I’m delighted to feature a writing prompt by the very talented David Hubbard, who is one of those rare writers who excels at both poetry and prose.
David is a writer/poet living in Carlsbad, California, about thirty-five miles north of San Diego, where he works as an environmental law attorney. He published poetry in the late 1990s, stopped writing for about fifteen years to pursue a law career, and recently started up again. Last year, he had a story published in the May issue of Marginalia and also has a poem forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine.
When David recently told me about an inspiring writing exercise he did, which resulted not only in solving a writing issue but also led to the publication of a new poem (see below), I invited him to do this guest prompt. It’s a fabulous exercise for all writers, and I think you’ll enjoy it. Best of all, you’ll find a link to the published poem that grew out of it. Enjoy:
When I write a short story, I usually have a pretty good idea how to move the narrative from point A to point Z. There aren’t many scenes or episodes to keep track of and I don’t often get stuck. But now I’m writing a novel about the travels and trials of a young American photographer. There are a lot more things to juggle, technically speaking, and I recently ran into a problem that seemed intractable. I was trying to write an important scene that involves a house fire in New Orleans, and I couldn’t get the pieces to fit together. No matter what angle I attempted, I couldn’t make it right. I wasn’t blocked – I had plenty of words and ideas – I just couldn’t figure out how to make the movie in my head play out on the page.
So I did something to trick myself out of the rut.
Rather than beat my head to a pulp, I decided to alter the format by which I was attempting to write the scene in question. I stopped attacking it as prose and attacked it as a poem instead. The concision required of a good poem forced me to tease out the essentials of the scene and select the absolute best words to create the images and carry the story. In addition, the poetic form freed me of the kind of long descriptive passages that make a novel feel like – well – a novel. I also didn’t have to worry about dialogue.
When the poem was finished, I liked it well enough to send it out to some literary journals, one of which picked it up for publication. More important, however, it wiped the fog from my eyes and brain and I could sense for the first time how to render the scene in prose, thus allowing the novel to move forward (toward the next frustrating ditch, no doubt).
So the prompt is this: Take one of your incomplete stories (everybody’s got at least five) or your unfinished novel and locate the scene where the narrative ran off the rails – that point where you gave up and shoved the whole mess into the desk drawer or trash can. Now approach that scene not as a prose problem but as a poetry problem. Or try a third format, like pure dialogue, as if you were writing a play instead of a novel or short story. I think you’ll find that this switch in writing formats will yank you out of the loop that was causing you to drink too much.
When I learned, in 2008, that my first book would be published, I didn’t even have a Facebook account. (I was also the last person on the planet to get an answering machine in the eighties and the last person to get a cell phone in the nineties.) In general, I like solitude, or being with people face-to-face. So it was with great reluctance that I signed up for Facebook, which, as most writers know, is pretty much non-negotiable if you have a book out in the world that you actually want people to read.
I discovered that, even for someone who likes her solitude and face time, it wasn’t difficult to get hooked on Facebook. Let’s face it: It can be addictive. The good news for writers is that for at least part of the time you’re on Facebook, you’re doing legitimate work. The bad news: The rest of the time, you’re not — and you have to balance this Facebook time with writing your next book, with not ignoring your family, and with your day job.
So I wanted to offer a few Facebook tips for writers that will help you achieve that balance:
– First, consider setting up a book or author page so that you don’t necessarily need to combine your author life with your personal life. (See below for more on privacy issues.) I have my own personal Facebook page, but I post the majority of book news on my Forgetting English page. While I know that most of my Facebook friends do care about the book, I also know that they have lives, and they don’t need to hear about every review or every event, especially if they’ve already read the book or have already been to a reading. So having a separate page also allows people to “Like” the book if they want updates, or not to if they don’t. Another thing to keep in mind if you don’t have a separate author/book page is that you may not wish to be Friends with every reader; you may want to keep your private life more private. (Again, see below for more on privacy.)
– Make friends. Facebook is a great way to reconnect with old friends, colleagues, acquaintances — I was thrilled to have recently connected with the high-school English teacher who played an enormous role in my becoming a writer; until now, she hadn’t realized I’d written a book — so this was wonderful. And Facebook provides an even better way to stay connected to new people you meet at readings and conferences (who needs business cards anymore?). So do be open to friend requests from fellow writers, readers, and others — but be sure to accept friend requests only from people you know or want to know (you can always de-friend them later, of course, but this is very awkward). And reach out and connect with readers, writers, and students yourself; try to include a personal message if it’s someone you don’t know or don’t know well, or someone who may need to be reminded of where he or she met you. (And if your friend request isn’t accepted, this article offers seven possible reasons why.)
– Don’t be overly promotional; it’s the quickest way to get hidden or even (gasp!) de-friended. I know I’ve been guilty of this on occasion — it’s hard not to be enthusiastic when your book first launches or when a great new review comes out — but you always have to balance this with the danger of becoming boring, or annoying, or worse.
— You’ll definitely want to show your personal side, but don’t offer Too Much Information. Readers love getting glimpses into writers’ lives — to a point. Stay focused on offering readers a little more than they can get from the bio on your book jacket without taking away all the mystery or freaking them out with details they may not want to know about you.
– Be respectful. If you want to attract a wide audience for your book, carefully consider political rants or offbeat humor posts before posting them. It’s not that you shouldn’t be who you are — you should, especially if you have strong opinions that define you; again, readers love getting to know writers — but just know that what you say affects how you’re perceived.
– Keep your social media separate. Different forms of social media are, and should be, used in different ways (I’ll be writing about Twitter for Authors in an upcoming post). Some believe that everything should be networked — that your blog posts and tweets and status updates should all be connected — but in fact, this can be counterproductive in that your followers/friends are then inundated with every single update in every format possible. And sometimes — especially around book-launch time when you’re in promotion mode — this can be too much, and you may be hidden or de-friended from the very people you hope to engage. So while it may take a little extra time, don’t bombard all your accounts with every bit of information you want to disseminate. Choose the best option for each outlet, and go from there.
– Be active. This doesn’t mean spending all your time on Facebook, however. I could lose myself for hours and always find it a challenge to stay active and engaged on one hand, and to get work and writing done on the other. Try setting yourself a schedule — a half an hour in the morning, a half an hour at night; one hour a day; one day a week — whatever works. My friend Kelli Russell Agodon inspired me to try Facebook Fridays, in which I only log onto Facebook one day a week. It works very well in general, but I do cheat when I have book news to share or vacation photos to show off. Find a rule that works for you, but give yourself room to be flexible about it.
– Safeguard your privacy, and that of your friends and family. Facebook has gotten a lot of bad publicity when it comes to privacy issues, but in fact, it’s often the users themselves who offer up far more information than Facebook does. The first line of defense is not to become friends with anyone you don’t know personally — but of course this isn’t realistic for authors trying to promote books; the goal is to reach out and connect with readers everywhere. So you may be opening up your Facebook profile to a lot of strangers — most of whom will be wonderful people, some of whom may not be. As this Wall St. Journal article reports, it’s possible that your Facebook page may be examined for anything from jury selection to custody battles — providing another good reason not to reveal too much to the general public or to friend anyone you don’t know. And check out this article about how much you may be revealing to criminals on Facebook without realizing it.
Here are a few good rules to go by in terms of protecting your privacy while being open to connecting with readers:
– Do not include on your Facebook profile anything that can be used to access any of your personal information (including email, banking, day job passwords, healthcare accounts, etc.). For example, I don’t include anything in my profile that you can’t find on my web site or blog. And, yes, this will exclude many of the things that make Facebook fun, such as your birthday, your pets’ names, your hometown, your alma mater, etc. But think about it: The passwords you use and/or security questions you answer to access your bank accounts or credit cards usually have to do with things only you will know (supposedly). So consider this before you share it all online.
– Adjust your settings to keep certain things private: your email, your phone number, your address; any of these can be used to hack into a bank account either by phone or online. (And I’m not just being paranoid here; I’ve seen it happen.)
– Disable the Places feature that “checks you in” — which essentially means that everyone on Facebook knows exactly where you are when you post. If you’re on a book tour, naturally you’ll be posting about that — but do keep in mind that all of your connections will then know you’re out of town and for how long. Again, avoid putting your address anywhere, especially if your place will be empty while you’re away. And while you’re at it, you might also mention that you have a big, hulking neighbor keeping an eye on your home while dog-sitting for your Dobermans.
– Enable https, which is under Account Security — this enables secure browsing and will help prevent your account from being hacked into (surely I’m not the only one who’s gotten emails from friends saying, “Sorry, that nasty video wasn’t from me — my account was hacked!”). This is especially important if you’re using a wireless network or a public computer.
– Take care with apps and games. For increased privacy, one thing you’ll want to do is uncheck the boxes in the Info Available to Applications setting — Facebook encourages you to check all the boxes, saying “the more you share, the more social the experience,” when in fact, the more you share, the more vulnerable you are. And as this article outlines, even those fun “games” people enjoy on Facebook, like “25 Things About Me” and “Who Knows You Best” can reveal information that you don’t want the wrong people to have, especially if you use any of this sort of information to log into bank accounts. Remember the one about describing your first car? I thought that was a fun one too … until I noticed that info about my car is one of the security questions my bank uses.
– Be careful what you post. If that WSJ article above isn’t eye-opening enough, I’ve also read about health insurance companies using Facebook to deny insurance claims. So be aware that your updates and photos may be telling others … and share only what you don’t mind the whole world knowing, just in case.
All that said, don’t be so paranoid that you don’t have fun on Facebook — in fact, the most fun for me on isn’t necessarily the ability to share but the ability to chat with others and to enjoy their photos and news. And perhaps this is the best way to view social media, especially as an author who uses Facebook in part for book promotion: To remember that while it’s a great way to get the word out, it’s less about self-promotion than about about the give-and-take.
As an author, you are probably well aware that having a web site is essential. What you may not realize is that it needn’t be expensive or high-end. It’s great to have a fabulous web site, of course, but many of us don’t have either the technical knowledge or the budget — and when it comes down to it, you simply need to have an online presence. You need a place where readers, potential reviewers or interviewers, and anyone else interested in your book can find and contact you.
A question I hear often from not-yet-published writers is: “Do I need a web site if I don’t have a book?” And there are a couple of answers to this question, depending on the writer and his/her goals. For one, if you have a book in the works with every intention of publishing it (i.e., you have a contract or plan to self-publish), you might go ahead and start planning a web site. And “planning” can mean anything from surfing around to see what author sites you like best to interviewing web designers. But if you don’t have a completed book just yet, your time will be better spent finishing the book than creating a web site. For now, anyway. (Trust me, writing the next book is even harder when you have a web site to procrastinate with.) There’s really no downside to having an author web site at any time, but if you don’t have a book to sell or events to list, there’s no huge hurry to get it up there, either.
However, even if you don’t have a book yet, I would recommend that you start a blog. This will give you an online presence and help you start building your audience and that “platform” that is so crucial to selling your book. Then, you can add your blog to your web site when you’re ready to make that leap. (See Book Promo 101: Creating a successful blog for more details and for tips on blogging.)
So, how to go about creating a web site? There are a million ways to do it, but these three tips will offer a good start.
– First, find web sites you like. You’ll want your own site to emulate what you like about your favorite author sites, whether it’s the bio page or the navigation bar.
– Second, figure out how much time and money you’ve got to work with. A web site needn’t be flashy (in fact, the too-flashy sites, with bright colors or lots of animation, can actually irritate visitors) — it only needs to be pleasing to the eye and easy to navigate.
– Third, define your goals as a writer and how your web site will serve these goals. If you’re on your sixth book and are ready to step into high gear to brand yourself as a writer, you’ll have a lot of content to manage and you might want outside advice and a professional designer. If you’re about to publish your first book, you may want a simpler site that focuses on your book and your bio.
Here are a couple of examples from two of my writer friends — wonderful and very different writers, with successful and very different web sites.
Anjali Banerjee is the author of eight books, for both adults and young readers, and she recently launched a new web site to help build up her brand as an author. Here’s a snapshot of her home page:
Anjali had her web site professionally designed by Authorbytes (if you ever see an author site you love, look for the designer credit on the home page), and her site is comprehensive, visually lovely, and user-friendly.
Elizabeth Austen is a poet and the author of a new book of poetry, two chapbooks, and a CD audio recording of her work. Her web site is through WordPress, which offers free blogging software with templates that allow you to create anything from a simple blog to a gorgeous web site like Elizabeth’s. Here is a snippet of her home page:
Elizabeth’s site is elegant, easy to use, and, like Anjali’s, it contains everything an author site needs. Elizabeth wisely uses a lot of photos in her blog posts, which keeps it visually engaging.
And I am somewhere in between … I have a domain name, no budget, and a techy husband who is not only very talented but also very patient. He built me a web site I love (and as thanks, I bought him many beers). Here’s a glimpse of my own home page:
So whatever your style or budget, with a little research and effort, you’ll be able to create the web site that’s perfect for your needs. And whichever route you take, keep in mind that your web site should have these essentials:
– a home page, updated with the latest news. Because I don’t always have breaking news, I update the date on my web site so that visitors know I’m still alive, still writing, and still doing events and classes.
– a book or publications page. Because Forgetting English contains only ten of the dozens of stories I’ve published, I’ve listed these other publications on my publications page, under the book. This is nice for readers who may want to know more; also, it makes me feel very prolific.
– your bio, as you like it. Some authors write long bios that include their childhood forays into writing; others are short and to the point. Go with what you prefer — as long as it’s not so short that it doesn’t offer enough relevant information, nor so long that no one will read it. Always include a good, professional photo (see Book Promo 101: The author photo).
– an excerpt from your book. This is essential not only for letting readers do a test drive, but it’s also helpful for book bloggers who may decide to review your book based on a few pages. I’ve heard from several readers that the Forgetting English excerpt on my site was what made them take a chance on reading a story collection, sometimes for the first time.
– your reviews, blurbs and awards, of course! Show them off wherever you can (this is not the time to be modest), preferably on a dedicated page.
– a reading guide and/or book club info. My Forgetting English reading guide is on my blog, but I link to it on my book page so that readers can find it easily. Anjali has a book club form to handle book-club requests, along with a link to her reading guide.
– a link to your blog. My blog is listed on my navigation bar, but if your blog is separate from your web site, be sure to include an easy-to-find link.
– links to where readers can buy your book. This is a bit obvious, but it’s amazing how often this info gets buried. These links should appear on your home page, or, if you have many books, in prominent spots on your individual book pages.
– links to your Facebook and/or Twitter pages. Use those perky little buttons, which make them easy to find, and put them in the upper right corner of every page of your web site, where visitors can’t miss them.
– a contact form or email address. One of the main purposes of a web site is to connect with readers — as well as to be accessible to reviewers, reporters, etc. If you are worried about being inundated with spam, use a contact form. And do your best to respond to every (legitimate) email you receive.
– a way for readers to “subscribe” to hear about your news and events. If you haven’t already, begin collecting a mailing list of readers — this way, you can send Evites or email newsletters to announce your events (use a service like Evite or Mail Chimp so that you don’t get busted for spamming people). Note: never sign up people for news unless they’ve asked, and never share their information with anyone else. Here’s the form that I use.
During the process of creating your web site, ask friends, fellow writers, and others for their feedback — it can be hard to take a step back and see your site objectively when you’ve been immersed in the process. Ask them whether they’ve found everything they need, whether anything was confusing or hard to find, and what might be missing.
And, finally, consider updating your site every few years — and particularly when you have a new book to promote. You don’t want to redesign your web site so often that you lose your connection with readers, but a nice remodel keeps your site looking and feeling up-to-date. And keep in mind that it doesn’t need to be a complete overhaul; even an occasional touch-up helps, such as a new photo.
One of the many reasons for Amazon’s success with the Kindle has been the fact that you can buy a book for the Kindle but read it on many different devices, such as the Android, iPad, and iPhone. All you need to do is download apps for these devices and log in to your account.
But what if you don’t have one of these devices? What if you just want to read your book on your old-fashioned computer screen using your web browser?
Amazon has a solution for that as well — the Cloud Reader.
You’ll notice that this intro screen stresses that the Cloud Reader is optimized for the iPad, which might seem peculiar since Amazon also offers a Kindle App for the iPad. There’s a reason for this, which I’ll explain in a moment. But let’s just focus on your PC web browser first, as there are two points worth highlighting.
Once you click the “get started” button, you’ll be notified that the Cloud Reader works offline as well. This is a very cool feature and means that your browser will cache copies of your books onto your computer so you don’t need an Internet connection to read them. And, yes, this also works on the iPad.
After you click through this screen, you’ll be asked to log in — and then you’ll see the books that you’ve purchased:
These books are synced to your Kindle and any device-specific Kindle apps. So if you read to page 100 on a book here and switch to your iPad app, you can pick up at page 100. Another great feature.
Making sense of Web Apps vs. Native Apps
What Amazon is doing here with the Cloud Reader isn’t just a generous gesture for those folks out there who want to read on their PCs. The purpose of the Cloud Reader is to bypass Apple’s app store. But before I get into that, I want to explain the difference between a web app and a native app.
A web app is like a web site. It’s anything that you access via your web browser, like the Cloud Reader. A native app, on the other hand, is anything that is device-specific, like an app purchased over the Apple App store or Google’s Android store. These are applications developed specifically for a device. Native apps are generally considered superior to web apps because they open faster and can take advantage of all the benefits of the device’s operating system. Web apps, because they live in a web browser, just don’t feel as responsive overall — though this “offline” reading feature of the Cloud Reader marks one bold attempt to change that.
Finally, I should note that people LOVE apps, particularly if they’re free. And there’s something to be said for having an icon on your iPhone that you can access with one click (rather than inputting a long URL). I’m not sure that most people know that they can bookmark web apps on their iPhones and iPads to create “app like” icons on their home screens.
So for now, users prefer native apps to web apps.
Which brings me back to Amazon. If users prefer native apps, and Amazon already offers a native Kindle app, why did Amazon go to the trouble of launching a web app?
Because six months ago, Apple changed the way it operates its app store. It told Amazon and others that if you were going to have a link in your app to your store, you’d have to give Apple 30% of any revenues from any sales that comes through people clicking on that link.
So what did Amazon do? It removed the Kindle store link from its native Kindle app.
But if you go to the Cloud Reader web app, you’ll see, in the upper right corner, a link to the Kindle store.
Which brings me back to the iPad. Let’s say you’ve been happily using the Kindle app for the iPad, and you recently noticed that the Kindle store button went missing. Well, now you can get it back by going to your web browser and navigating to the Cloud Reader.
The experience isn’t as good as the native app, but it’s not bad.
And I’ll give Amazon a great deal of credit for trying to maintain a positive user experience in the face of Apple’s unfortunate behavior. I say “unfortunate” because the Apple iBookstore is nowhere near as sophisticated as the Amazon Kindle store. I would rather have seen Apple innovate with its store and compete with Amazon than simply block the Kindle store altogether. I understand why Apple did what it did, but the users — that is, us readers — suffer because Apple has not worked hard enough to be competitive with Amazon.
One of the reasons I love Ashland is that it’s so delightfully bookish: We’ve got Bloomsbury Books, a fabulous public library, Southern Oregon University’s Hannon Library, and several other independently owned bookstores — not to mention all the other gift and antique shops that have fabulous book finds.
I stumbled across this little gem in one afternoon while walking through the Railroad District — it’s a little hidden away in what used to be a gas station/garage. As you can see, the building hasn’t changed; it still reads “Haskins Garage” and the old gas pump still stands right outside.
Inside is a wonderful, eclectic selection of used books, signs, license plates — it’s like a museum, not only for its selection but for the building itself; it’s still got the wide-open space and the high ceilings.
Perhaps best of all is that when you visit Rogue Books, you’ll find that you’re right across the street from Noble Coffee, another neighborhood treasure.