For Whom Do the Poets Write, If Not for Me?

“[Jason] Guriel demands not only talent but signs of diligence in the poetry he favours. He seems intrigued by such questions as ‘What is a good poem?’ and ‘What is a good poet?’ and the answers he proposes often have to do with the way the poet has connected the language – the words themselves – with the purpose of the work.”

Mary W. Walters: Book Reviews

GurielCoverThe Pigheaded Soul

Essays and Reviews on Poetry & Culture

Jason Guriel

Porcupine’s Quill

264 pages

I admired the cover of a newly released book on Facebook, and to my surprise I received a copy in the mail from the publisher – no charge, no strings attached.

When the book arrived, I found myself as intrigued by the first few pages of the work as I had been by the cover. This created a dilemma for me. I like to write about books that intrigue me: doing so allows me to engage in conversation about the book – with myself, with other readers and, theoretically, with the author. I read books differently when I know I’m going to write about them – pausing to make notes, to reread paragraphs, to check external references. I wanted to read this book this way, and then to write about it on this blog…

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Wattpad: Engaging Readers as You Write

Note: This article previously appeared in a slightly different form in Write, The Magazine of The Writers Union of Canada

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Confession: Sometimes I have trouble writing the next page of my new novel. WPNot because I am short of ideas, but because I have a lot of other urgent matters that demand my attention. I have often envied the writers whose editors or literary agents I imagine standing at their sides like midwives, encouraging them throughout their labour, reminding them of the rewards of manuscript delivery, telling them how much the world wants to see their next baby, and finally urging them to “push.”

When I heard about Wattpad, an Internet platform for readers and writers that attracts 27 million unique visitors per month, and 200,000 uploads of writing per day, I thought it might be part of the answer to my problem. And it has been. But it is also other things.

What It Is

Wattpad is a social storytelling platform where writers can register to post all kinds of work – poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction – and where readers can read that work: all at no charge.

Most writers post short segments of their works in progress (1,000 to 2,000 words at a time, sometimes much less, sometimes much more), adding to it at regular (or irregular) intervals. Some writers are posting whole manuscripts in serial format that they have previously completed. Others (like me) are posting early drafts of longer works one section at a time. Still others slap up writing fragments like ill-mixed paint with hairs in it, and leave it there to dry — perhaps intending to come back and edit later, perhaps not.

Once the piece is up there, the effort to attract readers begins. You can contribute to this process (but probably only once) by emailing all of your friends and inviting them to check your story out, and by posting your Wattpad link to other social media sites (here’s mine). Of course, you also want to encourage visitors to your page whom you don’t already know, and you can do this indirectly by reading and commenting on the writing of others on the site, getting involved in the discussion forums, and entering the informal competitions Wattpad puts on from time to time. The goal is to get people to “follow” you so that they will be notified whenever you post a new installment or an update.

Every time someone takes a look at a segment you have posted, your “read” counter goes up. Readers can also vote for or post a comment on your work. The more reads and votes you get, the greater are your chances of being noticed by even more readers.

Some people use Wattpad as an end in itself – they are not interested in publishing elsewhere. Others are creating works ultimately intended for self- or traditional publication. Many writers have several projects on the go. Some ask for input and guidance from their readers; others just write.

Who’s on Wattpad?

The two Canadians who developed Wattpad (Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen) intended it for readers as much as writers, and Ashleigh Gardner, Head of Content: Publishing, says that “Ninety percent of Wattpad visitors are there to read and comment, not to post stories.”

She also says that regular visitors include publishers and agents who are looking for new talent.

“Some writers use Wattpad to promote their books to publishers,” she says. “Perhaps their novel was rejected when they submitted it directly, but now they can demonstrate that there is significant interest in their work.”

Gardner also tells me that the Wattpad app for smartphones and tablets is downloaded about 400,000 times a day. “Eighty-five percent of our visitors now reach us from mobile devices,” she says.

The advantage of Wattpad’s mobility component is clear: your work is accessible to readers no matter where they are, and your followers will receive “push” notifications whenever you post something new.

Copyright and Other Concerns

Gardner says that the site features a very sophisticated data-checking system that not only protects what is posted, but also works to prevent piracy. “All work on Wattpad of course remains copyright to the author,” she says. “Further, it cannot be copied and pasted, and readers can’t download it.”

A few people have told me they’re reluctant to sign on to Wattpad because they fear it will lead to spam, but so far Wattpad has attracted no more spam to me than have Twitter, Linked In, Goodreads or Facebook (which is, in my case, none).

Wattpad has had a reputation for being a place where teens post stories for one another, but if that were true at one point (and wouldn’t it be great to know that there are millions of teens who are interested in writing and reading?), the demographics are changing. “The majority of visitors are now between the ages of 18 and 30,” Gardner says, “and the subject matter of the content is changing as the average age goes up.”

Making Wattpad Work

The important part of making Wattpad work for you is to remember that it is a social media platform. If you don’t engage with it (read others’ works, respond to comments, participate in forum discussions), you will miss out on the very important reciprocation factor, and your work will languish. Further, thanks to algorithms, the more readers you attract, the more readers who will find you on their own.

Networking is not as painful as you might think. While it’s true that the Wattpad platform sports lots of dabblers and thousands of very bad writers, it doesn’t take long to sort the wheat from the chaff. And there are also some very good writers there, clearly intending to do as I am — get the work written and noticed by intelligent and discerning readers.

I’ve found a few manuscripts on Wattpad whose next installments I am genuinely eager to read and I’ve also found a few very careful and helpful readers who will probably help me get through Seeds and Secrets far more quickly than I would ever have done on my own. There is a definite motivation to keep going when readers start asking when you’re going to post the next installment. (As of Jan 1, 2015, Seeds and Secrets had received 1,500 “reads” and 121 votes. It stands about 450 from the top in the General Fiction category.)

In addition to pieces of my novel, I’ve put up a couple of works of short nonfiction on Wattpad – one previously published, one not yet – and received encouraging – and immediate – responses on them as well. I am also posting blog posts from my 2011 solo trip to India – Watch. Listen. Learn – which seems to be very popular. In fact, the response is making me seriously consider publishing it as a book, which I had not considered doing before.)

For me, Wattpad is like a humungous writing group where no one has to make coffee or serve beer, get dressed before offering feedback on other writers’ works, or pay any attention to comments from readers who don’t get what they’re doing.

Wattpad is not for everyone, of course, but if it sounds like a tool you could use to stimulate your writing and find new readers for your existing work, check it out. I’ll be happy to read the writing that you post – as long as you read mine. :)

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Update: You can check out Wattpad’s 2014 Year in Review here. According to Nazia Khan, Wattpad’s Director of Communications, the company has noted some interesting trends this year:

  • People are writing novels on their phones
  • Episodic/serial reading is back (Dickens would be so pleased)
  • Everyone is a fan of something as evidenced by the growing number of fanfiction stories
  • Teens are reading. Yes, really.

Book Promotion Tip of the Week #17: Get a media person to complain that there’s too much sex in your novel

Even if he is your own son.

Dan's DV Review“I tried to imagine it was my mom’s coauthor who wrote the sex scenes and that somehow my mom’s role in the writing process did not even involve reading those passages at all. That didn’t work, though.” – Dan Riskin, PhD, bat biologist, host of MONSTERS INSIDE ME on Animal Planet, co-host of DAILY PLANET on Discovery Channel, and author of the forthcoming MOTHER NATURE IS TRYING TO KILL YOU (Simon and Schuster, March 2014).

(Note: I put in the time: I’m entitled to name-drop.)

Book Promotion Tip of The Week #16: Get serious about Goodreads

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Update Nov. 8: I’ve signed on to read and discuss three works of fiction in two different groups on Goodreads. (Because I have so much time to read… )/(Because I’m wasting too much time on Netflix.) The books are Gilead OR Atonement (I’ve read those two and hope they pick Gilead, which is brilliant), Olive Kitteridge (interconnected short stories. I’d never heard of the author, Elizabeth Strout, but I’ve read two stories so far and they’re great) and The Blue Notebook by James Levine. The groups I’ve joined (if anyone else is interested in reading/discussing those books) are Bound Together (1,502 members; women’s group), and Literary Award Winners Fiction Book Club (83 members).

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I have been inspired to get more active on Goodreads, thanks to a six-months-old article on The Huffington Post that I just recently discovered.

There are so many blog posts and articles out there offering promotional advice for authors that it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. But the information contained in “How to Become a Goodreads Power User (and why you’d want to)” by Penny C. Sansevieri sounds practical and viable.

Sansevieri points out that “the average demographic” of Goodreads “is adult female, many with college age kids and surprisingly, a whopping 81% of them are Caucasian. They are avid readers, though many are less affluent than the average Internet user so low-priced books and free books do very well on this site.” Sounds like a healthy portion of my audience – at least for The Woman Upstairs and The Whole Clove Diet – although it also sounds like the reading demographic in general. And I have seen many young and middle-aged adults (and lots of men) in Goodreads’ book discussions.

Sansevieri offers some concrete guidelines on how to increase your visibility on Goodreads and I intend to test drive several of them. I’ve already found that the giveaways are a great way to attract attention, although I’m not sure they translate into sales. But then I haven’t been a very consistent presence over there, so I the fault is no doubt mine.  You can’t just post a new book and then go away and expect it to attract attention to itself.

Sansevieri also suggests subscribing to two Goodreads newsletters: the Goodreads Author Newsletter, and the main Goodreads newsletter.

I have occasionally heard some grumbling from other writers about Goodreads, but I’m not sure if this came from people who were active on the site, or were only drop-in visitors as I have been. Since I am normally an avid reader (although not so much since I got hooked on Breaking Bad), I can’t see a downside to getting more involved in Goodreads. Even if it just means I end up finding more people to talk with about other people’s books, it’s a win.

If you have more experience than I do as a writer on Goodreads, I would be interested to know your thoughts about the Sansevieri article. Is it as useful as it sounds?

And if you’re on the Goodreads site, make contact. This is me.

Book Promotion Tip of the Week #7: February 11, 2013

Book Promotion TipsCreate A Media Kit

(then USE it)

A media package is a collection of germane and interesting background material relating to you and your book that writers of articles for publications (on- or off-line) and individual bloggers can use to enhance the reviews or profiles they are doing about you. When the kit or package is complete, you can send it out by email – or by mail, including a hard copy of the book if one is available – to individuals or publications that you think might want to review your book.

A complete media kit includes between seven and nine components. It should include 1) information on the author – including a biography and an annotated bibliography, lists of awards, prizes, and other writing achievements, etc. – and 2) information on the book, such as an intriguing bit of promo copy and at least a taste of what the book is about, plus perhaps interesting details about the writing process, how the cover was created, other books that readers of your book might like, etc.

The kit should also include 3) photos of the author and the book cover, suitable for reproduction, and information on 4) where the book is available for sale. Make sure to include your 5) email address so that the media person or blogger can contact you if he or she wants additional information.

A press kit can also include 6) an excerpt from the book itself, and 7) copies of reviews. You might want to include some 8) sample questions that an interviewer could ask you about yourself or the book (you can either answer them in the kit or not… depending on your inclination).

Last but not least, you might want to create 9) an actual media release, a well written story that a newspaper or magazine might run about your book if it is looking for a space filler (or the writer is behind schedule and desperate to find some copy for a deadline). You can get lots of information on how to write an effective media release if you simply Google the words “how to write a media release.” This article, from The Toronto Star, is good.

Turn the Media Package into a Website

Once you have all the materials together that I have listed above, and anything else you might want to include in your press kit or media package, you also have the basic components you need to create a website for your book. John A. Aragon and I have just put together the media package for The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid, and we have posted all the pieces on the book’s brand-new website here: www.donvaliente.com

Check, Check & Check

Demonstrate excellence: Before you do anything with your press kit or publish your book’s website, make sure that you have created excellent text copy and that all your links work. Your media package is your ambassador: it is the first contact many influential people will have with your book. If your media package is hastily assembled and badly edited, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

Be interesting: This is almost as important, if not more important, than demonstrating excellence. If your website/media package isn’t interesting, no one is going to bother to investigate any further. (I can’t tell you how to be interesting. Either you got it, or you don’t. But keep in mind that the “interesting” part needs to relate in a genuine way to you or your book: putting  photos of your kid’s Popsicle-stick trick in a media package is not likely to do your book any good.)

Update: Don’t forget to add new book reviews and awards as they come in to both your media package and your website.

USE IT!

There is absolutely no point in having a great media package and book website if you don’t tell anyone about it. (I am not talking about telling your buddies on Twitter and Facebook – I am discovering that despite what everyone “in the know” is telling us, social media are almost a total waste of time when it comes to book promotion.) Find the names and addresses/emails of the people and outlets where you want reviews/profiles about you or your book to appear, and send the appropriate individuals a package by mail or via an (interesting) email. Don’t send too many of the latter as blind copies to a single email, either: it is my theory that a lot of genuinely worthwhile emails go to spam because the senders have added too many people to the bcc line. In fact, I tend to prefer to send the same email, one at a time, to each recipient. This takes more time, but I think it’s worth it. Same goes for individually addressing form letters that go out through the traditional mail system.

Second-hand recommendations are always better than first-hand ones. If you tell someone to read your book, it will have an effect that ranges between negative and negligible (unless maybe you have the goods on that other person, or it’s your grandma). Self-promotion cannot compare to the impact of having someone else tell other people to read your book (or even tell them to NEVER read your book. That attracts readers, too: fewer, perhaps, and for entirely the wrong reasons.)

Taking advantage of these truths is the whole purpose of a press kit, of course.

In a future article, I will tell you how John and I went about finding and attempting to contact media we wanted to review Don Valiente, and how I am doing that for The Whole Clove Diet and for my grant-writing podcasts, and I’ll report on how it all worked out.

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Please note: I am about to start compiling a pdf of all of my BOOK PROMOTION TIPS OF THE WEEK. If you would like a copy of the most recent complete edition, email me at mary at marywwalters dot com – preferably with BPTW in the subject line – and I will send it to you. No charge. If you want regular updates, let me know that too – but you can save yourself emails if you just subscribe to The Militant Writer after you have downloaded the back posts that you’ve missed.

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Fiction in 2013: The Ugly Truth (and a call for patience)

iStock_000015635745XSmallOkay.

So I was going to write a post about the sorry state of fiction publishing during this transition period, as we watch the established presses, gatekeeper agents, chain booksellers and respectable book review outlets grind through the death throes of their former heyday — those days soon gone forever when they got to decide what books we should read.

I was going to detail a few of the horrors that one former “mid-list writer” (me) witnessed as she set off on her lonely road to self-publication, and witnesses still as she trudges down the even more harrowing and thorny trail of self-published-book promotion. Several of the appalling sights I’ve seen have contributed to a precipitous decline in my faith in my fellow human beings, such as:

  • New lows for the publishing industry. Traditional publishers have “evolved” from basing their guesses about what books they should publish next year on last year’s bestseller lists, to basing them on the lists of top-selling self-published novels — whose authors they then race to sign. How ironic is that?
  • Sticking fingers in the dam as the ship goes down. Almost all traditional book review outlets, booksellers, awards competitions and funding agencies continue to refuse to review, sell or reward self-published books on principle, no matter what the track record of the author or the quality of the self-published book (why? Because they might have to THINK if they were to become more open? How much easier it must be to simply proceed as they always have done, by accepting only those books published by traditional presses?). This makes book promotion for former mid-list writers very difficult, but it also means that readers who are wise enough not to participate in on-line review forums never hear about self-published books with any literary merit;
  • The Crap. Oh, the Crap. I draw your attention here to the hundreds of thousands of works of so-called fiction that have been released into the marketplace in the past few years by self-published writers who are incompetent, inexperienced, badly edited, and/or merely ignorant or boring, many of whom grow apoplectic and even threatening if anyone suggests that they don’t know how to punctuate, much less how to write (This enormous garbage heap is offered as justification by publishers, booksellers, review outlets, awards organizers and granting agencies for continuing to proceed as they do, and I do not argue that it is a major issue. However, a bit of diligence on the part of these institutions could sort the wheat from the chaff – sorting is not THAT difficult – but who has time to be diligent when your house is crumbling around you?) ;
  • False Positive Reviews. Then we have the proliferation of ridiculously positive, 5-star reviews of the aforementioned Crap now posted to Amazon.com, Goodreads, book-review blogs, and other book-related sites. Most of these patently fluffy reviews have been written by the authors’ well-meaning but inexperienced, uninformed and not widely read friends and relatives. One book-review blogger favourably compared an utterly talentless writer to one with the world-class stature of, let us say, a Jane Austen – a comparison that was then, of course, gleefully quoted by the writer in subsequent promotion. Now, if you were an unaware book buyer and a fan of Jane Austen, would you know to proceed with caution? I don’t think so. (Yep. It’s a zoo out there. Be careful where you step);
  • Books that sell on reputation and gossip rather than content. These are the Honey Boo-Boos of the current literary world. Take, for example, the Fifty Shades series, which has sold an astounding, gut-wrenching, nauseating 68 million copies so far. (Lest anyone accuse me of sour grapes, I have no qualms admitting that I am fifty shades of green over E.L. James’s book sales, but I would never, ever want to be associated with such bad writing, even in exchange for a lot of money. Thank you anyway, Mephistopheles.) As far as I can tell, this phenomenon MUST be due to the lack of literary reviews of the book, for why would anyone spend good money on a totally unerotic, misogynistic, implausible piece of shit? The only possible explanation is that  is that 67.32 million of those 68 million purchasers bought the book by mistake. I’m telling anyone who hasn’t yet made the error: I bought the first book in the series. I read as much as I could stand. I threw it in the garbage. Don’t waste your money. Read Anaïs Nin or someone else who can actually write erotic fiction instead);
  • Review Police: Then we have the packs of on-line sleuths, most of whom hide behind pseudonyms, who apparently have an intense dislike of writers in general and suspect us all of being guilty of the most nefarious crimes, particularly ones pertaining to reviews. (I have personally been the victim of their sordid and senseless attacks when I stupidly ventured onto their forums to point out the errors in their thinking. Like two-year olds, their arguments are not constrained in any way by the need to use logic, and they will therefore win all arguments). Among other things, such individuals believe to the very cores of their Neanderthalean little hearts that if you have received a free copy of a book rather than purchased it, you are incapable of writing an objective review of it. This opinion of course invalidates every review that has ever been published in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail , the London Review of Books, or any other respected review publication: since the beginning of (literate) time, reviewers have not paid for books they have reviewed; they have received the free review copies that have been sent to the publications by the publishers. The “review police” seem to have very little to do with their lives aside from hunting down authors they can report to the Amazon gods for having engineered positive reviews for their own books – or, better yet, of having written such reviews themselves, using false names. Such witch hunts commonly occur on the Amazon Top Reviewers Forum (which is not exclusively about books, but also talks about reviews of toilet plungers and whatnot; here is, however, a charming recent thread that reveals the biases of many of the habitues of the forum) and The Kindle Forum;
  • Overkill Response by Amazon: Last fall, Amazon responded to accusations by these sleuths by deleting thousands of reviews by writers, inflammatory or not. Here are the details, as set out in the New York Times and The Telegraph;
  • Last but not least, it doesn’t help that at least one traditionally published author has admitted to actually doing what we are all being accused of doing: not only has R.J. Ellory written reviews of his own books and posted them under pseudonyms, he has also used fake personae to slag his fellow authors.

So, yeah. It’s a pretty disgusting time to be a fiction fan – as I am, both as a writer and a reader. I remember a bookseller once telling me (about 30 years ago) that she didn’t bother to take ID from book purchasers when they wrote cheques because they were all so honest. The nature of the beast seems to have changed, and I am very sorry to be seeing it.

What I was going to do was to just advise everyone to stay away from fiction–even mine!–until this all shakes down. If you can’t trust what is being published to be good, and you can’t trust the reviews to be honest, much less representative, then what’s the point?

But then I reminded myself that this IS just a transition stage. I reminded myself how far we’ve come in the past four years. I remembered how I’ve noticed that several of the newly published writers I didn’t feel were very good seem to have given up on their dreams to become millionaires from writing the next knock-off Twilight, and stopped plugging their books everywhere. It seems likely that many others who are not “real writers” will follow because this is (as it always has been) a hell of a lot of thankless work.

I thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and reminded myself that I’ve been at this fiction-writing stuff – working at improving my writing – for more than thirty years now. I reminded myself that I finished my (first) half marathon back in the 1990s , and lost 30 lbs last autumn, by keeping on and keeping on–no matter what. Giving up on writing, even for a few months or years, is not an option anyway: I love to write. A writer is who I am.

I told myself that within another few years, there will be a new and much better system, in which the readers will find the good books for themselves from among all the self- and traditionally published books that are released, and then will tell the rest of us about them on book blogs that we will come to trust to point us in the best direction for our own personal reading interests. Within a few years, really good editors will offer to put their imprints on self-published books they’ve edited and liked. There will be awards programs that are open to both kinds of fiction publications. Writers who have established presses and agents will stop dumping and ignoring on principle those of us who are not dragging around similar litters of dependents. (See, for example, this.) We will have book review outlets we can trust to cover ALL good fiction writing, no matter where it comes from, and booksellers who will recognize their new roles as community gathering places for book lovers rather than as gatekeepers.

It will take a few more years for the evolution to shake down properly, but it will happen. And I am optimistic, despite my dismay and discouragement right now, that the world is going to be a better, more open and less expensive place for writers and for readers. And that we will once again be seen as a group as honourable people who are kind and supportive of one another.

So I decided not to write that depressing, bleak, discouraging blog post I had been thinking about after all.