A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for Writers

What writers can learn from the life and career of Carrie Fisher

A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for WritersOn December 26, 2016 my wife and I went to see the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The next morning I learned that Carrie Fisher had died. Like most people I knew her for her iconic performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise. Her obituary revealed so much more:

  • Worked steadily as an actress from 1975 through to her death
  • Author of several semi-autobiographical novels, including Postcards from the Edge
  • Wrote the screenplay for the film of the book
  • Starred in an autobiographical one-woman play
  • Author of the non-fiction book, Wishful Drinking, based on her play
  • Spoke about her experiences with bipolar disorder and drug addiction
  • Mental health advocate
  • Script doctor

All these items are impressive, but the last one caught my attention: script doctor. As the title suggests, a script doctor is someone who comes in to fix the screenplays of other writers. In short, when a screenplay is good but not working as well as it should, a script doctor reworks it to make it shine.

Carrie Fisher’s Wikipedia page says she was “one of the top script doctors in Hollywood.” Who would have thought? According to her Wikipedia page and her IMDB bio, here are some of the movies she worked on as a script doctor:

  • Hook
  • Sister Act
  • Lethal Weapon 3
  • Last Action Hero
  • The River Wild
  • The Wedding Singer
  • Coyote Ugly
  • My Girl 2
  • Outbreak
  • Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
  • Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
  • Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
  • Milk Money
  • Love Affair
  • Made in America

I’ve seen all but one of these flicks. In a lot of them she worked on dialogue or to develop a specific character. She worked as a script doctor for about fifteen years and said that at that time it was lucrative work (but apparently not so much anymore).

Carrie Fisher was known primarily as an actress, but she was also an author of books—both fiction and nonfiction—and screenplays, a script doctor, and an advocate. From her example, I have four takeaways for authors:

  1. Diversify our income stream. (She earned money as an actress, author, and script doctor.)
  2. Write in multiple genres. (She wrote fiction, nonfiction, and scripts.)
  3. Capitalize on our strengths. (She had a knack for dialogue and character development.)
  4. Use whatever platform we have to be a voice for what we’re passionate about. (She was able to use her popularity to talk about mental health issues and substance abuse.)

Thank you, Carrie Fisher. You entertained me and taught me about writing.

Writers Need to Learn By Doing

Knowledge about writing has value only when we put it into action

Writers Need to Learn By DoingAt the risk of offending all writers who are pursuing or want to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree in writing, let me share some concerns. Yes, I look at writers with MFA degrees with admiration, even through the eyes of envy. And as a person who has earned the right to hang letters of accomplishment after my name, I understand the heady allure and practical benefits of doing so. Yet I have also wondered if an MFA degree is worth the effort and the cost, both in terms of time and money.

This week in listening to one of the many writing podcasts I follow, the accomplished guest (sorry I forgot your name; I can’t even check because I don’t recall which podcast it was) put things very clearly for me. He (yes, I remember that much) said something to the effect of “Don’t waste your time on an MFA degree, where you will spend years writing one book. You’re better off spending that time writing many books.”

That makes sense, especially given that most authors have to write several novels before they pen one that’s marketable. That’s a big reason why I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this November to write my first novel. I want to get it out of my system. I need to move it from my head onto the page, inching me closer to authoring a book that is worthy. Of course if my first novel is good I won’t complain, but I’m not expecting that outcome. But by the time I finish the series (two sequels and a prequel) I hope I’m ready.

I’ve been moving toward this for a couple of years: reading fiction, receiving instruction, opening myself to critique, and writing fiction. I started with short stories. Though each of these steps is essential, the final one matters most, the actual implementation. During the practice phase, theory becomes real. When we apply head knowledge, it becomes art.

I often run into wannabe writers who have stuffed their heads with theory but have never bothered to apply it by actually writing. Their ideas mean little and their critiques carry questionable merit because they lack the practical experience that turns education into work that matters.

Yes, learning is critical – and writers who refuse to learn are not really writers at all – but working out that head knowledge as we write is even more critical.

Writers spend their time writing and poseurs spend their time learning.

Does the Thought of Marketing Your Book Make You Squirm?

This blog is about writing. An important aspect of writing is marketing what we write, first to get it published and then to get it read. I don’t talk much about promotion because, like many authors, I don’t like to do it; I don’t even want to think about it.

Robin Mellom's book Perfect TimingWhen Robin Mellom told me she was thinking about self-publishing her next YA book, Perfect Timing, I encouraged her to do it and promised I’d help get the word out. Thankfully it’s much easier to “market” someone else’s book than your own.

Here are some easy steps we can do to promote another author’s work (which we can later apply to ourselves when the time comes). Consider these seven options:

Blog: We can blog about the author and the book. This can be direct or indirect. Even a brief mention with a link can help. We can also post a review of the book on our blog.

Amazon: We can review the book on Amazon. While every author wants five-star reviews, a book with only five-star reviews is suspect, so give an honest rating. Perhaps more important than the rating is the actual review itself and especially the headline we give it. If you spot another review that is favorable, mark it as “helpful” so more people can see and read it. More Amazon reviews mean more exposure to prospects by Amazon and more people likely to buy the book.

Goodreads: On Goodreads we can first flag the book as one we “want to read.” Then, as we read it, we can post our progress. When we’re finished, we mark it as “done.” Each of these steps shows interest in the book and helps other Goodreads readers to discover it. Of course, we can also write a review on Goodreads. Some book-marketing gurus think Goodreads is more important than Amazon.

Facebook: We can make status updates about the book and the author. For example, “I can’t wait to read Robin Mellom’s new book Perfect Timing” or “Perfect Timing was a real page turner.” Of course include links and even the cover. We can also follow the author; then “like” or comment on his or her updates. With Facebook, the more likes and comments an update receives, the more people who will see it.

Twitter: We can tweet about the author and the book. Use their Twitter handle and book hashtag. We can also follow the author and retweet their tweets. All these efforts increase their reach on Twitter.

Pinterest: Technically with Pinterest we’re only supposed to post our own images or ones we have the right to post, but what author would object to us pinning their cover? The more places it appears, the better.

In Person: Although we think about using social media for marketing, we can also go old-school and talk about books in person with our friends and family.

Try some of these options to help your friends promote their books. Then when it comes time to market your own, it will be a bit easier.

(And please check out Robin Mellom’s new book Perfect Timing.)

Tribe Writers: Online Writing Course

Last year I took an online writing course from Jeff Goins. It’s called Tribe Writers. It was the most significant thing I did all year to grow as a writer.

I enjoyed it so much, I took the class again to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. Then I took it a third time.

Now Jeff is ready to start another class. Signup begins today, November 6. If you want to grow as a writer, I encourage you to check it out. You’ll improve your writing, learn how to build your platform, make new friends in the writing community, and more.

The class has four modules: 1) Honing Your Voice, 2) Establishing a Platform, 3) Expanding Your Reach, and 4) Getting Published.

Each module has several lessons, many short writing assignments, a slew of recorded interviews and teachings, and unlimited networking opportunities with other students. The class is designed to last eight weeks, but you can work on it at your own pace.

I hope you’ll check out Tribe Writers – I’m glad I did.

[This is an affiliate link. I only recommend what I use, and I’m sold on this course.]

The Importance of Having a Mailing List

Last week I blogged about Robin Mellom, an author whose YA (young adult) writing I really like, but she didn’t have a second YA book for me to buy. Though I could periodically check her author page on Amazon or her website, I know in reality I will soon forget, missing news of her next YA release. That’s why authors need to have newsletters – or at least to collect email addresses of their fans.

A newsletter is one thing I’m actually doing before I need it. My newsletter goes out once a month with new content (last month I wrote about my grandpuppy, Zane), along with links to existing work. Of course I can also let newsletter readers know about my books when they become available. My newsletter subscribers also receive a free copy of my e-book, My Faith Manifesto, as well as other subscriber-only goodies and breaking news.

Wherever your writing career is at, start building an email list today. It will pay off huge later on.

[Epilogue: Robin found my post from last week and contacted me. How cool is that! To my delight, she has another YA (teen) book, Busted, coming out soon. In addition, her second Junior (middle grade) book Student Council Smackdown! released this week.

Update: Robin also now has a newsletter – and I’m on it! Her book Busted is now called Perfect Timing and is available on Kindle.]

Stay Within Your Genre: The Importance of Consistency

Although I resisted it for months, I recently immersed myself in a Young Adult book, a romance, no less: Ditched: A Love Story, by Robin Mellom. I poured over it with can’t-put-it-down abandon. I read it in two days.

When I finished reading it, the next thing I did was I read it again. I enjoyed it that much.

After the second time, I went to Amazon to buy her next book. Alas, she has none – at least not any YA books. She does have a couple middle-grade/junior books, but as much as I like her writing style and voice, I couldn’t force myself to buy a book written for a nine year old.

She found a fan in me – and then had nothing more to offer.

Then I finally understood why people in the know, tell writers to “stay within your genre.” If you write period romance, then write only period romance – that’s what your audience expects. If you write crime novels, write only crime novels. Would you buy a romance by Steven King? No. Or sci-fi by Dick Francis? No, even if it had a horse in it, it wouldn’t work.

I never understood why I couldn’t make a career by writing non-fiction and speculative fiction and devotionals and children’s books and memoirs and even poetry. It might be fun for me but would leave my audience confused and my career would fail to gain traction.

Now I understand why I can’t do that. I still don’t like it, but I do comprehend.

Can you see yourself writing in only one genre for the rest of your career? What genre is it?

Book Review: Are You There Blog?

Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer

By Kristen Lamb (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer is the result of Kristen Lamb’s journey down the blogging path, from a struggling novice to successful blogger – with the following to prove it. And she specifically focuses on writers. Kristen avows that as a beginning blogger she made every conceivable mistake, many of which she shares with us so that we can avoid repeating them.

Are You There Blog? Is divided into three sections. The first is a social media primer, specifically as it relates to writers. Although it is seemingly a long introduction to the book’s main theme of blogging, it’s also most valuable, worth the price of the book by itself. Most of the commonly advocated social media practices, while great for businesses and corporations, don’t help writers and authors and in many cases are actually counterproductive.

The second section, the meat of the book, is entitled “Eighteen Lessons to Blogging Awesomeness,” which Kristen Lamb shares with both humor and authority. Implementing her recommendations will help writers construct a successful blog and aid in establishing their platform, doing so with a minimum of distraction and anxiety. Throughout this Kristen frequently references her own blog, not as annoying self-promotion, but as an actual example and to show that she really does follow her own advice.

The final section, the shortest of the three, offers a trio of testimonies from others who followed and affirm Kristin’s recommendations. This is a fitting conclusion to Are You There Blog? and a confirmation she’s not laying out a theoretical treatise but instead sharing a practical, workable, and proven plan to help writers blog.

Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer is a stand-alone book. However, readers may benefit by first reading Kristen’s previous book, We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, which she frequently references by the acronym WANA.

Regardless, Are You There Blog? is a good beginning resource for any writer who blogs or wants to blog.

[Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer, by Kristen Lamb. Published by Who Dares Wins Publishing, 2011; ISBN: 978-1-935712-48-0; 187 pages.]

Read more book reviews by Peter DeHaan

Book Review: We Are Not Alone

We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media

By Kristen Lamb (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, Kristen Lamb shares from her own experience how writers can master social media, using it to build their platform. While much has been written about social media, this generic information, she asserts, is not helpful to writers and is often counter-productive.

We Are Not Alone (which Kristen affectionately refers to by its acronym, WANA) is presented in three acts. Act one is “The Big Picture,” effectively introducing the topic. It is a social media primer, providing the basics and presenting a compelling argument as to why writers need to embrace it.

The second act, the meat of the book, covers the practical aspect of building a social media platform; it’s subdivided into two stages. The first part offers instructions on understanding and gathering content, while the second section addresses the technology and websites that can be tapped to share this information.

The final act is the shortest of the three; it addresses time management. Succinctly, social media can be a huge time suck, as well as a distraction from the more important job of actually writing. Kristen shares her strategy to address this, encouraging readers to do the same.

We Are Not Alone was written in 2010 and with social media rapidly changing, some parts are already out of date (thought happily most of the book is still nicely applicable). For example, not too many people are on My Space any more, but Kristen advocates it as an essential part of a writer’s social media presence. While her argument is strong, I wonder if she still advises that today.

Regardless, the underlying basis of We Are Not Alone remains useful. I recommend the book as a basic tutorial for any writer not using social media and for those just starting to use it, as well as writers already socially active who desire to use it more effectively.

[We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, by Kristen Lamb. Published by Who Dares Wins Publishing, 2010; ISBN: 978-1-935712-17-6; 197 pages.]

Read more book reviews by Peter DeHaan

Book Review: How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing (A Field Guide for Authors)

By Rachelle Gardner (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

In How Do I Decide? Rachelle Gardner gives an unbiased explanation of the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. She starts with a brief review of how publishing has changed in the past 15 years, followed by a summary of the basic tenets as publishing currently stands and then seguing into an exposé of the emerging self-publishing option.

As the chapters unfold, Rachelle shares the strengths and weaknesses of both publishing opportunities, connecting them with the personal strengths and weaknesses, the individual likes and dislikes of each writer who is weighing these options. In doing so, Gardner does not attempt to steer readers towards one conclusion over the other, but gives an open-minded presentation of each in a balanced manner.

After explaining both options, Rachelle unveils a detailed checklist to guide readers in selecting the publishing option that best matches their personality, experience, goals, and strengths. The book concludes with a valuable resource list that covers all aspects of book publishing.

Having followed this discussion for several years – and as someone who is simultaneously exploring both options – this concise book is the best resource I’ve seen. I highly recommend it as a starting point for any writer seeking publication, as well as published authors wishing to better navigate the rapidly changing path of book publication.

[How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing (A Field Guide for Authors), by Rachelle Gardner. Published by RL Gardner Publishing, 2012, ASIN: B00B4JRNN8, Kindle; $3.99]

Read more book reviews by Peter DeHaan

Book Review: The Shy Writer

The Shy Writer: An Introvert’s Guide to Writing Success

By C. Hope Clark (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

Many writers are shy. C. Hope Clark understands this too well. At best, the effect of shyness serves as a roadblock for writers. At worst, it’s enough to cause some to cease writing altogether; the cost of confronting their shyness is simply too great.

For withdrawn writers who decide to push through, she offers two strategies: become less shy or figure a way to reconcile with it. Though her tips apply to both solutions, she gears her book to help writers accommodate their timidity. Along the way, Hope gives permission for shy writers to determine which areas they will make adjustments for and which they will avoid. Allowing reserved writers to choose which items they will press into and which ones they will skip is a viable plan.

For example, consider public speaking. Perhaps leading a small group can become acceptable, while standing behind a podium will never be, so saying “no” is okay. Or maybe serving on a panel is a reasonable alternative to a formal presentation. As with all her advice, she offers tips for dealing with these uncomfortable social situations

In the book’s twelve chapters, Hope effectively walks shy writers through the various issues they could encounter when confronting their introverted tendencies. Although The Shy Writer applies to males and females, her examples often center on the ladies.

Written in 2004, the truths about shyness remain unchanged. However, some of the recommended solutions are no longer applicable or require tweaking. Most of the out-of-date advice addresses the Internet, which has evolved greatly in the intervening years. Other outmoded suggestions relate to navigating the publishing industry, which has changed almost as much. Yet despite the dated references, the book contains a great deal of encouraging information for writers who are shy.

If you write and deem yourself shy, consider this book as required reading.

[The Shy Writer, by C. Hope Clark. Published by Funds for Writers. 2004; ISBN: 1-59113-583-4; 163 pages.]

Read more book reviews by Peter DeHaan