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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, February 26, 2012

8 Tips for Turning "Real Life" into Bestselling Fiction

A lot of people start writing because they’ve got a real-life story to tell—something that happened in their own lives or the lives of friends or family members they think would make a great book. Sometimes these stories work well as memoirs, but, for a lot of very good reasons, a lot of us prefer to present the stories as fiction.

But if you decide to write your story as a novel, you have to take that raw clay of factual material and shape it into something that is your own creation. Sometimes this can end up being more work than writing a story entirely from scratch, because you have to distance yourself from the “real” characters and make them your own.

This week, Ruth Harris tells us how to do just that.

But remember, unless the real story is something that made major headlines, most readers aren’t going to care what your source material is. In fact, the Query Shark, (agent Janet Reid) says: “I really don't care if it's based on a true story. If anything that makes me less likely to read on because, zut alors!, most people's lives don't have much of a plot.”

Along with letting us in on her creative process here, Ruth is also offering two free ebooks of her based-on-a-true-story novel, DECADES, to our commenters. All you have to do is put “DECADES” in your comment, and you’ll be eligible for our drawing. Contest goes until midnight March 3rd. Winners will be announced next Sunday, March 4th.


Make-overs, plot twists & a search for meaning

by Ruth Harris

Writing a novel based on a real life situation is a lot more than just regurgitating a story you happen to know—even if it’s a whizz-bang, humdinger of a story. The challenge is turning real people and real events into fiction. Having no guidelines at the time I wrote DECADES, I figured it out as I went along. I made plenty of mistakes along the way but had several advantages even I wasn’t aware of.

1) Learn your craft.

It’s basic but bears repeating: learn the nuts and bolts of creating compelling fiction. Decades was my first “big book,” but prior to writing it, I had been writing professionally for over ten years—weekly articles for men’s and male adventure magazines and original paperbacks, mostly Gothic romances and romantic suspense, under a variety of pseudonyms.  Publishing salaries were as lousy then as they are now and I needed the money. In the process—and hardly intending to—I learned how to write action, emotion, and sex; how to grab a reader from the first sentence and how to create a cliffhanger. That knowledge of the craft would be the invaluable underpinning of the novel.

2) Be a good listener—and don’t gossip.

Coincidence—and real life—provided me with the initial inspiration for Decades, the story of a marriage in crisis. The coincidence was that I happened, quite by accident, to know each of the three main characters, two much better than the third. They were:  a successful but restless husband, the shy, rather insecure, rich girl he marries on his way up, & the glam fashion editor who is “the other woman.” They told me “their” versions of what was happening because they knew they could trust me not to gossip. They didn’t know—nor did I at the time—that one day I would turn their dramas into fiction.

3) Just because “it really happened” doesn’t mean it’s good fiction.

In writing a novel based on real life, I faced the same challenges a writer does with any novel—the need to create believable characters and  a dramatic plot—with the added twist of having to structure the formlessness, confusion, and indecision of everyday real life into the demands of a novel. Knowing the “real people” turned out to be both a blessing and a hurdle.

4) Protect the privacy of your “real life” characters.

Of course I changed names but, as I began to write, I went further and changed initials, too.  It wasn’t enough to change John Doe into Jack Dawson. A radical name change—to Mark Saint Clair, for example—guaranteed JD’s privacy and had the secondary effect of freeing me from any reminders of the real John Doe/Jack Dawson. I also changed the character’s physical appearance, details of his childhood, and gave him military experience he never had.

5)  Help your reader relate to your story.

IRL my fashion editor friend was a stylish, never-married Manhattan single girl who led a hectic, high-profile social life. In the novel, I wanted a character more in touch with everyday experience so I left out all the glitzy fashion-world details. Instead, I portrayed a woman more characteristic of the times who marries young, has two kids, goes thru a drab, depressed, is-this-all-there-is? period. She divorces the husband who was her college boy friend & learns (the hard way) how to conduct herself in a challenging and competitive business world.

Each of the other characters got a similar makeover. I made the husband taller, handsomer and more successful than he really was and changed the nature of his business. I gave the fictional wife a talent even she didn’t recognize—a talent that, in the end, rescues her.

6) Give your characters room to roam.

IRL the story took place mainly in Manhattan but I thought the setting too confining. In the novel, the characters do live in Manhattan, but I added scenes in Florida, Nantucket and the Caribbean. Using different settings helped me show how the characters behaved in different geographies and in different social milieu. Trust me, a week in the Caribbean with a wife is much different from a week in the Caribbean with a girlfriend in the middle of a steamy affair!  For the novelist, pure gold.

7) Expand the scope of your story.

Almost any “real life” story by its nature, tends to be limited to the people directly involved. (Unless your story is about a friend who happens to be President of the United States.) As I drafted the novel and its plot and characters took shape, I wanted to show how the consequences of what started out as a casual affair affected people not directly involved. I ultimately created a teen-aged daughter torn between her charming, straying father, her loyal, devastated mother, and the come-hither lure of contemporary culture, in this case, the go-go Sixties.

8)  Look for the larger significance of your story.

I don’t mean you should hit your reader over the head with The Meaning Of It All. The final element that transformed real life into fiction came to me as I was halfway through the draft and paused to write what passed for an outline to the end (outlines aren’t exactly my strong suit!). I realized that the age difference between the married couple, the younger “other woman” and the teen-aged daughter led naturally to portraits of three transformational, mid-20th Century decades—and to the title.

By the time I was finished with my makeovers, plot twists, and search for a more substantial framework for the story, the characters had taken on their own, fictional lives, the plot moved with its own energy to a far different conclusion from the one in real life, and I was able to portray massive cultural and social changes in an entertaining and story-appropriate way.

But coincidence wasn’t finished with me. As it turned out, the main situation of the novel—a marriage in crisis and an adulterous affair—was being lived by not one, but two, prominent publishers—"This is my life," one of them told me. They competed for hard cover and mass market paperback rights, a situation my agent and the publisher’s subsidiary rights director took great advantage of.

I never planned it, had no idea that my fictional affair reflected the real-life experiences of the two publishers. All I knew was that coincidence had handed me an incredible basis for a novel that combined fascinating personal dynamics set against an era of tumultuous social and cultural change, the repercussions of which we still feel today.

What about you, scriveners? Have you written a book based on a true story? Thinking about it?

Other News: Ruth also has a post at WG2E this weekend with some honest talk from bestselling authors about where they get their inspiration. Anne tells all in an interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde, and Anne got gentrified and canonized by Porter Anderson on Writing on the Ether this week. 

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

How to Blog Part V: 12 Dos and Don’ts for Author-Bloggers

This is the 200th post on this blog. Since I started it on Friday the 13th  in March of 2009, I’ve learned an awful lot. (The first thing I learned was that you have to actually post stuff. My second post wasn’t until late June.)

Another thing I’ve learned is there’s no wrong way to blog—BUT if you’re an author who wants to get published, you need to be professional about it. If you want to be taken seriously in the industry—and we have to remember it is an industry—you need to create a helpful, reader-friendly place that’s an easy-to-navigate hub for your online presence as a writer.

For the other parts of this series, check Part I: How to Blog, Part II: How not to Blog, Part III: What to Blog About, Part IV, Difficult Blog Visitors

Here are some more dos and don’ts I’ve learned along the way that might make your job easier:

1) DO post your Twitter handle somewhere prominent on your home page if you tweet. Don’t just use one of those birdy icons. Make sure you put your whole @twittername up there. I spend way too much time using Twitter’s iffy search engine (why is it so useless?) trying to find the handle for somebody I’m quoting or want to reach. If it’s right up there on your blog home page, people are much more likely to be able to tweet you or follow.

2) DO post a Facebook link, (or “badge,” or “Like” button) so people can join you on Facebook. (Unless you’ve managed to resist the pressure to venture into Zuckerland. For which I applaud all three of you.)

3) DO provide an email address. I don’t know how many blogs I visit and find no contact information. The place most people will look is on your “about me” page. So that’s a good place to put it. If you’re afraid of spambots picking it up, write it this way : “myname (at) gmail (dot) com” –but do it! Imagine an agent or editor reads that short story that won the online contest and loves it. She wants to find out if you’ve got any full length fiction (yes, this does happen) so she Googles you, finds your blog, and…no contact information. Opportunity is knocking and nobody’s home.  

4) DO post your blog schedule. Here we say “This blog is updated Sundays, usually”—six simple words that keep us disciplined and keep readers coming back. We’ve never missed a post, but if we do, that “usually” covers our derrieres—we’re not running a boot camp here. On the other hand, it’s very important to remember it’s your professional profile. When you’re trying to get published, you’re basically applying for a job. You don’t want a sloppy blog any more than you  want to show up late for an interview, wearing stained sweats and smelling like last night’s party.  

5) DO learn to write 21st century prose. Writing for the Interwebz is very, very different from what you learned in school. It’s light, punchy, and easy to skim. The vast majority of online readers are skimmers. They want:
  • lists
  • major points highlighted
  • bullet points
  • Bolding
  • lots of white space 
See where your eye went? There are a couple of important publishing industry blogs I hardly ever read because they’re written in the dense, repetitive prose of the old paid-by-the-word, pre-electronic era. I wait for somebody else to post excerpts or summarize those posts, because sweetie, I have things to do….

6) DON’T let yourself get pressured into too many blogfests and bloghops and blog awards and other blogmania. Just because somebody gives you an award doesn’t mean you have to drop your WIP and spend a day visiting 80 blogs to tell them all the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done with a book or whatever today’s game is. Thank them politely, tell them you’re honored and do as much as you have time for. Same with invitations to blogfests. No matter how much fun it sounds, just gathering a lot of blog followers isn’t as important as getting that novel written!

7) DON’T die intestate. No matter how young and healthy and immortal you feel, appoint a blog executor. Make sure somebody besides you has the passwords to your blog so if anything dire should happen, they can attend to it and/or take it down. Yes, it’s kind of icky to think of, but stuff happens. Not just kicking the bucket. You could get in a parasailing accident while you’re on that vacation in Mazatlan. Or get stuck without power for 2 weeks in darkest Connecticut. Be attacked by angry bees. You don’t want your blog hanging unattended in cyberspace as it collects Ukranian porn and fake Viagra ads.

8) DON’T neglect your “About Me” page. Keep it updated (speaking to myself here. I’d let mine get sloppy.) Make sure it’s friendly but professional. You don’t want a resume/curriculum vitae snoozefest. But you also don’t want to use it to post pix of yourself after your tenth margarita at Señor Frog’s or photos of your puppy learning to go potty outdoors. This is about you, the author. Even if you aren’t published, you want this to be about your writer-self. Give a short bio, a list of what writing organizations you belong to, your genre if you’ve settled on one, plus links to any short pieces you’ve published, or contests you’ve won—and anything else that relates to you as a writer. Make sure you include links to all your social media pages, especially book-related ones like Goodreads, AuthorsDen or RedRoom. You can talk about your favorite books, your philosophy, or your life goals as long as it’s short and not preachy. You can mention your family, but even if you’re a devoted stay-at-home parent, don’t make this all about the kids. This is for you.

9) DON’T try to maintain too many blogs. OK, I’m kind of hammering people about this, but I see a lot of misinformation about this circulating. To me, two is too many. If you don’t have a day job, and you aren’t in a hurry to finish that WIP, maybe you can handle two—especially if the second is a group blog. Or if one is the blog for your XXX-rated erotica and the other is for your sweet Christian romances. But please, don’t try to do any more. Multiple blogs don’t only take too much of your time—they also fracture your follower count and really annoy people trying to reach you.

Do you think it’s more impressive to an editor that you have 60 followers on your Sweetie Snookums, Vampire Slayer blog, 90 on Susie’s Scribblings, 43 on Sassy Susitude and 50 on Storytime Snippets—or 243 people reading Susie Smith, Scrivener? Do you think followers want to hop around to all those blogs?? Do you think we’re going to keep searching your blogs after we’ve landed on the one that hasn’t been updated since you posted that rant about Fox canceling Firefly in 2003???

Sorry. Got carried away. As I have said many times before, a Blogger blog has 20 pages. Count them: twenty. You can have one for your vampire stories, one for your musings and scribblings, one for giving yourself pep talks, and one for writing about being a storyteller—and still have 16 to go. So don’t start another blog until you’ve filled them all, OK?

10) DON’T make commenting difficult. This is another thing I’ve been hammering on about but it’s important. I just read a new study of customer habits and discovered the #1 motivation for the contemporary customer is ease of use. They’re not so worried about fancy or special. They want things to be easy. That’s why Amazon is so successful. First they invented a way to buy books with a couple of clicks and then they offered us a way to publish them with a few more. “Quick and Easy” wins the day, hands down.

So remember those CAPTCHA word verification things do NOT make it easy to comment. You can remove robo-spam yourself if it gets through the spam filter, which is a little harder for you and a lot easier for your potential customers. And as for insisting on moderating all new comments—especially if you don’t get around to them for days—that’s pretty much saying, “I don’t need no stinking comments/customers.” Try being open to comments on new posts for a while. If you get a troll attack, by all means go back to moderating, but with a small blog following, it’s very unlikely you’ll get a troll unless you blog about politics or religion. If you moderate (I moderate older comments myself, because that’s where the spam shows up) DO check many times during the day so you don’t send people away mad. These are your potential customers. Saying "just sit there until I have time to decide if you're special enough to buy my books," isn’t going to make the sale.

Note: Blogger loves to play Big Brother. It often turns your CAPTCHA back on after you’ve turned it off. It’s happened to me. So ask a good friend to let you know if it’s on.

11) Don’t delete a blog you’ve neglected. Bring it back to life by giving it your own name (you can’t change the url, but you can change the header very easily) and post a blog schedule and keep to it.

Yes: this is a total reversal on what I used to say, but I was educated by a savvy reader,Camille LeGuire, the Daring Novelist  who left a comment letting me know the older a blog is, the higher its rating with search engines. So remember that nine-year old Firefly blog? You can delete content and change the title, but keep the url and you’ll have much better SEO.

But: if you have 42 blogs, delete all but one or two of the oldest. Seriously. Did I mention people find multiple blogs annoying?

12) Don’t let yourself be pressured into letting somebody guest blog just because they asked. Good guest posts are informative and target your audience. Somebody with a book or service to sell may approach you with what is essentially an advertisement. Even if you’re just starting out, remember your blog is about presenting yourself to the world, and if something doesn’t work with your audience, politely decline. Good guest bloggers should already have relationship with you: they should have been by to comment a few times, or know you from other blogs.

I’ll talk more about guest blog etiquette in another post.

What about you, scriveners? Do you have any other tips to add? Have you learned any of these things the hard way like I did?

Blog news: Ruth Harris and I now have pages on this blog for our books. Ruth’s is here and mine is here. We’ve got synopses, quotes from reviews and all the links you need to browse our extensive oeuvres. (And they’re all remarkably cheap. Even my paper books are a deal—under $10 bucks.)

Next week Ruth is going to blog on creating fiction based on factual events. And she’ll be doing a giveaway of DECADES, her own novel that is based on real incidents and historical fact.

Today, my mystery SHERWOOD, LTD. will be featured on Saffina Desforges "no bullshit" Sunday series on her SaffiScribe blog. You can find out how much of that book is fiction and how much was based on actual personal misadventures

Next Friday, Catherine Ryan Hyde will be posting an in-depth interview with me on her blog. If you haven’t stopped by her great new interview series , she runs them every Friday on her blog.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Trolls, Sockpuppets, and Cyberbullies—How to Blog Part IV: Dealing with Difficult Blog Visitors

by Anne R. Allen

Blogging is fun, and a wonderful way to network and build your author platform. But it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes a visitor may disagree with you or be confrontational in some way. Nothing wrong with that. If it’s done in a friendly manner, disagreement can be an excellent way to stimulate conversation and learn to see things from another point of view. I’ve learned a lot from people who have pointed out my mistakes and blogging faux-pas.

But the occasional commenter crosses the line from polite disagreement to a verbal attack or full-on temper tantrum.

Starting a blog is like opening a shop. Anybody out there on the street can drop in. Most people who come by will be great. But some might be substance abusers or suffer from mental illness. Some might be looking for a fight. Others can be just plain mean.

Do remember it’s your blog, and it’s your responsibility to make it a safe place for your commenters, so if one of your followers is attacked, speak up. 

Problems can be compounded by the fact that online we can’t see the dangerous ones coming. When you meet somebody in person, you get a lot of clues about how to interact with them. A woman wearing a tinfoil hat and muttering about the invaders from Betelgeuse probably won’t be the one you choose to chat up as a new friend, and most of us aren’t going to worry much whether some guy sporting racist tattoos and an Aryan Nation baldscape likes us or not.

Age is a major clue, too. When you meet somebody in her seventies, you won’t expect her to have the same world view as somebody of seventeen.

But when people comment on blogs, we treat them all as peers. This can be good or bad, depending on the type of interaction.

Here’s an example. This week I used the word “Luddite” in a short, friendly blog comment. Another commenter found the word highly offensive and went into a three paragraph rant against me.

(Actual Luddites were an early 19th cent. group in the English Midlands who resisted the Industrial Revolution and revered a mythical Robin-Hood type figure called King Ludd.)

When a Boomer like me uses the word, we usually mean somebody who thinks the Internet is a fad and still takes photos with the Instamatic he got in 1976. To the young woman who had the melt-down, apparently it means somebody who doesn’t have the latest Kindle Fire. If she’d seen my matronly, aging self, she might not have assumed I was attacking her lack of geek-chic.

Although you can’t be sure. She also might have been one of those people who surf the ’Net looking for ways to feel insulted. Insults generate self-righteous rage, which produces endorphins that some people find addictive. They will ferret out anything that can set off their anger triggers, so they’ll feel justified in beating others to an emotional pulp.

Insult-Ferrets are just one of the disruptive types who might wander into your blog. I’ve listed some others here.

Your first instinct will be to delete an out-of-line comment, but that’s not always the best solution, especially if you’re dealing with Cyber-Taliban types. They may feel you haven’t properly submitted to their will, so they might launch a crusade against you on other blogs and forums and the problem will escalate.

I’ve made suggestions on when to delete comments. Do immediately delete anything that is bigoted, libelous, or deliberately hurtful to any of your readers.

It helps to remember you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Humor is subjective, and some people will feel offended by any kind of joke. There are common brain conditions that leave people unable to understand whimsy, hyperbole for comic effect, or irony of any kind, so a lot of humor is a mystery to them.

Remember people tend to judge other people by themselves. Happy, friendly people assume others are happy and friendly until proved otherwise. Angry, nasty people assume everybody else is angry and nasty, too. When they accuse you of bizarre things, they aren't saying anything about you; they're telling you what is in their own heads.

And the truth is—no matter how nice you are, some folks are just not going to like you. You have to ignore them and concentrate on the people who do.

Here are some of the disruptive people to watch out for.

1) Trolls. “Troll” is an all-encompassing term that means pretty much anybody who’s looking to cause trouble and might be lurking under a cyberbridge. Trolls thrive on creating conflict for its own sake. If they happen on a Christian blog, they’ll post an atheist manifesto. Then they’ll go to an atheist site and tell them they’re all going to Hell. Their posts are often obscene or bigoted. They’re probably living in their mom’s basement and haven’t had work since they lost the dishwashing job at Krusty Burger in 2008. These are people who feel pretty helpless in the world, and this is how they make themselves feel powerful.

Solution: Don’t feed trolls! Any engagement at all will be perceived as encouragement. They crave attention and don’t care if it’s negative or positive. Delete the post and try to laugh about it with offline friends. No matter how nasty the remark, remember it’s not aimed at you. It’s the whole world these people hate. And even if you feel sorry for them, if you're not a mental health professional hired to treat them, your best bet is to give them a wide berth.

Tip: Trolls usually post as “anonymous” so if you’re hearing from them regularly, you can change your settings to require a name in order to comment.

2) Sockpuppets. On the Interwebz, “sockpuppet” means somebody using a false identity to praise himself or attack his competitors, posing as an independent third party. The term first originated in Internet communities and spread when customer reviews started gaining importance on shopping sites. Somebody using a false name might post comments praising his own product or knocking competitors. Sockpuppet reviews are sometimes offered for sale. I saw a site recently that offered positive one-line reviews on Amazon for $5, or negative ones for a competitor’s book for $10. That explains why you sometimes see Amazon pages with 25 or 30 nearly identical, generic reviews. (I don’t think they fool very many readers.) People also use sockpuppets for blog comments that promote their own agendas. Bogus, fee-charging agents, for instance, sometimes pose as clients to talk up their agency on writing blogs.

Solution: Use your judgment and delete as necessary. If you know the puppet’s true identity, you can respond with the person’s real name, and that may deflate them. If you see an obvious sock puppet review on a writer’s Amazon page, report abuse.

Tip: If you have a tech-savvy friend, they can usually find the identity of a puppet visiting your blog through their IP address.

3) Insult Ferrets. These people are rage addicts looking for a fix. They’re surfing the ’Net looking for things that make them feel insulted, so they can justify going on the attack. If the young woman I mentioned above is one of them, she’ll have a whole list of trigger words besides “Luddite.” She might go off on a blogger for using the word “Heffalump,” because that’s what her cheating ex-husband called her when she was in her third trimester. Or the word “blue” will send her into a wild temper tantrum because everybody says her eyes are blue, but they’re really blue-green, kind of, when she wears that green blouse. Insult Ferrets tend to be narcissistic and think everything is about them.

Solution: Try to soothe ruffled feathers, but realize you’ve done nothing wrong. If a Ferret attacks one of your commenters, call her on it in a friendly but firm way. If you’re attacked on your own blog, apologize, even if you’re clearly not in the wrong, but only respond once. Don’t engage in conversation. Don’t delete unless the comment is seriously over the top, because that will anger the Ferret further and anger is what they feed on. They’ll come back for more.

Tip: You can block addresses by reporting them as spam.

4) The Politically Correctibot. This is a version of the Insult Ferret—people who browse blogs looking for perceived insults—not to themselves, but some downtrodden demographic. They often have the linguistic sense of Spellcheck software. They might attack a blogger for using the word “fatuous,” calling it an insult to fat people. Or they’ll attack anybody who talks about Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” as being unsympathetic to the Holocaust. I once got attacked for being “ageist” on this blog because I suggested that some of us Boomers have trouble learning the latest ways of the Interwebz. I can guarantee the attackers weren’t Boomers, because we KNOW how hard it is to keep up with this stuff.

Solution: If they’re berating you, it’s probably best to simply ignore them, but if it’s one of your commenters being dissed, speak up. Often you can leave an idiotic comment in place, because it doesn’t harm anybody but the person who wrote it.

5) The Cyber-Taliban. These are Ferrets and Correctibots who operate as a tribe. They see themselves as the righteousness police—often enforcing a set of rules unknown outside their own niche demographic. I knew an author who had in some mysterious way stepped on the cybertoes of a fanatical online group. The day his next book came out, he got ten one-star Amazon reviews. I sent him a sympathetic tweet and immediately got flooded with DM’s warning me not to associate with the “evil” author.

Solution: Report abuse. Then run. Disengage from these people in any way you can. Delete if the comment is over-the-top, but otherwise, it may be wiser to let it stand so they think they've "won." But then unfollow, block, and unfriend. There’s no way to have a rational encounter with mass hysteria.

6) Cyberbullies. The fanatics above were being cyberbullies. But bullies don’t need to be motivated by righteousness. Some are just mean. Destroying innocent lives and reputations is fun for them. You’ve seen the headlines. They often work in packs and can, in some cases, actually cause death by making vulnerable people commit suicide. Teens are especially susceptible to this, both as victims and perpetrators, but adults can be victimized too. I have personally received death threats from some Cyber-Taliban bullies. Scary stuff.

Solution. Report them and get help on the National Crime Prevention Website if you're in the US. They are breaking the laws of most countries. There is no reason to put up with criminal behavior, even if it’s “only on the Internet.” Delete seriously offensive comments, but you might want to leave some up if you can stand it. A self-incriminating post will catch up to the perpetrator eventually and will get you lots of support and sympathy from sane people.

If you see somebody being bullied on a blog, try to reach out to them through their own blog or other social media. They may be newbies who could end up seriously hurt.

Some bloggers are cyberbullies themselves and can cause real pain to unsuspecting people who think they’re in friendly territory. Victims may think they’ve somehow done something to deserve the snark or personal attacks.

NOTE: If you feel you’re in real, physical danger from a cyberbully who shows knowledge of where you live and work, contact local law enforcement immediately.

The most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with blog meanies is: DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. Remember it has nothing to do with you. You’re just a random victim. How you should deal with them individually depends on the severity of the attack and how strongly it affects your blog and your followers. 

NOTE: That word verification ‘CAPTCHA’ thing does nothing to keep the meanies out. It only keeps out spam robots—the ones trying to sell Ukrainian porn and knock-off handbags. Your spam filter also works on bots, and it’s usually just as good as the CAPTCHA. The rest you can delete yourself.

But CAPTCHA will keep out commenters. I highly recommend turning it off.

Monitoring your comments will keep the nasty comments from appearing on your blog, but it also prevents any type of conversation in the thread, and comes across as amateurish and paranoid, so I don’t suggest monitoring comments on your newest posts unless you’re under a severe meanie attack.

What about you, scriveners? Have you had any encounters with these people? How did you handle it? Do you have any disrupters to add to the list?

Next week, on February 15th, I’ll be visiting Romance University, where I’ll be talking about introducing your protagonist. On Sunday February 26th, Ruth Harris will be at the helm here, talking about how to write fiction based on factual events. 

VALENTINE BLOG HOP: Click the pink box on the right for our Val Hop page. You have two more days to enter for some pretty amazing prizes.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

How to Blog Part III: What Should You Blog About?

When I teach blogging, the most frequent question I get is “What do I blog about?” (For info on what not to blog about, see Part II of this series: How Not to Blog )

A writer starting a blog right now faces two problems:

1)     There are already, like, a trillion writers out there lecturing the blogosphere about how to write vivid characters, prop up saggy middles and avoid adverbs. A lot of them probably know more than you.

2)     If you’re a writer with books to sell, you want to reach a general audience, not just other writers selling books.

So how can you be different? How do you create a blog that somebody will read—somebody besides your stalky ex-boyfriend and your mom?

The most important thing to remember with any kind of blog is you need to offer something. It should be fresh, informative, and/or entertaining.

How you approach your new blog is going to depend a whole lot on your stage in the publishing process and your immediate goals.

Stage #1: You’re a developing writer.

You’re working on your first or second novel, and maybe have a few stories in literary journals or a couple of contest wins. You want to be a published author sometime soon, but you’re not quite ready to focus on  writing as a career.


You want to make friends in the writing community for career help and mutual support. You want to learn the best writing techniques, network with publishing professionals, and educate yourself about the business.

Stage #2: You’re ready for the marketplace.

You’re querying agents and ready to publish. You’ve got a couple of books polished and ready to go. You’ve been to writing conferences, taken classes, and maybe hired a freelance editor. Your writing is at a professional level.


You want to get your name out there to the general public. When you query an agent or ask for a blurb or review, you want a Google search to bring up ten pages of listings about you.

Stage #3: You’re a published author

Your agent/marketing dept. says, “Get thee to the blogosphere!”

Or you realize the brilliantly blurbed oeuvre you’ve self-published is sitting there on Amazon with only two sales in three months (both to your spouse) because nobody has heard of it—or you.


If you’re in stage #1, it’s OK to blog about writing. (I know social media guru/Jedi Master Kristen Lamb says you shouldn’t do this but I think her caveat is aimed more at people at stage #2 and #3.)

I’m not talking about lecturing on craft as if you’re a pro when you’re not. But an equal-to-equal post about something interesting you’ve discovered about pantsing vs.outlining, writing the dreaded synopsis, or what agents are looking for this month is just fine when you’re reaching out to other writers.

Why do you want to reach other writers? Because writers help each other. (We’re kind of a nice bunch, in spite of our stereotyping as depressed substance abusers.) I know a number of authors who got their agents through a referral from a fellow blogger. I found both my publishers through blogging. I’m not sure I would have made it through the darkest rejection phases if it hadn’t been for the support of writer blogfriends.

When you have a writing blog, you get to participate in blog hops, flash fiction days, contests and all kinds of networking events that help you meet people who can be important in your future career.

But do make sure the blog has something interesting going for it—something that’s helpful. There are all sorts of ways you can help:

  • Author interviews
  • Profiles of small publishers or agents who are interested in your genre (take them from websites—you don’t have to bother the agents and editors)
  • Info on contests, giveaways and blog hops
  • Links to great articles and posts in your genre or field of interest.
  • Book reviews. If you write thoughtful, useful reviews, you’ll immediately become everybody’s best friend.
If you’re a stage #2 writer, you should heed Kristen’s advice. If you’re starting a blog right now with the goal of building platform, writing is definitely not the best choice of subject matter. You’ve got a trillion competitors and you’re limiting your audience.

So try something that’s related to your writing but has a unique slant. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Focus on your genre or subgenre (unless you’re still experimenting with different genres.) You can discuss movies, videogames, TV shows, even jewelry and costumes—as long as they relate to your niche. A great example is SciFi writer Alex J. Cavanaugh’s super-popular blog that specializes in all things SciFi.

  • Blog about your home town or state, especially if they’re the setting of your novels. Travel sites that link to local landmarks and Chamber of Commerce will help you make friends locally that can be a big help later on.

  • Choose a writing-related subject that has a broader audience. A brand new general-interest writing blog is The Wordmonger, where YA writer C.S Perryess gives a fun, in-depth study of the etymology of one word per week. I learn something with every post.

  • Offer links to important information. If you’re writing a memoir or fiction about certain health issues, promote organizations that help with those issues. Link to support groups and they might even link back.

  • Provide people with the benefit of your research. If you’re writing historical fiction about a certain time period—post the research on your blog. (This is doubly useful because it will help keep you from cramming it all into the novel at the expense of story.) Have to research guns for a thriller? Poisons for a cozy? Are you basing the story on a real case? There are people who would love to read about this stuff.

  • Appeal to another Internet community. If that historical novel is based on a real person or your own family history, you could target readers from the genealogy blogosphere and links to historical research sites. If your heroine loves to fish, sew, or collect stuff, connect with blogs for fly fisherpersons, quilters, or collectors of floaty pens.

  • Provide a forum for people in your target demographic. If you write for a particular group—single urban women, Boomers, stay-at-home moms, or the just-out-of-college dazed and confused—focus on aspects of life of special interest to them.

  • Offer recipes or how-tos. Have a character who’s an expert at something? Give readers the benefit of his expertise in the woodshop, garden or kitchen. Have some great recipes that relate to your character, time period, or region? Write about the food in your books, or food in fiction generally.

If you’ve reached Stage #3, you can be more eclectic. People will be coming to your blog because they want to get to know you and find out about your books—so focusing on one subject isn’t as important. The blog becomes a place to showcase who you are. Think if it as your own version of Oprah magazine: not a place to toot your own horn as much as share things of interest to you that will also be of value to your readers. So you can continue whatever you've been doing in Stage #2, plus add stuff about you and your books.

Yes, you can talk about your books. I think people are silly who say you shouldn’t use your blog for self-promotion. That’s why you’re in the blogosphere in the first place. It’s fine as long as you don’t use hard-sell tactics and you don’t project an attitude of “I’m an author and you’re not.”

Each type of blog can evolve into another as your goals change. 

A few tips for the new blogger:

  • Make a list of topics you might like to explore before you begin, so you have a running start. If you visit other blogs regularly (and you should) you may find yourself making long comments on some subject that gets your hackles up/juices flowing. That’s the stuff you should be putting in your own blog.

  • I STRONGLY advise against having more than one blog. It saps your energy and fragments your audience. (It also annoys the hell out of them: I hate hitting somebody’s profile and finding six blogs. Unless one is clearly marked “author” I don’t even try to wade through them: you’ve lost me.) Blogs have many pages. Use them.

  • Put your own name in the blog title! Yes, I'm saying it again: your name is your brand. And also, you’ll find it easier to transition from Stage #1 to #2 and #3. Subtitles are easy to change. Titles, not so much. “Susie Scrivener’s Blog” can go from “writing and ranting” to “Floaty Pen Collecting” if Susie decides to change the blog’s focus. But “Floaty Pen Central” can’t be changed to “Susie Scrivener’s Amazing Books” without a lot of confusion. And you want to keep the same blog. The longer a blog exists, the higher it ranks with the Google spiders. (Thanks Camille LeGuire for cluing me in on the importance of longevity in SEO.)

  • Write an inviting “About Me” page with clear contact information. I’m amazed at bloggers who don’t even post their names or contact information. The whole purpose of blogging is to let people know who you are and how to find you! (And don’t just post your resume. Be informal and friendly.)

  • Don’t succumb to pressure to blog more than three times a week. Posting once a week on a regularly scheduled day is better than posting often but erratically. Allow yourself time to write your books. Remember you’re in this for the long haul. Quality over quantity. Slow blogging works. 

  • Be friendly. The way to build an audience, no matter where you are in your writing career, is to be likable and helpful. You don’t have to be chirpy. Just don’t project a phony or selfish tone. Kristen Lamb has a great post this week on how to be liked in the blogosphere

More blog advice in my blogpost How To Blog: A Beginner’s Guide for Authors.

What about you, scriveners? Do you have a blog? Does it suit your stage of writing? Are you going to be able to give up those six semi-neglected blogs and concentrate on one great one? What advice would you give a new blogger? 

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