Saturday, March 26, 2011

Personal Branding IV: The First Interview

My publisher had mentioned radio and TV interviews, but it seemed she must be talking about someone else. Even when she interrupted our telephone call to take one from “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” I didn’t associate myself with the national spotlight.
No, the phone call from “Ellen” wasn’t about me, but it made me think. How would I fare sitting across from Oprah, Ellen, or even a local newscaster? Let’s just say that I’m more comfortable on paper than in person. Well, the advice books would say, get over that!
Fortunately, my first interview was with a newspaper reporter, meaning that I would not need to worry about squirming, scowling, scratching, squinting, or screwing up on TV. All I had to control was my habit of blurting out too much information when I’m nervous.
The writer was someone whose work I’d admired for a while. She had been doing a series of “Innerviews” for my hometown paper in West Virginia, and I was thrilled that she wanted to talk to me.
Even though it wasn’t television, I duly reported for my beauty routines the week before the interview. When I thought about what to wear, my first impulse was to choose a business suit. Then I remembered I didn’t have one that fit. I’d recently achieved lifetime status in Weight Watchers, so it wasn’t the other problem—which I’ve had plenty of times over the years.
The interview required a trip of several hours. Every time I’ve taken a trip, I’ve bought something new to wear. It’s a compulsion, but my trip to the mall produced only a couple new blouses—nothing too dangerous to the pocketbook. I decided to wear dress pants, one of the new shirts, and a casual jacket.
This interview took place in a conference room at the newspaper offices, which I’d never seen. In my pre-meeting nervousness, I parked the car in a pay lot and stuffed the fee into the wrong slot—no attendant was present—then had to ask for change from the receptionist at the Gazette, trudge back to the lot, and pay again. For all my efforts to be cool, such mistakes seem inevitable. At least that one beat driving away from the ATM without my card.
The interview team consisted of the writer, who used a recorder to capture the exchange, and a photographer who snapped pictures of me while I was talking. I knew in advance that I’d be “taped,” so my greatest efforts were to be nice and avoid spilling my guts. The session lasted about an hour, and then we went outside for more photos.
My interview will run in the paper in a couple of weeks. Naturally, I have no say now about what goes into the story; my chance to shape it came when I sat down at that table on the second floor of the Gazette building in Charleston. I hope the article turns out well. I do trust the writer, so I try not dwell on the interview or dredge up what I said or didn’t say. I’ll just think of it as good practice for “Ellen."

Personal Branding III: The Website

An Internet presence is an essential part of an author’s platform, so it follows that said author needs a website. And you need it before you’re published. In fact, you need it before you create your book proposal—that document you’ll use to attract agents to you like a magnet. Well, don’t take that magnet part too seriously, but you will want to list your website in the section of your proposal dedicated to marketing and promotion.
Before I sound like I know it all, I'll mention that this series on personal branding is where I share my journey as a first-time author. I’m learning as I go.
Anyone can get on the Internet these days. It’s easy to express an opinion, post photos, or even tell the world what you had for supper last night. I’d already taken the social media plunge by the time I had to think about a website. I’d seen my face on Facebook, but it was still weird to think of myself as the subject of a website. It helped me to look at the process as work and reduce it to steps and tasks instead of seeing my site as the doorway to fame.
I began researching website creation after I had a publishing contract, but a year before my book was due in stores. Before that, it was finish the book, target agents, put a proposal together, write letters, and try not to wait by the e-mailbox. The advice books mention that writing your book is only the beginning, and it’s true.
For website inspiration, I looked at the sites of famous authors. I remember masculine-looking bookcases on John Grisham’s site. Lee Child’s home page shows the author holding a cigarette. The smoke drifts out across the page, its motion a very cool effect. James Patterson’s site is highly interactive and loaded. Sandra Brown’s has an intro that loads while you wait. Romance author Julia Spencer-Fleming’s site is gorgeous.
A few authors had poorly designed websites—too much text, wild margins, too many fonts, crazy colors, or other faux pas that cried “homemade” in the worst sense of the word. Growing up in West Virginia, I wore homemade clothes, but anyone picturing flour sacks sewn together didn’t know my grandmother’s talent with a Singer.
I initially asked a media editor friend to help me set up my website, but she was already consumed with her full-time job. Next I explored companies on the Internet that would guide me through the process and then host my site. It looked easy enough, but did I really want a site I’d created myself?
One of my sayings is pretty simple: You can’t do everything. How much did I want to do myself? It wasn’t just a question of what I liked to do—or had the skill to do--versus what I didn’t. I also had to consider how many people I could afford to hire in the process of creating my brand: Not many.
In the end I paid attention to a bit of advice I came across in my research: Hire a professional, because the difference will be obvious to those who count. I’m not saying that’s always true, but combined with my lack of web savvy and low level of desire to build my own site, it worked for me.
Professional websites can cost thousands of dollars—and a website isn’t the only piece of a publicity plan that costs money--so it pays to shop around. I was very lucky to find an excellent designer who could work within my budget. As soon as I hired him, I was glad. He immediately reserved my domain name and asked me to compile a list of key words I’d want picked up by a search engine.
Over the next several days I made a list of my ideas. Some didn’t make it past the designer’s wisdom, and I was glad. As an example, I wanted a device that would track and display the number of visits to my site. He quickly convinced me that I might want to rethink that one, especially at the beginning. What if I had only a few visitors?
I also asked for something dramatic like Lee Child’s wafting cigarette smoke, but I gave it up when I learned it would be expensive for me and possibly slow to load. Here's another reason I liked my designer: For everything I gave up, he suggested something else.
I knew that a blog would be a critical piece of my “online presence.” After giving serious thought to what I’d write about, I thought up the name for my blog. Then I Googled “So Write!” to see if anyone else had thought of it first. I also suggested a little feature called “Transylvania Trivia” to teach people about Dracula’s homeland, since that’s a setting in my book. My research for my memoir had yielded many facts that would fit the trivia format.
Regarding interactivity, I was advised not to go crazy. So far my site is free of contests, special offers, games, and the like. If you make a large time commitment to your site, who’s going to keep that up? Recently I wrote to a favorite author via his website. I was disappointed when the language of his reply smacked of someone else’s touch. It was just too pat and didn’t seem like anything he would say.
My site has the usual menu: Home, About, Books, News, Links, and Contact. I wrote the copy for the pages and reviewed various stages of the site design. My designer initially prepared three “looks,” and I chose after asking friends and family for their input.
I furnished photos for my site, glad again for my session at Glamour Shots a few months earlier as well as the hundreds of pictures I’d taken in Romania. I had to export them in a photo editing program (I used Picasa) at a lower resolution for the web. My publisher furnished the required book information, and because my web designer is also the book cover designer, he provided the cover image.
Every two weeks I send in an update, for instance a new Transylvania Trivia. Soon I’ll be listing Events on that page. My web designer makes those changes, but I post new blog entries myself.
Of all the decisions required in developing a website, hiring a professional designer was the best one I made. He helped me through the decision points, making a huge task manageable and allowing me to move on to other things as my book went through the publishing process. My designer has been amazing--creative, knowledgeable, and quick; the process was affordable; and the site,, is everything I could have wanted. Thanks, Tatomir!

Saturday, March 12, 2011


“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I whispered in relief. It wasn’t because I’d just sent in my third round of copyediting corrections, though I was glad to get them off my desk; it was because my absolutely incredible copyeditor had saved me—again.

The copyedited manuscript of my memoir had arrived a few days earlier for my review. It came as an e-mail attachment. Prior to seeing “copyedit” in the filename, I wasn’t sure the project had reached that stage, the last and most routine edit before typesetting.

My publisher had said my book was in “line editing,” but even with my publishing background I didn’t know what the term meant. I hoped the manuscript wasn’t undergoing yet another content edit. If so, could I endure it? I’d completed six drafts by the time It Started with Dracula was accepted for publication, and with every revision it had become a slightly different book. Maybe you’ve experienced that evolution, known to some of us as “Can’t-Leave-It-Alone Syndrome.”

Before offering me a contract, my publisher read my manuscript and then hired someone else to read it and offer a second opinion, as a doctor would. In fact, he was a doctor—a book doctor. Some of us like to think we don’t need a book doctor; I always thought they were hired in dire cases, when the author wasn’t much of a writer. Live and learn.

After I’d signed my contract, my publisher recommended that I work with the book doctor on my own to cut the thousands of words required to bring my manuscript to an acceptable length. That’s tough to do alone, and the mere idea caused me to panic. My first thought was to chop entire chapters: “Who’d miss this?” I recklessly asked the four walls of my condo as I noted massive deletions for the book doctor’s review.

Fortunately, the book doctor was very, very good. He recommended a different approach. It took two weeks of intense rewriting on my part and an extra pillow under me on my office chair, but the subtle changes I made—a word here, a phrase there—worked. The story was preserved, my writing voice was preserved, and the word count was acceptable. I was thrilled.

The next step, the line edit-slash-copyedit, made me nervous all over again. If writers’ words are our babies, you might understand my desire to protect mine until they were locked in by the printing press. Little did I know that, while I worried about “my precious manuscript,” the copyeditor was finding a rather big mistake that I’d made.

She saved my neck.

While she was making style changes and flagging the occasional confusing passage, my copyeditor discovered a glitch in the timeline that spanned four chapters. I’d incorrectly written that we arrived somewhere on Friday when it was actually Thursday, and the missing day threw the story off. “I have a kind of radar for that,” she said when I thanked her.

Radar: It’s the perfect word to describe the mysterious element that transcends skill, training, and experience to set the best editors apart. Where does radar originate? Is it innate, or cumulative? All I know is this: Some editors have it, and others don’t. I was lucky that mine did.

I hate to admit to a second instance of screwing up a time sequence, but after I’d fixed the first glitch and sent it off, the copyeditor found another one at the last minute. Like the first, it would have been a disaster had it reached print.

Here’s the thing: Writing can’t be an ego trip. If it is, the publishing process will likely snap you out of it. Becoming an author has taught me that I don’t know everything, I’m not always right, and I make mistakes. As a writer, I need others’ eyes on my work. I need their radar.

I fixed the second glitch, grateful that both the copyeditor and the book doctor had found the flaws in my manuscript at the best possible time--while it still was a manuscript. They’d seen what I hadn’t, and they’d made me look better on the page. That’s the point, after all.

I’ve worked alongside some of the best editors in the business, but a career in educational publishing does not necessarily prepare one to become an author of nonfiction. The terminology is different; the processes can be different; and working it from the other side is definitely different. I’ve had to be led along.

Occasionally I write about poor editing in this blog, but I am totally appreciative of the people whose meticulous work behind the scenes makes an author look her best. I’ll end this post as I began it: “Thank you, thank you, thank you."