Make It Happen, Step 2: Time to Start Actually Writing a Novel

writing a novel
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Getting started on writing a novel, it turns out, can be hard.

Step 1 of my goal to write a novel in 2019 was to “choose the path.” I was trying to decide between two ideas, and I chose the one I am more excited about; the one I’ve already been researching in my spare time for years.

Next, I started writing about my ideas in a notebook. What it is, the main characters, their story lines, what it all means, and more. Writing this stuff down is so concrete and good. It means grabbing a hold of the ideas that flit into your mind, seem interesting, but then flit out again. It makes a big difference.

Writer Shaunta Grimes happened to write today about the writer Jack London and what he said about keeping a notebook, and I feel exactly the same way:

“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up in your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory. – Jack London

I find a notebook really useful.

But I can’t just write about it in my notebook all year. Now it’s time to move and do the real work. I need to start writing the novel itself.

Writing a Novel

Writing is not a sudden whim of mine, and I’m not starting from zero. I’ve worked professionally as a writer for 20 years now, and wrote for years before that, too. I have a degree in journalism. I was even editor of my high school newspaper. I’ve always been a writer.

But I don’t have experience as a novelist. Mostly I write nonfiction, which is very different. A novel has its structure and rules that I know of from reading about novel writing (and from reading novels themselves), but I don’t yet know in my bones how to create that structure, the way I understand structure in nonfiction writing.

When it comes to, say, an article, I completely understand why it works or doesn’t work. I can glance at something I, or someone else, has written and tell you about how many words it is, how it holds together or doesn’t, and what it’s missing. That comes from having worked as a nonfiction writer for so long, and it’s a great feeling to be at this point in my career.

But I’m not at that point yet with novels, although I hope I can get there. It will take practice and some hard work to figure out how exactly one structures a novel that holds together and is, hopefully, well-written. I’m excited about it, and at the same time it feels a little daunting. (Mostly, I’m excited about it.)

Opening Up Scrivener

I use a physical notebook for ideas, but for writing projects themselves, I use the inexpensive yet incomparable app Scrivener. A writer created it for his own projects, which is probably why it makes so much sense to me. You write each scene as a separate section, and they are easy to view and rearrange. When you are ready to print, you “compile” your manuscript into a Word document or similar. It even formats text for publication as an ebook.

When I have pieces of research for my story – a block of text, a link, a photo, an MP3, or something else – I can store it right there where I am working on the story. I can use the split screen function to look at the piece of research right alongside my blank document as I write. There are so many other features, too. It’s an amazing piece of software. I wouldn’t dream of starting a big project like this without it.

So, Step 2: I’m off to create a new project in Scrivener, and then folders for each chapter, and character and setting profiles. I’ll also start loading some of the research I’ve already done into the program.

I find this exciting! Once my novel has a structure that shows its chapters, right there on the page, it’s just a matter of filling each one in, right?

How’s that for optimism? It might be a bit more work than I just made it sound, but I can’t wait to see how it goes.

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How to Write Historical Fiction

historical fiction
Photo by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash

 

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know I’ve been trying to decide between two fiction writing projects to devote my head and spare time to this year. And – ta-da! – I have chosen the new novel idea, which is historical fiction. I chose this over working on the children’s novel that I have already drafted. (I’ll get back to that another time.)

In 2019, I’ve decided, I’m going to write a novel based on a true story from the past that’s been swirling around in my head forever. I’ve been thinking about this and writing bits and pieces of this story for years and years. It is, I am realizing, a historical fiction project. Historical fiction can be defined as a fictional story set in the past that uses some true characteristics of the period.

It never dawned on me that I could turn this into a novel until recently, although now it seems obvious to me. I’m excited about this project.

Avoiding the Rookie Move

In life, of course, a real story doesn’t go the way a novel needs to play out. This one sure doesn’t. And I know it’s a rookie move to try to write a novel based on a true story unless you take steps to “novelize” it. You need to turn the fact into fiction and carefully create (and discard) characters. You let the story move forward without requiring yourself to stay true to the facts, which might not work in novel form.

At writepractice.com, author and story coach David Safford says there are four things you must do to write a book based on a true story:

  • Remove yourself from the story
  • Cut characters
  • Exaggerate (or invent) motivations
  • Edit a true story into a great story

I plan to take the gist of this true-life tale that fascinates me and fictionalize it. I’ll have to do research about the parts I don’t know or that don’t fit the story I want to tell. I’ll need to create characters who are fleshed out, so to speak, “real people” that a reader will care about. Then there’s the importance of settings, and adding conflict in the right places, all that.

In the end, it will no longer be the real story at all. But I will have worked through this true story that fascinates me and made it my own. I suppose that’s historical fiction.

This article from The Writer is about writing historical short stories, but its tips are good and apply to novels as well. Chuck Sambuchino‘s Writers Digest article discussed whether it’s possible to be completely accurate historically and still tell a great story. (He says he doesn’t think you can do both — and that maybe it’s not even necessary.)

Historical Fiction Novels

As I figure out how to write historical fiction, I realize it’s my favorite genre. Here is an eclectic list of such novels that I have especially enjoyed, in no particular order. I gathered them here merely to remind myself to aim high (not because I expect to be able to pull off a first novel written at this level, holy cow!).

Or in case you, too, like historical fiction novels and would enjoy some recommendations. You can click on any of these titles to read more. They are all great.

(When I find lists of novels that are especially interesting to me, I always imagine ordering them all at once. In my fantasy, a box arrives filled with all these wonderful books I am completely interested in. I carry it in off the doorstep, make a cup of coffee and then stretch out and read all day, every day, for weeks. This is not the life I live, at all, but it’s one I dream about!)

historical fiction   historical fiction   historical fiction      historical fiction   historical fictionhistorical fiction  historical fiction   historical fiction   historical fiction      historical fictionhistorical fiction   historical fiction    historical fictionhistorical fiction   historical fiction

Now that I’ve thought about each of these books as I copied code into this post, I want to reiterate something: I have no illusions I am going to write the next Gone With The Wind this year. There are some amazing historical fiction novels out there. Sheesh. I love all the books above, but revisiting them while talking about my own novel is a little overwhelming. I will just figure out how to write historical fiction and then do the best job I can.

Doing Some Pre-Work. (Which is Still Work.)

I haven’t quite started writing yet—soon—but I’ve been thinking a lot about this new novel. That has been helpful. I’ve sat with a notebook and figured out why I want to write this particular story and it’s taken me deep. Part of the answer? I’ve been researching and thinking about this story for years, trying to fill in the holes. If I didn’t have to earn a living it’s what I would be working on anyway right now.

And I’ve been trying to come up with one sentence that describes this book I want to write. All of these questions are themselves writing projects that require a lot of passes. I’m still working on them. Each gets to aspects a little deeper and more interesting than the last.

These questions I’ve been answering are the some of the first exercises from Author Accelerator’s 7-Day Writing Challenge, which is great. One is to zero in on what I want to get across with this story. It’s like a road map, I think, that will keep me on track throughout the writing. I like the idea of thinking about this ahead of time. It seems like if I know where I am heading, I’m more likely to get there.

I’m sure things will change along the way. Although I work as a professional writer, I’m new to writing novels and I don’t have structure and other technique figured out yet. I will have to learn that as I go.

But I like the idea of having a plan as I work, so there’s something concrete I am working toward. That should make it easier to actually finish. If my story’s direction changes while I’m writing it, I can go back and rework my overview to match. It means, I think, being aware that it is changing, and thinking it through intellectually and knowing why you are going in a particular direction. Making sure, as much as you can when you’re a new writer, that it all makes sense and still holds together.

That’s the plan, anyway. Hold on—I’m getting started! I’ll be back soon to let you know how it’s going.

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Make It Happen, Step 1: Choose the Path

Make It Happen
Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

It’s time to make it happen.

It’s one week into 2019, the year in which I proclaimed I’m going to write (and actually finish) a novel, and I thought I knew my plan.

Suddenly, though, I have two projects to choose between. I need to make a decision.

Let me tell you about the first project, A few years ago, during NaNoWriMo, I wrote a full draft of a children’s book. It’s a middle grade novel, to be more specific.

When I finished, I sketched out two more books in the series and wrote their first drafts. And then I mostly just left it all alone.

Last year, I showed the first couple chapters of the first book to a literary agent at the ASJA conference and she gave me some good feedback. She suggested changing an aspect of the plot, which she said was a little too dark for that age reader. It made sense. She said after I did that, she’d like to read it again.

I reread the trilogy a few months ago and realized that while it needs a lot of work, I still like the story. I should get back to this, I thought.

Then the other day I realized that another idea, the story I have been trying to write for half my life, is actually a novel. Suddenly I am really excited about writing that novel and cannot get it out of my mind.

But then—there goes that seesaw again—last week I got an email saying the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Hawaii was going to start offering meetings here in Hilo.

Other writers, right here in Hilo!

I went to the first meeting and felt my body relax into an, “Ah!” While I have many writer friends, most live outside of Hawaii. It can be lonely writing on a rural island in the middle of the Pacific. When I looked around that meeting, I wondered if maybe some of these children’s book writers and illustrators could be on-the-ground writer buddies.

We met in downtown Hilo’s former Koehnen’s building, an elegant 1910 building that takes up a whole city block. It’s a lovely, gracious, and well-maintained Renaissance Revival style building with koa walls, ‘ōhi‘a floors, and a grand koa staircase. Originally it was the Hackfeld Company, then Koehnen’s, both retail enterprises.

Now, it’s the National Oceanographic Institute’s Mokupāpapa Discovery Center, which interprets the natural science, culture, and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and their surrounding marine environment.

We gathered upstairs, under the very tall, open-beam ceiling and next to huge, unscreened windows that let in the breeze. In the distance, beyond coconut trees, I saw two canoes full of paddlers glide slowly across the gentle, gray ocean.

There was a reminder of the building’s current marine science focus in the corner—a large, papier mâché “rock” sporting orange, gold, and green coral.

Listening to Richard Peck

Among other things, we watched a Master Class interview with children’s author Richard Peck. Decades ago, when he and I were both much younger, I once heard him speak in person at Henderson Library in Torrance, California.
Make It Happen

I was already a big reader and fan then, and he was already a successful novelist. He went on to write an astonishing 41 books for young people before he passed away last summer.

Here’s some of what he said in the video that interested me:

• In a children’s book, the young person has to solve his/her own problem and find his or her own way.
• Their parents must be kept in check—supportive, but in the background.
• You should write from observation, he said, not from experience.
• He said he always sits behind young people on the bus, and hangs out in malls. That’s how he gets the dialog right.
• Take yourself out of the story by always writing in first person. Then it’s a child’s diction.  Make It Happen
• He said he was born listening. “I grew up under tables and behind doors, listening.”
• He loved to listen to the old people and now, he said, the grandparents and great-grandparents were coming out in his writing.

I really liked hearing that last bit. I am all about the family stories, the generations, and the connections across time. They come out in my writing, too—my children’s book trilogy has all of that. So does my other novel idea, actually.

After the SCBWI meeting, a couple of writers talked about starting up a critique group, something I’ve been thinking about lately. It had me thinking seriously about choosing to work on my very rough children’s novel for this 2019 project.

What to do, what to do.

In my next blog post, I’ll tell you about the other possibility. And I’ll make a decision already!

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How (and Why) I Will Finish Writing a Novel in 2019

finish writing a novel

 

 

Why make it a goal to finish writing a novel? The quote below explains why Wyl Menmuir and I are into the whole novel-finishing thing.

Q:What made you decide to start a novel?

Wyl: I read somewhere that action tends to happen when the fear of not doing something overtakes the fear of doing it. That was true for me – I’ve wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember and I’d reached a point where I realised if I didn’t just sit down and do it, I’d end up as a frustrated would-be novelist rather than someone who had at least given it a good shot. The other side of it was about knowing I had the right story to tell.  

Yes! EXACTLY THAT.

Menmuir is an English writer whose debut novel The Many was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. He achieved his goal, and he’s on the other side now.

I’m a professional writer (of nonfiction) with a Big Goal for 2019: I will craft a novel from some ideas that have been swirling around in my head for years and years and years.

By the way, I don’t know Menmuir. I just read his quote, and it was like a cartoon anvil swung into my head.

Strategies

I also liked reading his article How to Finish a Novel, where he talks about the tools he used to write, and finish, his novel. He was very strategic. He used software that blocked his social media access; a word tracking app; set daily goals, and more. It worked for him.

Ninja Writer Shaunta Grimes also recently wrote something interesting about why you should finish writing a novel, if that’s your thing. She wrote, “A finished manuscript, whether that’s a novel or a blog post or a social media post for a client, is pretty much the only hard MUST. We all know of writers who make boatloads of money off of poorly written crap—but all of those writers finished writing the thing.

Of course, she’s right. Whether it’s an, um, “valiant effort” or a brilliant masterpiece, you have to finish it or there’s zero chance of publication or boatloads of money.

I don’t know that I can write a novel that’s brilliant (or even valiant), but at the least, I will have succeeded in completing my “practice novel.”

An Eye-Opener

I also admit to being slightly fascinated with an idea I got from Gretchen Rubin, who does the podcast Happier. It made me realize why I have been finding it so difficult to finish a personal writing project.

Rubin says people fall into one of four personality types regarding how they respond to the idea of a rule, whether it’s internal or external. She calls these personality types the “four tendencies.”

  • Upholder
  • Questioner
  • Obliger
  • Rebel

Knowing which one you (or the people around you) are helps you answer the question, “How do I get people—including myself—to do what I want?” She wrote a whole book about this and it’s interesting.

I’m not one to follow every pop-psych trend, but what she was saying made sense to me, and so I took her online quiz. I learned I am an obliger.

Obligers meet outer expectations but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

Obligers meet outer expectations just fine (give me an assignment and a deadline, and I will meet it), but resist inner ones (even when I very much want to finish writing and revising a novel, I don’t).

The answer for us obligers, says Rubin, is to create systems of external accountability.

It makes so much sense. It was the cartoon anvil to the head again. It’s why, for instance, I take regular walks every week. Though I like walking by the ocean, I only go because my friend Angie is waiting for me.

To finish writing a novel, I need external accountability. That’s why I’m going to keep writing about my 2019 writing goals and how I’m doing with them. Because it makes me feel accountable.

I feel like I have people expecting me to achieve these goals now. And I meet external expectations.

Here we go!

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New Year’s Goal: Finish My Writing Projects in 2019

 New Year's Goal

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Do you have a New Year’s goal? I have big plans for 2019.

This is going to be the year I make it happen. I’m going to finish some personal writing projects I’ve been working on for way too long without completing, and take each to its next steps.

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” – Neil Gaiman a.k.a. @neilhimself

I’m also going to do it “out loud.” I’m going to write here about the routines, processes, and other tricks that help me finally get these writing projects to the finish line.

What exactly does my New Year’s goal include?

  • I’m going to finish a novel I’ve been working on and take it to the next step.
  • I will finish a non-fiction book I’ve already started, self-publish it, and start on number two.
  • I will also finish at least two essays and submit them.

Subscribe to these posts if you’d like to see how this all plays out in 2019 (I’m curious, too).

The difference between my day job and personal writing projects

I don’t have any trouble finishing things in my “day job.” I have a business writing and ghostwriting for brands, agencies, magazines, and publishers about technology (especially hospitality tech), travel, tourism, and Hawaii, where I live.

Those projects come with deadlines, and that makes it easy.

Writing projects I do for myself, on the other hand—ones that no one expects me to send them by a specific date—are harder, even though they are so satisfying when I do actually work on them. There are always so many other things that need to be done, and I get distracted.

That is why the New Year’s goal. Not only am I going to figure out the resources, processes, and other tips that help me keep going and finish my writing projects, I’m also announcing it and blogging about it, so I have some external accountability to help me along. Knowing people will be reading about what and how I do makes me sit up a little straighter.

Do you have a creative project you’re going to make happen in 2019? Comment about it here, if you like. Or just decide on a goal, and, you know, make it happen.

Perhaps some of my processes will work for you, too. Worst case scenario? Maybe I will prove to be a cautionary tale. (Although I really, really hope not.)

I’ll talk to you again soon, and Happy New Year!

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Thumbs Up to Podcast for Creative Entrepreneurs

I’ve discovered a fairly new podcast, 21st Century Creative, by the British “creative entrepreneur” Mark McGuinness. There are just 10 episodes online so far, and I am blazing through them.

Leslie Lang recommended podcast

Between breakfast and sitting down to my desk this morning, as I quickly scrubbed the walls behind the old refrigerator in preparation for the new one that arrives tomorrow, I listened to the episode Designing a Global Small Business with guest Laurie Millotte. She spoke about how she runs her successful design business while traveling the world, and the challenges and many rewards of such a life. So much more interesting than scrubbing a wall (although I’m sure she sometimes does the equivalent; successful creative people, like everybody else, do whatever needs to get done) and so inspiring.

On a round-the-world trip, Laurie spent time in Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Hawaii, Mexico and other countries. And not only did she manage to keep running her existing design business from her laptop, she designed and created an entirely new business – Outshinery.

Outshinery takes a new approach to product photography for the wine and beer industries, using 3D digital technology to create images without the hassle of shipping bottles of alcoholic liquid to photographers’ studios. It means they can deliver ‘bottle shots before the wine is bottled’.

The Outshinery team are spread across 3 continents and 4 office spaces, but use technology and teamwork to get things done together.

If you’re curious about the idea of combining exotic travel with your creative work, or if you’re a creative service provider who would like to have more income and impact without having to work longer and longer hours, you’ll find this an eye-opening and inspiring conversation.

Working While Traveling, or Being a Creative Entrepreneur

I’ve submitted freelance work from a friend’s family’s 16th-century villa in Florence, from New York City while attending the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference, from a trampoline park in Seattle, a row house in London and various airports and airplanes. But this woman definitely wins.

I am definitely one to combine travel with my creative work, though right now I’m hunkered down because of my child’s school schedule. But we go when we can.

One of the ways I make that happen is by taking advantage of credit card travel miles. How to do that is fully explained in this free travel rewards course (one email/ day for a week) at TravelMiles101.com. (I’m not affiliated; I just read the emails, learned a lot and have been traveling more, and cheaper, ever since!)

Season One of the 21st Century Creative

“In which we identify the big challenges and opportunities for 21st century creatives, discover that fiction is often truer than truth, explore the virtual worlds of the future, resist the seductions of email, and reconnect with our authentic voices.”

21st Century Creative logoEpisode 1: The Power of Community for Creative Professionals with Scott Belsky

Episode 2: Truth and Fiction with Steven Pressfield

Episode 3: How Virtual Reality Will Shape Our Future with Fabrice Bourrelly

Episode 4: Designing a Global Small Business with Laurie Millotte

Episode 5: The Successful Creative Mindset with Joanna Penn

Episode 6: Say Less, Ask More and Communicate Better with Michael Bungay Stanier

Episode 7: Kill Email Anxiety and Do More Meaningful Work with Jocelyn K. Glei

Episode 8: The Floatation Tank – a Short Cut to Your Superpower? with Nick Dunin

Episode 9: Freeing the Natural Voice with Kristin Linklater

Episode 10: Creating a Job that Doesn’t Exist with Aileen Bennett

McGuinness is now working on Season Two of his creativity podcast. He says he’s open to suggestions for topics, by the way. I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.

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New Writing Goals: Set in Concrete

diablo lake cascade mountains

Two days after we returned from our last-minute, end-of-summer vacation, my daughter was back in school and I was back to work with some new writing goals. I settled back into my home office with the renewed vigor and enthusiasm that comes of going out into the world and experiencing different places, people and ways of life, and then returning home to appreciate your own familiar routines with a fresh eye.

And, it turns out, with a bit of a spring in my step. In addition to the freelance content marketing writing I do, I came home excited to revisit some of my creative roots, such as essay writing.

Long ago, I launched my freelance writing career by selling an essay about how many Hawaii graduates wear congratulatory flower leis stacked to their eyebrows. I sold it as a personal commentary to NPR’s All Things Considered and it was my first-ever freelance sale. I sold, and voiced, a couple more essays after that. Later I did several commentaries specifically for Hawaii Public Radio. I’ve published essays elsewhere, as well, but not for years. Life and work got busy and I got out of the habit.

Suddenly, surprisingly, ideas are again leaping out at me, so many that I am carrying around a yellow composition book to catch them.

I also want to get back to writing books. I’ve written a couple books that publishers approached me about, but now I’m ready to focus on my own books. One of the things I’m sure about in life is that if I don’t write the books I have inside me, I’ll regret it.

Fresh Start, New Goals

The start of a new school year feels like exactly the right time to add these writing goals to my plate. It’s astonishing to me that school here starts at the beginning of August, and that they call it “fall semester” with a straight face. Maybe that’s why this summer zipped by before I got around to planning our vacation.

I booked our quick, last-minute trip to Seattle, chosen partly because we get tired of being hot all the time and expected cooler weather there. It turned out to be unseasonably warm, but our five-day getaway was great nonetheless.

writing goals

We stayed with one of my favorite cousins, and kept stopping at fruit stands for delicious peaches, nectarines and Rainier cherries like we cannot get at home. I loved catching up with my cousin and his family, and stuffed myself with too much ripe sweet fruit, and then I ate more.

We drove over the bridge at the northernmost end of beautiful Whidbey Island and spent a whole day cruising down the long, narrow island. It was fun to poke around in the island’s galleries and bookstores and see its cute, wild bunnies. We ate a delicious lunch at the Noe José Cafe in Oak Harbor (where a waiter mentioned that the owners are Noe and José and the name is a play on words: The “No Way José” Café). Dinner was great barbecue from The Big W Food Truck in Langley, where we ordered alongside locals who all seemed to know each other or the truck owners. Some were picking up dinner while walking their dogs. At the end of that good day, we drove our rental car onto the ferry on the south end of the island to head back to the mainland.

We spent a different day driving through the Cascade Mountains, where we ate good food at 5b’s Bakery in Concrete, Washington. It was highly recommended on Yelp, and Yelp was right.

Some interesting facts about Concrete:

They made the concrete for Seattle’s Space Needle there. Author Tobias Wolff attended Concrete High School. And while 1938 Concrete residents listened to Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio drama, there was a town-wide power failure that also took down telephone service. People fainted, others grabbed their families and headed into the mountains, and the town’s reaction made international news. Also, Concrete has ghosts.

In the North Cascades, we hiked through forests of pine and fir that smell like camping. We watched eagles soar quietly back and forth over the rushing Skagit River, and looked down at beautiful, huge, calm lakes of the deepest aquamarine.

We went indoor skydiving, which I didn’t know I would love so much, although not so much I would ever jump out of a plane.

At the crowded Pike Place Market, we touristed-out by taking photos in front of the first-ever Starbucks and its original logo in the window. We ate lunch there just off the beaten path and I ordered a BLT. It included “S,” the freshest, most perfectly prepared salmon I’ve ever eaten. (“Salmon and bacon in the same sandwich!” said the waitress in approval. “There’s nothing better.”)

Writing Goals: As Good as Salmon and Bacon

Turns out she was right. It’s another great memory to have back here at my desk where I am rejuvenated about doing satisfying work. I have plenty of good assignments, hospitality technology, and other content marketing writing work, for which I am grateful. Every day is different and interesting and I enjoy what I do.

But the change in scenery – and people, places, things, ideas – made me arrive back home feeling able to do anything. It’s exciting to add essays and books back into what I write. This is my public declaration so you will hold me to these goals, even if (when) the next new thing distracts me. Look, cute wild bunnies!

I’m interested to see where I’m at with these writing goals by the time this 2017-18 school year draws to a close. I scheduled a follow-up blog post on my calendar for next May. Watch for it here. I’ll blog about my creative progress along the way, too.

Is there something you aren’t making yourself get around to? Will you regret if you don’t even try? Feel free to make your own goals declaration here if you’d like, and we can encourage and remind each other to make these things happen.

And stay tuned.

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The Most Important Thing About Content Marketing

I spent last week at Content Marketing World in Cleveland and it was a great experience.

Content Marketing World

Content Marketing World has become a huge conference and it was very well done. More than 3,500 content marketing specialists attended from 60 countries, as did more than 550 companies, including 40 of the Fortune 100 companies. Two hundred and twenty five content marketing experts spoke.

On the first morning, as we streamed into a large exhibit hall for opening keynote speeches, there was a slight backdrop of drumming in the air which heightened anticipation. Fog rolled and Star Wars music played (the closing keynote speaker was Mark Hamill, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker). The stage was a space ship’s control panel with windows looking out onto the galaxy. Dramatic. I got the sense big things would happen.

Joe Pulizzi, the orange-clad founder of Content Marketing Institute, which puts on the annual conference, spoke first. (The conference color is orange and it’s everywhere.) He talked about a previous content marketing company he founded that failed, he ultimately realized, due to a lack of commitment. The problem: they were not dedicated to being leading experts in content marketing.

Out of that experience came Content Marketing Institute, he said, as well as a dedication to content marketing.

That led into what he thinks is most important to know about content marketing:

“I’ve learned it’s all about commitment. There’s no half way. The meaning of content marketing is that you’re either in or you’re out. There’s no such thing as in between.”

He said that right now just two out of ten global marketers, only 20 percent!, say they are fully committed to their content marketing approach. The other 80 percent is creating a lot of marketing collateral, going through the motions, but not building a loyal audience and not telling a different story. “Meh,” he said.

He told us he was going to title his presentation, “Meh” and the crowd laughed. But he said that’s where so many people are right now.

“We’re doing what looks like content marketing, but are only somewhat committed. Can you be ‘somewhat’ committed to your relationship, to driving, to being a great father?” A slide of Darth Vadar popped up in his slideshow.

“Mediocre content will hurt your brand more than doing nothing at all,” he said.

He pointed to LEGO as a fully committed brand. He mentioned that he used to get the LEGO magazine Brick Kicks 30 years ago, and today his kids still sprawl across the floor with their LEGO blocks.

Content Marketing Rules

These are what many companies see as the current “content marketing rules,” he said:

  • You have to do content marketing
  • Create more content

But the most successful businesses, he said, are

  • Targeting just one audience with one message or mission
  • Telling a different story
  • Maintaining consistency over time
  • Building an asset by creating value outside the products and services they offer

As a content writer helping agencies and brands needing interesting, well-crafted and well-directed content for their clients, as well as developing content marketing for my own brand, these were great reminders.

It was a terrific conference. I learned a lot, met interesting people and am totally re-energized about my work.

Doug Kessler wrote a terrific (and fun to read! he’s a great writer) write-up of the conference from midpoint, as he sat wide-awake with jetlag in the middle of the night.

I had a little experience with that, too.

Great conference.

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Photo of a Ghost (Writer)

In my freelance writing business I frequently work as a ghostwriter, and HawaiiBusiness magazine recently featured me in an article about ghostwriting. Megan Spelman, the photographer, told me she wanted to do something a little different with the photo.

She photographed me through a window, while I stood in front of a plumeria tree with hundreds of orchids growing from it.

Leslie Lang Ghostwriter

I think it’s fun how the picture turned out. A bit ghostly indeed!

Speaking of ghostwriting, Ilima Loomis recently interviewed me for a short article that appeared in the regular Hawaii Business magazine column called “My Job.” It was about being a ghostwriter. I love reading those columns, and it was fun to be featured in one of them.

Other recent “My Job” columns featured:

Fun to read.

About Being a Ghostwriter

There are different kinds of ghostwriting. Did you know that ghostwriters wrote many of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books?

A Guardian.com article about English ghostwriter Andrew Crofts, who has written 80 books that sold 10 million copies, talks about his own book on being a ghostwriter.

I’ve ghostwritten books in the past, but these days I mostly do content marketing ghostwriting. What this often means is writing content in collaboration with a business leader whose name will appear on the article, blog post, op-ed or other piece.

I love doing this kind of work. I really like helping someone corral his or her thoughts and present their message so it’s just right. Very satisfying!

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NYT on Content Marketing: ‘Single Fiberglass Pool Article Made Over $2.5 Million in Sales’

Did you see this recent and interesting New York Times article on content marketing? It talks about an appliance store in St. Louis, Goedeker’s, which wasn’t doing so well. So the owner had his son and daughter build a website during their summer vacation, and he started taking online courses and reading up on online marketing and search engine optimization.

And it worked. From 2009 to 2013 their sales grew from $6 to $48 million and they went from 18 to 90 employees. Most of their sales now are online.

And that was even before they discovered content marketing in 2013.

From the New York Times article Retailers Try Offering Expertise Online Along With Products by Ian Mount, December 24, 2014:

For its content marketing push, Goedeker’s hired two full-time writers and began publishing daily blog posts about home renovation and appliances, which were then shared on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and Pinterest.

Today, the company spends $100,000 to $150,000 a year on its content marketing efforts, according to Mr. Goedeker. He says the goal is for the company to get 80 percent of its online traffic and half of its online sales with its content marketing efforts. So far, sales generated this way have risen from 8 percent to 14 percent of the online total.

“It’s been slow so far,” Mr. Goedeker said. “It takes some patience and persistence. With a paid ad, you get a return on investment immediately. With content marketing, it takes a while for the search engines to recognize your value.”

The number of links back to the company’s website increased from 3,000 in late 2013 to 40,000 today; one blog post, about painting walls with watercolors, got 30,000 visits.

Leslie Lang, Content Marketing WriterThe article also discusses a pool and spa company in Virginia that writes blog posts about questions they hear most from their customers.

In 2009, Mr. Sheridan, an owner of River Pools and Spas in Warsaw, Va., published a post about how much it cost to install a fiberglass pool, a useful piece of data but one most pool companies aren’t eager to publish. Using a web-tracking tool, Mr. Sheridan then followed how many customers came through that post.

“That one single article has made us over $2.5 million in sales,” he said. “For a $5 million-a-year company, that’s a ton of business.”

What an interesting article. It really shows the power of writing compelling narrative copy that resonates with your customers. Sales pitches aren’t what captures people’s attention. You have to engage them. Answer their questions. Make an emotional connection. Compel them to remember your brand and think of you as a resource.

Read the full New York Times article here.

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