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Creative Process, Editing, Literature, Marketing, Pitch Wars, Publishing, Querying, Social Media, Uncategorized, Writing

You Have to Defend It: Writing and Self-Doubt

A friend of mine once said that a doctoral defense is a form of academic hazing, a trial presented to you to prove you belong in the cadre of scholars in your field, that you can hold your own no matter what anyone throws at you. I bought a suit especially for the occasion. I sweated right through the silk camisole beneath it, but I kept my hands folded on top of the desk and tried not to squirm in my seat every time one of my professors pitched a curve ball at me.

Doctoral defenses are rituals. They signal a journey from student to scholar. To dilettante to professional. My advisor is from the Netherlands, and there they have this whole medieval pageantry set up around the defense. She had to wear a ball gown. A man came out with a scepter to pound on the floor to announce the beginning, the end, and the deliberation. The whole public comes out to see you sweat. Like The Hunger Games, I imagine, but with footnotes and, you know, in Dutch.

My defense was in a small conference room, and the first question one of the professors threw at me was the one question I prayed no one would ask. It was the one thing, the one glaring oversight in my whole dissertation I simply had no time to remedy before filing it. Graduate students are trained in deference, in admitting defeat, in owning up to the holes in our arguments. It’s what makes us open to feedback, makes us better at critical thinking and revision. When I received this question, I reverted back to this kind of behavior, this defeat. My imposter syndrome kicked in, and I nodded my head. “Yes, I should have delved into that more. Yes, I should have supplied the primary resources on which my entire argument hinged. Yes, a footnote would have been helpful there.”

“Wait. Stop.” My fifth reader waved her hand. “Stop.”

A fifth reader in a defense is a person outside of your discipline or outside of the university, someone who has never worked with you. She’s there to provide fresh eyes to a dissertation, to supply an unbiased point of view. My fifth reader was Irish, which doesn’t matter, really. But because my dissertation was in Irish literature, in my case, it mattered a great deal.

“I’m going to have to stop you,” she said.

My stomach dropped to the floor, and my hands shook. This is how it ends, I thought. All those years, all that money down the drain. The Irishwoman from the German department found me out for the fraud I was, and now it was all over.

“Sorry?” My voice wavered.

“I’m hearing you apologize for what you didn’t do in your dissertation, but I don’t care about that,” she said. “This is a defense. I want you to defend it.”

Her eyes pierced right through me as if in a challenge, and I sat up a little straighter, throwing my shoulders back. I’m a scrapper. You had to be in the places I grew up. I didn’t know if my answers would ring true, but I had to play defense. I had to defend it.

I’m reading through my manuscript for Book 2 one more time before we send it for formatting for galley proofs. We’re in the homestretch, as they say, and this book has definitely been a journey for me. I wrote this book in the middle of two polar vortexes, and it poured out of me fully formed, as if the story had been waiting in the wings for its cue before barging out to the center stage of my mind. I’ve revised it, re-revised it, sat through several editorial meetings to negotiate scenes and various endings, and now it’s reading like a book. A real, actual book.

But I have to tell you, like so many writers, I suffer from self-doubt. Loads of it. But is it any wonder? We spend months, sometimes years of our lives in deference to our critique partners, our beta readers, our agents, our editors. We have to open ourselves up to criticism, make ourselves and our creations vulnerable to change, to complete annihilation sometimes in the name of some higher goal. We revise and revise and revise and we reach a point where we stare at the words and wonder…is this any good? Have I fooled myself into believing I could be a novelist? It sounds dramatic, sure, but it’s a part of the cycle—the destruction of everything in order to build yourself back up again. Because at the end of the day, when the marketing machine starts to whir, when the blurb goes up on goodreads, when the ARCS get sent out to book bloggers, we have to defend it.

You have to defend it.

And by that, I don’t mean screaming back at your reviewers or going batshit on social media about how no one understands your “vision.” I mean, you have to box up all that self-doubt, all that deference, all those inner fears, the bullshit imposter syndrome, put on your armor and defend it. Stand by it. Say to the world, “Yes, I did a thing. Here it is. Poke holes in it, kill it with fire, but I’ll stand on this mountain of ash. I’m not leaving.” We have to be the guardians to our own artistic output, to the incredible circumstances and hard work that led us to this place.

James Baldwin once said about publishing,

“You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it…But, if a book has brought you from one place to another, so that you see something you didn’t see before, you’ve arrived at another point. This then is one’s consolation, and you know that you must now proceed elsewhere.” (from Conversations with James Baldwin).

I’m so proud of the book I’ll be sending out into the world this fall, and I do feel confident about it artistically, as a piece of storytelling that I think really works on several levels. What I am most proud of, though, is the journey this story took me on, not just in the telling, but in the retelling, the revisions, the feedback, through the late nights talking with critique partners and reworking scenes. It brought me to a new place as a writer, and that is a place I can stake out and defend. No matter what.

 

 

Creative Process, Editing, Fantasy, Marketing, Pitch Wars, Pitching, Publishing, Querying, Romance, Social Media, Teaching, Through the Veil, Uncategorized, Writing

Crafting the Fantasy Query

When I first pitched my fantasy romance novel a thousand years ago, I made the fatal mistake I think a lot of spec writers make–foregrounding the worldbuilding beyond anything else. While it’s true that worldbuilding is the one quintessential thing that differentiates fantasy from other genres, it may not be exactly what you want to lead with in your pitch. In the whole scheme of things, worldbuilding is only one aspect of a story that will appeal to readers, and I would argue that, at its core, the query needs to center around the engaging and fascinating characters within your world.

It’s hard to connect on a deep, personal level to a magic system, but we’re hardwired, you might say, to connect with individual struggle or strife. Most of us want to connect with humans (or humanoid-esque, sentient beings), not with the magical amulet of Aerosolisia or the ancient book of Conolingua. Such things are meaningless to us at this point in the book’s life, but a character with a goal and a conflict? That will hook most readers right away, and hints at an incredible world will be the icing on that fantasy-character cake.

As I said above, when I queried my debut novel THROUGH THE VEIL, I was so proud of all my worldbuilding, I forgot this very important component. I filled my query with so much world, I’m not sure how anyone could parse out my story at all, let alone connect to my characters. In spite of the churning waves of embarrassment in my stomach, I present to you something very close to my original query, and I do so to point out some of its serious flaws. Just…be kind, guys. I was young, fresh, and very green.

Graduate student Elizabeth Tanner loved to lose herself in the musty vellum pages of the ancient Irish manuscript she studied for her MA thesis–until the pictures started shifting and the spidery script transformed to reveal a terrible secret. 

Elizabeth is no Tinkerbell, but when she discovers her lost mother is Fae, she finds herself at odds with the forces of Trinity, a secret organization composed of the magical races of Ireland. To end a centuries-long Civil War war, Trinity forces Elizabeth to take her Fae mother’s place in a marriage covenant forged a generation ago with the leader of the Dark Fae, Lord Bres.

Her only ally is Finn O’Connell, an eighteenth-century Irish rebel turned immortal warrior. Together, they unlock the mysteries of her past and explore the truth of Elizabeth’s new-found powers. She is an aisling, blessed with the ability to break magical wards, cross space and time, and even walk through dreams.

Bound to Bres by the same black magic she unearthed in her Master’s thesis, Elizabeth must stop him from gaining control of The Tree of Life, the source of all power in the universe. If she fails, Finn and everyone she loves dies and the mortal world falls to darkness.

Oh, my eyes…they bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed. Where do I even begin with this? As I’m sure you can see, it’s practically unreadable. First of all, we have way too many magical elements dropped into it that require far too much explanation for a 200 word query. There’s an ancient manuscript, a secret organization, Fae, Dark Fae, something called an aisling, a Tree of Life. You guys. As much as I love all this stuff about my book, front loading all that world was a huge, terrible mistake. Furthermore, while I’m able to establish some notion of who my characters are, neither of them have a very specific goal. Elizabeth loves books and Finn wants to help her because…? Um…because…? Yeah.

So fast forward a year or so later when my editor asked me to take a stab at writing the back copy for the book. I just about threw up on my laptop with nerves, but I wanted to prove I could do this.

I spent years teaching freshman comp, which is essentially helping students understand the rhetorical moves that make for effective essays. To do that, we have to analyze the fundamental gestures great writers make to convince others of their argument. I knew if I could apply the same mindset to studying blurbs, I could figure out the code, the code that makes one person want to throw down their hard-earned money for a book.

Now, what follows is not a formula, a wham-bam-thank-you-mam worksheet you can fill out and get a six-figure deal. But I was raised by jazz musicians, and one thing I learned is  you need to learn some basics before you can freestyle like Charlie Parker. Bear in mind, also, that back cover copy is not the same thing as a query. However, I’m using examples of back cover copy here to show how you can shape and consolidate your fantasy novel into something that might appeal to agents.

So, determined to write a good blurb, I set out studying as much back cover copy in my genre as possible. One example of back cover copy I looked at specifically was the book Darkfever, probably the closest comp to my own book. The first thing I noticed was that the copy didn’t start with the world or the conflict, but the character.

MacKayla Lane’s life is good. She has great friends, a decent job, and a car that breaks down only every other week or so. In other words, she’s your perfectly ordinary twenty-first-century woman. Or so she thinks…until something extraordinary happens.

We can argue back and forth about the likeability of MacKayla Lane’s character, but one thing is for sure, we know exactly who she is. More importantly, we know this is going to be a character who will transform, who will be forever changed by the events within this story. That is the key to good characterization.

I won’t copy and paste the whole back cover copy here, but you can see how it goes on to provide a goal:

When her sister is murdered, leaving a single clue to her death–a cryptic message on Mac’s cell phone–Mac journeys to Ireland in search of answers.

And then we have the conflict, the person (or Fae, as it were) standing in her way:

As she begins to close in on the truth, the ruthless Vlane–an alpha Fae who makes sex an addiction for human women–closes in on her.

Yikes!

Then finally, we have the stakes:

…because whoever gets to [this magical book] first holds nothing less than complete control of the very fabric of both worlds in their hands….

Essentially, if MacKayla doesn’t figure out who killed her sister and stop him, the whole fabric of the universe might implode. Awesome, right? I love this series. There’s also a really hot dude in it.

Anyway, as helpful as this analysis was, I still couldn’t quite get the organization right. Even though my character, goal, conflict, and stakes were stronger, the copy still felt muddled. So I went to Entangled’s website and started studying all the copy on my publisher’s particular imprint. Because romance tends to focus on two characters, I realized that there was a certain organization that popped up over and over again. It goes a little something like this:

Paragraph One (2-3 sentences): Who is the main character? What does she want? What is her initial conflict? What is tripping her up?

Paragraph Two (2-3 sentences): Who is the main love interest? What is his/her goal? What is his/her initial conflict? What is tripping him/her up?

Paragraph Three (1-2 sentences): What is their combined conflict? What is standing in their way? What will happen if they don’t get what they want?

Once I figured this out, the copy came a lot faster, and after several, several drafts and going back and forth with my editor, we came up with this final version:

Elizabeth Tanner is no Tinkerbell, and her life is no fairy tale. Broke and drowning in student loans, the one thing she wants more than anything is a scholarship from the Trinity Foundation. But after the ancient Irish text she’s studying turns out to be more than just a book, she becomes their prisoner instead. And when Trinity reveals Elizabeth is half-Fae, she finds herself at the center of a plot to save the magical races of Ireland from a brutal civil war.

As Commander of Trinity’s elite warriors, Finn O’Connell isn’t used to having his authority challenged. He doesn’t know whether to punish or protect the infuriating young woman in his custody. When he discovers the Dark Fae want to use Elizabeth’s abilities to control the source of all power in the universe, he’ll risk everything to help her.

At the mercy of Trinity and enslaved to the Dark Fae, Elizabeth finds herself alone on the wrong side of an Irish myth thousands of years in the making. Refusing to be a pawn in their game, Elizabeth has to fight her way back to the man she loves, but to do so, she must wage her own war against the magic that binds her.

Even if Fae Fantasy Romance isn’t your thing, this blurb not even comparable to the original version I queried with years ago. We gave the characters goals, took out a ton of the worldbuilding, and made the focus on the the essential driving forces of Elizabeth and Finn’s combined character arcs. You will notice there are a lot fewer proper nouns and we maintained the barest hint of a much more complex magical system.

“But, Colleen!” you exclaim. “I thought this was a post about fantasy, not romance!”

Right. So let’s look at some back copy of straight-up high fantasy.

I’m reading Six of Crows right now and absolutely loving it. The world is incredibly complex, and 100 pages in, I’m only just beginning to grasp the complex magic system Bardugo weaves within this engaging novel. Here is the back copy, though:

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

We have setting first to establish we are in some place other than planet Earth. But then we move immediately into character…and then more characters…and then even more characters. We have a goal—“the heist”—but it becomes clear the core conflict lies within these characters themselves.

Check out the simplicity in the focus of character in the current back cover copy for The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss:

The riveting first-person narrative of a young man who grows to be the most notorious magician his world has ever seen. From his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, to years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime- ridden city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that transports readers into the body and mind of a wizard. It is a high-action novel written with a poet’s hand, a powerful coming-of-age story of a magically gifted young man, told through his eyes: to read this book is to be the hero.

Okay, firstly, I would definitely not describe your book to agents as a “masterpiece” (lolz), but I’m using this example to demonstrate that again, in spite of the incredible world and magic systems Rothfuss creates, the pitch to readers remains focused on the character and his journey.

So as you go forth revising your queries, take some time to read as much back cover copy as possible and start identifying where marketers place this key information:

  • Who is the main character? And I mean on a most fundamental level, who is this person?
  • What does this person want? What is their goal?
  • Who or what stands in their way? (the central conflict)
  • And what will happen if they don’t get it? (the stakes)

Keep the focus on your character’s journey and discover a way to organize this information to keep your narrative clear and uncluttered by extraneous information. It might feel like the story is the world, but think of your characters as the guides who will lead us into the magic you’ve created.

 

Discover THROUGH THE VEIL for yourself…

My debut novel THROUGH THE VEIL is now available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Amazon UK, and Amazon Canada.

 

 

Creative Process, Editing, Marketing, Publishing, Romance, Social Media, Uncategorized, Writing

Writing from an Authentic Place: Lessons from RWA Spring Fling

This past weekend I had the absolute pleasure to attend the Chicago-North RWA Spring Fling Conference. It was a chardonnay-and-coffee-fueled few days where I attended so many amazing sessions and met a lot of fabulous writers. This was my first RomCon, and I had no idea what to expect, but what I found was a community of smart, warm, and supportive women, both readers and writers, who share the same passions I do. I posted a picture of facebook of myself signing books, and I jokingly wrote as the caption, “home, sweet home.” But it did feel like a bit of a homecoming because for the first time in a long time I felt like I could be completely myself. Before the first session I attended, another writer asked me what I write, and I said, “Oh, you know some Fae paranormal, urban fantasy stuff…and…” I lowered my voice to a faint whisper. “…some erotica.” She touched my arm and smiled at me and said, “It’s okay. You can say erotica here.” You can say a lot of dirty words at the Spring Fling conference. All the dirty words, if you are so inclined.

All the sessions on craft were outstanding, but I also attended a lot of sessions on the business of writing. From these, I walked away with a much broader picture of the strange and dynamic romance market, and since then I’ve given a lot of thought about who I am and what I want out of this business. I attended Courtney Milan’s session “How to Make a Living as a Slow Writer,” sort of on a whim because I believed…oh, my…I truly believed I was actually a “fast” writer. Before I attended this session, I thought putting out two to three books a year was “fast.”

Wrong.

WRONG.

All writers now, but especially romance writers, exist in a market with a growing population of self-pub authors who are churning out a book a month, maybe even a book every two weeks (TWO WEEKS!). To say I’m “competing” with these writers is not really the right word. The only person I’m competing with is myself and that last book I wrote. Nonetheless, there is a “market” and readers make choices in that market. Just as there is a significant population of writers churning out books every two weeks, there is a significant, a significant, population of readers who want a new book every two weeks. I’m not going to make judgment calls or talk about quality or anything like that in regards to this business model. Romance has enough shade being thrown at it from without, we don’t need it from within. However, I know the kind of book I could write in two weeks is not the kind of book I think my readers want. You know how they say, “Write what you like to read”? It’s no surprise to me that all the writers I love are what we would now call “slow writers.” Writers like Courtney Milan, for example! I don’t have a lot of time to read, and that window is increasingly shrinking with more responsibilities, so when I do read, the books need to be “distinctive and good.” That’s exactly what Milan said. If you’re going to be slow, be distinctive and good.

And yet…

In this new age of Kindle Unlimited, self-publishing, and ebooks, the pressure to put out several books a year remains enormous. I’m a recovering academic, and for a long time I existed in a world that felt constantly on the verge of collapse. As my professors, colleagues, friends raced for scarce and highly-coveted tenure-track positions, I watched the best minds of my generation deal with deep depression and paralyzing anxiety. But I can say with all honesty, it’s nothing like what I see happening in publishing today. Just open twitter on any given day, and you’ll find several blog confessions from writers about their long descent into agonizing depression or how they had to be hospitalized because of their latest anxiety attack. It’s easy to blow it off and say, “Oh, well, you know…CREATIVES…look at Hemingway.” But no. These are smart, capable, bestselling authors with incredible business acumen. Courtney Milan was very candid in her session about her depression, and she has a law degree and a PhD in something I’m not sure I can even pronounce. The woman is no stranger to stress. In academia, they say “publish or perish,” but I really think there are some authors out there who are literally killing themselves to keep up with market pressures.

And this is why I found Milan’s presentation so refreshing because a part of my journey right now is understanding who I am as a writer and who I want to become. I don’t want to be the writer churning out books every two weeks, and I certainly don’t want to jeopardize my health for the thing I love–writing. What I enjoyed about Milan’s talk is she gave us concrete ideas about how to be smart in this current market by simulating the benefits of being a fast writer. One of those strategies is staying visible through promotional sales events, audiobooks, translations, box sets, etc. She also discussed the importance of memorability, and how we can do that by joining promotions with other writers, getting readers to follow you on facebook and twitter, and finding ways to urge readers who liked your book to subscribe to your newsletter. I’m sure there are more strategies she mentioned, but the point is, if you want to stay true to the kinds of books you want to write, it does require a bit of strategic planning. Of course the dream is to write full-time, but even if I had all the time in the world to write, I don’t know if I would want to put out more than three or four books a year. I think I would like to use that mental space to writer better books, but if that’s the case, I need to find ways to keep me from falling off what’s called “the 30 day cliff” on Amazon. Milan said it used to be 90 days, but now we have one month to engage our readers, or we’re done. Forgotten.  Don’t sit around and cry about it. Figure out how keep connected.

But I have to admit, the marketing and social media circus is exhausting sometimes, and it can often feel like no matter what we do, it makes so little difference. I had the opportunity to attend a Q&A session with Robyn Carr, who is probably the most compelling, most captivating writer I have ever met. She was candid, thoughtful, engaging, and so, so real. She talked about her successes, but also her biggest flops, the eight years where she could not sell a book, the moments when she thought she might never succeed in this business. Toward the end of the talk, I asked her about what she thought about the pressures writers are under today to market themselves and if she has any advice about how to tune it out and prioritize writing in our daily lives. She waved her hand and shook her head. “Oh, there is so much pressure on writers today,” she said. “I am so glad I’m not starting my career now because the pressure is enormous.” She went on for a bit, but then she paused and looked me in the eye and said this: “Just remember, when someone is pressuring you to do something, it says more about them than it does about you.” I thought about this answer for a long time, rolled it over and over again in my head. It really resonated with me, but I wasn’t sure why. Then it hit me, and it connected to something Robyn Carr had said earlier in her talk.

No one knows anything.

No one knows anything! We don’t know about the industry, the market, Kindle Unlimited, where digital publishing is going, or how to sell a million books. No one knows! We have ideas, but there’s no formula. So all the pressure to write blogs, get on twitter, get on facebook, make a book trailer, etc., etc., etc., probably comes from other people trying to validate their own choices. That is not to say they’re not bad choices! I would urge any debut writer to try it all, say yes as much as possible, and embrace all the aspects of marketing. It’s actually quite a bit of fun sometimes. But when I look ahead to my books coming out later this year, and I’m thinking about what I’m going to do to help them find readers, I want to make sure that my marketing is coming from a place of love—not a place of fear. I don’t want to do things to validate past-Colleen’s choices, nor do I want to do things simply to validate anyone else’s choices. I want to do marketing that a) works and b) feels authentic.

Because this was the greatest lesson I learned from Robyn Carr and the RWA Spring Fling Conference. At one point during her talk, she asked us, “Who are you? And where is your authentic place?”

These are two questions this conference helped me to answer.

Through the Veil

Elizabeth Tanner is no Tinkerbell, and her life is no fairy tale. Broke and drowning in student loans, the one thing she wants more than anything is a scholarship from the Trinity Foundation. But after the ancient Irish text she’s studying turns out to be more than just a book, she becomes their prisoner instead. And when Trinity reveals Elizabeth is half-Fae, she finds herself at the center of a plot to save the magical races of Ireland from a brutal civil war.

As Commander of Trinity’s elite warriors, Finn O’Connell isn’t used to having his authority challenged. He doesn’t know whether to punish or protect the infuriating young woman in his custody. When he discovers the Dark Fae want to use Elizabeth’s abilities to control the source of all power in the universe, he’ll risk everything to help her.

At the mercy of Trinity and enslaved to the Dark Fae, Elizabeth finds herself alone on the wrong side of an Irish myth thousands of years in the making. Refusing to be a pawn in their game, Elizabeth has to fight her way back to the man she loves, but to do so, she must wage her own war against the magic that binds her.

Available now at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Amazon UK, and Amazon Canada.

 

Marketing, Publishing, Social Media, Through the Veil, Uncategorized, Writing

Building Communities: Takeaways from the Marketing Trenches Part Two

Hey, it’s me again. I received a lot of really interesting, private responses to my blog post yesterday from some writer friends, and it should come as no surprise that I have more opinions. So many opinions.

One of the big reactions to my post yesterday was to bemoan the lack of marketing publishing does for writers in our current state of affairs. And yes, I hear that. It’s true. Marketing budgets are shrinking and it’s not fair. Here are more cookies for your feelings.

But in this post, I want to examine what it means to “market” a book in the 21st century because I think it’s inherently different to what marketing looked like twenty years ago, and hell, even ten years ago. To explain, I will start with a story from my classroom and how my teaching approach has drastically changed in the past ten years, specifically when it comes to technology.

Let me take you back to 2002. GW was President, Kelly Clarkson had just become the first American Idol, and a young Colleen Halverson had just begun her first year of graduate school as a TA teaching freshman comp. Now this year was a special year for the TA newbies because this was the year the university decided to start a new initiative involving technology literacy (or some shit buzzword. I have no idea). Basically, the university handed freshman comp a curriculum and for one extra day a week, we had to trudge up to the computer lab and do…stuff. Techy stuff.

The curriculum basically went like this:

Week One: Have students make a PowerPoint.

About what? Why? For what purpose?

Week Two: Have students create a website.

Again? Why? What should be on it? What purpose does it serve?

You can see the flaws in this pedagogical approach, I’m sure. Education without context or meaning is doomed to failure, and of course that first semester was pretty rocky. Half the time, my smarter, hipper, more tech savvy students ended up teaching the class and in the end, those websites never really got off the ground.

Fast forward to 2012 where I was teaching freshman comp full time in a computer lab, where we did create PowerPoints and we did create websites using WordPress, but this time the tech was fully integrated into their writing assignments. So, for example, their big project was to write a research paper but share it through the medium of a blog, which, because of the online medium, requires a different mode of writing and formatting. They also had to have different pages for shared PowerPoints, an annotated bibliography, an ongoing reflective research journal, etc. These blogs were shared publicly on the internet and on our library’s homepage. They served a purpose, and their academic labor was meaningful. They helped create a learning community.

It strikes me oftentimes that writers are asked to work under the 2002 model of marketing.

Create a website!

Why? About what? What purpose does it serve?

Get on twitter!

And do what, exactly? What do I tweet about?

Make a facebook page!

Ok, and what do I do with it?

We are working out of context without a purpose.

You’re probably saying, “But Colleen, I do have a purpose online! My purpose is to sell more books!”

To which I say, no.

No.

Stop.

No, I don’t think that’s our purpose (and I don’t mean that in the philosophical sense either, lulz). I think if we’re hopping on the internet with the sole purpose to sell more books, we’re internet-ing wrong.

Our purpose is not to sell a product but to build a community.

Our books are not widgets. We are not used car salesmen. But we can do something publishing houses can’t do, which is to create human connections with our audience. The internet is an amazing place to make that happen. For me, “marketing” is no longer something tangential, a “necessary evil,” or as this “extra” chore I have to do. It’s an intrinsic part of being an artist in the 21st century. It’s about building, sharing, and being a part of a community.

I wish I could tell you what should be on that facebook page or what you should tweet about to create that community. After that failed first semester, I set about shifting my curriculum to something much more meaningful, and it took me ten years to figure out an approach that felt genuinely engaging for my students. It was trying things and failing, seeing what works, and honing those strategies. Come back in ten years, and I might have more answers for you about marketing your book online.

But in the meantime, here are two people who, I think are at the forefront of rethinking what it means to exist as a working artist online: the poet Saeed Jones and rock and roll extraordinaire Amanda Palmer.

I started following Saeed Jones on twitter and immediately noted his incredible web presence. In an interview, he talks about how the boundaries of art and social media are breaking down, that art is not something that happens “out there,” beyond social media, but something that is happening on and through places like Twitter and facebook every day. A poem is a tweet. A tweet is a poem. While some might argue that this diminishes creative output, he disagrees by citing an example of a poet whose poem recently went viral.

“I think quality is even more important now. To use the social web as an example: What’s great about the web is it’s easy for something to be shared. Patricia Lockwood’s rape poem. Excellent work can get out there and take off in a way that even just 5 years ago, the idea of a poem going viral? A literary poem? A poem about rape culture? But it’s possible.”

Jones’s point is that more than ever, an artist needs to be excellent. She needs to walk the walk. The whole world is watching.

If you want to take a masterclass on building online communities, watch and observe Amanda Palmer at work. She is definitely an artist who walks the walk. Palmer uses a patron model to fund her artistic pursuits, but part of what makes her efforts so successful are 1) She fucking rocks. Seriously. And 2) She works relentlessly to connect with her patrons and supporters online. It’s fucking Leaves of Grass up in her timeline with the boundary between fan and artist, artist and fan blurring and intermingling. If you want to understand how sharing culture is changing the way artists work online, please check out her TED talk here. She explains it much more eloquently than I can. And hey, support a writer by purchasing her book here. Regardless of how you feel about her model, Palmer understands something about art and our online culture that can feel very elusive to many of us. At least for me. Watching her use the internet as a means to be an artist inspires me, and I want to be her when I grow up, for real.

All I know is this. The last books I purchased came from either tweets, a blog, a reading community like Vaginal Fantasy, or a suggestion from an online forum on Goodreads. Whether we like it or not, our work as artists is a part of a larger online community, and it’s our job to make our work in that community meaningful.

Are you picking up what I’m throwing down? Would you like to support me and  my opinions? Consider showing your love by purchasing a copy of my new fantasy romance Through the Veil.

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