Should Writers Focus On One Niche?

The easiest way to build your author brand is to consistently publish the same type of content

Should Writers Focus On One Niche? by Peter DeHaanI remember when I started taking writing seriously. I moved from simply writing to being a writer. The shift was huge.

I had so much to learn about the industry (and I still do). Of the many surprises I encountered as I learned about writing was the importance of focusing on one niche. I didn’t like that. Don’t tie me down to writing one thing; I need variety. Yet the advice I received said to pick nonfiction or fiction or memoir. Just one. Then narrow the focus even more. If fiction, which genre? If nonfiction, what slice?

The thought that I had to pick one, and only one area, parallelized me. First, it sounded boring. Second, what if I picked wrong? Yikes! Though once I established myself in that one area, I might have an opportunity to branch out. But the idea still sounded too restrictive for too long.

Another person suggested I try all three options and whichever one sold first, that would be my niche. Though that made sense, it seemed I’d waste a lot of time and effort.

I went back to agonizing between nonfiction, fiction, and memoir. (Yes, memoir is technically nonfiction, but it contains elements of fiction writing, so it’s really a both-and pursuit.)

A third person opined that memoirs were selling, so I pursued that. I later learned this person was in error, or I had heard wrong. Writers can only sell their memoirs if they are famous, infamous, or suffered through the mother of all tragedies. As a regular guy with a normal life, I had none of these. Though I’ve written a few memoirs, none have sold.

I next moved to nonfiction and wrote a couple more books in this category. I also pitched several other nonfiction book ideas, but nada.

Between waiting for publishers to decide on my nonfiction books and book ideas, I dabbled in fiction, the remaining area not yet explored. First I wrote short stories and then wrote a couple novels, too. Interestingly, I receive better feedback on my short stories and novels than on my nonfiction and memoirs.

In this way, I ended up writing in all three areas, and I’m waiting to see which one pops first. When it does, the wise career move will be focusing on that as my niche. But my interests are too eclectic to do that. I’ll probably end up pursuing multiple paths simultaneously. I’ll have to, or I will surely get bored.

By the way, besides memoir, nonfiction, and fiction books, I also write for publications and am a commercial freelance writer, in addition to blogging. I like the variety; I need the variety. It keeps me from getting bored.

Yes, the best advice is to specialize in one area and build our author brand around that. But that’s not me. Don’t force me into a corner.

Save

Save

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.

Was 2016 Your Best Year Ever or an Epic Fail?

We need a realistic view of our history to plan a reasonable vision for our future

Was 2016 Your Best Year Ever or an Epic Fail?My wife sometimes says I view things as though my glass is only half-full, that I’m pessimistic. I counter that I’m simply being a realist, but the truth is I’m not sure who’s right. Perhaps a bit of reality resides in both perspectives. So it is in viewing my past year as a writer.

As such, I share two perspectives:

Best Year Ever:

  • After years of talk, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. What a great experience.
  • I wrote two novels, the second one in about three weeks. (I’m still editing them both.)
  • My work as a commercial freelance writer really took off this year, with more clients, more work, and more income—all new records.
  • I grew my Twitter followers from 2,400 to 11,500, surpassing my year-end goal of 10,000. I’m enjoying good connections and engagement there.
  • I took LinkedIn seriously and made 100 posts to a growing audience of 2,300, which more than doubled in 2016.

Epic Fail:

  • I didn’t publish a book this year.
  • I didn’t win any writing contests.
  • I wasn’t published in any anthologies.
  • I didn’t accomplish my number one goal for 2016. (Which is now my number one goal for 2017.)
  • Work/life balance continues to elude me. (It’s even harder to achieve when you work at home.)

I could reasonably adopt either of these two perspectives as my primary view of 2016. While it’s easy to dwell on disappointments, missed goals, and wasted opportunities, a better outlook is to focus on what went great this year. Though I might need to reread this post to remind myself, I can truly say that 2016 was my best year ever, and I look forward to 2017 being even better.

As you review 2016, I encourage you to celebrate the mountains and not allow yourself to wallow in the valleys. Though everyone is at a different place as a writer, no one had a flawless year and everyone has something to celebrate. Focus on these things as you move into 2017.

May it be your best year ever.

Save

What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

The journey of writing a novel in one month has much to teach about being a writer

Can You Write a Book in a Month?Many times in this blog, I’ve talked about NaNoWriMo—the effort to write the first 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. I also announced in October that this was the year I would actually participate. Though I did pursue NaNoWriMo, I almost bailed before I even started, and I would have had I not told you about it.

Here’s what I learned.

Prepare to Write: Though you can’t write prior to November 1, you can plan for your novel. I had an idea bouncing around in my head for several years. I know the characters, the inciting incident, the ending, the story arc, and all the scenes. But in mid-October I realized my tone and vision were wrong, and that I wouldn’t be ready to write come November 1.

On to plan B: write a sequel to my novella, which was on its way to becoming a novel. I already knew the characters and had determined the opening, ending, story arc, and most of the scenes for the second book. The only problem was that I didn’t want to start the sequel until I finished writing the first book. But I couldn’t finish the first book until I received feedback from my developmental editor, which didn’t come soon enough.

Despite many efforts to the contrary, I wasn’t prepared for NaNoWriMo. Strike one.

Schedule Time to Write: I write in the morning. On November 1, I wrote nothing because I had nothing to write. Strike two. On November 2 through 11, I worked on finishing my first book, which was a great feeling of accomplishment, but it didn’t count for NaNoWriMo. I took the twelfth off from fiction writing and started writing my NaNoWriMo book on the thirteenth.

Monday through Saturday I would start writing about 5:30 a.m., with a goal of not stopping until I hit 2,500 words. A few days I worked again in the evening, which I also did on Sundays.

Remove Distractions: I should have scaled back on other activities. I should have stopped reading, cut back on TV, and put my blogs on hold or have written posts a month in advance. I didn’t. Another strike. (If you’re keeping track, I’m allowing myself more than three strikes.)

Be Flexible: I began November flirting with a cold, which took me out of writing mode for a couple of days (another strike), and I had two websites get infected with malware, which took several hours, spread over a week and a half, to fix. (My anti-malware noticed the incursion, but didn’t prevent it. Bummer.) More setbacks and another strike.

Focus on the Goal: If my goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel, which I didn’t start until November 13, than I would have just given up. Instead I set new goals, which was to relish the participation and see how far I could get.

Celebrate the Journey: I enjoyed my writing to finish the first book, which spanned November 2 through 11. And I really enjoyed writing the second book, which started November 13. I liked sitting down to write, the progress invigorated me, and seeing me move closer to the end spurred me on. I had fun!

Rest as Your Reward: When NaNoWriMo is over (and anytime you finish writing a book), you need to rest. For me one or two days are usually enough. But when December 1 rolled around, I couldn’t rest because my book wasn’t quite done. I suspect that will happen around December 5—and I can’t wait.

For the record, I logged 78,600 words in November, which I’m both amazed and shocked at. Of those, 15,700 were to complete my first novel, 12,100 words were for work (yes, I have a day job), 8,300 words were for my blog, and . . . drum roll please . . . I completed 42,500 words on my new novel, which isn’t bad at all for just eighteen days of work. (I’ve continued writing, and it currently stands at 46,400 words with one more scene to write, which should add another 1,000 or so words.)

My low word count day for NaNoWriMo was zero, and I had a couple of them. My high word count day for NaNoWriMo was 3,800 (plus another 1,700 for work, bumping that day’s total word count to 5,500). My writing goal, once I actually started, was 2,500 words a day. Most days I hit it fine and wanted to keep going, but I had to stop for work. A few days were real struggles. I typically wrote at a pace of 500 to 600 words an hour, sometimes a little less and occasionally up to about 1,000.

Over all, the month was exhausting and exhilarating. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Use Photos to Fuel Your Fiction Writing

If a picture is worth a thousand words, why not use photos to inspire what you write?

Use Photos to Fuel Your Fiction WritingI’ve heard of fiction authors who tape a photo of their main character next to their computer as they write. The picture inspires their words and focuses their character description. This seems like an intriguing idea, one I never got around to doing – until this week.

Though the physical features of the characters in my novella, Ice Creamed, (soon to be a full-blown YA novel) reside in my mind, they morphed as I wrote. I realized I needed an image to anchor my vision of who they are. I needed pictures. I went online.

Though pictures of people abound on the internet, I found it difficult to locate the exact photo that fully captured what I envision my characters to look like. You see, these people have been living in my mind for a few months; they’ve become my friends as I’ve written about them, and I’ve even fallen in love with them – well, most of them. Trying to find a picture to match what is in my head and the words I have already written is hard. It might be impossible.

However, I’m going to add a secondary story arc to expand a minor character. I had no mental image of her; she was a clean slate. As I scrolled through pictures looking for one suitable for my main character, Brianna, another image popped out. That’s Rachel! I knew it immediately. It was perfect.

I knew Rachel would play volleyball and was a setter. The Rachel in my photo exudes confidence, her eyes are sharp, and she’s intense – just what you want in a setter. A nickname jumped out: “Rambo.” A fiery volleyball player named Rambo. She’s going to be so much fun to write. I can’t wait to get started.

Going forward I’m going to find pictures for all my characters before I start writing them. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words – and so much more.

Writers Must Balance Education with Experience

Wordsmiths need both knowledge and a growing word count to achieve writing success

Writers Must Balance Education with ExperienceI’ve run into writers who work in a vacuum. Committed to writing all they do is write, but they don’t study the craft. They don’t read books or magazines about writing; they don’t take classes, attend workshops, or go to conferences; they don’t participate in writing groups, have a critique partner, or use beta readers. They don’t follow blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch webinars. I suspect these folks are more prevalent than I realize – because they write in secret, and I run into them by accident. (By the way, they aren’t reading this post, either – unless you email it to them.)

The opposite extreme are those who read extensively about writing and often quote their favorite gurus; they attend every writing related event they can afford to squeeze in, often traveling far to do so; they join online writing groups, are active in writing discussion boards, and confidently give their opinion on every piece of writing they encounter. There’s one problem: they don’t write. They’ve put writing on hold until they learn more. They have been talking about writing a book for years, but they’re not quite ready to start. They feel they need to figure out one more thing first.

The balance between these two extremes is to pair writing with learning. Yes, we need to put in the time and write, but we need to do so in an informed way. Writing without knowledge is futility, while studying without application wastes time.

To pursue this balance I start by writing every day. Then to inform my writing I read writing magazines, follow a few blogs, listen to (too many) podcasts, participate in critique groups, attend two writing conferences each year, and read books (though I have bought more writing books than I have read).

As a long time nonfiction writer, in the past few years I’ve delved into fiction. I started with short stories, recently completed a novella, and will start a novel in November. I’ve also done a lot of studying to prepare me to write good fiction, yet I fear that recently my education has outpaced my experience. I currently have enough writing theory stuffed into my brain to paralyze me. Instead of thinking about writing a compelling story, my preoccupation with systems and formats and conventions and expectations has bogged me down.

My solution is to sit down and write more fiction. This will restore the balance. I can’t wait.

Can You Write a Novel in a Month?

Now is the time to prepare for NaNoWriMo in November

NaNoWriMo: Can You Write a Book in a Month?I’ve written nonfiction all of my adult life and recently began writing fiction for some variety. I started with short story (mostly flash fiction: under 1,000 words) because it was faster to write and easier to experiment. And if it doesn’t work, I haven’t invested too much time. Recently I received some professional feedback on my short stories.

Then I upped the word count and wrote a novella (longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.) When I outlined it – yes, I’m a planner – I expected a word count in the lower 20s. It ended up at 29,000 words. I sent it off to another editor for her professional opinion on the overall content and writing.

Though I say the first draft of my novella is done, I wonder if it is. After sending it off, I had an idea to weave in a second story arc of another character. I’ve outlined her story, too, which will give me another 12,000 to 15,000 words. Now its approaching novel length (at least for YA romance).

I’m doing all of this in preparation to write a novel. Since writers first novels are generally bad, I want to get this out of my system and move on. Besides my story idea isn’t too marketable, so it’s definitely practice.

I plan to write the first draft this November as part of NaNoWriMo, something I’ve wanted to do for the past few years but never had the time. This year will be different – I hope. The idea of NaNoWriMo is to write the first 50,000 words of a novel in one month.

When working on my Novella, my low word count day was about 1,000 and my best day was 3,600 (the words really flowed, and I didn’t want to stop). Most days I was in the 1,500 to 2,000 word range, but that was only for Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. For NaNoWriMo, I need to keep up that pace seven days a week, which I could definitely do if I didn’t have to work.

The rules of NaNoWriMo allow you to prepare prior to November 1, but you can’t do any actual writing until after midnight October 31. I’ve done my prep work and am itching to start. Though I doubt I will achieve 50,000 words in a month, I do want to participate and see how far I can get.

The one possible roadblock would be if my agent finds a publisher for one of my nonfiction book ideas. Then NaNoWriMo will go on hold for another year, and I’ll spend November writing nonfiction – and I’m okay with that. After all, I’ll still be writing, and that’s what’s important.

Save

Why Should You Pay Others to Help You Improve as a Writer?

When you want to advance as an author, the cost-effective solution is to hire outside help

Why Should You Pay Others to Help You Improve as a Writer?Tip #7 in my post “10 Tips to Improve as a Writer” is to not be afraid to pay for help. As a financially frugal person this was a hard lesson for me to learn. When I entered the publishing industry in 2001, by purchasing Connections Magazine from its founder, I approached my new business with entrepreneurial zeal and no publishing knowledge.

One of the first things I did was pay an established industry consultant to point me in the right direction. At $200 an hour, I had to make every minute count. Though expensive, his advice was golden, helping me to avoid costly errors and dodge common traps. It was one of the best investments I could have made.

To save money, though, I did all the editing myself. This was a mistake. Every issue had errors. In one column I lauded my designer as a “creative genesis” instead of a “creative genius.” Another time I contrasted a shotgun to a riffle, not a rifle. Readers who knew me would laugh at my errors. To ease my embarrassment I hired an editor to do proofreading and copyediting. Though I still do all the substantive edits (macro editing, as I call it), I defer the minutia of details to someone who is able to pick out typos and knows grammar and punctuation.

Though I’ve learned much in this area and now do my own proofreading for online content, I would never print something without the seasoned eye of a professional proofreader first reviewing each word and scrutinizing every sentence.

I have also paid people to provide an assessment of some of my books. Sometimes this is to point out weakness in the work or identify writing habits I need to correct. Other times the goal is simply to answer the question, “Is this work viable?” and if not, “What do I need to do to fix it?”

Most recently I hired a former college writing professor to provide feedback on my fiction work, starting with short stories. With ease and confidence he answers questions that have perplexed me and caused my writing peers to equivocate. He confirms what I do well and shows where I can improve. His tutelage is invaluable.

Whenever I hire someone to help me with my writing, I view it as designing my own, personal writing course, one to provide direct, tangible assistance in the area where I need it most. This saves me from trial-and-error discovery of what works and what doesn’t. This keeps me from wasting time and helps me to get better faster.

Yes, nothing can replace the lessons learned when we just sit down and write, but seeking professional help when we need it, makes our time spent writing less frustrating and so much more effective.

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.

What It Means To Be a Writer

Writing is about focus and balance and obeying our muse

What It Means To Be a Writer

For the first time (that I recall) I don’t want to write a post for this blog today. It’s not that I don’t want to write at all; it’s that I yearn to work on something else.

This something else is a short story that has turned into a novella (a short novel). It is a YA romance, of all things. Yes, this nonfiction writer is fixated on writing a novella. I’m so into it that I’d rather work on it than do anything else. And since I have many other things that demand my attention today, this is a bit of a problem.

After I focus on this day’s critical tasks, I plan to reward myself with time to write another section. Yet I know one hour of writing will turn into more, one chapter will slide into the next, and each time I promise to write “just one more paragraph” another one will follow. This is the writer’s equivalent to reading a can’t-put-it-down, page-turner.

I call this writerphoria.

As a committed planner who outlines every long work before I type the first word, I’m mostly discovering this story as I write. Yes, I know the final scene (at least I think I do), and I am writing toward it. I also listed story beats that I click through in connect-the-dots fashion to move me closer to the finish line, but as I do my muse keeps giving me more great ideas to insert into the journey.

It’s a heady experience – and also frustrating.

My angst occurs because I’m largely winging this affair. Since I didn’t plan on this being a novella, I didn’t plan the details. I never bothered to explore my characters, to map their motivations, or even determine their last names. I just make it up as I go – and hope it doesn’t contradict something I wrote earlier. And too often it does. I worry that I’m not fixing all the prior scenes to align with the new ones I’m adding. Plus, I must get back to my story before some essential spark slips from memory and disappears forever.

This all began with a simple short story, flash fiction (under one thousand words).

I started writing short stories in earnest about two years ago. This was strategic in preparation to write a novel, which I plan to start this November as part of NanNoWriMo. Though the NanNoWriMo rules tell me I can’t start the actual writing until November 1, I can prepare and plan. I know my story arc, I’ve outlined the plot, and I’ve detailed my characters and identified their motivation. I listed my beats and know the theme. I have the title. The opening and ending scenes bounce around in my head.

Though I can’t wait to start my novel in November, I have a novella to finish first – along with living the other parts of life.

Isn’t being a writer grand?

Save

Save