5 Tips for Writing Better Settings

How much setting should we add to our stories? Is there a right or wrong answer? Or is it merely an individual decision based on personal preferences?

Obviously, different genres carry different expectations. Historicals need more setting details in order to help the reader “time travel” to the past. Science fiction or fantasy may require more elaborate descriptions so readers can visualize the new worlds. Often exotic locations need more fleshing out.

Really, anytime we’re writing about times and places that are unfamiliar to the majority of our readers, we’ll likely need to use more setting in order to help our readers “see” where they are.

But even within varying genres, how can authors tell when they’re getting the right amount of details? How much is too much, too little? How do we know when we’ve got just enough?

Too Much? We tend to include too much when we do an extensive amount of research on a particular subject and think we need to get it all in (either to make ourselves look smart or because it fascinates us). The overload will likely bore our readers or cause them to skim through our descriptions.

Too Little? Plot-driven writers often use too few details. We get so busy telling the story and moving it along that we forget to help our readers experience where they are. Having too little setting may also be the result of not doing enough specific research, thus causing us to over-generalize on too many details.

Just Enough? If a writer leans toward using too much, they may need to ask themselves—why am I adding this? To show off how much I know? Or for the reader and the sake of the story? If a writer leans toward too little description, they may need to ask—am I grounding the reader enough? What else can I add to breathe life into the setting?

It’s tough to get just enough. The middle ground is going to vary depending upon our styles and genres.

However, what are some steps all of us can take to write better settings, no matter our style or genre? Among the many, many things a writer could describe, WHAT should we focus on? Here are 5 techniques I use in writing settings:

1. Use setting details to set the mood.

Sometimes it helps to decide the general mood of the scene (like fear, sadness, joy, etc.) before writing it. Then we can pick a few setting details that will help highlight that particular feeling.

For example, recently I was planning a scary scene in my current work-in-progress (WIP). I brainstormed a list of various setting details that would enhance the scare-factor: the scurry of a rat, the clatter of branches, the stench of vomit, etc. Then as I wrote the scene I referred back to my list and tried to weave in some of those details.

2. Make sure to “see” the setting through the eyes of the POV character.

We HAVE to know our characters inside and out in order to play their role authentically (see these posts for ideas on fleshing out characters: How to Avoid Creating Plastic Characters & Creating Characters That Make Readers Cry ).

Once we’re in the point-of-view (POV) of a character for a particular scene, then we can only describe things that particular character would notice. My hero won’t care about the style and texture of my heroine’s dress, but he would notice the specific type of rifle the antagonist is holding.

3. Attempt to use all five senses throughout each scene.

We have an easier time adding in visual descriptions. But we can’t forget to bring our scenes alive through the use of textures, sounds, smells, and tastes. Maybe we can’t get ALL five senses onto every page. But as I write each scene, I make a conscious effort to find places to include as many as possible.

Thick, grainy coffee, the sizzle of frying pork, tangy tobacco smoke, the chill of floor boards against bare feet—all of these sensory details woven in a scene help the reader to sit in the room right next to our character.

4. Hone in on setting elements that are critical to the plot.

If possible, try to describe things that will somehow play a role in the plot. For example, in a recent scene I described a plate of slightly burnt molasses cookies on the dining room table. In the next chapter, the heroine uses the cookies in a daring plot move.

When we’re judicious with what we describe, it helps build suspense. Unconsciously readers will begin to expect that the elements we describe may come into play later.

5. Sprinkle in similes and metaphors.

I love similes and metaphors. They can be a beautiful writing technique when done sparingly and appropriately. We can weave in setting details through a well-placed simile.

For example, in a recent scene I say this: “Her pulse pattered with the same staccato as the icy-snow mixture that pelted the window.” (Through the simile, I’m cluing the reader into the weather—which is an important factor in the next scene.)

What is your biggest struggle with writing your settings? Do you use too much description? Too little? And if you’ve found a way to balance the details, what are some techniques you use?

What I’ve Learned From Judging Writing Contests

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been a judge for a national fiction-writers' contest for unpublished writers. It’s an incredible experience to be on the other side of the desk, doing the critiquing instead of being critiqued.

It’s never easy putting yourself out there. I can fully relate—I’ve had my share of brutal feedback from contest judges and editors. I know how much courage it takes to slide our stories under someone else’s magnifying glass.

I salute each participant for daring to open up, for being willing to take constructive criticism, and for wanting to grow. And . . . I thank contestants for giving me an opportunity to learn more. Each time I judge, I come away from the experience stronger.

Here are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned from judging various contests:

1. The first page speaks volumes.

With almost every entry, I was able to tell the skill of the writer from the first page. I looked at things like:

*Where does the writer start the story? Does the opening paragraph immediately draw me in, intrigue me, grip me? Anytime I read an entry that opens with the main character (MC) thinking, sitting and contemplating, going about ordinary life, or waiting, I’m usually not hooked. In most of these instances, the writer needed to cut to the crucial point the MC was thinking about or waiting for.

*How does the writer string words together? Are they smooth enough that I forget I’m reading? Or do I trip over awkward sentences that pull me out of the story? And no, I don’t nit-pick for adverbs or dialogue tags. I’m talking about the kind of smoothness that comes from lots of practice (kind of like a piano player who has moved from the clunkiness of first learning a piece to finally having it memorized.)

*Is the story conflict evident? Even if the writer opens in an intriguing spot, what does it tell me about the conflict? Does it relate?

*Does the writer tell me what’s going on or show me? And how well do they show me? Do they portray only what’s necessary? Or do they add in things that really have no relevance to the story?

2. Writers really do fall into “grades.”

As much as I like to view people as unique individuals and avoid categorizing, I’ve learned that writers really do fall into grades. (Randy Ingermanson came up with the freshman, sophomore, junior, senior idea).

While reading contest entries, I could easily spot freshman writers (beginners) and seniors (those who are getting ready for publication). It’s a little harder to distinguish between a sophomore and junior.

In the entries I've judged, the largest majority fall in the middle (sophomore and junior levels). What that means is those who are learning fiction-writing techniques are moving forward. With a little more effort and writing, they’ll graduate to the next level.

3. We have to learn how to give honest, positive feedback.

When we’re in critique mode it’s easy to focus on every little thing a fellow writer is doing wrong. And we forget to find the things they’re doing right. I’ve had to LEARN to consciously slow down and be on the lookout for the things I like.

They don’t have to be big things. But as I read through entries, I put balloons in the margins. My goal is to put as many positive balloons as negatives.

4. Not all skillfully written stories will make it to publication.

Unfortunately, even though some entries are very well-written, I realize not all of them will get published. There are just some topics, time periods, and settings that are not as popular among readers. Sometimes publishers aren’t willing to take the chance on them, even if the writer has fantastic story-telling abilities.

So while I hope those writers see success with their entries, I also encourage everyone to keep writing. Don’t get stuck on one book. Do the best you can with it. Then move on. Write another book and another.

If you’re a senior level writer, eventually you’ll write THE book that will help you break in. And then once you have an established readership, you can always pull out that other book, discuss it with your agent and publisher, and decide if readers are ready to take a chance on it. (I say all this from personal experience.)

So, what do you think? If you’ve ever judged a contest, what did you learn from it? And if you’ve ever entered a contest or thought about entering one, what worries you the most?

Where Should Authors Focus Their Limited Marketing Time?

None of us has unlimited time to market everywhere and do everything. If we did, we’d leave very little time for the most important thing: writing. So, where should we focus our limited time and energy? What will make the biggest impact? What’s the best way to reach out to our readers?

All authors must wrestle with these kinds of questions. And the answers will be different for each of us due to our unique strengths and abilities.

Many authors still put a lot of time and effort into “old” methods. And by old I’m talking about the things that worked twenty or even ten years ago—book-signings, speaking engagements at local clubs, radio interviews, passing out bookmarks around town, investing in fancy promotional items like refrigerator magnets, etc.

The old ways of marketing and meeting readers can still be beneficial. In fact, I’ve done all of the above. The old methods have some validity and we would be wise to make the most of opportunities as they arise.

However, in the digital age, we have to be willing to embrace new ways of relating to readers or be left behind. Sure, we can look at examples of well-established, best-selling writers and point out how they don’t tweet with readers or blog. But I’d venture to say that if they were having their debut today, they’d have to do things very differently.

As new authors in a new age, if we hope to connect with readers, if we hope to stand out, if we hope to launch a successful writing career, we have to take a look at what’s “new” and “hot” and find where we fit in and what we can utilize.

I like Eric Qualman’s Social Media Revolution Video because it gives us a big picture of trends within social media. Here are just a few statistics from his refreshed version:

Over 50% of the world’s population is under 30-years-old

96% of them have joined a social network

Facebook added over 200 million users in less than a year

60 millions status updates happen on Facebook daily

There are over 200,000,000 Blogs

34% of bloggers post opinions about products & brands

If you have four minutes to spare, his video is worth the watch. (If you watched this before, this is the refreshed version.)

While statistics are constantly changing, one thing is true—more and more people are hanging out on social media sites.

Since so many readers are online, it makes sense that we should be there too.

However, I’ve seen too many authors attempting to mesh the old and new, trying to use social media the same way as traditional marketing. If we’re going to focus our limited time online, then we have to learn to approach the new methods with a completely different mindset than the old.

Social media is about having conversations with people, dialogues. And traditional marketing is about advertising ourselves, monologues. For more on this topic, see my guest post at Marketing Tips for Authors: The New Method of Marketing: Having Conversations.

Social media marketing works best when we keep in mind three key strategies:

1. Connect: Readers want interactive experiences with authors. They don’t want authors who are untouchable divas living far away in fairy castles.

2. Respond: Readers don’t want a one-sided conversation. In fact, one blogger recently said this: “You respond to your readers through your blog and facebook which makes you seem more real, down to earth, and genuine, and I like that. It makes me want to get to know you and the type of stories you write.”

3. Maintain: Readers don’t want to see us just around the time of a book release, where we’re busy around cyberland for a couple of months and then mostly disappear until our next book comes out. Momentum builds when we stay visible and connected.

~My Summary: I admit, I’m not always the first to jump on board the bandwagon with new social media outlets. Sometimes I have to watch what others are doing and evaluate if it’s really worthwhile before I join in. But the point is, I’m willing to try new things.

As authors in the digital age, if we truly care about our readers, then we need to be willing to meet them where they’re at and relate to them in real ways.

Are you willing? And if so, what social media are you investing the most time and energy in? Where do you think is the best place to meet readers online? From a reader’s perspective, where do you like to link up with your favorite authors?

Backstory Problems & How to Overcome Them

Rarely does a good story-teller start chapter one on the day of the character’s birth and follow her chronologically through her childhood and life. Such a book would end up WAY too long. And we’d likely either fall asleep with boredom or toss the book aside and say, “Who cares?”

Instead, most writers find the incident that pushes our character into a series of dramatic and life-changing challenges. We want to plunge our reader into the story at a gripping point where they can say, “I care a whole lot!”

But what about all of the events that happen before the start of our stories? What do we do with all of it? How much do we include? And when?

Backstory is writer lingo for character history and story events that happen BEFORE the point our book starts. In other words, it’s everything that happened in the past that shaped our character’s personality and motivations into what they are when the book opens.

Multi-published author Kaye Dacus, out of curiosity asked me how I handle backstory: “How much do you like to know about your characters' backstories (and other story details) before you start that first chapter?”

Since I’m currently deeply immersed in the writing of my third contracted book, Kaye’s question is at the forefront of my mind. I’ll take a shot at answering the question. But please realize my process is just that, mine. We all have to land upon a system that works for our voice and style.

HOW MUCH backstory should writers know before starting chapter one?

My personal opinion: The more we know about our main characters (MCs), the better.

Why? When I get to know my MCs intimately before I start the story, then right from page one I’m able to jump into their characters and portray them uniquely and deeply.

I liken myself to an actor. Any actor can play their parts more authentically when they learn as much as they can about the tics, personality, and past of their characters. I use an extensive character worksheet. (I’ve made it available for free, so you’re welcome to print it out and use it for personal purposes.)

However . . . even though I strive to know all I can about my MCs before I start writing, I also give my characters the space to reveal more about themselves to me as the story progresses. Sometimes this kind of “revealing” will require me to go back during my editing and tweak the earlier chapters. For example in my current WIP, my hero didn’t reveal his expert knife-wielding ability to me until Chapter 4. Eventually, I’ll go back through the first few chapters to make sure I hint at this trait.

WHAT backstory should we include in the book?

My personal opinion: We usually need a lot less than we think we do.

Why? There’s very little backstory readers need to know to enjoy the story. I aspire to the iceberg philosophy. As an author I know the enormity of the past history and motivations. But it’s all under the water, the foundation and driving force of the story, but completely out of view of the reader. All they see is the very tip of the iceberg that floats on the surface.

If you’ve seen the movie Despicable Me, you’ll recall that we never learn the backstory of the three orphan girls that the evil Gru adopts. We don’t know how the trio came to be at the orphanage or what happened to their parents. It didn’t diminish the enjoyment of the story (especially for my junior high-aged kids who love slap-stick humor).

However . . . we don’t want to leave our readers feeling confused from a lack of information. When I add in backstory, I ask myself a couple questions: Does the information add to the plot? Will it help move the story along somehow? If not, then why am I putting it in?

WHEN should we reveal backstory?

My personal opinion: We should reveal very little in the first chapter and then weave it in carefully and gradually through the rest of the book.

Why? Readers want to jump into the present story, not the past (that’s often why prologues are unpopular). We want to draw readers into the current problem and resulting conflicts. Of course the past will have shaped MC’s goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC). But part of the fun of reading is discovering those GMCs as the story unfolds in tiny drops and small splashes (versus all in one dump).

However . . . if we wait too long to reveal past life-shaping events, we may alienate our readers from the character. We want our readers to know enough of the important past details so that they can empathize with our MCs.

Your turn! What’s your opinion? How much backstory is too much? What do you inlcude? And when do you add it in?

*Photo credit: Flickr missdarlene

My Writing Success:The ONE Thing That Helped Me Most

Over the course of my writing journey, I could point to any number of things that have helped me achieve publication with a major CBA publishing house and the subsequent successful debut of my book, The Preacher’s Bride.

Many years of hard work, five practice books now stuck in a closet, writing contests, feedback from critique partners, conferences, perseverance, patience, Providence. The list could go on and on.

And yet, if I had to narrow down one specific thing that has helped the most in my quest for publication, I’d have to say this: My careful, ongoing, and thorough study and practice of writing techniques has been the single most beneficial aspect of my writing career.

In other words, I read writing craft books, studied fiction-writing basics, and then put what I learned into practice. All the studying has been the number one thing to help me in my writing career.

I recently read a post by writer, Aimee Salter. She talked about how others had encouraged her to read books on fiction-writing techniques. At first she pushed aside their advice: “I'd really rather just keep writing and getting feedback and work it out on my own. Study and research of the craft seemed like a lot of hard work for dubiously unknown gain. I wanted to 'learn on the job' . . . I thought I'd spend a lot of time studying (dry, boring, uninspiring reading - *Yawn*) when I could be writing (creating, exploring, doing something I'm passionate about - *Cheer!*).”

Aimee goes on to conclude that after approximately two years of writing and rejections, she finally acted upon the counsel and started studying fiction-basics. “Really studying the craft gave me tools and expertise I couldn't have found any other way . . . In four months of study and rewriting . . . my book has come further than it did in the sixteen months prior.”

Interestingly, I’ve heard many writers voice the same opinion Aimee originally had—that studying about writing is stifling, boring, unnecessary, and a waste of time. That to get better all we really need to do is keep writing. I’ve repeatedly heard things like “writing ‘rules’ impede my creativity” or “writing is an art form of individualistic expression.” Such statements imply that if we study fiction-writing, we’ll lose the freedom to express ourselves.

But I can reiterate what Aimee finally came to realize: Nothing, and I do mean nothing, can replace learning and mastery of fiction-writing basics. When we learn the foundations of crafting memorable characters, cohesive plots, or page-turning conflict, we unleash our creativity and our passion. We give ourselves an even bigger canvass on which to paint with our words. And we’re able to utilize more tools and mediums to express ourselves.

So what can we do to push ourselves to study about writing, even when we don’t particularly want to?

1. Check out writing craft books from the library.

2. Watch for recommendations from other writers you respect. (For four books I highly recommend, see my sidebar.)

3. Narrow down the books that hone in on the things you need to work on the most.

4. After reading the most helpful books, buy them, if possible. Then you can mark them up and re-read them to refresh yourself.

5. Slowly build up your writing library (the above picture is one shelf of books I’ve collected over the years).

6. Take notes from the books on specific things you want to practice in your writing.

7. Then put those notes next to you as you write. Consciously work on implementing them.

8. Go slower until the new technique feels natural. Once it becomes second nature, you won’t even think about it, and your speed and flow will increase.

9. Between books or projects, go to the library again. Check out more fiction-writing books.

10. And start the learning process all over.

Believe it or not, I still go through the above ten steps every year. Yes, I check out technique books from my local library, read/skim through them, and take lots of notes. I usually do this when I’m between writing projects as a way to review and prepare myself for the next novel.

The conscious studying of the craft has been the MOST helpful thing to my writing career. And because I want to continue to be a better writer, I’ll keep on studying and learning.

What’s your opinion? Do you think fiction how-to books are a waste of time or a benefit? And if you’ve found them beneficial, what’s been the most helpful book you’ve read, one that really helped you forge ahead in your fiction-writing ability?

P.S. For more writing craft suggestions, check out Roni Loren’s post from last week: 9 Writer Woes and the Books to Cure Them.

4 Ways To Make Yourself Complete a Book

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen with newer writers is the difficulty in finishing a book. In fact, just last week I was chatting with a real life friend who got discouraged with her first book and gave up writing it.

It’s fairly normal for every writer at some point to push aside a book. Maybe life circumstances interfere with our writing, and by the time we get back to our book, we’ve lost the passion for it. Perhaps we start a book in a certain genre, but realize it’s not our thing. Or maybe we reach a point in our novels where we realize the story doesn’t work.

There are definitely valid reasons for abandoning books. Every writer needs to give themselves permission to do so. I have a couple unfinished novels in my closet. Putting aside a book doesn’t make us any less of a writer. Sometimes moving on is the best thing. We give ourselves the freedom to start fresh, apply what we’re learning, and keep the joy of writing alive.

But . . . (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) There are too many instances when writers STOP working on a book, and instead they need to persevere to the finish. More often than not, writers give up way too easily.

Boredom, discouragement, writer’s block, lack of time. We can give a hundred reasons why we’re not finishing the story, when in reality we need to stop making excuses and just get to work.

I didn’t offer my real-life friend any advice about finishing her novel. But if I had, here are four things I might have told her.

1. Have a weekly writing plan.

Writing whenever, wherever, and however is usually a recipe for NOT writing. If we want to complete a book, then we’ll have better success if we establish tangible writing goals.

Every time I start a new book, I look at how many months I want to spend on the first draft. For the book I’m currently writing, I require myself to write 1000 words/day 6 days a week. At that pace, I’ll be able to finish my 100,000 word book in 5 months by the end of May. Then I’ll take a month to get feedback from my critique partner and to self-edit before turning the draft in to my publisher.

Your plan will look different than mine. You might set 500 words/day as your goal (that was mine when I wrote The Preacher’s Bride). Maybe you’ll give yourself a weekly word count goal rather than daily. Perhaps you’ll decide you’d rather write a certain number of scenes or chapters per week. The point is, come up with a plan and stick to it.

2. Force yourself to write even when you don’t feel like it.

Yes, there are days when I don’t want to write. I’m busy. Or sick. Or just plain tired. But I force myself to sit down and type, even on those blah days. And I don’t pack up the laptop until I get in my daily quota.

“But,” you might protest, “doesn’t forcing yourself to write on blah days inhibit creativity? Won’t it affect the quality of the story?”

When I re-read what I’ve already written (and I just hit the half-way point), I can’t tell the bad days from the good. The story still flows because the constant use of my writing muscles keeps them strong and healthy.

3. When in a slump, add more conflict and tension to your story.

We should always be on the look-out for ways to keep the tension high. But when we hit a roadblock or get bored, we can make a special effort to add more conflict. I ask myself, “How can I make things worse for my main characters?” I brainstorm a list of ideas which ends up providing new inspiration for my story.

4. Sketch out a road map for how to move your story along.

Whether we’re a seat-of-the-pants writer or a plotter, there usually comes a point in every story where we need to sketch out a rough plan for how we’re going to finish getting to the end of the book.

Even though I’m plotter, I still need to take some time (usually at the three-quarter mark) where I look at my characters’ arcs and all of the plot lines to make sure everything is changing as needed. If we don’t take the time to assess where we’re going and how we’ll get there, we may back ourselves into a corner. Even worse, we’ll be left trying to wrap everything up in a chapter or two which could make the changes sound contrived.

Your turn! Do you have any uncompleted manuscripts sitting in a drawer? What were your reasons for not completing the book(s)? Were they valid? And what other advice would you give someone struggling to complete a book?

The Power of Peer Recommendations & Reviews

Do book recommendations from peers really make that much difference in our book-buying habits? What about blog or Amazon reviews?

I was recently chatting with my hairstylist about how she decides which books to buy and read. She said she doesn't pay attention to general advertisements about books. Instead she only looks at the reviews of people who've already read the book and bases her decision solely upon what readers are saying.

Her comment got me thinking about the power of reviews. Just this week I was buying swimsuits for my kids through Land's End, and I realized how easily swayed I was by the reviews for or against certain suits. I read them carefully and took them to heart.

Reviews and recommendations are a new powerful marketing tool in the online world. Most of us trust the word of mouth from other ordinary people like us. I recently ran across this statistic: 78% of consumers trust peer recommendations. Only 14% trust advertisements.

We look at the comments of other consumers, and then we make our purchases accordingly. It's true for everything from furniture to TV's, from comforters to curtains. And, yes, it's VERY true for books too.

Over the past months since the release of my book, many readers have contacted me testifying that they bought my book as a result of positive reviews or because of recommendations from friends. In fact recently, I had my first Skype session with a book club, Read 'n Rally (pictured above), as a direct result of peer influence.

Around the release of my debut book, blogger Lynn Simpson, began to see interviews and positive reviews on my book around cyberland. Because of what others were saying, she decided to buy the book when she saw it at a local bookstore in Canada. She said, “I eagerly picked it up. I wasn't disappointed. I was so taken with the book that I recommended my book club, Read 'n Rally, to choose it as our next month’s read.”

Based on Lynn’s recommendation, the group agreed to read The Preacher’s Bride. Thus, every single person in the group purchased a copy and read it.

Lynn contacted me via email to ask if I’d be willing to talk with her group—more specifically if I’d Skype with them. I was honored and thrilled with the request. So we arranged a time and date.

When the night of the interview came, I was nervous. After all, it’s been over three years since I researched The Preacher’s Bride. And it’s been about a year since I last read the book (when I went through my Galleys). I’m currently writing another book set in a completely different time period, so I hoped I would be able to recall everything and keep the facts straight.

Finally, the big moment arrived. We went live. I suddenly found myself facing a conference table of women. And I thought, “Oh wow. This is incredible. I get to meet real readers. I get to see their faces. I get to hear them share their thoughts and feelings about my book. What an awesome opportunity for any author.”

And it was. We spent about 45 minutes chatting. Fortunately, I was able to remember most things (it’s amazing how it all comes back!). They were incredibly kind and gracious. And I couldn’t have asked for a better first Skype. Thank you, ladies! And thank you to everyone who wrote positive reviews about my book that eventually led to the wonderful Skype experience!

3 quick lessons (among many) I learned from the experience:

1. Skype is an excellent tool for interacting with readers. I highly recommend it!

2. Influencers, interviews, and blog & Amazon reviews should play a key part in a writer's marketing strategy. Whenever a friend asks me how they can help promote my book, I always tell them they're welcome to write a blog review or a review for one of the major online bookstores. Those positive reviews can make a huge difference.

3. Because peer reviews have such a strong influence, we need to be wise with what we say. Not only that, but we should be honest. We don't want to mislead others. In fact, when we gush about books that don't deserve gushing, we might even put our own reputation and trustworthiness on the line. My policy is to use extreme tact or to remain silent about books that I can't positively recommend.

So what do you think? Have you ever been swayed into buying a book after reading a blog review or Amazon review? Which influences you more—peer recommendations or advertisements? And why? 

3 Ways Bloggers Can Attract Twitter Traffic

Twitter brings the most people to my blog. In fact, according to my statistics, Twitter draws the most traffic by FAR compared to any other incoming source.

As I mentioned in this post, Is Blogging on the Way Up or Down,Twitter is having an effect on the blogging world. And writers who aren’t joining in are missing out on an incredibly helpful social media tool. (If you need help getting started, I suggest you read Kristen Lamb’s blog for her Twitter Tuesday series or take a look at her book: We Are Not Alone: The Writer's Guide to Social Media.)

Here are three simple ways I’ve learned to make my blog THRIVE through the use of twitter:

1. Pick blog post TITLES carefully.

I cannot stress enough the importance of picking the right title. As writers, we all realize just how important the titles of our BOOKS are. The wrong title has the power to keep readers from picking it up and seeing the glory between the cover.

Same with our BLOG POSTS. The wrong title can be the kiss of death for even the most riveting of posts. In the busy online world, with thousands of blogs clamoring for attention, readers can’t physically read everything.

So in their limited time how do most readers decide what posts to read?

We look at the TITLE. When we see a new post in our google readers or dashboards, the TITLE (and sometimes the first few lines) must grab our attention in order for us to take the time to read it. This is especially true on Twitter. We have 140 characters and a very brief window to catch our follower’s attention before the tweet is out of sight and mind.

This is not the day and age for cutesy, creative titles. Rather, a title must clearly convey what the post is about, but in a way that says “You absolutely must read this post.” If you’re having trouble thinking of titles, keep an eye out for Twitter titles that catch your attention. Analyze them. Figure out what is catchy and magnetic about them. Then start shaping your own titles with great care.

2. LINK to your blog post and use HASHTAGS.

One of the great things about Twitter for writers is the ease of finding links to great blog posts. I usually tweet a link to my new posts, but try not to do so more than three times a day—once in the morning, once at mid-day, and then once later in the afternoon in order to hit different crowds. Sometimes I’ll try to reshape the title into a provocative question or a writer’s tip and include the link.

I also include hashtags each time I link to my blog. Common hashtags for writers include: #amwriting, #writers, #novels, #litchat, #writing, #publishing, etc. (For more tips, see Kristen Lamb’s recent post about how to use hashtags.) The hashtags have the potential to put our links in front of new people (other than just our followers).

3. Provide Quality CONTENT.

If we come up with catchy titles, tweet links to our blogs, and use hashtags, we’ll likely start attracting curious new readers. However, in order to keep those readers we need to give them a quality post.

In other words, when we “invite” all of twitterland to come to our blog, when we “tease” them with a title that promises a helpful post, then we need to deliver the goods. If they come to our post expecting a hearty meal but only get a skimpy snack (or crumbs), then we could be doing ourselves more harm than good by putting our blog link out there.

If we’re consistently providing helpful content, then people throughout twitterland will begin to trust us. They’ll be more willing to visit us again. And they may be willing to retweet our posts which will generate even more traffic.

There you have it! Those are three simple strategies I employ to mesh blogging and twitter. When you’re on twitter, how do you decide what links to follow? The title? The trustworthiness of the tweeter? The reputation of the blogger? Other? Or have you ever followed an interesting link only to find the post didn't deliver?

Is Blogging On the Way Up or Down?

Is blogging dying? Lately, I’ve read a couple of posts that have discussed this issue. At the same time, I’ve also read posts that claim the number of people blogging has increased.

So which is it—is blogging on the way up or down?

While no one really has a definitive answer to the question, I’ve begun pondering the issue for myself.

Here’s what I’ve finally decided: Yes, there are indeed some changes effecting blogging partly having to do with the growing popularity of Twitter. But I have also noticed that for many people blogging tends to be cyclical.

The Twitter Effect: As more and more bloggers have started using Twitter, we’ve found we can stay connected with each other in a faster, easier, and less time-consuming way. There’s a growing trend of leaving fewer comments on blogs, and instead retweeting posts that are helpful. There may even be a new trend of discussing posts on twitter (versus the comment section).

And while the Twitter Effect may have something to do with the changing nature of blogging, I also believe that the cyclical nature of blogging has more to do with the ebb and flow.

The Cyclical Blogging Effect:

New Phase: We start out blogging with lots of energy and excitement. We try to do all the right things—visit other blogs, leave comments, interact with those coming to our blogs. We’re having fun meeting new people. And we find incredible satisfaction in connecting with others through the written words of our posts.

Reality Phase: The newness fades. We realize coming up with interesting and creative posts is hard work, visiting all those other blogs is time-consuming, and growing our blog requires a lot of dedication. We may even struggle to find our blogging voice.

Cut-Back Phase: We’ve dedicated time and effort to our blog. But we see that other things (like our writing time or family) are suffering because of the energy we’re putting into our blog. We begin to question whether blogging is really going to help us develop a platform. So, we decide to post less frequently and concentrate on other things.

Burn-Out Phase: We’ve been blogging for a while. Perhaps we’ve made solid connections and the numbers of followers has steadily increased. But the pressure to keep going day after day is just wearing on us. Maybe we don’t feel like we have anything to say anymore. Perhaps we’ve even begun to feel like blogging is a weight around our necks pulling us under.

Longevity Phase: We’ve weathered the other phases. We’ve determined to put our heads down and keep blogging. In fact, we realize the longer we’ve been doing it, the easier it’s become to write our posts. We’ve lost our fear of having to be perfect. And we understand that our blog has become something bigger than ourselves.

One by one, bloggers drop out of blogging land. Some only make it through one or two of the phases. Others stick with it until they’re burned out. And even fewer hang around for the long haul.

How do certain bloggers make it through all the phases and end up blogging long term? That’s fodder for another post on another day.

Today, I want to go back to the question I raised at the beginning: Is blogging dying?

My conclusion: Within social media, things will always be changing. New forums will pop up. Old ones will pass away. As writers, we need to be flexible and savvy.

But I don’t think blogging is dying just yet. Rather, it's cyclical. Individual bloggers come and go. New blogs burst bright and flaming on the horizon just as others are fading away.

I miss the “old-timers” who used to haunt my blog, those who’ve fallen away. But I continually see fresh faces, new bloggers who are excited about what lies ahead. I'm convinced blogging is still a viable way for writers to build a platform.

What do you think? First, do you agree with my conclusions about the nature of blogging—that while it might be changing (due to Twitter), it’s not necessarily dying but rather a cyclical fading in and out? And secondly, what blogging phase are you in? (And you can make up your own if none of mine describes you!)

The New Growing Segment of the Reading Population: Writers

Most of my followers on various social media sites are fellow writers. I’m guessing that the majority of followers for most novelists are other writers. It’s difficult to pull in non-writing readers before publication. I’ve learned that it’s not easy after publication either.

The fact is, most writers online are socializing with other writers. And as we build our platforms, if you’re like me, you can’t help but ask: Is it worth the investment of time and energy to build a platform made primarily of other writers? More specifically, will those fellow writers BUY and READ my book once it’s published?

In my early days of blogging, I was somewhat skeptical—I didn’t think too many of my followers would be interested in reading my book. I'm sure a handful are avid historical romance readers, but I fully realize diversity exists among the writers who come to my blog. We all have different beliefs, styles, and preferences.

Thus, I decided that if only the history lovers among my followers read my book, I’d be happy with that. After all, social media provides so many other benefits—community, support, encouragement, and the snowball effect.

Now, six months after the release of The Preacher's Bride, my thoughts are changing. Here’s what I’ve begun to realize: Fellow writers are a growing segment of our reading population.

The largest chunk of my readers will likely always be women (middle-aged and older) who love inspirational historical romance. Most of them don’t have e-readers, some don’t even have computers (hence the reason I still get handwritten letters from some of them.)

But . . . I’m realizing I can’t discount my fellow writers as a segment of my readership too.

I’ve been humbled by the numbers of cyber friends that have connected with me in some form to let me know that they’ve read my book or given my book to family members. In fact, blogging friend, Lynn Simpson recommended The Preacher's Bride to her book club. They all read it. And just this week I chatted with the group via Skype. (To read Lynn's post about the Skype experience go here: Why Blogging Works.)

I haven’t kept track of the numbers of followers who've purchased my book, but they're much higher than I’d ever expected.

Here are several reasons why I think writers are growing into a larger slice of the readership pie.

1. There’s a HUGE population of writers.

Okay, so there aren’t any hard fast statistics to prove more writers exist now than at any other point in history. But when Writer’s Digest has over 140,000 Twitter followers, I have to assume that’s only a fraction of writers today. Surely there are still thousands and thousands who aren’t following WD on Twitter.

Since writers are usually avid readers, it stands to reason this enormous and growing segment of aspiring writers will comprise a large portion of people buying books.

2. The growth of social media makes the writing world smaller.

Writers can connect with other writers in ways we never could have dreamed ten years ago. Social media pulls writers together throughout the world into what has become an thriving online community of writers sharing information, advice, and yep—book recommendations. When writers generate buzz about books, it can have a powerful ripple effect among the writing community.

Thanks to fellow writers, people all over the world are reading my book—from Canada, Australia, Cyprus, Germany, to England, and more. Social media is the new word of mouth that connects the world together—and writers are playing a key role in promoting books.

3. Writers by and large want to support other writers.

Writers tend to ban together and support each other—and buy each other’s books. Part of this has to do with the fact that we all realize how much work it takes to write and edit a book. We know it takes even more work to pursue publication (whether traditional or self—both have their own unique hurdles). When we affirm the dreams of others, we keep the hope alive for ourselves.

The other part of supporting each other has to do with the fact that we usually reap what we sow. When we generously help and support other writers without asking for anything in return, then we’re likely to get blessed back more than we imagined.

~My Summary: Writers are becoming a population of readers that we would be wise not to discount. They may not make up the largest percentage of our readership, but they’re still an integral part, and perhaps a growing part in the success of a writer’s career.

What do you think? Do you agree that writers are a growing force of the reading population? Why or why not?

Is Getting Traditionally Published Just a Crapshoot?

Lately I’ve heard comments about how much tougher it’s becoming to get in with a traditional publisher. Here are just a few of the kinds of things I’ve heard in various places:

“Landing a book contract is harder to do these days. Publishers are more selective than ever and a lot of good talent gets passed over.”

“Trying to be published by a traditional publisher is very much a crapshoot. It all depends on your query being perfect and hitting the perfect agent on the perfect day, and the agent hitting the perfect editor on the perfect day.”

“When I read where others are in the process, part of me thinks there won't be room left for me when I'm finished.”

“Sometimes I feel that I'm being left behind. But not because of others succeeding, but by the fact that publishers aren't publishing as many books as they use to, so it feels like I have to come in at the right moment.”

These are all very valid and real concerns. Are publishers more selective than ever? Is landing an agent and book contract a matter of luck? Will there be room for all of the talented writers? If we don’t act now, will we lose out on our chance at getting in?

Yes, these are the kinds of worries many writers have. I remember having many of the same concerns fifteen years ago when I started my very first round of querying. And when I started querying my debut book, The Preacher’s Bride, in 2008 (almost four years ago) I was still worried. With so many talented writers, would there ever be room for me?

Our worries transcend time. Fifteen years ago, four years ago, today. Most writers experience the nagging anxiety about whether the doors of traditional publication will ever open for them.

The worry is normal. It’s part of the process.

But in an effort to alleviate some of the stress, let me take a shot at addressing a few of the concerns:

Are publishers are more selective than ever? Does a lot of good talent get passed over?

Publishers have to be selective. But they always have been. They’ve always had to carefully examine each manuscript they come across to decide if it will work for their house, if it will appeal to their target readers, if it’s commercially viable, and how the story and author voice fit with the others they already have in the line-up.

Maybe the slush piles have gotten bigger, which has made more work for agents and editors. However, industry professionals are still looking. And if they pass over talent, it’s probably because it wasn’t coupled with a saleable story. Story trumps all. And that hasn’t changed.

Does it all really depend on a query being perfect and hitting the perfect agent on the perfect day?

My query wasn’t perfect. Sure, I read agent guidelines, formatted my manuscript correctly, and did the very best I could to be professional. But my letter wouldn’t win the Pulitzer Prize of Query Letters. And I apparently didn’t hit my agent on the perfect day either. My manuscript sat in her slush pile for nine months before she finally got to it.

The road to publication doesn’t depend on lucky perfection. It depends on learning patience.

Will traditional publishers run out of room for debut authors? What if there’s not enough room for all the talented writers seeking publication?

With the growth of e-publication, e-readers and the decline of brick and mortar stores, it’s clear things are rapidly changing in the publishing industry. Obviously, we can’t predict the future to know how all of this will affect the choices publishers will need to make.

However, I agree with others who’ve said, “This is a great time in history to be a writer.” The social media revolution is giving writers more opportunities and possibilities than ever before.

While I’m no expert, I still hold out faith that those who are seeking traditional publication can eventually reach it. The reading public is always looking for gripping and well-told stories. And as long as readers keep buying, publishers will keep looking for writers, including fresh, new voices and talent.

I don’t consider myself to be a writing genius. I’m pretty much an ordinary person who worked really hard, learned a lot, and persevered over the years. I figure if I can do it, so can you.

Your turn! Have you ever felt any of these concerns about getting into traditional publication? What is (or was) your biggest worry?

Is Privacy Possible For Writers in the Digital Age?

Social media has flung open the door on our private lives. For writers moving toward publication and beyond, this phenomenon of sharing and baring ourselves to any and everyone, can be exciting and intimidating at the same time.

We’re thrilled to meet new friends, find support, and connect with readers. But we’re also afraid of facing rejection and misunderstanding. Maybe we’re even worried about safety for ourselves and our families—after all, criminals still troll the internet.

In striving to be public authors in a digital age, we can’t stick our heads in a hole and hide away. Most of us agree we need to be involved in social media. But do we necessarily need to fling the door wide open on our personal lives to build an online presence?

I’ll offer my opinion on a few questions I've recently received, but bear in mind, they’re only my opinions. I’d love for you to chime in with your thoughts.

Should writers use blogging as a form of public-journaling?

Yes and no. Yes, we should all strive to uniquely express ourselves through our blogs. Whatever focus we give our blogs, our posts will often resonate best with readers when we’re real, authentic, and open with both the joys and the pains of our experiences.

On the other hand, blogging is not private. Obviously anyone in the world can visit our blogs. And as professional writers who desire to use our blogs as a way to develop a platform, we’re not just writing our posts for ourselves. We’re writing with our readers in mind (the same way we are with our books). We need to give our readers something if we hope to keep them coming back. That won’t happen if all we do is ramble on about ourselves.

What should writers do if they’re shy or hesitant about sharing personally online?

By nature of the writing process, we already pour our most intimate thoughts on the page. Sure we can conceal those deep feelings within the folds of fiction. But when our books are made public, we’re revealing ourselves and making ourselves vulnerable.

If we’re seeking publication, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that we’re going public. Readers and reviewers will search us out (especially if they like our books). They’ll want to learn more about us.

In fact, Guardian had a recent article Engage With the Public or Fade into the Past: “There's a new generation of readers who crave an interactive experience with writers. Is it not enough to read and enjoy the book in private? Apparently not . . . If you don't engage with the social media, you'll get left behind."

We can learn to step out of our comfort zones, little by little. And as we get used to opening up before publication, we’ll be better prepared for the spotlight after.

How much should writers share? What should writers keep to themselves? How can we be “real” but maintain healthy boundaries?

The thing with social media is that we can portray an image or create an illusion of who we want people to believe we are. And it may or may not actually line up with the real person.

When we only open the door a crack and reveal small bits of information about ourselves, we risk alienating people. They may perceive us as unfriendly. If we share primarily the positives, we might come across as conceited. If we share mostly the negatives, we could earn a reputation as a complainer.

When we open up the door all the way and let everyone in to every minute detail of our lives, we may give too much information and risk turning people off with all of our problems.

However, we can strive to put ourselves somewhere in a balanced middle. We can try to be as real online as we are in person, but then set boundaries for how far we’re willing to open the door.Yes, we want to be authentic, but the public doesn’t need to know all the details about our personal and family lives. There are just some things that need to stay within the confines of our inner circles.

Your turn! I’d love to hear your thoughts! How much do you share online? What kinds of things do you think writers should keep to themselves? Are there any areas you think are taboo?

Enduring the Pain in the Quest for Publication

How much pain are you willing to suffer to get published traditionally?

I’ve been thinking a lot about pain lately, mainly because I’ve been in a lot of pain. I had a root canal a couple of weeks ago. The procedure itself went smoothly. After three shots of pain-killer, I didn’t feel a thing while the endodontist finished killing my tooth with long, needle-like instruments that looked like they came straight from medieval torture chambers.

In fact, I didn’t really feel all that much pain until a couple of days later. Then an infection set in, which is apparently common in about twenty percent of root canal patients (according to the receptionist at the office!). For days, my tooth was sensitive to the barest touch, my gums were raw, and my jaw ached.

I was miserable, especially whenever the Ibuprofen began to wear off. I ate a lot of soup, oatmeal, and of course brownie batter. And waited impatiently for the antibiotic to finally kick in.

Throughout the experience, I tried to remind myself, the pain would eventually get better and that I’d no longer have to worry about that pesky tooth that had been bothering me for so long. But let’s face it, when we’re in pain, nothing seems to help.

Sometimes the only thing we can do is hang on and just endure it.

We’re a part of a modern culture that has a low threshold for pain. We like to avoid any form of physical or emotional hardship or difficulty. In fact, we often go out of our way to circumvent painful experiences.

When it comes to traditional publication, at times, it may feel like the journey is filled with one root canal and subsequent infection after another. We know what’s coming—the long waits, the rejections, the stinging feedback. We’ve heard others talk about it, we brace ourselves for it, but then when it comes we’re unprepared for how much it really hurts.

I’m always saddened when I hear about a writer who gives up the quest for traditional publication because of the pain and the heartache they experience. It’s one thing to stop writing or to self-publish after carefully weighing the pros and cons, after deliberating what’s best for your particular manuscript and situation. But it’s another to get discouraged because of the hardships and just throw in the towel.

If you’ve decided that traditional publication is the right road for you, then here are three things to keep in mind regarding PAIN:

1. Remember PAIN is part of the process.

Most traditionally published authors experienced incredible pain to get where they’re at, years of writing, scores of rejections, tough criticism, and long waits. All of us would like to think we can beat the odds, that somehow we can bypass the filtering system (agents and editors) that eventually allows the cream to rise to the top.

But the vast majority of us (myself included), have to undergo the long, painful squeeze through the sieve.

2. Avoid letting PAIN fester into bitterness.

Sure we can complain about how dredge makes it through the filter and now sits on the shelf. We can grumble about how unfair the process appears and call the process a lottery in luck. We can even derail agents and editors as close-minded.

But the fact is, commercially viable, well-crafted stories are still in demand. Agents and publishers are still looking for talented writers. If you’ve worked hard to become the cream, you will eventually rise to the top and will get scooped up.

If we stay humble about our abilities and realistic about the process, then we’ll be less likely to let our pain fester into bitterness.

3. Realize PAIN helps us get better.

We can let the pain make us bitter, or we can let it push us to be better.

Olympic athletes, movie stars, famous musicians—all had to work hard to get to the top. No doubt they spent years and years perfecting their skills in order to finally get to a successful point. They’d be offended if we told them they only got where they’re at because of luck.

The fact is, the pain of hard work is still the main ingredient in becoming successful for any profession, including becoming a published author.

What pains have you faced in your quest for traditional publication? Are you willing to keep suffering to rise to the top? Are you letting the pain push you to become better? Or are you tempted to give up?
© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!