The Red Pen of Doom

Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.

Forget the Twitter: free ink and airtime are your MOST DANGEROUS WEAPONS

Most of you are trying the same thing.

Every writer, rock star and actor trying to break through is told to “Harness the powers of the internets.”

Start a blog. Get on Facebook, Twitter and six other things that haven’t been invented yet. The message is: jack into the Matrix, work it hard and the world will take notice of your inherent awesomeness.

I already poked Internet Fanboys in the eye by saying The Twitter, it is NOT for selling books.

Why pour 2.6 metric tons of salt into this fresh wound? Am I simply a bad, bad man, bent on destroying your dreams? No. I am a bad, bad man who hates people wasting their time. The series of tubes is actually quite useful. An amazing tool.

HOWEVER: 99.9 percent of people are doing it wrong. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Use the right tools for the right jobs

Now, some people took the wrong message from my post about the Twitter.

Bad Response No.1: “You’re wrong, because I don’t buy books from seeing authors on the Glowing Tube or when movies are made from their books or whatever. I only buy books based on word of mouth, specifically, from the mouth of my best friend, Suzie the Librarian.”

Bad Response No. 2: “Wow, that math stinks, and if we can’t break through without using Twitter and whatnot, then maybe we should give up our dreams of ever making it big, because I can’t afford millions of dollars to buy ads and publicity. I can barely afford this cardboard box and beef flavor Top Ramen, though on good months, I splurge for shrimp flavor.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

First off, Twitter isn’t a bad thing.

I adore Twitter. It’s a beautiful tool that’s meant for meeting people, talking smack and sharing information. It’s made for dialogue, and creative writer types are helpful. They like being nice to other creative writer types.

Twitter simply isn’t built for selling things.

That doesn’t mean you give up on your lifelong dream of writing, acting, singing or competitive square dancing.

Second, earned media is not only free, but it has more weight — more credibility — than paid advertising.

I will translate this into simple Man Speak: You can get on the radio, in the papers of news, on the Glowing Tube — and on blogs that review books or talk smack about movies / rock singers / square dancing — and IT DOESN’T COST YOU A DIME.

Chant with me: Earned media is free. Earned media is free. Earned media is free.

That’s why it’s called “earned media.” The paper doesn’t run a story because you pay them to do it. As a former reporter, I can explain how it goes. No matter how many stacks of twenties get flashed, the folks in the newsroom say, “I’m sorry, Mr. Big Shot, but you need to head down the hall to speak with the nice people in Advertising.”

How do I get some of this magical earned media, Mr. Smartypants?

Unbelievers want proof that this earned media thing (a) works and (b) really doesn’t cost money.

This is a huge topic. I can’t train you to be a publicist in 500 words, or 5,000 words.

What I can give you is a start.

People go to college to major in journalism, communications or public relations, and no, those majors aren’t insanely tough. It’s not like med school or law school.

You know what is insanely tough? DOING IT WELL.

There are plenty of plenty of people who work in public relations, just like there’s plenty of people who write — or edit — for a living at your local newspaper, magazine, TV or radio station.

Your average Joe Sixpack knows two phrases: “press release” and “press conference.” Shockingly, this is what most bosses and clients ask for.

Bad PR folks do exactly what the boss asks, despite the fact that reporters drown in a sea of press releases and hate most press conferences. Writers will get this analogy: press releases to reporters are equivalent to towering piles of queries agents get every day.

Back when I worked newsrooms — way back in the 1990s, which whippersnappers will remember is when Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves — we still had these things we called “fax machines” which were designed and built to constantly spew out press releases until they ran out of paper.

We carefully examined each press release to figure out whether it could turn into a decent three-point attempt. During especially cold winters, we rolled them into Presto-Logs.

The fact that good publicity is hard DOES NOT mean you retreat back into your mom’s basement to log onto Twitter, Facebook and World of Warcraft while munching the Cheetos.

Study up. Put yourself in the shoes of a busy reporter who has his own dreams. Journalists dream of writing amazing stories that win prizes. They dream of moving on to bigger and better papers, that they will move up from The Willapa Valley Shopper to The Seattle Times before landing a gig at The LA Times or The New York Times — but not The Washington Times, which is a joke.

So the first step is to get a little education in publicity and journalism.

Publicity 101

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: doing publicity right is quite worthwhile.

This is a huge topic.

I wrote 210+ posts for The New York Times’ about publicity — about 100,000 words, a book’s worth — and you can find all sorts of books about publicity and PR in your local store of books. Go there. Flip through some. Buy one.

If you have no monies and are eating pine needle soup tonight, click on the internets here to find most of my posts about PR.

Or click on different areas here:

Top 10 myths about public relations – Most people have no idea how publicity really works. This leads to ten different posts that explode the top 10 myths about PR.

Case studies, good and bad – PETA is a great example of an organization that constantly, constantly gets not only earned media (they spend zero dollars doing this), but global press coverage from creative publicity stunts, PSA (public service announcements) and other smart ideas. Whether you agree with their politics or not, PETA is the master of getting earned media. Learn from them.

Speeches and speechwriting – If you plan on being in the public eye, and do writing / acting / singing for a living, you’ll be talking to the press and public. It might be smart — and I’m just spitballing here — to get good at it.

Using the tools of rhetoric – Rhetoric isn’t just for speaking. Use the tools of rhetoric for writing, too.

Publicity for authors – You’ll notice my thinking changed on this over time. Early posts, I’m all “Wow, book publishers are embracing cool new technology and the series of tubes.” The more I drilled down, the more I agreed with Bob Mayer, Liz Berry and Barry Eisler that authors need to take a more active role in their own publicity — and that people are working too hard on social networking at the expense of talking to mass media.

Why reporters usually hate press releases

Alright, now you should know enough to be dangerous.

Let’s think back to all those press releases, pitches and press conferences. All the stuff PR folks are sending to newsrooms around the world.

Why would reporters be so evil as to ignore 99 percent of all that hard work by PR folks, people just trying to do a good job for their clients — who are paying them real monies to write them?

After all, a lot of people in PR used to be reporters. They know what they’re doing.

Here’s the first reason: reporters didn’t go to journalism school and sleep with their AP Stylebook (don’t ask, it’s a reporter thing) so they could get a job at a newspaper and spend their days rewriting somebody’s press release. They got into journalism to write their own stories, with their own byline on top. Therefore they’re predisposed to work their beat and generate great new stories all by themselves.

The invention of email made things worse. Before, people had to use fax machines, and even if they had crazy technopowers that let them blast-fax press releases all over the country — or the world — they had to (a) pay those long-distance bills and (b) keep an up-to-date list of fax numbers for all those newspapers, radio and TV stations.

Email and the series of tubes means that any schmoe with a computer can blast email press releases and whatnot TO THE ENTIRE WORLD. There are businesses that will sell you media lists, or do this for you.

Now reporters, who used to look through the pile of faxes when they were bored, get five zillion emails every day. The delete key gets worn out.

Here’s something about why the Standard Boring Press Release doesn’t get used and what you can do instead.

Deep in my evil Swedish soul, I believe that 99 percent of press releases are useless. I try to write other things instead. A different tool, a better way to get free ink and airtime. Opeds. Statements. Story kits. PSA’s. Youtube videos.

I could write years worth of posts about all this stuff, and I don’t have time for it. I am doing this for free, and because the Dayquil tells me to write it. To paraphrase the late Rick James: “Dayquil is a dangerous drug.”

Back to press releaes and press conference: Press conferences are usually an Achy Breaky Big Mistakey that reporters don’t bother attending. They  hate being constantly invited to dog-and-pony shows. Here’s the only time you should hold a press conference: when so many reporters are bugging you for the same news that it’d be easier to do one big press conference than 15 interviews.

Here’s another post I wrote about press conferences. It is educational.

What clients really are asking for when they say, “I want a press release” is “I want some ink.”

They don’t really want a specific product. The want coverage and don’t honestly don’t care how it happens. “Press release” is just the only phrase rattling around in their brain that’s familiar.

When they say, “Let’s have a press conference” they really want to get on TV, because press conference means TV cameras, right?

Bottom line: the best way to get free ink and airtime  is a great publicist IN YOUR FIELD.

Not just any public relations person, but a book publicist for authors, a music publicist for bands and a Hollywood publicist for actors and directors.

This is quite similar to my crazy idea that (a) every writer needs an editor and (b) not just any editor, but an editor who (c) does this for full-time, for monies and (d) does it in your very specific field of writing.

Yes, there is a common theme here. Don’t get just any random expert. Get the best possible expert in that specific field. That’s why I hire a great accountant to do my taxes rather than my sister, despite the fact that she has a degree in mathematics and does calculus for fun.

It’s also why I have a doctor and a dentist and a dude who changes the oil and fixes the engine of my car. Because amateurs may save you money, but they’ll also leave your garage littered with 5,982 engine parts THAT DO NOT FIT TOGETHER and now your car is a $16,983 lawn ornament.

Get the best expert you can, every time.

Say my sister the screenwriter — who is a genius, and won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy, those Oscar peoples, because she rocks — say she asked for my help with publicity. Sure, I’d spitball some evil ideas and such, but I would NOT do the actual execution of the plan.

Is this because I’m some sort of wussy nancypants? Nope. The simple fact is it’d take years of living and working in Hollywood to get the same connections, media lists and experience as a full-time Hollywood publicist. If you want a world-class stump speech for a senator, or a 30-minute keynote speech about saving the environment, sure, I’m your man.

Get the best expert you can.

Now, some of you are starving artists and will try to do it all yourself. I sympathize. Study up before you go crazy emailing press releases to the world or whatever. Because it’s easy to screw this up.

Now, because I like numbers and such, here’s a Top 10 List of Do’s and Don’ts

Top 10 Publicity Do’s and Don’ts

10. DO get a great head shot.

The first thing people notice is your photo – on Twitter, on your blog, Facebook or even in gmail, which shows a little mug shot of who you’re emailing.

People make a decision about your photo in less than one second, and that first impression is almost impossible to erase. There is real science on this. People who looked at mug shots of people running for Congress for five seconds could predict the winner without knowing their name, their party, nothing. Read the brilliant book BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell for more on this sort of thing. Meanwhile, some posts with tips so your head shot doesn’t make you look like Godzilla:

The Eyes Rule the Brain

What to Wear for the Cameras

Three Mug Shot Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Bottom line: If you want to look like a pro, don’t have an amateur shoot your mug. And don’t do a self-portrait using a mirror or by holding your iPhone out and hitting click. That’s something Snooki would do.

A lot of photo studios do a Realtor’s special where they shoot you, professionally, for cheap. My local photo studio charges $35 for a simple mug. Do it.

9. DON’T use your blog as a diary.

The first rule of rhetoric is, “Know your audience.”

Using a blog as your diary is selfish. Seriously. Nobody is that interesting. Whenever I see a blog full of diary style entries, I bail as fast as the mouse will click.

If you have a blog — which is smart — try to make every post you write (a) useful to whoever reads it, (b) funny or (c) useful AND funny.

8. DO use Twitter the right way.

Twitter is, hands down, the best tool for meeting people. Ever.

I’ve met writers from New Zealand and New Mexico, authors from Australia and Austria and editors in Italy, India and Ireland. (Yes, even on my deathbed with the Spanish Flu of 1918, the powers of Dayquil helped me do some alliteration, and I may have even spelled alliteration right. It’s possible. Hell if I know.)

Writers tend to help other writers. They’re kind-hearted souls. Use the Twitter liberally – but as a dialogue, not a monologue. Don’t spam people on Twitter with too many links to your book, your new album or whatever.

Repeat after me: The Twitter, it is for meeting people, not selling things.

7. DON’T expect much from the Book of Face.

Facebook is another tool in your toolbox, except it’s a tool that’s great for keeping tracks of college buddies, the weddings of cousins and political campaigns. Maybe have a Facebook fan page, once you’re a famous author / actor / rock star.

If you’re trying to break through, Facebook is mostly good at inviting people to events and keeping in touch with people you already know.

So in all honestly, Facebook is a weak tool for this purpose. If you put a Nine to my head and counted down from three, telling me to choose between an hour of Facebook per day versus giving a phone interview to The Willapa Valley Shopper, I’d go with The Willapa Valley Shopper. Because everybody needs practice talking to reporters. It’s a skill.

You don’t want your first interview to be a big-time paper or TV station and have it turn out to be a disaster. Think about Rick Perry and debates. Practice matters.

6. DO get a mentor or three.

Every actor needs a drama coach, every boxer needs a trainer, every rock singer needs a producer — you get the picture.

Sure, you could get the high school music teacher to help you record an album, or the college baseball coach to work on your swing. Every writer needs an editor, preferably somebody who (a) edits your specific genre of whatever and (b) does this FOR A LIVING.

Also try to get mentors in the different areas of your shebang. Hollywood people need to navigate the Artsy World of Creatives (actors, directors and scriptwriters) and the Land of the Money Peoples (the ones who drive cars that cost more than your house). Two different mentors for those two different worlds would be smart. And so forth. You’re bright. You get it. I’ll shut up.

5. DON’T use the internets to kvetch or fight.

Complaining isn’t attractive. Now, pointing out stupidity is a far, far different thing than complaining. That’s why is gloriously entertaining.

Example: I’ve notice a horrible trend of women writers using a blog, the Twitter or Book of Face to kvetch about how stupid their husband are.

We men tend not to kvetch about our girlfriends / wives / harem online because the internet, it is forever, and in some things, we men are actually smart. Some of us have noticed that men who’ve done this, the police never find their bodies. Every time a female writer does this, I cringe. Don’t do it.

Also, don’t start stupid fights in blog comment sections, the Twitter or anything else. The series of tubes if full of Internet Tough Guys who think they’re 6’4 kickboxing champs when they’re really 5-foot-nothing dorks who’ve never had a fight in their life. YOU ARE NOT AN O.G., AND WE ALL KNOW IT. Nobody will be impressed with how tough you talk online.

4. DO meet people in real life.

Go to writing conferences / music things / acting shebangs without trying to actually make anything happen. Go just to meet people, to listen and learn. Don’t pitch anything. Seriously.

Email local experts and muffins of stud in your field and ask to buy them a cup of coffee for 15 minutes. Every city has an author, a retired actor and a rock legend who’s hung up their guitar. Most people like talking about their career and the knowledge they worked so hard to obtain. Coffee isn’t threatening. It’s 15 minutes if you don’t click and maybe an hour if you do. Lunch or dinner, that’s a pain in the petunia. No. Go with coffee. Don’t ask them to read your novel or be your drama coach. Ask them what they’d do, in your shoes. Ask them who else you should meet. They’ll know people. They might even shoot their friend an email introducing you, or warning them to stay away from the over-eager stalker person. Either way, give it a shot.

3. DON’T advertise that you’re an aspiring / amateur / wannabe whatever

I bet you’ve seen blogs that say, in big print, ” Aspiring author” with a lot of posts about their current WIP and links to the full Word doc of previous manuscripts that didn’t sell.

Don’t do this, on your blog or your Twitter profile or anywhere. Say you’re a writer or an actor or a musician. Talk about craft, maybe. Talk about your favorite writers or movies. Review music. Make fun of the literature we all had to read in college, like this woman who does just that, and does it so well that I snort coffee through my nose.

Just don’t tell the world that you’re an amateur, a dabbler, a wannabe. Because they’ll believe you.

2. DO stretch yourself.

What’s one thing that scares you? Do it.

Then find another thing that scares you, like talking to a reporter or giving a speech to a room full of people. Do those things. And keep doing it. Because fear is usually the block keeping people from breaking through.

Bob Mayer says an agent told him that 90 percent of the time, writers DO NOT send in a manuscript that an agent or editor requested.

That’s just stupid. They slave away on a book, maybe for years, and when somebody who could get you published actually asks for it, nine out of ten don’t have the cojones to follow through.

What’s worse than failing? Not even trying.

1. DON’T keep trying the same thing while expecting a different result.

There’s no magic bullet for breaking through. I’ve done enough case studies to see that there are a hundred paths to making it to the top. The one common denominator is that they kept trying — but also, they kept trying different things, not the same thing over and over again.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, said (I’m paraphrasing here) he has 100 bad ideas for every idea that works. Some things that he thought were fool-proof, sure-fire successes with even MORE hyphens than I put in there, those things were huge flops.

Other ideas that Scott thought were insane, like becoming a syndicated cartoonist despite the fact that HE COULDN’T DRAW FOR BEANS, they turned out great.

The key, he said, was that he kept thinking up crazy new ideas and giving them a shot.


This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

About Guy Bergstrom

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot.

28 comments on “Forget the Twitter: free ink and airtime are your MOST DANGEROUS WEAPONS

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  5. betterlettered
    May 19, 2012

    Such a lot of fantastic advice here and delivered with a twinkle too – I’m really pleased to have discovered The Red Pen of Doom (although you seem to have discovered me first!) and now I have to get off my rear and do something.


  6. Pingback: The Series of Tubes is not a strategy | The Red Pen of Doom

  7. Deborah Owen
    May 5, 2012

    Thanks for following my Writing Tips blog. > I love your straight talk. We need more of that. You’re my kind of guy, Guy. I’d like to talk to you. Please drop me a line at Best, Deb


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  9. Sam Kearns
    April 18, 2012

    My brain hurts from being informed so hard. Thank you.


    • Guy
      April 18, 2012

      Thanks for reading, and commenting.


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  14. Bridget McKenna
    January 6, 2012

    Guy, I am so happy to have discovered your blog. I’m going put it under my pillow. Then, as I won’t be able to sleep, I’ll have plenty of time to catch up on more recent posts.


  15. suzannesan
    January 1, 2012


    If a movie is ever made about you, I would select Kevin Spacey to play the part of you. Perhaps I’m wrong, but he’s quick to quip, spares no words in scripts and, I believe, a wonderful actor, as you are an incredible writer.

    PS I’m still reading; probably will be for a few days! Thanks.


    • Guy
      January 1, 2012

      Glad you like the blog. I look nothing like Kevin the Spacey, but he is an amazing actor, so thanks for the compliment and the comments.


  16. Cynthia hartwig
    December 31, 2011

    Dead on, Guy. I met you via Twitter but like you even better via the keyboard. Voting w my subscription which is my high praise.



  17. John Robinson
    November 14, 2011

    Guy, most of the blogs I read give me a morsel or two of beef jerky to masticate; you’ve given me a Porterhouse. And a baked potato.

    In other words, great information here, friend.

    And I plan to use it all.


    • Guy
      November 14, 2011

      Glad you liked it.

      Updated the first post with a new chart from Dan Zarrella and other goodies.

      Third post goes live tomorrow. Internet Fanboys, their heads may implode.


  18. Pat Bertram
    November 13, 2011

    You’re right — we need specific and smart. I moderate a group on facebook, and only today did the group come to the realization that posting self-promotion links is a waste — no one reads them and everyone hates them. So we decided to go more for networking. Making friends. At the very least, it’s more fun.


  19. Chris Devlin
    November 13, 2011

    See, and Dayquil makes me not be able to spell. Bravo that you wrote such a clear and focused post while on the stuff. Thanks for the promised follow-up explaining how to get earned media. I look forward to hearing more.


    • Guy
      November 13, 2011

      Glad you like it. There’s a lot of meat to chew on there. Third post, coming Tuesday, is drafted. Quite different. IT MAY BE BRILLIANTLY EVIL. Or that could be the Dayquil talking.


  20. Sandy Raven
    November 11, 2011

    Thanks so much for the helpful information!


    • Guy
      November 11, 2011

      You’re welcome. Thanks for reading it, and commenting. Come on back.


  21. davidrory
    November 11, 2011

    Great clear thinking and very helpful for clearing the mind of social-media mud that’s stuck there. I’m going slow and trying to avoid the pits you mention. Thanks again.


    • Guy
      November 11, 2011

      Glad you liked it. Will try to write more posts with evil and useful tips. Too much Vague and Stupid out there – people need Specific and Smart.


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