Thursday, January 24, 2013

Top 10 Social Media Sites for Authors

...and Whether You Should Be There

You can't turn around on the internet nowadays without running into some form of social media. As you read this, you'll see cues in the sidebars of my blog (as well as in the article itself) directing you to connect with me here, there, and everywhere. You can like, tweet, pin, plus and...ummm stumble to your heart's content. That's just how things work nowadays. So, let's take a look at some of the top social media sites, as well as some of the others I specifically recommend for authors. We'll look at the opportunities and challenges of each.

1. Facebook - Despite its recent poor history in regard to stock prices, Facebook is still tops when it comes to social media, connecting people around the world.

The Social Media Juggling Act
Should I be there?: According to the data, >40% of global internet traffic is through Facebook. Global! And the average user spends almost a half hour there. If you or your books are not on Facebook, you're missing out on what potentially may be your largest source of an audience. Their integrated advertising system is fairly simple and it's even easier to "promote" individual posts now. More likes = more chance for viral reach.

Challenges: Be sure to separate your author business from your personal account. Create an author page and invite friends to like it. You don't want to alienate friends with repeated calls to "Buy my book!"

Connect with me on Facebook.

2. YouTube - From cats playing patty cake and staring ground hogs to car accidents and behind the scenes videos. If a video isn't on YouTube, it's not being watched.

Should I be there?: Book trailers are not unheard of. Whether or not they lead to success is another story. However, the potential virality cannot be denied. Make the right video about your book and you might

Challenges: The tutorials on how to make a trailer for your book are out there, but in order to make something truly special, you either need to have video-making talent, or know some. While that shouldn't deter you from trying, I wouldn't put in the effort unless I knew the end product was going to be something to be proud of.

3. Twitter - Changing the world 160 letters at a time.

Should I be there?: Definitely. Revolutions have begun through Twitter. It would be foolish to think it couldn't help your branding or book sales. It can be hectic though and you've most often only got a small window of opportunity to make a good impression.

Challenges: There are millions of people on Twitter and they all have something to say. That means you have only a small window of opportunity to be heard. Pick up a Twitter tool like TweetDeck to help you sift through all the noise and find your crowd. Don't underestimate the power of tagging (#). And don't get overwhelmed. You don't have to spend all day in order to see an impact. 15-30 minutes of focused interaction every other day can make a world of difference.

Connect with me on Twitter.

4. LinkedIn - Looking for a job? Or looking to hire someone? This is the place to be.

Should I be there?: This one is two-fold. If you're a job candidate, there's no better place to be. With just a few connections, you may find yourself indirectly connected to someone who may have the opportunity of a lifetime. As an author or writer, it also provides another avenue for viral communication of your books and writing.

Challenges: While good for connecting with other writers, I'm not quite sure it's the place to be trying to sell a book (unless you're going the traditional route, in which case it might be a great place to meet up with potential agents). While I have connected my personal profile, I have not yet set up an author profile.

5. Tumblr - A blogging tool that allows you to customize your own stream with a variety of tools.

Should I be there?: Well, if you don't already have a blog, consider using this. It combines the possible virality of a social media site into the blogging mix. It also allows for more simplified posting.

Challenges: Less control of content. Personally, I use Blogger and I can code it just like a web site. I know a lot of folks also use WordPress and a handful of others.

6. Pinterest - Ask nearly any woman aged 25-44 about Pinterest and you might hear it's great for fashion, cooking, and interior design. Well, it's way more than that.

Should I be there?: Pinterest is simple. You visit a web site and "Pin" images to boards you create. Book covers are images! By pinning your book cover, you can link pinners directly to the point of sale, or to your web site. If the image catches on, with almost 21 million monthly active users (as of 01/24/13) there's great potential for viral takeoff.

Challenges: It's addictive! Don't get sucked into the pretty pictures. Allot yourself a little time each day, but don't let it break into writing time!

Connect with me on Pinterest

7. Reddit - Reddit's tagline is "The front page of the internet". It's a forum for posting links to interesting articles and conducting discussions about topics from memes to politics to writing and books. Readers (or redditors as they're called) can vote items up and down depending on their like or dislike of a subject matter.

Should I be there?: The Writing forum is a great place to pop in a see what's going on. It's also a great place to make connections and get the word out on your work. Don't hawk your book there, but engage in conversations and, if you post writing related articles to your blog, you may find that posting it here drives additional traffic. You may also want to check out the Books forum.

Challenges: Did I already say don't hawk your book there? Ok. Don't expect anyone to put the kid gloves on if you ask for a critique. And don't expect them to flock to your new ideas with praise and adoration. It's a cruel world out there, kid, and this corner doesn't pull any punches. While folk are generally cordial, you have to be on the up and up, or you'll hear about it.

8. Stumbleupon - Another addictive time waster tool for finding new stuff on the internet, Stumbleupon allows you to enter a subject matter and then "stumble" from site to site (supposedly at random) that fits that category.

Should I be there?: Another chance for viral recognition. I'm not completely sold on this one. While I've had some visits directed to my site from Stumbleupon, it's been a bit hit or miss. In my mind, I've simply added it for the sake of adding it, but I don't do much stumbling myself.

Challenges: Another potential "time suck." Don't get caught up in it.

It's been so long, I can't even remember my StumbleUpon password... yeah.

9. Google Plus - Google's valiant attempt at one-upping Facebook. Not quite there.

Should I be there?: There's still a lot of active users having a lot of conversations about books and writing. It's certainly got the potential for getting your name out there. The ability to group followers into categories and reach out to them directly via email has its advantages. Hangouts are also a potentially great tool for interacting. Just make sure you've got pants on when your web cam kicks in.

Challenges: No one is exclusive to Google Plus. If they're having the conversation there, you can guarantee they're having it over on Facebook or Twitter as well.

Connect with me on Google+.

10. MySpace - OMG! They're still alive? Yep. Alive and kicking.

Should I be there?: Well, to be honest, the answer might be "No." While they still make it into the top ten, MySpace has had to remake itself over the past couple of years in order to remain relevant. They recently rolled out a new design, but I closed my account years ago and have no intention of going back at this point. It might be the perfect opportunity to get a foothold when there might not be a whole lot of competition, but I'm not sure it's the right venue for books. Now, if you also have a band, it might be the perfect place.

Challenges: Well, the challenge is, it's MySpace, which has become the punch line to a few jokes. Not sure the ship has completely sunk, but I'm not planning to get back on board. And, unless they show me something that Facebook can't compete with, I don't see that changing.

Honorable Mentions for Writers and Authors

These are some of my personal favorites that I recommend for authors:

11. Kindle Boards - A great place for the writing community, the Writer's Cafe is an invaluable resource for the fledgling independent author.

12. Goodreads - Possibly the largest reading community on the internet. Authors can create their own profiles, make sure their books are searchable there, create advertising campaigns, and join the conversation about great books and great writing. You can check out my profile here. [UPDATE: On 3/28/13, Amazon announced that it had purchased Goodreads. This definitely changes their importance, from a self-publishing perspective, and position on this list.]

13. Triberr - It took me a while to understand exactly what was going on here. Essentially, you join "Tribes" in order to promote blog posts. Get in with the right crowd and you may find your reach spread to as many as 600,000+ as I've seen in just a matter of weeks. Tribes consist of people willing to tweet, repost, plus, like, etc your blog posts all in an easy and automated fashion. Beware the automatic feed tribes. These are groups that remove the choice of whether you want to post the subject matter or not. Check it out and join my tribe.

Thanks for taking the time to read through. Did I miss any of your favorites? Post in the comments below!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Plotting Your Novel

Four Steps to Putting Your Plot in Order

I've spent a bit of time on Reddit's writing forum over the last couple of weeks. One of the recurring questions I kept seeing was about plotting (or outlining) a novel before starting to write. To be honest, I was never a big proponent of plotting. Until, that is, it worked for me.

Do you remember the movie How to Train Your Dragon? Well, the morning after seeing that movie with my then 4-year-old son, I woke up with a name in my head and the title of a book on the tip of my tongue. While the title quickly died (for being a bit too similar to an existing series), the character thrived and within 48 hours I had plotted out the first book of a proposed trilogy. Six months later, I had translated that outline into a 55,000 word YA novel (which is still on the proverbial shelf). As soon as I finished that book, I sat down and plotted book #2. I was thrilled at how easy it came to me. But, it doesn't always work that way. Let's take a look at some of the key points to successfully plotting your novel:

1. Know where your story begins

When I sat down to write my suspense thriller, I cranked out 40 pages of writing. It was the least suspenseful pile of drivel ever imagined. I shelved 98% of it. It was back story. I had spent ~10,000 words trying to build up a sense of who my character was, without realizing he had accomplished absolutely nothing in that time. You need to establish your starting point. If you're protagonist is a 24-year-old, the reader doesn't need a detailed description of the 24 years that preceded the story's starting point. These are details that can be infused throughout the rest of the story (y'know, the one you really want to tell?). Don't be afraid to throw your characters immediately into the fray. Whether it's drama, fantasy, suspense, or sci-fi, nothing will tell the reader more about your character than seeing how they react when the pressure is at full tilt. Finally, don't be afraid of being vague at this point. We're not writing yet, we're plotting to write. A sentence will do if it conveys Who, What, Where, and When (Why can wait a while). When you recognize your starting point, give yourself a pat on the back. You've found the starting line. Now, stop the self-congratulations and move on.

2. Know (roughly) where your story will end

This one can be tricky for a number of reasons, but it's possibly the most important part of the whole process. Why? Because knowing the ending allows you, as the author, to seed the path with the kinds of things that readers eat up. Nothing impresses me more as a reader than when I get to the end of a book and find that the author has tied together little bits and pieces of the story that were sprinkled throughout. Plus, as a writer, it gives you a point of focus (we'll talk more about focus in step #3). So, where do you want your characters to be at the end of your novel? Can't see it? Imagine the end of your five favorite movies. Happy endings, sad endings, poignant endings, doesn't really matter. But, the best endings are those that show how life has changed the characters involved, for good or bad. As fiction writers, we're conveying a series of events that happened to people. And, despite what some people may believe, life changes us (if it didn't we'd all be pretty damn boring). So, what are the results of the events in your story? What sort of consequences do your characters have to deal with? This is where you may discover the "Why" of your story. When you find that, you'll have found your finish line.

3. Know where the middle point of your story is

Scranton, home of The Office and... not much else.
Consider this a way point in your plot development. We're trying to get from the start to the finish, and a good plot rarely takes a straight line to get there. If it does, it probably won't be very entertaining. But, there's a difference between a plot detour and a major plot detour. Sure, we could just jump on the Jersey Turnpike to get from Philly to NYC, but it might be more interesting to take a detour through Scranton. Essentially, don't be afraid to take side routes to get to where your going. But, it's important to keep your middle point within shouting distance of your proposed ending. Go to NYC from Philly through Cleveland and you're going to lose readers (and potentially drive yourself insane). Why? You're prolonging the trip. Readers aren't dumb; they can often see where you're going. And, even if they can't, when you do finally get where you're going, you may leave them scratching their heads. Why the heck did he walk around the block to visit the neighbor?! So, what is the middle? Well, in my mind, it's the part of the story that leads right into the climax of the story. Your characters have been introduced and the catalyst of the story has been introduced. The middle is where it all begins to come together and it's a straight shot to the end game.
Your riders (ie, readers) might be a bit ticked at your "short cut."

4. Fill in the gaps of your story

Now, comes the hard part for some folks. You know your beginning, middle, and end, but now how to get from one to another. Well, this is where your ability to build a story shows itself. Here's what I do. Thirty is my magic number. It's the number of chapters I start with. I jot down my starting point at #1, my middle goal around #15, and my finish line at #28 (I like to have some room to let things settle at the end). I then mark out the first 5 chapters, the next 10, and the final 15.

The first 5 chapters are character development and initial action. It's in these chapters that you will capture your audience. Some writers will argue that it has to happen in chapter 1, which is true, but you can't place all of your hope on one chapter. Give the reader 5 strong chapters at the beginning of your novel and they will let you take them on whatever journey you want. Grab their attention and empathy for your character in those chapters and you'll be set. No empathy = no care for what happens to the characters = no reason to read on.

The next ten chapters are entirely a setup for the end game. This is where your characters are challenged, poked, and prodded into their point of no return. The reader should be able to look back at this point of the story and say, "That's where it could have changed." If he had only taken the blue pill!

The final 15 chapters are are where the roller coaster plunges over the precipice and the laws of gravity take over. This is where the novel should run at full speed to the climax of the story. Everything chapter should have a distinct effect on how the story will end. Anything else is just slowing the coaster down.

Now, obviously, 30 is just a number I like. You might have 50 chapters or 20. Either way, you should be sure to balance out the plot so that it makes sense for your story; beginning, middle, and end. End too soon, without enough transition, and you'll leave your readers feeling short-changed. Put too much filler into the "middle" and your readers will get bored before they can get to the end. And, a weak beginning won't stimulate the reader to continue reading about your characters.

Would love to hear your opinions on the subject! Questions? Suggestions? Best practices that have worked for you?