Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Wonder of Writing Groups

When I teach classes in how to write a nonfiction book, I always stress the importance of having a good support system. Here’s how I describe it in my book:

“No matter which book you’re working on — your first or twenty-first — you need to feel that others are in your corner and rooting for you. Not only do you need faith in your subject, you need others to have faith in you. ‘I’ll get by with a little help from my friends,’ is a line from my favorite Beatles’ song. No one goes it alone, especially when you undertake a project of this magnitude. Support comes in many forms and from many sources — family, professionals, fellow writers, and, especially, your friends.”

The best support, in my opinion, comes from fellow writers who contribute empathy, enthusiasm, and encouragement to your efforts. I’ve heard the rumor that other writers are competitive and can't be trusted, but I don’t believe it. Furthermore, I’ve never experienced that kind of competition in 40 years of writing.

When I first started freelancing full time I felt completely isolated. I had no one to talk to, to bounce ideas off of, or to ask for feedback. So, I formed a writers’ group. It began with six freelancers and grew to 100 in time. What we sacrificed in intimacy we more than made up in support.

Five or six years ago a good friend of mine assembled a few writers who wanted to write but lacked the time or discipline to actually do it. She named the group Write Now! There were three of us in the beginning, and our purpose was just to write. No reading out loud, no critique or criticism. We all wrote different things: one person journaled; one wrote poetry; and I worked on a book on writing which I dedicated to the group. While it has had its ups and downs, miraculously, Write Now! is still together.

I’m in a new writing group now, which is made up of authors from previous classes who took what we euphemistically refer to as the "graduate program." When it ended, they wanted to stay together, and generous soul offered her home for monthly meetings. I was invited to attend but was hesitant. I didn’t want to continue to fill the teaching role, which sometimes happens after a class, but I needn’t have worried. This is a phenomenal, egalitarian bunch of women of all ages, backgrounds, and perspectives. They no longer needed a teacher; they needed what I needed: a support system.

I wish I could clone them and make sure every writer has such a group. The best I can do is encourage anyone who reads this to create your own. Set it up any way you want to accomplish any goals you choose. That's part of the wonder. Writing groups evolve organically to meet the needs of those who belong. Pretty amazing, huh?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Rethinking the Business Model

I have been in business for close to 20 years, and I must admit that for most of that time I have led with my heart instead of my head. I often give away the company store, so to speak — advice, information, time. All of that equates to money, money I never see because I don’t bill for it.

I trust people. I believe they are sincere and well intentioned. When they ask me what a project will cost I tend to underestimate and over deliver. It’s the perfectionist gene I guess. Everything I do must be the absolute best it can be. I never seem to figure that into my estimates.

I am never prepared for the instances when clients simply don’t pay. In fact, I am blown away when it happens. I have actually taken people to small claims court, only to discover that, even if I win the case, there is no enforcement of the verdict. Sometimes, the client is so illusive that the process server can’t find him. (The next day of course he is seen at Starbucks having a grand old time)

Teaching at the community colleges is not a get-rich-quick scheme, either. They pay $20 an hour — a teaching hour. That does not include preparation, materials above and beyond what the school will copy, gifts or meals for speakers who generously donate their time and talent, custom-made bookmarks, and parties at the end of each session. Money is obviously not the motivation for teaching.

I have friends who are sharp business people — right brained, practical, cautious. I promise myself that I will become more hard nosed and tough. Then, someone calls (who knows a friend or found me on Google or is on my website that very minute), and I cave in, forgetting all my promises. I answer their questions, share my knowledge, and get cauliflower ear from holding the phone. When I hang up I wonder if there is some deep psychological reason beneath my inability to say, “You know, the clock is running” or “This is what I charge for consulting.”

It may be as simple as having a mission, which, in my case, is to help writers write. On the other hand, many successful people have a mission and still manage to charge people for their expertise. Generosity is a lovely trait; being foolish is not. I think it was Einstein who said "If you keep doing what you've always done, you're going to keep getting the same result." (If he didn't say it, he should have.)

I think it's time to do things differently and see what the new result might be.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

10 steps from obscurity to #3 on Google (under “book writing coach”)

I’ve heard it said that having a website no one knows exists is like having a billboard in the middle of the Sahara dessert. I believe it. I’ve had a website almost as long as I’ve been in business, and it was the world’s most expensive (and confusing) online brochure. Now, it generates viable leads every week. It didn’t happen overnight. It took time, advice from experts, lots of learning, and, most of all, doing.

1. It began at an SLPA meeting at which a marketing expert named Bobette Kyle knocked my socks off with her presentation. She offered the audience a free marketing workbook and 30 minutes of consulting time. I signed up. Her first suggestion was to redesign my website to reflect my new goals.

2. I’ll spare you the details of starting over from scratch. It was a series of false starts and frustrations. In the end, I bought DreamWeaver and did it myself. Of course, there were so many things I didn’t have a clue about, such as how to do, like making buttons for my navigation bar or settin up a template. Basic stiff.

3. I hired Pat Weaver, a computer wizard from the Webster school district. She became my fixer and teacher. If I wanted to learn DreamWeaver, she was the best.

4. Finally, I went back to Bobette for a brainstorming session on marketing planning — an essential step! I had to have a marketing plan, and it really wasn’t all that mysterious to write one when a marketing exert was asking all the right questions, and all I had to do was think through the answers.

5. My overall goal was to build my business as a ghostwriter, book-writing coach, and editor. One strategy was to expand my online presence. Tactic #1 was to write and submit articles in my area of expertise to online marketing sites. So, that’s what I did. I wrote them; Bobette submitted them to about 30 online sites, including, the gold standard. At the bottom of each was a little blurb explaining what I do and how to contact me. At this point, there are close to 60 articles, which are also on my website in two formats: web pages and PDFs.

6. In the meantime, I kept adding to and improving my site. I did the design and writing; Bobette did her magic behind the scenes. The key was obtaining quality inbound links from authority Websites, like relevant directories or topical Websites. This helps search engines find and list my site and potential clients find me. A novice could do that, I suppose, but it’s so worth it to pay a consultant who knows what she’s doing. I started showing up on search engines, and potential authors started contacting me. To me, that was a miracle.

7. Tactic #2 was to join social networking sites like Gather, LinkedIn, FaceBook, and Eons, among others. That took a lot of time; and, truthfully, it is my weakest link. Networking sites can become so addictive and time-consuming that I forget to work. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn about that aspect of Web 2.0.

8. There has to be a way to encourage people to e-mail and then capture their addresses when they do. And, even more important, then, I have to give them something free — information, reports, eBooks, anything that will benefit the reader and compel them to make contact. So, we set up a way to do that on my home page. The e-mail addresses go to EzineDirector, which automatically sends out the eBook I offer. It will also send out a regular newsletter and do all kinds of other things, automatically, if I set them up.

9. I struggled with the idea of doing a newsletter. I feel that a newsletter should be full of news and other helpful messages. Doing the requisite research is a big job, so I finally decided to send one only when I have something worthwhile to announce or share.

10. I don’t know what took me so long, but, eventually, I discovered blogging; and I love it. I set up my blog on BlogSpot, which is free, easy, and basic. I keep discovering new things I can do and adding them to my blog. My topic, of course, is writing; but, unlike articles, I find blogging gives me more flexibility. It is personal, so I can reflect on a whole range of writing-related topics that don’t fit in the article format.

Those are the basics. In between the numbers are all the things I have done wrong while learning to do them right, and, believe me, there have been many. There is so much to learn and so much to do, it could consume most of my day. But, when you are a writer who sells services as well as words, that is your full-time job. Marketing is how you get to do it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Business of Blogging

Since I’ve launched my blog I’ve become very interested in this subject. I want to know, of course, if I’m doing is correctly, but instantly discovered that everyone seems to have has a different idea of what “correctly” means.

First of all, people blog for many reasons — to keep a kind of diary of events as they unfold; to reflect on various topics of interest the blogger; to support a position, political or otherwise; to serve the needs of the blog’s readers; to display one’s creative abilities; to market a brand or a product; and to entertain, educate, or enlighten. I’m sure I have barely scratched the surface.

Second, there are the many ways blogs are designed. Some are plain vanilla — no frills, just text —which encourages the reader to concentrate on the words. At the other extreme, are beautifully designed, truly artful blog/websites that are a pleasure to look at, as well as read, like Riehl Life, my friend Janet’s blog. Some are so busy, you don’t know where to look; others are cleverly but simply designed. Mine, I think, is somewhere in the middle. It’s really simple because that’s all blogspot allowed me to do in terms of design, or at least it’s all I have been able to figure out so far.

So, I’ve been reading about blogs and discovering there is a lot to learn! Last month the SLPA had a speaker on blogs. His name was David Strom. Here are a few points he made that I found very helpful:

1.Social networking is about creating conversations.
2.Keep your blog entries simple and searchable.
3.You are a source of content for other blogs, as well as your own.
4.Think about your target audience.
5.Solicit stories and comments from readers. will drive traffic to your site.

Julie Hood of the generously sent me a link to with a series of articles by Erica Ross-Krieger on “What should I blog about?” If these articles are excerpts from a book, I want to read the book. Here are a couple of gems:

• Go back to basics. What do your readers want to know? Do keyword research with the word tracker keyword tool to see how they are looking for that phrase. Create a post with a commonly used keyword phrase in the title and in the post.

• Comment on current news in your topic area and add your own spin to it.

Here are three tips are from an article on that same website by Alexandria K. Brown, the Ezine Queen. She lists 11 quick (and good) content ideas for your e-zine, website (or blog).

1. Jot down 8 questions your clients have asked you in the past, and answer each in a short article (or post).
2. Think of three areas in which you’d like your clients to think of you as a resource. Now develop content in those areas
3. Recommend books and resources you use and offer full reviews on them.

In 7 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Online Marketing Presence by Bobette Kyle, one great suggestion is to “Identify 10 Bloggers in Your Category. Then send them your product as a gift. The idea is to expose your product to influencers in your category by giving them an opportunity to try it free. If they like it, they may give it a mention in their blogs. Note that this is a subtle online marketing technique. The idea is NOT to advertise to them, ask a favor of them, or ask them to blog about the product. Choosing to mention (or not mention) your product should be solely up to them. You can find and read blogs by searching blogging directories such as”

When I started The Writing Life I thought I would just muse about my favorite subject, but obviously, musing is only a small part of the package. One has to muse with purpose. My purpose is pretty clear to me — to help writers write — but there is much I have to learn about how best to achieve it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

I love my students!

They are amazing. They sign up for a continuing education course at a community college and have no idea until they get there what they’ve gotten themselves into. I try to tell them the very first night. Actually, I’ve started telling them in advance by e-mail, but I don’t think they really understand until I start assigning homework.

After all, the class is called “Writing Publishing and Promoting Your Nonfiction Book.” Surely one thinks they are going to do all that in only six weeks (one night a week) without homework. But they are such good sports. Sometimes, they even take the class a second time or sign up for the “graduate” program for those who have been through the basics at least once.

They do everything I ask: come up with a single sentence starting with “My book is about …”; write a proposal, which they really fight tooth and nail; organize their yet-to-be-written books on the computer; sort through a gazillion handouts without hyperventilating; construct a viable outline; and write chapter summaries.

And if they are amazing, their topics are even more so. In my last group, which was actually the "graduate program," here’s what they were writing about:

o Surviving loss, cancer, stroke, 12 children, and more and still smiling
o Making all the mistakes one can make in life, yet marrying prince charming, and living happily ever after
o Living and prevailing with bipolar disorder
o Keeping your aging, dying parents at home until the end of their lives
o The spiritual lessons learned at every pivotal stage of life
o Researching the history of your heritage home one agonizing step at a time (See Connecting Links: My House History.)
o The memoir of a “hidden child” of the Holocaust
o The importance of estuaries and how we must preserve them
o Getting fit by 50 (starting at 49)

There will be book signings! Stay tuned for further announcements.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What to do first, what to do next

More than anything, I want to work. I love what I do and always have. In fact, I am addicted to it. It’s like chocolate or, in my case, strawberry shortcake (my other addiction).

“Do you have time for a project?” someone asks, and I automatically reply, “absolutely.” “I am writing a book and need some help,” appears in an e-mail and, without a moment’s hesitation, I respond, “What kind of help do you need? Why don’t you give me a call?” The phone rings with a request for an editor. If the caller says, “I’m looking at your website right now,” I’m a goner.

Lately, my website and little videos on YouTube seem to have hit the charts, and people are actually finding me. It’s a heady feeling to be needed — so heady that I tend to forget time and energy are finite. When it runs out, and I fall off the chair, I'm pretty much good for nothing. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to say, “No” or “Not at this time” or anything that might make the other person think I don’t want the work or can't handle the work or don’t have time for the work.

I mentioned this to my Web marketing guru, who seems to work 24/7, and asked her how she does it. “Priorities,” she said. “You have to set priorities!” I looked it up.

priority |prīˈôrətē|
noun ( pl. -ties)
• a thing that is regarded as more important than another : housework didn't figure high on her list of priorities.

I am taking her advice very seriously. As soon as I finish this post, I’m going to empty the dishwasher, fold the laundry, clean off my desk, water the plants, and set some priorities.