Authors are excellent at multi-tasking — they have to be

Regular readers of this blog will know that I wear a few different hats as a writer. Most fiction writers do as a matter of necessity. It is a rare writer who can sustain themselves by just writing fiction, unless of course, they crack the best seller list but even then they need to be prepared to participate in book tours, signings, interviews and if they’re writing for young adults or children, school visits. On top of all this it’s becoming increasingly more important for all authors —bestsellers or not— to be involved in book promotion and social media.

Recently someone asked me how I manage to change my mind set for each of my roles. I don’t. None of the roles I have is mutually exclusive. As well as a fiction author, I am lucky enough to be Writer in Residence in a Sydney High School, an eLiteracy Consultant in different schools, and I still fit in some casual teaching.  It’s a perfect scenario for me really. I love each of my jobs and look forward to interacting with different groups of kids in different contexts each week.

Of course, like most authors I wish I had more time to write, but I don’t resent having to work at other jobs as well. My secondary jobs (I am a writer first) mean that not only do I get to nurture young writers, but I get to regularly interact with the teenage demographic for whom I write. It is enormously helpful listening to their speech and dialect and observing the way in which they regard me, each other, their teachers, and other members of the community.

It’s different for each gender. Girls and boys use language differently, treat each other differently, observe, regard and prioritise differently. Neither gender is better or worse at these things. Just different.  But it’s an important distinction to make when creating authentic characters. And younger teens do all these things differently to older teens — they haven’t yet developed the analysis and cynicism of their older peers. As an author of young adult fiction, I’m incredibly lucky to be privy to the nuances and subtleties of these differences.

And when it comes to marketing through social media, I’m in a similarly privileged position. If I want to know the social media platforms where teens hang out, I ask them directly. And It’s not where I thought they might be. Younger kids yearn to be on Facebook, many of them (some as young as ten) flaunt the 13-year-old age requirement to do so. But somewhere between the middle and end of Year 10, they lose interest. They still might maintain their accounts but they are not active on them, choosing instead to use Messenger to chat or Tumblr to view their thoughts. This is invaluable information when targeting the age group. There’s no point marketing your books on a platform devoid of your target group.

More and more authors are required to diversify their skill set to manage their writing careers. Me, I’m lucky — I love all my jobs. And as hard as it sometimes is to juggle everything and still find time to write, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The astounding power of writing

Writing has an incredible transformative power. Not just for the people whose thoughts, feelings or attitudes are influenced or impacted by the writing, but for the writers themselves.

It's been acknowledged historically that those wielding the pen wield an enormous amount of power. It’s been said many times in many different ways over the ages. From as far back as the Islamic prophet Muhammad, quoted as saying “The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr,” to Shakespeare in the 1600s in his play Hamlet Act 2, scene II, writing “… many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequill,“ and a few hundred years later Edward Bulwer-Lytton said ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.

And we know that the power of the word, and therefore the process of writing, is a far more effective way of influencing thought. And while those quoted above were referring to acts of violence being less effective than writing in achieving compliance or influence, they couldn’t possibly have known just how powerful the written word would be in a technological age where words influence —positively or negatively—on a much grander scale.

But recently I’ve witnessed how powerful writing can be on a very different level. Convening writers’ groups for teenagers, I continue to be astounded by the incredible power writing has for kids. I’m not talking about the power it gives them over other people; I mean the amazing transformative power writing gives these kids over themselves.

I saw it last year when my writers’ group was made up of disengaged young men in Year 10, and I’m seeing it again this year with a completely different cohort of kids. One of my groups this year comprises a dozen 13-year-old girls in Year 8. I started with them last year when they were in Year 7. They are the brightest in their year and were nominated for writers’ group by their Year Advisor.

These girls have reading ages way beyond their chronological ages. They are intelligent, engaged in the learning process, keen and enthusiastic students. And when they first came I wondered how beneficial the group would actually be for them.  I thought a writers’ group for these exceptional students may be a little redundant and that I could be better utilised working with students that needed a literacy boost. I was wrong. Again.

While all of these girls are academically gifted, some of them struggle with a social phobia and dislocation that makes functioning in a societal context quite difficult for them. Acute anxiety affects one or two, and intense pressure from home to achieve hangs over the heads of many of them.

Last year the writers’ group sessions with these girls were more about encouraging them to suspend their realities enough to tap into an imagination that I’m sure must’ve existed in them at some stage of their childhoods. It was hard work. But now, now they are writing. They’re writing fiction — fantasy, science-fiction, fan-fiction, romance, mystery, adventure. And I am so excited by it!

When they first came, their eyes were dull with trepidation, or fear of the unknown, or the weight of expectation. Now they come to group with inspiration bubbling from them in an effervescence of enthusiasm. Once silent, they now chatter happily, with sparkling eyes and big smiles. It is wonderful.

And they write. Prolifically. And they tell me they look forward to coming to writers’ group.

Writing has given some of these kids a means of social expression and interaction that they didn’t have before. Sharing their writing within the group has broken down some of the social barriers and awkwardness and opened up a world of newfound respect for each other. It’s created a space where they all interact on equal ground not just academically, but creatively and socially.

I am the luckiest writer on the planet because I get to share the joys of writing with these amazing kids.

Who do you write for?

Writing —like reading— is a very subjective pursuit. People write and/or read for a myriad of reasons, ranging from catharsis to leisure, as a profession, a boredom buster or in pursuit of knowledge. To achieve success in the field a writer needs to first develop an understanding of why they themselves write, then get to know why people read, and develop an understanding of the readership for which they write.

Sound daunting? It can be. But if you are serious about being a writer and you dream about making a living out of your writing, it’s important to understand every aspect of what makes a successful writer, apart from the obvious—having the ability to write! Rightly or wrongly, some of the most successful writers (particularly eAuthors) are not necessarily the ones with the best writing ability.

So how do you make sure that you are successful in attracting a readership to your book? As I mentioned before, thinking about why you write, what you write, and for whom you write is imperative. Understanding your target audience can mean the difference between your book collecting dust on a shelf (physical or electronic) or being consistently downloaded and read.

Writing for yourself is a fabulous thing to do, but don’t be surprised if others don’t engage with it at the rate you’d like them to. Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether or not anyone reads your work if building a readership is not your focus. What is meaningful and enjoyable to you personally may not necessarily be what appeals to others.

An experienced and successful author once told me that the road to success was to select a genre and stick to it. At the time, I dismissed this advice as being unnecessarily pejorative. But now, a few years down the track, I understand what she meant. An enormous amount of time and energy goes into building an audience, so it is more productive and effective to focus your energies on one particular demographic.

Firstly, you need to identify the genre in which you most enjoy writing. For me it’s young adult fiction. Probably because I spend a lot of time around this demographic. I am familiar with their vernacular, their behaviours, their hopes and fears and dreams. And their realities — harsh and unjust as they sometimes are. The old adage ‘write what you know’ works for me here. This doesn’t mean you (or I) will be stuck with the same genre forever, but it is a good idea to establish yourself first. When you become better known, you’ll be able to diversify, and carry your readership with you.

Once you have identified your genre (and sub-genre), you need to refine your target readership. Will it be gender specific? The novel I am writing now is a young adult crime fiction. The readership I am targeting is boys aged between thirteen and fifteen.  Typically with young adult fiction, boys won’t read ‘books for girls’ but girls will read everything, so targeting this narrowly will enable me to capture of broader audience than my focus.

The next step is to think about the components necessary to draw this group in. Of course, I am speaking very generally here, but boys of this age typically prefer fast-paced, action-packed narrative that is outcomes based. They also prefer series. How do I know this? Apart from the anecdotal information I pick up working in a high school as a writer-in-residence, I did my research.

Local libraries are a great resource for info about reading behaviour. So too, are bookshops (those left standing). Pick a less busy time to visit either and ask those who work there about popular titles, plots, and demographics. I’ve had some fabulous conversations of this nature with people for whom books are a passion. Arts sections of newspapers commonly run features about book trends, bestseller lists are indicative of genres that are popular and will reflect local as well as national or international trends.

Another important thing to think about is matching content, plot and storyline, to the demographic. There is no point targeting 30-35 year old men for your readership if you are writing romance—they won’t read it. Now, I’m sure there are probably men in this age group who love reading romance (but may never admit it); there are always exceptions. But I’m speaking generally; you need to consider ‘the group’ you are targeting, rather than individuals within it.

And don’t underestimate the power of sourcing information word-of-mouth. Find other readers. If you are a writer, then you will be a reader and know other readers. Ask them. If you write for adults, join a book club where you get to hear and participate in discussions about books. You’ll learn the likes, dislikes and preferences of other readers. And seek out and talk to people in the demographic for which you want to write. If you can write narrative with plots that people want to read, there is a higher probability that well-written books will sell. Consultation is invaluable in developing plot. Knowing where to find and how to target your chosen readership to promote your work is for another post.

 "Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing." Sylvia Plath

Tempers, trolls and twisted logic

The other night one of the current affairs shows ran a story about social media trolls. I don’t generally watch these types of tabloid programs but the story got my attention. Trolls are people who roam sites like Facebook and Twitter with the single focus of upsetting people. They are relentless and completely random in their attacks, but their actions can have devastating results on hapless victims.

How do we, as authors, deal with this issue should it affect us? There is no denying the need for authors to establish and maintain a social media profile to help promote books. And the law of probability being what it is; odds are we will have to deal with it at some stage.

I’m not going to delve into the psyche of the social misfits that engage in trolling—I can’t, I don’t understand them. But I do understand social media so I can provide assistance and advice in dealing with their actions.

The most important thing to remember is that you need to protect your professional (and personal) brand. DO NOT engage with anyone attempting to attack your reputation. Trolls seek a reaction and thrive on the conflict and distress they create. Familiarise yourself with the security settings on your social media pages and use them. Block anyone who is particularly vitriolic. They’ll go elsewhere to satisfy whatever twisted need they’re seeking to fulfil. Facebook fan pages and Twitter both have reasonably effective means of blocking, deleting and reporting trolls.

In the same category as trolls, but perhaps more relevant to authors are the ‘repellent reviewers.’ These people post reviews that are downright destructive and serve no other purpose than to attack and destroy your reputation. There seems to be an increasing trend where a jealous and spiteful person gathers others and over the course of a few days, they target a particular author or book and fire off one-star ratings accompanied by a few mean words (crap story, don’t bother, etc).

There is no justification for this type of behaviour. It is one thing to post a negative review if the reviewer is genuine and explains what aspect of the book they found not to their satisfaction. Whether it is a lack of plot, bad grammar and structure, superficial characterisation or sloppy style, readers are generally quite discerning. It is not enough just to say the book was crap. These types of reviews are trying to keep a book lower in the rating charts, mostly in a misguided attempt to give a rival’s book a stronger profile. Like trolling, repellent reviewing is an abhorrent practice that has no place online.

If you notice that you have been targeted in this way, report it. Etailers and distributors generally take the matter seriously. In July last year, Smashwords deleted the accounts of people who engaged in this practise on their site. Never ever engage with these people. They cannot be reasoned with. Report it.

Stay vigilant, monitor your social media profiles and don’t let the twisted logic of these horrible people impact on your work or reputation.