Considering NaNoWriMo? Here’s what you need to know before making a commitment.

Considering NaNoWriMo? Here’s what you need to know before making a commitment.

On Sunday fall finally arrived.

Goodbye sixty-degree mornings and balmy afternoons.  
 
Hello dark, cold mornings, colorful leaves, and a return of my ugly sweaters. 

My favorite ugly sweater is almost fifteen years old. The worn, faded fabric is nubbly with pills. The elbows are worn through. Wearing it makes me look like a bag lady, but I don’t care. In this sweater, I’ve written published essays and book drafts.
 
Ugly sweaters are probably my favorite part of fall. 

They’re a sign of productivity and perseverance—something many writers are preparing to channel as they take on one of the year’s biggest writing challenge: NaNoWriMo.
 
For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (or memoir) draft during the month of November. 
 
That’s 7,142 words per week or 1,666 words per day. 
 
In 2006, NaNoWriMo became an official nonprofit. If you sign up for the challenge on their site they’ll share their writing resources with you. They can even help you join an official NaNoWriMo writing group. 
 
Three years ago, I NaNoWriMo’d my way to the first draft of my memoir, How Not to Die. It was thrilling to discover I could indeed write 50,000 words over the course of a month, and that some of those words weren’t half bad. 
 
So how do you decide whether to NaNoWriMo? 
 
NaNoWriMo is great for completing first drafts of new projects. While you can NaNoWriMo your way through revisions, this can be more challenging because revision is an unpredictable beast that can leave you staring at a single sentence for hours. That musing time is an essential part of the revision process, but it can quickly eat into your word count. 
 
Throughout November, I’ll use this newsletter to share tips that can help you churn out your weekly goals.  
 
For now, I’d like to take you through my NaNoWriMo decision-making process. 
 
Signs you’re ready to NaNoWriMo: 

  • You’re prepared to start a new project.
  • You can dedicate at least one to two hours per day toward this goal, or you can schedule a few all-day writing sessions.
  • You have a solid outline (if you’re a plotter) or you’re ready to writewritewrite your way to a quick and dirty draft.
  • You value progress over perfection.

If this is you, recruit a few pals and prepare to NaNoWriMo. 

If you’re on the fence, focusing on revision, or not yet working on a project, you can still create a modified NaNoWriMo goal that deepens your writing practice.

Here’s what that might look like: 
 

  • New Writer goal: Part of claiming or reclaiming a writing practice is developing your creative discipline and stamina. If you’re a new writer, or you’re interested in reclaiming your writing habit, setting a daily goal of even one hundred words, or writing for five minutes per day, can help you develop a consistent practice.
  • Busy Person Goal: Maybe you are working on a project, but don’t have oodles of time to devote to your writing life. Could you devote 10 or 20 minutes per day, five days per week? Or could you set a more modest goal, like drafting 10,000 words? 
  • Revision Goal: If you’re working through revisions, establish a November goal that allows for some musing time. This could include revising an act of your book or selecting a 10,000-word excerpt to focus on. You could even follow Allison Williams’s advice from Seven Drafts and retype your manuscript. 


Participating in a full or modified NaNoWriMo can build camaraderie with other writers working in the deadline trenches. Commiserating, celebrating, and swapping ideas with your fellow NaNoWriMo participants can increase your accountability, and for some people, your productivity. 

But now is not always the best time to set a formidable goal. 

Here are a few reasons to avoid NaNoWriMo: 

  • Perfection is your kryptonite: If failure to come up with the perfect word causes paralysis, NaNoWriMo will amplify these feelings. This could stifle your overall progress and tank your motivation. A stifled perfectionist is likely to feel devastated if that 50,000-word goal isn’t achieved. 
  • Spending a month in a competitive win/lose environment isn’t your jam: Some people thrive in competitive environments, others wilt. If losing or getting behind crushes your motivation or causes you to fall into toxic comparison, steer clear of this event—or at least participate in a smaller, unofficial version.  
  • You’re hunting for a rainbow unicorn: Some writers mistakenly believe they’ll blast out a 50,000-word novel, query in January, and sign a six-figure book deal by Groundhog Day. Let me burst that unicorn bubble. Drafts created during NaNoWriMo are largely terrible, first takes on a story. Many of these drafts are abandoned soon after the event ends. The best ones serve as an outline for a future, well-written draft that will take months to perfect. Bottom line: agents don’t want to see your NaNoWriMo draft. If you send it anyway, they’ll likely ghost you. 
  • Your stories take longer to bake: Completing a 50,000-word story in thirty days is a daunting task for some and completely unrealistic for others. I know writers, like Bret Anthony Johnston, who can’t write a single word until they’ve completely figured out the story in their heads. It once took Bret ten years to understand a story, but the end result was an award winner. If you’re a slow baker, NanNoWriMo probably isn’t for you.
  • Your November is already booked: If you already have extensive holiday plans or intense work deadlines signing up for NaNoWriMo could easily become one more thing on your to-do list. This can lead to resentments that turn you into an asshole. Life is short. Be kind to others and yourself. If the month is already booked, skip NaNoWriMo
  • Your body calls for rest: Some people see fall as a time of heightened productivity after a restful summer. But other bodies are called to more seasonal patterns. The latter months of fall are a time of darkness, stillness, and reflection. If your body wants to fall into this rhythm, let it. You can NaNoWriMo during your more productive season. 


So,
 are you ready to NaNoWriMo? 
 
If you’re ready commit, are you all in, or would a modified goal better suit your style? 
 
Or should you sit this one out?
 
Send me an email with your decision. I’d love to hear from you. 
 
And, I’d also love to hear about your favorite ugly clothing item. Send me a description, or better yet, a picture. If I hear from enough of you, my ugly sweater might make an appearance in next week’s newsletter. 

Want a vibrant writing life? Find out how Athena Dixon has used personal definitions of success and a dynamic author platform to achieve her publishing goals.

Want a vibrant writing life? Find out how Athena Dixon has used personal definitions of success and a dynamic author platform to achieve her publishing goals.

When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut president writer.

 

Leading the free world from space had a certain appeal.

 

I mean, who doesn’t want to ride on a rocket ship, sign bills into law from a floating desk, or use the sun rising over the earth as story inspiration?

 

While my love affair with space continues, time, motion sickness, and an aversion to politics led me to scrap my president/astronaut ambitions so I could follow my true calling.

 

The beginning of my writing career was a bit like that early dream. I wanted to write all the things in all the genres. First, I studied poetry, then fiction. After a while, I added courses in creative nonfiction.  

 

Like most writers, finding time for my passion projects is my biggest struggle—especially when a significant portion of my day goes towards activities that pay the bills.

Last weekend I attended the James River Writers Conference with other writers who face similar challenges. Some were working on novels and essays while taking courses in poetry. Others were editing current works in progress while conducting research for the next manuscript on their agenda. We commiserated over our time constraints and traded tips on managing multiple projects and staying organized and inspired.

 

These people are truly my tribe. The same is true for my next interviewee, Athena Dixon.

 

I met Athena in late 2018 through a mutual friend who was starting a memoir collective. When we met, Athena was the editor-in-chief for Linden Avenue Literary Journal and author of the poetry chapbook No God in This Room (Argus House Press, 2017) as well as a regular presenter at writing conferences like HippoCamp and Muse and the Marketplace.

 

A Pushcart nominee and fellow for several prestigious organizations including Callaloo, and V.O.N.A., Athena is a modern-day renaissance woman who is multi-talented, curious, and prolific. Within six months of our meeting, her essay The Incredible Shrinking Woman was published by Gay Mag, the literary magazine Roxane Gay runs through Medium. This essay became the title for the essay collection Athena published with Split/Lip Press in 2020.

 

She accomplished all of this in the spare hours between her demanding government job and sleep. Part of her mission is helping writers establish a work and writing-life balance that includes realistic expectations and individual definitions for success.

 

I’d deeply grateful Athena made time for this interview.  

 

In addition to being active on social media, your platform includes publications in literary journals, speaking engagements at writing conferences like AWP, HippoCamp, and The Muse and the Marketplace, being the founder of the Linden Literary journal, and co-host of the New Books in Poetry Podcast via the New Books Network. What parts of your platform do you find to be most meaningful?

 

I’m a bit split. For quite a long time, the center of my platform was Linden Avenue. The literary journal was my passion project for nearly nine years. It opened so many doors and created so many opportunities that I don’t think I’d have a good segment of my current platform had it not existed.

 

The offshoot of that, however, is the panel and conference platform I continue to build. It’s actually a surprise I’ve done so many. Public speaking frightens me, but being willing to step out of my comfort zone and accept these opportunities has had twofold benefits. First, presenting gives me a confidence I can carry into other areas of my life. Second, speaking at conferences helps me continue to build that platform by introducing me to creatives whose skill sets complement mine.

 

This is an excellent point, Athena. Presenting is a great networking tool. You never know what collaborations it might lead to or how someone else’s work might inspire or grow your own. 

 

You began your career as a poet and published your chapbook No God in This Room through Argus House in 2017. Some of my readers are poets. They wonder if an author platform is something they should work to build. What advice do you have for them?

 

I’m a very big believer in building an organic creative community. However, the development of this community shouldn’t occur just for the sake of your proposal or queries or to demonstrate something to agents and publishing houses. It should be something you cultivate because you care about the craft and are enthusiastic about the writers in your community.

 

That being said, there is no doubt you need to build an audience and a platform of some measure to give your book the best chance at success, but how you go about that and how you maintain that platform are most important. Personally, I would rather connect with 1,000 engaged people versus having 10,000 followers. If you put out the same kind of support to other creatives that you expect back, the ripple effect of those people and their extended communities can be amazing.

 

I highly suggest finding a platform in which you are most comfortable because that will shine through in how you engage with not only the medium but also the community you build there.

 

This is excellent advice, Athena. Allison K. Williams is also a proponent of engagement over numbers when it comes to social media. In fact, I’ve heard this is what publishers now value.

 

We’ve talked about how platform is important for creative nonfiction writers. What role did your platform play when promoting The Incredible Shrinking Woman?

 

My platform was invaluable when the book debuted. We were about six months into the pandemic, and at that point, there was zero possibility of doing any face-to-face promotion of the book. However, those same creatives I’d admired and supported over the years returned that support and love. That community inserted my name into conversations with people I’d never met and helped me set up a virtual book tour, readings, panels, and interviews.

 

Outside of those very practical promotional opportunities, the platform I built also championed my book because they’ve seen me as a person. I am wholly against being a brand or presenting a polished front. I can’t expect to write personal essays, but only open up about struggles, fears, and doubts when I want to promote something.

 

I think people are willing to read and engage with my work because I am a person who writes and not just a writer. I think that ties back to building an organic community. I may not have an intimate connection with all the people I encounter on social media, but I’m fairly certain most of them support me because there is something kindred and human between us.

 

You were a 2017 Callaloo fellow, a V.O.N.A. fellow, and a Tin House Workshop attendee on more than one occasion. What role do fellowships, workshops, and writing conferences play in your platform? Should writers make these events part of their platform strategy? Have you found they’re more helpful for some genres than others?

 

Recognizing that being able to attend these events is a privilege, I encourage writers to at least try attending workshops and conferences or applying for residencies and fellowships. While there are obstacles to attending, and at times they can be an echo chamber, there is such potential to meet and network with other creatives. Several people I met at these events were readers of my manuscript before I submitted it for publication. Others I join in writing sprints. Some have referred me for opportunities and clients, and I’ve done the same for them.

 

The intimate connections you make are not only important for your own platform building, but they can become invaluable to you as an individual.  Networking and engagement aren’t always effective on a large scale. Sometimes, it comes down to a couple of people helping guide each other and using their platforms to open doors for each other.

 

I’ve attended conferences, fellowships, and residencies as both a poet and an essayist, and I can’t really say one is more valuable than the other, but I will say you have to go into them with realistic expectations. Not all conversations and connections you make are going to be long lasting. Nurture those creatives who return the same energy after you’ve returned home.

 

Networking is such a crucial part of platform building. Conferences, residencies, and fellowships create concentrated opportunities for writers to get to know one another and that can lead to powerful synergistic relationships and collaborations. But yes, it’s vital to stay realistic. While I know writers who’ve met agents who went on to represent them while attending writing conferences, I’ve also known writers who met with one invested beta reader. I consider both experiences success stories.

 

Online, the advice about platform is always moremoremore—as in be in more places, strive for more impressive statistics, and clamor for more audience engagement. At the 2021 HippoCamp Conference, you spoke of the importance of finding a balance between writing, work, and life, and encourage writers to get clear about their individual visions for success. That’s important because not every writer dreams of being a New York Times Bestseller, nor does every writer have unlimited time to work on their platform. What does success look like for you? How will you know when your projects have achieved their goals?

 

Defining success on your own terms is something I recommend for anyone sending their work out into the world. It’s easy to get caught up in the success of others and then to compare your accomplishments to what you see on social media or what’s deemed as a successful writing career.

 

Success for me is being able to have my work read by a group of actively engaged readers and supporters. Instead of worrying about the numbers, I’m interested in how people listen and connect with what I’ve shared. When The Incredible Shrinking Woman debuted, I had very reasonable sales numbers in mind. As long as I hit that number, I was happy. The book surpassed that goal, so now every additional sale is icing on the cake.

 

For me, success is also being able to supplement my income through not only writing but also editing and speaking so I can one day transition out of my day job. When I was younger, I’d been convinced I wanted to be a full-time writer, but as I gained experience in editing and speaking, I found that I was happier doing a combination of all three. Once I determined my most desirable creative life, I set a very specific set of financial goals I needed to make between the three creative lanes in order to be comfortable and happy when transitioning into that life full-time.  

 

The final part of my success is becoming more confident in my writing voice and also understanding I have advice and experiences to share.

  

We can find you on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Do you have a favorite social media platform? Are there any you’ll never join or that don’t feel natural to you?

 

I genuinely enjoy Instagram. It’s the one social media app where I am most comfortable. I’ve found a way of balancing building a community, promoting my literary pursuits, and documenting my personal life in one account. For me, Instagram is the best of Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr all rolled into one. On Instagram, I’m able to network as I would on Twitter, promote as I would on Facebook, and use the account as a bit of escapism by engaging with fandom, interior design, and entertainment users as I would on Tumblr.

 

What are you reading?

 

I’m currently reading Before the Earth Devours Us by Esteban Rodríguez. It’s a beautiful essay collection that debuted from Split/Lip Press at the end of September. I’m also working through my foundational books for the year. I decided to re-read 12 of my favorites in preparation for continuing work on my current manuscript. Some of those include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtson, and Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.

 

Wow! The description for Before the Earth Devours Us is amazing. I’ve been so impressed with the Split/Lip titles I’ve read. I’m adding this one to my reading list. And, I can’t wait to see how the influence of your foundational books shows up in your next book.

 

What’s next for you?

 

I’m really focused on finishing my new collection of essays. I’ll be taking part in the second book residency through Tin House this October to continue work on the book. I’m excited to see where the manuscript leads me. The new collection includes more research and looking outward in comparison to The Incredible Shrinking Woman. I’ve enjoyed writing it so far because it’s really forcing me to make connections to the larger world, which pushes past my writing comfort zone.

 

You can follow Athena online by clicking on the following links: 

 
Athena, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us. I absolutely love your wise counsel on how to manage our writing lives. I can’t wait to read your next book!  

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Ashleigh Renard rehabbed not just a shabby marriage but our views of what indie authors can do. Learn the secrets of her success.

Ashleigh Renard rehabbed not just a shabby marriage but our views of what indie authors can do. Learn the secrets of her success.

I first heard of Ashleigh Renard through a Facebook writing group I belong to. Every few days writers said things like “OMG I can’t wait to read Ashleigh’s new book,” or “Thank you Ashleigh for that great advice,” or “Because of Ashleigh I had this success.”

I soon discovered this figure-skating-coach-turned-writer is an Instagram maverick and author platform coach who had partnered with Allison K. Williams to run the Writer’s Bridge, a biweekly free-to-all platform chat. Coaching writers was one way she prepared to launch her memoir Swing.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ashleigh at the 2021 HippoCamp conference and soon discovered she’s as delightful as the posts written about her.

If you haven’t read her memoir, Swing is equal parts steamy look at swingers who attend sex clubs and story of a hard-working mom searching for the love and life she always wanted yet never believed she deserved. It’s led to several conversations between the hubby and me about the growth edges in our own marriage, which like most relationships, is a continual work in progress.

While readers rave about Swing, writers are enamored with her publishing story. In 2020, Ashleigh landed an agent and a book deal. But a lack of momentum led her to scrap that plan and forge ahead on her own. She started her own imprint, checked off all the indie-publisher boxes, then planned and executed a stellar book launch. To date, Swing has sold over 10,000 copies. Ashleigh is a regular on the podcast circuit who has over 48,000 Instagram followers. She’s successfully sold her book on TikTok, but more importantly, she’s achieved the self-publishing impossible: her book is sold in a brick-and-mortar independent bookstore.

It’s a great honor to interview Ashleigh as a part of my author-platform series.

During the first week of your book launch you sold an impressive 5000 books, with over 2000 of those being print copies in the US reported to BookScan. That’s enough to qualify for the New York Times bestsellers list. Those numbers also exceed the total sales most books see across their lifetime. What unique strategies did you use to create such a successful launch?

 Hitting those first-week numbers was exciting. Choosing to publish independently as a debut author, I didn’t have publisher clout or many industry reviews behind me. Sales and reader reactions were my metrics for how the book was being received. I outsold five titles on the NYT paperback nonfiction list that week, which encouraged me that yes, people want to read this book.

I had been educating my audience on the importance of preorders and supporting independent bookstores for a couple of years. I basically documented my literary citizenship. Anytime I preordered a book from my local indie bookstore I posted about it in my Instagram stories and tagged the author, the bookstore, and often the editor and imprint. At this point, most people I know are eager to make conscious purchasing decisions. By the time my preorders opened, many of my audience members had already started preordering books from their favorite authors.

My local indie was the exclusive retailer for signed copies. When I announced on my Instagram stories that preorders were open, the bookstore’s website was immediately overwhelmed. Many people messaged me saying they were trying to get a signed book but couldn’t. I reminded them that the book was available at Amazon. They all responded with, “Nope you taught me why I should order from an independent bookstore so I’m going to do it.”

These are the talking points I repeat over and over for my audience.

Preorders:

  1. Help publishers determine the investments they’ll make for marketing and publicity of a title.
  2. Strong presales increase the chances bookstores will stock the book.
  3. All preorders count for first-week sales, giving most authors their best chance at hitting a bestseller list.

Purchases from bookstores don’t just support small business––they benefit authors, too:

  1. Sales from independent bookstores are more heavily weighted on curated bestseller lists (like the NYT and the WSJ) because those customers are thought to be more serious readers. (Snobbish? Maybe. A fact that played into my strategy? Absolutely.)
  2. If many copies of a book move through a brick and mortar store it’s likely one of the employees will like it and give it favorable placement in the store, for example, “cover out” rather than “spine out.”
  3. Or they may choose it as a staff pick. When that happens, the book gets a special display, most likely with a handwritten note from the staff member letting readers know why they should buy this book.
  4. Booksellers and authors share a beautiful reciprocity. Even though publishers bring the book into the world, booksellers see the joy of readers picking it up and experience the special cha-ching of customers opening their wallets to buy a book they’re excited about. They are our feet on the ground who recommend our titles to people in their stores. I asked my local indie if they would be willing to serve as the exclusive retailer for signed copies. They don’t usually stock self-published books because they’ve had poor results with local authors. Luckily, my Instagram stories about their store helped me develop a relationship with one of their managers. She advocated for my book and my ability to promote sales. My discount was set at the industry standard of 55% and my book was returnable, so they agreed. They were a joy to work with and I aimed to be professional and gracious. They dedicated the space and employee hours to help me sign 600 copies in one afternoon, then had staff come in early the next day to package and transport them to the post office so customers would receive them by pub day. A few weeks later, Candace Bushnell’s people contacted the store to see if they would host a live, in-person event, and asked if the owner, by chance, had any ideas for a local author who would be a good conversation partner. Apparently, the bookstore owner couldn’t get my name out of her mouth fast enough. So, my first in-person event as a debut author was interviewing Candace Bushnell. I even bought a pair of Jimmy Choos to celebrate.

 

What helpful tips! I’ve been telling people to support their indie bookstore for years. Your success demonstrates why this is so important. Thank you for helping me make my point. What part did your platform play in your book launch?

My social media platform has two parts, the writers I engage with and support through Facebook groups and The Writers’ Bridge biweekly platform Q&A, and my readers, who I’ve attracted through Instagram and TikTok.

 Writers bought my book because they appreciated the support and encouragement I gave to the writing community (and likely because I preordered their book recently). My audience bought the book because they love the advice and perspective I offer on social media.

This is a great example of how giving back to the communities you care about can give you so much in return. You’ve created several successful video series for your Instagram including How to Keep Monogamy Hot, How to Get Your Kids to Clean the House, and Before You Get a Divorce to name a few. Couples have written to you about how they’re reading Swing together and then having honest conversations about how to build better relationships. Does your author platform enhance or frame the conversation happening within your book?  If not, is there another way your book and platform work together?

Couples reading my book together is the biggest (and most welcome!) surprise of this whole process. Seeing how my audience responds to my content always informs the next piece I write or the next video I create. The book is an extension of this. When questions come up after couples read the book, I’ll answer via DM (direct message) and often share about the question in my Instagram stories. I then ask my audience to answer questions for me on that topic or vote on what I should focus on next in my advice.

This sounds like a great way to keep your audience engaged. It seems like you’re an Instagram and TikTok maven. What’s your secret?

 After growing at a rate of 500 followers a year on Instagram, over the past 11 months I’ve averaged 1000 new audience members a week on Instagram and 1000 new followers a day on TikTok.

 I was a figure skating coach and choreographer for over 20 years, so I know better than to take an audience member’s attention for granted. Whether I was trying to impress a judge with my team’s choreography or trying to get 20 teenagers to give me their attention, cooperation, and execution, I needed to get to the point––and quick.

 Now, if you give me 30 seconds, I can make you feel comfortable, give you the feeling we’re on the same team, make you laugh, share information with an original slant, and leave you motivated to take action.

 My years of disarming skeptical adolescents have given me the ability to create content you can share with your spouse without blowback. For this reason, many people share my videos with their partners.

Getting to the point is such a vital skill for writers to master. Are there any social media platforms you struggle to use?  

I cannot figure out Snapchat, at all. I don’t get it. But I did figure out how to make ads there, which did very well. Women aged 25-55 who scroll Snapchat are incredibly interested when a video offers insight on rehabbing a shabby marriage. Imagine that.

What advice do you have for those of us who might be intimidated by the sheer number of posts you create or the sophistication of your videos?

When I was pushing preorders, I posted three times a day on Instagram. Those posts didn’t do well, so I cut back to about three posts a week and the performance went way up. Sometimes now I only post once a week. I’ve learned that frequency isn’t actually the golden ticket.

For me, what’s most effective is checking in (posting) on my Instagram stories several times a day. It’s a casual, fun place to workshop ideas or questions for my audience. All replies go to my DMs (direct messages). This makes people more comfortable asking questions or speaking honestly. I also ask my audience for help and advice (Is this thing on my eye a stye? What secret ingredient do you put in your chili? And just today: tell me your favorite cover songs of all time.), which they love to give.

My videos are usually 30 seconds long and take me about five minutes to film and ten minutes to caption. They may look sophisticated, but I avoid adding audio, transitions, or any effects. I only make videos when an idea pops into my head that’s crystal clear. Doing that three times per week is a snap and then it takes me two minutes to post to IG and TikTok.

 If you want to see how I do it, I’m teaching a class on it for Lounge Writers on September 22.

 When someone is overwhelmed by the idea of making a face-to-camera video I always tell them to start by watching a few Instagram stories and then experimenting with their own.

 

I love how you authentically engage with your audience. It seems like one of your not-so-secret strategies for success. Personally, it takes me a while to post something to social media. There’s the initial think time, then the drafting time, followed by the technical work of putting things together for platforms like Instagram. How much time do you spend per day on social media? How does that time work for or against your writing time? Do you have any time management secrets we can benefit from?

I actively work on my social media about four days a week. On those days I spend about four hours on my socials (2 hours on IG, 1.5 hours on TikTok, and 30 minutes on FB).

Here is the breakdown:

  • Instagram: 1 hour posting and captioning face-to-camera videos for my stories (15 minutes, 4 times a day), 1 hour responding to comments and direct messages (5 minutes, 12 times a day).
  • TikTok: 1 hour on TikTok live (while I am on live the app pushes out my previous videos in a big way. I often have 1k notifications by the time I jump off. Then I spend 30 minutes responding to comments and direct messages.
  • Facebook: 30 minutes responding to comment threads in FB groups.

 You may notice that none of this time above mentions making content or posting (outside of Instagram stories). Posting is quick––I can film and caption a video in 15 minutes or less.

I save screenshots of my Amazon reviews and have them in a photos album I share with my assistant (super easy since we are both Mac users). She uses the same background each time, picks out the best line(s) from each review, and makes a batch of quote cards with my custom GIFs. She can make a dozen quote cards in about half an hour. She uploads them to a shared album called “Quote Cards – Ready to Post.”

 

Having an assistant makes you sound so official. Have you had one the entire time, or is she a more recent addition to your team?

Until recently, I ran all aspects of my business. To encourage preorders, I offered my audiobook for free if readers preordered the print version. Two months before my book launch, I hired my 21-year-old niece, Geena, as an assistant. She manages all those preorder emails and sends out audiobook links to my readers.

When I’m invited for podcast interviews or brand collaborations, all those inquiries go to Geena. She confirms they’re a good fit and puts them on my calendar. If I’m behind on my inbox, she’ll go through my emails and make me a to do list. She preps my newsletters by customizing the templates in Flodesk (my new email service) by adding my photos and links. I coach writers one-on-one, developing a social media strategy based on their book or WIP. After videos are scripted, practiced, and filmed, Geena does the final edits and (closed) captioning.

She’s a tremendous help. Working with her forces me to develop some systems and protocols. I’m a bit spontaneous and knowing she is expecting A and B from me before she can complete C helps me prioritize. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months working out systems that are easy and efficient (and fun). We meet on Zoom Mondays and Fridays, but most of our communication is through shared notes, albums, and reminder lists (all on iPhone/Mac). Having an employee I appreciate has also pushed me to expand my business––I want more income so I can continue to give her raises and bonuses. Currently, I rely on book sales, one-on-one coaching, and one brand partnership for income, but in the next few months I’ll open three new revenue streams.

 

I can’t wait to see what those revenue streams look like. You’re the co-host of the Writer’s Bridge. Two weeks ago, your partner-in-crime, Allison K. Williams, shared some details about upcoming Writer’s Bridge events. Is there anything you’d like to add?

 Partnering with Allison has been one of the greatest gifts of pandemic––if not my life. I’ve never had a professional partnership where so much is accomplished with so much ease. This photo from HippoCamp by Kerri Tollinger captures it beautifully. I mean, who doesn’t want a partner who’s brilliant, funny, and trusts you completely? I think our Writers’ Bridge participants feel that and it’s contagious. We don’t sugar-coat the amount of work necessary, but we do help people believe they can do it and might even enjoy themselves in the process.

 What’s next for you?

 Three new things in the works:

  1. All my video content will soon be self-hosted on my website. I’m opening a subscription option for singles and couples, with members-only video content and reflection questions.
  2. I am expanding my social media strategy coaching with webinars.
  3. Coming soon: my own podcast/YouTube show

 What are you currently reading?

 A Girl Called Rumi by Ari Honarvar! If you liked The Celestine Prophecy or The Alchemist, you’ll love this book. Don’t miss our event together at Powell’s Books on September 24.

 I’m a huge fan of both The Celestine Prophecy and The Alchemist, so you’ve sold me on Ari’s book.

You can follow Ashleigh online by clicking on the following links: 

 Ashleigh, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us. I’m so impressed by all you’ve accomplished. I can’t wait to hear more about your podcast and to see what you write next.

Don’t want to miss the next interview?  Sign up for my newsletter.  

And while you’re at it, check out my upcoming class Mastering the Scene: From the Basics to the Advanced Scene-Writing Tricks that Captivate Readers and Agents.

Laura Cathcart Robbins went from rejections to award-winning podcaster, speaker, and writer. With her advice, you can do it too.

Laura Cathcart Robbins went from rejections to award-winning podcaster, speaker, and writer. With her advice, you can do it too.

I met Laura Cathcart Robbins in 2019 through a mutual friend. Her essay “I Was The Only Black Person At Elizabeth Gilbert And Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Brave Magic’ Retreat” had recently gone viral. The outpouring of responses from readers led her to create a podcast she was calling The Only One in the Room. The first episodes were being recorded and she was curious to see what might happen with her new venture. 

Two and a half years later, Laura is a regular contributor to HuffPo where she writes about addiction, recovery, and her experience as a black woman living in America. She’s an accomplished speaker whose essays have been published in The TemperIt’s Over Easy, and Tempest Sobriety, among others. 

And that podcast she started? Bustle has twice named The Only One in the Room as a top podcast alongside This American Life. Guests have included actors, activists, and authors including Dani Shapiro, Reema Zaman, Kiese Laymon, Amy Bond, and Athena Dixon. You should definitely check out her recent episode with Allison Hong Merrill, whose award-winning memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, comes out next week. 

I’m deeply grateful Laura took the time away from her busy schedule to speak with me.

 

Laura, your platform exploded after writing your “Brave Magic” essay. It’s been such a joy to watch it grow. What role have bylines played in your author’s platform?

I wanted (very badly) to see my byline in The Sun or McSweeney’s, but no matter what I submitted, I still received rejection notifications. I worried that as someone who never graduated from high school and never went to college, (and obviously) never got an MFA, that my style might not be sophisticated enough for all those lovely literary publications I was stalking.  But after submitting one article to Emily McCombs at Huffpo, she told me that she liked my voice and my style and asked me for more.  

Just before publishing my first article she said, “Make sure you’re ready, because this is a huge platform with millions of readers. Once this goes live your life is going to change.”

In 2020, my Huffpo article on “Zoom bombings” caught the attention of a PBS producer in Portugal, which resulted in a lovely ten-minute piece on my sobriety during the pandemic.  And in February of this year, another article I wrote for Huffpo caught the attention of a Channel 5 news producer, which resulted in a live interview with me on the subject of interracial relationships.  Some folks at UBS Wealth Management happened to catch that Channel 5 interview and then offered me a contract to speak at their 12,000-person women’s summit this past May. Last week I was interviewed on The Dr. Phil Show after they read my Huffpo article on Critical Race Theory

Can I just stop say, “You are on fire, my friend! I love seeing how your bright you’re shining right now.”

Thank you!

You now have a very successful podcast. How do your podcast and bylines inform your writing?  

One hundred percent, the platform feeds my writing and vice versa.  My partner, Scott Slaughter, and I try to be very intentional about choosing writing topics and podcast guests who are on-brand for me.  People find the podcast through my published pieces and then submit their stories to me. Many of our guests have opened journalistic doors for me and provided me with writing opportunities.

At a recent writing conference, I spoke with several writers who are interested in starting a podcast. Do you have advice for them?

Yes, I think writers have a huge advantage in podcasting because we’re storytellers.  When I’m trying to come up with a story idea for an article or essay, I look for that spark, that magical, inspirational thing that I can build an entire story around. It’s the same when I’m selecting guests for The Only One in The Room.  In the pre-interview, I listen to my guests talk and talk until I hear that one thing, and that’s when I start taking notes. That’s the good stuff. That’s my episode.

If you’re looking for more specific advice, my friend and fellow writer/author/podcaster Stefanie Wilder Taylor and I are teaching a virtual podcasting class on Saturday, September 18.

(Readers, if you’re interested in this class, send an email to StefanieWilderTaylor@gmail.com to get all the details.)
 
Last year you signed with Rebecca Gradinger at Fletcher and Co.  What parts of your platform helped with that process?

Interestingly enough, Anjali Singh at Ayesha Pande Literature rejected my book proposal in 2016.  But instead of a form letter, she wrote few a paragraphs that changed everything for me.  “You’re a beautiful writer,” she said. 

“But memoir is the hardest thing to sell, and I can’t sell you because no one knows who you are.  Start a blog, perhaps try some storytelling, start a podcast. Get yourself an elegant, easy-to-navigate website, and make sure everything you do is on there.  Put yourself out there on social media, book speaking gigs, interviews too, if possible.  And most importantly, publish as MANY articles as you can.”

After Rebecca read my query and the thirty pages I submitted to her in November 2020, she was impressed with my platform. “Keep all this up,” she said.  “The podcast, the articles, the interviews.  This is all very good.”

Very good indeed!

Writers are always looking for ways to build their platforms both on and offline. In 2018, you won the L.A. Moth Story Slam. Do you have any advice for writers who’d like to participate in a Moth event? 

Yes, practice.  For weeks before each Moth event, I practiced the entire story five to six times per day.  I practiced in the mirror. I practiced by myself on Zoom. I practiced in front of my boyfriend and my kids. I recorded my practice sessions on my phone audio recorder and then played those recordings while I was driving.  Also, I chose a story I knew extremely well. That way, if my brain stalled in the middle of my story, I could just pick up and hope no one would be the wiser.

That sounds like the right amount of practice. And I love the Zoom suggestion! It’s a great way to see how you’re presenting your story visually through facial expressions and body language. 

You have Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. I love seeing how you’re push-ups are progressing on Insta. Which platform do you feel most comfortable with? Are there any social media platforms you’ll never join? 

 Ayeee.  I’m not comfortable with any social media platforms and if I didn’t HAVE TO scroll or post my platform, I don’t think I would.  But of them all, I am most comfortable with Instagram.  For the podcast, we have someone who handles TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter for us (thank god).

What one thing would you like writers to know about author platforms?

I’m still hustling to build my platform, to add published articles, to secure impressive podcast guests.  I know that not every author needs a platform to get published, but I also know that having one helps a lot.

I would say you’re doing a lot more than hustling. You’re modeling how to successfully grow a platform.  

What are you currently reading?

Volunteer Slavery by Jill Nelson – it’s incredible.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully a contract with a publisher and then a book to promote! 

I can’t wait to hear that your book has been sold. 

 
You can follow Laura online by clicking on the following links: 

Don’t want to miss the next interview?  Sign up for my newsletter.  

And while you’re at it, check out my upcoming class Mastering the Scene: From the Basics to the Advanced Scene-Writing Tricks that Captivate Readers and Agents 

 

To write well, you must commit to multiple drafts. Allison K. William’s new book Seven Drafts will show you how to capitalize on each one.

To write well, you must commit to multiple drafts. Allison K. William’s new book Seven Drafts will show you how to capitalize on each one.

Even though it’s September, it’s still toasty in Virginia. As a spring and summer girl, hot weather is my jam. I’ve long seen fall as a major bummer filled with darker days, cooler temperatures, and for a long time, the return of my seasonal depression.

As I’ve aged and healed, I’ve also come to see fall as a time of color, rest, and gratitude.

This year I’m psyched about what fall means for my newsletter.

Over the next few months, I’ll interview platform divas and emerging writers about how they’re managing their author platforms. The list includes writers across all genres so there should be something for everyone. 

 

The first interview in this series is with Allison K. Williams 

For the past six months, I’ve told every writer I know to buy Allison’s new book Seven Drafts: How to Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Now you finally can. 

When I first met Allison at the 2016 HippoCamp Conference, I knew she was someone special. She’s a commanding presenter with an impeccable grasp of her craft who makes writing exciting and accessible.  

A former circus performer and aerialist (hence her stage presence), Allison has an MFA from Western Michigan. She’s an award-winning playwright, novelist, and guerrilla memoirist who edits the Brevity Blog.  Allison lives in Dubia and hosts writing retreats in fabulous locales like Tuscany. It was an honor and pleasure to speak with her. 

Allison, you’re a speaker who’s been labeled as “so informative it’s like drinking from a fire hose” and so inspiring participants leave “feeling like they can go punch a dragon.” What role does public speaking play in your platform? 

As many people know, I was a full-time performer before I was a full-time writer. So personally, speaking fills that need for performing and sharing with an audience that really burns in me. Professionally, I’ve found that public speaking—whether that’s delivering a keynote, teaching a webinar or co-hosting a Writers’ Bridge episode—is the best way to reach a large number of writers and get them on board with what I have to say. Sharing expertise and do-this-now tips for both writing better and selling books is also my service to the community.

I’m so, so stoked about the publication of Seven Drafts. I know this question is a little like asking which one of your kids is really your favorite, but here goes. Which chapter is your favorite? And if that feels unfair, which one was the most fun to write? 

Honestly, I love Chapter 4: The Technical Draft! I am so interested in the mechanics of language and sentence structure, and this chapter lets me share tools and tricks that make everyone’s writing better at the sentence level. It’s not a grammar tutorial—I’m discussing how words function to deliver meaning. Why shouldn’t you use “would” and “could” casually? What’s the difference between an intentionally long sentence and a run-on? Discovering these things absolutely rocked my world as a writer (dork alert!) and I hope they’ll help other writers. Because writing is like dancing—yes, you gotta feel it and go with the flow, but a good grounding in technique makes everyone better. 

I love that chapter too, though I’m also a huge fan of your chapter on the story draft. The exercises in it are so good! What’s the one thing you hope readers of your book learn or understand after reading Seven Drafts

That you’re not the only one. That for the vast majority of us, writing a book takes five times as long and is ten times as much work as we anticipated, even after reasonably estimating our time and work! But your words are worth that time and work. 

That’s so true and something all writers need to hear. So, let’s talk a little about platform. Initially, writers build their author platform so they can connect with readers who will one day buy their books. What role will Seven Drafts play in your author platform? Are there any doors this book might open that were previously closed to you? 

I’d like to do more keynote speaking, and more guest teaching, and I think this book will help. I’ve done all the full-time faculty-ing I care to, but I’d love to be a writer-in-residence, and I definitely need a book out for that to be an option. And it’s a symbol of expertise. One more reason that people can trust my writing advice is that a traditional publisher thought it was good enough to make a book. 

That’s a great answer. I regularly tell writers to think about the doors they want to open with their books well in advance of their book launch so they can build a platform that makes that vision possible. I can’t wait for your next keynote! 

I’ve seen your posts on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter. What social media platform are you most comfortable using?

I go back and forth. I love Instagram for the creativity and fun photo-editing time, but it’s emotionally more intense than other platforms. I have to want to go a little deeper when I’m writing a mini-essay as a caption. I’ve only been posting once a month or so lately because I just haven’t had it in me. Twitter I find more light, more fun. It’s easier to engage for 1-3 minutes and check back out again. Facebook, almost all my participation is in groups. I rarely post to my own timeline; I’m more interested to see what’s going on with other writers. 

Are there any social media secrets you’d like to share? 

I think a lot of writers building platform place a high value on posting or advertising themselves and underestimate how powerful listening is. Just chiming in with congratulations or support or answering a question is a great way to interact. I used to be a very envious person, and by actively practicing joy for others’ achievements, I’ve gotten rid of a lot of that feeling. Now, instead of “why didn’t I get that thing?!?!” I get to experience “Yay, I told her about that residency!” or “Wow, I know how hard she’s worked to get that publication!”

Listening is an underrated way to build an author platform, but I find it very energizing. You’re one of the co-hosts of the Writer’s Bridge. What would you like authors to know about this organization? 

Platform-building goes far beyond social media, and we talk about all of it: newsletters, email lists, websites, even the process of querying agents and just plain writing better. An amazing group of writers show up every two weeks—and everyone is welcome—and the networking has really led to a lot of fruitful collaborations. People review each other’s books, they host each other on podcasts, they guest on each other’s Instagram Reels and support each other at real-life events (when those are safe to do). 

If you could tell readers one thing about building an author platform, what would it be? 

Being a writer is different than being an influencer. You don’t have to wear cute outfits, or take professional-quality photos, or have ten thousand followers. You also don’t have to share anything you aren’t comfortable sharing and you get to draw your own boundaries. Share your writing voice and connect for real with people

What are you currently reading?

I’m really enjoying Charlie Jane Anders’ Never Say You Can’t Survive right now—it’s all about writing through hard times, and I love the chapter titles like “Hold On to Your Anger. It’s a Storytelling Gold Mine” and “How to Tell a Thrilling Story Without Breaking Your Own Heart.” Inspirational and instructional!

What’s next for you? 

Next is a three-part webinar series How to Build a Developmental Editing Business through Jane Friedman—we’re going to look at how and why to developmental edit, communicating with clients and getting them excited to revise, and the nuts and bolts of making money as a developmental editor. This is the first time I’ve taught editing as a practice and I’m excited to plan this new class!

I know it will be a fabulous class! I can’t wait to hear the reviews. 

You can follow Allison online by clicking on the following links: 

 
Give your writing life and author platform a boost: buy your copy of Seven Drafts today then sign up for the Writer’s Bridge.

Don’t want to miss another post? Sign up for my newsletter

 

 

The secret to building an effective author platform is something you might have overlooked.

The secret to building an effective author platform is something you might have overlooked.

This week, I move into my new home. 

The box towers in my house have grown so large, my cat, Miss Foxy, recently gave me a look that said, “Your box kingdom has exceeded my ability to guard it.” 

Like my kitty, I’m ready for a return to normal life. 

Living in transition makes it easy to see why author platforms are so daunting. 

How do you get everything done when your to-do list never ends? 

The answer is simple, <<First Name>>. 

Work smarter rather than harder.  

So far, we’ve talked about online platforms and how to write your way to a bigger audience.

Now let’s capitalize on what you’re already doing. 

Speaking 

You don’t have to wear a microphone to call yourself a speaker. Think of the people you’re already in front of—students, spiritual communities, clubs and volunteer organizations, other writers.  

To work smarter rather than harder: 

  • Make a list of your official and unofficial speaking gigs.
  • Try to expand your reach. Could you speak more frequently or on a larger stage?  

 
To up your game: 

  • Pitch a segment to a podcast.
  • Start a podcast.
  • Sign up for a local reading, Moth, or other storytelling event. 
  • Volunteer to speak at your local library or writing organization. 
  • Pitch a session at a writing conference.

 

Joining 

Supporting your community can help you build meaningful relationships with people who might one day become your readers. When joining an organization, there’s no need to promote yourself. If someone asks what you do, tell them you’re a writer, but don’t make it your focus. Instead, find ways to be of service.

To work smarter rather than harder: 

  • Make a list of the organizations you belong to—start with writing-related groups like book clubs, critique groups, nonprofit writing organizations, then expand your list to include alumni organizations, religious/spiritual/self-help organizations, business organizations, and nonprofit and volunteer organizations. 
  • Assess which organizations align with your passions.  

 
To up your game: 

  • If you’re a passive member of an organization, could you either leave or become more involved? For example, could you become a reader for a literary magazine or help with an event? 
  • Volunteer to support the causes you write about. Think about the beats I mentioned in last week’s blog post. If you’re looking for inspiration, see Carol Michel’s essay on marketing your book without social media.
  • Support your local independent bookstore. Attend their events and regularly buy their books. I can’t stress how important this is. Local book stores support the local authors they know. Unless you have a big platform, they’re less inclined to help strangers.  

 
Pass The Torch

When it comes to teaching, writers frequently think of MFAs and tenure track positions. But Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, started her career teaching free classes in church basements. 

Guess what? I did the same thing—only I taught free mindful-writing courses at a mental health center. And for those of you who are curious, I don’t have an MFA. 

To work smarter rather than harder: 

  • Make a list of the ways you’re already teaching others. 
  • See if you can do it at a higher level or for a larger audience. 

 
To up your game: 

  • Teach a free seminar at your local library, religious organization, or community center. 
  • Volunteer to run a group at your local nonprofit writing center or library. 
  • Volunteer with organizations that mentor young writers like America Reads, or NEAs the Big Read. 
  • Teach skills other than writing—think gardening, building bookshelves, cooking, etc. 
  • Pitch a session at a writing conference.   

 
Be a Good Human 

This is probably the easiest and most overlooked way to build your author platform. It’s also the most fulfilling. 

Get to know the people around you. Ask them questions. Be curious about their answers. See if you can be of service. 

Above all, treat everyone with kindness and respect. The person you least expect might be integral to your writing career. 

Being a good human in real life will increase your authenticity online. 

To work smarter rather than harder: 

  • Make a list of your regular connections. 
  • Ask yourself: How am I lifting these people up? How am I being of service?

 
To up your game:  

  • Post online about your colleagues’ successes and share their publications.  
  • Write reviews for the books you love. 
  • When possible, attend the readings of the writers you know and admire. 
  • Complete random acts of kindness. 
  • When appropriate, ask cashiers, servers, and others you engage with how they’re doing. Listen to their answers.  

 

To really work smarter rather than harder, clarify your priorities.  Remember, you don’t have to do everything. In fact, doing a few things well can be more effective than spreading yourself thin. 

Quitting, setting limits, and saying no are just as important as saying yes. 

Have some platform or limit-setting questions? Send me an email. 

In fact, as we end this month, <<First Name>>, tell me something you’re ready to quit so you can say yes to your writing life. 
 

 

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