your house, your day job, or where your kids attend school. Most people are lovely and will respect your privacy, but stalkers do exist and you don’t need to be a best-selling author or hugely famous to have someone decide they want to follow you in real life.
  • If you will be traveling for personal reasons — as in, not a conference or book signing, etc. — wait until after the trip to share with your readers/fans. Don’t talk the trip up ahead of time, or announce where you’ll be.

And yes, the internet is forever. Or at least close enough. Things you say and regret, even if you delete them, have a habit of turning up when you least expect it.

  • Apologize if you say something that hurts other people. Whether you phrased something badly and it was misunderstood or you genuinely did not understand what you said was offensive, apologize, and state that you’ll do your best not to make the same mistake. Everyone’s human, and most people will understand if you’re genuinely contrite.
  • Realize that there will always be things that will cause an argument online, and pick your battles. Some issues will be more important to you and you will take a stand. Others will probably still be important but maybe less of a priority. Decide what is worth fighting for and what you’re willing to walk away from, in the interest of having time to write and live your life outside of social media.
  • Avoid knee-jerk reactions. If something gets you hot under to collar, take a breath or two before you respond. You may change your mind, or you may not, but decide how you’re going to respond (or if you’re going to respond) with a clear head.

 

Friday Links: On Taking Over the (Writing) World

Happy Friday, everyone! As January winds down, it’s a good time to take a quick look at some of those goals you set at the start of the year, just to make sure you’re still on track. I know it can be difficult once the holidays are over to keep your plans in mind, especially when your boss and your family have goals of their own that often involve you. Make it a habit to check in with yourself pretty regularly so you don’t forget that your goals are a priority, too.

And with those words of wisdom, I want to give everyone a heads up that this blog will soon be migrating to a designated URL — one of my goals for the new year (and long overdue). Everything will stay live here until I’m satisfied that the new site is up and running properly, with the links functioning and so on, and then there will be a forwarding message to take you to the new location. So don’t be surprised if things look a little different on a near-future visit.

But enough of all that. It’s time for Friday Links! If there’s a theme this week, it’s world domination — at least the world of books. I hope these encourage you to get out there and read and write great things, ignore the naysayers, and take risks with your career. The only one who can do it is you.

14 Secret Habits Every Book-Lover Is Guilty of Having – I know I am. Particularly the one about buying pretty new editions of books I already own.

Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing – A look at how very white the publishing industry still is behind the scenes, and how that affects the diversity of books.

World’s First Free Online Course Dedicated to the Exploration of Literature and Mental Health – Sounds very interesting. Starts Monday, Feb. 1, so get a move on if you want to join.

CTRL-F, DELETE: Word-Trends, Sneaky Clichés, and Other Turns of Phrase You Should Immediately Delete from Your Manuscript – A look at recent trends in incorrect or overly frequent word usage.

What Was Lost? Why Writers Should Value Their Working Drafts – How digitalization has changed the writing — and rewriting — process and what that means for posterity.

Talking Black History and Love Stories with Romance Writing Pioneer Beverly Jenkins – A great interview looking at historical research, diversity in the romance genre, and how Beverly Jenkins got her start.

Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators – An intriguing theory, with a bit of a push for all of you putting off getting your words down.

Opportunities for Writers: February and March 2016 – A list of contests and calls for work with deadlines coming up in the next two months.

Writers and the Social Media Dance

Social media can be both a blessing and a curse for writers, especially those who feel ill at ease when it comes to tackling new technology. But even as it morphs and changes, with new platforms rising to prominence and others becoming less popular, as an overall concept, it is undoubtedly here to stay. And as more and more of the burden of self-promotion falls on a writer’s shoulders, social media remains one of the most important means of getting the word out about new releases, book giveaways, readings, and other bookish events.

The downsides of social media? It can take a lot of time, especially when you’re new to a platform and still trying to get the hang of how to use it. Even once you’re experienced, each form of social media has its own way of sucking you in and eating up hours that might be better spent in writing. Social media can also backfire spectacularly if you say or post the wrong thing; word spreads at monumental speeds online, and never faster than when you’ve put your foot in your mouth. Plus the internet is forever. Deleting a poorly phrased Tweet or taking down a blog post is very much like closing the barn door after the horse has headed for the hills, and in this case the horse loves to gossip.

But the upsides are equally obvious, and not the sort of things a writer can ignore. Social media lets you connect with readers, reviewers, and industry professionals. It lets you talk about your project and build excitement, show off great cover art, announce signings, and squeal publicly when your book hits a major milestone. But it also lets you engage in a community that knows where you’re coming from and what you’re up against, which means you can garner a great deal of knowledge by paying attention to other writers and their experiences through social media.

If social media intimidates you, or if you think you’re fine with just one corner of the internet — your blog, a simple Facebook page — there are still ways to interact that won’t leave you scratching your head in confusion or feeling completely overwhelmed. Here are a few simple tips for tackling new forms of social media and building your online presence:

Start small. Don’t try to master them all at once (though if you have a common name/pen name, you might consider signing up at the same time in order to make sure you can get a consistent handle on all the major platforms). Choose one and play around with it for a couple of months and see how it goes. Keep in mind where your ideal audience likes to hang out. Many YA authors have blogs through Tumblr, for instance. Do a little digging to see where you might want to begin.

Pay attention to how others use the platform, both the good and the bad. Follow a few writers you like on Twitter and see what percent of their Tweets are promotional and what proportion are chatty/sharing more general knowledge/helping out other writers, etc. See how often writers update their blogs or Facebook pages. What do writers share on their Goodreads page? Observe what works, and also what seems to annoy.

Remember your manners. Just because the other person is somewhere behind a far-away computer, doesn’t give you the right to be mean. Try to respond to others in the same way you would in person; the internet doesn’t need any more trolls.

Don’t repeat yourself across platforms. Once you’re engaging in several forms of social media, try not to post the same thing on all of them. Determine what each platform is good for in terms of your own goals, and then stick with those. Twitter might be great for chatting and driving traffic to your blog when you have a post, whereas you might use Facebook for contests/giveaways, and Instagram to post cover art and photos of your work space, books you’ve bought, etc. Keep the medium in mind, and remember that you want your fans to follow you on more than one platform. If they constantly see the same thing everywhere you post, they’ll be less likely to engage with you in multiple places.

Take advantage of the ability to schedule things ahead. Depending on the software you use, you can schedule posts for your blog ahead of time. A number of Twitter platforms, such as TweetDeck and HootSuite, allow you to schedule Tweets days in advance. Tumblr lets you set up a queue for posts. This way you can remain present in social media, even if you’re traveling or under deadline and can’t take the time to post live.

Remember that the key word is social. Yes, you want to share your news and promote your work, but first and foremost, you want to be a member of the social media community, whatever platform you’re using. Engage with people. Ask and answer questions. Comment. Share your excitement about non-career things, like that great movie you just saw or the new recipe you tried. Be a person, not a sales drone.

No doubt social media will continue to grow and change, as will how writers use it. But the sooner you become accustomed to using social media platforms in general, the easier you will find it to adapt with the technology. Start now, start small, and take it one step at a time. And for those of you already adept at using social media, keep your eyes open for the next big thing.

Tips for Navigating the Submissions Process

Writers often ask how they can improve their chances of getting an agent interested in their work, and of course the most important response, always, is to write a great book — fabulous story, strong hook, beautifully crafted prose, satisfying ending. That’s easier said than done, and it’s not something an agent can really help a writer with other than to encourage them to hone their skills, to get feedback from trusted sources, and to keep on trying. But not all advice requires such time-intensive, career-building effort.

I offer up for your benefit the low-hanging fruit of the submissions process — the advice that is easy to follow. In many cases these morsels are common sense, things that should not even need to be said, but for some reason still get ignored all too often, whether because the writer has gone half-blind staring at their manuscript, nerves make them careless, or the task just hasn’t occurred to them. Most of these things should be done after you’re finished tweaking your manuscript, and in most cases repeated if you go back in for additional revisions. Others apply to your query letters and should be handled on an as-needed basis.

Run spell check. I understand you might have a lot of wiggly red lines in your manuscript and/or query letter. Fantasy writers especially deal in made up words and names that set spell check into a tail spin. If that’s the sort of writing you do, it’s worth the time it takes to create a custom dictionary for your project where you add in the correct spelling of your characters’ names, fancy spells they throw out, the names of countries and rivers and mountain ranges you’ve devised, etc. That way you can not only minimize those wiggly red lines, but you’ll find out if you have a typo in the words you’ve created as well as the more standard varieties. But in this day an age, there is no reason for an agent to face a query letter and/or manuscript with multiple misspellings. If my spell check catches them, yours will, too.

Save edits and eliminate markups. All too often I open a manuscript to find that the writer’s critique partner made extensive edits and comments using Track Changes or some other system, and the writer has left them in the file for the world to see. Even if I have Track Changes turned off, Word presents me with the Final Showing Markup. It’s important to go through all those comments and edits and physically accept or reject the changes in order to have a clean manuscript for submission. If you want to keep track of your critique partner’s or your editor’s notes, simply save a new, clean copy of the file for submission purposes only. You really don’t want your prospective agent to find a sea of colorful revisions the first time they look at your work.

Read the submission guidelines. Agents will repeat this until they go hoarse, and yet I constantly receive queries that show without any doubt that the writer failed to take two minutes to visit the agency site and read over the guidelines for submissions. Take the time. It’s in everyone’s best interests. Why would you want to query an agent who does not handle the sorts of stories you write? Guidelines are there to streamline the submissions process and to help both writer and agent make the best match possible.

Proofread your query letter. This is the first thing an agent will read, so give it the same love and attention you would give your manuscript. The easiest way to handle this is to write your query in Word or another word processing program with a reliable (or customized) spell check, review it carefully for any clunky phrases, missing words and so on, then copy and paste the final version of the letter into your email.

Personalize your query letter and check for errors. Yes, it’s nice if you tell me why you’re submitting to me, specifically, but by this I mean make sure the email address and the salutation match. There’s nothing worse than opening an email query only to see it says Dear [Name of some other agent]. Most agents expect that you’re submitting to multiple people, but don’t let that turn the process into an assembly line. Take the time to double check that you’ve updated all parts of your query letter before you hit send. And by no means should you send a single email to a long series of agents. If the wrong name in the salutation will annoy me, the site of one hundred agents in the to: field will cause me to auto-reject. And no, hiding the list by putting the addresses in the blind copy filed doesn’t change my poor impression. Again, take the time to query each agent individually.

Include pertinent information with all correspondence. Remind the agent who you are and what you’re writing when you send any follow-up emails. If you meet an agent at a conference and they request material from you, be sure to remind them of that when you follow through. Include your name, where you met, the title and genre of your work, and what you’re sending (three chapters, 50 pages, synopsis, whatever). If the agent has requested attachments, be sure they’re actually attached and that they are the correct files, and that they include your name and the title of the work as well. When you write an agent to check up on a project, include your previous email in the thread or, at minimum, use the same email address to make yourself searchable.

Are any of these a magic bullet that will land you an agent or get you published in a heartbeat? Of course not. But they are all basic good-business practices that you should make a habit as you travel along your career path. Agents look for great projects, but they also look for writers with whom they will enjoy working. A writer who takes a few moments to make sure they’re sending the cleanest possible work, with clear correspondence accompanying it, will be a much more appealing prospect than a writer who is sloppy and creates extra work for the agent. Take a professional stance and you will already shine more brightly in the crowd.

Reading More Diversely: Mid-Year Update

DiverseBooks

Back in December, I did a quick review of my personal reading for 2014, and decided I wanted to make a concerted effort to read more diversely. My stats for last year included a chart that showed I read slightly more women authors than men, and about 25% of the books I read were by authors of color. I also read predominately authors of American or British origin, with very little in translation. While those numbers were not terrible, they were not as well-rounded as I’d like, so I knew I wanted to work at changing them this year.

But how to change? There were a number of challenges going around at the start of the year — suggestions of how to diversify your reading habits no matter what demographic you were seeking to increase. One of the most notable was K. Tempest Bradford’s reading challenge, where she suggested readers go an entire year without reading a single book by white male, cis, straight authors.

I thought the challenge sounded fabulous, but a little extreme for my personal taste, simply because I knew I would trip over books during the course of the year that excited me and that I would want to read immediately, and sometimes they would not fall into the challenge parameters. Instead I decided I would let her challenge inspire me to be more mindful of what I read in general, and make a concerted effort to choose more books by a variety of different authors. They were certainly on my radar — and on my shelves. It was just a matter of pushing them higher up on my to-read list.

Because I did own so many books by authors of color and different backgrounds, I physically pulled a bunch off of my bookcases and made an actual pile. This way, when I’m ready to read a new book, these titles are some of the first I consider. New books by authors of color get added to the stack when I acquire them, as well, keeping them in the forefront of my mind.

So how am I doing? Better, but there’s still room for improvement. As of today, my ratio has increased and approximately 35% of my reading this year has been by writers of color. I’ve read fewer books overall than I’d have liked, but there’s still more than four months left in 2015, so I have plenty of time to catch up in all respects. I’m pretty pleased with my system, but I’ll definitely reassess at the end of the year to determine if I’ll continue this way in 2016, or if I will find a more aggressive way of meeting my goal.

The beauty of reading challenges is that they serve as a spring board. If they fit with your goals, and seem like something you want to try for, terrific! If they seem a little too ambitious for you, tailor them for your own needs. Some readers already read diversely in terms of authors of color but would like to check out more books in translation, or simply by non-American authors. Other readers want to read more women authors, or more nonfiction.

Although I sometimes joke that I’d like to read “all the books,” in reality I know that’s both impractical and simply not true. Not all books appeal to me. There are plenty of titles out there that I’m happy to skip. But with so many millions of books to choose from, there are definitely many I’ve yet to discover that I no doubt will adore. It’s a matter of scratching around and being open to all of the many sources, and widening my scope when it comes to the places where I go to learn about both back lists and new releases.

For instance, despite knowing of Tempest’s challenge, I only recently came across her YouTube channel where she recommends different books by a range of authors, all of which fit her challenge parameters. Even though I’m not following the challenge precisely, this serves as a fabulous source for reading recommendations. I’m also a frequent visitor to Book Riot, where they are actively discussing diversity in publishing and make an effort to talk about a broad range of books. I follow the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and learn about great authors of color writing for kids and young adults.

For me, it’s not sufficient to read more by authors of color. I also want to be more aware of the books that are out there and — I hope — help more great books by authors of color find their way into bookstores and the hands of readers. I’m not just a reader, but a person working in the industry, and so part of reading more diversely for me is about making strides toward diversifying publishing as a whole.

PSA: Write it Down

Today’s public service announcement is brought to you by conference season. This is the time of year (frankly, most of the year) when materials I’ve requested at various conferences hit my inbox at a pretty rapid rate. It’s also the time of year when I can see in black and white just how many people bothered to make note of what I asked them to send.

Here’s the thing: You’re sitting in your pitch session, maybe still a bit nervous even after successfully delivering your pitch, and suddenly I (or insert the agent/editor of your choice) open up my mouth and say I’d like to see a bit of your project. And I hand you my card and ask you to send me something. You nod seriously, maybe your mouth opens and closes a couple of times, and you thank me. Maybe you ask another question, maybe I do. But that’s basically the end of the pitch, so you stand up and gather your things, shake my hand, and head out into the wilds of the conference.

So, what didn’t happen there? You didn’t take a minute to write down what I requested. Nope. You just tucked my business card somewhere and took off. Because I asked you for something! That’s huge! The moment is going to be imprinted on your brain forever!

Except… it really isn’t. And in a day or two when you sit down to send the material, you won’t remember the specifics of my request. So you’ll check the agency website and send what we ask for in a query (which, news alert, is not what I ask for when I meet you at a pitch session). Or better yet, a month or two will pass, because you learned something good at the conference that made you go back and rework something in your manuscript. And now you want to send what I asked for, all shiny and freshly polished, but again, you can’t recall precisely what I requested. Maybe you can’t even find my business card.

This problem is so easily solved. Bring a notebook with you into the pitch. The one you’re using to write down stuff at the conference. It can be big or small or even electronic. It can be the notes app on your phone. And when an agent or editor requests chapters or pages or your manuscript, write it down. Immediately, sitting at that table. If they’re chasing you out of the room because your pitch session ran long, write it down the second you step into the hall. Include the pertinent details off the business card while you’re at it: name and email address. That way if the card goes astray, you’re still in good shape.

It takes one minute. Just do it. Your future self will thank you. And so will I.

Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis

It’s back! The last couple of years I’ve been teaching a webinar through Writer’s Digest on how to kick your synopsis into shape, and I am happy to announce that I will be doing so once more.

The synopsis is one of those writerly tools that everyone knows they need, and everyone (seemingly) hates to write. I acknowledge that it can feel ridiculous to try and squeeze the gist of your long and detailed novel into a couple of pages, but that doesn’t mean it is an impossible task. In my 90 minute online class, I discuss the different types of synopses you might need to write, and break down the process to make it less daunting. In addition, anyone who registers for the live class receives a critique of their revised synopsis.

Class takes place Thursday, March 26th, 2015, at 1pm EDT, online. Everyone registered will receive access to the online replay of the event as well as the critique, so even if you can’t make the actual class time, consider registering in advance so you can take advantage of the critique feature.

For complete details, and to register, visit Writer’s Digest. I hope to see you in class!

Conference Bound

I’m off to San Antonio, Texas this week for the RWA National Conference, which means I’m writing this on the fly between loads of laundry and last minute tweaks to my meeting schedule. But I thought I’d leave you all with a few words of wisdom regarding conference attendance. Even if you’re not heading out to Texas, you might have some other conference on your radar, so here are a few quick, down-and-dirty tips to help you get the most of it.

Don’t over-schedule yourself. It’s tempting, when you see the array of offerings, to fill every time slot and set yourself running from room to room the entire length of the conference, but resist that temptation. Leave yourself a few small breaks to catch your breath, chat with a new acquaintance, or for an impromptu meeting with an agent or editor you might meet in a panel.

Do speak up and introduce yourself. Everyone at a conference is there to meet people and learn things, so get to know the person sitting next to you at lunch or in a workshop. And this includes agents and editors. Don’t interrupt them if they’re in the middle of speaking to someone, obviously, but do smile and chat and treat them like a fellow human being, whether or not you plan to pitch them something.

Pack layers. No matter what time of year you attend a conference, the chances are excellent that the weather outside and the temperature inside will differ, and indoor temperatures at conference facilities tend to vary greatly. Pack a sweater or light jacket to ward against aggressive air conditioning, and some lighter-weight shirts to combat excessive heating.

Watch your alcohol intake. Yes, writers spend time at the bar during conferences, but keep in mind you still want to maintain a somewhat professional demeanor. Plus, on the off chance the agent of your dreams asks you to pitch them, you’d hate to start slurring your words.

Have fun. It’s not all business, all the time. Conferences are a great opportunity to learn and network, but also to catch up with friends and make new ones. So enjoy!

Coming Soon: Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis

Last year I taught a webinar through Writer’s Digest on how to break down the sometimes daunting task of writing a synopsis, whether you need a short one to serve as a blurb for your query letter or something more substantial to send to an agent or editor on request. It went very well and I still have people query me or come up to me at conferences, mentioning that they took the course and found it helpful. So, I’m happy to say I’ll be teaching the class again, Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis: Construct Your Ultimate Sales Tool, on Thursday, August 21, 2014, at 1pm ET.

The class airs live online via a PowerPoint presentation, with me calling in to teach, and everyone attending able to type in questions as we go, which I then answer at the end of the session. The class gets recorded, so attendees receive the presentation with my narration and all the Q&A material afterwards. In addition, the course includes a synopsis critique. Attendees have a couple of weeks following the class to take everything they’ve learned and apply it to writing or revising their own synopsis, which they can then send to me for feedback.

Please note that while you can purchase the course materials after the fact, only writers who register for the live class on August 21st will be eligible for the critique. You don’t need to actually attend live if your schedule conflicts, but you should register ahead anyway if you want a chance to submit your synopsis for some comments. I’m looking forward to helping more people tackle the synopsis hurdle, and I hope a few of you will join me!

Wish List Update

Just a fly-by post to let you all know that I’ve updated my Wish List here on the blog. For anyone who hasn’t visited before, this is a short list of projects I’d love to see more of in my submissions box. It’s not an all-inclusive rundown of what I represent, but a look more specifically at some of the types of stories or characters I’m itching to read these days. It changes with my mood and also the market, so be sure to give it a peek if you’re thinking of querying me or are interested in what has me excited right now.