I’ve been thinking a lot about the different communities of readers in the world. As a future published fiction author, I want to write books that readers will like. At the same time, I want to write books that I like.
A lot of book characters have different lifestyles than I do.* Which is fine, but sometimes I wish I could read about a character more like me. So perfect; I’ll write that character!
But I see these things so often… is this what readers want? Is my writing career doomed if I can’t muster the willpower to include these in my books?
Ugh I Could Never Write This
Here are some things you probably won’t find in my books:
Characters eating junk food constantly, with relish. I dislike how the sugar and corn (syrup) industries have so much power, and how their products cause major health problems.
Female characters wearing makeup and heels. Some women like to wear these—great. But other women wear them because they are expected to in their job or situation, which bothers me.
Characters wearing perfume and cologne. I have a hypothesis about scent: Studies show that scent helps humans determine who their compatible partners are. So wouldn’t wearing perfume or cologne confuse the issue? Blinded by fragrance, people will begin relationships that are less likely to work in the long run. Also I just find all cologne stinky.
And even if they’re not wearing cologne, characters always smell like random things (cinnamon, strawberries… sandalwood shows up a lot).
Characters who spend their free time shopping and watching television.
Things You Might Find in My Books
Here’s what I’m likely to put in a book. I’m hoping other readers would like characters with these habits:
Characters eating a meal with vegetables.
Characters wearing practical clothes. And when they do dress up, flat shoes.
Characters who wear glasses. Even on a date.
Characters who smell like soap or clean laundry or vague, natural things like “the forest.”
Characters who read and go on walks in their free time.
*I’m not saying these things are wrong or that I don’t ever do them, just that I don’t want to promote them or encourage them to be the norm.
During the episode, one of the hosts commented that everyone has an incident from childhood that results in the “flaws” we must heal as adults. This statement seemed too broad to be true—doesn’t anyone just have a nice childhood that leads to a healthy adulthood? But at the same time, I immediately knew what my incident was.
Let me set the scene: I was shy and still friends only with girls. When I started middle school, school dances appeared. I decided I had no interest in them: I didn’t want to dance with a boy, so what was the point? So while all my friends went, I stayed home. Really, I was just scared of going to a dance, of moving into new territory with boys and who knew what else.
The last dance of sixth grade was on my birthday. I wanted to have a party, but I knew my friends would want to go to the dance. “Why don’t you have a party,” my encouraging friend Kelli said, “and then we’ll all go to the dance together?” That sounded manageable, plus I didn’t want to let her down, so I agreed.
And it turned out dances were fun! There was very little dancing, at least among my crowd of friends. There was a lot of giggling, talking about who was cute, and running to the girls’ bathroom when any boy looked your way. Toward the end of the two hours, a few brave souls ventured out for a “slow dance,” which looked awkward, dull, and not much like actual dancing.
After that, I was in. I was going to the dances from then on.
The Inciting Incident
I remember the boy involved. But he could be a lawyer now, so I will withhold his name. Let’s call him M. It was seventh grade, and I left the cafeteria to buy a ticket for the dance that Friday, from the ticket booth set up in the hallway. I was heading back to my table when he struck.
“Why did you buy a ticket for the dance?” M asked from his seat as I passed.
I knew he was about to be mean, but felt I had to answer. I don’t remember what I mumbled back, maybe “Just to go” or “They’re fun.”
“No one wants to dance with you,” he said, his whole face cringing in disgust.
And he was right, it seemed. No one did ask me to dance. Never mind that no one asked anyone else to dance either, or that I hadn’t wanted to dance, or that slow dancing looked pointless and stupid. No one asking me seemed to prove M right. I didn’t dance with a boy until the end of eighth grade, when Valerie decided she’d had enough of everyone standing by the bleachers and started dragging boys over to us and pairing us off. I remember that boy’s name, too. The song was “Open Arms” by Journey. Slow dancing was just as unpleasant as I’d expected.
I think of my cross-country bicycle trip as the major event that began my healed life, but probably writing about the trip was what actually did it. The memoir of the trip, Somewhere and Nowhere, explores a few themes, but the general idea is that getting away from the noise and busyness of regular life enabled me to see my patterns more clearly, the first step in overcoming them.
A few scenes come to mind when I remember the middle school dance incident:
Becoming extremely self-conscious because of the cute barista in the coffee shop in Powell, Wyoming. While writing this scene, and struggling to figure out what “becoming self-conscious” actually meant, I realized all the thoughts I’d had during the moment, such as thinking the barista would be repulsed if he knew I thought he was cute (because I was so romantically repulsive—thanks, M!).
Talking to Ryan at the Jackson Hot Springs in Montana, and how I’d been acting confident, but felt sure that I could never pull off a whole day in his company.
Making up elaborate daydreams about Scott, the ranger on Lolo Pass. I was prone to daydreams because they helped me avoid any real-world actual dating, which was sure to fail because of my flaws.
Writing these scenes helped me realize the negative patterns I had internalized. (One of my early beta readers called Somewhere and Nowhere my “search for Ranger McDreamy,” which made me laugh. But the book has other themes as well, I promise!)
What I’m Writing Now
Since I’ve been writing fiction, I haven’t settled on one genre, but I have identified my mission as a writer: to show characters overcoming beliefs about themselves like the ones I harbored for so long. Even if the story begins with an adult character, it’s helpful to identify the inciting incidents that led to her being the way she is in the story. So maybe I should thank M for giving me such a clear example of how an incident can be internalized, festering for years before it’s exposed and overcome.
Last week I watched a webinar from the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA): “Back Story: Back Cover Copy That Sells” with Lee Silber. The recording is available free to IBPA members here: https://www.ibpa-online.org/page/pubuniversityonline. (Non-members were able to sign up for the live webinar, so there may be a way for them to pay for the recording as well, but I don’t know.)
I had thought writing cover copy was simply about creating a good hook to snag readers, but the webinar introduced many more factors to consider. Here are some that I found particularly useful.
Some of the points stressed in the webinar are ones I have heard before. But I had heard them in other contexts, like writing blog posts. I had not considered applying them to a book’s back cover.
Put the most important information at the top, in larger text, then work your way down
Focus on one main idea, and let your excitement shine through
If you use bullet points, 3 is best; otherwise use 5 or 7
Keep things simple and clear
Focus on the reader and what the book can do for the reader
Consider the Audience
Lee brought up some interesting points about audience, such as the following.
Baby Boomers value status and credentials, so you’d want to include a bio on a book targeting them; but Millennials generally don’t care about credentials
Emotional words (e.g., heart, kiss, sweet) appeal to women*, so if your target is women, find ways to use these words (e.g., “Kiss procrastination goodbye”)
Right-brained readers are hooked by teasing and creative wording, while left-brained readers want a clear problem and solution
The webinar briefly touched on design in a way that was helpful.
Design trends change with time; if you’re trying to fit in today, you’d want a minimalist design with less words
The cover sets the tone of the story inside
Remember your brand and stay true to it
Different colors compel people more or less, or convey certain feelings or ideas
The headline should be readable in a glance
Use a sans serif font for the headlines, and serif font for the copy
The webinar ended with the reminder that books are for people, and your cover copy should make people feel something and show you care about them. There were a lot more details, tips, and examples in the webinar. I recommend watching it if you are interested in learning more about effective back cover copy.
*Lee used the terms “men” and “women” for gender, but the fact that gender is non-binary was addressed. I’m not sure how to properly categorize: maybe “people who are more emotional like emotional wording”? Also note that some viewers may not care for Lee’s humor; to his credit he seemed to realize that his jokes were problematic, mid-webinar.
A few weeks ago I visited a friend’s “Little Library” and picked up a few romantic-looking books. I wanted to see where they fit in the wide world of romance, as I figure out my own place. The difference between two of the books made me realize how different audiences value different books.
Book 1: Beach Read
The first book I opened was Summer at Oyster Bay by Jenny Hale (Bookouture, 2016). It was a about a young woman returning to her hometown after a breakup, figuring out where she fits in while dating the rich developer who is building/destroying her town. It had lots of description of the setting and interactions with the woman’s family. A typical sample: “Rachel turned back to the bay. Emily followed her line of sight. A speedboat rushed by, agitating the tide, sending it slamming against the shore. The sun was behind the trees now. The sand was cool on Emily’s feet as she took off her shoes and set them beside Rachel’s.” (p. 35)
This book wasn’t really for me. I didn’t relate to the main character’s journey, I didn’t connect with her struggles, and I was not drawn to her personality. I grew tired of all the description. I noticed lots of references to clothing and grooming; I’m not into fashion and such references make me dislike the characters who are noticing such things. The thing is, I don’t think this is a bad book; it’s just not for me.
Book 2: Neurotic Narrator
The second book I opened was The Big Love by Sarah Dunn (Back Bay Books, 2004). It was about a young woman trying to get by after her boyfriend leaves her. She acts out with atypical behaviors and considers how her upbringing led to her current state. A typical sample: “Well, I haven’t figured out what the point is. Another thing I haven’t been able to figure out is whether the religion of my childhood is the source of my neurotic problems or the cure for them. I have figured out a few things, of course, but for the most part, none of them seem to apply.” (p. 23)
I immediately loved this book. The narrator rambles on about her thoughts, emotions, and habits, but I totally got it. I related to her struggle to overcome a pattern in her life, and understood the bad decisions she makes along the way. I liked her snarky attitude, and felt uplifted when she finally got herself together. I could see that some people would find the book unreadable, but it was a perfect fit for me.
The Problem with Goodreads
When I went to Goodreads to review The Big Love, I already knew what I would find, because it happens so often. The book had an overall rating of three-point-something, and the top review was one-star. As I scrolled down through the reviews, they continued to be mostly bad. This used to confuse me, until I realized the order is based on how many people have liked each review. Inevitably, some “clever” one-star review gets a lot of love and ends up on top.
I’ve hesitated to rate books I don’t like because Goodreads doesn’t clarify: am I rating the quality of the book, or how much I liked it?
Many of the site’s reviewers use language that suggests they are rating the former, and also that they are the harbinger of truth about the books they rate and review. And the bad reviews make me sad because authors are people like anyone else. The buffer of the Internet might protect a caustic reviewer from feeling like a jerk, but it doesn’t make reading the biting, nasty criticism any easier on the author. I don’t want to give a low rating and contribute to the negativity.
How to Fix It
The conversation could be framed differently: “Rate this book for your tribe—is it the kind of book you and your fellow readers will enjoy?” This language would clarify that the rating simply means the book isn’t a good fit for a particular audience. That a review isn’t so much about the book as it is about the person who wrote the review. I’d happily give Summer at Oyster Bay three stars, knowing I’m rating how well the book fits me and not the book itself.
My wish is that Goodreads* would order reviews differently for each user. The top reviews I’d see would be those written by readers who have the most “book overlap” with me, based on books we have both read and rated. Seeing those reviews (by my book tribe) would be much more helpful to me than seeing the generic one-star reviews that currently rise to the top.
*Or some other platform. If you know of one, please share!
After the busy-ness of the holidays, January seems like a good time to round up my latest news.
Writing and Editing News
Last November I completed NaNoWriMo, writing a 50,000-word draft in thirty days. The new novel, Kensington, originated as a contemporary romance idea but turned out differently than I’d expected: there was less kissing and more plot. This result has led me to further consider what sub-genre I’m writing—light romance? new adult? chick lit?—and I’ve been stepping up my reading in the genre to try to find comparative titles.
The next steps I’m leaning toward are making some changes and then looking into other agents.
Right now, though, I am excitedly swamped with editing work! I’m providing feedback on an applied science textbook and writing a new booklet for the American Cleft Palate–Craniofacial Association. I’ve had a steady stream of academic papers for copyediting and language editing. And I’m starting a new test passage writing assignment and a report for the National Academies of Sciences in the coming weeks.
Events: A Bit of Sad News
I’m dismayed to report that, because of a scheduling conflict, I won’t be able to teach at the Asheville Bread Festival on April 13, 2019. I’ve never missed this festival since it began, and feel like it kicks off my spring each year with a good dose of bread. If anything changes, I hope to attend, but at this time, it is not looking good. Still, I encourage everyone to go. Info: https://www.ashevillebreadfestival.com.
My May class at the Folk School is already full. I hope to offer classes in 2020, but am waiting to hear from the Folk School’s new cooking resident artist. I also hope to have time for some local events, like a replay of my self-publishing talk at the library, but nothing is currently scheduled.
Recent Blog Posts
In case you missed any, here are the blog posts I’ve written in the past two months.
Someone at my day job recommended This is Marketing by Seth Godin (Portfolio, 2018). The book explores today’s marketing (as opposed to that of a few decades ago), highlighting the changes brought by the Internet. The book’s content seems a far cry from traditional marketing advice. A lot of the ideas resonated with me.
The main theme seems to be that marketing used to mean advertising, but today it means serving others and solving their problems. With this new type of marketing, there are no shortcuts, but it is a viable path to success.
Advice for Authors
As I read, I was thinking of how to use the content at my day job but also for the local farmer’s market (I’m on the board), for my freelance editing business, and especially for me as a self-published author. A few chapters seemed highly relevant to authors:
You cannot reach everyone, so you should try to reach the people who will love your product; Godin describes the “smallest viable market.” If you reach these people, they will endorse you and spread the word. (Chapter 3)
And, instead of thinking in terms of demographics, group people by psychographics of what they believe in, dream of, etc. (Chapter 3)
These days people have endless alternatives. Trade their time and attention for something they really want. Make a product so good they seek it out—you won’t have to pitch it. Light a beacon to help YOUR people find your product. (Chapter 5)
Chapter 15 differentiated between direct marketing (like paying for ads) and brand marketing. Online ads sound great, but they are mostly ignored. Most of us low-budget small businesses need to do brand marketing. You must be patient and engage with people and not try to measure results.
Your goal is not to appear first in every generic Internet search, but to have people type in your name—to have them specifically searching for you because they want your product and not a generic alternative. (Chapter 15)
When my bicycle trip memoir came out, I tried to think of all the audiences I might target (bicyclists, outdoor enthusiasts, women who travel). But I never felt comfortable enough to move forward with the marketing tasks. I knew some people would not like the book, and felt too nervous about their reactions.
Now, though, I know whom I want to reach: people who have trouble being in the present moment and silencing the noise in their heads, as I did when I went on my bike trip. I’m planning to rewrite my metadata and back cover copy to better target this group by more clearly showing the book’s contents, instead of trying to make the book appeal to as many groups as I can.
Advice on Branding
This Is Marketing also considers branding. Describing my brand is a struggle for me because I am currently writing fiction, but I also have a bread persona from the past, plus the bike trip memoir. And my fiction manuscripts seem to be in three mismatched genres (I’m still trying to pinpoint what they are). But my worries aside, here are some of the book’s ideas:
Consider what brand you immediately think of when you want to feel a certain way like “Safe” or “Powerful.” If a word made people think of your brand, what would the word be? (Chapter 5)
People scan instead of reading, and they make assumptions about you based on what they see at a glance; this is why you need a professional looking website. If a person sees your materials and thinks “unprofessional, must be a scam,” that feeling will stick, even if it is irrational (e.g., plenty of good organizations have dated-looking websites).
This is also why book covers work better if they look professional and, sadly, similar to other books in the genre; the sameness signals to readers that the book fits in with what they like to read. The ideal case is to have a cover that fits in enough to be trusted but is also unique enough to attract interest.
Many logos look the same because the company is trying to remind you of a “solid company.” Remember, it is the viewer’s opinion that matters, not the designer’s.
NOT “flying a flag” is not an option; not having a presence online, for example, will lead to assumptions about you.
Think of phone companies. They don’t really have a brand, and people switch between them easily. You want your brand to be something people can’t get anywhere else and something they care about. (Chapter 13)
What Are Your Strong Points?
Chapter 5 included a concept that helped me brainstorm: Different people value different attributes, like price or quality. Figure out where your product falls in the range of each attribute; which ones are your strong points? These will determine your target audience.
Even better, can you find an attribute that has been overlooked? If so, you can be the first to offer it.
I first thought of my editing business. I sometimes feel uneasy because I never worked at a publishing house, and I don’t have decades of experience. But, I’ve passed editing tests to copyedit for several companies and gotten positive feedback from authors, I think I am pretty friendly to work with, and I’m always willing to do a sample to show potential clients what to expect from me. So I might make a plot like one of these:
Then I thought, what attributes can a book possibly have? Hopefully the writing is high quality, but the price is pretty standard. But I thought of two plots for my bike trip memoir: (1) I’m not famous, but my story is authentic and readers can share the journey with me, and (2) I’m not traditionally published, but I’ve been told I am a good storyteller. So I might have plots like these:
Regarding the attribute of price, trust does not work rationally, and cheap prices often lead to distrust. Price is a signal about your product, and people make assumptions based on it. But also, remember the attributes and what your audience values; they may value a low price or they may value something else more. (Chapter 16)
Other Advice I Liked
Here are some final bits that I could not fit in above.
We’re not really selling products, we’re selling feelings or status or connection. How will your product give the buyer emotions? Products change, but the underlying emotions stay the same. (Chapter 7)
Big hits started with small numbers. We only learn about the hit after it is a big hit, so it seems like it magically appeared that way. (Chapter 3)
You can match the existing pattern (but this makes you forgettable) or you can interrupt it (but this might not work). Try to break the pattern just enough that you are unique, without leaving people behind. Hook some people, and they will pass your product on to others. (Chapter 10)
People’s attention is scarce. Get permission to contact them and then send anticipated, personal, and relevant messages. Create a situation where they’d miss you if you were gone. Have your own permission asset (like a mailing list), without a company (like Facebook) as an intermediary. This takes time and there is no shortcut. (Chapter 17)
Make it easy for people to spread the word about you; ideas travel horizontally,customer to customer, not from you down to them. (Chapter 17)
And from the inspiring Chapter 23, some marketing is evil. But marketing can also be good and make the world better. It should be transparent and bring joy. Marketing is a craft you can improve, so if you feel like you are failing, don’t blame your product, just learn to market better. There are people out there who need your product.
Although some material in the book repeated, and at times I had trouble following it, the short length of the sections made it easy to get through, and there were many broad ideas and nuggets of wisdom to take away. I recommend this book to anyone with a product to market.
Usually New Year’s Day is a time where I reflect back and clarify goals and feel positive about moving forward in the new year. This year was kind of a muddle. What do I do with my manuscripts? What genre are they? How much more work do they need? Should I be putting more time in as a freelance editor, instead of writing?
As nothing came together, I did what I do when I need clarity: put the questions “out there” and then walked away. Over the next few weeks, some ideas came to me—not specific answers but general guidance. As of January 2019, I think these things are true. (If you disagree or have alternate ideas, please share your thoughts in the comments.)
Things Authors Should Do
Regardless of how you decide to publish, doing these things will help you:
Find your readers (or, for beginners like me, potential readers). Preferably, connect with them directly (e.g., they subscribe to your blog or sign up for your mailing list). Also connect with them via an intermediary (e.g., a social media platform).
Hone your craft and keep revising your manuscript. Learn through classes, webinars, conference sessions, reading about craft, working with various types of editors, and using beta readers. Each time you think your novel is done, learn more and then see if you want to revise again.
Read everything in and around your genre and sub-genre. If like me, you don’t have good comparable titles, read as many possibilities as you can. I have recently categorized them on a shelf in my library. Know exactly where your book fits and, therefore, who your readers are.
A Word About Publishing
This seems to be the current state of publishing, based on what I’ve gleaned from fellow authors and agents at conferences:
A handful of books/authors are discovered and cherished and published as they are, and are allowed to change the industry. Most authors, though, have to write what already sells to get published traditionally.*
In addition, since most publishers require authors to have an agent, the author must either write what appeals to a certain agent or find an agent who already likes what the author writes (or who thinks it will sell).
So there it is. I’d love to hear any universal truths you’ve discovered or questions you are mulling over.
*Please note: I’m not saying anyone has to write what already sells. Just that it seems to be what it takes to be traditionlly published.
Last month I participated in a workshop on character led by Barbara Claypole White. Here are some of the tips that helped me.
Deep Characters Take Work
Barbara’s books are known for their deep characters—her goal is to have each character’s voice so distinct that the reader will know who is talking even if she uses no dialog tags!
Barbara shared several exercises she goes through to get to know her characters and allow them to develop in her mind. For example, she asks herself questions, like “What scares me about you?” She explores the character’s backstory, which may or may not make it into the book. She interviews characters to get to know them. She creates character notes and boards to refer to. She comes at each character from many angles: What is their body language? What flaws do they have? What contradictions? Personality types? Voice?
She advised the class to cherrypick the techniques that seemed useful, since her method is hers and will differ from other writer’s.
My first reaction to all of the ideas was, Oh God! This is so much extra work! I have to spend time writing out an interview with my character, and I can’t even use the writing in the text? No, thank you!
But as I’m continuously learning, the craft of writing is much more than the simple first layer of thinking out a plot and putting it onto the paper. Maybe I felt rushed because I was participating in NaNoWriMo at the time, or because I feel so eager to have a fiction book published. But I want my first fiction book to be good, too!
The Low Hanging Fruit Tips
So, I started with the tips that seemed most manageable to me, applying them to the novel I was writing for NaNoWriMo. Even before I left the class, the tips had generated some new ideas—ideas I could add to my draft.
My two main characters are Cailin (a nerdy art history student who lacks self-confidence when it comes to dating) and Anders (the heir to an estate who doesn’t trust himself to know when a woman really likes him, and not his money). Here are some of the tips I used:
What is each character’s greatest fear? Cailin: opening up to love someone. Anders: disappointing his grandfather, who left the estate in his hands.
What is each character’s contradiction? Anders is a famous, wealthy bachelor who appears regularly on magazine covers, but he finds public attention tiring and likes to spend time at home alone, reading. Cailin is studious, careful, and rule-abiding, but when she sees that Anders needs help, she ventures into uncomfortable situations.
Think about a negative quality of a character and a time it became a positive. I thought about Anders being a workaholic as he manages his family estate, and his brother who likes to drink and party, and this led me to a scene with them as boys, where Anders drinks with his brother and has fun, but is ashamed when their grandfather catches them. This leads to a schism between the brothers. (So, I didn’t complete the exercise, but I did discover a new development.)
Make lists of themed words for your characters. For example, Cailin is an art history student. As she and Anders drive through a city, she is likely to notice the architecture. Anders likes gardening. He is likely to notice the trees along the street or the flowers in planters outside a restaurant.
The concept of third-level emotions and digging deeper to find them. For example, Cailin’s creepy art history colleague hits on her in their study room. She is repulsed by him and turns him down, and eventually he goes away—for now. How does she feel? -She feels unhappy because she has to tolerate his advances. -She feels angry at him for hitting on her at work, which she knows is inappropriate. -She feels frustrated with herself that she doesn’t know how to turn him down assertively. -She feels angry at herself for not trying to turn him down assertively, which might be uncomfortable. -She feels angry at herself for being a coward.
Amid all this consideration of my characters, random truths popped out. Like I had Anders focused on estate security as a teen, but his character would be more interested in managing the gardens. But he overachieves and wants to impress his grandfather, so he works all over. It felt like the exercises were loosening things up in my brain, allowing the characters’ truths to escape.
Do I Want to Do All This?
One exercise bugged me: the “fresh smile” exercise. Barbara had us write sentences to replace a simple “he smiled” with a more complex image. For example, “he gave her the honey-I-swallowed-the-canary smile.” Classmates read sentences aloud. A lot of them were similes, which made me not sure I liked them. Things like, “His smile twitched like a dying fish.” “His smile faded like a closing scene.” (I just made those up.) It felt like middle school writing class. I thought, isn’t it nice to just read, “He smiled”?
But now, rereading the notes from the class, some of the examples do seem good. Maybe this can be done well or it can be done too much or badly. Maybe “His smile faded faster than the end of an eighties rock song” would be more specific and illustrative. (Or maybe it doesn’t work at all.)
Given how productive the two-hour class was, I think there is value in going through Barbara’s tips and spending time developing my characters. Now that the rush of writing for NaNoWriMo is over, this time spent seems less like a waste and more like part of the craft of writing.
Since setting up my blog subscription list, emails to the “Thoughts” category subscribers have not been working. Each time I tinker with that email campaign, trying to fix it, I want to test it. So, this post is a test, but to avoid sending subscribers an empty post (assuming my tinkering worked), I thought I’d share some thoughts about NanoWriMo last month.
What Is NaNoWriMo?
NaNoWriMo is the nickname of National Novel Writing Month, which occurs in November. At the website https://nanowrimo.org, writers can register (for free) and commit to writing 50,000 words in November. There’s a handy tracking tool that displays your word count and shows if you’re on track. There are also “write-ins” around the world where writers gather to work, an online forum and pep talks emailed out from successful writers, and a Twitter community where writers share their experience (using #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoCoach, and more) and support each other.
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three times now: In 2014 I wrote my science fiction thriller, The Knowledge Game. In 2016 I wrote a fairytale romance called Rose Fair. And this year I wrote a light-hearted contemporary romance called Kensington.
My NaNoWriMo Experience
This year, for the first time, I outlined the plot and character arcs of my novel in advance. Having an outline made the writing process easier. But I still went through some stages as the weeks passed. From what I’ve read online, these stages are universal among writers. In fact, Week 2 has earned the nickname “the muddy middle.”
Here is a representation of my NaNoWriMo experience using cat GIFs:
October: I outlined my plot and could not wait to get started.
November Week #1: I jumped right in and had no trouble writing. The opening scene seemed fabulous, and then one fabulous scene after another came tumbling out.
November Week #2: After a week, it became hard to write. I had to make myself keep typing, and everything that came out felt boring and terrible. I fell behind.
November Week #3: I’d wake up in the morning thinking, Oh God, I have to write AGAIN? I felt like the time-to-make-the-donuts man from TV when I was a kid. I managed to catch up in my word count, only to fall behind again.
November Week #4: In the home stretch, things eased up. I could see my word count getting closer to 50,000, word by word.
And suddenly I was there!
November 30: Theoretically, I wanted to keep writing. But I was so happy not to have it hanging over me! It was hard to be motivated to do much of anything for a few days.
Writing and Revising
I should add that the point of NaNoWriMo is to get a first draft out—not necessarily a GOOD first draft. It’s okay to leave a note-to-self in the manuscript, like “verify this” or “insert correct furniture style here.” I use an “xx” each place I need to fix, so that I can find them easily using the word processor’s search function.
Many rounds of revision will follow. A first step might be finding places where you “tell” something instead of showing it (e.g., “Jack looked sad” might change to “Jack stared after Aurora, his eyes misty, his smile fading”). You might read your dialogue out loud and make it sound more natural, or remove adjectives and adverbs in favor of better nouns and verbs (e.g., “He walked slowly” might become “He trudged”).
This year, I found myself writing more carefully, trying to avoid some of the mistakes I’d made in the past that led to heavy revisions. The outline helped a lot—while I did incorporate new ideas during November, I didn’t get wildly off track, writing scenes that I’ll just have to cut. I also avoided writing “knowledge dumps” that would take the reader out of the story. Still, I have lots of work to do now, turning the draft into a book.
Last weekend I participated in a Local Author Book Fair at the Orange County Library. The organizer signed me up for a ten-minute slot reading from my work. I picked what I call the “Go Cow” scene of my bicycle journey memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere.
Why I Picked “Go Cow”
Stampede Park in Cody, Wyoming
I set the scene before beginning to read: Mary and I were two-thirds of the way through our cross-country bicycle trip and had stopped in Cody, Wyoming, the “Rodeo Capital of the World.” Of course we had to go to the rodeo. But I had never been to one, and I had some incorrect ideas about what it would be like. I pictured lassos flying and cowboys thundering around the arena, but not the tiny calves skittering across the dirt in terror.
So at first, we were disappointed by the violence and harsh treatment, and there were several rounds of “calf roping” to go before events like racing and bronco riding. But then, a child behind us started calling “Go cow!” We joined her, and cheered when a calf escaped the arena without being roped.
Calf roping at the Cody Nite Rodeo
I usually read this scene because (1) it is free-standing, not entwined with events that happened previously, (2) it doesn’t include too much internal drama, and (3) it’s somewhat funny, and I can use voices. But I also feel a little uncomfortable, thinking the scene doesn’t represent the book accurately, because much of the books *is* about the internal drama, that is, how being on the road helped me see the thought patterns that were keeping me down, so I could start to overcome them.
What Was Different This Time
I pictured this… (photo by Melissa Newkirk on Unsplash)
I describe the theme of the books as, “It is better to live in the present moment.” This theme manifests in many ways: not being stuck in the past, not worrying about the future, not being lost in daydreams. I realized that the Go Cow scene actually has a deeper point, related to this theme. It was my daydream about rodeos that led me to have expectations, and to form misconceptions about what the rodeo would be like, which led to disappointment when the reality didn’t match. I might have still disliked the rodeo, but I wouldn’t have been as disappointed if I had gone in with no expectations, just waiting to see what it was all about
…not this (photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)
This time when I introduced my memoir, I spent a little longer describing how I wrote it, before setting the scene for my reading. I described how a theme emerged that I wanted to share—the benefit of living in the present moment—and what this theme meant in my life. As I spoke about the theme, I saw audience members nodding along. Seeing that recognition on their faces gave me such a boost. I wanted to connect with people who might benefit from seeing my thought patterns exposed, by recognizing similar patterns in themselves. I felt happy that I had reached someone.
Rethinking My Audience
When Somewhere and Nowhere first came out, I tried to brainstorm as many audiences as I could: people who’d benefit from the theme was on top, but also bicyclists, people interested in traveling cross-country, maybe fans of other introspective travel books like Becoming Odyssa or Wild, or readers of books about outdoor adventure. But I never felt comfortable with all those audiences.
After the talk at the library, though, I thought, the one audience I do feel comfortable trying to reach is the original one: people who might benefit from reading my book, because they struggle with over-thinking and avoiding the present.
Then I started reading This Is Marketing by Seth Godin (Portfolio, 2018). It’s a modern take on marketing, which is no longer about advertising but about solving a problem for your audience. Godin describes finding your audience not as a demographic but as a “psychographic” (p. 28–29), and about the value of marketing to the “smallest viable market” (p. 31), which will ironically lead to growth.
The affirmation from an expert is just what I needed. I want to help solve a problem: people who’d like to be present and happier but struggle to change their mental patterns.
Those people are whom I wrote the book for. I’d be confident marketing it if I described it with that audience in mind. So I have some work to do rewriting my marketing materials!