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How American Idol and Mary Tod Changed the Way I Connect with my Audience by Beth Camp

American Idol’s fifteen year run ended in early April.

 

What a finale with superstar performances and lots of strobe lights. I’ve been a fan since the second year. Each week, American Idol hosted a singing competition with weekly feedback from the celebrity judges. I loved those judges, and I hated them. Each week behind the scenes, selected semi-finalists would move through a round of mentors, practice with musicians and coaches, to finally perform. America voted on who would move forward. Some performances were heart-breaking. Some inspirational.  But each week those who remained ‘upped their game’ and persevered.

 

Ryan Seacrest noted that what made American Idol different was involvement with the audience. America voted. America chose. This resonated with something ephemeral I’ve been thinking about as I weed through the dozens of writing-related articles and posts I receive each month. For we writers do study writing craft. If we’re self-publishers, we take on the whole range of skills needed to publish and market our books. We build our online platforms. Sometimes we pay for advertising. We tweet and blog and post on Instagram, never quite certain if we’re using our time wisely or productively.

 

So here’s what I gained:

 

Readers want to learn about you, the person behind the writer.

 

They’ve read your stories and books. They feel connected with you, and they’re curious about you, your writing, and your opinions. Maybe they’ve signed up for your newsletter. What can you offer that’s a little different than that constant refrain, “Buy my book!”? Whether you’re blogging or writing that newsletter you hope will build your reader base, start by thinking about your audience and then use questions to add depth to your social writing.

 

  1. Define Your Audience. Begin with a specific definition of who your audience is. The most useful suggestion I’ve found is to use a Google search with these words: define audience for <insert your genre>. If you don’t find enough information, use the words: survey of readers <insert your genre>.

 

I wasn’t expecting much from a Google search, but I was thrilled to find Mary Tod’s exhaustive survey of people who read historical fiction, highlighted on the Historical Novel Society’s website. Interestingly, when women read historical fiction, they are drawn to strong female characters. Men and women (who both tend to be a little older than average) want stories that have a strong sense of what life was like ‘back then,’ and men prefer more action and adventure.

 

Additionally, Mary Tod noted that most readers of historical fiction find new book recommendations on GoodReads, blogs and sites about historical fiction, small book review sites, and Amazon. Both LibraryThing and Shelfari also show up as important resources for readers.

 

Mary Tod’s analysis has changed how I think about my newsletter and my blogging.

 

  1. Ask questions as you write your blog and/or newsletter that lead you to add your own opinions or share the experiences that led you to write a particular story. Share . . . the rest of the story, the story behind the scenes.

 

  • Which aspects of characters resonate with your own life or the lives of your target audience? Why did you write about these particular characters? Or about this particular story?
  • How does the content of what you’re writing challenge or affirm your beliefs?
  • What particular stories did not make it into your project? Why or why not?
  • How does the theme of what you’re writing connect to your audience?
  • And, most importantly, what do you think about what you’re writing?

 

Just now, I’m participating in the April A to Z Blogging Challenge. Some of the over 1,800 participants commit to a theme before the challenge begins, and some even write their posts before April 1. This year, I using the A to Z Blogging to write about my research for Rivers of Stone, my current work-in-progress, now in the revision stage.

 

As I write my daily post and respond to reader comments, I’m noticing that readers connect what I’ve written to their own personal experience.  Readers are not returning necessarily to read summaries about my research, but to discover what I think about that research, what personal stories I tie into my research, and how this links to their own experiences.

 

American Idol offered an incredible promise and platform to new talent. Those singers who made the next cut brought hard work, discipline, and their creativity to a wide public. We writers may not have the same support system or the national platform, but this lesson remains:

 

For writers, it’s about the content of what we create and how we connect with readers. The more we understand who our particular readers are, how they find new books to read, and what appeals to them, the more insight we can gain into why our writing appeals to certain readers. This can help us to focus our marketing and to tighten that bond with our readers. May Round 2 bring you new strategies and new ways that encourage creativity in your writing!

 

For more about Mary K. Tod: https://awriterofhistory.com/

About the Blogging from A to Z Challenge http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/

Book Lover

 

 

Focus on Distraction by Fallon Brown

 

Focusing on writing isn’t always as simple as we might like it to be. There are so many things out there to distract us, and sometimes we create even more of these distractions ourselves. But, there are ways to minimize the disruption they cause. Sometimes, you may even be able to use them to focus more(yes, I know that sounds backwards).

Sometimes it just takes a little bit of time to settle down and be able to focus. Having some kind of routine can even help this along(if that’s what works for you). I do pretty much the same thing every morning before I start writing: Take the puppy out, start my coffee, close the kids’ bedroom doors so I don’t wake them, start my music, and jot down a few notes on the scene I’ll be working on next. Then, I can start writing. Without that, particularly the coffee and music, the words usually don’t want to come.

And the routine really does help. Getting up at the same time(or close to it) every day, sitting down in the same place, having the same things around me. For some people, I understand this may seem more of a rut. For those of us that need it, it can be the one thing that signals it’s time to write.

Sometimes even when you have a routine figured out, distractions can still come up. Kids want your attention, the phone won’t stop ringing(the one I hate the most), all the books you want to read, chores to do, shows to catch up on, and whatever else might take you from your writing. Sometimes these distractions can’t be ignored. My family continues to insist they have to eat every day and have clean clothes for some reason.

I have different ways to focus. Though, some may look at them as distractions. Something I figured out back in high school, though, is that I actually have to distract myself in order to focus. Like I said above, I know that sounds backwards, so just stick with me a moment. I’d be there trying to do my homework in my quiet bedroom, but my mind would keep skipping around to pretty much everything else. But, if I had music playing or something on the TV I didn’t really have to pay attention to, I could focus better. It was like I needed something to distract one part of my brain, so the other could focus on what I needed to do.

One other thing that could go either way as far as being a distraction or a way to focus is having a list of different projects to work on. Sometimes this does feel like I’m spreading myself too thin between them. But, there are other times when I just can’t make the words come on one project, but the characters from another are practically yelling their story at me and the words just roll right out. If I try to stay focused on that first one, it just doesn’t happen. So, I need the distraction from it.

So, really, some distractions aren’t distractions after all. Sometimes it’s just a matter of settling down to write, and sticking to a routine can help with this. Also, sometimes embracing those distractions can be more productive than trying to fight them.

How do you combat your distractions? Or do you embrace them?

~*~

Fallon Brown

 

 

Where’s Your Proving Ground by Shan Jeniah Burton

When I announced my goals for this round, I titled it “Proving Ground”, because Round Two always means high-intensity for me. It’s the end of our winter hibernation. The kids and I tend to move from more introspective occupations to more active, extroverted ones.
 
April also kicks off my annual season of creative intensity:
 
Like I said, it’s the Season of Creation, and it tests and stretches me.

With all that happening, why would I decide to take on something big? Something that’s been lurking there in the dark shadowy places of my mind for decades? Something that feels like taking a flying leap off the crumbling edge of an infinite abyss?

 
Sometimes we need that proving ground – to learn what we’re made of, where our limitations are, and what we can accomplish. There are times when tiptoeing into growth and change isn’t as effective as flinging ourselves over that edge, spreading our feather and wax wings and hoping like Hades the brightness doesn’t bring on a deadly plunge back to terra firma.
 
This round is my time. I’ve discovered my personal proving ground.

I’ve been writing fan fiction since I was 13 and fellow ROWer (and friend since we were 4) Eden Mabee dragged me kicking and screaming into my first love affair with a Vulcan. We wrote as a way to liven up some of the creativity-sapping numbness of public high school, passing several notebooks full of mostly spectacularly bad stories back and forth, mucking up one another’s storylines, evolving as writers. We were passionate about what we created.

We cut our writing teeth on those stories, which expanded to include other fandomsand aspects of our own lives. During those years, we also created original characters and story worlds that are the origins of what we both write today. Neither of us would be as strong without those early collaborative efforts, and the things we learned in the course of them.

 
How does that relate to my proving ground?

Through April, I’m expanding each of my Boldly Go Star Trek: Enterprise A-Z stories, and sharing them publicly at fanfiction.net. While I’ve been sharing myEnterprise stories on my own blog since 2014, there’s a certain security in that. Folks who come to read there generally know me from somewhere, and there’s lots of other material there, as well. That means that the fan fiction wasn’t the first or only way someone was likely to encounter my writing. I wouldn’t be judged, as a writer or a person, solely on that.

 
Why is that such a Big Deal?
For decades, I was ashamed of my passion for this type of writing. My parents considered all writing something of a pipe dream – I was a teen in the 1980’s, and self-publishing and Kindle were words with very different connotations back then. Star Trek was, in their opinion, a “stupid show” and I was “wasting my time” being interested in it at all. That I was also more inclined to write those stories than to apply myself to tedious, unimaginative homework assignments made it something to be reviled, a piece of foolishness that just showed that I was unrealistic, lazy, and other things – not a one of them positive.
 
I carried those parental messages in my head and my heart well into adulthood. I wrote in spiral bound notebooks, and, when I finished one, I dutifully shelved it, or stuck it in a cabinet. I might show them to Eden, and sometimes read saucier bits to my Accomplice. But I didn’t share them beyond that; they weren’t “serious” writing, and I never intended to make any money from them. I wrote them because I couldn’t not write them.
 
The problem with hiding away our passions, or treating them as though we should feel shame for daring to indulge them, is that this attitude can also suffuse the rest of life. Denying or labeling them “not good enough” to be out in the light condemns something of our selves to the shadowy places, too. We’re passionate about certain things because it’s part of our nature, an intrinsic part of who we are.
 
When we deny passionate parts of ourselves, we lose something – not just in those denied passions, but in everything we write.

So, this month, I’m taking lots of deep breaths and flinging myself out over the edge. I’m sharing these stories, and I plan to keep on doing it. I’m offering them up in a place where they can stand in the light, then lift swiftly or leisurely from the ledge, to soar and dance and laugh and sob and be free, right there for all comers to see them, read them, and know a bit of my passion, and my self.

It’s my proving ground. I won’t earn a penny doing it, but there are things to be gained that money can’t buy. Self-expression. Honesty. Wholeness. Acceptance of myself as I am.

 
You can find the stories, if you’re interested, at my fanfiction.net page.
Is there a proving ground in your life? Something you’ve denied or tucked away in secret shame? Can you think of a way to challenge yourself to stretch and grow this year? Will you fling yourself over the edge with me?
~*~

How Marginal Gains Can Bring Big Results by Kait Nolan

The UK has won 3 of the last 4 Tour De France races.  Prior to that?  They’d never won a single one in the history of the race (which started in 1903).  The secret to their success?  Well, according to Matthew Syed’s interview with Sir David Brailsford,  “It is about marginal gains,’ he said. ‘The approach comes from the idea that if you break down a big goal into small parts, and then improve on each of them, you will deliver huge increase when you put them all together.”

What does that mean exactly?  Well, Syed goes on to say (in his book Black Box Thinking):

“The marginal gains mentality has pervaded the entire Team Sky mindset. They make sure that the cyclists sleep on the same mattress each night to deliver a marginal gain in sleep quality; that the rooms are vacuumed before they arrive at each new hotel, to deliver a marginal gain in reduced infections; that the clothes are washed with skin-friendly detergent, a marginal gain in comfort.”

I first read about this in on of Brian Johnson‘s Philosopher’s Notes (a fabulous little, distill-it-down email about some of the greatest books of our time) and the idea stuck with me.  I’m all about breaking things down into manageable bits so that a project doesn’t seem so overwhelming, but this is something else entirely.  This is about all the little things that you probably DON’T consider have an impact on your goal.  In our case, writing.

  • Like, making sure that we have a comfortable chair with adequate back support.  This means I don’t waste time fidgeting because I’m uncomfortable.
  •  Swapping those God-awful compact fluorescent bulbs to something with a more pleasing hue.  Not being annoyed by my lighting, means I can focus better on the task at hand more quickly.
  • Being sure to have a big, insulated glass of ice water right there and ready before I get started.  It’s insulated, so it stays colder longer.  It’s huge, so I don’t have to get up to refill it as often.
  • Putting on my headphones with MyNoise.net instead of just letting it play through the laptop speakers.  This helps me block out distractions more effectively (even though I don’t have full-on noise-cancelling headphones).
  • Picking a candle scent to go along with a particular WIP.  I picked this one up from Tawna Fenske.  Lighting it and having that scent cue primes my brain for that particular book.
  • Getting up a few minutes earlier every day.  I had though I’d need to get up a full hour before my normal wakeup time.  And during NaNo, I did (because I was establishing a new habit).  But I’ve learned that if I get up just half an hour earlier, I can usually crank out between 500-almost 1k words before my morning workout.  Doing that every weekday means my total word count for the week is 2,500-5,000 words greater than not getting up.  (Of course, now that Daylight Savings Time is upon us, I’m in the process of slowly rolling my body clock back and cursing profusely the whole time).  Even fifteen minutes of writing is worth getting up because it starts my day in the story and means that I can stay in it a lot better, regardless of what else I happen to face the rest of the day, which makes my evening writing session far more productive.
  • Using Write or Die 2 instead of just drafting on a normal blank screen.  I didn’t realize how much difference this would make.  Man, that red screen of threat is hella motivating!

There are oodles of things that can feed in to our ability to get focused and stay focused, and I encourage you to give some thought to what little things you can do to achieve marginal gains in your writing.  Those marginal gains add up over time, making the effort (which really isn’t that much) well worth it.

~*~

Kait Nolan

A Few of My Favorite Things by Steph Beth Nickel

This post first appeared on InScribe’s Blog on Writing

Have you hit a slump or do you just need a pick-me-up to inspire your writing? Here are a few of my favourite things:

A New Journal

A beautiful handcrafted leather cover or a whimsical cartoon character beckoning you to open a pristine new journal, full of nothing but potential … is there anything more inspiring—or terrifying? Tentatively, you grab your favourite pen (see below) and make that first mark on the page. And then you’re off to the races, sometimes writing at lightning speed, sometimes pausing and wondering if you’ll ever again write a coherent sentence. I have a love-hate relationship with my journals. Most often I assign a specific subject to each journal—and then end up using them as scrap paper because they’re at hand. I’m sure I’d be surprised at what I’d find if I took the time to read through old (and not-so-old) journals.

A Favourite Pen

For those of us who still like to write longhand—at least some of the time—we probably have our favourite type of pen. Some of us like fountain pens and are always on the lookout for the one that writes “just so.” For others it’s a classic like a Parker. (You can still get nice pen sets in stores such as Staples.) Personally, I’m a huge fan of Zebra Sarasa gel pens. They’re not extravagant. They don’t cost very much. But they write beautifully. I haven’t found another gel pen I like anywhere near as much. And they come in a wide variety of colours, which appeals to my artistic self.

The Internet

Can you even begin to image where we’d be without the Internet? I know I’d be lost without it. I use Bible Gateway to look up scripture verses. I use Pixabay to find images to create memes, to add visuals to my blog posts, and to create graphics for our midweek kids’ club. I use PicMonkey to add text to my photos and those I find on Pixabay. And of course I connect with clients and fellows creatives via email and social networks. I also take online courses to improve my writing skills. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Library

Even though I love the Internet, I’m a huge fan of paying regular visits to the library. While I have hundreds of eBooks, I prefer physical books. And my favourite of all are hardbacks wrapped in plastic. I love the feel and the crinkling sound. Library books probably take me back to happy memories of childhood. Books and libraries have been my friends from way back. Do you pay regular visits to the local library?

A Crowded Coffee Shop

Granted, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. (I couldn’t resist the pun. Admittedly, I didn’t try very hard.) At any rate, there is an exhilaration about taking your laptop or your notebook to a local coffee shop and writing. It’s almost cliché, but it’s one that’s likely going to be around for a long time. (As an extrovert, I love the idea, but I’m too easily distracted to make serious headway on a writing project when I’m surrounded by the sights and sounds—not to mention smells and tastes—that await me at Starbucks or Coffee Culture.)

A Smartphone

An app such as Evernote

Though I no longer have a smartphone, I did write my first guest post for Kimberley Payne on my phone when I had one. (Mind you, I think I would invest in a tablet before buying another smartphone.) For those of you who use an app such as Evernote, what do you like best about it?

A camera

I had a discussion with my nephew this past Christmas about the likelihood that phones with attachable lenses will replace DSLRs in the future. While I can’t see that happening (I love my Canon EOS), cameras on cell phones are getting better and are certainly good enough to snap a shot of that inspiring scene you want to write about.

Books, Books, Books, and More Books

Of course this goes without saying, but what list of writers’ resources would be complete without it? Author Susan Meissner says something interesting. She suggests reading more well-written books than skills development books. Rather than learning from how-to books, she believes we can pick up much that will make our own writing better (when applied) simply by reading authors who know how to apply those skills. What do you think?

Writing Courses

There are so many great online courses floating around cyberspace. I definitely don’t have time to take even a fraction of those that interest me. Taking a course may be something to consider doing annually, even a couple of times per year. Have you found any courses that were well worth the time and financial investment?

Critique Partners / Beta Readers

We all know that it can be unnerving to send our writing out into the world, but if we have a handful of trusted readers who will tell us what works—and what doesn’t—we can polish our blog, article, or manuscript before sending it off to potential publishers and / or agents. Finding critique partners we can count on is a tremendous blessing.

What resources do you especially love?

~*~

Steph Beth Nickel

And the Big “M” – Mystery by Beth Camp

Note from Kait: Thank you, Beth for pulling a Twofer on inspiration this round!!!

***

Little Johnny was too excited to sit still. Today, Miss Jones was going to teach the class how to write.

“Now, children,” she began. “Don’t be intimidated. When you write your story, remember to include four key elements: Religion, romance, and royalty – and the big “M” – mystery!”

The children seated in tidy rows, bent their heads over their pens and papers, and began to write.

Within a very short minute, little Johnny’s hand shot into the air.

“Are you finished already, Johnny?” asked Mrs. Jones.

“Yes, Miss Jones.”

“Do you have all four of the elements – religion, romance, royalty, and the big “M” – mystery?”

“Yes, Miss Jones, I checked.”

“Very well, Johnny. You may read your story to the class.”

Little Johnny straightened up and read, “Holy Moses,” said the princess. “Pregnant again. I wonder who did it.”

I do love this story, for humor invites us to be entertained by the unexpected.

The reality for most writers, though, is far different than Johnny’s experience. Inspiration may result in many words on the page, or a sudden flash of insight about our characters, but most of us spend many hundreds of hours planning, plotting, drafting, and editing to hone our stories – in addition to that pure joy of writing that brings our stories and our characters to life.

Like the teacher in the story, we can number the elements of our craft that lead to good writing. The big mystery, though, remains exactly that question: What is good writing?

For how do we include those hidden themes or motifs that underlie a story, that leave us feeling satisfied or inspired by our hero? I’m not talking about those stories that seem to circle around death or pick at infidelity as if it were a scab, but those stories that leave us wanting more, that teach us something about being human, and that may provoke us to be better people – and perhaps remember the author.

I read somewhere that each author explores one theme that rings through every story he or she writes. Last night, we were sitting around with family we hadn’t seen in a very long time, and the question came up, “What is your favorite song?” Immediately I thought of the main aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. If I were to choose a song that personifies the theme that’s closest to my heart, I would choose this larger-than-life, soaring melody, sung at the moment of greatest loss and sacrifice. For we do struggle to survive, hopefully with grace and dignity. Do my stories revolve around this theme? As I write, I can only hope.

When little Johnny writes his next story, he may decide to move away from his teacher’s formula. He may well ask: What is my purpose in writing this story? What do I hope to achieve? What do I want the reader to take away from the experience of reading my stories? I’m not so sure we can control or number these mysterious elements of good storytelling. We can refine our writing. Hire outside editors. What is at the very essence of our stories, though, is ours alone.

May what you write inspire you!

~*~

Beth Camp