How to Get Storytelling Right Every Time

As I peruse social media (which I do a lot for *cough* marketing), I see writer after writer step up and ask the same question:

What makes a good storyteller?

Or, to put it another way,

What makes a story engaging?

Lots of answers go into technical detail about how to tell your story well. For example, engage the senses. Get the pacing right and cut the fluff.

But great storytelling isn’t about perfectly arranging technique like flowers in a vase. Think about it. Dickens isn’t Rowling, Rowling isn’t Patterson, and Patterson isn’t Hemingway. They all have wildly different approaches, yet we’d never dare to say that any of them stink. And that’s because great storytelling is far less about voice and much more about empathy.

What this means in a nutshell is that, if you want to write well, you have to connect to the audience. And doing that, paradoxically, requires you to forget your own story for a moment and hone in on theirs. What have they experienced? What makes them excited? Sad? What dreams do they have?

It’s only after you know their story that you can match them to you, that you can pinpoint what elements of your story that they’ll find relatable. People don’t really like to hear that, because learning someone’s story can take time–lots of us want immediate gratification and results, the ability to create a draft on demand and at rhythm of our own choosing. But once you have reliability, you have engagement.

It’s all about knowing who you’re talking to. And by “know”, I don’t just mean what you write in a proposal package (e.g., Caucasian females, aged 18-40). You have a sense of how they think and what they do, and you have to know how to use what they know to paint your picture. You have to feel as though, even though you’re putting words to the page in a way that’s your own, you are having a very instinctive, reverent conversation. Everything you write is something your ears have spoken.

So don’t worry so much about your paragraph size or any of that. Worry about how deeply you know people. That is what will train your pace, give you the analogies, and allow you the important details all great stories are built on.

6 Benefits of Always Having Multiple Writing Projects

With a Type A personality, I have to admit that there’s something beautiful in being laser-focused on just one thing for a while. You can get into a state of flow that enables you to produce a draft more quickly.

But I’m also a realist. I’ve learned that, in most cases, it’s better to have multiple writing projects going at once. The benefits include

  1. Pivoting to a different project that best suits your mood or attention level, which improves writing clarity, authenticity, and accuracy.
  2. Staying active and feeling more productive even as you wait to hear back from beta readers, editors, agents, etc.
  3. Setting work aside to work out kinks more naturally, rather than trying to force solutions in the moment.
  4. Being able to practice different types or styles of writing
  5. Improving time management through more serious task scheduling and prioritization
  6. Being less stressed and allowing yourself to quit what doesn’t work because you know all of your eggs aren’t in one basket

But this doesn’t mean you should overdo it. Ambition is great, but there are limits to how much you can bite off and chew. If you have some great ideas for articles, novellas, books, etc. but already have yourself scheduled, it’s okay to push those ideas out. Just jot them down with enough detail that you can pick them up later. Ask yourself which writing projects best fit your overall writing goals, and leave the ideas that aren’t ideal for those goals on the shelf.

As for how to pick your writing projects, ask yourself

  • Will this project bring in income?
  • How will the project influence my relationships?
  • Are any projects more timely, or are they evergreen?
  • Which projects do I keep coming back to or thinking about?
  • What type of commitment does the project involve in terms of time, expertise, and resources?

Personally, I’ve found that having two or three big projects (e.g., novels) and 5-10 articles a week is plenty of variety. You might find that you can handle less or more, but you absolutely need time when you are not writing. It’s during that time that your brain gets a chance to recover and you can experience all the amazing things that later can be fodder for the page. Be self-aware, find your rhythm, and then don’t quit.

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.

9 Ways to Know It’s Time to Stop Adding Detail to a Piece of Writing

 

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Details can make or break a piece of writing. They allow people to get a clear picture and can trigger all kinds of emotional and mental responses. At some point, though, you simply don’t need more. How do you know when you’ve reached this point?

  1. Imagine you were summarizing or creating an abridged version. Is including the information necessary for the reader to understand what you meant? If not, you probably can leave it out. Many details are simply “nice to have” or asides, rather than foundational.
  2. Ask yourself what narrative service the detail offers. For instance, does it somehow provide a plot clue? Evoke an emotion or symbolism? Give a glimpse of a character’s past? If it’s not providing a service, then it’s dead weight in the draft.
  3. Consider balance. Does adding the detail put too much weight on one character or plot point? Does it throw off the pacing of the piece by keeping the reader in one place?
  4. Instead of focusing on every word of your draft, read it fast a few times. If you find yourself skimming over the same details each time, then they’re probably not adding value.
  5. Consider your technical limits. Maybe you could write a 200,000-word behemoth, for example, but if your genre standard is just 80,000, let yourself type a final period and move on.
  6. Think about norms. Writing for a specific audience usually means you include some “insider information” by default. If you’re just reiterating what your audience already should know, then you’re not doing them any favors by including the detail and might even come off as condescending.
  7. Ask if the detail refreshes what’s common. Anybody can say “The girl had brown hair.” It’s new to say “The girl’s hair was the color of the sturdy walnut trees, fringed by wisps of willow that grew around her ears.”
  8. Consider the reader’s imagination. If you’re laying out everything to such a degree that the reader can’t visualize anything for themselves, back off. Get them started with just two or three brush strokes and then get out of the way.
  9. Ask if the detail is your best option. The best details usually tell something unusual or specific.

Why I No Longer Believe in Writer’s Block

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You know how it goes. You sit down at your laptop or with a notebook, ready to write.

Only you don’t. The page stays blank. Nothing happens.

For most of my writing career, I’ve called this writer’s block. But lately, I’ve wondered if there even is such a thing.

The term writer’s block implies that there are hurdles to your creativity, and that to keep working, you have to smash through or jump over them. But nine times out of ten, if I just step away from the keyboard, the creativity flows. It’s just in different ways. For example, maybe you find a cool way to arrange your dishes, or you sing a random song in the shower.

So what’s the deal? How come when you go to write, nothing comes?

Creativity is not entirely just letting your subconscious run wild. It involves some analysis and choice, too. But I’ve started to be more mindful as I try to create my drafts. And I’ve found that, when I encounter a blank page that’s dangerously still white, I’m usually tossing the creativity out the window entirely and letting everything become critical thinking. I start worrying and feeling the pressure of “I have to”. Is this worded right? How do I fix this? Is option A, B, or C better? That’s problem-solving and mitigating risk, not just letting the words flow.

And let’s face it. Sometimes, you just might be in a yucky mood. If you’re mad, you probably could spew to a friend about how you want to incinerate the Earth and become best friends with an alien named Hermies who would eat marshmallow pops as a primary form of sustenance. That’s quite a creative vision!

Or you might have something else that your brain is prioritizing. For example, last weekend, I found it really hard to write a draft because I kept thinking about the flowers I had to put into my garden. I put the draft aside, but when I went to tend the flowers, I still put them in an artistic arrangement. I was creative, just not with words.

So it’s not that your creativity is blocked. It’s still there. It’s just that you’re shifting your focus. The real issue thus is just how to ensure your focus is on your draft when you are at the keyboard.

I don’t think this even would be a problem if we took a more when-it-strikes approach to writing. Instead, we’re always trying to squeeze it into neat little convenient boxes to fit everything else in our lives and have some guarantee of a finish. Those desires/needs make sense, but the system of things isn’t very good for ensuring you’ll sit down to write when your brain and heart can give you the best result.

So next time you feel like you have writer’s block, look around at the other things you’re doing. You’re probably still creative in tons of ways through the rest of your day. Try to be more flexible with yourself so you can work on your drafts in a more stream-of-consciousness, flitting way if need be. The words will come when your brain pings back to the project, and you’ll get your other stuff done/problems solved along the way, too.

5 Things No One Tells Writers (But Totally Should)

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If you’re taking writing seriously, then you probably already are familiar with some of the most common truths of the trade, such as the fact lots of great manuscripts end up in the slush pile. But there are tons of other realities that people should clue you in about (but probably haven’t).

1. Editors, agents, and publishers are just people. 

Because editors, agents, and publishers have a certain amount of expertise, and because they serve as gatekeepers for getting work to readers, writers often put them on a pedestal. But they’re prone to the same excitements, limits, and needs as everybody else, and like everybody else, they’ve probably downed a few pints of Ben & Jerry’s during peak moments of stress.

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You’ll find some writing industry pros who are fantastic and some who are jerks. And at the end of the day, if you don’t send that email or call, they’re out of a job. So see them for the humans they are. Give them empathy and don’t be afraid to reach out or ask questions.

2. Multiple projects protect your sanity.

I’ve had rare instances where editors emailed me back the same day, and even rarer instances where it was within the hour. The typical timeframe for a response, however, is 2 to 4 months. During that time, you have two choices:

  • Ruminate every waking hour about what the agent, editor, or publisher is doing and what they will say because you have nothing to distract you, OR
  • Be productive on something else so your anxiety doesn’t turn you into a shriveled raisin of despair.

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Trust me when I say that the second option has more advantages. Not only do other articles, stories, novels, etc. help the time pass faster, but they also offer consistent practice and more opportunities to be published/make a sale. So get into a rhythm, and develop your own system for tracking everything you’re doing.

3. You’ll spend a ridiculous amount of time Googling.

Even if you’re the best writer on the face of the planet, facts you need might not already be in your brain. Whether you need to figure out the accurate length of a typical medieval sword or you have to grab the latest disease statistic, Google is your best friend. And just like your local library (which I still highly recommend)…

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The problem here, of course, is that it’s so easy to get pulled down the rabbit hole into information you don’t need. It can be hard just to discern what’s going to be useful and what won’t be. So you need to set limits for yourself and get as specific as you can with the questions you are asking. Learn a little about how SEO works so your results actually are relevant. Lastly, make sure that you take the time to create whatever bookmark folders you’ll need, because nothing is worse than trying to use your Internet history to find something you didn’t digitally file.

4. Your pace is your own.

Join any writing group or community online or just read about writing and you’ll likely get the impression that you have to write at the speed of light (or maybe faster). Even publishing “schools”–and there are some good legitimate ones–sell packages based on the idea of getting more books out quickly.

But creativity is not aware of the clock. The brain links pieces at a schedule we can’t put on the agenda. Not only that, sometimes writing isn’t just going through finding words or researching. It’s dealing with truly personal, deep trauma or other emotions that you can’t rush. So if it takes you just a few months to crank out a novel, more power to you. But if you end up as the snail watching a bunch of squirrels spastically scurrying to the finish line, don’t sweat it.

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All that matters is that you don’t quit, and that you keep the focus on creating something with real quality embedded in it.

5. You’ll need to draw the line.

Any piece you write can become a “baby” to you. And in the quest to treat that baby right, it’s natural to go to it multiple times, revise, and try to make it even better. But there comes a point where all you’re doing is changing, not improving. For me personally, I know I’ve hit that point when the revisions are smaller and more grammar-focused, and I’m not really adding or taking anything away that would have a strong influence on the plot. I also know I’ve reached that point when I feel more at ease about the text and have a sense that I’d be totally OK with others seeing the last draft. Remember that leaving one project means that you can enjoy starting another, draw the line, and don’t keep looking back.

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In my view, most people who go into writing don’t go into it truly understanding how to be great at it. It’s a constant learning process, even for people who “naturally” can put words on the page. But because it requires such an enormous commitment, you should have a sense of what you might experience. The points above provide a small glimpse into that. More truths that are true for you will be clearer over time, but whenever you’re in doubt, talk to people in the trenches. They likely will be happy, because of the writer’s inclination, to tell their story for your benefit.

How to Write an Amazing Concluding Paragraph Using SAC

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In my previous post, I covered how to nail introductory paragraphs, particularly for articles. Today, let’s cover how to wrap it all up with a fantastic conclusion.

The SAC format

Most conclusions can follow the Summary, Action, and Clincher (SAC) format. It works well for essays, articles, and blogs, for instance.

The summary reviews your key assertion or thesis and ties all your main points together.

The action encourages your reader to do something based on the thesis/article points. It can be a mental action (e.g., “Consider…”), but task-oriented statements (e.g., “Clean up your computer files”) arguably are more powerful. It really just depends on the nature of the thesis.

The clincher is an attention-getter or final thought that makes it clear to the reader that you’re all done.

Here’s a quick example:

All great articles need a powerful conclusion. The best way to do that is to use SAC formatting, which includes a summary, action, and clincher.  (summary) Prepare your thesis and body carefully when you write so that pulling your thesis and main points together with this template is easy. (action) After all, the more organized your writing is, the more enjoyable it likely will be for your reader, and that’s the ultimate author’s goal. (clincher)

 

Instead of rehashing, SAC ties it all together and directs people forward with a clear why

The main consideration when you use SAC is that you don’t want to sound like you’re just repeating yourself. Don’t just pull your thesis and main point sentences down to the bottom, and don’t add more details, because by the time you reach your conclusion, you already should have laid those out in the body.

Instead, find a way to rephrase those concepts in an interesting way that pulls everything together. The reader should get the sense, based on how you do this, that you’re wrapping up and are about to give them that clincher.

So think about that final sentence. Ask yourself what impression you want the reader to take away and how you can lead into that. The more you can think about a broad perspective or big picture, the simpler this job will be.

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.

The Danger of Scripts in Writing and Related Content

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Lately, I’ve been listening to a ton of podcasts. Although they cover a host of different topics, they almost all start the same way if there’s a guest:

“Thanks for being on the show.”

“Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.”

Now, if I hadn’t listened to so many episodes, perhaps I might not have noticed this. And I understand that this way of starting a show is culturally accepted as normal. But as it is, it strikes me now as almost a nervous tick. It’s become like Popeye eating spinach, and because of that, I can’t stand it.

What overused podcast introductions have to do with your writing

Writers often repurpose their content. They can turn an article concept into a podcast episode, for example, and good podcasters usually have a basic outline for an episode instead of just winging it.

But it got me thinking about the potential for writers to get stuck in scripts regardless of medium. Maybe you don’t start your stories all with “Once upon a time…”, for example. But maybe you keep using certain phrases you constantly see in your genre. Or maybe you template your articles so much that, even though the content technically changes, readers see your structure to such an extent that they’re distracted or feel like you’re not trying hard enough.

The point is, there’s a balance between the norms and having your own voice.

 

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If you’re going to do a podcast, for example, then you still need to introduce your guest. But you can say something  like “I’m really grateful you’re with us today because you…” or “First, let me just express my appreciation for taking the time to be with us…” It doesn’t have to be so obnoxiously cookie-cutter.

Three ways to break free from scripts for good

How do you get out of the script and stay spontaneous and authentic? For me, it starts with thinking in terms of purpose. What do you need to achieve? What has to happen? There are lots of different paths you can take to reach an objective, but what’s the goal in the first place? Think about that, rather than the specific words you’ll write or say.

Secondly, look back at what you’ve already done. If you’re going after the same goal, challenge yourself not to copy the path you took the last time. You can’t break a habit you’re not aware of, after all.

Third, read as much as you can all over the map. The more writers and genres you expose yourself to, the more ways you’ll see to approach what you have to accomplish.

So check your writing. There’s something to be said for planning to a certain level for efficiency’s sake. But if you feel like you’re repeating yourself or taking an approach just because you “need” to for acceptance, step back. There’s always a new, fresh way. You just have to be brave enough to use it.