What Henry Ford Knew About Writing Books

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Henry Ford is one of the most well-known American innovators. He’s the guy who brought mass production to the “horseless carriages”–that is, cars–we zoom around in today.

So what does Ford have to do with writing?

There’s a famous quote that, while having an unclear origin, largely is attributed to Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’.” The basic idea behind the quote is that, while customer input might be important, real innovation often means ignoring them, realizing a concept, and then seeing what the reaction of the public is.

Let’s think about this quote in relation to the traditional publishing industry. Generally speaking, publishers accept new books based on what they predict will sell well. But those predictions largely are based on past sales. So if, for instance, a publisher sees that they sold 5 percent more romances this year than last year, then they’ll assume readers want romances and buy more romance manuscripts.

But what if readers would go gaga for mysteries–or any other type of book–and they just don’t know it? What if they just need a chance, after eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for a year, to take a bite of ham and cheese?

The readers might think the ham and cheese is pretty da-n delicious, that’s what.

This, to me, is one of the main flaws within the traditional publishing industry. The assumption is that readers want only more of what they’ve been exposed to, and that’s not necessarily true. In fact, most readers I know are huge advocates of all kinds of stories. They are willing to give just about anything a shot, so long as it is engaging.

As writers, it’s important to recognize this flaw because, if you write the ham and cheese of the book world, you’re gonna have a bunch of people point to all the jars of peanut butter and jelly and tell you you’re nuts. And then it’s very easy to lose heart and stop querying your story in the mistaken belief that nobody would read it, let alone adore or recommend it to someone else.

The world doesn’t need more peanut butter and jelly to gag on. The world needs something to bring some zing. To get us out of the rut and help us discover who we are.

Will writers who follow a script about what’s selling make money? Maybe. The numbers publishers throw out aren’t made up, after all. But unless they innovate like Ford and deliver books the people didn’t even know they wanted, they’re not going to be remembered for being very original. And if I had to choose between being rich and being understood as having my own voice, I’ll take the latter every time.

5 Things You Should Be Doing to Build a Platform as a Writer

A “platform” as a writer refers to the channels you use to engage with your audience. The more channels you use and the more people you engage with regularly, the bigger your platform is. So as a writer, you want to create a platform that is as large as possible so you have a great reach to lots of readers. To build that platform, here’s what to do:

1. Create your author website/blog.

This gives you a place to drop pieces of your writing so you can direct people to a portfolio. It also offers the opportunity to interact with readers through comments, polls, giveaways, or other fun events. Just about every publisher, agent, or editor will want you to have a website if you start pitching, so you might as well get it established early so you can show good history and activity.

But one of the most important parts of having your site/blog is the ability to build an email list. Putting a simple subscribe button on the site and linking it to a reliable email subscriber service (e.g. AWeber) means that you can contact your readers or followers any time you have something to announce. You also can send convenient newsletters and include social media buttons so people can follow you on those accounts.

2. Interact on social media.

This isn’t just logging in and dropping links to your blog posts. It means going in and posting things that show readers who you are and what you are up to in a transparent and authentic way. Find some good writing groups to join and post on their pages. Share links that might be helpful, such as an upcoming book sale on an online site, a book-to-movie trailer or a great video about storytelling. Share fan art or ask what people think about different books, conferences, or techniques.

The basic rule here is that, although it is OK to throw in a little self-promotion, always do it in a way that makes the value to your reader clear. Don’t only self-promote, because nobody likes to be sold to all the time. Focus on creating a relationship with people and they will read you by default. Make sure that you choose your groups selectively, as well, because the reality is you are going to do better checking into a handful of pages consistently than signing up for a bunch you never have time to go to.

3. Talk to people.

This might mean going to a conference or attending a group at your library. But it also means reaching out to other writers and professionals in the industry to share resources and gratitude. Once you have a little bit of a connection going, then you can ask for mutual favors, such as referrals, beta reading, or an introduction.

4. Publish cross-platform.

Ever hear that old saying, work smarter, not harder? As a writer, that means repurposing content across different channels. For instance, sites like Medium typically allow you to repost your pieces on other sites after a certain period of time. You simply copy some or all of the content into the new platform and include a little blurb about where it first appeared, along with a link to the original version. The only caveat is that you need to do some minor tweaks, such as swapping out your headline, so that Google doesn’t see the new post as an exact copy and drop the page in search results. Don’t worry too much about the duplication, though, because a lot of your new readers will discover your content through the specific channel’s main pages, feeds, or search features. Others will already be following you and thus will have opted in to see when you post something new.

Remember, too, that cross-platform doesn’t mean only writing-based activity. Lots of writers, for example, now have podcasts where they read pieces verbatim or discuss their original content on the fly. The same is true for video sites like Youtube or doing livestreams. It is a terrific way to expose completely new audiences to the same ideas and concepts and bring them into your community, AND it can allow you to reach people who have specific difficulties such as visual impairment.

5. Be a guest speaker.

You don’t have to get up in front of hundreds of people here, although you certainly can if that invigorates you. Options like webinars, podcasts, or hosting a workshop at your local library all are good opportunities to show others your expertise as a writer. The key is that you have to let others know you are available! Don’t be afraid to ask if people can use you, and be confident in yourself enough to sell your strengths and experiences well.

Platform building takes real effort. There’s no beating around the bush about that. But if you create real strategies around the points above (e.g., scheduling 20 minutes a day to interact with the social media groups you sign up for, aiming to cold email one person or organization every day), then slowly but surely, the foundation solidifies. Be patient, show your grit, and never put down your tools.

Querying? Here’s How to Speed Up the Process

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Regardless of whether you’re sending off a short 300-word article or a novel, querying is a major part of a writer’s life. The trouble is, it can take an ungodly amount of time if you don’t create and use a strategy. Here’s what you can do to speed things along and get good results.

1. Create a drafts folder in your email.

For every piece you have, create a query letter in your email. Place the drafts in a separate folder that is clearly labeled, and unless the submission guidelines state otherwise, place “[query–[Last Name]–Title of Piece] in the subject line. The only blank areas should be the recipient’s name and the date. This allows you to search for the draft within your email client, and when you send it out and get responses back, you can see at a glance which submission you’re getting messages about.

Once you have your query drafts, when you find a publication, editor, or agent you want to send it to, copy the text into a fresh email. Then fill in the name and date details and add any information you can to personalize it, such as similar titles the publication has run.

2. Set up auto-reminders.

Tasks like sending follow-up emails or noting that an agent is past their typical response time can be difficult to keep track of. Use a system like Query Tracker or even Google Docs to set reminders about each task. This way, you don’t have to spend extra time double-checking whether you’re up-to-date–you can just follow your reminders as you go and get ‘er done.

3. Use color coding.

If you’re tracking everything in a spreadsheet, color coding will allow you to quickly sort your rows and columns by the status of the query, type of query (e.g., fiction), or other factors.

4. Summarize guidelines. 

For every publisher, agent, or editor you want to submit to, create a spreadsheet row with all pertinent information you’d need to submit, such as the agent’s name or the query email address. Include a cell in this summary row with a link to the submission guidelines for later reference. Then, in a final cell, list all of the pieces you plan to submit to that publisher, editor, or agent. This way, you don’t spend time looking up website URLs again, and you quickly can cross off agents, publishers, or editors for each piece after a query is finished.

5. Schedule time.

Many writers query whenever they have a moment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But scheduling time in advance allows you to get in the frame of mind to work with real focus, and you can set yourself up to work when you know you’ll have quiet or won’t get interrupted. It also makes it less likely that you’ll push the querying to the back burner, as it’s an official calendar event.

Remember, no matter what hacks you use to make querying go a little faster, it’s still a process that’s going to take a few months at a minimum. Most publishers, agents, and editors have a standard response time of eight to 12 weeks, although some will respond in two to four weeks. So no matter how many queries you can get out, you’ll have waiting to do. Since you’re going to have time on your hands, my advice is always to have multiple irons in the fire. Work in batches, tweak based on the feedback you get, and then try again.

How to Write a Solid Article Introduction Using AMAP

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Web and magazine articles are some of the most consumed content in the modern age. But what happens if your intro paragraph stinks? Because of the sheer quantity of pieces out there, if your introduction is subpar, readers will ditch you fast. To rise above the noise, for most articles, you need to hook people right away with attention-getter, motivator, assertion, and preview sentences (AMAP).

The four parts of the intro, defined

Your attention-getter is your introduction’s hook. It can take a lot of forms. Stats, sayings/quotes, facts, or descriptions all work, so think about your audience and how they tend to think or work.

Your motivator explains the attention-getter or gives the reader a reason to listen. It can identify the source of a quote to offer authority, for example, or it can provide a curiosity gap. The best motivators show direct relevance between the hook and the reader’s needs, wants, or interests.

The assertion is your thesis. This is where you make the claim or overall point for the article.

The preview summarizes what you’re going to cover in the article to support the thesis. The trick is to do this in a way that leaves some room for a little header variety. Otherwise, you just sound like you’re repeating yourself.

The example right in front of you

If you go back and look at the introduction for this post, it follows the AMAP strategy. I start with a fact, build a little curiosity with a question, assert that readers will leave without a good intro, and then outline AMAP.

Storytelling and other uses

Unless you’ve been under a rock, then you know that the best writing emphasizes great storytelling. People want to connect and empathize as they read. That’s what pulls them in. Although AMAP is meant more for straightforward pieces, such as how-tos or explainers, you still can use it with great artistry. Here’s a sample I whipped up:

When the dry season came, the water ran out. I tried not to show fear, but my mind could not help think about whether the drought would devour us. Unless we walked to the camp more than 100 miles away, we would not make it. What water was left in the river was too dirty, there was no way to grow food for our bellies, and the sky was an endless blaze of light.

So don’t think for a minute that you can’t apply this format to a great short story or even a novel. You can. With a little tweaking, it even can get you started on a query or promotional blurb/excerpt (e.g., When the dry season came to Yanta’s village…can they overcome the dirty river, food shortage, and blazing sky to reach the camp 100 miles away?). Because remember, you’re just catching the reader’s attention, making your point, and summarizing.

When to leave AMAP behind

AMAP doesn’t apply as well to more journalistic/news pieces, which jump right into the events/facts. It also isn’t the best choice if you’re directly transcribing an interview–that just needs a single sentence saying what the transcription covers, who was involved, and when the discussion happened.

Another consideration is editorial preference/style. Some publications or sites always want their pieces to follow a specific feel or format. They might say, for example, to use quotes only in the main body of the article, or they might favor a format where there are only one or two sentences to begin. Always review pieces that already are up or in print to decide if AMAP will work.

Variety is valuable, but for a quick start, AMAP has incredible strength

AMAP is a specific method for approaching introductory paragraphs. It’s ideal for articles, but it’s applicable to other purposes, too. Even though I don’t recommend using it every single time because of the value of variety, it’s a powerful technique to have in your writing arsenal. Pull it out when you need to get started on pieces quickly and a little templating makes sense to get yourself moving.

Adult Books Should Have Pictures, Too. Here’s Why

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The progression is a familiar one–as you move up in years, you move down in the number of pictures your books have.

Right?!

This is the way it is, but it isn’t the way it should be.

Reading as a multi-sensory experience

Part of the fun of reading is that your brain can take whatever is on the page and make its own movie for it. You can picture the characters and events as you go along in your own personalized way.

But as any marketer will tell you, experiences are not based on just one sense. We see, taste, smell, touch and taste in incredibly integrated ways, all of which influence our perception and memory. And there is a strong bi-directional connection between linguistics and visual perception–that is, what we see influences our language, and language influences how we view the world.

What’s more, we process visual images incredibly fast–up to 60,000 times faster than text! And 90 percent of all information that comes into the brain is images. So we’re visual by nature and are primed to work with images more than anything else.

By giving at least a small number of images to your reader, you can provide a more complete experience. You can confirm and clarify what you had intended in a way that might make what you write easier to remember and enjoy.

Think about book covers. We all know we’re not supposed to judge a story by those things, but let’s face it. We do. The image conveys something. It often summarizes the entire mood or plot of the story. It can allow us to see at a glance who the main characters are, where they are set and how they interact. In the ever-increasing sea of books on physical and digital shelves, it’s an image that initially catches our eye and prompts us to read back-cover summaries and reviews.

Another great example is movie novelizations. These often do include images from the film. When we see those images, we end up replaying the scene we’ve seen. We hear the music and dialogue again and remember the taste of the popcorn we ate.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every book become a like a preschooler’s picture book. You want to leave room for the reader to still imagine. And graphic novels are a category all their own. There’s also the practical fact that images take up more digital space and are more expensive to print. I’m simply saying that images can enhance what you write and give you another, incredibly efficient way to create a more memorable, connected experience for your reader. That generally will appeal to most people, but it might be especially important for certain groups, such as those with different types of processing disorders.

Real life examples of putting in the pictures

So how might you actually use this in your work?

One option might be to use an image as a header for each section or chapter. Like the book cover, this approach could summarize what the reader is about to encounter.

You also could sprinkle images throughout the book based on key plot points you want to stress. These plot points should be easy to identify within your outline (if you use one) or summary pitch.

But…but…no one is doing this, you say.

Oh, ho, ho, yes they are. 

For starters, consider the scrapbook. These aren’t necessarily published, but they’re collections intended to integrate text, photos and even 3D mementos (e.g., the feather found on a hike) to help people remember what they loved or went through.

Cookbooks also have leaned on visual representations for decades. And there are a growing number of books in this category that aren’t simply recipes. Labeled as “story cookbooks“, they have personal or cultural accounts, and the recipes are simply highlights. 

Another great example of how images can enhance a book is the Bible. An edition from Alabaster takes each book of scripture (e.g., Psalms) and presents them as an individual volume. The volumes feature beautiful, full-page images that are intended to complement the text. This is different than editions of the Bible told in graphic novel form. It’s notable because people consistently identify this mammoth text as hard to stomach. The images are an intentional way to make the text more accessible and break it up so that people are more willing to engage with the scriptures.

Your story, your unique image approach

So books for adults that have pictures absolutely have a market and can do exceptionally well. But there’s no “formula”. Depending on your format or intent, you might have a very different style or number of pictures compared to someone else.

So just think about what you’re trying to get across. If an image is going to enhance that, pop one in. If it’s not, skip it. But at least consider that the modern book can be a multi-sensory experience where images serve multiple functions, and that letters don’t have to be the only way you communicate.

 

How Sunk Cost Keeps You Reading (and Writing) Bad Books

 

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For a lot of jobs, once you reach a certain point, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to stop. Whatever you’ve already invested demands that you keep going, or else you’ll probably end up taking some kind of loss.

This is known as sunk cost. And unfortunately, it doesn’t just apply to work. It applies to your reading list, too. It easily can keep bad books in your hands.

What basically happens is, you pick up a book, get a little way into it, and realize that it’s just not lighting any fireworks for you. But whatever the issue might be (e.g., poorly developed characters), you look at how many pages you’ve finished or the amount of time you’ve already committed, and you think that you’ll somehow be in the hole if you don’t keep going until the last page.

Or, let me rephrase–sunk cost just keeps you reading bad books.

Of course, sunk cost applies to writers as they create, too. You might feel so invested in a concept, for example, that you keep trying to finish it no matter how many truly unfixable flaws the book has. This issue can get worse over time, because the book can get wrapped up in your entire identity and self-concept as a writer–if you don’t finish, you think, then you’re not serious enough or have to let go of something meaningful for you.

3 horrible consequences of sunk cost in reading and writing

It’s bad enough that sunk cost related to reading robs you of your immediate joy. But an equally insufferable problem is that, because you commit your time to the bad book, you’re locked out of other good ones. And that’s an incredible disservice to the writers who really deserve to be discovered and enjoyed.

This issue has been around practically since books first became mainstream. But I think it’s gotten worse with the growth of self-publishing. Don’t misunderstand here–I think self-publishing can be a beautiful thing and put power back in the hands of writers where it belongs. But because it is so easy, there also are plenty of people putting out content that’s mediocre at best. So readers have more opportunities and options, but the noise is louder, and it can be harder to figure out which writers are worth a risk.

On the writer side, if you can’t let go of a bad concept that you’ve transferred onto your sense of skill or who you are, then you might never move forward to ideas that honestly are better and have more potential of bringing income and fame. You can deliver an inaccurate representation of what your best is, and as a result, struggle to be taken seriously.

How readers and writers both work against the problem

If you’re a reader, then combat sunk cost with three basic strategies:

  • Read reviews–lots of them. No matter what you’ve been hearing about the book through the grapevine overall, get a balance of the 5 and 1 star ratings. This will help you feel like it’s OK to go against the grain of the popular opinion if needed.
  • Scan the table of contents to make sure that the entire book truly covers what you need or are interested in, or scan a few pages or paragraphs from different spots within the text to get a basic sense of the writer’s voice and delivery.
  • Set a test boundary you can apply consistently to any text. For example, if you’re not sucked into the book in x pages or minutes, then you’ll put it back on the shelf.

And if you’re a writer, lean on these tips to improve your manuscripts:

  • Use beta readers through your entire writing process. There always will be outlier opinions, sure, but feedback can help eliminate most of the issues that disappoint readers long before your final copy is available, and you often can apply what you learn to your next book.
  • Advertise transparently. It’s tempting to try to pigeonhole your work into a neat box you know buyers respond to, but if you are absolutely clear what the book is for or about, readers are more likely to feel confident in the selection. Bait and switches don’t earn you any long-term loyalty or referrals.
  • Throw quantity out the window. This means that a book takes however long it takes to get right, and that you don’t try to quantify success by how many titles you’re cranking out. Being prolific is not necessarily synonymous with being a truly great storyteller.
  • Hone your elevator pitch. Regardless of whether you like to outline everything down to the paragraph or fly by the seat of your pants, if you can’t pinpoint the key message of your book in one to three sentences, then you’re just not ready to write it. Period. And remember, the pitch is a summary. It is NOT a wistful or idealistic expression of your intent for the text (e.g., “I want readers to feel”; “I want to create a book that…”).

As a reader, you have more books at your disposal than you ever could finish in a lifetime. But life is too short to spend it committed to bad ones. Don’t let sunk cost make the experience of reading suck. And if you’re a writer, work hard to make sure that readers are sticking with you because you’ve done something exceptional, not because they feel like it’s too late to turn back. The easier it is for you to toss ho-hum or unworkable ideas in the trash, the more you’ll create work that’s truly awe-inspiring.

Why Classifying Books According to Genre Needs to Die

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If you go to agent or publisher websites, a common call is for writers to create something entirely fresh, something that doesn’t fit the usual molds. But even with those statements, I’m not entirely convinced that the publishing world or general public has abandoned genre classifications as much as agencies and houses would have people believe.

For starters, bookstores, websites and libraries still label books based on traditional genres to make it easier for people to find what they are looking for. And if you query as an author through tools like QueryTracker or other online forms, the tool almost always require you to smoosh your book into a category. Agents and publishers also want to know what genre you’re working with and show that you understand how your book fits that target niche or compares to previously published works. They expect a summary for that in query letters and proposals, and most of them are very clear on the site which genres they do or do not work with.

I absolutely understand the need for a system of organization. But what if, for example, I have a mystery set in an earlier period, something a la Enola Holmes? Is that a mystery or a historical? What if I have a love story set in outer space? Is that science fiction or romance? Or what about books that challenge social conceptions or time? The recently released “Bridgerton” on Netflix, for example, is based on Julia Quinn’s novels, but since it is an intentionally contemporary spin on the 1800s era, is it too inaccurate to be a regency anymore?

Some books do fit very neatly into categories. But many do not. They are like sporks in a utensil drawer, simultaneously belonging and not belonging for their “oddity”. And as a writer, I see the current mode of labeling as being truly problematic. If my book does bend genres, it can be very difficult to present it according to the tools and expectations agents, publishers and book stores all have. It even can be hard to determine whether certain agents or houses would want to accept a query, which then can create additional work for authors who submit a preliminary inquiry before formally introducing the manuscript.

But perhaps even more concerning than presentation or organization is the conflicting message of creativity and adherence to group. Writers who are continually forced to slap labels on their work for the sake of the label might mentally limit themselves regarding what their books can be. They might start to think of themselves as this type of writer or that, when in fact a good writer isn’t a “type” of anything–they can write whatever they da-n well please.

We perhaps could solve the issue simply by creating tools that allow writers and others to select an “Uncategorized” or “Genre-Bending” classification. Explaining the mashup with references rather than a label, such as X Book + Y Book, could work in queries, store placement and promotional materials. But such a shift requires people to let go of the knee-jerk desire to mentally classify to a high degree. The freedom we could gain, however, could be truly transformative in terms of what ends up on the page.