Building a Platform – Day 1

Bullet Points for Building a Successful Platform

Day 1 –

Who are You? Before you can really start building a platform of skills to promote yourself and your work, you need to know who you are and what you do best. In other words, what is your niche? If you were a book, where would you be in the bookstore? Mystery section, Short Story collections, Mystery plays. When you meet people, do you say, “Hi, I’m Agatha Penwrite. I’m a mystery writer.” Or are you still not sure what you want to be or write? If you can’t figure out what it is you are, you won’t be the only one.

Look back over the things you have already written and take inventory. At the California Crime Writers Conference in Los Angeles (June 2009), Gayle Lynds (The Book of Spies) said that you will probably have five novels under your belt before you sell your first one.

So, what do you primarily write?

The other half of knowing who you are is this: What other skills do you bring to the party? Were you once a cop, a private detective, a chef, a hooker? Hey, all of these are the basis of a good storytelling. What skills do you already have that will add credibility to your writing?

When I first started to write seriously, I wrote three long spy novels. The length alone said they wouldn’t be selling anytime soon. My dear husband said to me, “You were a private detective once. Why don’t you write a detective novel?” Duh.

So ask yourself, “What actual expertise am I bringing to this novel?” If you are a great cook or professional chef, you might center your stories around cooking. (Jerilynn Farmer’s Perfect Sax). If you are good at research, you might tackle an historical novel. (Jeri Westerson’s Veil of Lies) If you are a doctor, lawyer, or police officer, you have case studies by the score from which to draw stories.

All the people with the above job descriptions have something to talk about when speaking to an audience besides their great new novel. They have real life experience in the subject matter. They bring credibility and great insight to their latest book. Sue Ann Jaffarian (Booby Trap) is a paralegal writing about paralegals. Sheila Lowe (Dead Write) is a real life handwriting expert. Her protagonist has the same job. Doug Lyle (Forensics for Dummies) is a heart doctor. They each write about what they know best.

Not only does Sue Ann have actual knowledge of her subject matter, but she can also go speak at a paralegal convention or a lawyer conference. Her expertise carries weight. It’s a great draw.

So, what is your biggest asset?

Not a doctor or lawyer? You still have resources. Mari Sloan (Beaufort Falls) comes from a long line of Southern eccentrics and visionaries. Her storytelling skills make her book fascinating. Did you hear some good family tales growing up? Bruce Cook (writing as Brant Randall) wrote a novel that incorporates some of his family’s stories in a knockout book, Blood Harvest.

Now ask yourself again: “What am I bringing to the party? What else can I talk about that shows I just might have credibility in the subject matter of my book?”

Write a one-paragraph biography about yourself listing pertinent accomplishments and skills. You’ll need this when an agent asks: “Give me a brief bio about yourself that I can send along to the publisher when I submit your manuscript.”

Are you getting the idea what a platform is? Good. Come back next week for more.

Whether reading Bonnie’s chilling short story, “Intervention”, or perusing her novel, “Remember to Breathe”, you’ll meet characters who can make you laugh and cry at the same time. So we asked her:

Your writing is known for its emotional depth. Is it difficult to reach this far into your characters? Are their experiences drawn from your own, or are you simply a master of empathy?

Gee, you mean all those years of therapy haven’t been wasted?

Seriously, I’ve always been fascinated by human nature. What motivates people? What makes them happy or sad or mad? Several years ago I decided to take a few psychology courses to deepen my insight, so I enrolled in L.A. City College and went through basic psych, physiological psych, and abnormal psych.

Warning: do NOT take abnormal psych unless you’re prepared to imagine you’re suffering a range of symptoms – kinda like watching “House” and then thinking you have the Disease of the Week.
And of course I’ve read tons of books and articles on the crafting of characters and getting into their hearts and heads. One of the best is Linda Seger’s Creating Unforgettable Characters – it’s not just for screenwriters.

Since I’m blessed (?) with a hyperactive imagination, I use it to put myself in a character’s shoes and tune in to how they might be feeling in a given situation. One good piece of advice I stumbled on in my copious how-to reading is that the key to showing a character’s emotions is to tell the reader what the character’s thinking, because thoughts reflect feelings. And combined with physical gestures and actions, it’s more effective than simply typing, “Fred was mad.”

Many of my characters’ experiences and feelings are, of course, drawn from my own life, but mangled and modified to suit the story. I’ve lived long enough to experience a fair range of human emotions: I’ve lost loved ones to illness and accident, I’ve been married and divorced, I labored in the trenches of Corporate America, and all those things have contributed to my slightly warped perspective on human nature. And as some smart writer (I think it was Philip Roth) once said, “Nothing bad can happen to a writer; it’s all material.”

Can it be painful to experience a character’s grief or rage, or to remember when I felt that way? You bet. But when I come across a scene I’ve written that brings tears to my eyes, or makes me want to slap another character’s face – or makes me laugh – then I suspect I’ve tapped into something real, something maybe even universal – and that’s one of the biggest rewards of being a writer.

An Interview with Sheila Lowe

We are proud to present our Monday Guest Series, where we will be interviewing authors, web mavens, personal coaches, and other professionals who can bring you valuable information about writing, whether it’s enthusiasm, encouragement, tips, or advice.

Our first guest, Sheila Lowe, is a court-qualified handwriting expert who testifies in forensic cases. Sheila’s handwriting analysis practice, Sheila Lowe & Associates, covers a wide spectrum, from personality evaluation to handwriting authentication, to lecturing, teaching, and writing about handwriting.

So it’s no surprise that her protagonist, Claudia Rose, works in the same field, though with more deadly results. In Poison Pen, the mystery begins with the suicide note of an ex-friend. In Written in Blood, Claudia is asked to prove that the signature on a will is a forgery. This time, Claudia is headed to New York in Dead Write, where dating can be hazardous to your health.

And now…author Sheila Lowe.

Sheila, you have been a qualified handwriting expert with the California Court System since 1985. Your first venture into publishing was non-fiction with “The Complete Idiot’s Guide — Handwriting Analysis” in 1999 (which I’m going to purchase and use on my fellow WinR’s). When did you decide it was time to move on to fiction? Was there any particular incident that edged you in that direction?

The fact is, it was the other way around. I always wanted to write fiction, but got busy raising three kids on my own, and scratching out a living. It wasn’t until the kids were grown and on their own, and I had finally succeeded in creating a successful handwriting analysis practice, and had my two non-fiction handwriting analysis books published, that I came back to my first love, mystery.

In your third and most recent book, Dead Write, Claudia is hired by a world-class matchmaking service for the rich and powerful to screen their applicants. This seems especially relevant in the wake of the recent Ryan Jenkins tragedy. For those who don’t know, alleged murderer Ryan Jenkins was a contestant on the VH1 show “I Love Money”. How did the idea of a graphologist vetting matchmaking applicants come to you?

Having Claudia work for a matchmaker was a natural for me. For about fifteen years I had a client who was herself a high-priced matchmaker. She used my analyses to help her understand the members of her introduction service better, and often said it helped her to create successful marriages (she is not Grusha, however!). If everyone would use handwriting analysis as a tool, it could help avoid many unhappy relationships (this is a not-so-subtle plug for the non-fiction book I’m writing now on that very subject—Rotten Relationships, why we choose them). I don’t know anything about Ryan Jenkins, but the sad truth is, unless the client listens to any warnings about red flags in the handwriting, it doesn’t help. My own daughter is a case in point. She was the victim in a murder/suicide by a man whose handwriting contained some major red flags which sadly, she chose to ignore.

Dead Write takes Claudia out of California and into New York’s Manhattan. What was it like taking Claudia out of her usual environment? Was it an enjoyable experience that you plan to repeat in the future? Or was it difficult to create both a new mystery and a new environment?

I think it’s a good idea to change environments from time to time, or readers will begin to think I’m writing cozies J (I consider my books psychological suspense). Claudia lives in the almost fictional beach town of Playa de la Reina. In Poison Pen there are scenes in Palm Springs, and in Written in Blood, Claudia goes out of state. New York was a bit of a challenge because I haven’t spent a lot of time there. But Google and Youtube, are my friends and provide lots of good, usable stuff: sights, sounds, local color. Of course, there were a few missing senses, but a writer’s imagination can make up for that, and some of the smells I could do without anyway. I was lucky enough to make contact with a police detective in the precinct where the story took place, and he kindly filled in some of the blanks.

If you were to analyze your protagonist Claudia Rose’s handwriting, what are a few of the characteristics that would show up?

Claudia’s handwriting would have strong rhythm, a balanced spatial arrangement on the page, be moderate in size, with well developed lower loops, good simplification, and a few angles. Now you’ll have to look all that up in the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis to find out what they mean (will the BSP never stop?!).

What is the strangest assignment you’ve had?

Having analyzed well over 10,000 handwriting samples over my career, that’s a really hard question to answer. I recently provided Graphological input on a company logo. I’ve been asked by foreign police to examine the handwriting of a potential copycat serial killer. I’ve had genealogists ask me to prepare a Graphological autopsy on their ancestors. But mostly my work is fairly humdrum and involves analyzing handwriting for employers who are interviewing applicants, and on the other side of my practice, authenticating handwriting in cases of forgery.

Do you find that you subconsciously analyze the handwriting of everyone? Your agent, your mother, your friends?

I certainly get impressions about handwritings when I see them, favorable or otherwise. Way back when I was a beginner (in the 1960s), I would sit down and properly analyze them. Like Claudia, I don’t do that anymore, unless I’m getting paid for it. These days, although I do still maintain an active handwriting analysis practice, I’d rather be writing about Claudia Rose analyzing handwriting than doing it myself. Like I said, more than 10,000 samples…

Is there one obvious trait or set of traits that would make you just walk away from a person or situation?

An important fact about handwriting analysis is, there is no “this means that” relationship. The handwriting must be seen as a whole, as the context can make a difference to the interpretation of the individual parts. But some ‘red flag’ characteristics that can add up to potential for pathological behavior are extremes in pressure (heavy or light) plus extremes in slant (left or right); too many angular formations, extremely tall upper loops. Heavy, filled in punctuation. Many tiny hooks (seen under magnification). In fact, extremes of any type can usually be interpreted negatively.

What’s up next for you?

I’m madly working on the next Claudia Rose mystery, Unholy Writ, for release next year. Claudia’s friend Kelly Brennan is approached by her estranged younger sister Erin to help her find her missing child, who has been taken by her husband. Claudia and Kelly go “undercover “ in the religious cult of which Erin and her husband are members and where things are not always what they seem. And, of course, there’s that non-fiction book on relationships waiting to be finished.

Many thanks to Sheila for coming to us on this Monday moring.

Dead Write is available in bookstores or by clicking on the book cover to the right.

You can find out more about Sheila Lowe and Claudia Rose at Sheila’s web site.

Buiding a Platform Introduction

Building a Platform

Platform: 1. a raised flooring 2. the flat area next to a railroad track 3. a set of principles

Now is the time to add another definition to your Webster’s. If you are a writer, or you would like to be a writer someday, definition #4 is essential.

Platform: 4. an accumulation of skills along with various methods of broadcasting that information to the publishing world and the reading public

Building a Platform in the 21st Century

It isn’t enough for today’s writer to merely write the novel or short story, or for that matter a non-fiction piece, newspaper article, or screenplay. Today’s writer needs to get noticed. Does that mean be a flaming exhibitionist? Yeah. Sort of.

As described in definition #4: a “platform” is an accumulation of skills along with various methods of broadcasting that information to the publishing world and the reading public. And this can be started before you have a book in print. In fact, it should have been started before you are knee deep in trying to promote a published book.

If you have visions of your future publisher footing the bill for your world-wide book tour or arranging your multi-city American book tour, wake up, sweetheart. More than likely, you will be doing this yourself.

But, if you have developed certain skills and have laid a foundation (a.k.a. platform) for getting your name out in front of the public, you are ahead of the game. But a “platform” isn’t just a website or a blog. It’s a plethora of things.

If people (agents, publishers, booksellers, and librarians) know they can count on you to get a job done, you build your credibility. Sometimes that means just showing up at a literary event and helping out. If you exhibit this type of capability, your agent and publisher will consider you a professional, especially if you have this part of your budding career taken care of before you drop your first manuscript in their laps. And let’s face it, when you sell your book, you won’t have time to learn these new skills. Take the time now, while you are still polishing that second or third draft, to get yourself up to speed.

Now you might say, “But, hey, I just want to be a writer.” (Boy have you got a lot to learn.) Unless you actually have the next Harry Potter book, or Twilight series stacked up around your computer, you have things you need to do now. Both Ms. Rowling and Ms. Meyer have people to handle this. Unless you have “people,” you will have to do this part yourself.

For the next few weeks Writers in Residence will Bullet Point many of the ways you can build your own platform. This will include creating a web presence, getting your face out there (short of on the Ten Most Wanted list), and discovering who you really are in the first place.

Roll up your sleeves and join me as we polish the gems that we are inside.

Please note: I am primarily a mystery writer, so I will use examples based on writing mysteries. But a writer is a writer. These skills fit all shapes and sizes.

Gayle Bartos-Pool, mystery writer

Outlining: Necessary or Not?

An Outline. Some writers depend on its structure; some writers consider it the death of creativity. Do you outline? In detail? Why or why not? First we’ll hear from some of our WinR’s, then we’d love to hear from you!


Jackie Houchin

Yep.
And nope.

For me, outlining is crucial for writing FICTION. I need to see the story, or at least the plot points, all neatly displayed. It can be a literal A-B-C outline in a ruled notebook or Word.doc, or a tabletop covered with index cards or Post-its.

Seeing everything together at once helps me identify potholes, traffic jams or major disaster areas, and I can easily shift, shuffle or scuttle what doesn’t work.

In my “Great American Novel” (Ha!) that is currently residing half-finished in a bottom drawer, I have three major characters. Each of these girls gets a color. As I lay out my “deck” of index cards that represents their lives, I can see clearly where they cross, collide and ricochet off each other as they each push towards their individual resolutions.

If I’m writing a mystery, I map the paths of the victim and the killer in one color, then the sleuth and the killer in another. In these bare bones of the story I check for illogical leaps and inconsistencies.

Next, using a third color, I slip in the other suspects and red herrings, making sure nothing is too obvious. Then – usually in gold – I hide the tell-tale clues that will keep readers a bare half step behind my crime-solving sleuth.

Lastly, I pack in points about the weather or setting (in green, what else?) if they are important to the story. (Yeah, I know, a virtual rainbow.)

And then, of course, I must write the fully fleshed-out yarn from these tiny scraps of data.

Now for NON-FICTION, I hardly ever outline.

My interviews and reviews usually come “pre-loaded” with their own paths to follow. Maybe I’ll clump facts into two or three vague sections, i.e. intro, main, conclusion, with a possible “research” column, but that’s all. I simply write these articles “from the seat of my pants.”

Or wherever else I’ve scribbled my notes.

***
The Great Debate by GB Pool

When I first started setting up author panels for Sisters-in-Crime at libraries and other venues in and around the Los Angeles area, one of the questions I asked the panelists was: “Do you outline? Why? or Why not?”

After asking the same question for about a year, I came to the conclusion that half the writers did outline and the other half didn’t. The half that did was fairly prolific in their writing. The half that didn’t outline was just as prolific. Both sides were very strong in their decision to do the outline or not.

Everything I have written to date was not outlined. I started with page one, wrote a little, edited and little, wrote more, edited more, and finally came up with a book. It took about a year to finish a novel, except for the spy trilogy. They took ten years, but they are long and quite detailed with historical facts and many locations, all of which required loads of research to get right.

So, after hearing some pretty good writers like Pamela Samuels-Young who is a lawyer and who outlined her books (In Firm Pursuit and Murder on the Down Low) and Bruce Cook who is a physicist and who also teaches screenwriting as well as an author (Philippine Fever and Tommy Gun Tango), I decided to try my hand at knocking out an outline.

In a matter of two days I blocked out the main plot points of the next in my Gin Caulfield Mystery series, Damning Evidence. I then started to write the story.

I can’t say I write any faster with an outline, but I know where I am going. And I don’t feel the panic of wondering where the story will run off the tracks or where I will have to plug up the holes. That alone was worth the two days it took to do the outline.

Another thing writing the outline prompted me to do was write out brief sketches of the main characters in the story. I now know exactly who the bad guy is. I know why he is doing what he is doing. And most importantly, I know the roadblocks he is going to be throwing up along the way to thwart my heroine.

Something I learned from examining one of my own stories was that the bad guy in a mystery, if he is going to play an active part in the story and not just do the crime and leave the scene until the hero tracks him down, is the person who runs the show. Every thing the protagonist does is basically a reaction to something the bad guy does.

Remember: if the crime hadn’t been committed in the first place, nobody would be doing anything about it in the second place. The villain now has a vested interest in not getting caught. He or she will do anything to stop anyone from discovering their identity.

By writing the outline, I know places where the bad guy will be waiting to set a trap for the hero. If the hero gets too close, the bad guy will throw a monkey wrench into the works. But the villain runs the show, always trying to stay one jump ahead.

The outline made it much easier to set those traps, throwing the hero off kilter, making the hunt a mental exercise. It will make for a story with more tension if it is plotted that way rather than letting the story flow in a more random pattern.

I’ll see when I am through with the first and second draft if this theory holds true.

Books have been written in many ways, so the best advice is to write the way you find that gets the job done. Finishing is the goal.

***

Jacqueline Vick

I’m afraid I’m going to be wishy-washy.

When I first tackle a novel or short story, I always have the plot in mind. I doodle questions on a pad of paper. What would this character do in that situation? What else would he do?

Since I write mysteries, I want to know the crime, why it was committed, and how. I’ll assign possible motives to the other suspects, building the relationship between them and the victim.
That’s a sort of outline.

It’s after the first draft that the outline comes in handy. A brilliant writer I know (initials GBP) suggested that I outline the story once I’ve got it all on paper in order to show what’s missing. It works like a charm. I pretend I’m preparing the outline for an agent or publisher, so it has to be detailed and it has to spell it all out.

The canyons of missing information, the stuff that doesnt’ make sense, it all becomes clear in that post-first draft outline. It’s too embarassing to tell you what I’ve discovered missing. It’s like looking down in a crowded room and discovering that you forgot to button your shirt. And not in that hot-body-on-display kind of way. In that threadbare-bra-exposed-bellyroll kind of way.

I’m too arrogant to believe that my characters speak to me and that they’ll move the story in the direction they see fit. I speak to them, and it’s usually to say, “Move your fanny!”

How Sunday School Led Me to Celebrity Interviews

I used to be very shy. Whenever I tried to speak to a group of people I’d get flushed and start shaking and sweating. My vocal chords would squeeze shut and my voice would come out in a squeak!

On oral report days at school, I would stay home and take the bad grade.

And then, by a fluke, I was elected leader of a women’s group at my church. “No, no, no!” I protested in panic. “I can’t do this!” They smiled and patted my quivering hands. “You’ll be fine,” they said.

The first meeting was excruciating. I’d prepared. I’d brought my notes. Everyone waited expectantly. I opened my mouth … and squeaked. They smiled and nodded. I squeaked again then managed a few words. Another squeak and a few more words. And then, thank God, it was over.

I tried to quit a dozen times, but they wouldn’t let me.

Gradually…I stopped squeaking. Then one day I realized I was having fun.
What happened? What had changed abject terror into exhilaration?

Then it hit me, I’d changed my format from talking to asking. I’d put the pressure to communicate on the others. Nicely, of course, and with genuine interest in their answers, but nevertheless, requiring them to respond.

Yes, I prepared questions, and yes, those questions led to the point (or lesson) I wanted to make, but they were doing the talking, and I was doing the listening.

It was an epiphany. I could lead/teach a class by posing (prepared) questions. (Do you see where this is going?)

I also discovered I’m nosey. Why do people act and speak they way they do? What motivates them? What makes them mad? sad? hurt or lonely? How did they get started in their job? Why are they are getting a divorce? a tattoo? breast implants?

So I ask them and I take notes. Then I compile the answers into an article or story and submit it for publication. Voila! An interview!

Most people want to tell their story (especially celebrities), and some will tell you anything if you promise not to print it.

(Confession: Sometimes in an interview I ask questions I’m personally curious about but never plan to put it in a story. Oh, the things I could tell you!)

That’s how – when they were filming the TV series “Sons of Anarchy” in front of my house – I could walk up to Ron Perlman and talk to him like he was my “Uncle Fred.”

Piece of cake!

The Perfectionist Ghoul

Perfectionism: rigorous rejection of anything less than perfect (Encarta Dictionary).

Perfectionism can lead to misery, frustration, and long nights of ranting to the dog because he’s the only one who will listen. Meanwhile, Fido wonders why he ever wanted to leave the pound.

Once you’ve finished the chapter (or paragraph, or manuscript), gone over the grammar, tweaked the dialogue, and clarified plot points, how do you decide it’s time to let it go? Or, until the date it’s accepted by an editor, do you continue to go back and do rewrites?

How obsessive are the WinR’s??? How obsessive are YOU? We’d love to hear how you handle this dilemma.

*****************************************************

Bonnie Schroeder

Since I haven’t been published a lot, I have the luxury of continuing to tinker endlessly with my work. My short pieces usually get at least ten revisions. After a few rewrites I read them aloud and/or get trusted colleagues to give feedback and then revise and revise and revise. (Does the word “perfectionist” starting resonating about now?) Longer pieces I probably rework at least five times. The first draft is generally so hideous I don’t show it to anyone except maybe the dog; I revise until it’s fit for human eyeballs and then workshop it two or three times, and even then I find little things (sometimes not so little) that I’m shocked to have missed before.

At some point though, quite honestly, I just so darn sick and tired of the piece it that I can’t face another read-through. It goes in the drawer, and some things have sat there for years. Then one day I’ll drag one out, take another look, and go, “Well, this isn’t so bad. If I just changed . . . . “

Does anyone ever get a message from the Muse that says “enough?” If they do, I’m jealous! I don’t like to read the published version of my work, because I’m always afraid I’ll spot some huge flaw that snuck past the editor and me. I’ve gotten pretty good at disconnecting from the writing by then and can (almost) pretend it was written by someone else.

***

GB Pool

One Last Polish

“Only God is perfect.” The rest of us strive for just being good at what we do. As a wise man once said, “You might be stupid, but you don’t want to look stupid.” So we keep polishing that sentence, or paragraph, or novel to make it not only look good, but also, surprise, surprise, it might actually be good. And if you persevere, it just might be great. So each pass of the polishing cloth gets us closer to “good.”

Here is another saying: “Don’t beat a dead horse.” If everybody tells you something doesn’t work, start over with another approach. Or maybe bury it. Lazarus had help coming back from the dead. If you don’t have Divine help, get over it and move on. Time’s a wastin’.

But don’t polish you work for so long that the toes fall off. The Pieta in Rome has had the feet of Christ replaced numerous times because people keep rubbing the toes for good luck. I hope they got their good luck, but your work will only end up toeless if you don’t finally say: “I’m done.”

But as with all wise sayings, here is my favorite. My father told me after I had moved to California to write, “No matter how good you think you are, I think you’re better.” So my friends, find people who are in your corner. People who will give you heartfelt encouragement and constructive criticism. You need both. And then, do the toughest thing of all: trust yourself.

After all it’s your work. Have faith, do your best, and let it go.

***

Jacqueline Vick

My Work of Art!

Have you ever gone back and read a piece that you “finished” last month (last year, last decade) and been horrified by the errors? What happened to your clever story—the one that was going to win the Pulitzer? Who the heck broke into your computer and destroyed your masterpiece!!!
Experiences like that make writers neurotic. The fear is that we’ll send out substandard stuff and that editors will add our name to the Black Book of the Damned—writers they would only read with a pitcher of cocktails and their BFF’s with the intent of having a giggle.

There has to be an end point or you’ll drive yourself mad. (An insane writer—is that redundant?) 1. Always set your work aside and get back to it after at least a week’s rest.

2. Expect that, when you pick your piece up again, it will have errors. This is good. You’re finding them before it goes out!

3. After this edit, you can allow yourself one more rest and read cycle. Unless you rewrite the whole thing from scratch, trust that you’ve found what needs to be found.

4. Have an objective set of eyes look at it. This is where a good writing group is invaluable.

5. Let it go.

There’s a line of thought that says you have to let things go in order to attract new things. Imagine all the writing projects you’re missing out on by obsessing over this one piece. Is it worth hanging onto for the rest of your life?

We all want to do our best, and that’s all we can do. I will make mistakes. I’ll learn from them, forgive myself and move on. Nobody’s perfect.