Being a Better Writer: Micro-Blast #4

Welcome back, readers, to yet again another Monday Being a Better Writer post that has obviously been relegated to Tuesday. Someday I’ll make enough money from my writing to be able to give up my part-time job, but right now … if they want me on Mondays, they unfortunately have me.

So, this week we’re doing another Micro-Blast! New? Wondering what a “Micro-Blast” is an what it has to do with writing? Thoughts already jumped to something non-writing related already, like those tiny fruit snacks with juice in them?

Okay, maybe I’m just hungry. Anyway, a Micro-Blast is something that usually happens as I near the end of another topic list. This being a real, physical list that I keep on my desk and consult each week to select a topic for the upcoming post. The topics on this list are collected from a variety of sources, usually anything that makes me think “Hey, that would be a good BaBW topic,” but also from readers that write in with questions and requests.

Anyway, these topics can often vary in the amount of effort needed to address them. Sometimes it’s simply a topic where I’d be better suited saying my piece and pointing readers elsewhere, other times it’s just a quick answer that isn’t really deserving of a full break-down on it’s own, but at least merits a paragraph or two, and sometimes it’s just a topic I haven’t done much thought about, and therefore needs more research before I can weigh in one way or another. And then, of course, there are the topics that don’t have any of those issues, and I can write a full post on.

But at the end of a list, what results is often a small collection of leftover topics, a hdgepodge of tiny summaries that, for whatever reason, never got posts on their own.

Micro-Blast BaBW posts are the answer to these small collections of topics. A way to “finish off” each topic list by rapid-fire tackling each remaining issue with a small posting of its own.

So, this said, it’s time to finish off, once and for all, Topic List 8 so that next week, I can start anew with Topic List 9! Which also means you can expect a post later this week asking for suggestions for the list. I’ve got a bundle of my own from the recent LTUE conference, but as always, reader suggestions are a welcome way to add topics.

Anyway, enough rambling! Let’s clear this list!

How to Leave Good Feedback
This one got left to this list largely because leaving good feedback is often very similar in nature to leaving a good review, or at least follows a lot of the same general “rules” of thumb. But at the same time, feedback may be something as simply and quick as a tweet sent to the author to let them know you enjoyed their book, or a post online that they might not even see directly (say, on a fan-board somewhere), but instead will be distilled down by an editor or community manager.

So, what makes good feedback, as opposed to just feedback? Well, first thing? Keep it direct and concise. Assuming that we’re leaving, say, a comment on an author’s page or in a quick missive, make sure that you’re not beating around the bush. Don’t for example, lead-in with a story about where you found said author’s work unless it has to do with the feedback you’re offering (a case where such information would be useful could be something like ‘found this book from your last promotion on facebook, and loved it!’). Keep everything laser focused. This doesn’t mean that you need to whittle your comment down to a few quick sound-bites, but you should winnow out any unneeded bits and extra words. Keep things clear and focused.

If you can, go in with a goal, and try to supply context. Say, for example, you really enjoyed a story’s characters. Tailor your feedback to convey that, yes, and also provide a “why” if possible. It’s one thing for a reader to say “I really liked X character” (it makes our hearts swell with pride), but another to say “I really liked Y because she overcame this struggle in a way similar to my own, which felt very real to me.” Not only does it tell an author that a character was enjoyed, it gives a reason as to why that they can latch onto.

Now, what about feedback that isn’t positive? Such as criticism?

Well, first, before you offer a criticism, check it. Not in the sense of “hold it back,” but double-check that you might not be missing something. Numerous is the feedback from a reader that says “Hey, this part didn’t make any sense” only for the author to point out that said reader missed a very important clue in one chapter, or just had a basic fact wrong. Very real example, several people have expressed criticism in my direction over Colony‘s final act having “misspelled French.” But it isn’t, it’s Haitian-Creole. Which isn’t spelled like French, though very similarly.

Point being, when you offer criticism, double-check it. Then, once you’ve confirmed it (because there exists plenty of valid criticism), keep it the same way you’ve kept compliments: Clear and focused. Explain the issue, and give it some detail. Again, don’t just say “I don’t like this character.” Add some context, some insight that will let the author know where or what they should watch more closely.

Again, good feedback is very similar to a good review. Just generally shorter and more to the point. Also, it’s directed at the author, not at other prospective readers, so you can be direct in speaking to said author.

Now, one last note. What about so-so comments? Like “eeh, this was okay?”

Not useful. Here’s why: In the business world, when someone fills out a survey about something, and you rate things from 1-5? Anything that’s not a 1 or a 5 (or a 1-2 or 9-10 on a 1-10 scale) is thrown out. Only the 1 or 5 advice gets looked at.

Why? Because that’s the advice that’s most likely to offer something specific. Someone who comes in as neutral usually doesn’t have much to say either way, which gives the creator little to go off of to improve.

So, in sum: Keep your feedback short and concise. Offer reasons, for praise and criticism. Remember that feedback is directed at the author, not potential readers, and so can assume a more direct stance.

Online Publishing Hints
Oh boy. Here’s one I skipped for fairly easy-to-discern reasons. Simply put: I don’t have the best advice for this situation. Am I published online? Well … yes … if you count me publishing fanfiction. Which is different from sites that offer published fiction to subscribers (which is what I think this original question was pointed at).

Then again, this could be talking about ebook publishing and the internet sphere in that context. And again I’m afraid I’d have to disappoint. Because while that is the sphere that I’m in, I’m not exactly a runaway success at it. I can claim success, yes, but not much.

Right … so what good can I do you today? Well, I can tell you that while I’m not the best source to follow on this, there are others. There are a lot of others.

Now, to be fair, not all of them are created equally. Right off? Don’t pay for anyone else’s advice on how to make it in online publishing. There’s an old Foxtrot strip where the dad buys a “get-quick rich and succeed in business” guide from an infomercial, and what arrives is a pamphlet that contains a three-step program. Step one was invent a saleable product you knew you could sell. Step two was to sell the product to at least 5,000 people for $200. Step three was “Uncork the champagne! You’re a millionaire.” The Dad lamented that the pamphlet didn’t even include an example, until his son pointed out that it was a $200 pamphlet.

Yeah, those books that offer to make you an internet sensation “like they are?” They’re kind of banking on you buying said advice for them to make that latter half true. So avoid those.

Besides, there exists plenty of free advice out there from authors and editors who have made a go of it. Do a quick Google search. Or better yet, a search of your favorite author’s webpage—they may have talked about it.

Now, what advice can I offer that’s on-topic? One: Have a website. Something that fans can go to in order to learn about your work, something that will show up in a search engine. Two: Advertising. Whether by word of mouth, twitter, or just paid ads, find a way of getting your name out there. And don’t be afraid to think outside of the box (for instance, my two biggest “advertisements” are my BaBW posts and my fanfiction). Three: Always be generating new content with some sort of regularity. The internet is a fast-moving place, and if you stagnant, you’ll quickly sink to the bottom of the ever-bubbling, ever-moving web. And four: Always self promote. Don’t overdo it (and note that different web “spheres” have different rules on what constitutes self-promotion), but don’t be afraid to say “I published something like that once.” Stand up for yourself.

Now, one last warning: If this question made you think of many of those “pay to post” places, the sites that pay authors what seem like good amounts of money to produce content WATCH OUT. Do your research before diving into one of those places. Same goes for “promotional contests” or places that promise “publicity” in lieu of payment. Do some digging and read the fine print. Many of these places, unfortunately, exploit young artists for their own gain. Check to see if other authors have complaints about a “pay to post” site, or see what the details say in a contest about rights. No joke, someone sent me a short story contest entry the other day for a fiction collection that claimed all rights to any stories submitted. That’s right, it was offering “free publicity” for any author they accepted and published (no payment), and at the same time claiming full rights to the story so that the author no longer had control.

In other words, be careful.

Finding Motivation When You “Don’t Want To” Or Avoiding Distractions
This is a tricky one. I’ve written about motivation before, on two occasions, (and touched on it a number of other times in other contexts), but it’s a question that always comes back.

The answer is both hard and easy, depending on who you are and what you’re creating. But I think at the end of the day, it really comes down to how badly you “want to.” If you really want to be a writer, more than you want to sit down and watch Netflix, play games, or whatever else it is you like doing, then you’ll make time for it! If not, then consider looking at the other things in you life and asking yourself why they matter more to you than writing. It may just be that while you like the idea of writing, you aren’t that fond of the actual execution of it … and that’s fine. You just may not be a writer.

But if you’re already past that hurdle, struggling along and finding yourself strung out on a writing project, don’t despair. Sometimes writing is a slog. Sometimes we have to write through the—to the author—boring parts in order to get through the setup for the end.

Me? I focus on that ending. Every time it seems like writing a story has just turned into a slog, and it’s not because the chapter isn’t useful or important (and yes, this does happen)? I focus on the why. I’m writing it so that I can get to the ending. And I remind myself that while I’m slogging through it, I’ve already looked at it and determined readers won’t be, since they won’t have the knowledge I do. And guess what? I’m usually right.

Your methods may differ, but when you “don’t want to,” counter yourself with what you do want to do.

Now, on avoiding distractions. This one is a challenge for each of us. For example, in writing this post I let myself get distracted by a lively discussion on Reddit.

My advice? I personally use my goals to track my accountability, and don’t do certain things until I’ve hit my goals for the day. Others use timed blocker programs so that they can’t access facebook. Methods vary. But if you find yourself often distracted (and many do), remove the distraction. Use willpower. Don’t pick up a controller or load Steam until you’re done for the day. Get a secluded space. Get a good set of headphones if you have people having a conversation nearby that keeps engaging your attention (also, don’t go deaf, be sensible with your volume settings).

At the end of it all, though, distractions or motivation, remind yourself what you’re trying to accomplish, and that you’ll only get there if you work toward that goal.

Fan Engagement
Oddly enough, I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast that touched on this just the other day.

Look, as authors, we love engaging with our fans, and once you’ve created something that has fans, you likely will too. It’s fun! You’re sharing a love of a world you’ve created, and that’s cool!

Unfortunately, it’s also time consuming. Very time consuming. You may not think at first that reading and replying to, for example, reader comments would be that time consuming, but it quickly is. You’ve got to read a comment, formulate a response, and then type it out. That takes time.

Now imagine you have a dozen comments. Or a hundred. How much time do you have?

Really, you want to have fan engagement. But you can’t engage with everyone all the time. And you know what? Most fans understand that. You can reply to their comment, engage them in a discussion … or you can be working on the next book they want to see.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t engage with fans. Do! But it has to be moderated. There’s only so much time in a day, and you need to be working on your next book. All things in moderation, in other words. Do what you can. But sometimes, you’ve got to work.

And on a side note, Writing Excuses pointed out that one should be careful handing down direct declarations about lore and whatnot, as sometimes half the community is having a really fun time talking about it. Worth considering, at least, the next time you are tempted to “settle” something.

 

Right! So that’s it for this week. Next week, we start Topic List 9! And hit a look back on the site itself!

So, for now, good luck, and get writing! Go put your knowledge to use!

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