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10 Questions That Will Always Make You Better

A guest post from Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com.

There are ten questions that will always make you a better blogger—even if you can’t always answer them.

It’s the asking, the awareness, and the empowering context established through asking, that sets a higher bar for your writing, your business and your life.

1. Are you willing to actually strive for that higher standard, or not?

That’s the first of the ten questions that can change your life.

At the heart of each of these questions is a specific understanding that lights them on fire within your life. It is the recognition that there is a difference between a mission and a goal.

Everybody wants to be happy. In some way, everybody wants to be rich and successful, though the definitions of the word “success” vary widely. We all want to be respected, liked, loved and appreciated, both for who we are and for what we’ve accomplished.

These are missions. They’re over-arching and more vague than goals.

This may sound like rhetoric—mission and goal are frequently, easily, and naively interchanged—but it’s no accident that the highly successful understand the difference. They know that the difference isn’t rhetorical, nor subtle.

Indeed, this understanding is the very thing that apprentices, rookies, dreamers, and anonymous wanderers seek to discover and then, when it’s right there in their faces, adopt as a way of being.

A mission is a destination. A goal is a milepost on the journey.

One without the other, however, can represent yet another definition of insanity. That situation will bring you face to face with a more infamous definition: expecting different results while doing the same old things, over and over.

Here are nine more facets of that understanding. Nine questions that, if you ask them of yourself, will always make you a better blogger.

What is your mission?

What is your purpose? Your vision for your life? Your highest dream? Your hierarchy of dreams?

What is your work—indeed, your life—all about?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with living in the now, to seek comfort and pleasure and reward, to think no further than tomorrow. More people live this way than don’t.

It’s just that this approach won’t lead you anywhere. You’ll be treading water, or at least allowing it to carry you along, powerless against it, within its tides and currents.

You have no engine, no sail, no compass, and no distant shore. You aren’t swimming, you’re treading water. The water may be warm and comfortable, but over time, such water becomes stagnant.

Understand that the happiness this seems to deliver is something you choose. But there are other levels of happiness and satisfaction in life.

You need a mission to make those choices accessible. The “goal” of going on a nice vacation next year … is just that: a goal.

A mission is much more than that.

What are your strategic goals?

Getting rich is a mission, not a goal. Some get to skip the goal-setting by virtue of inheriting their wealth, but even lottery winners set a goal to buy a ticket on a given day. The result is a consequence of intention, rather than genes.

For the rest of us, the road to riches is riddled with mileposts, ruts, puddles, and forks. Each of them defines a strategic opportunity to move forward.

What do I mean by strategic? I mean that the choices we make when we encounter those mileposts—which, when put in our rear-view mirror become milestones—are made in the context of the bigger picture. In the context of the mission.

Getting a new job may feel like a mission, but it’s actually just a goal. An important one. But it’s not a mission until it defines who you are, and where you intend to end up, and delivers a strong motivation to get there.

Ask anyone who has reached significant heights in their life, or have completed a mission. They’ll talk for days about the journey and the milestones that got them there.

Then again, finding such a person may be hard, because those individuals are never really done.

What is your USP (Unique Selling Proposition)?

You may think that your mission is to become part of a specific crowd of achievers, to join a certain club or become known in an esteemed way.

Often you must work your way through a series of lower-level crowds, and advance through a series of minor leagues, to get there. And the only way to rise above the crowd—any crowd—is to differentiate yourself.

Back in school that happened when somebody acted out, punched someone, or got busted. They stood apart, then they went to the back of the line.

In life, in quest of a worthy mission, your USP needs to add and deliver positive value: to stand out with a better, bigger idea, more consistent performance and some indefinable, almost magical X-factor that makes you glow in the dark.

How are you being perceived?

Goals never exist in a vacuum. Nor does the effort we put into reaching our goals. Everything we do in life propels energy into the universe. Others see it, feel it, interpret it and respond to it.

You are in complete command of the energy you put forth. Use your head, work smart, get out of the way of your own backstory (which may be full of resentment, fear, and ignorance), and make sure the energy you are putting out there is proactively and extraordinarily positive in nature.

You have little to no control over the way you’re being perceived. You’re the raw material from which others form their perceptions.

What are you contributing?

You know all of those people who are running ads for free iPads, laptops, and mobile phones if you “opt-in” to only two of the long list of special offers they’re putting in front of you?

Guess what? They’re frauds. They contribute nothing. Their mission is unworthy and doomed.

What are you contributing? What are you, as a blogger, giving away? How are you impacting the thinking of others? What value are you providing, either for free or for a fair price?

Value is the great justifier of price. Always strive to over-deliver it.

Is it just about the money? Or at the end of day, even if you die poor, will you be able to look in the mirror and say, “At least I touched a few lives”?

This is your yardstick—your metric of ultimate success. All the money and friends and admirers you’ll make along the way … those are by-products. Those may be worthwhile goals, but they shouldn’t be the mission.

Your highest mission should be to make a difference. To contribute.

Are you playing to win, or playing not to lose?

Despite this love-fest of new-agey, love-thyself wisdom, the fact remains that it’s a competitive world out there.  And there are many potholes and roadblocks to negotiate.

Forward motion always requires the application of energy. In an airplane, when the engines die, the flight goes down, one way or the other. In a relationship, auto-pilot almost always results in a downward spiraling course.

In business, if you aren’t growing, you’re dying. Because all around you the world is changing. Better ideas, more capital, younger bucks … they’re everywhere.

Stay crisp and nimble. Focus on your mission and the goals that empower it. You are the CEO of your dream; don’t be afraid to fire under-performers and take risks on high-potential opportunities.

High achievers know no fear. Nor are they foolish in the face of risk. They weigh, they prepare, and then they choose. Once they’ve chosen, they allow nothing to stop them.

What are you getting out of this?

Here’s another little secret of the fabulously successful: they aren’t waiting to achieve their goal to acknowledge they’re having a good time. Almost always, at the end of the journey, they’ll tell you the best part was getting there.

It’s not just because of the money. More likely, it’s because of the sense of fulfillment and awareness the lives they’ve affected in a positive manner. Sure, there will have been dark moments, but business ins’t a zero-sum game. Just like life.

There will also be moments of pure elation. Just like life.

Getting the drift?  Your mission is your life.

Pay attention to your misery and pain. Pay just as much attention to that occasional inner glow.  Assign meaning, and have the courage and insight to allow that light to guide you.

Are you getting better?

Here’s that forward motion thing again. Competition is nipping at your heels. Age is unrelenting. What is past is prologue.

But prologue to what?

You get to answer this question. And when you do, you’ll find that the most exciting opportunities, the gut-check of stepping into your fear, always challenges you to be better.

If you can’t find that challenge, create one. Improvement and growth is often forced upon us, but just as often it’s self-chosen.

Are you willing to do the hard things?

The road is strewn with the gravestones of the well-intentioned. Time and degree of difficulty thin the crowd along the way. Survival is complicated. Nothing worth achieving is ever easy.

By definition, there will be moments when you feel unable to go on, to overcome, or to choose what you know in your heart must be chosen.

A critical sub-set of this question contains two elements: persistence and discipline. Both are essential. Both will determine your outcome. And both are choices.

There’s a song by Martina McBride called “Do It Anyway.”  You can listen to it here.

Does it describe you? This is one of the most important questions you will ever address in your life, because the answer will define your future.

Other questions quickly arise from these prompts.

…and that’s the point. It may seem that the journey is over and the mission’s accomplished once you wrap your head around these questions. But a funny thing will happen on the way to your dream. The mission will evolve. It will grow and embellish itself with your skills and earned wisdom. And new missions, new purposes and hopes, is what keeps you young and thriving.

Here’s another thing that highly successful folks get: they’re never done.

They want to slide in sideways on the day of their wake. They know that the saddest funeral of all is the one at which everyone in attendance (who is upright) realizes this: he wasn’t done. She had so much more to do.

Sad, but not tragic. Sad, but something to celebrate and admire. This is what you want. You want your friends and loved ones to celebrate your life and grieve that which was underway and left undone. This represents the evolution of the cliché, “he died doing what he loved.”

Because that person was fully alive, in movement, engaged, aware and continuing to grow and experience. And I promise you, whether they used these words or not, that person was asking themselves these ten questions until the day the music stopped.

Larry Brooks writes at Storyfix.com, where his new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published” is now available.  His book on storytelling, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” comes out from Writers Digest Books in early 2011.

Just Maybe… He Who Blogs Less Blogs Best

A guest post by Larry Brooks, of Storyfix.com

Or she

Regarding the title… it’s just a saying, no penis required.  It’s not your father’s media anymore.  Hard to cull the gender-based colloquialisms out of the language sometimes.

She who blogs less blogs best is every bit as gender-biased… but let’s move on.

When we begin our blogging journey, we are overwhelmed with advice. 

Most of it terrific, some of it downright confusing. 

Like ash from a nearby fire, it all settles on the emerging structure of our blogging dream, and what remains after the first stiff wind tends to infuse itself into the content-driven infrastructure upon which we are building.

A little purple, I’ll grant you.  Let’s just say we need to filter what we read and make our own way.  This is why blogging is always a lesson in life 

One of the best pieces of conventional wisdom for newbies is to saturate your site with quality content as quickly as you can. 

If you can begin your branding with a muscular archive in place, credibility ensues.  And because that can’t really happen, what does happen is that you find yourself putting up a new post each and every day.  Sometimes for months.

It works at first.  And then, after a few months a dark day arrives, usually completely unannounced, when you stare at a blank screen and realize you have nothing.

The well is dry.  You’ve said it all. 

It’ll be temporary, followed by a guilty flurry of contrived and slightly redundant takes (you’ll call it spin) on previous stuff.  Or someone else’s stuff.  Or completely irrelevant stuff.

Much of which will suck.  Thus deepening your emerging sense of depression.

But even then – especially then – the blank screen will return, inevitable as your forthcoming middle age double chin.

I’ve been there, suffered through that. 

And got the chin lipo to show for it.

Then suddenly – also in alliance with prevailing blogging wisdom – after 15 months online, I rounded an equally inevitable corner into Phase Two of the blogging journey.

I cut back.  Stopped posting daily.  Stopped demanding too much of myself. 

I no longer felt I had to sweat silver bullets to make the team.  My spot on the roster was secure, at least if I continued to show up and Play Big.

So I reduced my output to a twice-weekly pace, and obligated myself to doing so by announcing it in my News Post beneath my banner.

Nothing says commitment quite like something shown in bold red ink.

Great fear accompanies this transition from insecure, ambitious newbie to confidently cruising-forward niche guru.  But with great fear, mixed with the requisite desire, comes a sort of courage you never knew you had.

And courage, tempered by the right kind of confidence, almost always rewards you.

Here’s what happened.

My subscriptions had gone flat.  Same with my daily visits. 

Flat as the Neilson ratings for American Idol.  Flat as Heidi Montag’s forthcoming breast reduction.  Flat as Whitney Houston’s latest televised version of I Will Always Love You.

Soon after my Great Awakening, the numbers quickly, if not markedly, reversed.  Subscriptions and visits began to grow.  Pingbacks began to ping.  Guest post proposals began arriving from both directions.

All for one reason that had everything to do with the scaling back of my output.

Somebody once said that less is more.  In fact, many wives declare this the day they hit menopause.

Other than making money, this advice is golden in any context.  Ironic, because sometimes that’s precisely what it takes.

It was quality trumping quantity.

The transition had nothing to do with my enthusiasm, commitment or ability to deliver value.  It had everything to do with allowing what is perhaps the most potent essence of value to work its magic – I allowed time to enter the equation.

Fewer posts can mean better posts.

Such a strategy – functional only if your site does indeed offer a hefty backlog of archived content – rarely fails.  And you’ll know it’s time when your ability to conquer that blank screen makes you want to go do something else.  Like exercise.

After a day or two of power walking the mall, you’ll be itching to get back to it.

It’s like sex in middle age.  Less really can be more.  Nature steps in to jack up the stakes.  Anticipation is the sweet torture of impending passion. 

With or without a penis, you can take this advice to the blogging bank. 

Write less.  You just might find yourself writing better.

Larry Brooks writes about storytelling on Storyfix.com.  His book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” comes out from Writers Digest Books in February.  As you can see here, he’d really rather be writing about sex.

Crazy Stuff I’ve Done as a Blogger, and What I’ve Learned From It All

Blogging is like life itself. 

You get from it what you put into it.  You can’t go it alone, success requires contact with, and some degree of acceptance and approval from, the outside world.  Perserevence and maintainance are mandatory.

Every day we are presented with lessons.  Noticing and allowing them to chart the course going forward are part of the Success Equation. 

Do the math.  Nobody gets to reinvent the rules.   

That said, most of us mess it up – both our life and our blog – on a regular basis. 

Thankfully, unless your transgression takes you out of the game altogether, the medium and the masses are forgiving, or at least they are possessed of a short memory.

We try, we stumble (the fall on your face kind), we move on. 

Here then, after fourteen months online with my blog, are a few tries and stumbles of my own, and what became of them.

I allowed my URL to expire.

Not on purpose, of course.  Out of ignorance.  

I first registered with Yahoo, then transferred the whole enchilada to Hostgator.  Neither bother to notify me (insert finger-pointing here) when the 1-year contract expired. 

Ignorance is no excuse.  It was me, not them, who suffered a mild cardiac event when I woke up one morning in Hawaii and my blog was completely off the grid.

I now have a 5-year URL contract.  I just hope somebody gives me a heads up when it nears expiration, since I’ll be older than dirt by then and will undoubtedly forget what “URL” even means.

Come to think of it, I don’t know now.  Only what it feels like to lose one.

I got into an online street fight.

I took a stance on an issue that rubbed somebody the wrong way.  She called me a prick in the ensuing exchange on the Comment thread.

Hey, she started it. 

I hit back – the never-hit-a-girl mantra of our youth is pure horseshit when a whacked-out woman attacks you online – though I never called her anything metaphorically referencing human genitalia.

Pricks are everywhere.  Even online.  I’m just glad I’m not one of them.  Not then, not now.

Came close, though.  Never again.

I wrote a post about typos.

It was right here on Problogger, as a matter of fact.  Thing is, it had two typos in it.

And then, when several dozen readers gleefully pointed this out, I actually offered up another typo in a blushing apology.

I’ve learned never to promise a typo-free post again.  Only to try for one every time.

I dissed another blogger.

There are a couple bloggers out there who, because of outrageous, totally misplaced egos, really piss me off. 

I shant name names.

I tried to once, but my wife saved me from myself.

That’s the lesson.  Keep the wife close at all times.

I wanted to quit.

Don’t we all from time to time?

Resist the urge.  That’s the lesson.  Don’t.

One word in front of the other.  Just like walking through the valley of the shadow of rejection, one foot at a time.

Just try to keep that foot out of your mouth.

I stopped interacting.

Don’t we all from time to time?

Resist the urge.  That’s the lesson.  Don’t.

Redundancy intended, by the way.

I posted jokes.

Seriously.  My site isn’t remotely funny, I write about effective storytelling standards and processes, and how to get it published.

If you haven’t tried that, it’s the antithesis of humor.  It’s a nightmare.

Maybe that’s why the jokes worked.  Every tortured writer needs a laugh now and then.

I got personal.

Just like now.  Depending on the venue, your humanity is as important as your narrative dexterity.

Just pick your times.   Nobody comes to your site for you.

And always chose self-deprecation over self-promotion.  Just sayin’.

I posted a prayer.

Call me crazy.  In fact, that prayer is up on my site as I write this.  It’ll be in second or third position by the time you read this.

The prayer was answered, too.  At least in terms of reader comments.

I find it fascinating how posts imbued with vulnerability, risk-taking, humor and commiseration are the most effective in terms of reader response.

People come for the meat and potatoes.  But they comment for love.

The Sum of These Lessons

Perhaps the biggest lesson of it all is how each of these parts meld together into one big pile of throbbing learning curve.

It’s called blogging.  No matter how or why you do it, it has something to teach us.

Larry Brooks writes at Storyfix.com, an instructional site for novelists, screenwriters, novices and burned out hacks, and those who live with them.  His book, “Story Engineering: Understanding the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” comes out in February 2011 from Writers Digest Books.

10 Things I’ve Learned From Posting on Problogger

a guest post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com

10.      This is a huge community.  As in, ginormous.  Literally four corners of the world, anyplace with digital cable and a Fed Ex partner. 

Which means my frequently sarcastic American humor doesn’t always play places like Klagenfurt and rural Kirgizstan.

9.        Online sarcasm is itself risky business.  One writer’s sarcasm is another’s snarky… a word which probably doesn’t play in Kirgizstan, either. 

8.        Never write a post about the need to double and triple check for typos that has a typo in it. 

One word: crucified.  Still smarting from that one.

7.        “Know Thy Audience” isn’t a cliché.  It’s the natural law – the physics – of marketing.

I’m a blogger who posts about fiction writing and sells a few writing ebooks while I’m at it.  The majority of readers here are online entrepreneurs who’d rather hear about blog-related marketing than how to write the next Salzburg Times bestseller. 

Many of whom, by the way, have a story in them.

6.       Darren Rowse really is the nicest guy on the internet.  A total pro, too.   I’ve tested this theory with a wide breadth of technical cluelessless and naiveté, and you can add patience to those first two.

He doesn’t just let anybody onto this site, which means you not only earn your admission ticket (lest you wonder, I was invited to post here twice a month), you earn your keep, too.  And it’s all fair. 

5.        The company you keep defines you.  Choose wisely. 

In this case, being on Problogger has upped my online exposure and, merely by association, my chops in the online world.  My brand.  Which means, the pressure is on.

This, too, is natural law in the online world.

Because the same crowd that throws in on that count can slap you back to reality with one missed swing.  (That being three metaphors in one sentence… don’t try this at home.)

4.        It’s okay to get personal.  And I’m not talking about dating or social media sites (getting too personal on those venues can also get you arrested). 

A blog is usually an ancillary tool in an otherwise pointed branding and marketing strategy, which means it doesn’t need to exclusively spew bits and bytes (digi-speak for features and benefits) or self-serving bluster that doesn’t smack of commonality. 

People are attracted to commiseration, empathy and the voyeuristic joy that comes from reading about the sheer misery of others in like-minded situations.

3.        There’s one in every crowd.   Try not to be that guy.

You could blog about the reliability of death, taxes and gravity and somebody will post a comment endeavoring to make you wrong (one self-proclaimed “blogging superstar” tried to refute my theories about writing and publishing contemporary fiction by quoting Cervantes, who published his last book in the year 1615 … but that’s another site). 

That which doesn’t kill us either makes us stronger or simply pisses us off. 

2.        You, the blogger and the commenter, put the UNITY into community.   That’s why this venue is unique in all of the history of human communications.

And the most valuable thing I’ve learned here on Problogger is…

1.        I have a lot to learn.  That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? 

One of the best ways to learn – albeit with a resource like Problogger on your daily to-do list – is to just keep writing.  On your own site, and on others if they’ll have you.

And if that’s not common ground, perhaps we’re all in the wrong place.

Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com, an instructional site for fiction writers and those who proof them.

And The Typos Just Keep On Comin’

a guest post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com

I hate being a hater.  I try to minimize the roster of things that I truly hate, and I try to keep human beings off it completely.

Not easy sometimes.  Just sayin’.

But it’s okay to hate some things.  Like injustice.  Prejudice.  Lying politicians with hookers.  Broccoli.

High on that list are typos

They’re like head lice.  They’re like tax audits.  Poppy seeds between your front teeth.  They’re like calling your bank or cable company and having 16 levels of automated options to wade through before they hang up on you.

Typos come with the writing territory.  Painters have to clean up drips, lawyers have to clean up divorce agreements, and the guy at Wal-Mart has to clean up that spill on Aisle 5.  Such is life.

The battle rages on.  If you’re a writer, you need a proof-reading plan.  To not assume typos, to not be ready for typos, is to allow them to water down your brand.

Might as well hang out a sign that says, We Used to Be Professional But Now We’re Not.

Beware the Late Night Post

This one just bite me where it counts.

I was already a day late in posting the next article in an on-going series.  Life was raining diversions and it was close to midnight before I realized I hadn’t written it yet.  My wife, who normally proofs my stuff, had long since gone to bed with a headache, probably caused by that same rainstorm.

I had a headache of my own.  And I’d already taken my beloved Ambien.   A recipe for typo disaster.  A self-fulfilling misspelled, grammatically-crappy prophecy in the making.

So I wrote the thing through sagging eyelids.  I rushed, cut corners, barely proofed.  Hit the Publish button and stumbled off to bed.

And was horrified the next morning when I read my own email Feed.  Within an hour I received an email from a regular reader dressing me down for dropping the ball.  At first I thought it was my old English teacher – she loved the dressing down part – but then I realized several thousand people had just seen me at my worst.

The content, still good.  Equity (read: slack) built from prior posts and value delivered, check.  But this one was over the line.  It was as embarrassing as it was alarming. 

Typos are like harsh tone in a primary relationship. 

Which is to say, they’re worse than poppy seeds between your teeth.

We can get away with a few.  But when you string them together in a single blast of bullet-riddled communication, it smacks of disrespect.  It’s a meltdown.  An abusive, in-your-face tirade.

It leaves wounds.  And wounds leave scars.  It takes time to live the moment down.  You can compensate, but you can’t put that toothpaste back into the tube.

My plan had failed me.

My backstop for typo-prevention is my wife.  In the absence of that lovely comfort zone – backstops get sick, tired, busy and bored sometimes – you need a Plan B.

Self-generated proofreading is like doing surgery on your own appendix. 

Don’t try this at home.  But if backed into that corner, there is one technique that will allow you to rise above your incompetent proofing self and stand a chance at catching all the mistakes.

Read your draft out-loud. 

Literally.  It will force you into a different context, which will allow you to be more precise.  It will slow you down.  It will prevent the hazards of a wandering, Ambien-clouded mind.

Like we all do after such a brush with near blogging death, I said never again.  But like in that primary relationship, or perhaps addiction, never again is a commitment reinforced by consequences.

Part of my repentance was to post a short blog article acknowledging my lameness, asking forgiveness and committing to an escalation of my proofreading plans.

So far nobody has bailed.  Including my wife, who is the one attaching consequences to that never again commitment.  And if you’ve never been proofed by your significant other, let me tell you, it’s a steamy-hot exercise in intimacy right up there with hot oil and blindfolds.

Which, if you don’t have a plan, is what you might as well wear when you’re writing. 

Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com, an instructional site for fiction writers and those who proof them.

Your Blog: Time to Play

a guest post from Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com

With apologies to the character named Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies, who uttered that line as he was about to slowly fillet a helpless victim just for grins…

… maybe you’re taking yourself too seriously.  I know I was.

My blog is an oh-so-serious venue for fiction writers, offering tips and techniques and instruction from all perspectives on the craft.  Intense stuff for people with aspirations to publish their work.

And it seems to be working fine.  My subscribers and, to a lesser extent, my traffic have grown continuously after one year online, and to the point where the site has actually landed me a book deal.

But that’s not my point today. 

My point today is the realization that my most clicked-on, pingbacked and commented-upon posts were those that were, in effect, a break in the action.

Posts that, in the midst of all that literary pretention, were just for laughs.

Everybody enjoys a good grin. 

Even writers and bloggers who, like me, take themselves oh-so-seriously.

To add a little scale to this declaration, here are some numbers.   Five times I’ve posted articles that had nothing at all to do with the primary focus of my site, other than a thin relevance to words themselves.  And all five times, my traffic tripled.

Tripled.

And as a result, my subscription based nudged upward, even as I went back to the drudgery of mentoring people on how to write novels and screenplays. 

And interestingly enough, while trending upward as a result of this, traffic went back to where it was the very next day.  It was like a restaurant having “Free Drinks” day. 

Which told me I needed to do this more often.

The first time was a timeout from pontificating on dramatic narrative to tell some funny stories (mostly on me) from book signings gone wrong.  Of which there are plenty.  I was three months into blogging at the time, and my reader Comments (which were admittedly thin) tripled overnight.  People loved laughing at me, it seemed.

A while later I posted a puzzle – literally – and, under the guise of another writing post, challenged readers to do the seemingly impossible.   Puzzles are fun, so once again, traffic on that day increased threefold.

Then I just went straight at it – I offered up a joke that writers would find funny even if nobody else would.  Best response to any post I’d had to date. 

And then, just to test this comedic water, I tried yet another joke with even better response this time, possibly because it was a better joke. 

There were a couple months and forty or so posts separating these little smile breaks. 

Which means I wasn’t remotely watering down my brand.  Rather, I was fertilizing reader relationships (take that particular analogy any way you wish…)

I’m motivated to share this with you today because I’ve just finished yet another Time to Play type of diversion that garnered me a positively Probloggeresque number of responses.  I threw a little contest out there, using a clever wordplay concept, and the result exceeded my expectations.

Wordplay games for writers is like beer pong for college students.

Over 70 people joined in, with over 300 “entries” to the contest.  Every one of them is a punchline, by the way, so if you’re looking for a few grins, click here to check them out.  

So for now it’s back to hooks, sub-plots, character arc and how to land agent.  But my readers know a few laughs are in the near future, and like friends sharing a project, we all look forward to a little break now and then.

Especially when it’s as strategically-sound as it is appreciated.

Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com, a site for writers seeking to publish their work.  He is the author of five novels, including his latest, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, which isn’t remotely funny.  More like something Pinhead would appreciate.

Why Professional Writers Need a Blog. Or Not.

A guest post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com

Pardon the cryptic title.  Not trying to sound hip or flip.  Just going straight at it.

Today’s title is literal.  Rather than the traditional try for a killer hook, what you see above is actually the point.

Not recommended as a default blogging best-practice, by the way, but sometimes you have to color outside the lines to paint the desired picture.

If you write for money as an independent contractor (versus, say, the staff obituary writer at the local daily), and if you intend to grow and sustain your client base, you should have a website.  Period.

If you’re any other type of professional writer who has to buy your own health plan, you need a website, too.  But there’s a question you need to answer first.

The Question

These days – and here comes the aforementioned point – you need to decide what kind of website is optimal for what you intend to accomplish.  And this is, as Shakespeare first wrote in a little ditty he called Hamlet, the rub.

This is gospel – as is that rub – for freelance writers in any venue, niche or media: copywriters, ghostwriters, grant writers, novelists, essayists, columnists, non-fiction authors, resume writers, technical writers, speech writers, PR and marketing and training consultants… and to a lesser extent, even screenwriters.

Lesser in that case because, let’s be honest, Jerry Bruckheimer isn’t going to hire you because he found and liked your killer URL. 

Otherwise, if you’re a writer out there on your own, you absolutely need to be online.

So the question is no longer… do I need a website

The question has become… what kind of website should I have?

Which, if Shakespeare were online schlepping his services as a playwright (funny spelling, that one; why the hell isn’t it playwrite?) he would rewrite as: to blog or not to blog, that is the question.

The answer just might surprise you.

What color is your freelance shingle?  

A website is the contemporary equivalent of a yellow pages ad, or a listing in a trade directory, or a flyer you leave on windshields in the stadium parking lot.  It’s your digital calling card.  

In essence, an advertisement.  The shingle you hang out in front of your virtual place of business.

Here I am.  Find me.  Hire me.  Love me.

The “or not” part means that a blog, per se, might not be the optimal choice for your particular shingle.  For some it might actually be self-servingly counter-productive.

So let’s cut to the chase.

For professional freelance writers and authors it boils down to two choices: a blog, or an “official website.”

Get that one wrong and you may pay a price.

The difference is significant. 

Not every writer needs a blog.  Yet some writers – many writers – absolutely do need a blog. 

Many may benefit from both.

It all depends on what business you are in.  On what you write and what slice of the market you hope will send money, by whatever means, in your direction.

We can boil it down to this: if you’re looking to get hired for a project, which implies you offer some vertical expertise in addition to your abundant writing gifts, then you should consider writing a blog.

And you should let the reader know who you are.

Because you need to show the world you know more than they do about whatever it is you do.  You need to demonstrate it.

Both elements drive toward your credibility, which his essential.

If you intend to write a non-fiction book about your vertical expertise – and hey, who doesn’t? – then you absolutely must write a blog if you intend to sell it to a publisher.  This has become a standard prerequisite in publishing – one of the first things a prospective publisher will ask is the nature and extent of your online following, and the URL of your blog.

For the most part, if you don’t have a blog and you aren’t otherwise famous in your niche, your shot at a non-fiction book contract is slim to none.

And if you end up publishing it yourself – which is very viable in non-fiction these days – then a blog is every bit as essential to your goal.

What about authors of fiction or non-expertise-dependent topics?

This is where the conversation gets sticky.

If you are simply trying to get famous, which is a good marketing strategy if you’re a novelist, for example, then a blog may not help you much.  In fact, it may hurt you in the long run.

For you, a branded, somewhat static website is the optimal solution.

It is, in fact, essential.  Remember, every pro writer needs a website.  In your case, however, it probably shouldn’t have a blog on it.

Unless it should. 

A blog isn’t about – or at least shouldn’t be about – you. 

A blog is about your niche, your field of expertise, your message.  Your blog is, in essence, a gift to your readers. 

In effect, your blog is where you give away what you know.

It’s your chance to demonstrate and validate your claim to authority and expertise.

Your blog is, in every essence and facet of the word, content.

Whether you have an agenda attached to that content – you want them to hire you or buy your books, courses or published work – doesn’t change this truth. 

If your blog content is valuable, then they’ll buy your ebooks, products and services.

Maybe even  your book if you have one available.

And if your blog is about you, then you better make yourself a window into life’s lessons, rather than simply trying to sell something you’ve written.

It’s perfectly appropriate to brand yourself on your blog, too.

If you’re looking to be hired, to secure work from someone who will assume the role of client, then you could argue that you should have something about you on the website.  No argument there.

Just don’t put that stuff in the body of the blog posts themselves.  That’s where your content goes.  That’s where you talk about the reader’s needs, not yours.

The stuff about you is what the sidebars are for.

You’ve written a novel.  Do you need a blog?

In a word, no.

You need a website.  An official author website.

A website  that is unabashedly about you and your work.

Google virtually any famous author and you’ll see this is exactly what they’ve done. 

Why doesn’t a blog work to promote a novel? 

Because you can only blog about your book for so long.  And blog readers are almost completely intolerant of self-serving, thinly disguised promotional agendas.

You have to earn every single moment of personal mindshare from a prospective buyer through the delivery of content they can put to work in their lives.

Blogging also comes with another type of risk. 

Even if you have valid to offer. 

Blogging can be addictive and hungry, it can eat up energy, time and mindspace like no other intellectual pursuit you’ve ever been tempted to give in to.

If you dive in, you need to be all in.   And that’s a huge commitment.

The only reason a website created with the intention of promoting an author and/or a work of fiction (or any book that isn’t dependent on a vertical topic expertise) should include a blog is if the author is delivering relevant content that is not self-serving.  That is not about the book you are trying to promote.

A blog about the writing process, about getting published, or anything that coaches and mentors readers from your own chosen field – in this case, fiction – absolutely can work.

This is precisely what I do on my own website. 

But I’m clear on what it is and what it isn’t, as you should be.  My site is an instructional website, designed for writers of fiction in any form.

My blog isn’t about me – neither is this guest post, by the way, I’m just providing an example — though I do make an appearance in a sidebar.  It’s about the reader.

This opens the door to selling the ebooks I’ve written – also in a sidebar – which is textbook blogging strategy 101.

Does it allow me space to announce my new novel and even create a link to it?  Of course it does.  I even promote a fund-raising calendar in which I’m a half-naked Mr. May. 

But the site isn’t about me, the novelist.  It’s about the art and craft of writing.  I’m just there to help.

When you are solid on the difference, then the peripheral benefits from both sides of the promotional fence will come your way. 

Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com and the author of the recently released novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, the latter of which has its own website.

 

Consider a Series. Seriously.

A guest post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com

In the recycled litany of advice on how to grow your blog – recycled because it’s all tried and true – there’s one effective strategy that gets too little airtime.

Perhaps that’s because it’s not for everybody.  Because it’s hard to pull off. 

That said, it almost always works.

Meanwhile, as a first line of more accessible strategy, we’re told to comment on the blogs of others.  We’re also advised to avoid overtly flogging our own agenda in the process. 

Dude, nice post!” won’t send folks to your site.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to dole out the atta-boys.  Just don’t expect to be rewarded with reciprocal traffic when you do.  If you comment – and this, too, is straight out of Blogging 101 – strive to add value to the online discussion, and in context to the previous paragraph.

We’re told to write killer headlines.  Snatch an edgy image from Flickr.  Never put three sentences of content into a single paragraph.  Pretend like you know Darren Rowse and Brian Clark personally. 

Which puts you in the company of thousands who lay claim to that because they’ve swapped an email or two.  They’re not two of the biggest and nicest people on the internet for nothin’.

And of course, we’re consistently told that content is king.  That this little strategy trumps everything else.  Always has, always will.

Which is precisely why the strategy I’m about to pitch works so well.

Like you, I’ve dipped my blogging toe into all of these rushing online waters, and with varying degrees of success, depending on how you define it. 

Growing a blog by the book is a bit like those sales pages that suggest you can earn five grand a month with Google ads, and then when you do everything they suggest after submitting your fifty bucks, you make about fifteen of them back over the next five months.

If you’re the exception to that generalization, then by all means, illuminate us.

But if you’re looking for something you can sink your strategic teeth into, an approach that solidly aligns with the content-is-king blogging mantra and actually results in an influx of enthusiastic new readers, then consider this:

Write a series

A sequence of posts that offer a sort of mini-symposium, an online workshop that builds upon its own content and momentum.

I’ve done it a handful of times, and each time it jacks my Feedburner number much more significantly than anything else I’ve tried.

I’m in the middle of one now, in fact, and my level of readership has gone up nearly 50 percent since it began five days ago  (that said, Darren Rowse I’m not, so this isn’t a world record).  And my subscriber base has gone up 10 percent after three months of complete flat-lining.

And – here’s the entrepreneurial payoff – I’m selling a bunch of ebooks in the process, at over twice the normal sales pace.

Claiming the Right to Write a Series

To write a successful series, you need to occupy a position of credibility within your chosen niche.  You need to have something to offer, to give away, and be able to demonstrate the chops to do so. 

Also, your series should be about something that can’t be adequately contained in a single blog post.

Sure, we can stuff anything into a single blog post if we try.  I’ve seen single blog posts on solving the problem of unhappy marriages, how to cure cancer and the ultimate answer to recovering from sex addiction, substance abuse and hair loss.

Yeah, like any of those can happen in 1000 words or less.

If you really want to cement your position as an authority on something, on anything, you need to go deeper than what readers normally encounter online.

You need to train them.

One reason this strategy can grow your readership is that it is, in essence, an event.  Which means it can be marketed as such ahead of time.

Beginning a week or two before you launch the series, start writing about it.  Define the problem or need your series will address, and the end result that will be there for those who come to the party.

Attach a tag, a notice, at the end of your otherwise unconnected posts reminding readers of the upcoming series.  Suggest they invite friends that share the same goals and concerns.

Getting the Reader Involved 

Ask for input to the series, allowing your readers to, in effect, take part in the approach and content.  Nothing makes readers love you more than the belief – based in truth – that you are writing precisely what they need to read, and that you understand both their goals and their challenges.

And then, write a killer series.  Write the hell of out.  Don’t just whip them off before bed in a stream-of-conscious psycho-babble of war stories.  Write your series as if you are preparing a masters thesis, but with a sense of style, humor and empathy.

Think of the posts as chapters in a book, with an introductory context up front, then a building series of content blocks that take the reader to the promised outcome.

Not only will they come once you build it, others will write about it on their sites – including requests for interviews and invites to guest post – creating a level of buzz you could never achieve otherwise.

Go deeper than you normally would

With a series you have the time and space to go there, and in doing so you’ll quickly differentiate yourself from other blogs in your niche.

When you write an effective series, you are actually taking blogging to another level.  What was conceived as experiential sharing and observation becomes a valuable gift to all who click on.

And speaking of chapters… I’ve turned three of my series into ebooks that are selling well, with a fourth right around the corner.  Just make sure you don’t simply slap together the eight parts of your series into an eight chapter ebook and call it original, your readers are too smart for that.  And, they deserve better.

You’ve already given it away.  You can’t sell it unless you add more value to it.

Use your posts as a foundation to build on, and expand them into a full and robust informational goldmine on the topic.  Include real life examples as a way to clarify your content. 

People who read your series will flock to it, even if they read it on your site as part of a series, and they’ll tell others.

And in the meantime, your blog and your brand will begin to grow.  Not only because of your content, but as a result of the credibility of your authoritative brand.

Larry Brooks is currently writing a series that deconstructs Dennis Lehane’s bestselling novel, Shutter Island – the book and the movie based on it – on Storyfix.com, an instructional site for novelists and screenwriters. 

This Time it’s Personal

by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com

Just like pretty much everyone else reading this site, when I began my blogging gig I struggled to find a niche, and a voice within it.

I was confident with the content and the agenda that would be the focus of my site.  And, again pretty much like everyone else, I harbored a quiet resolve to one day make a few bucks from it.  But I didn’t have a substantive revenue-generating plan in mind – a business model – other than that rather blind ambition.

In other words, I was winging it.  Make my mark first, earn a respectable following.  See what happened next, what doors might swing open.

And they did.   A couple thousand subscribers.  A major book deal.  A bunch of ebooks I had no idea I would write when I started.  Even some ghostwriting projects.

Not that this qualifies me to have drinks with the Big Boys as the next blogging conventions. But it’s a start.

This is perhaps the only business venue since the creation of minted cash where such a strategy is actually viable.

Best advice I ever heard in getting there: give it away.  As much and as fast as you can.  It’s not your father’s competitive environment, with its kill-or-be-killed mentality, anymore. 

At least here online its not.

To paraphrase… if you build it (a reader base), they (those minted bills) will come.

Maybe.  It’s still a bit of a crap shoot.

Bear with.  That’s not even my point today

Another great peace of advice was to read and study the blogs of others, both in terms of instructional wisdom (like Problogger) and examples of how and how not to go about things.  In doing so I discovered that blogs tend to come in three flavors: entrepreneurial, instructional/informational, and the highly personal.

All three may, and most likely do, harbor that same money-making agenda, by the way, but these are in general the three faces of blogging.

My website cleanly fit into the middle category.  My mission was, and is, to help writers understand the complex nuances and processes required to turn an idea into a story, and then render that story in a publishable form.

Which meant, while I read and actually enjoyed a few blogs where the author boldly wrote about little else than, for lack of a more strategic term, the author, I couldn’t see myself going there.  Just because I had published a small stack of novels to a minor standard of credible success, that only made me one of about a million writers who could claim the same thing.

And, where the more personal stuff is concerned, my life and what I have to say about it outside of my small and humble field of expertise just isn’t that interesting. 

Or perhaps, something I’d care to admit to.

Or so I thought. 

I soon realized this was narrow, limiting thinking.

 
And that’s my point today.   In a roundabout, forthcoming way.

As I look back upon nearly a year of blogging, and the curious fact that I have actually made an admittedly modest little pile of cash doing so, something rose up off the screen and smacked me upside the head: some of my most successful posts in terms of reader response were those that were of a personal nature.

Not me waxing wise and instructional about storytelling, but me becoming vulnerable and parting the kimono a bit.  Writing about things that have happened in my life and in my head that have helped to shape who I have become as a writer.

Opinions.  Stories.  Observations.  Hopes.  Fears.

The kind of stuff you’d admit to over beer and onion rings with a buddy.  Or, with enough of those beers in you, with a perfect stranger.

Notice that this post is really about its author

Moi.  It still creeps me out to adopt this perspective, especially on this highly global venue, but I couldn’t very well write a post about getting personal without, well, going there.

My site performance review reminded me that this work, unlike any other venture you can name short of politics and sheep herding, is about community.  One that embraces me as a peer as well as a self-anointed guru.

And that particular realization allowed me to recognize this newly-galvanized truth at work elsewhere online.  I find myself unable to click away from a post where the writer is being real, is sharing a moment and the emotions that underpin it, and establish a connection that transcends the intention of the otherwise branded content of that site.

It’s good to connect

To share and be the object of sharing.  To unburden and to leverage the learning curve of the unburdened.

So keep striving to nail your content and embrace your readers with something that serves them, as well as your business agenda.  But don’t hesitate to take a moment now and then to, in effect, share a coffee break with your readers and get downright, unabashedly real.

Watch what happens.  That flood of empathetic feedback is nothing other than a big ol’ hug.

And you know what they say in business school – he who gets hugged sells ebooks.  Because friends buy from friends.  From someone they like and trust.

That alone, without a dime attached, is worth the time and effort.

Then again, you have a business to run.  What better way to go about it than by connecting with those you intend to serve.

Here online, those agendas almost always go hand in hand.

Larry Brooks writes about the principles and process of writing successful fiction at Storyfix.com.  His book, Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, will be published by Writers Digest books early next year.  He claims his latest novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, is not remotely about him.