That Elusive Writer’s Platform

Big name writers have writing platforms called the big name writer’s platform.

When James Patterson comes out with a new book, you know who he is and what kinds of stories he tells, so he doesn’t need to go on blog tours or work in a hardware store to stay solvent.

If your name is Joe Doaks, are 43 years old, and live in your parents’ basement where you play video games and hack into the dark web, you only have a writer’s platform if you write a tell-all book about the dark web, especially one that the FBI tries to get banned. Otherwise, you can send the best novel in the universe to a big New York publisher and they probably won’t take it on because you don’t have a platform. That is, nobody has heard of you and you aren’t maintaining a business of some kind that will draw readers to your books.

Most of us who write self-published or small-press books need a platform. Nonfiction is easier than fiction, because our books can be an outgrowth of a strong, nonfiction website that gets thousands of hits a month. That is, if you maintain a popular website in which you provide the real stories behind major crimes, your novel will be seen as part of this and will probably sell well.

If you’re on WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Pinterest, and have lots of followers and comments, you’re better off than those who have no online presence unless you have a high-profile teaching position or other offline work that has made you widely known to many people.

Many of us imagine our writer’s platform looks like this:

When, in reality, it looks like this:

 

But then, for example, after hearing a lot of positive comments on, say, Facebook about a new novel we’re about to release, we realize after it’s been released that very few people on our friend’s list actually bought a copy, and that of the small number who did, few (if any) of them posted an Amazon review.

There have been–and still are–a variety of authors’ networking sites. My experience with these is that most authors are there to sell their own books rather than to buy the books of other unknown authors. While “networking” on the authors’ sites, those people are buying James Patterson, Donna Tart, and John Grisham novels rather than fiction nobody’s ever heard of.

Many small-print and self-published authors depend on Amazon. Some books–mostly nonfiction, it seems–have made a lot of money there. Most fiction by unknown authors doesn’t sell well there because most people never see it and those who do would rather buy books from known authors. While Amazon helps self-published and small-press authors to some extent, it’s still a business that makes more off James Patterson than Joe Nobody.

As others before me have said, those of us who don’t have platforms that get the attention of Oprah’s Book Club or a New York Times reviewers basically have to be content to write in the shadows and earn our money from other jobs. Over time, we may be able so build platforms that attract more prospective readers. My last three novels, for example, were about hoodoo. If I were a hoodoo practitioner (I’m not), then my hoodoo site would be a natural place to promote my book. The same can be true for any other field where you have credentials and a following. Those who have come to your site for facts, are likely to enjoy fiction based on those facts.

You can also build your platform by submitting short stories to literary magazines, including those who only pay in contributor’s copies. The credit line at the end of the story that says something like “Bob Smith is the author of the Andromeda Series of fantasy novels” is a good way to spread your name around to prospective readers. Needless to say, magazine credits, including any where your short story or poem won a contest, give your website something to mention.

I remain skeptical of the paid-for-reviews from the well-known sites who provide these because the reviews are expensive and when published, you cannot be certain those reviews won’t be segregated into a “self-published reviews” category. Labeling them like that pretty much negates the value of the review. Also, if you look at the statistics about the probable sales of a self-published book, the cost of that paid-for-review may wipe out all your profits. So far, I haven’t been willing to roll the dice on reviews or book-of-the-year contests that cost a lot of money and/or advertise the awards are for indie books.

Unfortunately, blogger reviews seem to be of limited help because those blogs don’t attract a lot of attention when compared to the value to a review on a mainstream, traditional newspaper or site. A review from “Bob’s Blog” isn’t really something that’s going to lure a lot of readers away from your mainstream competition. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t solicit such reviews, only that you recognize going in that they aren’t the New York Times or The Christian Science Monitor.

You can, to some extent, widen your platform by engaging with readers and writers on sites like Facebook. It’s easy to log on to Facebook and upload the same old stuff every week: notices about your books, shared pictures of animals, jokes, and an occasional political rant. It takes more time to go to the sites of those on your friends list an actually say something there rather than simply clicking LIKE. The same is true of the bogs you read where you can click LIKE and also read a comment. When you find books and viewpoints you like, you are building your platform by leaving comments so that the writers/bloggers start recognizing your name.

If you’re on Pinterest, you can post links to your own blogs and the sites you like about subject matter that may interest others. You can also PIN some of the links other people share that fit into the various niche areas that fit your interests and your novels. The thing here is: engage with the users about things that interest them.

Many authors think their novels require and “all about me” approach to promotion and interaction on blogs and social networks. Really, they’re an “all about you” kind of promotion. Talking about why you wrote those books is not nearly as important as showing prospective readers what’s in it for them to read those books.  Your platform needs to be an invitation rather than a memoir about you and how hard it was to write your novel.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

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Poetry – a few favorite first lines

Some poems reach us. We’re not always sure why. In fact, I’m more content when the reasons I like a poem never quite add up because my appreciation of it is beyond logic.

I know that I like the opening quatrain of Poe’s “To Helen” partly because of the rhymes and alliteration. Perhaps I’ve seen such beauty in another from time to time and this reminds me of it:

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. – Wikipedia

“Fern Hill,” by Dylan Thomas is probably my favorite poem. We are lucky if we feel the magic of youth this way because it is very nearly a spiritual relationship with the world and the cosmos:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

Few people these days remember the poet Saint-John Perse, but his Éloges and other poems published the year I was born is a wonderful collection. The first edition I have, once owned by my mother, displays the poems on side-by-side pages in English and the original French. For today’s reader, these poems are probably overly rich. The opening of “To Celebrate Childhood” is another way at the truth of “Fern Hill”:

…Then those flies, that sort of fly, and the last tier of
the garden…Someone is calling. I’ll go..I speak in esteem
–Other than childhood, what was there in those days
that is not here today?
Plains! Slopes! There
was greater order! And everything was but shimmering
reigns and frontiers of light. And shadow and light in those
days were more nearly the same thing…I speak of an esteem
…Along the borders the fruit
might fall
without joy rotting along our lips.

Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, writes strong poems with (quite often) a bite. I’m very fond of them and her way of thinking.  “Domestic Work” is a good example:

All week she’s cleaned
someone else’s house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper–
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she’d pull
the lid to–that look saying

Let’s make a change, girl.

“She Had Some Horses” by Joy Harjo builds and builds on itself until its power is strong enough to make one weep:

She had some horses.
She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
She had horses who were skins of ocean water.
She had horses who were the blue air of sky.
She had horses who were fur and teeth.
She had horses who were clay and would break.
She had horses who were splintered red cliff.

She had some horses.

Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Prize winner who lived in India and wrote in Bengali has a rich body of work that I first came across when I was in high school in a book my father had on our living room shelf. I like “The Source”:

The sleep that flits on baby’s eyes-does anybody know from where
it comes? Yes, there is a rumour that it has its dwelling where,
in the fairy village among shadows of the forest dimly lit with
glow-worms, there hang two shy buds of enchantment. From there it
comes to kiss baby’s eyes.
The smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps-does
anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumour that a young
pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn
cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dream of a dew
washed morning-the smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he
sleeps.

I can’t shoe-horn the beginnings of all the poems that have caught my attention again and again since childhood into one blog post. But, it was fun to share a few, and perhaps start others thinking about the poetry they return to when they’re in need of hope, empathy, and inspiration.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

Writers on the lookout for local color

Authors like me who infuse local color–legends, myths, ghost stories, oral history–into their stories are always on the lookout for books and sites that lead them to more good stuff

Historian Dale Cox who lives in the Florida Panhandle has done more than his fair share of capturing local history and local color in books and websites. This book Two Egg, Florida: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Legends and Unusual Facts is a good example of the kind of resource I look for. 

I grew up near Two Egg, saw it numerous times, and knew about half the tales and facts in this book before I bought it. But Cox’s research helps nail everything down, providing new wrinkles I wasn’t aware of as well as tales I hadn’t heard.

Since I write magical realism, I see the location and its legends almost like one of the characters. Of course, my human characters treat the myths and legends as real because that’s how magical realism works.

They really believe Bellamy Bridge has a ghost, that there might be some truth in the notion that the bluffs along the Apalachicola north of Bristol might have been the Biblical Garden of Eden, and that Two-Toed Tom and the Swamp Booger are out there in the dark waiting for an ignorant person to stumble into their clutches.

My library includes many books like this one by Dale Cox, and for the realism side of my novels, books about north Florida’s flora and fauna and history. Sometimes the research is even more fun than the writing.

Malcolm

Soon, I’ll release a new novel (“Lena”) to go along with “Conjure Woman’s Cat’ and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Interviewers, especially those who aren’t very creative, inevitably ask emerging writers that question. I don’t think readers care.

Since I don’t like the question, my flip answer is, “When I got too old for the gigolo business.”

My wife and I have seen so many 1940s movies where the characters, when asked why they did something stupid, said, “Well, there was a war on,” that that has become our standard rationale for just about everything.

My father, Laurence, teaching journalism at Florida State University – (State Archives of Florida/Kerce)

I guess that’s my real excuse. Those were desperate times and people did desperate things, blew their savings in a poker game, married somebody in Vegas whom they’d known for twenty minutes, wrote the words “once upon a time” on a scrap of paper grabbed from the clutches of an ill wind on a dark street corner.

Truthfully, I could say that both of my parents were teachers and writers and that they passed the curse down to me. I’m sure a sophisticated DNA test would prove that. They both read a lot of books, and passed that mixed blessing down to me. It’s mixed because it leads to a house full of books.

My folks, who didn’t know anything about the gigolo business or the fact that my life’s work started because there was a war on, were a bit pushy about my writing. When I called home, Mother asked, “Have you been keeping up with your writing?” before she asked how I was or if this was just another call for bail money.

Maybe she knew my distrust of straight answers made me unsuitable for other careers such as the ministry, police work, or counseling. Years before the movie “Fargo” was released, she worried that I’d throw my principles into a wood chipper and become a used car salesman.

She had good reason to worry: I made my worst grades in school in English classes. That never went over well when report cards came out. “My teachers hate me because they think I think I know more than they do.” Mother acknowledged that I might, but said, “I think those teachers are like dogs. They can smell fear.”

She was right about that.

My teachers also smelled lack of interest. I told them I was already fluent in English and shouldn’t have to take it.

Chances are, I have a negative attitude about all this.

Malcolm

 

Thanks for trying out the free copies

I appreciate everyone who grabbed up a free copy of my Kindle short story “Waking Plain.” There used to be a TV bit called “Fractured Fairy Tales;” I suspect I got brainwashed by that so that I take sweet old stories and turn them upside down.

Meanwhile, my soon-to-be released novel Lena has made it past the editor. One always worries about hearing something like, “Malcolm, you know that guy who dies on page 23? How did he come back to life on page 97?” Oops.

Lena is the third and final book (you can quote me on that) in the Florida Folk Magic Series published by Thomas-Jacob. With luck, we’ll be able to show you the cover soon and then announce a release date.

Meanwhile, we have another late afternoon thunderstorm roaring through northwest Georgia. This is getting tedious because the low barometric pressure impacts both our (my wife and I) sinus conditions while all that water makes the grass grow faster than we can keep it mowed.

Fortunately, I have beef stew to warm up in the Dutch oven for supper, so no cooking required tonight. And, the cats have been fed; that means they’ve stopped hovering around my desk and bothering me.

My brother and his wife and grandson will be stopping here briefly next week. Oh hell, that means we have to clean up the house. We’ll have fun while they’re here, though.

Malcolm

Writing is like living in a fixer-upper house

“You know those people who buy fixer-upper homes, move into them, and live there while they renovate them? That’s what a story is like. You move into the story, you occupy it like a house, and you live there until it’s completely done.” –Thrity Umrigar

In an earlier post called About Waiting for Inspiration, I noted that serious professional writers work every day rather than sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That post suggested things writers can do to make inspired story ideas more likely.

Likewise, there are things writers can do once they have a story idea that will make it more likely the plot will unfold. Better to let the plot and characters come to mind naturally rather that sitting down, staring at a blank screen, and waiting for something to happen.

I like author Thrity Umrigar’s fixer-upper house analogy. First, it paints a very accurate picture about what goes on during an author’s waking hours while s/he is actively working on a short story or novel. Second, it suggests one reason why authors often stare off in space or seem not to be listening while they’re around others. They’re physically in the room, but mentally they’re conversing with their characters or chasing bad guys through a bad section of town.

Unrigar adds that when you’re committed to a story, “That means you’re thinking about your story all the time, living with it, never letting it wander too far away from you. A story is like a newborn–you have to tend to it, feed it, be aware of it all the time.”

When you’re living in a house white renovating it, you’re on the scene 24/7. You not only notice what needs to be done, but think of new ideas that didn’t occur to you when you first walked in the front door. A story is like that. Authors don’t see every detail of every character, scene, description, and plot twist when they first think of an idea.

When you’re living in a fixer-upper house, it’s easier to see potential traffic flows, floor plan changes, and value-added features than it was while the house was something you might buy. When you see what your fictional characters see–or might see–it becomes more apparent whether they’re moving in the right direction or not, wearing the clothes that suit them, or adding to the prospective reader’s excitement by doing this or that or something else.

Seriously, when you’re committed to a story, it never goes away until you finish it–and maybe, not even then. Like the fixer-upper house that’s ready to sell, you have to resist the urge to tinker after it’s time to send your story or novel off to an agent, magazine, or publisher. It takes self-confidence to know when the story is truly finished and when the fixer-upper house is ready to list with a realtor.

Either way, living in the story and the fixer-upper house is a necessity.

–Malcolm

Dear Flora

Watching down on creation from the great sanctified church in the sky, I’m sure you are spry enough again to sing and dance in a ring shout circle, and re-conjure your memories of a life well lived.

Partial view of the cover art work for “Lena.”

As you watch us muddle through our days, perhaps you notice this old writer whom you once knew as that white boy around the corner who stopped by daily to see his best friend in the house where you worked as a maid in Tallahassee. Because my friend’s parents were frequently absent due to work, volunteer, and church schedules, you were the stern ruler of that household from dawn to dark.

In those days, I saw you as the heart and soul of that home even though our flawed traditions wouldn’t allow you to walk in through the front door. I loved and respected (and sometimes) feared you then, but I was not allowed to tell you so. After my mother and my grandmother, you were the best cook on the planet, but Southern booking wasn’t the best of what I learned from you.

I learned about faith and forbearance and streetwise savviness in a dangerous world along with the value of humor and tall tales as antidotes to the slights and terrors of the day. In those days, perhaps you saw me as part of the fair number of kids who hung out around that house and the woods behind it and had no way of knowing whether I’d end up in reform school or the priesthood. Well, I guess you knew I wasn’t destined to become a priest!

Like the children who lived in that house, Flora, I went off to college and then into the Navy and then into a life a thousand miles away. I’m sorry I lost track of you then. I wish I had hugged you goodbye before I went off into the world.

Now, as Lena, the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic series is nearing its release date, I want you to know that the book’s acknowledgements tell my readers you are my inspiration for Eulalie, the conjure woman who is the heart and soul of the series. Thank you for everything you taught me and my apologies for everything I have forgotten.

with love,

Malcolm

About waiting for inspiration

“As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.” – Simon Van Booy in his Publishers & Writers essay “Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky.”

Long-time professional writers scoff at the notion of beginning writers sitting around waiting for inspiration. Generally, they (the professionals) say they go to the office and write every day because that’s their job; they don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.

Nothing beats a wonderful story idea that appears out of “nowhere.” But can we count on this approach to be financially successful as novelists or freelance creative nonfiction writers? My answer is no.

Louis Pasteur once said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” I think writers who think that way find more inspiration than those who don’t.

In one of my posts about magic, I said that many psychic occurrences begin when an individual relaxes and imagines that something is happening–and then, suddenly, it is happening. That is, your imagination transforms into a link that shows you the location, person, or situation you wanted to view in a so-called paranormal way.

For me, inspiration works the same way. If I find myself without any story ideas, the best thing for me to do is search the Internet (or my bookshelf) for books about subjects I love writing about. If I do this casually–without putting pressure on myself to discover an idea–and just read or poke about for the fun of it, that is when I start thinking of prospective story ideas.

Usually, the half-born idea leads to reading through more of the books or websites that made me think of my potential story until more ideas come together and then I start wondering such things as “what if a person went to this place and did ABC?” or “what if people found a way to twist this kind of information into a evil business?”

Then I set the ideas aside for an hour or so while doing something relatively mindless, from mowing the yard to playing a video game–and while I’m doing that and not worrying about the story ideas, my mind is somehow open to additional thoughts that help the story take form.

I have no idea how or why this works, but it seems better than staring at the wall and waiting for the great American novel to show up out of nowhere.

Malcolm

 

SPAM REPORT: If it’s off topic, it’s going in the trash

Spam artists–and I use that term in a pejorative way–frequently begin their comments with, “this is off topic, but have you ever considered. . . ?”

These comments do little to renew my faith in SPAM artists. I post about magical realism, and the comment is, “Great post. I’ll be checking your blog often. I know this is off topic, but I’ve discovered this great hemorrhoid medication that’s the best invention since white bread?”

Well, I’m not a fan of white bread, but I doubt that the readers of this blog care much about white bread or hemorrhoid medication. Fortunately, the WordPress spamcatcher tosses comments like this into limbo where nobody sees them.

I suspect badly programmed bots account for such inane comments and I wonder how the spammers ever get any income off such work.

Those bots don’t realize that most of us pretend hemorrhoids and other nasty diseases don’t exist and really think it’s TMI for a spammer to mention them. I guess some bloggers must be desperate for comments, so they approve SPAM in the belief it’s better than silence.

When I read through the prospective SPAM comments, I think–to put it bluntly–that 99.99% of them are crap and couldn’t possibly influence anyone to do anything. I really don’t want to know what kinds of low-life people are susceptible to it.

I guess you can tell I cleaned out the SPAM queue today and didn’t come away with a positive view of humanity.

–Malcolm

 

Why are some astonishing books less interesting when re-read?

Readers and writers often discuss whether or not they re-read books. While many of us have too many new books we want to read to spend much time re-reading old ones, the consensus is that there are usually a few comfort-food old books we enjoy multiple times.

I’ve re-read most of Isabel Allende’s books at least once, some of Pat Conroy’s bools several times, and an old Scot’s language trilogy A Scot’s Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon multiple times. Why? The reasons are mostly subjective, but usually include interesting characters, compelling plots, a fine use of language, and the likelihood of discovering something new in the story each time I go through it.

I very seldom re-read page-turner novels. They keep my attention the first time, but the plots are too linear and predictable to be interesting if I try to pick up these books a second time. Other books, many that are clever, highly inventive, and often humorous don’t seem to work for me on a second or third reading. Perhaps most of the excitement from the first reading fades away because it came from experiencing something very new, like hearing a great joke, that doesn’t work later on because I already know the punchline.

As a case in point, my favorite novel in 2006 was Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  It was well received by critics and became a bestseller. Out of fresh reading materials, I looked forward to reading it again last week. I was surprised to find myself skimming. However, I did read it to the end because I’d forgotten many of the details of a rather tangled plot.

The protagonist, Blue van Meer, is enrolled in an upscale high school for her senior year after spending the rest of her school years enrolled in one or more schools every year because her widowed father ended up with university teaching positions throughout the country. At St. Gallway School, she seemingly inadvertently comes under the wing of an eccentric film teacher and the snobbish clique of students who worship her.

The book, which mimics the syllabus of a high school or college course, is clever, inventive, philosophical, and an outstanding example of stories where nothing is what it seems to be. Blue’s erudite father is very philosophical and very opinionated about the values of the unwashed masses. While this was interesting the first time through the book, such passages became a big of a swamp the second time through. Likewise, Blue speculates about a lot of things and, while exciting when I first read the book, were a bit tedious the second time.

I still highly recommend the novel and believe that readers who enjoy something different and highly creative will have fun reading it. It failed to keep my attention the second time through because its unique approach tended–in my view–to keep it from being compelling when that unique approach was a journey I’d taken before.

I admit that my feelings about re-reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics are highly subjective and probably tell you more about me than they tell you about the book. Other readers would look at the list of books that I re-read and say they either couldn’t get through them once, much less twice. With movies, some of which I’ve watched multiple times, I often find that the ambiance of such films brings me back to them in spite of the fact I know how they end. Perhaps avid readers feel the same way about the books they read multiple times.

Some people tell me they’ve read all the books in the Harry Potter series multiple times. I’ve read them all, but have little interest in re-reading them even though I’ve seen some of the movies more than once (and enjoyably so). I recently read the Scot’s language translation of the first Harry Potter book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane and thoroughly enjoyed it because–for a person of Scots ancestry–it was fun reading it in Scots. Could I read it again? Probably not because I enjoyed seeing a story I already knew through the eyes of the Scots translator. It can only be new once.

Likewise, Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics can only be new once, and after that an novel based on a clever approach didn’t work for me as read-it-again-and-again comfort food.

–Malcolm

Coming soon, “Lena,” the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic series.