5 Ways Music Can Help Writers

Blog 84 ImageThis week, I listened to a CBC interview of Ian Rankin in which he discusses the large influence music has had on him. The same is true for me. I especially remember punk and new wave emerging in my late 70s undergrad days. I was in an all-male residence and there was a big debate over how that music measured up to traditional rock. We did agree to disparage disco…until we figured out girls didn’t show up at our parties without it.

Here’s how music can help writers.

Inspiration. Music can inspire a writer to sit down and start writing. The melody or rhythm might energize him. The lyrics might spawn a storyline. The emotion might conjure a scene. (Or he might just be inspired to listen to the next song. No one said it was easy.)

A background for writing…maybe. I need quiet to write. Otherwise I can’t hear the characters speak or feel the rhythm of sentences. Lots of writers do have music on when they write. In the interview, Rankin talks about using electronic music as he writes to separate his real and fictional worlds. Each to his own here.

Characterization. When a writer shares a character’s musical interests, he helps readers learn how the character emotes. In a difficult situation or looking for comfort, does the character long for Dylan’s penetrating lyrics, Miles Davis’s aching trumpet or Amy Winehouse’s sorrowful vocals? In effect, music is a shorthand way for readers to feel more involved, positively or negatively, with characters.

So, at least for main characters, a writer may want to ask himself what music they like. And rather than just saying that a character likes jazz or Top 40, the writer can pick an artist or sub-genre, give the music a listen and figure out what draws the character. Whether or not that detail finds its way into the book, the writer will know his character better.

Setting. In describing setting, writers usually focus on the visual. But telling readers what can be heard offers a lot, too. A Top 40 song places the period of a scene. Music defines a club or bar. A background song increases the sense of a character brooding over a difficult problem.

For Social Exploration. Of course, many writers use their stories to explore social conditions. The musical context can be highly relevant. A great example is Esi Edugyan‘s Half-Blood Blues, which uses jazz in 1940s Europe as a backdrop.

Time for me to go listen to some Deep Purple.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Writer Promotion: Social Media

Blog 83 ImageIn my blog series “How to Self-Publish”, I’ve been posting about how writers can promote their books and themselves. Needless to say, these days everyone thinks about social media as a way to promote.

I’ve been careful in my use of social media. I continue to think that a writer’s best promotional tools are creating a good book and word of mouth. However, social media used intelligently and efficiently is an important support.

Here are my thoughts on approaches that work and that don’t.

Social Media Approaches That Work

  1. Pick a Few Platforms. There are many social media platforms writers can use: Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, Snapchat and others. A writer working alone won’t have the time for a meaningful presence on all platforms. Instead, to share effectively, he should focus on learning and contributing to one or two platforms.
  2. Look to Build Relationships. At its core, a writer’s promotion is effective when it results in readers talking about the writer or his books. People are more likely to do that if they feel connected to the writer in some way. A writer should approach social media as a way to offer that connection in an online relationship.
  3. Share in a Way that Builds Those Relationships. Content that helps or interests others will build connections. Authentic personal sharing that’s not overdone may as well. Sharing about writing is good but many topics will work.
  4. Have Fun and Be Creative. Maintaining a social media presence for the long term can be daunting. Writers who choose platforms and content that interest and inspire them will find it easier.
  5. Analyse the Results. Most social media platforms as well as Google offer analytics so that a writer can see which of his shares are effective. That information, in turn, allows him to be more efficient in contributing.

Social Media Approaches That Don’t Work

  1. There’s No Time Left for Writing. Again, the starting point for a writer is a good book. Any promotional method, including using social media, must leave time for the writing.
  2. Sales Pitches. A writer who only uses social media to tell people to buy his book will lose, not build, relationships.
  3. Making It All About the Writer. Except perhaps for the most successful writers, content that looks outward instead of inward will interest social media contacts more.
  4. Making It All About the Numbers. More friends on FB and followers on Twitter is not the best social media goal. The numbers can be bloated by folks trying to flog services or with only a passing interest in the writer. A smaller number of good connections is better.
  5. Forgetting About the Visual. Much of social media is a visual experience while the writer’s bedrock is of course words. Writers who don’t use images or videos in social media will be excluded from some platforms (Instagram) or have poorer take-up on others (FB). Even on Twitter, photos increase impressions.

Overall, it’s best to experiment and keep learning, a few minutes each day.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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When a Manuscript’s Current Draft Is Done

Blog 82 ImageToday I finished the current draft of my third book. The book is coming together nicely but I’m tired. This is what I will and won’t do this week.

Will do

Enjoy the fall leaves…now on the ground and sidewalks.

Watch every documentary on Netflix about late 60s and early 70s rock bands.

Make the “new and better” carrot cake mix that’s been in my kitchen cupboard for a year.

Play a video game (kidding…or maybe not).

Ignore the MS.

Feel thankful for what I have.

Won’t do

Spellchecks.

Worry if pages 179 and 403 are consistent.

Ask why some of my characters are so nasty.

Wonder if the book’s ending is too Hollywood.

Look at the MS.

Try to understand world events.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Writer Promotion: Blogging

Blog 81 imageThe most recent posts in my blog series “How to Self-Publish” have been about promotion. This week I’m discussing blogging.

Should a writer blog? It’s very common to read recommendations that fiction writers, whether traditionally published or self-published, should blog in order to promote themselves and their books. This remains true even with the rise of social media. However, does it work?

Looking at my experience to date, I’m afraid I’m not sure.

I can’t relate my blogging efforts to any sales, so at that level, I just don’t know. Certainly, I’ve never been told by a reader of my blog that she went on to buy a book.

However, I can also measure the usefulness of blogging by the extent of my online presence. Traffic has gone up over time but it’s a slow go. I do get regular compliments about my blog content, though.

One of the main benefits of blogging, I find, is that I learn a lot about writing and publishing. That helps with other types of promotion such as library presentations.

So, overall, I would say that blogging continues to offer good opportunities for writer promotion. However, it’s a lot of work, and since there’s enormous competition for the attention of readers, it takes a long-term commitment to see results. Writers should think carefully whether blogging is the best and most enjoyable use of their limited time for promotion.

What should a writer blog about? Everything in blogging starts with the content. If a writer blogs regularly, it can be surprisingly difficult to think of topics. I think of topics as falling into one four categories:

  • insights into the writer and/or his work
  • insights into other writers and/or their works
  • “how to” and “tips” posts about writing
  • discussions of other interests the writer has.

My experience is that readers appreciate short content. They also like content containing personal experience or that answers a specific question. Blogging about the craft of writing is fun, but it tends to interest other writers and not readers.

What makes blogging more effective? Generally, blogging will have wider reach if the writer:

  • posts regularly (I post every Sunday evening)
  • adds images to posts
  • links the blog to social media
  • considers closely what the best search terms for the blog are
  • reviews analytics to see which posts do best
  • searches out opportunities to guest post on other blogs
  • comments on other bloggers’ posts with the aim of getting comments on his content.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Characters: Giving Readers What They Want

Blog 80 imageIn “Thoughts on Writing”, I’ve been posting about issues I’m grappling with as I rewrite my third book. A big focus of the rewrite is character development, which is partly based on comments of several readers on the prior draft. Today’s issue: how far do I go to respond to those comments?

Some writers advise not to use beta readers at all. Stand tall and believe in your book, they say. It makes me wonder what they do with comments about characters they get from their editor(s). At the other extreme, I’ve heard of writers who try to incorporate all comments from editors and beta readers except where they conflict. Their books are almost crowd-sourced and thus, perhaps the thinking goes, guaranteed to please all.

I treat my books as my own but do pay attention to what my beta readers say about my characters. Here are the guidelines I (currently) use for those comments.

Fix or explain the inconsistencies. If a beta reader finds an inconsistency in the history or preferences of one of my characters, I obviously fix that. However, there might be a good explanation for other inconsistencies. For example,a character who reacts differently to similar situations might do so because of an epiphany or personal growth. Or I might have screwed up and should make the reactions conform.

Watch for the same comment from several readers. I’ve posted this before, but if more than one reader identifies the same issue with a character, I usually try to resolve the issue.

A character’s depth can be improved. I aim to make my key characters rounded. When I’m told that a character is flat or superficial, I almost always work to improve that.

Consider what to do if the character, a trait or an action is unbelievable. I work hard to understand a comment along these lines. I often talk to the beta reader for more input. Sometimes I make changes and sometimes I don’t.

Consider what to do if the character’s not likeable. This is a tough one. In The Case for Killing and False Guilt, quite a few characters are troubled or irritating. Often, I’ve resisted change and told myself that, yes, those were the characters I wanted. In the third book, I’m interested in creating some key characters who readers would like to spend time with, even if they’re flawed. So I’m paying more attention to comments regarding likeability.

Focus hard on comments about characters with backgrounds different than mine. An excellent example for me is writing female characters. My goal is for them to be authentic and I ask my female beta readers to help with that.

Drop humour that’s flopping. What I find funny others often don’t. If the humour of one of my characters is failing, I get rid of it. No matter how much I laugh at it.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Writer Promotion: The Website

Blog 79 imageDespite the amazing social media tools available, a website remains at the core of a writer’s promotional strategy.

As one peels away the onion, there is a lot that can be written about starting and maintaining a website. Here are the very basics.

Not so fast. Does a writer really have to bother with a website? For almost every serious writer, the answer is yes. Readers and others expect a writer to have an online presence. They will do an online search and look for a website. In turn, a website is one of the best ways for a writer to control his online presence and public profile.

Can’t a writer just rely on Facebook? No. On a website, a writer provides structured information. Facebook is about social engagement. They change their platform all the time, in part to earn advertising dollars. See Jane Friedman’s blog.

What should a writer’s goals be in having a website? A website should provide:

  1. Clear information about the writer and his expertise (home and bio pages) for viewers and search engines.
  2. Synopses and reviews of all his books and other content (novels and reviews pages).
  3. Links to retailers of his books.
  4. The ability to interact by blogging, email (contact page), collecting email addresses for a newsletter, posting works in progress and links to social media.
  5. Data collection so that a writer can judge his digital efforts.

See this blog by Jane Friedman.

Okay. How does a writer start and maintain a website? In the broadest terms, the choices are:

  1. Hire a web designer experienced with author websites. Your site will look great but of course you have to pay for the design and ongoing hosting and maintenance. For self-published writers, that cost may be prohibitive.
  2. Self-host using “content management systems” like WordPress.org. Roughly, self-hosting is where the writer has access to all of his website files and the servers where those files are stored/hosted. The writer has broad ability to customize his site and add functionality (plug-ins) and analytics. However, the writer is responsible for security, backups and management, and may still need a designer’s help. For an excellent blog on self-hosting, see this blog by Jane Friedman.
  3. Operate your site on someone else’s domain. For example, this blog uses WordPress.com. This is the simplest and can be virtually cost free. However, while becoming more impressive, customization using themes and analytics are more limited. Also, the domain might disappear.

For all choices, the writer must purchase a domain name. Hopefully [author name].com is available.

Does a writer need to blog? WordPress.com and some like it began as blog web hosting services. Sites operated on WordPress.com are now easily customized to be websites without blogs. I’ll have more to say about whether a self-published writer should or should not blog in a future post.

What is SEO? This is not a disease but an acronym for search engine optimization. A writer will want his website/blog to appear as high and often in online searches as possible. There’s an entire industry that strategizes how to do this based on search engine algorithms. The good news is that sites like WordPress.org (self-hosting) and WordPress.com (domain hosting) are, I’m told, quite good at handling SEO.

Build away!

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Refining Plot

Blog 78 imageTwo weeks ago I posted that I had received comments on the current draft of my third book and that I was working on developing some characters further. However, I need to make some plot changes, too, and that has me asking what the best process to refine plot is.

Some writers create an outline for a book that is so detailed, they don’t make material changes to plot when they write the book. Other writers find an interesting premise for a book, start writing and let the story take them where it might.

I’m somewhere in between. For the first draft of a book, I have a premise that leads to an outline. Then, following the outline, I start writing. However, as I work through chapters, I usually think of plot changes that will make the book more interesting. Then I amend the outline, write some more, and so on, until the first draft appears. I repeat this process over many drafts to get the final book.

But refining the plot in later drafts can be tricky. I write mystery/thrillers and the plots become more intricate as I create new drafts. Changing a plot in a later draft of a book, such as the third one I’m working on now, can be nerve-wracking. A tinker in one chapter can have a domino effect across several other chapters. Occasionally the plot looks ready to unravel.

Here are three things that help me to refine plot in later drafts.

First, I only make changes that I’m very certain will create a better book.

Second, I amend the outline from beginning to end, but more with instructions than specifics. For example, I might write “X needs to reveal motive by this point, not in chapter 20.”

And third, ultimately I let the creative writing process do its work. I might worry about how to implement a plot change. How exactly will X reveal her motive? Why, when, where? Yet, when I reach the chapter that needs a change, if I let my imagination work with the scene, nine times out of ten, the change emerges and fits well.

Every writer must find his best way to refine plot. Maybe some of what I do will help.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Writer Promotion: Family and Friends

Blog 77 ImageThis is the start of several posts in my series “How to Self-Publish” discussing methods of promotion. Today’s post is about asking for the help of family and friends.

The challenge for a self-published writer is getting people to know about his book and interested enough to read it. If he wants readers to buy his book, as opposed to sampling it on a subscription service or getting a free copy, he must be confident that readers will feel they’ll get value for their money.

Family and friends can help with all these issues.

First, because of their connection to the writer, they’re the most likely group to actually read the book, despite busy lives. That’s the start of a reader base.

Second, family and friends are also among the most likely to give feedback. This means that, after completing the book, they’ve sat back and considered it. It also means that they have an opinion that they can share with others. So, assuming the opinion is favorable, they can create word of mouth about the book and thus promote it.

I’m a firm believer that this type of word of mouth has great potential to drive interest in a book and sales. Every family member and friend has his or her own group of family and friends, who in turn have their own groups, and so on. Word of mouth can spread quite far and quickly through these multiple channels.

When I published The Case for Killing, I didn’t take advantage of this obvious method of promotion. I was concerned that I was imposing on family and friends, and thought that people to whom family and friends recommended the book would think the recommendation wasn’t objective.

What I didn’t appreciate is that if I approach family and friends about my book thoughtfully, and if family and friends make their recommendations the same way, most people will take the information on board and make their own decision. Now I think family and friends, especially those who read my book, are powerful allies in the tough world of marketing a book.

So tell family and friends about your book. And ask them to tell others. In a nice way.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Becoming a Character

Blog 76 imageHere’s another post under “Thoughts on Writing”.

Over the last four weeks, I’ve been receiving comments on the current draft of my third book. I have a lot of reason to be optimistic and a lot of work to do!

One thing that’s become clear is that, while I’ve nailed many characters, a few, including two key ones, need to develop further.

At first, I had rough ideas that one character should be more interesting, another stronger and a third fleshed out. However, I wanted to understand the nature and scope of these ideas before I started the book’s next draft. The alternative was to sort out the characterizations while rewriting, but I knew that would be inefficient.

So, here’s what I did, and it worked well enough to share with you.

I took a day for each character that needed work, and drafted letters and emails about the events leading up to the book pretending I was that character. For example, an email of one character begins this way.

“Dear X,

Many thanks for calling me after my first letter. We had such a good talk and I thought I’d done just as we decided. Talk to her. Communicate. Find out what she wants. But she left anyway.”

It was a fascinating process. With little prodding, each character gave me five or six letters and emails. I just had to step into that character’s shoes and imagine he/she had enough on his/her mind to want to share problems with a confidant. When I wrote the correspondence, the character, not I, was writing.

In other words, in each of those three days, I became one of the characters for a few hours. And I learned a lot living in their heads.

Now I just have to reflect it all in the book’s next draft!

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Getting Discovered: Self-Publishing Promotion

Blog 75 imageIn my series of blogs called How to Self-Publish, it’s time to turn to promotion.

So, imagine a writer who’s completed a book of fiction, had it edited and had a cover designed. He’s decided to self-publish the book, and selected the distribution channels and prices for the digital and print versions. But how does he get readers to buy the book?

This question is the discoverability problem. I’m going to spend the next few blogs trying to help with it. I say “trying” because there’s no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. There simply are too many good writers and books vying for readers’ attention.

What I do think is clear is this. Readers will only buy a self-published writer’s book if they believe they’ll be entertained or get some other benefit. This means they have to know about the book and likely what other readers think about it. For this, the writer must:

  1. Make sure his book is good. Probably really good.
  2. Promote himself and his book in a way that readers generally like.
  3. Be persistent at that promotion.
  4. Keep assessing what’s working and what’s not.
  5. Understand that he often won’t have any idea why a reader bought his book.
  6. Leave lots of time to write the next book.

A tall order!

So, in my next posts in this category, I’m going to discuss promotional strategies like developing word of mouth through family and friends, getting reviews, building a website and blogging, using social media, giving presentations and a few others.There’s lots written already on these strategies, so I’ll be adding my personal experiences.

And I’ll be hoping to hear the experiences of others.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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