KATniss and KATsa... a coincidence?

Regular readers will know that I write in what I jokingly call the "kickass girl genre" -- action adventure with female protagonists that could beat you up. I often look to The Hunger Games and Graceling, two popular books with similar heroines, for inspiration and guidance. After spending some time with the books, you start noticing things.

For example, has anyone ever noticed that the main characters both have names starting with the syllable "Kat"? (Katniss and Katsa). Could be a coincidence, but I also wonder if there's something about the explosive sound of the letters "K" and "T" that conjure up an impression of forcefulness. Funny enough, my main character (conceived before I read either book) also has a "K" name -- Kyra.

Sound to meaning mapping in language has its supporters and detractors, but there have been some thought provoking results. Check out this interesting article from New Scientist for some more examples.

Author Blogging: You're Doing it Wrong, but John Locke's Figured it Out

Edit:  Since writing this blog article, I've learned that John Locke left one crucial fact out of his marketing plan, which is that he paid for reviews. Given what I know about the Amazon ecosystem, I'm guessing this had a much greater impact on his sales than his blogging ever did.  So please take the post with a grain of salt.

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments on author blogging and whether or not it’s a good use of time. If you haven't already, you might want to drop by.

As a quick recap, my beef with author blogging is that writers rarely keep target audience in mind. They’re writing fiction for kids, thriller lovers, or [insert some other reader profile], but they turn around and blog exclusively for writers.

Why do writers do this? My guess is because it's hard to define a target audience in fiction, and even harder to figure out how to reach that audience with blog entries. And what works for one author might not work for another author’s audience.

Which was why I was intrigued to hear about a generalizable, “target audience” focused approach to blogging for fiction writers. And because the person presenting this plan was John Locke, self-publishing hero and first indie author to reach one million sales on Kindle, I listened.

Locke shares several strategies for launching e-books via social media in his ebook How I Sold 1 Million Kindle Books in Five Months, but what got me was his focus on target audience. Locke defines his target audience more precisely than most novelists. I think of my target audience as teenage girls, or more specifically, teenage girls who like Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore. Locke takes it a step further, working up a detailed psychological profile -- who they are and what they like about his stories. In his book, he writes a profile of the readers in his popular Donovan Creed series.

I'll attempt similar workup of my own target audience here:

My target audience consists of young women, from high school through early 20s. They read to be transported to other worlds, and they actively seek sword and sorcery with female protagonists. They like to read about – for lack of a better term -- girls kicking butt. My readers are attracted to strong, larger than life heroines, and they like reading about my main character Kyra because of the cool things she can do. They’d love to be Kyra for a day or two. My readers shy away from situations that are too cut and dry. They're drawn to moral complexity, hard decisions, and inner conflict. They like a heroine with a dark side (no Pollyanna heroines please), but they still expect good to triumph in the end. My readers want fast-paced action and adventure, with high stakes and lots of plot twists. They don't want to be bogged down with things like setting details and overly flowery prose.

How do I know this about my target audience? It's a combination of knowing the kind of story I want to write and listening to the feedback  I've gotten from my beta readers. In every group of beta readers, there will be readers who love your book, and readers who hate it. Look for the beta readers who really loved the story, and listen to what they have to say. For more ideas about what to ask your beta readers, see my beta reading series.

Once you have your psychological profile, you can come up with themes that resonate with your target audience. In my case, it might be girls kicking butt, larger-than-life heroes, and tough moral decisions. And you’d would write a blog post that encapsulated these themes. The idea is that you write blog posts that resonate with your target audience, making them curious to read your book.

Locke has written several of these blog posts, aimed at target audiences for his two series. Here's one example post titled Why I Love Joe Paterno and My Mom.  It's aimed at the target audience for his Donovan Creed series, which touches on many themes, including everyday heroes, humor, and a strong woman.

Locke credits the majority of his sales to thesese blog posts, many of which went viral. Readers identified with them and shared them with their friends, and many ended up buying his books. I find his idea of viral marketing intriguing, and I’m curious as to how to generalizable it is. My own experience with blogging has been that it's very hard to predict what will go viral. I can probably guess with above-chance accuracy whether a blog will do well, but there’s a huge amount of uncertainty. Sometimes I’ll slave away at a blog post for days, just to have it fall flat, while other times I'll dash off a throwaway post that gets an enthusiastic response. In fact, I only have one blog post that truly went viral, and I actually thought was very mundane when I was writing it.  That'd be an interesting study -- see how good bloggers are at predicting a post's success, and see how much that prediction accuracy increases with experience.

Locke does give the blog posts a push with what he calls Loyalty Transfer. He looks for people on Twitter who are interested in the topic he blogs about, and reaches out to them, eventually sharing his blog post with them after he’s built a connection. For the blog post mentioned earlier, he’d look for people tweeting about Joe Paterno.  Again, target audience.  Looking for people who will resonate with your posts. My hunch here is that  you need to be genuinely invested in the conversations you strike up for this to work. If not, I can see links falling flat, or even getting in trouble with Twitter terms of service for spamming.

All in all, Locke presents an interesting approach to blogging as a way to sell fiction, and it's definitely worth taking a look for an in-depth case study of one author’s (very) successful marketing strategy.

Now you tell me. What is your target audience like, and how might you reach them?

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Author Blogging: You're Doing it Wrong

I think blogging is a waste of time.

Now, I realize this is weird because I .. uh… blog. But let me explain. I think blogging is a great way to meet other writers, to network, and improve your craft. But I don’t think blogging, as it’s usually done by fiction writers, sells novels.

As far as I can tell, the idea of “author platform” started as a nonfiction concept. An author with an effective platform was an acknowledged expert in a certain subject -- say underwater basket weaving. This author often had an established speaking circuit, giving talks at all the important basket weaving conventions. Maybe she also ran The Wet Weaver, a helpful blog with a large following. She had access to her target audience, and when she finally wrote the Basket Weaving Manual to end all Basket Weaving Manuals, she had the means to sell it.

The key to this scenario is target audience. People with nonfiction platforms had access to people who were interested in their topic and likely to buy their book.

At some point, unpublished fiction authors started feeling the pressure to build platforms. The problem is, they forgot all about target audience. Rather than being a means to reach the right readers, blogging became an end in itself – a box to tick off self promotional checklist. Fiction writers, being somewhat one-track minded, overwhelmingly decided to blog about writing. And thus, the writing blogosphere was born, with articles, contests, and promotions all aimed at fellow writers.

The thing is, we haven't created effective platform. What we've created is a never-ending writing conference. Good for many things -- forming friendships, professional development, and learning your craft. But nobody (I think) would argue that attending SCBWI conferences every weekend will catapult your book onto the New York Times bestseller list. In the same way, blogging for writers will not sell your book to the general reading population. This is even more apparent in the field of children’s literature. There are thousands of YA and MG writers (me included), blogging their hearts out to adoring readerships, while ignoring the inconvenient detail that their number of actual teens they’re reaching can be counted on one hand.

A brief aside – people will argue that writers are readers too, and that some sales are better than none. Which is certainly true. And it’s also true that some writers have successfully launched novels using their platform in the writing community (see Joanna Penn’s inspiring book launch for her debut thriller Pentecost). But it’s inefficient -- not all writers will read in your genre or enjoy your writing style. In Joanna’s case, she also sells products directed primarily toward writers, which makes the blog more effective. If you’re only selling general fiction, your conversion rate will be lower.

And you also have to look at the opportunity cost. Think about the number of blog followers you have, and suppose that a fifth of them buy your book (that’s a high percentage, IMHO). Now think about the amount of time you spend blogging. Time spent on the blog is time spent away from something else: writing another book, contacting book clubs, taking a part-time job and investing that money in advertising or a publicist. Given these myriad other options, is blogging still an efficient way to reach readers?

Sometimes in online platform discussions, someone will mention the elephant in the room, that we’re only blogging for other writers. Usually, that comment is met with thoughtful nods. Comments of “Yeah, we should think about that”. More awkward silence, and then we go back to our blogging. We can't help it. It's too much fun, and it's a path of least resistance. I ‘ve never heard anyone come up with a thoughtful, generalizable, plan for reaching targeted fiction audiences through blogging.

At least, I had never encountered a plan until last week -- when I ran across an intriguing blueprint that keeps the target audience in mind. And that was actually what I had been planning to blog about before I went off on my fatalistic rant.

But I'm already many days late on this blog entry, so I will stop here for now. Sorry to end on such a downer – I will be back in a few days with some happier thoughts. (Edit:  Here is the followup post)  In the meantime, what do you think? Is blogging a waste of time?

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Improving Creativity: The Connect Brainset

Today we are diving back into our series on improving creativity for writers, based on Shelley Carson's book Your Creative Brain. If you are just joining us, check out the first two installments: the Absorb brainset and the Envision brainset.

Today's brainset is the Connect brain set.

The Connect brain set is the closest to our usual idea of creativity. It involves the ability to generate a large number of unique and out-of-the-box ideas. Instead of settling on obvious solutions, a person who’s comfortable in Connect brainset imagines all kinds of off-the-wall possibilities. To a Connecter, a glass isn't merely a vessel for holding water. It's a paperweight, cookie-cutter, bug trapping tool, weapon, rolling pin, musical instrument, and more.

This brainset is also characterized by the ability to make unusual associations. For example, someone less comfortable with the Connect brain set might associate the word ‘cake’ with birthdays, flour, candles, etc. But someone strong in the Connect brainset might think about mud, the computer game Portal (The cake is a lie!), cabaret girls jumping out at parties, pie, cakewalks, etc.

How to strengthen the connect brainset:

Tying Related Scenes Together With a Common Element

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is a zany tale about an apocalypse gone wrong. As might be expected from a novel about the end of the world, Good Omens features a giant cast and multiple interconnected narrative threads. When you have so much going on, how do you keep the reader oriented?

One way is through reoccurring elements. For example, set of scenes involves the angel Arizaphale as he sits down to read a book of prophecies. The scenes are nicely tied together with  a cup of cocoa.

“Steady, steady,”Arizaphale muttered to himself. He went into the little kitchenette and made himself some cocoa and took some deep breaths.
Then he came back and read a prophecy at random.
40 minutes later, the cocoa was still untouched.

There are several intervening scenes, and then the next Arizaphale scene starts with the line.

Arizaphale’s cocoa was stone cold...

A few more scenes, and then the next scene begins:

The cocoa was a congealed brown sludge half filling the cup.. .

And then the last scene in this series:

The cocoa had nearly all solidified. Green fur was growing on the inside of the month.
There was a thin layer of dust on Arizaphale, too

Can you think of other uses for recurring elements, or alternate ways to tie related scenes together?