Writing Ritual and Routine

I always write to music, but a problem arose recently that made me question my writing ritual.

But I love writing with my headphones on, music blocking out the world around me. There’s no better way for me to strike the right mood in the WIP. I create a playlist for each book, with overlapping “series songs.” Songs I listen to only while writing books in that series. Since my series are vastly different so are the songs in each playlist.

As soon as I slide on the headphones, the music transports me back to my story world.

The problem I ran into recently was with writing true crime. I’d created a playlist for Pretty Evil New England. But for this new book I veered away from my usual writing routine and threw on Pandora.

Big mistake.

I struggled. The words wouldn’t come like they normally do. My mind felt cluttered and bogged down. Hence why I wrote my last post about multitasking and the brain. Frazzled, I panicked. Why I couldn’t reach “the zone” with my WIP? The beginning had been so easy, words flowing like Niagara, paragraphs in perfect harmony with one another. Had I finally lost my writing mojo?

The answer seemed clear. Only it wasn’t an answer I could accept. I emotionally degraded myself, exercised, read . . . I tried everything I could think of to breathe life into my muse, dying next to two unfinished WIPs. And yet, every time I slid on the headphones and clicked Pandora . . . total brain block.

After several grueling days (felt more like years), I stumbled across a blog post that advised writers never to listen to music unless it has no lyrics, background instrumental music. In other words, the total opposite of my music. But I’ve written all my books to music. What changed?

The metaphoric lightbulb blazed on.

By switching to Pandora, not knowing what song would play or when, my brain couldn’t interpret the music as white noise.

As soon as I went back to YouTube and clicked the playlist for Pretty Evil New England (since I’m writing true crime), my fingers could barely keep up with the flood of creativity.

I’m back!

Writers have writing rituals/routines for a reason. The ritual or routine encourages focus and has the ability to get us back on track if we drift off course. The familiarity snaps us out of the funk and reminds us that yes, we can finish the WIP, just as we’ve always done. It also allows the words to flow. Rituals help us find comfort and balance and sets the tone for a solid writing session. Routine is especially important. Employing a consistent writing routine can be the difference between hitting our word count or staring at a blinking cursor.

If your writing comes to a screeching halt for no apparent reason, a change within your writing ritual or routine may be to blame.

For me (obviously), it’s sliding on the headphones with a familiar playlist cranked. Emphasis on familiar. An argument could be made that I’m not really listening to music. Rather, the playlist morphs into white noise and acts as the gunshot to start the footrace. Although, strangely, I’ve tried the white noise app and it’s not nearly as effective (for me). All my research is done on my iMac, but I switch to my MacBook to write. This was a subconscious act. I wasn’t even aware of the ritual until I focused on changes within my writing routine.

For others, the writing ritual may include an environmental change, like shutting the door to the office or sitting outside in a special chair. Some writers trek to the local coffee shop or settle in at their designated desk in the university library. *waves to Garry*

Some of our most celebrated authors had/have consistent writing rituals and routines.

JAMES JOYCE

Joyce’s ritual included crayons, a white coat, and a comfy horizontal surface. For word flow, he would lay flat on his stomach in bed. Since he was severely myopic, crayons enabled Joyce to see his own handwriting more clearly, and the white coat served as a reflector of light.

MAYA ANGELOU 

In her own words:

I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind.

I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.”

So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.

I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!

But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.

TRUMAN CAPOTE 

The creative genius behind In Cold Blood was a superstitious man. Capote’s writing ritual often involved avoiding things like hotel rooms with phone numbers that included the number 13, starting or ending a piece of work on a Friday, and tossing more than three cigarette butts in one ashtray.

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.

No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

Even so, Capote stuck to his writing routine because it worked.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY 

In stark contrast to James Joyce, Hemingway was a firm believer in standing while writing. While working on The Old Man and The Sea, he followed a strict regimen.

“Done by noon, drunk by three.”

This entailed waking at dawn, writing furiously while standing, and eventually hiking to the local bar to get hammered.

JOAN DIDION 

Didion holds her books close to her heart—literally.  When she’s close to finishing a manuscript, she’ll sleep with her WIP.

“Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.”

E.B. WHITE 

In his own words:

I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.

KURT VONNEGUT 

Check out Vonnegut’s writing routine:

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.

When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.

JODIE PICOULT 

Picoult doesn’t believe writer’s block exists:

Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

Wise words. I agree. Nothing motivates quite like a looming deadline, self-imposed or contracted.

DAN BROWN 

Most writers would do anything and everything to get rid of writer’s block. According to The Da Vinci Code novelist, Dan Brown hangs upside down to cure writer’s block. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But we can’t argue with the results. If Brown didn’t hang like a bat, imagine all the amazing thrillers we would have lost?

Bats can’t launch into flight until they’re upside down. Why not Dan Brown? He says he’s more productive and creative afterward. He also does push-ups and stretches every hour. Not only has he found the cure for writer’s block, he’s in tip-top shape.

Writers are complicated beings. 😉

Do you have a writing ritual and/or routine? Tell us about it.

My publisher ran a sale for Pretty Evil New England last week. Not sure how long the sale will last, but for now the ebook is $1.99 on Amazon.

POP QUIZ ON ADJECTIVES

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When we first learned to talk, most likely we never gave a second thought to the order of words. We just mimicked our parents until the sentences that came out of our mouths made sense and were understandable.

If a five-year-old said, I kicked over the fence the ball, most likely Mom, Dad, or a kindergarten teacher would tell the child it sounded better to say: I kicked the ball over the fence.

We instinctively knew how to place the words in the right order, even though we didn’t realize exactly what it was we knew or how we knew it. 

[Side note: English is a particularly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn because it’s full of inconsistencies and contradictory rules. If you didn’t learn English as a first language, please accept my condolences for the misery you’re going through.]

 

At some point in our language development, we learned that adjectives make sentences more descriptive. For those of us destined to become writers, adjectives became fun new toys.

Consider the three examples below:

The Jack Russell tan frisky terrier chased a mouse.

Hey, wait a sec. That sounds awkward. What’s wrong?

Instead, how about:

The frisky tan Jack Russell terrier chased a mouse.

Sounds natural.

A hot-air red massive balloon floated above farm land.

Awkward.

A massive red hot-air balloon floated above farm land.

Natural.

A new silver shiny Cadillac was parked in the murky dark shadows of the concrete parking high-rise garage.

Awkward.

A shiny new silver Cadillac was parked in the dark murky shadows of the high-rise concrete parking garage.

Natural.

In these examples, one flows easily off the tongue while, in the other, words come out in halts and jerks.

What is the difference?

The order of the adjectives.

Huh? Who even thinks about that?

Writers, that’s who.

Turns out there are actual rules about the correct order of adjectives.

Recently I learned that new lesson when TKZ regular Chuck sent me an interesting article that quotes The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth. In his book, Forsyth separates adjectives into eight different types of descriptors and their proper order:

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Age
  4. Shape
  5. Color
  6. Origin
  7. Material
  8. Purpose

There is even a handy little acronym to remind you of the correct order, using the first letter of each type: OSASCOMP.

Cambridge Dictionary doesn’t want the rules to be that simple so they offer an alternate option that divides adjectives into 10 classifications in slightly different order.

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Physical quality
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Color
  7. Origin
  8. Material
  9. Type
  10. Purpose

Translated to an acronym: OSPSACOMTP.

Hmm, I think I’ll stick with Forsyth’s version.

In Elements of Eloquence, Forsyth illustrates the correct order with this complicated yet coherent phrase:

A lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.

Take a moment to experiment. Can you rearrange the adjectives in a different order that makes sense and sounds better?

Me neither.

Of course, no author would dare string that many adjectives together without a stern reprimand from the editor.

Photo credit: Isaak Alexandre Karslain, Unsplash

Let’s have some fun with a quiz. Read the following jumbled descriptions and put them in the correct order. Your choice of either Forsyth’s or Cambridge Dictionary’s rules.

  1. The wicked old shriveled witch cast a permanent vengeful curse on the young innocent maiden.
  2. The black-and-tan huge guard German Shepherd dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The parchment ancient yellowed fragile scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the silk designer black sexy strapless dress.

Below are my answers. If you disagree, please share in the comment section.

  1. The wicked (opinion) shriveled (physical quality) old (age) witch cast a vengeful (opinion) permanent (type) curse on the innocent (opinion) young (age) maiden.
  2. The huge (size) black-and-tan (color) German Shepherd (origin) guard (purpose) dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The fragile (physical quality) ancient (age) yellowed (color) parchment (material) scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the sexy (opinion) strapless (shape) black (color) designer (origin) silk (material) dress.

Here’s a shortcut for when you’re writing a sentence with several adjectives but can’t remember the rules:

Read the sentence out loud.

If it sounds awkward, rearrange the order of the adjectives until the sentence flows smoothly and naturally.

If you’re still not sure, read the sentence out loud to someone else. Ask how the adjective order sounds best to their ears.

If you can’t remember the rules or would rather ignore them, here’s the easiest option of all: don’t string more than two adjectives together.

Your editor will appreciate it and so will your readers.

~~~

TKZers: Did you know there were rules for the order of adjectives?

As a writer, do you love adjectives? Or would you rather discard them in the same wastebasket with adverbs?

~~~

Debbie Burke is an absentminded (opinion) aging (age) blond (color) Montana (origin) thriller (purpose) writer who never uses more than two adjectives in a row. You can verify that if you read Debbie’s six-book series at this link.

Hook Your Readers with a Compelling Storyline, Tagline, & Back Cover Copy

by Jodie Rennereditor & author 

You run into a friend and mention you’re writing a novel. “What’s it about?” they ask.

You stammer, “Well, it’s about this guy… Actually, and his sidekick too. She’s a woman. They don’t really get along all that well… at least, not at the beginning. He’s former FBI agent and she used to be a cop. Did I tell you they’re private detectives? Anyway, they get this weird case… Hey, where are you going? I was just getting to the good part!”

This is the kind of situation where you wish you had created a succinct, compelling storyline or “elevator pitch,” well-prepared and memorized.

Here are some tips on writing an engaging storyline, tagline, elevator pitch, and back cover copy for your novel. These are all essentials for hooking potential readers and enticing them to read your novel. If you’re still writing your novel, doing these exercises will help you focus on the core of your story and how best to engage readers.

STORYLINE:

Your storyline (or logline) gives the gist of your book in a few sentences. It tells something about the main character, the conflict or dilemma, and the stakes.

When someone casually asks you what your book is about, you’ll probably give them your storyline/logline. It’s a condensed version of the elevator pitch.

Even if you haven’t yet finished your novel, writing a storyline for it will help you zero in on what your story is really about, at its essence, and what emotion(s) you want to evoke in your readers.

Start with a 5-6-sentence version (up to a paragraph or two) and work down to one or two sentences. Keep your longer version as your “elevator pitch” for when the situation allows enough time to use it.

To create your storyline, first answer these questions:

Who is your main character? (Not just the name, or not necessarily the name at all.)

Where does the story take place? (if it’s of interest)

What is the protagonist’s goal?

What is the situation, problem, challenge, obstacle, or dilemma the protagonist faces?

Why does it matter? Why does he/she have to overcome the obstacle, vanquish the foe, or solve the problem?

How does he/she solve the problem?

Of course, you won’t reveal the answer to the last question in your logline, tagline, or back cover copy!

Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, in their excellent book for newbie writers, Writing Fiction for Dummies, talk about a one-sentence storyline or “one-sentence summary,” which is kind of like a condensed elevator pitch or condensed back-cover copy. They say to “shoot for 25 words or less. If you can do it in less than 15 words, you get extra credit.” Other tips by them for a compelling one-sentence storyline, condensed and paraphrased:

  • Limit the storyline to just a few main characters. Of course, include the protagonist.
  • Tell one thread of the story, ether the most essential one or the most interesting one.
  • Most of the time, don’t name the characters. Instead, find unique, fascinating ways to describe each of them.
  • Use adjectives that evoke empathy or cast a character as vulnerable or an outsider.
  • Include verbs that pack a punch, like battles or struggles.
  • Backload the storyline by putting a surprise or some emotively punchy words at the end of the sentence.

Ingermanson and Economy provide some one-sentence storylines for well-known novels. Here are a few of them:

The Firm, by John Grisham (legal thriller): “A brilliant young lawyer gets a fabulous job at a firm that is a cover for a Mafia money-laundering operation.”

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel (historical): “A young human girl in Ice Age Europe struggles to survive persecution by her adoptive clan of Neanderthals.”

Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith (mystery): “A Moscow homicide detective investigates a bizarre triple murder and runs afoul of the KGB and FBI.”

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (literary): “A boy raised in Afghanistan grows up with the shame of having failed to fight the gang of boys who raped his closest friend.”

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy): “A Hobbit learns that destroying his magic ring is the key to saving Middle Earth from the Dark Lord.”

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (time-travel romance): “A young English nurse searches for the way back home after time-traveling from 1945 to 1743 Scotland.”

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown (thriller): “A Harvard symbologist and a female French cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.”

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (romance): “A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.”

Resources: Randy Ingermanson & Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies; Shaunta Grimes, The Everyday Novelist blog, “How (and Why) to Write a Logline and a Tagline for Your Book”

TAGLINE:

The tagline evolves from the storyline but is even briefer and snappier. It’s a one-line hook whose job is to evoke emotion and compel readers to open your book. Readers want to know what they will feel if they read your book, so it needs to pack an emotive punch.

The tagline might go on the front cover of your book, in bold and/or italics at the top of your back cover or your book description on Amazon, at the beginning of a query letter, in the signature of your emails, as part of your Facebook or other social media page, or elsewhere. It might be as long as two or three brief sentences if it goes at the top of your back cover or Amazon description.

What makes a great tagline? Here are some tips:

  1. Keep it short – a sentence or sentence fragment is best.
  2. Make every word count. Skip “This book is about.” Make it pack a punch.
  3. Hint at genre. Readers want to know what they’re getting into, whether this is going to be their kind of book.
  4. Capture the tone of your story – overall, is it lyrical, nail-biting, romantic, sad, humorous, intriguing, fanciful, sexy, adventurous?
  5. Arouse curiosity. Maybe ask an intriguing question, raise a question just by the wording, or hint at danger or an impossible dilemma.
  6. Invoke emotions. Choose words that appeal to readers’ emotions.
  7. Make sure your phrase has an easy rhythm and flow. Read it aloud and cut out any unnecessary or convoluted words.

Brainstorm a variety of taglines. Write them all out and compare them for emotional punch, intrigue, brevity, and flow.

Here are some taglines from the front cover, the top of the back cover, or the top of the Amazon book description of well-known novels:

Blue Moon, by Lee Child: “Jack Reacher comes to the aid of an elderly couple . . . and confronts his most dangerous opponents yet.”

The Return, by Nicholas Sparks: “In the romantic tradition of Dear John, an injured Navy doctor meets two extremely important women whose secrets will change the course of his life.”

The Dark Hours, by Michael Connelly: “Has a killer lain dormant for years only to strike again on New Year’s Eve?”

Legacy, by Nora Roberts: “…a new novel of a mother and a daughter, of ambition and romance, and of a traumatic past reawakened by a terrifying threat…”

Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz: “Every gift has a price.”

Willa of the Wood, by Robert Beatty: “Move without a sound. Steal without a trace.”

Insurrection, by Tom Combs: “Domestic terrorists, a captive ER, and a nation held hostage.”

Her Last Tomorrow, by Adam Croft: “Could you murder your wife to save your daughter?”

Taken, by Robert Crais: “The search for a missing girl leads private investigators Elvis Cole and Joe Pike into the nightmarish world of human trafficking.”

The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty: “The trouble with the truth is that it can change everything.”

Silent Child, by Sarah A. Denzil: “Her child has the answers. But he can’t tell her the unspeakable.”

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn: “There are two sides to every story.”

The Crucifix Killer, by Chris Carter: “Cross your heart and hope to die…quickly.”

Outfox, by Sandra Brown: “One man with multiple identities. Eight vanished women. The next target…his wife.”

BACK COVER COPY

Your back cover copy or book description is the biggest deciding factor for readers picking up your book for the first time. Not only does it have to be enticing and polished, but it has to strike at the heart of your actual story, hint at the genre and tone, and incite curiosity among the readers, to compel them to open the book and read the first page (which, as you know, is also critically important).

Your back cover copy or book description needs to:

– Grab readers’ attention – in a good way

– Incite curiosity about this book 

– Tell us roughly what the story is about

– Give an indication of the genre and tone of the book

– Introduce us to the main character and his goal

– Tell us the protagonist’s main problem or dilemma

– Leave us wanting to find out more

James Scott Bell (Yes, TKZ’s beloved Sunday columnist and writing guru) gives us a great template for writing strong, compelling back cover copy in his excellent book, Plot & Structure.

Jim’s outline is a perfect jumping-off point for creating your own book description.

Paragraph 1: Your main character’s name and her current situation:

__________________ is a ________________ who ___________________________________.

Write one or two more sentences, describing something of the character’s background and current world.

Paragraph 2: Start with Suddenly or But when. Fill in the major turning point, the event that threatens the character, disrupts his world and forces him to take action. Add two or three more sentences about what happens next.

“But his world is turned upside down when…”

Paragraph 3: Start with Now and make it an action sentence, for example, “Now (name) must struggle with….”

Or use a question or two starting with Will: Will (name) be able to….? Or will she….? And will these events….?

Then add a final sentence that is pure marketing, like “(Title) is a riveting…. novel about …. that will …you…till the … twist at the end.

Now polish it up, making sure every word counts and you’ve used the best possible word for each situation. Aim for about 250-500 words in total.

There are of course many other ways to grab your readers in your book description, but be sure to use the main character’s name and hint at the threat that has upset his world and the obstacles he needs to overcome to win, survive or defeat evil, and right wrongs. And leave the readers with a question, to pique their curiosity and propel them into the story.

Then, if there’s space, you could squeeze in a great blurb or two, or a short author bio.

Resource: James Scott Bell, Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure. I highly recommend this book of Bell’s, as well as his excellent Revision & Self-Editing for Publication, which I recommend to all my clients.

TKZers – Would you like to share your back cover copy, book description, storyline, or tagline with us? Or create one for a well-known novel?

*By the way, I’m over at Kay DiBianca’s blog today as well. Kay is interviewing me about my writing advice in Fire up Your Fiction and related topics. Hop over there for a look! 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized and edited two anthologies. Website, Blog – Resources for Writers, Facebook, Amazon Author Page.

Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

Writers need to multitask. If you struggle with multitasking, don’t be too hard on yourself. The brain is not wired to complete more than one task at peak level. A recent study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed when we’re concentrating on a task that involves sight, the brain will automatically decrease our hearing.

“The brain can’t cope with too many tasks: only one sense at a time can perform at its peak. This is why it’s not a good idea to talk on the phone while driving.” — Professor Jerker Rönnberg of Linköping University, who conducted the study.

The results of this study show that if we’re subjected to sound alone, the brain activity in the auditory cortex continues without any problems. But when the brain is given a visual task, such as writing, the response of the nerves in the auditory cortex decreases, and hearing becomes impaired.

As the difficulty of the task increases—like penning a novel—the nerves’ response to sound decreases even more. Which explains how some writers wear headphones while writing. The music becomes white noise.

For me, once I slide on the headphones, the world around me fades away. I can’t tell you the number of times my husband has strolled into my office, and I practically jump clean out of my skin. Don’t be surprised if someday he kills me by giving me a heart attack. But it isn’t really his fault, even though I’ll never tell him that. 😉 I’m in the zone, headphones on, music blaring, my complete attention on that screen, and apparently, my brain decreased my ability to hear.

Strangely enough, I don’t listen to music while researching. When I need to read and absorb content, I need silence. This quirk never made sense to me. Until now.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? Instinctively, you’re helping your brain to concentrate on the visual task.

Research shows that our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think they are. In fact, some researchers suggest multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40% (for everyone except Rev; he’s a multitasking God). Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Doing many different things at once can also impair cognitive ability.

Shocking, right?

Multitasking certainly isn’t a new concept, but the constant streams of information from numerous different sources do represent a relatively new problem. While we know that all this “noise” is not good for productivity, is it possible that it could also injure our brains?

Multitasking in the brain is managed by executive functions that control and manage cognitive processes and determine how, when, and in what order certain tasks are performed. According to Meyer, Evans, and Rubinstein, there are two stages to the executive control process.

  1. Goal shifting: Deciding to do one thing instead of another
  2. Role activation: Switching from the rules for the previous task to the rules for the new task (like writing vs. reading)

Moving through these steps may only add a few tenths of a second, but it can start to add up when people repeatedly switch back and forth. This might not be a big deal if you’re folding laundry and watching TV at the same time. However, where productivity is concerned, wasting even small amounts of time could be the difference between writing a novel in months vs. years.

Multitasking Isn’t Always Bad

Some research suggests that people who engage in media multitasking, like listening to music through headphones while using a computer, might be better at integrating visual and auditory information. Study participants between the ages of 19 and 28 were asked to complete questionnaires regarding their media usage.

The participants completed a visual search task both with and without a sound to indicate when the item changed color. Heavy multitaskers performed better when sound was presented, indicating they were more adept at integrating the two sources of sensory information. Conversely, heavy multitaskers performed worse than light/medium multitaskers when the tone was not present.

I can attest to that. If I don’t have my headphones on, chances are I won’t hit my writing goals that day. I’ve conditioned my brain to focus when the music starts. And I store a spare set of headphones in case mine break. Learned that little lesson the hard way.

“Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing,” the authors noted.

How can writers multitask and still be productive?

  • Limit the numbers of things we juggle to two (*laughter erupts in the audience*)
  • Use the “20-minute rule.” Instead of constantly switching between tasks, devote your full attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to the next task.

What do you think about these studies? How well do you multitask?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be the Mouse

A recent exchange with the hubster went something like this.

Him: What’d you do today?

Me: Same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Him: You’re a persistent little bugger, aren’tcha?

Me: *shrugs* I’m a writer.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Persistence can be grueling at times.

If someone told me ten years ago that in 2021 I would stumble across a true story that’s so meaningful and important it might forever change my writing trajectory, my first reaction would’ve been: Ten years is a lifetime away.

But the truth is if I found this case ten years ago, I wouldn’t know how to do it justice. Today I do. 🙂 This narrative nonfiction/true crime project has so many parallels to my own life, my passion is at an all-time high. Which brings me to persistence. Persistence while researching. Persistence while re-investigating the crime. Persistence while interviewing witnesses. Persistence while submitting the proposal.

The Big Dream

When I wrote my first novel—longhand, by candlelight—the Big Dream was all I could think about. I remember searching for other writers’ interpretation of success and how long it took them to “make it” in this business. Most said a new writer won’t make any money until they’ve written five novels. If they’re lucky, they’ll sell a few hundred copies of their debut. That’s the last thing an aspiring writer wants to hear.

The aspiring writer thinks: If you build it, they will come.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad mindset if it drives the writer to the keyboard. I’m a dreamer. Always have been, always will be. As long as we offset the dream with a dose of reality, I say dream big, dream often, dream without limits.

Now, with a backlist of 17 titles and 5+ trunk novels, I look back on that early advice and it means something completely different.

Writing five novels isn’t only about building an audience. It means the writer has honed their craft. They’ve let their passion lead them on a journey of self-discovery (Think: Who are you as a writer?). It means the writer never gave up. Or quit. S/he continued for love, not money. S/he kept her head down, fingers on the keyboard, butt in chair, and created, edited, rewrote passages, scenes, or whole chapters, and finished five manuscripts.

What else happened?

S/he learned the business side of writing—found an agent, publisher, or learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Lastly, it means s/he learned how to market a product, build a brand and an audience. S/he persisted, even though the odds seemed insurmountable. S/he leaped out of the nest and learned to fly.

Sometimes this biz can be disheartening, other times it’s super exciting. The ups and downs are all part of this amazing journey. The minute we stop trying to achieve future goals, we’ve already lost. Aside from creatives—writers, singers, artists, actors, musicians, etc.—I can think of no other field that requires as much persistence.

What is persistence?

The dictionary defines persistence as:

  • continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
  • continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period

The definition clarifies how difficult it is to persist.

What happens in the brain during the act of persistence?

Serotonin is a neurochemical in the brain important for feelings of happiness. It’s also known for:

  • promoting good sleep by helping to regulate circadian rhythms (a 24-hour inner clock running in the background to carry out essential functions like the sleep-wake cycle)
  • helping to regulate appetite
  • promoting memory and learning
  • helping to promote positive feelings and behavior

If you have low serotonin, you might:

  • feel anxious, low, or depressed
  • feel irritable or aggressive
  • have sleep issues or endless fatigue
  • become impulsive
  • have a decreased appetite
  • experience nausea and digestive issues
  • crave sweets

Scientists have studied serotonin levels and persistent behavior in mice.

During foraging, all wildlife explores an area for food and/or water. But at some point, they must move on to a different area. Thriving animals exhibit patience and persistence before exhausting their search at each location.

In the study, researchers required water-restricted mice to “nose poke” while foraging to obtain water as a reward. The probability of obtaining water in each area lessened with each nose poke. The higher the number of nose pokes equaled more persistence in that individual mouse. Scientists also used video tracking to measure how long it took for the mice to switch to a different foraging area.

Mice exhibited optimal foraging behavior. Meaning, they optimized the trade-off between time spent searching an area for water and leaving to find a water source in a different area.

The mice who received serotonin neuron stimulation performed a greater number of nose pokes compared to mice who didn’t receive stimulation. They also took longer to leave an area, suggesting they were more persistent.

This is the first study to show a correlation between serotonin neuron firing and active persistence. Previously, scientists hypothesized that serotonin was involved in patience. We now know a rush of serotonin is involved in persistence, as well.

If our persistence starts to wane, we need to increase our serotonin level.

Here’s how:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Bright light
  • Massage

The list is almost meaningless without more explanation. So, let’s dive into each tip.

Healthy Snacks

We can’t get serotonin from food, but we can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in the brain. High-protein foods contain tryptophan. For example, turkey and salmon. But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, thanks to the blood-brain barrier—a protective sheath around the brain that controls what enters and exits. Isn’t the human body amazing?

Like with most life hacks, there’s a shortcut around the blood-brain barrier.

Research suggests eating carbs along with tryptophan-rich foods pushes more tryptophan into the brain, thereby raising the serotonin level.

Some tryptophan-rich snacks include:

  • oatmeal with a handful of nuts
  • plums or pineapple with crackers
  • pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk

Exercise

Exercising creates an ideal environment for serotonin by triggering the release of tryptophan in the blood and decreasing the amount of other amino acids. Thus, more tryptophan reaches the brain.

Aerobic exercise of any kind releases the most tryptophan. Don’t fret if you’re unable to do aerobics. The main goal is to raise the heart rate. This can be accomplished by:

  • a brisk walk
  • a light hike
  • swimming
  • bicycling
  • jogging
  • blaring the music and dance

Bright Light

This surprised me, but it makes sense when you consider seasonal affective disorder. Serotonin levels dip in the winter and rise in the summer. What should we do? Spend 10-15 minutes in the sunshine. Or, if you live in rainy climate or can’t get outside, use a light therapy box. Both will increase serotonin levels.

Massage

Massage therapy increases serotonin and dopamine levels. It also reduces cortisol, a hormone produced when stressed. If paying for a professional massage therapist isn’t within your budget, ask a friend/spouse/partner to swap 20-minute massages.

Be the Mouse

Writers cannot achieve goals without some form of persistence. Be persistent, dear writer. Be the mouse.

Get Thee to a Party

Photo by Tyler Rutherford from unsplash.com

 I have a quick fix if you are out of dialogue ideas and/or characterization elements.

Go to a party. 

That would have been hard advice to follow a few months ago but the genie is out of the bottle now. Folks are throwing soirees for all sorts of reasons. There are mask-burning gatherings, graduation parties, birthday celebrations, and all sorts of other gatherings. No matter how social-adverse you are (and I’m in the redline there, I assure you. I just fake sociability. For awhile.) someone is going to invite you to a gathering somewhere. Go. Observe. Listen. Heck, with graduation parties you can just follow the signs and balloons and enter, whether you are invited or not. 

Photo by NIPYATA! from unsplash.com

I went to a graduation party last weekend for a young woman I have known for many years who has finished high school. She is part of one of the best families I have the pleasure to know. Each and every member of the clan is instantly memorable, for different reasons. . We live in the same city in a similar neighborhood. Their home is wonderful. It puts mine to shame. I have a backyard. THEY have a nature preserve.  It has a small barn with a fenced-in corral in which a mini-pony cavorts and takes apple slices from your hand while trying (though not too hard) to avoid stepping on a couple of Flemish rabbits that hop around while merrily depositing chocolate chips, or something like them. There is a separate chicken coop next to the corral, where a rooster and a few chickens warily eye a calico cat who wanders about gazing wistfully through the chicken wire at them (Buddy…I know how you feel). It’s all wonderfully maintained and beautiful. One could spend hours there, just watching.

Photo by Levi Guzman from unsplash.com

It is the family’s friends, however, who received the primary focus of my concentration last week. Imagine if the characters of Twin Peaks and Fargo came together for a party, all knew each other, and were benevolent, without a woodchipper in sight. That’s what it was like. I wandered about, aurally dipping into conversations and taking mental notes. I occasionally noticed individuals sitting more or less alone. I beelined over. If people are sitting alone for no apparent reason there is probably a very good one that will eventually manifest itself. You should find out what it is without directly asking. I always check to make sure that there is not a mechanism labeled “Point in Direction of Enemy” within their reach before I fully approach and strike up a conversation point like, “Pretty good ice cream, isn’t it?” 

They are going to say something

It might be anything from “No” to “That isn’t ice cream. I had an accident” to 

“Well, it was okay, but we had this Isaly’s in Wadsworth when I was growing up and my dad had just left us and the waitress knew the story and would give us a little extra because it was tough on my mom and everyone knew we didn’t have much and we’d get lunch for free sometimes too but what nobody knew was that Mom ran the Pain Clinic on Medina Street and was making money hand over fist but it was all in cash so we had to be careful, hee heh!”

Now…I did not have that conversation. I did, however, have one with an elderly-looking gentleman (who was actually younger than I am) who appeared unapproachable at first but quickly warmed up when we found a bit of common ground. He noticed the guitar pin on the Santana Mohican fedora I was wearing. It seemed he had played guitar for some time before turning to truck driving. My response to the truck driving information was, “You probably have driven more miles backwards than most folks drive forwards.” He liked that and proceeded to tell me all sorts of stories that were easy to remember because they were extremely interesting and for the most part probably true. I also encountered an individual who I have not seen for awhile and who I am convinced will develop notoriety as a serial murderer within the next five years. He may have started already and just hasn’t been caught yet. That is an entirely different story for another time. 

Circling back…I finished up my conversation with my new friend, said goodbye to my hosts and the guest of honor, and then sat in my car for several minutes while I recorded everything that I could remember of what I had heard and seen (yay, Easy Voice Recorder app!).  Everything, because that which might seem inconsequential and uninteresting on a Sunday afternoon might be of use the following Wednesday, in the same way that one might dual-purpose a screwdriver handle for a hammer, or use a party in general for a TKZ topic. 

Photo by Dallas Reedy from unsplash.com

I hope that your current weekend is as good as the one I had last week. In the meanwhile…have you ever overheard a conversation that developed into dialogue within your work-in-progress or provided inspiration for a new work? If so, where did it happen? Thanks in advance. 

Photo by Hedi Alija from unsplash.com

But wait, there’s more! I would be sorely remiss if I failed to note that TKZ’s Elaine Viets is named on the cover of the new Mystery Scene magazine (Number 168, Summer 2021) and contributes the article “My Book: Death Grip,” in which she discusses her new novel and dive bars. Congratulations all around, Elaine!

 

The Reluctant Book Marketer – Guest post by Mark Leichliter

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Alex Loup, Unsplash

In May, Steve Hooley and I surveyed TKZ contributors about marketing and how they promote their work. Links below:

Part 1    Part 2

For most of us, marketing holds the same appeal as a kale and rutabaga smoothie.

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with Mark Leichliter, author, writing instructor, and editor. I mentioned what writers really need is advice about how to overcome our aversion to marketing.

Mark took up the challenge. He probed into why we hate it so much and offered some solutions.

I thought his ideas would make a good companion post to our recent marketing discussion.

Today please welcome Mark to the Zone.

~~~

If a tree falls in the forest…okay, we all know how this old philosophical question goes. How about this one? If an author publishes a book and no one knows about it… Easy to answer, right? A book without readers is still a book in the metaphysical definition, but its existence is pretty pointless. With one exception, the person who wrote it—you. But what if you are the sort of person who would rather hang around in the forest awaiting the sudden tree toppling than face marketing your book?

Count me as a forest dweller. The thought of promotion sends me scurrying into the deep timber. But unless you’re one of the eleven and a half writers around the world that a Big 5 publisher runs full page Times ads for, the work is going to fall to you. Big press, small press, no press, if we want to expand our audience beyond our own front door, we’ve got to face down marketing, even if we hate it.

I’ve got a few counts against me when it comes to book promotion. Perhaps you do as well. First, I’m shy. Students in classes or participants in workshops I’ve taught might not guess this to be true, but it is. Give me a business dinner where it’s all small talk, and I’m a disaster. It takes me ten minutes of chanting mantras to make a phone call. Second, my parents raised me—and I thank them—to be humble. And I grew up in the Inter-mountain West, a culture where people respect my right to be an individual but they’d rather not hear about my individuality. Third, I openly despise consumer culture. It’s apparently the marriage partner to an open capitalist market, but why must we constantly be sold everything? Ads stalking us on our phone, our clothing, in our music and movies and emails. Why would I want to participate in something so intrusive?

Here’s the thing. We’ve got to think about that silent forest again. Unless you are content with your audience of one, you’ve already entered the marketplace. So how do we take our reluctance to promote our books and change our approach to marketing? And how do we rise out of the din? Here are some tips I’ve learned for those of us who become physically ill at the thought of book promotion.

  • Distinguish between the book you’ve created and your role as its creator. Yes, in the vernacular of the marketplace, you’ve got a product to distribute now. But it’s also a book, something that can defy demographic typecasting and time. Books are unique products, so treat them that way. It starts by letting the thing exist separately from you. Sure, you poured yourself into it but now it exists (more metaphysics!). So do it a favor. Here’s a simple analogy; you might be reluctant to share some tiny triumph at work or some personal accomplishment, but if one of your children scored a goal or won a ribbon at the science fair, you’re going to shout it from the rooftops, right? Doesn’t your book-child deserve the same?
  • This is key; change the game. Don’t see your actions as marketing. More to the point, don’t reduce the book to only being a product you’re trying to sell. You’re used to flipping psychological switches in your brain on slow writing days in order to remain productive, so flip a different switch in how you see interacting with readers. It’s really a matter of respect for them. People seldom want to buy “products” anyway. They want to participate in a lifestyle they value. They want to follow passions. They want to be associated with things in which they place importance. You didn’t spend the years and the drafts writing your book while lukewarm about its themes, characters, and ideas. See promotion as an opportunity to engage others with those fronts. Don’t sell a product to consumers, enter a conversation with readers. Even if you are shy like me, when speaking about the topics I’m passionate about, I come out of my shell without thought. I can’t stomach that trivial cocktail party chitchat, but find the person at the party who shares interest in something we both find meaningful, and we’ll be there all night. Instead of “marketing” your book, look for venues where you can have conversations about mutual passions. There are thousands of bloggers and podcast hosts who run author interviews. Readers like to know the person behind the page. They like to engage with a writer because they love books. Find venues that take reader questions. Reach out to book clubs. Provide readers something of value and neither they, or you, will see your outreach as a sales job.
  • Control what you can control and work from your strengths. If the idea of appearing on a podcast makes you cringe, then focus on print interviews instead. You’re a writer aren’t you, then the prospect of providing written answers to questions for a blog actually offers you the chance to be creative, probe topics you care about, and do so from the comfort of your writing desk. Get more creative still. Propose a “day in the life” first person post from the viewpoint of one of your characters. Interview one of your characters. Or present the city your write about from the lens of your book. Or get yourself off the hook entirely and use an actual human source you turned to as a consultant for your book and interview them. There are plenty of fun, creative ways that feed your imagination and give readers something original in the process.
  • “See your friends.” My favorite soccer coaching colleague was a wonderful Thai guy who was a genius at simplifying the game. His go-to expression to players during scrimmage was, “See your friends.” Shy? Uncomfortable? Humble? Rather than go it alone, reach out to other writer friends or other authors from your publishing house. There’s tremendous comradery among writers, probably because we’re the only ones who truly understand how difficult writing and marketing a book really is. Propose dual blogger posts or offer a book site a conversation between you and another author. Suggest a multi-author panel for a podcast, a remote event, or a live appearance. There’s strength in numbers, for you, and for your audience. I guarantee that you will enjoy the conversation that emerges, and it won’t feel like marketing because it really isn’t. Sales and exposure are the offshoot. Moreover, you can share the workload.
  • Champion others rather than yourself. Remember that comradery comment. It’s real. And I know you’ve found other writers you want to see succeed. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to help find an agent for a writer friend simply because I believe in him and his book. Put some energy into broadcasting reviews, recommendations, and announcements about books by writers you admire or have learned from. Stand up for books you love. You’ll be doing a valuable service for readers. Do it because you care. Maybe the author will reciprocate. Don’t worry if they don’t. That shouldn’t be your motivation. You’re a participant in a bigger writing community, so be a good neighbor. We live in times where we need more kindness, so do someone else a solid. Put awful things like social media to some good use instead. Or take that five minutes to write a review on a seller’s site or a book community site. If people value what you have to say about books you love, many are going to want to know about your work as well.

You don’t have to become a PR cliché to produce effective promotion for your book. Look, you really do believe your book has value, right? Whether that’s simply entertainment value for a reader or a book that will challenge how they perceive the world, surely you are producing work that you are proud to have written—a book that deserves an audience. The thing is, you’re going to have to go out and find that audience. There’s a first step that has to happen before we can have the contemplative conversation about whether an unopened book on a bookshelf has value; first we’ve got to get it on the shelf, or better yet, in a reader’s hands.

~~~

Thanks for your insights, Mark! 

TKZers: Do you have mind tricks that help overcome your aversion to marketing? Please share.

~~~

 

Mark Leichliter’s new novel The Other Side debuts today, June 8. Sales links here.

How do you start an investigation when you have no evidence a crime has been committed?

 

How and Why Reading Improves Writing

To master the art of writing we need to read. Whenever the words won’t flow, I grab my Kindle. Reading someone else’s story kickstarts my creativity, and like magic, I know exactly what I need to do in my WIP.

“Read” is the easiest writing tip, yet one of the most powerful. And here’s why.

 

READING BENEFITS OUR WRITING 

  • Reading strengthens our skills and storytelling abilities.
  • Reading helps us become more persuasive, which is an essential skill when pitching a book to an agent, editor, producer, etc.
  • Fiction reading helps us hone the skills to draw the reader into the story and engage the reader.
  • Nonfiction reading helps us learn how to condense research into an authoritative proposal. And ultimately, into a storyline.
  • Reading expands our vocabulary, improves grammar, and shows how to use words in context.
  • Reading helps us find the right word!

READING IMPROVES BRAIN HEALTH 

Narratives activate many parts of our brains. In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. — New York Times

Whenever participants read words like “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex (the part of the brain that processes smell) lit up the fMRI machine. Words like “velvet” activated the sensory cortex, the emotional center of the brain. Researchers concluded that in certain cases, the brain can make no distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Pretty cool, right?

4 TIPS TO READ WITH A WRITER’S EYE

1. Look for the author’s persuasion tactics.

How does s/he draw you in?

How does s/he keep you focused and flipping pages?

What’s the author’s style, fast-pace or slow but intriguing?

Does the author have beautiful imagery or sparse, powerful description that rockets an image into your mind?

2. Take note of metaphors and analogies.

How did the metaphor enhance the image in your mind?

How often did the author use an analogy?

Where in the scene did the author use a metaphor/analogy?

Why did the author use a metaphor/analogy? Reread the scene without it. Did it strengthen or weaken the scene?

In a 2012 study, researchers from Emory University discovered how metaphors can access different regions of the brain.

New brain imaging research reveals that a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch, the parietal operculum, is also activated when someone listens to a sentence with a textural metaphor. The same region is not activated when a similar sentence expressing the meaning of the metaphor is heard.

A metaphor like “he had leathery hands” activated the participants’ sensory cortex, while “he had strong hands” did nothing at all.

“We see that metaphors are engaging the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses even though the metaphors are quite familiar,” says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University. “This result illustrates how we draw upon sensory experiences to achieve understanding of metaphorical language.”

 

3. Read with purpose.

As you read, study the different ways some writers tackle subjects, how they craft their sentences and employ story structure, and how they handle dialogue.

4. Recognize the author’s strengths (and weaknesses, but focus on strengths).

Other writers are unintentional mentors. When we read their work, they’re showing us a different way to tell a story—their way.

Ask, why am I drawn to this author? What’s the magic sauce that compels me to buy everything they write?

Is it how they string sentences together?

Story rhythm?

Snappy dialogue?

How they world-build?

Or all of the above?

I don’t know about you but I’m dying to jump back into the book I’m devouring. 🙂 What’s your favorite tip?

Wishing you a safe and happy Memorial Day! In between cookouts and family get-togethers, squeeze in time to read!

Looking for a new series to love?

FOR TODAY ONLY, all four Grafton County thrillers are on sale!

MARRED 99c
CLEAVED 99c
SCATHED $1.99
RACKED $1.99

 

The Unintentional Writer

Photo by Kasper Rasmussen on unsplash.com

I have received some correspondence recently to the effect that TKZ has some regular visitors who are not necessarily interested in becoming authors themselves.  They stop by because they are interested in how authors engage in the process by which writing is done. They have no inclination towards writing, let alone publishing a story. Think of folks who like to eat but who have no inclination toward cooking. This is aimed at those who enjoy literary feasts but have no inclination toward stirring the pot, though the Emerils in the audience may find it interesting as well. 

Our own Jim Bell contributed a deep but highly accessible piece the Sunday last titled “Advice for the Demoralized Writer.” It contains terrific advice which is applicable to all regardless of occupation but the crux of it is to do your very, very best while sublimating your expectations of awards or recognition. If your efforts garner such you will be pleasantly surprised. If not, you won’t be disappointed. I am going to take that advice a step further while aiming it in a different direction.

My suggestion is to write every day. That is not new or original advice. I am offering it particularly, however, to those of you who have no intention of or inclination toward starting or completing a story or having it revealed in the harsh light of day. Writing something every day because you want to, instead of when you have to, is good for you. I truly believe that writing regardless of length or motive makes one smarter — whatever that is — and yes, happier. Writing even one sentence of a few words per day enables you, the unintentional writer, to say, “I wrote this.” It may not give you an adrenaline rush but I submit to you that it will produce, at the least, a drop of it in your cup. It’s the difference between doing an action because you are required to (for reasons from within or without) and doing it because you want to. It can crack the ice that freezes your thinking, whether you write on a post-it, a computer, or your hand. It is an activity that you can do without prompting, or the desire of future reward, other than that occasioned by performing the act itself. I have mentioned this before, but the television series Miami Vice was born as the result of two words handwritten on a piece of paper. The words were “MTV cops.” Your results may differ. That’s the point. There are those who may keep a diary or journal for a similar reason. What I propose is not as involved. 

This post is but one example of “wanting to” as opposed to “being compelled to.” I started this post with one sentence, though it is not the introductory sentence that you see above. I wrote a few words to get rolling and then took off, as John Coltrane said, in both directions at once. It was because I wanted to. “The Kill Zone” name notwithstanding, no one here writes with a gun to their head. We are all here because we want to be, whether to write or to read what is written. 

Now we present below an example of some writing that a six-year-old miscreant was compelled to do as a classroom punishment in the closing days of first grade. History has not recorded what the lad did over sixty years ago to earn this assignment. If rehabilitation was the purpose please rest assured that the effort failed miserably.  It is a wonder that he ever took pen(cil) to paper again voluntarily, but he did occasionally and still does.

Photo by Al Thumbs Photography. All rights reserved.

Try what I suggest and see what happens. At worst you will have wasted a few seconds. At best, it could be the start of something big. As with most things, the end result may be somewhere in the middle. Don’t worry about that. This is a worry-free activity for enjoyment as opposed to production. Just put a few words down for the fun of it. You might be surprised.  

Actually, let’s try it right now. Seven words or less. Go! Here’s mine:

“He wondered where the painter was.” 

Have a relaxing Memorial Day. While you do so, please remember the reason for the season. Thank you. 

Photo by Justin Casey on unsplash.com

 

TKZ Marketing Survey – Part 2

By Debbie Burke

 @burke_writer

 

On Saturday, Steve Hooley kicked off Part 1 of the TKZ Marketing Survey. Today, I’ll cover the rest of the results and sum up our findings.

Before we get started, please indulge me for a moment. Back in November, I wrote about my good friend astrophysicist Sarah Rugheimer who’d been selected to deliver a TED talk. Several readers asked when her talk would go live. Yesterday was the day! Congratulations, Sarah! Here’s the link. 

~~~

Garry Rodgers’s answers (indie pub):

What is your goal with marketing?

 Two things which are intertwined. One is to sell more books (products). The other is to increase discoverability. Increasing my discoverability by distributing my brand in as many places as possible organically sells more books. By selling more books, I create read-through which increases my discoverability. Never underestimate the power of “word-of-mouse”.

What marketing do you do?

 I’ve appeared on many podcasts and blog interviews. I can’t say I’ve ever struck gold from one, but each exposure increases discoverability. (“You are the worst writer I’ve ever heard of.” “Yes. But you have heard of me.”)

 Blogging – Website

 Blogging is *BY FAR* the best ROI I’ve ever had. That includes my own blog at DyingWords, the Kill Zone posts, and many guest pieces I’ve done on other sites. Recently, I was “found” by a NYC film producer who landed on one of my old posts.  It led to discussions and to a potential NetFlix series which I’m outlining a proposal for as we speak.

 Newsletter

 I have 2100 subscribers on my mailing list, and I send out a new blog post every second Saturday – consistently. I get about 500 click-throughs so I’m happy with that. I’m in a publishing cycle of 1 book every 2 months so I put a post out promoting the release. However, when I look at my sales stats right after a newsletter, I don’t see any spike. I know the gurus say “Mailing List Mailing List Mailing List” but I’m not seeing it directly tied to sales spikes – It’s the long term exposure and a slow reader growth that pays off.

 Which social media platforms?

I do Facebook for personal laughs and Twitter for sharing writing stuff and making connections. I have an author FB page but haven’t done anything with it which is likely why there’s no return on it. I have a friend who writes under the pen name Chevy Stevens (because her real name is too hard to pronounce) who has killer FB returns and is her main reader connection. Twitter has been good for making personal connections in the writing business, but I can’t say it’s sold anything directly.

Paid ads

Now we’re talking returns. Pay-to-play ads are THE Thing that works for me. My money-maker is my based-on-true-crime series which is at Book #8. I have about 20 publications out there, but the read-through from the series is working very well. I have book 1 as perma-free and pay to advertise it on the discount newsletters – Ereader News Today (ENT) is the best payback. Last campaign resulted in 5K downloads and generated a read-through which brought a 3 to 1 return on investment. The other good returns are from Robin Reads, Fussy Librarian, Free Booksy, Bargain Booksy, Book Doggy, and Book Gorilla. I’ve tried one BookBub ad which was a flop and I have yet to try FB and AZ ads.

Conferences – networking

I’ve never been to a live writing conference. I was going to go to Bouchercon last year but you-know-who showed up and threw a wrench into the travel spokes. I’ve taken in a bunch of online conferences and webinars but you don’t get personal connections this way – at least not from my experience. I’ve cold-called high profile people on Twitter and have had surprisingly good results in having them guest appear on my blogsite.

Others

Absolutely nothing beats building a backlist and creating read-through. “Write More Books” is the best advice I’ve ever gotten, and that’s where I put most of my efforts at the moment. I changed my mindset last February to treat my writing like a business and not a hobby. I credit Adam Croft for this. Adam and I have been personal friends for ten years – I say back when Adam wasn’t famous and I still had color in my hair. Adam’s book, The Indie Author Mindset, https://www.amazon.com/Indie-Author-Mindset-changing-transform-ebook/dp/B07FZ3X349/  is a MUST-READ for any indie who intends to “make it” in this biz.

 “Going Wide” is another must-do tactic. I started on Kobo and Nook last April and have had over 30K downloads in 66 different countries since then. Yes, many are freebies but the discoverability and read-through in paid sales has been remarkable – truly rewarding and motivating to write more books.

For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?)

I keep a journal/daily log where I track my time in 15 minute blocks. On a good writing day, I get in 3,000 – 3,500 words and I write about 1,000 words per hour so that’s 3 – 3.5 solid writing hours per day. Most days I put in 8 – 10 hours of solid time in what I call the four Ps – Production, Publishing, Promotion, and Perfection. Production is about 5 days per week. Publishing goes in spurts – 1 book every 2 months. Promotion is all the time – here, there & everywhere – every action is some sort of promotion (like this). Perfection never happens but what I mean by this is craft improvement. I read a lot and across the board, not just genre specific. I just finished a book titled “Profiles In Folly” which is about world-changing stupid things done by influential people. Hopefully, I don’t appear in the sequel.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective?

Write more books is the most effective. Pay-to-play ads is second. Networking with influencers who can increase discoverability is a close third.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above?

These publications: “Indie Author Mindset” – Adam Croft, “On Writing” – Stephen King, “Elements of Style” – Strunk & White, “Wired For Story” – Lisa Cron, “Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us” – Jessica Page Morrell, “Self-Editing For Fiction Writers” – Dave King & Renni Browne, and “Think And Grow Rich” – Napoleon Hill.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic?

I have to say the pandemic was the best thing ever for my writing business. It was coincidental that I changed my mindset last February just before this thing hit, but I increased my output and promotions. I think more people had more time to read and were looking for new stuff as well as more people turning to ebooks because they couldn’t get out to the bricks & mortar stores – plus they also got comfortable with ereading devices. So it was the perfect storm that propelled me from zero to hero. I can’t wait for the next wave. Bring it!  J

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over?

I would have taken this more seriously far earlier. You can’t turn back the clock of reality – only go forward with the flow and write more books. Write, publish, repeat – as they say.

Where do you sell your books?

Amazon – 70%. Kobo – 29. Nook – 1%. I’m going to publish on Apple and Google this year. Plus look into print and audio options. Amazon is strong in the US and the UK, but Kobo (Rakutan) has immense world-wide reach. Nook is barely worth the effort however I hear great things about Apple.

 Series with a permafree first issue really works. And you’ve got to keep your name out there – you never know when Netflix comes calling.

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Joe Hartlaub’s answers (trad pub):

What is your goal with marketing? Get my name out there.

What marketing do you do or participate in? Zoom interviews, blogging at killzoneblog.com,

Facebook, networking at Bouchercon.

For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Irregularly, unfortunately.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? Blogging and networking.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? Just getting out there and learning along the way.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? No Bouchercon!

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? I would have started getting involved with the writing community earlier than I did.

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Sue Coletta’s answers (trad pub):

What is your goal with marketing? To reach a wider audience.

What marketing do you do or participate in? Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews – Blogging – Website – Newsletter – Social media – Conferences – networking

All of the above. I’ve done Zoom book events, appeared on podcasts, blog tours, interviews, and in-person appearances (in the nice weather). I blog on TKZ and my site, Murder Blog. If it weren’t for my website/blog, I would’ve missed out on so many amazing opportunities. Some authors say writers don’t need to blog, but I disagree. We all need a home base where readers/agents/publishers can find you, and social media is NOT a home base. Last year, I buckled down to write a separate newsletter for readers (I’ve always sent blog-related newsletters), and the response has been positive so far. Networking with other writers is key. The writing community is a generous, kind, funny, little crazy tribe, and I wouldn’t trade any of them. J

 For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Depends if I have a new release or what I’m doing. Zoom events take a lot longer than, say, social media marketing.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? I think it’s all important. I view marketing as a sum of its parts (blogging, social media, book signings, etc). Most effective? Appearances, either in person or virtual.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? Other writers. Nine times out of ten, a writer will share advice with another writer. It’s what we do.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? I’ve done a lot more virtual events than in person. Now that I’m fully vaccinated (yay!) I’ve booked my usual venues for the upcoming season.

 Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? Too many things to mention. Top answer: Plan where you want to see your career in five years, ten years, fifteen years. Then be patient and choose an agent or house that can help you achieve your goals.

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Debbie Burke’s answers (indie pub):

What is your goal with marketing? Connect PERSONALLY with as many readers as possible b/c I strongly believe in old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations. That is more rewarding to me than 10K followers I’ll never meet. I’d like to sell more books but thankfully I don’t depend on writing income to survive.

What marketing do you do? Zoom discussions with book clubs and educational presentations for writing groups. Radio and newspaper interviews in my local area.

Blogging – Website Not as much as I should for my own blog/website. Most blogging is for TKZ.

Social media – Twitter only for name recognition. I doubt that generates sales.

Paid ads – In the past, I’ve bought cheap ads ($50 and under) directed to mystery/thriller genre readers. Never broke even. Trying out some of Garry’s strategies and will report back later. 

A personal observation – I’m deluged with constant ads and am sick of them. I rarely buy any product solely b/c of an ad. Most of the time, I delete w/o reading them. I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling. 

Conferences – In the past, in-person appearances/workshops at conferences.

Networking – most speaking invitations come from networking with people I know or have met from previous appearances.

Others – I have had good luck partnering with other authors for appearances. Two other authors and I give presentations as the “Montana Women of Mystery.”

For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?)

Speaking, classes, workshops – 5+ hours prep time per event plus presentation time. Blogging – 10+ hours/month.

Social media – 1 hour/month.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? At book clubs, close to 100% of participants buy books, but numbers are small since most clubs have fewer than 20 members. For general speaking appearances, 20-25% of participants buy books. In 2017-2019, blogging on TKZ resulted in significant sales spikes but tapered off in 2020-2021. I suspect any TKZ regulars who are interested have already bought my books so that market is somewhat saturated. However, exposure and repetition are still important. When readers see my name regularly, like blogging on TKZ every other week, they think of me. I just spoke to a mystery group in Arizona that found me through TKZ.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? JSB’s book Marketing for Writers Who Hate Marketing; Jane Friedman’s blog; Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur; Authors Guild discussion groups; asking other authors what works for them; trial and error.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? Zoom instead of in-person appearances. Zoom allows meeting with groups outside my local area. I’m increasing those promotions b/c appearances work better for me than advertising. 

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? I wish I’d gotten my rights back sooner from the original publisher and rereleased the book independently.

My sales are not great but I only have so much time and energy. I’d rather concentrate on writing more books. Now that six are available, I’m increasing promotion and see a gradual but steady increase in sales. Readers of my prior books are repeat customers. My following is small but loyal and growing. I still feel producing more product is more important than advertising.

Where do you sell your books? For several years, my books were exclusive with Amazon but there is no longer any advantage to exclusivity. Several months ago (prompted by Garry and Terry), I “went wide” and books are now for sale at B&N, Kobo, Apple, and other online markets through Draft2Digital – too soon to see results but wider availability can’t hurt; local indie bookstores sell paperbacks; I sell paperbacks at book signings and presentations.

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What do all these results add up to?

Besides increased sales, several consistent themes for the goal of marketing were repeated: name recognition, discoverability, word-of-mouth, and building customer loyalty.

Seven contributors mentioned Zoom as an important development that’s replaced in-person appearances. Two additionally mentioned doing Zoom appearances in partnership with other authors.

According to all nine survey respondents, blogging is definitely not dead. Several said they’d cut back on other blogging but continue with TKZ.

Six authors use newsletters.

Paid ads yield the most varied responses, with some authors having good results while others didn’t believe ads were worth the cost. BookBub was mentioned several times as the most effective advertising.

Social media is viewed by the majority as a necessary evil that doesn’t generally sell books but increases name recognition. Several complained SM wastes too much time but needs to be done. Facebook and Twitter are the most used venues, although a couple of authors mentioned You Tube and podcasts.

Jim Bell offers wise advice about social media in his book Marketing for Writers who Hate to Market:

“Here is my advice regarding social media.

Pick one platform to specialize in.

One.

Pick the one you enjoy most, or think you can handle best.

If you want to have a presence on other platforms, to experiment, go ahead. But place your focus on one.

Use it to the extent you enjoy it, and no more.

Use it for actual engagement with those who follow you.

Be a good content provider, and a good listener.

Avoid venting your spleen on social media. Because besides being a lousy place to sell books, it’s a horrible place to take controversial positions. There is no true discussion here, because that’s not what social media is set up for.

Don’t post drunk.

Make all people glad they follow you.

Earn trust. When it’s time to mention a book, you’ll have earned the right to do so.”

Nearly all authors lamented the loss of in-person conferences. Two have not previously attended conferences and expressed disappointment over cancellations.

Networking at conferences was cited as enormously important because those contacts often opened up other opportunities as well as marketing avenues.

Two indie authors mentioned “going wide” to other sales outlets besides Amazon.

“Write more books” was noted by most respondents as the best marketing tool.

This survey confirmed that there is no marketing magic bullet. It’s time-consuming, long-term work. Results don’t happen overnight. But, if we want to sell books, we gotta do it.

 Steve, thanks for coming up with this topic and including me as your co-conspirator. Thanks also to the TKZ family who answered questions and shared helpful insights.

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Over to you, TKZers. What type of marketing is most productive for you? Did you learn any new methods from this survey you’d like to try?

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Note: I’m taking Garry’s advice on “permafree” for the first book in my series. So far, results look very promising. Thanks, Garry! 

 

 

Instrument of the Devil is now FREE. Please give it a read. If you like it, come back and check out five more books in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.