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Month: March 2011

SXSW panel in review: Tell & Sell Your Story

The next exciting panel I attended at SXSW was called “Tell & Sell Your Story,” with panelists that included author Stephanie Klein (@stephanieklein), professor Michael Chaney (@mjchaney), agent David Hale Smith (@davidhalesmith) and writer Ned Vizzini, moderated by agent Alex Lerner.

The panel was billed as one that would discuss how to write a book proposal, how to find an agent, apps you can use, and writing software. Much of this came toward the end of panel, but the first part was highly valuable too. One of my favorites moments was when Klein (who is fabulous and whose work I am going to have to discover) stated that for an author, balance is bullshit. As someone with a full-time and a freelance job, it felt good to hear someone else say it, although I already knew it. It only mirrored my sentiments that you can always do something if you make the time for it.  They talked extensively about how to structure a writing day – everyone has their own method – but some of the suggestions were to create structured, absolute writing days, where you do nothing but spend the whole day writing and don’t break the roll. I haven’t been able to do this since college, but I should probably find a way to do this again and see if it works for me.

Then they discussed writing itself, and again, Klein said something that resonated heavily with me. She said the moment we start to censor ourselves is the moment our writing becomes inauthentic. If you’re worried that someone’s going to be put off by something you wrote, then THAT’s where the gold is. Because The Redheaded Stepchild is a story that’s so close to my heart and doesn’t always speak positively about some of the closest people in my life, I’ve often wondered if I should tone down some of the prose and fictionalize it a little bit more. As such, it was reassuring to hear that I should do nothing of the sort. After all, they’d probably be offended no matter what. And hey, a lot of it IS fiction.

They then asked, how do you get people to read what you’ve read? They stressed the importance of having your own domain for your material, which was one of the first things I did when I decided I wanted to seriously pimp The Redheaded Stepchild, but that having a website means using a unique structure depending on the medium. I always use my own voice, but I’m going to structure my blog posts much differently than my actual writing, as well I should.

After that, they got to the meat of writing a book proposal, and the consensus was that it should have all of the following:

  • The pitch, which has to be written in your own voice, not the cover letter voice you’d use in a resume. The agent should get an idea of your voice after reading the pitch.
  • A chapter summary that everyone hates writing, but summarizes what happens in the story.
  • A market analysis of what makes your book unique compared to similar titles.
  • One or two sample chapters that showcase your best writing and let it speak for itself.

Or something like that. I’ve drank a lot since then. Finally, they outlined one of the best plans for finding an agent – find similar titles to yours and look in the acknowledgments. The author almost always thanks his agent, and that agent can’t turn around and say he doesn’t represent your kind of work.

So what did I learn from this panel? First of all, I need to continue the practice of not censoring myself with my writing. I’ll probably hurt someone’s feelings along the way, but I’d much rather live an authentic life than a safe one. Next, I’ve got to revise my pitch. It sounds like a cover letter for a resume! I’ve got to inject my own voice in there and show them why I’m a writer. I’d heard the agent trick a couple months ago when I went to the Pitchapalooza event, and it bears repeating that I definitely need to do my homework finding books out there that are like mine. I’m sure I’m not the only branch on that tree.

More panel reviews to come, and thanks to the panelists! For audio of the entire panel:

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SXSW panel in review: The Accidental Writer

The first panel I attended at South By Southwest this year was not the first one I intended to see… as per tradition. Still, it was a great one to start out with. It was called “The Accidental Writer: Great Web Copy for Everyone” and was not really geared toward writers, but more toward web designers and others who end up writing copy as an afterthought. Melanie Seibert (@melanie_seibert on Twitter) was the speaker.

The first thing the speaker stressed was that copy and content strategy in general cannot be an afterthought. If it IS, then it’s probably going to be boring, crappy copy. She gave some examples of companies that have great design AND great copy, like and Groupon (which I’ll admit though that wound’s still fresh). She also pointed out that content doesn’t come cheap… it’s expensive to write, especially if you’re not a native speaker, so sometimes it works out much better to hire someone to do it for you.

She then pointed out something that’s been in the back of my mind for awhile… SEO training. As a writer, a lot of the freelance jobs I see out there want writers with some SEO training, and it makes sense – if you’re going to pay for great copy, you want people to be able to find it. She threw out some SEO certification courses that I’m hoping I can talk my boss into paying for. After all, it’ll help me in my day job a lot, too. Our help documentation is ridiculously difficult to search.

She offered the following tips for everyone who needs to write web copy but may not be an expert at it (and a good refresher for those of us who are):

  • Don’t just describe things. You’ve got to tell a story to keep your reader engaged.
  • Break up text. No one wants to read a paragraph that’s a page long.
  • Give people something to do by using actionable language.
  • Web copy needs to integrate with the site design, and you have to design around the content.
  • Don’t overuse memes and cliches. No one’s got milk anymore.
  • Don’t be afraid to write a horrible first draft (sadly, this is something I’m just now embracing).
  • Revise and proof. Get rid of half the words on the page, then get rid of another half.
  • Never use passive voice
  • Make your copy fun and friendly.

What did I get out of this panel? I definitely want to get SEO training so I know how to be more search-savvy with my writing. It’ll be a great resume builder too, right? It’s also good to know that writers still have value in the eyes of our more back-end savvy counterparts. I’ll be looking into Heather Lloyd Martin’s material on SEO certification very soon.

And I’ll let you know how it goes!

For audio of this panel:

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SXSW: Days 2 and 3

So, I was too drunk to blog on Saturday, too tired to blog on Sunday, and left my ID in my pants and got turned away at a party tonight so I finally have time to talk about all the cool stuff I saw over the last couple days.

Saturday was a crazy busy day for panels, but I learned SO much about what I need to do to get my book going for realsies.

I was just in time for the So Long and Thanks for all the Babelfish panel with Tim Holden, who will forever be impregnated in my mind as the person who called copywriters “fuddy-duddies”. It was a panel about the costs and trends with content translation, a topic I don’t care a whole lot about, but one that I have to deal with, and one I figured I could learn a little bit about.

The next panel I attended was the one I was most excited about for the year, and it did not disappoint. The Self-Publishing Novel: Report from the Trenches panel featured self-published writers from all corners of the spectrum, including Carolyn McCray of the Indie Book Collective. I came away with the following takeaways for things I need to do to get my book ready for self-publishing, because it’s a route that I really should take:

  • First and foremost, when I get home, I need to solicit a beta reader group to get valuable readership feedback to figure out if my book is a complete piece of crap.
  • I need to step up my Twitter game. I don’t think I can (or want to) realistically follow 50 people a day, as McCray recommended, but I can reach out more for sure.
  • When you are an independent author, you are your own marketing department, so I need to approach every day as “do I want to go to work or not?”.

It was a great panel, and one that you should watch when it’s available.

Next was Tell & Sell Your Story with Stephanie Klein and company. They billed it as a panel about writing a book proposal, finding an agent, and maintaining balance as a writer. They didn’t get to the proposal information until the end,  but Stephanie Klein took the reins on outlining in great detail all the elements you need a book proposal:

  1. An overview, written in your own voice, that is like an ad for your book.
  2. An analysis of the books that are like yours, but includes why your book is unique.
  3. A chapter-by-chapter summary
  4. 2 sample chapters that show your range as a writer

Klein also gave great advice about not holding back as a writer based on a worry about a specific person reading your work. One of my favorite lines from the conference so far: “the minute you start censoring yourself is the minute you become inauthentic.”

Every year it seems I find a panel that I completely misinterpret. Last year, it was a panel on editing that turned about to be a panel about film editing. This year, it was a panel called Semantically Yours: Dating Tips for the Semantic Web, which I thought was about using word nerdery in online dating (a topic that recently became relevant to me that I’ll have to talk about in an upcoming post) but turned out to be about creating semantic data. I still don’t know what that is, but I know it’s not relevant to me at all. Another lesson in why you always read the description. I did cut out in time to make the Q&A for the bloggers vs journalists panel, which was a spirited and timely debate.

That ended day 2 for me, but not until after some sweet parties and far too much alcohol. Sunday morning started surprisingly on time and on task:

The first panel was a very interesting one… there were 12 slides with 12 concepts of the writing lifestyle on them, and 3 writers each to give their take on each of the concepts. I got both affirmation that some of the crazy rituals we have as writers aren’t crazy and some tips on how better to approach the writing process.

After that, I hit up a transmedia storytelling panel that thankfully was more about creating a great story through character development, plot advancement, and rich world creation and less about the crazy buzzword that is transmedia. It was a little bit story 101, but it was a wonderful reminder/affirmation for writing a great narrative first and focusing on the medium second.

The next panel I hit up actually WAS about the future of online dating, and while it didn’t have anything to do with writing in an online dating context, it did apprise me to the fact that there are services out there that will easily make my freelance job obsolete.

The final panel of day 3 was Gavin St. Ours’ Why New Authors Should Think Like Indie  Bands, and was all about the practice and promotion that unknown authors need to follow to get their names out there and build a readership base. There was heavy talk about the different forms of publishing beyond traditional New York publishing house dead tree methods, not all of them revolving around self-publishing, which was comforting. After all, they can’t be the only 2 options out there.

I’ll be delving into the meat and potatoes of all these panels after I get home from South by Southwest, but that’ll have to wait until I am done partying it up here in Austin.

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SXSW Interactive: Day 1

Today was simply easing into the South by Southwest Interactive conference. I started the afternoon much like last year – by eating Mellow Mushroom pizza and missing the first (2:00) panel.

I made it to the next panel I wanted to see: The Accidental Writer – Great Web Copy for Everyone. While it was slightly more directed toward people who don’t write (developers, UI people, etc.), it still contained a lot of helpful tips that bear repeating for even the most seasoned writer.

But before the speaker (a tech writer and content strategist by trade) got to the tips, she stressed the importance of having good, well-written content, that’s not shoved into the end of a project budget as an afterthought.

So what tips are there for people who may not be writers by trade?
1. Don’t just describe things.

If all you do is describe what your business or website is about, it’s probably going to be a boring description.

2. Break up text.

If your readers see a long, continuous block of text, they’re probably not going to read it.

3. Give people something to do… use action words.

You have to use actionable language that has some punch behind it.

4. Web copy needs to integrate with design, design around the content

This goes back to the idea that quality content should never be an afterthought. It should complement your site design, not just supplement it.

5. Tell a story

Using narrative to tell a story of how your business, service, or website works is far more effective than a boring paragraph about what you can do for your customers.

6. Don’t overuse memes, no cliches

Got milk won’t work for you.

7. Get rid of half the words on the page then get rid of half of what’s left

People aren’t paying to read your eloquence. They’re trying to figure out if what you’re offering helps them. If they can’t figure out a yes or no answer to that question in the first few seconds of reading, they’re going to stop reading.

8. Don’t be afraid to write a horrible first draft

I fall into this trap, but I’m getting more comfortable with letting the first draft go, and then editing afterwards.

9. Make copy scannable

People should be able to get the idea of what you’re all about just by scanning the page. This is impossible unless you use bold text or bullets or some other visual scanning queue.

10. No passive voice

A basic of journalistic editing.

11. Revise and proof

No one writes a perfect first draft. You have to revise each draft and proofread the final one. Typos and misspellings show laziness.

12. Fun, friendly copy

The speaker mentioned both Groupon and W00t as examples of great, engaging web copy. Since Groupon turned me down for a freelance writing position after round 4 of the vetting process, I’ll use woot as an example. If you’re known for your engaging and quirky content, people will keep visiting just for that reason.

There’ll be a lot more tomorrow!

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Pitchapalooza in Review

Last night I attended a Pitchapalooza event at the KC library and learned a lot of great things about how I can improve my ability to pitch The Redheaded Stepchild, both in query letters and in casual conversation with people. Here are a few of the takeaways I got:

  • Finding good comparison titles is really important. I need to do a better job of this, cause I’ve really got nothing. But I haven’t been working that hard at it, either.
  • Your pitch should give the pitchee an idea of a beginning, middle, and end to your story. This is a challenge for me since the plot is not chronologically structured, but there’s definitely room for improvement.
  • Ending with a question is a way to hook the audience and build intrigue.
  • You must make the intended audience fall in love with the main character (even if they just love to hate him).
  • Use your pitch as a way to demonstrate what a great writer you are. It shouldn’t sound like a use car salesman’s pitch.
  • Think of your book pitch as if you’re pitching a movie, and think to yourself, “who’s the guy on the poster?”

If you’ll recall, one of my goals for the year was to attend more of these events, so I am glad I went, even though I didn’t get picked to pitch. It was a free event, but I had some leftover cash so I bought the book and got the 20-minute consultation with @TheBookDoctors (find them on Twitter). So here is my pitch from last night… stay tuned for the refined version.

My book, The Redheaded Stepchild, is a series of non-chronological, thematically structured slice-of-life short stories about a young woman coming of age in a small town and her complicated relationship with her newly-appointed but icy stepmother.

Don’t get the wrong idea; it’s far from a Cinderella story. There are no singing animals, evil stepsisters, Prince Charming, or happily ever after – just a small town girl trying to establish her identity as anything else and leave her mark on the world, while struggling to escape the reality of where she comes from, and what her life is now.

At around 65,000 words, this 12-story book has the flexibility for publication as a series or as an entire manuscript. It is a work of mainstream literary fiction that will have a focused appeal to women and young adults, but is written for all who love a great story and have an appreciation for detailed prose.

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