Conventional wisdom is conventionally wrong.
Nowhere is this more true than in the fields of writing, social media and publicity — three lands where tradition and mythology rule the day.
Those who haven’t read these posts should start here, so they don’t get all Confused, because this is really Part 2 of Why critique groups MUST DIE.
So: if people listen to this silly blog and (a) stop trying to use Twitter to sell books and (b) go all Michael Bay as they blow up old, obsolete critique groups, what should they do instead?
Get a team. Build your own Writing Monster.
Hopefully, better than one of these.
Now, this is the opposite of a critique group, which is typically people who live in the same area, have the same rough skill level and do essentially the same thing, whether it’s writing romances about Men in Kilts, epic fantasies about elves with lightsabers riding dragons or dark mysteries about haunted detectives who are allergic to razors and brush their teeth with bourbon.
That’s not a team. Those are your buddies, your clones.
Successful authors, actors, pro athletes and other public figures have a team full of world-class specialists: publicists to get free ink and airtime, marketers to sell widgets, trainers to make them look good if paparazzi shoot them on a beach in Maui, minions to handle the scheduling and correspondence, editors to edit their words and speechwriters to, I don’t know, write the speeches.
If you want to truly break through and be world-class at whatever you’re trying to do (punk rock, zombie movies, novels about undead orcs and the high school girls who love them), then you must at least PRETEND to do things in a world-class way.
A traditional critique group is like trying to win a Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers with you as the quarterback and a collection of buddies who play flag football sometimes. If football is a foreign language, try this: the usual critique group is like playing a game of chess with a board full of the same piece: all pawns, all bishops or all knights. You need pawns and rooks, bishops and a queen, knights and a king. You need balance.
And if you’re competing against the best in the world, you can’t do it all yourself. That’s like playing the Super Bowl by yourself, or taking a lonely king into a match against the Bobby Fishers of the world.
How to build a Writing Monster
Name your Writing Monster whatever you like: an Anti-Critique Group, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Riot Grrls with Bloody Pens, The Legion of Doom, The Flaming Squirrels, Spork Hunters.
Whatever you call it, your team should consist of a TEAM OF SPECIALISTS, though not an A-TEAM, because that movie was worse than terrible, which I am willing to testify to in open court, under oath, despite the fact that I only saw the trailer once.
Unlike a critique group, it will:
- Use the powers of the interwebs, connecting you at the speed of light with experts and buddies around the globe, orbiting the International Space Station or hunkered down in the secret bunker preparing for the zombie apocalypse.
- Do many, many things — typically, short things of less than a page — rather than focus on critiquing 120,000-word memoirs about growing up on a potato farm in Idaho.
- Run on friendship, barter or monies, kind of like a car that can run on gas, diesel, electricity or tequila.
- Only consist of people you choose and adore, avoiding the whole group dynamic and political nonsense of an in-person critique group, meaning you not only don’t have to care if Steve thinks Tyler is a pompous and pretentious nancypants, but Steve doesn’t even have to know Tyler exists.
Bartertown for writers
Because you are not all yacht-owning members of the 1 percent, and cannot afford to have minions write a check to hire a team of world-class experts, you should try to do this by enlisting friends, making friends, bartering and yes, paying monies.
Unlike critique groups, you’ll start backwards, with VERY SHORT THINGS of four words or less than a page, things people don’t mind helping with.
Example: You could not send enough UPS trucks with suitcases stuffed with purple euros (the purple ones are worth 500) to get me to read your 120,000-word novel, you know, the one about elves with lightsabers and the orcs who love them. But if I knew you on Twitter, and by know I mean “vaguely recognize your Twitter handle,” and you were testing out different four-word loglines and taglines for the thing, like “Wizard ruins elf prom,” that’s no big deal. In fact, that’s quick, painless and fun. Nobody minds that sort of thing.
An anti-critique group should focus on the quick short things that actually matter the most.
Four words times four
The usual way is (a) write a novel / play / screenplay / punk rock album, (b) have everybody read it / listen to it / edit it, then (c) spend five minutes thinking about how to pitch it and sell the thing.
No. Start with the pitch, logline, tagline and headline.
Four words apiece. Five is cheating.
If you can’t do all four of those things in four words, it’s not a good idea yet.
Who you need: For loglines and taglines, a screenwriter or Hollywood vet. For pitches and headlines, talk to a publicist or a journalist.
Quirks and hooks
Unless you’re a household name already, you’ll need free ink and airtime to bust through.
Quality is not a hook. Right now, it doesn’t matter how great your novel / play / screenplay / punk rock album will be. You can’t pitch quality. Reporters and TV cameras will not show up because your shebang is just “so great.”
They need a hook, a quirk.
Think of AT LEAST three possible hooks and quirks that could get your free ink and airtime.
Who you need: A publicist, preferably in that specific field. Or a journalist, hopefully one who’s covered that beat. Buy a local reporter lunch. Ask what they’d do in your shoes.
A useful post: You can pitch ANYTHING except quality
Blueprints, setups, payoffs
Don’t skip ahead now and spend a year writing your 120,000-word novel or recording your punk rock masterpiece.
Draw the blueprints first. Lay out the turning points, setups and payoffs. Make sure the engine is hooked up to the transmission before you spend all kinds of time on the paint job.
Who you need: A screenwriter. Accept no substitutes. If you insist on accepting substitutes, go with a playwright or novelist, but only if that novelist is a plotter instead of a pantser. A pantser will be absolutely no use to you whatsoever. They’ll tell you to “just write it first.” Kiss six months of your life goodbye.
Useful post: Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG
Editing for structure and story
This is the most valuable kind of editing and worth every penny.
You should not barter for this. The deep editing of a screenplay or novel is a massive undertaking.
Who you need: the best book editor you can find.
I will once again pimp Theresa the Stevens, who is a Glowing Mystical Being, and say that she starts out editing your first 75 pages / query / synopsis for something like $200. That is a bargain.
Look around and hire somebody who edits YOUR genre of fiction, not for free as a favor to buddies on weekends, but for a living.
Before you write anything of length and get an editor, read these books on storytelling and structure:
- SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder
- STORY by Robert McKee
Copy editing and proofing
If you’re a beginning writer, this is your bread and butter for bartering and making friends.
No matter how long you’ve been writing — for monies or for fun — you need somebody to copy edit and proof your stuff. This is the law. Newbie writers who offer to beta read or copy edit / proof, and are meticulous at it, will be universally beloved.
Who you want: Don’t go with a specialist like a book editor or novelist. That’s like using a Ferrari as a grocery cart.
Go with new writers. Ideally, a copy editor at a newspaper who’s writing her first novel — that sort of thing. But you want multiple people on tap for copying editing and proofing, especially if it’s anything of length.
Find yourself an actor, playwright or screenwriter. They rock at dialogue. Or find a novelist who is GOOD AT IT. Different novelists are good at different things.
For something short, or important, bribe a poet.
Yes, I make fun of Gertrude Stein, who is a babbler, not a poet. HOWEVER: Real poets are amazing writers. Nobody is better at polishing a bit of text until it is a shiny diamond made of words.
Layout, art and design
These folks are really specialized, though more and more people are teaching themselves how to format e-books, design their own covers, etc. However, most book covers, album covers and websites designed by amateurs look like they were, I don’t know, designed by amateurs. Try for somebody who does this for a living. It’s the first thing potential readers / buyers see, and you can’t undo that first impression.
Tools for free ink and airtime
Headshot: you need a high-resolution headshot, black-and-white, for media kits.
Hire a photographer for this. If Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie get the best pro photographers in the world plus hair and makeup for an hour, then burn 200 shots on SLR cameras that cost more than your car and photoshop the four best photos until they have one photo that is OK to publish on the cover of a magazine, then you having a buddy shoot your head shot on an iPhone and thinking that’ll do is delusional.
A lot of portrait photographers have what they call a Realtor special, because every Realtor needs a headshot for ads and such. Ask about that.
Twitter / Facebook / online headshots: Use a smaller version of your pro headshot. Sometimes, Twitter and Facebook will do funky things when they munch down your mug shot. This happens. Try different photos. Do not use a great photo on your blog and such, then a terrible shot on Twitter and elsewhere. Ask Katy Perry: one bad photo can erase the good done by 1,043 beautiful shots.
Pen name or stage name: If your name is hard to pronounce, or people won’t be sure if you’re a man or woman, get a pen name. Do it now. Talk to whoever.
Media kit: Get a publicist or journalist to help with a media kit. Put it on your blog or website.
Social media audit: Does your profile on Twitter stink? Is your blog a mess? Find a publicist, journalist or one of the Barons of the Blogosphere.
Press release: One or two pages. Get a publicist or journalist.
Letter to the editor: 200 words. Best of the best would be an opinion page editor or speechwriter. Just fine would be a publicist or journalist.
Op-ed: 600 to 800 words. Find an opinion editor, speechwriter or publicist. You’d think a journalist would be good, but if they do hard news, probably no. Opinion is a different animal.
Speech or speech coaching: To get free ink and airtime, you must speak in public, charm reporters, go on radio and TV — all without sounding like a dork. First, read some books, like THANK YOU FOR ARGUING by Jay Heinrichs. Before you give your first speech, talk to a speechwriter or publicist. If that frightens you, talk to a high school /college debate coach or a community theater nerd. They rock. Note that a keynote speech — 30 minutes / 3,000 words — is a huge flipping deal that takes a ton of time and can cost $3,000 to $10,000 out in the freelance world. Don’t ask a speechwriter friend to write your keynote speech because “Hey, they’re your buddy.” They will quickly stop being your buddy.
Publicity and marketing: Get a publicist in that specific field (book publicist, Hollywood publicist, pro sports publicist, punk rock hype man). And get a copywriter or advertising / marketing genius who has experience selling books / punk rock CD’s / whatever. Do not barter or pay them in goats. Hire the best you can and pay them monies.
Making it work
I listed the best possible specialists under each shebang, and yes, you may not know such people, or be intimidated by the idea of talking to them on Twitter or whatever.
If that gives you hives, start small. Find somebody who does community theater and buy them coffee to yack about three-act structures and such. Ring the local high school debate coach and ask them about rhetoric and public speaking.
Doing this from the opposite direction also works, i.e., thinking of the experts you need rather than the products. Example: A good publicist will know marketing folks, a pro photographer that does good headshots and a speechwriter for clients giving keynotes. That’s a smart shortcut.
Journalists will also have similar strengths. Every reporter on the planet is required, by law, to write The Great American Novel, but journalism and fiction are completely different, so reporter struggling to crank out that novel would be happy to talk smack about possible hooks that might get you free ink and airtime, while writerly writer types can help them with the craft of fiction.
Later, I’ll do a post or page on standard word counts and industry rates, because (a) people wonder about such things and (b) it is quite useful.
HOWEVER: Don’t build a Writing Monster that you try to run with some kind of Excel spreadsheet, saying that since the press release you wrote for Jane is worth $200 out in the real world, she owes you five hours of copy editing your memoir about being in the failed boy band called Not In Sync At All.
And when I say hire experts when you need to and barter when you can, I don’t mean take that ball and run with it straight into Crazy Town for a touchdown. Writers are helpful, but don’t abuse that. Start small. Four words times four. Then the other things that are less than a page.
Final thought. Here are my suggestions for acceptable forms of barter: rounds of Dutch cheese, bottles of bourbon, purple euros, links to funny videos, French cigarettes, black beater Elantras, stapled stacks of 10,000 rupees and boxes of 7.62 mm ammo for the coming zombie apocalypse.