What Every Writer Wants

Google GI asked Google, “What does a writer want?” I found a variety of answers. Lev Raphael says we want “Everything,” and quotes Roxane Gay saying writers “want and want and want.”

Some writers will say they want fame, others money, some just want luck. I think what a writer really wants is Audience.

Writers want what they write to be read.

But as the explosion of blogosphere and the self-publishing industry demonstrates again and again, publication does not guarantee readers. Good writing might.

Here are some ideas for finding and building an audience with a blog. None of these ideas require an advanced degree in rocket science; they all require hard work, and they’re all working for me.

  1. Write for your audience. (This post is for Live to Write – Write to Live readers: writers – you.)
  2. Say what you want with economy and grace.Like everyone else on the planet, your readers are pressed for time, so don’t waste theirs. (I aim for a post of 400-600 words.)
  3. Practice your craft and give your audience a polished performance. If you
    Practice your craft and give your audience a polished performance. (pixabay)

    Practice your craft and give your audience a polished performance. (pixabay)

    were a pianist, you wouldn’t invite your audience to listen to you play scales or learn a new piece; as a writer, you don’t want to show your audience your rough draft. (This essay went through three drafts.)

  4. Commit to a publication schedule. While an audience may like to be surprised in the content of what you write, it also likes to know when to expect a new post. I post here every other Tuesday, and I post to my own blog every Wednesday. It’s hard work that has garnered non-monetary rewards, namely a growing audience. I have readers who look forward to my posts; I know because they tell me.
  5. Keep writing and other opportunities will follow. I keep writing; in addition to meeting new readers, editors I don’t know now ask me to write for them; invitations for public speaking and proposals for writing projects arrive in my inbox. I get to decide what I want to write and for whom.

I wouldn’t say no to fame and fortune, but it’s my audience who will determine that. Of course I’d like more readers, more publications, and more royalties. I believe they will come if I continue to do my job, which is to write stories that will cross that membrane between writer and reader, to engage in that intimacy that occurs when my words get under my readers’ skin, into their thoughts, and maybe even change how they think.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is the award-winning author of Into the Wilderness, a love story set in Vermont during the Goldwater – Johnson presidential campaign in 1964. She blogs every Wednesday at Living in Place.

“Fucking” is a Poor Intensifier

“Fucking” is a poor an intensifier in written non-fiction.

My objection is not one of prudishness but one of good usage. I don’t approve of using “very” as an intensifier, either (or really, or so). Saying something is “fucking unbelievable” is no better than “very unbelievable”; both lack imagination and weaken one’s prose. In the crowded blogosphere, prose with muscle is more likely to attract readers than flabby and/or overused intensifiers.

Readers depend on writers to rant with vivid language.

I think “fucking” has lost its vividness due to overuse. It’s lost its meaning and punch. Like love handles on hips, it’s flabby padding rather than taut flesh.

Lest I be written off as a member of the grammar police, I’m not. Language lives and changes with its users. Neologisms arrive (sexting, localvore) and antiquated words fade (mooncalf, quidnunc). Usage changes, too, as exemplified by the gender-neutral singular they.

Just as there’s a time and place for sex, there’s a time and a place for “fucking” in the text.

Certainly, it belongs when quoted as in, Luskin objects “to the current trend of using ‘fucking’ as an intensifier in written non-fiction.” You must use the word if you’re quoting someone else, and unlike on broadcast media, the word doesn’t have to be “bleeped” in print.

Another justified usage occurs when you’re writing fiction and it’s the language of your narrator or characters, in which case, let it rip! Some people say fucking as often as others say like, almost as a nervous tic.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of audience.

I’m sure that some of the writers who overuse “fucking” as their intensifier of choice have readers who don’t give it a second thought. But writers who want to reach an audience that includes people they don’t know, as well as people who might not agree with them, it’s better to state your ideas with clarity and precision. Personally, I want people to read what I write and object to what I say rather than to the language I’ve used.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. Her work can be found on Vermont Public Radio and on her website, where she blogs about her rural life in Living in Place and about middle age in The Middle Ages. Her award-winning novel, Into the Wilderness, is a love story about two sixty-somethings, set in Vermont in 1964.

Planning A Blog

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog of my own for some time. Now that the current draft of Ellen is on my agent’s desk for review, I’m finally ready to turn my attention to this task.

I have two goals for a blog.

The first is to write about place, a concept that has been fundamental to my life, a tug that pulled me to Vermont thirty years ago, and continues to inform my daily activities (chickens, garden, town politics) and most of my writing. My commentaries for Vermont Public Radio are all about life in Vermont, as are my editorials for the local papers. And all of my novels are set in Vermont. Into the Wilderness, published in 2010, earned a Gold Medal for Regional Fiction as well as recognition from the Vermont Library Association for its sense of place.

The second goal is to stay connected to my audience in the long stretches between novels. Readers are curious about the writers they read, a curiosity that often takes me by surprise. I hope that I can satisfy my readers’ curiosity without compromising my own need for privacy. In fact, I love connecting with readers across the page. I’m still a letter writer, and I’m thinking of the blog posts as letters to my readers.

One of the reasons I’ve been putting off starting this blog is that it requires a long-overdue revision of my website. I’m not exactly a technophobe, but neither am I particularly confident in my design or on-line skills. I do know I learn well one-on-one, so I’m looking for someone who will teach me what I need to know in order to migrate my current site to Word Press, set swimming hole picup a blog, and even expand to other social media. (Gulp!)

I also want to be sure that I can keep up with my blog by setting a realistic schedule, probably posting only every other week – an admittedly slow pace for the blogosphere, where many bloggers post daily. That’s not for me. And frankly, I don’t think it’s right for my audience, either.

I will write at least a half dozen posts to have in reserve before I launch, so I can keep to my schedule, and I will have a marketing plan for the launch, so that I can reach my current readers and introduce myself to new ones.

In order to be successful, I also need to start taking more pictures. This probably means relearning how to use the digital camera we bought three years ago for a trip out west and have barely used since. Hmm.

Finally, by posting my intentions to my audience here, where I’ve been contributing for over three years, I will be held accountable to follow through with my plans.

How have you succeeded – or not – launching your own blog? What advice do you have for becoming a successful solo blogger? Please share your blogging stories in the comments below.

dll2013 Deborah Lee Luskin lives in southern Vermont.

Marketing Your Book

BookstockTent 1

One of the book tents at Bookstock this year.

As I’ve said before and I’ll say again, “It’s easy to get published – and hard to get read.” I was reminded of this at Bookstock, where I met many self-published authors selling their books.

Selling books at a literary festival makes sense but not cents, according to author Bruce Hartman, who was there with his novels. He came to Bookstock from Philadelphia, he said, because he used to live near Woodstock, and he thought he’d see some old friends. He was also offering his books at a discount – and still hoping to earn back the cost of renting a table under the tent.

With all the new technologies for print-on-demand (POD) and self-publishing (eBooks), it’s easy to break into print, but the difficulties of finding outlets at which to sell your books are great. This is the other reason to “know your audience.” The first reason, is to write for that audience.

Generally, it’s easier to sell non-fiction than fiction, especially if you have a special niche – a how-to, a travel narrative, a memoir with a certain slant (epiphany, recovery, rags-to-riches success).

But fiction has its own niches, too. First, there’s genre for those who write mysteries, sci-fi, romances and the like. Then there’s the issue of subject. Personally, I love novels that not only entertain, but also teach me about something, the way Dick Francis explains horses and racing.

But marketing, like aging, isn’t for sissies. And these days, even writers with publishers are expected to do their own marketing. That was certainly the

Bruce Hartman selling his books at Bookstock, July 2014.

Bruce Hartman selling his books at Bookstock, July 2014.

case for me, when I was out stumping for Into the Wilderness.

Originally published by a micropress, the book was not a candidate for any big-name reviews. But because the book included a lot of Vermont social and political history, a lot about chamber music, and a love story between a Jewish woman and a Vermont bachelor in middle age, I was able to score reviews in Vermont newspapers and magazines, on some music sites, in some Jewish newspapers, and in some magazines for retirees, as well on book reviewers’ blogs.

In addition to reviews, I sought interviews, especially in advance of a reading – to make sure there would be potential customers at each venue. Speaking to reading groups proved even better than reading at libraries or bookstores. I spoke anywhere I was invited, including synagogues and retirement homes.

I also spoke about my publishing and marketing experience at writers’ conferences and about history to local and state history groups, all of which promoted the event to their entire memberships and not just those who were able to attend. In fact, I’m a speaker for the Vermont Humanities Council’s Speaker’s Bureau, and I’ll be talking about Vermont in 1964 next week at a mid-state library – making use of all the research behind the novel to educate, entertain and – yes – sell books. (Not incidentally, I’ll also be collecting an honorarium equivalent to the royalties on a hundred eBooks.)

“Back of the room” and “Hand sales” – where the author sells each copy to each reader – is exhausting and has limited sales potential. In the world of book marketing, it’s good to pitch a book to an interested crowd, but it’s even better to find others who will pitch the book for you, including bookstore owners and on-line reviewers who have a wider reach.

Best of all is writing a book readers love so much they talk about it to all their friends. For this to happen – and for the effort of marketing to make sense – brings us back to the most important part of publishing, and that is writing the best book you possibly can.

BookstockDeborahDeborah Lee Luskin writes fiction set in Vermont and is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio.

 

It’s All About Audience

audienceA reader recently emailed me asking for writing advice. I complied.

“You don’t need a literary background to write. You do need something to say and a desire to learn how to control language so that you can say it as you mean it, to reach the audience you intend to inform, persuade, and/or entertain. In the end, writing is about the audience, not about the self.”

Here are some tips for writing to your audience:

Tell your readers something they want to know. People love to learn, so teach them. For non-fiction, this means submitting stories to publications geared toward your content. There are many ways to slice a story: Traveling with young children could be slanted toward a parenting magazine, toward a tourism site, or even toward a publication about cars. Each publication has a different audience, and should be written to the probable readers.

Use the language appropriate to your subject matter. If you’re writing for an audience already familiar with the technical aspects of the subject, use the technical language. But if you’re writing for a general audience, be sure to teach your audience any of the words or concepts required to gain a clear understanding of a technical subject.

Use the language appropriate to your audience’s reading level. A book for a beginning reader has a different vocabulary and uses simpler sentence structure than a philosophical treatise on the nature of existence for an academic symposium. (One of my favorite assignments was translating highly technical medical procedures about pediatric cardiomyopathy (children’s heart disease) in a way that worried parents of sick children could understand.)

Be considerate: Write clearly. Inform and entertain. And when you’re finished, stop.

dll2013Deborah Lee Luskin writes for listeners of Vermont Public Radio, readers of this writing blog, readers of personal essays in a variety of publications, and readers of literary fiction. She also writes prolifically in her journal – for herself, and not for publication.

 

 

Living With Praise

standingovationIn the seven years I’ve been broadcasting commentaries for Vermont Public Radio, I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me by phone, email, or in passing, to tell me how much they liked one my pieces they heard. Often, I’ll post a link to a commentary on Facebook and friends will “like” it; sometimes, it will even be shared. Occasionally, strangers I meet treat me like a celebrity because they’ve heard me on the radio. The attention is very flattering, of course, and I’m genuinely pleased when someone praises me for saying something unusual and/or unpopular. That’s when I feel I’m doing my job, being a writer. Why then, do I remember exactly the number of emails I’ve received taking me to task?

Two.

One was a letter sent in to the station complaining about a pro-hunting piece I’d aired years ago. More recently, a listener complained about a piece I wrote about wearing recycled clothes.

That I can remember these listeners’ complaints practically verbatim but can’t remember the details from the hundreds of listeners who’ve emailed me with kudos tells me how much harder it is to hold on to praise. It also tells me how penetrating anger can be.

There’s no question: I hit a nerve, causing two listeners to hit their keyboards and spit venom at me. I tell myself that’s good, that I ‘got to them’ and isn’t that the purpose of writing? Maybe. But it burns.

In retaliation, I’ve parsed these letters and found gaping holes in logic and grammar, and located the places where they’ve misunderstood what I said, misrepresented it, or simply disregarded it. I’ve worked over my poison-pen replies (never written, never sent), and churned and burned in anger and disdain. In time, however, the anger dies down, leaving me to wonder why it is that criticism smarts in far greater proportion than praise.

I’ve received a thousand-fold more praises for my work, but I’ve given them less attention. Why is that? Why is it that I give negative sentiment more weight than positive feedback?

The only answer I can come up with is: That’s the way I’ve been trained.

And if it’s just a matter of training, then I can be retrained.

The need to retrain myself, to really pay attention to what my readers and listeners have to say became apparent when Into the Wilderness came out. Strangers wrote me personal letters, sent me emails, told me their stories and sought my advice. That experience taught me how wonderful it is to reach an audience I’m only vaguely aware of while I’m head down at my desk, trying to channel my thoughts into words against deadline. As a result, I vowed that when I read something that moved me, I’d send the author a note.

I also vowed to thank readers who’ve taken the trouble not just to read what I write, but to tell me about it – tell me what I wrote made them think or feel, maybe how it gave them hope or inspiration. And I’m no longer speaking of praise just for my radio commentaries, or my novel, or my newspaper columns, but also about the feedback I get from this blog. I’m generally and genuinely overwhelmed and overjoyed by the replies to these posts.

Ultimately, what thinking about my disproportionate reaction has been to criticism versus praise has shown me is that I must reverse how I respond to the two and give more attention – and more acknowledgement – to praise.

photo: M. Shafer

photo: M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. She lives in southern Vermont.

It’s easy to get published . . .

The-Reader-(Young-Woman-Reading-a-Book)            It’s easy to get published, but hard to be read.

Advances in technology have made it possible for anyone with access to the internet to self-publish. Unfortunately, finding readers is not as easy – especially for those writers who do not have a specific audience in mind. Worse, the ease with which one can rush work into public on a blog, eBook or even print-on-demand (POD), can easily compromise the quality of that work – so that no one will read it. While the stigma of self-publishing has waned, the flood of impatiently published work continues to mar a great deal of that work. Impatience is the bane of self-publishing.

Consider my friend Abe (not his real name), who contacted me recently for advice about publishing his poems. He had “35 poems which are almost at the stage of showability,” and he’d contacted iUniverse, CreateSpace and ExLibris. He wanted my advice about which one he should use.

His request raised two red flags: 1) “showability” is not the same as “ready for publication,” and 2) these self-publishing giants make publishing easy and profitable – for them.

In an effort to be both gentle with Abe and protective of my time, I suggested he read Sonja Hakala’s, Your Book, Your Way, which clearly spells out a variety of self-publishing options, including publishing independently.

I also asked him how he planned to market the book.

“If people aren’t delighted by my poems, or haven’t taken the trouble to know about them, that is their problem. If I have to market my stuff to get it read, I probably shouldn’t have written it in the first place!”

I replied, “Abe, I’ve known you for eight years, and I never knew you wrote poetry!”

I asked Abe if he belonged to any workshops, ever read any of his poems in public, or did any of the other legwork involved in building an audience. And I told him how engrossing and exhausting my own marketing journey was with Into The Wilderness. I’d like to think I’m a realist, not the pessimist Abe reacted to:

“Gosh, Deb, you make it sound like so much fun! If I didn’t have to manage a full psychiatric practice and a full teaching load, if I weren’t rowing and singing in operas, if I didn’t have nine and a half grandchildren strewn all over the northeast – I would dig right in!”

In the end, Abe chose to go with CreateSpace. “At $2.15 a copy, I plan to distribute at least 100 copies to friends and other key people, asking them to spread the word.” He also thanked me. “Our vigorous dialogue was helpful,” he said.

Abe can easily afford the monetary outlay for this publishing venture, and he will gain an audience for it. He will be read, and that is, after all, the point of being a writer.

But is all writing suitable for publication? Just who is it we write for?

As a published writer with a growing audience, I can tell you that hearing from readers who have been moved by my work is both extremely gratifying and humbling beyond belief. Hearing from readers reminds me that publication brings with it responsibility, a responsibility to write with honesty, clarity and grace – all of which take patience, revision, time.

DLLDeborah Lee Luskin is a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio and the author of Into the Wilderness, winner of the 2011 IPPY Gold Medal for Regional Fiction. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com