How To Avoid the Trap of Creating Unlikable Characters

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a writer has been HOW to make my heroes and heroines more likable. In hindsight, I can see that most of my rewrite issues have revolved around getting my main characters more likable.

As a result, lately, whenever I watch a movie or read a book, I’m extremely aware of the likability factor of main characters. I’ve grown incredibly sensitive to the issue, which is often the case when we’re learning to do something better.

I realize there's a wide spectrum of subjectivity when it comes to making characters likable. What one reader might think is unheroic and entirely disagreeable might not phase another reader. But no matter the subjectivity involved, I’m realizing our books will resonate best with readers if we give them main characters they can LOVE and RELATE to.

Yes, yes, “love” and “relate” are subjective. But my evolving opinion is that no matter what we write, we can cross the line and go too far, essentially alienating our readers from our characters.

How can we know if we’re crossing the line and making our main characters too unlikable? And what can we do to make sure we’re keeping our main characters likable enough?

I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments today, because the likability issue is still one I’m working on (as my critique partner and editors can attest to!). But here’s what I’ve learned so far:

How can we know if we’re crossing the line and making our main characters too unlikable?

We hear this writing mantra over and over: Add tension to every page, increase the conflict, and get our main characters (MCs) into trouble. In humble obedience to the rules of fiction, we try to heap mountains of problems upon our MCs. We do this externally in the form of villains, trauma, or drama. And we do it internally in the form of emotional struggles, character weaknesses, or relationship problems.

A story wouldn’t be a page-turner without the conflict to move it forward. However, at the beginning when we’re trying to establish the problems and the need for character growth, we may tip the scales too far.

Yes, our MCs need flaws, things they have to work through as the story progresses (aka character arc). But in the process of making our MCs imperfect, we can’t turn them into bitter, whiny, selfish, angry, mean, cold-hearted jerks.

I’ve learned that in making my MCs have real, everyday, human problems, I have to be careful not to shape them into the kind of people no one wants to hang around for 300 plus pages.

What then can we do to make sure we’re keeping our main characters likable enough?

Like most things in fiction, we’ll have to learn to find a balance. We don’t want perfect Pollyannas. Neither do we want boorish baboons.

When I think about the kinds of characters that really resonate, the ones I remember long after I close a book, the people I fall in love with—they usually have something noble about them. No matter their flaws, there’s a quality that makes me want to be like them. I look up to them and admire them.

Here are several traps we should avoid if we want to make our MCs likable enough:

1. Too many negative traits. Perhaps we’ve given a likable quality to our MC. But the mounds of negative traits overshadow that one tiny likable quality, drowning it out so that the reader can’t see it (I’ve been guilty of this!).

2. An unforgivable trait or action. We might have made our character likable, but then she does something (or several things) that the reader finds unforgivable, completely unlikable, and unredeemable. The event or action leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth and often they’re unable to resume their fullest love of our character after that. (I’ve been guilty of this too!)

3. Bringing out likable traits too late. Sometimes we wait until too late in the story to bring out the likability factor. We can’t have our MCs acting like spoiled brats until the end when they finally change. We need to have something heroic within our MCs that readers can love right from the start.

My Summary: It’s often very difficult for us to see how we’re portraying our characters. We have an image in our minds. But what comes out on paper, what readers see, isn’t the whole picture we envisioned.

When we’re getting objective feedback from our critique partners or editors, one of the things we should ask them is, “Do you like my main characters? Why or why not?” We should pay careful attention to their likability feedback.

Ultimately, we should ask ourselves, “What can I do to ensure that my hero is truly a hero.”

Your turn! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the likability factor. Have you had trouble making your MCs likable enough? Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where you absolutely loved the MC. Why? What did the writer do to help you fall in love? Or on the flip side, have you read a book where you couldn't fall in love with the MC? Why?

How Can We Possibly Connect With ALL Our Followers?

I recently had a post entitled Marketing 101: Loving & Taking Care of Our Readers. Overall, the post resonated with most people. We all appreciate genuine and kind relationships on social media sites, as opposed to feeling “used” by others to promote themselves and their books.

However, the post did generate a few responses like, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea in theory—to love and take care of your readers—but how in the world can you do that on a practical level?”

Betsy of @SevenEagles asked, “Just does one generously support over 1,200 followers? Are you able to personally connect with each one? Read all their blogs? Do you have a schedule you follow for when you pay them visits?"

Kristie Jackson asked, “Love the idea of connecting genuinely with readers and potential readers online. I just would love to know how people who do this well, do it without letting the social media part take over their life?”

The bottom line is that it IS hard to keep up with social media. It’s difficult no matter how many followers we have. But it gets more difficult as our web presence grows. If I were to even try to visit over 1200 blogs or chat with all my twitter followers, I’d have a new full time job. And I certainly wouldn’t have time for my writing—which is the most important aspect of my writing career (go figure!).

Here are a few things I’m learning about juggling social media relationships as my web presence grows:

1. As our presence grows, we won’t be able to keep up. And that’s normal.

When we first start blogging, we usually build our followings through reciprocal visiting and commenting on other blogs. That’s often the best way to meet people and find community. And we can do the same thing on Twitter. Get involved in writing communities. Meet and follow other writers.

However, as our followings grow, we won’t have the time to actively visit other blogs the same way. We won’t be able to read every tweet or comment when a friend says something on Facebook.

It’s normal (and even healthy) for writers to grow beyond their capacity. Agents and publishers like when writers are growing their followings. It tells them that the writer is doing something right.

2. Since building a brand is important, we shouldn’t limit our followings.

If we’re growing as we should be, we’ll likely reach a phase where we start to feel overwhelmed, like we can’t keep up with everyone. If we put the pressure on ourselves to keep doing what we did at first, we’ll get stressed.

Some writers take the approach of paring back their followers, limiting not only who they follow, even withdrawing from social media. But since numbers do matter (see this post: Why Are We So Obsessed With Our Numbers), we won’t be helping our efforts to pull back.

As we grow in our writing careers and build our readerships, we’ll always have more readers to meet. We won’t turn readers away simply because we have more than we can personally know or reach out to.

We can’t shut down because we’re overwhelmed. Instead, we need to get used to relating to new people in manageable ways.

3. We’ll have to look for ways to adjust our way of relating to others.

So, once we reach that place of being overwhelmed and unable to keep up the way we once did, what do we do (besides give up!)? How can we still genuinely care and connect with the followers we have? Is it even possible?

I believe it IS still possible to love and care for our readers and followers no matter how many we have. But we’ll need to do so on different levels:

Personal level: This is the level that takes the most time and will likely need the most adjusting. Maybe we won’t be able to respond to each blog comment anymore or reciprocate blog visits. But we can work to answer questions within blog posts or on twitter and respond to personal emails and messages. In other words, we can still be approachable and available.

Impersonal level: As we grow, we may have to address followers in a group effort. For example, I often answer individual questions in blog posts. That allows me to share my thoughts with everyone who may have a similar question. We can also support other bloggers when we retweet their links, shout out their good news, and help draw attention to their accomplishments. It might not be personal, but it’s supportive.

Professional level: Through our blogs and other articles, we can look for ways to give encouragement, support, knowledge, inspiration, and all of the things our readers need and appreciate. We can look for ways to bless our readers. Because ultimately it’s about them, not us.

What about you? Have you reached a point where you’ve been overwhelmed with trying to keep up with social media? Have you had to adjust your way of relating to others and if so, how?

What Happens After an Author Finishes a Book Contract?

About a week ago I finished writing the third book of my 3-book contract. The first book was The Preacher’s Bride (2010). The second book The Doctor’s Lady releases in three months (Sept. 1). And the third untitled book (the one I just finished) will release next year in 2012.

You may wonder why my third book has to wait so long for publication—possibly a year or more. And you may wonder what steps the book will go through now that I’m done writing it. And I'll bet you’re wondering (*wink!*) what I’ll be up to next now that I’m done with my contract.

Why does a book have to wait so long for publication? And what steps will a book go through once it’s turned in to a publisher?

The turn-around time from when an author finishes a book until when it hits shelves varies from publisher to publisher and project to project. However, it’s usually a lengthy process, often taking about a year.

When I finish self-editing Book 3 (including getting input from my critique partner), I’ll send it to my editors at Bethany House. I happen to have two—an acquisitions editor and a line-editor. They work together on all my books.

My editors will do an initial read-through of my manuscript. They’ll also ask several other in-house editors to read it, forming an initial reading team. This incredibly talented group of editors will take about a month to read my book. They’ll make individual notes and then compile their feedback. They’ll discuss big changes I’ll need to make (including character arc changes, plot development problems, and any other issues).

One of my editors will call me, and we’ll have a phone meeting to discuss all the things that I’ll need to “rewrite.” This call is always painful for me. It’s never easy to hear your story isn’t perfect and may need overhauls. But I have learned to trust my publisher’s advice. They have their pulse on what readers love. They know what sells. And they’re only trying to help me shape my book into something readers will enjoy.

Once I have my rewrites (aka substantive/macro edits), I’ll spend six to eight weeks working through the changes. Obviously, the amount of time this takes varies depending on how much is “wrong.” I’ve found this stage to be one of the most critical but also one of the hardest.

After I finish my rewrites, my editors will reread the entire manuscript, and possibly involve another team of readers (as they did on The Doctor’s Lady). They may give me more rewrites, although not quite as intensive. And once I go through the manuscript again, I’ll be finished with the hard work on my part. By this point a couple more months have elapsed.

Finally, my line-editor will begin going through the manuscript. She’ll spend approximately a month checking for accuracy of historical details, smoothing out awkward sentences, looking for repetition, and all the little things that need fixing. About this time, the cover is developed, the sales team begins selling the book to distributors, and marketing puts together the marketing plan.

Next the book heads to copy-editing with a completely different editor who looks for typos, grammar mistakes, punctuation, etc. I read the Galleys which is my last time to make changes. Then finally, another editor makes a last run through the manuscript.

Whew. Eventually, after all that, the book is ready for its first print run.

Did I mention the entire process is lengthy?

What happens after an author finishes his or her contract?

After an author finishes a contract, there are never any guarantees the publisher will automatically dole out another. Obviously, they’ll take into consideration how well books have sold. They hope to see an earn-out on advances and preferably a steady increase in sales with each book.

Since I’m off to a good start with sales and have proven myself to be a hardworking author, hopefully my publisher will want to continue our partnership. I’ll spend some time brainstorming future book ideas, dialog with my agent, and figure out where we both see my writing career heading. Then we can put together a proposal to give my publisher for another contract (hopefully for 3 more books).

But what if my publisher decides not to offer me another contract? Will we consider other publishers? What if we want to look for a better offer elsewhere?

These are all questions I’ll be dealing with over the next couple of months. As with anything in the writing industry, nothing is ever certain. And nothing is ever easy. But we keep going anyway because of the pure and simple love of writing.

So what do you think? Does anything about the length of the publication process surprise you? And now that I’ve shared my uncertainties, I’d love to hear yours. What uncertainties are you facing with your writing future?

*Photo Credit: flickr jayneandd

When You Feel Like a Nobody

The writing industry is huge. In 2009, over 1 million books were published (both traditionally and self-published). That means there are at least a million authors. If we added unpublished writers to that number, there could easily be two million writers in this world, if not more.

With so many books and writers, it’s easy to feel like we’re a fleck of dust.

Maybe our query sits in an agent slush pile with hundreds of other writers’ manuscripts. And we feel like we’re just another nameless, faceless writer trying to break in. Maybe we go to a writer’s conference and get lost in the crowd. Or maybe we’re on twitter and the clamor from everyone else drowns out our voice.

It’s easy to get discouraged and feel like a nobody. Perhaps we think publication is the answer. We look forward to the day when our name is on a cover, when our book hits shelves, and people everywhere finally see and hear us.

However, now that I’m published, I can honestly say, publication doesn’t change the problem of being a nobody. It just changes the location. Now instead of being an unknown in a slush pile, we’re an unknown in a bookstore.

On Amazon, readers likely won’t come across our book unless they’re specifically searching for it. If our book makes it into a brick-and-mortar store, a couple of copies will sit on the shelf amidst the stacks and stacks of other books.

The fact is, even published authors get lost in the crowd of other published authors. It’s a tough reality, especially for debut authors. Over the past months, I’ve had my share of concerns that The Preacher’s Bride was just another book lost in crowded bookstores.

Let’s face it. It’s hard to stand out. It’s hard to shake off obscurity and turn our name into a brand that people finally begin to recognize. Whether we’re published or not, none of us likes feeling like a nobody.

When I start to feel like a nobody, I usually give myself a mini-pep talk, which includes these four points in one form or another:

1. Lower our expectations.

Don’t expect overnight success. Remember it takes most writers many rejections and several books before landing on the break-in book. And I try to remind myself that it often takes published authors several books before they develop a strong readership, gain clout among the writing community, and start to sell more books.

2. Look for ways to do something different.

I’m constantly on the lookout for new and innovative marketing ideas. I’m not afraid to think beyond what’s currently being done. I try to evaluate what really works and what doesn’t. If I’m feeling particularly down about the obscurity of my book, I try to think of new things I can do to bring it back into the public eye.

3. Surround ourselves with writing friends.

As much as I respect my agent and in-house editors, they’re not my best friends. Sure they’re always available and incredibly supportive. But they’re busy people (with many other authors they work with). They don’t have time to hold my hand through each bump in the road.

The bottom line is that getting an agent or editor won’t solve our insecurities. We need other writer friends who will understand and empathize with our difficulties and share the burden with us.

4. Focus on writing an excellent book.

I tell myself the most important thing is to write an even better book the next time. I want to look for original story ideas, fresh twists, stronger characters, and find something that will resonate deeply with my readers.

In other words, we need to search for ways to make each story better than the last (and that includes published authors). We can’t settle for mediocre if we hope to eventually rise above others to the top.

My Summary: Whether published or not, it’s easy to feel like we’re just another name among many others. Insecurities will chase us, no matter where we’re at. We need to realize they’re normal. When they get too close, we need to shake them off. We can't let them slow us down. And we need to keep running the race hard.

With all of the other writers seeking publication, have you ever felt like just another name or face trying to get noticed? If you're published, have you struggled to make your book stand out among the millions of other books? When you start to feel like a nobody, what do you do to push past the insecurities?

Why Are We So Obsessed With Our Numbers?

Whether it’s the number of followers we have on our blogs or twitter, the number comments or retweets, or our Amazon rankings or Nielsen BookScan sales figures—we writers have the tendency to obsess over our numbers.

We can deny it all we want. We can claim that those numbers don’t matter, that we’re blogging for the pure joy of it, that we don’t ever notice how many twitter followers we have, or that we never pay attention to how well (or poorly) our books are selling.

But that would be a lie (at least for most of us). In all my travels around the cyberworld, I see people all the time who get excited when they hit a milestone number. I see tweets like, “Only 1 more follower until I reach 500. Who will it be?” Conversely, I see things like, “I’m stuck at 89. Why won’t more people follow me?”

Numbers matter to us. In fact, they usually matter a lot.

But why?

Whether we like it or not, numbers are a way to measure success.

Some may argue that success is defined by each individual, that what might constitute successful blogging or book publication to me might be different for you. You might derive success simply from the accomplishment of posting regularly and connecting with a few readers. Someone else might define success by actually completing a book and seeing it for sale on Amazon regardless of how well it does.

Yes, we’ll all define success differently.

However, no matter how we define success on a personal level, there’s still a broader definition of success on a professional level.

In the professional world, in most careers, success is measured in terms of numbers. Whether it’s a baseball player’s statistics or a student’s GPA or ACT scores, whether it’s the box office sales of a movie or how fast a runner completes the 100m dash, numbers are important. We’re conditioned by the world around us to pay attention to numbers as a measure of success.

And in the writing industry, numbers matter too. In fact, most decisions boil down to numbers. It’s simply a tangible way to measure how well something/someone is doing. My publisher wants to see a baseline number of sales from each of their authors. They keep a detailed report of my sales figures down to the exact number and penny sold. The numbers definitely have a bearing on the future of my career with my publisher.

Writers do indeed need to be conscious of numbers. As much as we’d like to stick our heads in the sand and pretend statistics don’t matter, we won’t help our careers if we dismiss them. But neither should we obsess. Instead, here are a few things we can do:

Move toward a balanced approach. I personally have found a balance that works for me. I check statistics from time to time just to see how things are going and if I’m on track. I keep a big picture view in mind, but I don’t pay attention to every single move up or down.

Maintain professionalism. Refrain from posting about our numbers—either negatively or positively. In other words, don’t boast or complain. Quiet dignity is often the best way to present ourselves publicly and professionally. Save the excitement or disappointment for our inner circle.

Motivate ourselves. Let the numbers (or lack thereof) help push us to look honestly at what we’re doing and whether it’s working the way we want it to. If our numbers are decreasing, what can we do to stop the downward spiral? If they’re stagnant, we can evaluate if we’ve reached our ceiling or whether there’s still more we can do to climb higher.

Make the people behind numbers the priority. Part of the reason we should refrain from talking about our numbers is because it makes the followers/readers we already have think they’re just another number in our quest to gain more. Behind every profile and number is a real person with real struggles. We should do our best to make our current followers feel valued.

Model early the attitude we want later. We can start early in our careers developing a healthy approach to watching our numbers, keeping an eye on them, learning from them, challenging ourselves with them—but not letting them control us. Hopefully the balanced attitude we develop will hold us in check later when we have even more numbers to worry about.

My Summary: We should all have our own personal definitions of what success looks like to us—and that may or may not involve numbers. But regardless of how we define success on a personal level, if we hope to have a professional writing career, then we have to accept that the professional definition does involve numbers, and usually lots of them.

My philosophy? Don’t sweat it. But be savvy.

Be honest! Do you pay attention to your numbers (followers, sales figures, etc.)? Why do you think so many writers obsess over their numbers? How do you keep a balanced approach?

10 Simple Ways to Support Authors You Love

Before I was published, I didn’t realize how much authors appreciated readers taking the time to publicly support them. In fact, I didn’t know my support was important. And even if I had known, I wouldn’t have had a clue what kinds of things would help my favorite authors the most.

But now that I’m on the other side of the fence, with one published book out and another hitting the shelves in four months, I realize just how much it means when readers take a little extra time to offer their public support.

Yes, THE best support is actually reading the author’s book. But, if you enjoyed the book, you’ll do the author a BIG favor by taking the support one step further. That one step can make a huge difference. A reader’s word-of-mouth promotion has an enormous influence on pushing a book even further into the public eye.

The support doesn’t have to require enormous effort (like a blog review/interview—although those are good too!). In fact, many of the most effective ways to show support require only a couple of minutes of time.

Here are some the short but sweet things readers have done for The Preacher’s Bride, things I would urge all of us to consider doing:

10 Simple Ways to Support Authors You Love:

1. Write a book review and post it on Amazon. If you’ve ever ordered on Amazon then you’re eligible to post a review. It’s very simple to do and incredibly helpful (if it’s a good review!). The Preacher’s Bride has garnered several #1 slots on Amazon’s Kindle store due to the positive ratings readers have taken the time to write. (SO THANK YOU to those who’ve done that already!)

[Side Note: If you’re a writer, use your author name when writing reviews. This can give your name extra exposure. For example, Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont, put the first review for The Preacher’s Bride on Amazon (and she did a fantastic job with the review!). Now her name and book are the first that people see when they visit the Amazon page for The Preacher's Bride.]

2. Copy and paste your review onto other online bookstores. There’s nothing wrong with copying your Amazon review and using it on other sites, like GoodReads, Shelfari, Barnes& or

3. Click the “Like” button on a book’s Amazon page. (If you're not sure what this is, head over to The Preacher's Bride Amazon page and you'll find it near the top.)

4. Click on the “Tags People Associate With This Product” on Amazon. If you scroll down on The Preacher’s Bride Amazon page, you’ll see approximately 32 tags. The more tags and the more clicks, the better a book will come up in search results.

5. Tweet about the book. Recently Pamela Trawick tweeted a noteworthy tweet about The Preacher’s Bride. In 140 characters she managed to capture the essence of her reading experience: The Preacher’s Bride is outstanding. Great tension, good pace, fabulous plot. Read it. (Thanks, Pamela, for a fantastic shout out about the book!)

6. Make a short comment of praise about the book on Facebook (or copy the one from Twitter). Twitter streams move quickly, and so tweets come and go. But on facebook, news has the ability to stick around a bit longer. Be sure to include the author’s name (when you use an @ in front of any name, it will make the comment show up your facebook wall and theirs).

7. Pass along the book to a friend or to family. And ask them to pass it along when they’re done.

8. Better yet, BUY the book as a gift for friends and family. For birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, or any other special occasion. Publishing houses keep track of every book sale. And each purchase is important to an author.

[Side note: If you win a book or get a free influencer copy, you can still buy a copy of the book and give away one copy as a blog prize or gift to someone. My critique partner, Keli Gwyn, purchased many copies of my book to use as giveaways.Thank you, Keli!]

9. Ask your local library to carry the book. First check if they have the book (you can usually look it up online). And if they don’t, next time you’re at your library, personally request the book.

10. Make an effort to pass on your love of the book. Somehow, someway tell someone how much you liked the book. Word-of-mouth is the best way to help support an author! The more times a person hears about or sees a book, the greater the chances that they'll pick it up and read it.

What are some other practical ways readers can help support authors? What have you done? Have you taken the time to publicly support a book or author you’ve liked? Or haven’t you given it much thought before now?

*A special THANK YOU to all those who’ve supported me in one way or another! Your help means SO much! I appreciate each and every effort!!

Dream Big. Work Fiercely.

I recently attended a local writer’s conference where I had the opportunity to mingle with writer friends I’ve met online. And I had the chance to meet some new writers.

As I walked into this particular one-day conference, a woman and her daughter approached me and introduced themselves to me. “My daughter was hoping you’d come so she could meet you.” The woman smiled at me. “She read your book and enjoyed it.”

I shook hands with the daughter, always excited to meet a new reader. At first I assumed the mom was the writer attending the conference and that she’d brought along her daughter for the fun of it. But I quickly realized that the daughter was the writer and that the mom was there for support.

As things turned out, I ended up sitting across the table from the mother-daughter pair, Chris and Amanda Barratt. During the course of the day, I was able to learn more about Amanda’s writing journey.

I was amazed to find out Amanda is 14 years old, writes 1000 words a day, has completed four novels, and has already begun to pitch her books at various major writing conferences. Not only has she begun to attend writer's conferences, but she also has a professional blog and has started interviewing published authors (and this week she interviewed me! Check it out here!)

The encounter with this amazing young woman was inspiring. I went home and told my older children about her, hoping I could encourage them in two simple things:

1. Don’t be afraid to dream big.

Dreams are free for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what your background is. Dreams have no boundaries. Most of us live in a time and place where we have the freedom to choose to be or do anything. Class, gender, race, money, even age—none of that matters anymore.

If we’re not dreaming big, it’s likely because we’re stopping ourselves rather than someone else holding us back. We could be hung up by fear of failure, laziness, lack of inspiration, or any number of personal inhibitions.

I asked my children to look at what they enjoy, the areas where they’re gifted, and the things they’re most passionate about. Then I challenged them to get excited about something, to pursue it with abandon, to think positively about accomplishing that particular aspiration.

I told them, “If Amanda Barratt at age 14 can start living out her dream of being a writer, you can start living out your dreams too.”

The lesson is true for all of us. Start dreaming big. Don’t put it off. We can begin living out our dreams today.

2. Be willing to work really hard.

Anyone can dream. That’s the easy part. But it takes infinitely more than wishful thinking to make our dreams come true.

Amanda is off to a great start at realizing her dream of becoming a published author. She’s not just sitting around talking about how she wants to become a writer someday, or how she’ll get more serious about it when she’s older, or how she’ll invest in her writing career when she’s more certain of her future. Instead, she’s pursuing it with all her might NOW.

We can have great intentions, but we have to follow them up with plain-and-simple hard work. That means we have to make plans, plot out our goals, and then do the daily work of getting from here to there—even when we wake up some days and feel like giving up on our dream.

The fact is, if a young 14 year old can write 1000 words a day and complete four books, then the rest of us have no excuses.

Absolutely no excuses whatsoever.

We need to stop complaining, stand up (or sit up!), and get to work.

Dream big, but work fiercely.

What do you think? Are you dreaming big enough? And are you working hard enough to make your dreams become reality? (Aren't you as inspired by Amanda as I am?!)

*Photo credit: flickr Heidi 0201

My Secrets to Successfully Growing My Social Media Followings

Let’s be honest. All of us want to increase our numbers to one degree or another. When our followings go up, we gain satisfaction in knowing we’re connecting with others, that people are reading what we’re saying, and that we’re potentially growing our platforms (which is becoming increasingly important for modern authors).

But how do we grow our followings on various social media sites?

Gina Conroy, founder of Writer...Interrupted, recently sent me this email: How did you build your online presence, and did it grow after your book was published? It seems all my efforts don't generate enough traffic and follows. I took a blogging hiatus . . . and now I'm trying to build my web presence again. I don't want to keep trying and fail. What things were most successful for you?

Gina asked a lot of great questions. I’m going to break them down into bite-size portions:

Does a writer’s following grow after a book is published?

From time to time I hear people say that one of the reasons I’ve been able to develop large followings is because I landed a popular agent and got a three book deal with a major publisher.

And while having an agent and published book may give credibility to my writing advice, it’s a MYTH to think that it’s helped increase my numbers. If getting a great agent and book deal make any difference, then logically you’d expect all of Rachelle Gardner’s clients to have large blog followings, which is not the case. And logically, you’d expect all published authors with multi-book deals to have popular blogs, which is also not the case.

Sure, there may be a tiny spike in followers any time we make a big announcement, especially with an agent like Rachelle who does a great job promoting her clients on Twitter and Facebook. But . . . if we’re sitting back and waiting for an agent or book deal to give us a boost, we’ll end up disappointed.

In this business, we can’t ride coattails or expect an easy way to success. If we want to grow our followings, we just have to buckle down and do the hard work to make it happen.

What if all your efforts to grow your traffic aren’t paying off?

At first we may see our followings steadily increase. But at some point we may reach a plateau, where we don’t feel like we’re going anywhere anymore. We’re continuing to put forth the effort, but we’re not seeing the growth we’d like.

How do we push past that flat line and continue to climb?

Well, first, anytime we come back from an extended blogging hiatus, we’ll likely need to start rebuilding our following from the ground up. A faithful few friends may return, but we’ll have to work hard to regain most of our followers.

Second, if we hit a plateau, then it’s time to re-evaluate our strategies. We’ve obviously reached our potential with the audience we have, and we need to look for ways to move out of our comfort zones, shake things up a bit, think outside of the box, and be innovative.

What are some of the most successful strategies I’ve used to steadily increase my followings?

1. Provide quality content. Make each post relevant and interesting.

2. Meet reader needs. Put readers’ needs above our own.

3. Be real and open. Share personally. Be vulnerable.

4. Value followers. Interact. Answer questions. Be available.

5. Reach out. Don’t be shy. Make new friends. Follow & support others generously.

6. Be consistent. Post regularly. Be reliable.

7. Interweave all social media sites. Link to posts on Twitter and Facebook. But support others generously (and yes I mention this particular point again because it's SO important!).

8. Give it time. Don’t expect overnight success. It takes months, even years to grow followings.

9. Persevere. Keep at it regularly. Work even through dry spells.

10. Work hard. Realize it’s not easy. It won’t ever be. It’ll always be hard work.

There you have it—the secrets of my success. The bottom line is that there really aren’t any secret formulas to success. Growing our followings is a combination of a lot of factors, the most important being slow, steady, hard work.

Just like anything in this business, from getting an agent to book contract to making a best seller list, nothing comes easy.

Have you been looking for an easy way to grow your followings? Or are you willing to do the hard work that’s needed? And if so, what are some other things you’ve found helpful in gaining more followers?

The Three Stages of Querying

Eileen Astels Watson asked this question: How can writers KNOW when they’ve reached a level in their writing to confidently start shopping their work?

In other words, how can writers know when they’re ready to begin querying?

As I was thinking about Eileen’s question, I realized writers generally go through three stages when it comes to querying:

1. The naïve beginner:

When I first began querying, I didn’t stop to think about whether my story or writing was ready. I just assumed that if I completed a book, the next step was to send it out and “shop” it.

At this stage, we often have an elevated perception of our writing skill. We’re usually only one step above those who say, “Such-and-such (popular) book stunk. I bet I could write something better.” We haven’t really learned yet that the process of writing a publishable book is infinitely harder than reading a book or throwing words on the screen.

We may even think (or secretly hope) we have enough talent that we’ll be able to bypass the masses of other writers seeking publication.

So, we blissfully send out those queries.

And then, we’re dismayed when rejections start rolling in. Some writers give up at this point. Others become bitter with traditional publication (blame the system or agents for the rejection). Those who persevere will graduate to the next querying stage: the rejected optimist.

2. The rejected optimist:

When we begin to get rejections, we finally realize our writing skill or story might not be as good as we thought. We wallow in the sting of rejection for a while, but eventually we stop our temper-tantrum, pull ourselves off the ground, and get to work.

We immerse ourselves in the industry, buy the writing craft books everyone is talking about, and we put concentrated effort into learning what it takes to create a story people will actually want to read.

Some of us (myself included), spend years at this level. We’re optimistic that we have what it takes to get published but know we need to keep working to get there. From time to time, we attempt a trial run to see if we’re getting closer (either by sending out another query or entering a contest). Or we may get into a critique partnership.

Finally, after feedback from objective sources, we start to feel our writing is nearing a publishable level, especially when we get a request for a manuscript or garner interest from industry professionals.

At this stage rejections grow incredibly painful and have the potential to derail us. Those writers who can survive the heartache move on to the next stage: the seasoned realist.

3. The seasoned realist:

As we persevere through the difficulties, we begin to view our work more critically. We start to ask, “Is it really worth it?” or “Will I ever see a pay-off for all the work I’m putting into my writing?”

And the biggest question plagues us: “Why am I not moving forward? What’s wrong with what I’m doing?”

When we reach this point, we may want to consider doing several things that can help us evaluate why we’re still facing rejections on our queries or manuscripts:

*Find a new critique partner. Critique relationships or groups can become enmeshed after a while. The members become too much like family and not objective enough. A fresh pair of eyes can often give us a more realistic view of our work and offer us new ideas.

*Hire a freelance editor. Consider sending a sample chapter to a freelance editor for an evaluation, especially if you’ve exhausted all other courses (critique partners, contest feedback, etc.). Usually, most editors will allow a “sample” edit before making a commitment to more.

*Take a look at the story itself. Just because a writer has nearly perfect writing skills doesn’t mean they’ve told a gripping story. Consider testing your story with beta readers (preferably true readers who are familiar with your genre). Provide a questionnaire so readers can give feedback anonymously.

*Evaluate the market. Make yourself an expert of your genre. Look at what’s selling, find comparables, and know where your work fits and also differs. If your book/voice is too similar to what’s out there, look for ways to be more unique. If your book/voice is too different, maybe publishers just aren’t quite ready to take a chance on it.

*Never get stuck on one book. Keep writing. If consistent, multiple sources confirm your work is of publishable quality, you may still need to land upon the break-in book, the one that finally hooks the attention of publishing professionals.

So back to Eileen’s question. How can writers KNOW if their work is ready to shop?

My answer: I don’t think there is ONE right or EASY answer. I don’t encourage writers to jump into querying too soon. There’s no hurry. And you may save yourself a lot of pain if you do the growing and learning first.

No matter what stage you’re in, determine to make your book the best it can possibly be.

What do you think? What query stage are you in (and you can make up your own if you don’t fit my stages)? And how do you think writers can know if their work is ready to query?
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