how to build your author platform

When I signed a contract to write two books for Revell back in December 2009, I had one magazine article to my name. And that was it. I did not have an agent (and I still don’t have one, by the way). I had about 1300 subscribers to my blog. That alone wasn’t very impressive to a publisher. Build your platform. That’s what they tell us. I’ve heard literary agents say you need to have at least 5000 subscribers to your blog before you will be considered for representation. I’ve walked out of sessions at writing conferences feeling defeated, discouraged, and nearly beat up. If you are a writer who has a blog and would like to pursue traditional publication, I’m sure you can relate. Here’s a comment I received on yesterday’s post.

“As a writer who loves to blog AND wants to pursue publication, how do you reconcile the whole concept of ‘don’t worry about the numbers’ when publishers only CARE about the numbers??? I mean, in the end, numbers=people. They aren’t just numbers. They represent the number of readers who are impacted by your message. For a publisher, they represent the number of people who will likely buy your new book. So, really…numbers DO matter.”

Sandy Cooper

I don’t know that publishers only care about the numbers. If that were true, I never would have gotten a contract. But agents and publishers do talk about platform. And platform is important. But it can be endlessly frustrating for a writer because it seems like you can’t have a book until you have a platform, and you can’t have a platform without a book. There is no formula, and I can’t tell you exactly why Revell took a chance on an unpublished blogger with a meager platform. But they did, and here is one thing I did that I think helped.

I focused on building a bench, not a platform. Several of the families who live in our cul-de-sac have been there for over 40 years. Their children are grown with children of their own, and I watch as these women walk slow to their mailbox, chat with one another in the street, and go back inside. They can’t stand there for long.

Last spring, we bought some benches to put in the grassy area of the cul-de-sac so we could sit and watch while the kids ride their bikes. But something else happened with those benches when we weren’t around.

One afternoon, I noticed two of my neighbors leave their house at the same time and shuffle towards the benches just before dinner. I went outside to check the mail and entered into the conversation with them for a while. They spoke of children and grandchildren, aging siblings and friends, the weather. They enjoyed the breeze and waved at the occasional passing car. They lingered. I made my way back to the kitchen to finish up dinner but kept my eye on them. They stayed out for nearly an hour. I’ve not seen them do that before. It isn’t that they didn’t want to be together, but before it wasn’t so easy. Now, they had a bench to sit on. And the bench made all the difference.

The bench didn’t give them something to talk about. It gave them a place to do it. People want to talk about things. They want to relate and live in community and converse and be together. Sometimes they just need a bench. They need a place to get the conversation started, a platform that allows them to linger and find one another.

A platform is a stage with the spotlight on you. A bench is a community with no spotlight at all. Build your bench.

I love how Sandy says numbers are people. And people do matter. People need benches, a place to relate and connect and identify with one another. When I wrote my book proposal, I didn’t have impressive numbers to show them. Instead, I focused on the reader, the girl who would come and sit on my bench if only they would help me show her where it was. Because you can build the most beautiful, relevant bench in North America but if no one knows it exists, they can’t come sit on it.

And so in addition to building a bench with quality content and a clear message, we need to have the confidence to talk about it. It’s not about me, it’s about you. It’s not about a massive audience, it’s about being a part of a community. It’s not about self-promotion, it’s about believing in your message enough to share it. Not because of you, but because of them.

What about you? Can you relate with Sandy and this sometimes frustrating dilemma of building a platform?

But I want to write books, not blog posts!

I am three weeks away from turning in my second book to my publisher. I am also three weeks away from my first book releasing in bookstores everywhere. Three weeks away to the day. I know what it is to write books. Ish. I say that to remind you that everything I say today is seen through the lens of a writer who is steadily approaching both a major deadline as well as a book release. I might be seven shades of crazy.

Publishing is business, and I know so very little about it. (Hello, this is my first book, and I am no expert. Nice to meet you). One thing I do know: If you want to share a message, you have to do the work. Maybe the work is a book. Or maybe it is just a few blog posts or a series on a blog or an ebook. You don’t have to know which you have when you start, but as you handle it and sit with it and simply do the next thing that makes sense, you will know. Here are some things to keep in mind if you have a blog but would like to pursue traditional publication.

Writing may be different from publishing. You may be a writer. Does that mean you are also supposed to pursue publication? Are all writers destined to be published? Should all writers try? Rachelle Gardner wrote a post about Writing vs. Publishing on her blog a few months ago and the comments are especially interesting. A common theme among writers is the desire to not only want to write, but to want to be read. I relate with that. But are we limiting ourselves when being read only means writing books?

Blog writing is not practice. Sometimes I get the feeling that bloggers write on blogs as practice for their books that don’t exist yet. But they don’t take it seriously. This is a bad idea. If you need to practice, do it in your private journal. Don’t operate from a corner of scarcity, hoarding your best work for a future book. Do the work now. Why wait?

Book writing is not glamorous. Examine your reasons for wanting to be published in the traditional way. This isn’t the place to gloss over your red flags, or to say you’ll figure it out when the time comes. Know your reasons, and know them well. Is it to see your name on the cover of a book? Is it for the affirmation? Is it because a book is the absolute best way to get your message out and there is no other medium by which you could do that?

I’m not here to talk you out of your reasons. As you know, all kinds of writing can be grueling, lonely,  and difficult. But when you write in such a way that forces you to get to the heart of your message, when you set out to create a large piece of work for public consumption, and when you have to do it on a deadline, you will cry, hate, go crazy, complain, fight, neglect things, and see yourself at your worst. And then, at the end of the day, you are the only one who can do it. Just you. You can’t delegate it, ration it, or boss it. It’s you and the book, and it won’t leave you alone until it’s done. And then when it’s done, it’s not yours anymore. You do all the work, and then you have to release it, this thing you have loved, shaped, hated, surrendered, taken back, hoarded, questioned, feared, rejoiced over, and made – you have to write it and then you have to release it into the hands of people who might love, hate, question, or dismiss it.

Your message needs to have long legs. When you publish a book, you’ll be sitting with this one message day after day, month after month, week after week, year after ever loving year. You have to love this message like you love yourself. You have to care for your reader with grace and compassion and endurance. You have to be willing to talk about this message in some form for the rest of your life. I’m not saying you will be talking about it forever, but you have to be willing to.

Know the real dream. You may have a dream to write a book, and that is a legitimate dream to be sure. But the truth is the fulfillment of that dream is partially out of your control. If you are a writer who has something to say, an even deeper dream than writing a book is to have people who need to hear what you have to say hear it. That’s really it. Your dream doesn’t have to change, but the method might.

The message is more important than the method. Your job is to cultivate a message. Once you embrace that you are a writer and begin writing the things that make you come alive, then you will become well versed in this area of your message. And you will want to share it in conversation, on a blog, through an ebook, a newsletter, a magazine article, a note to a friend. And here’s another thing. If it’s worth writing a book for, then it’s worth having a blog for, too. It’s also worth leading a small group at your church and having coffee with a friend and writing a blurb about it in a newsletter. Once you know your passion, you can mold it to fit anywhere.

This week, I’ve been sharing some thoughts from a talk I gave at the She Speaks Conference two weeks ago. Tomorrow we will finish up talking about writing. Are there any specific things we haven’t talked about that you have been wondering? Share them with us in the comments.

What should you write about?

Today I continue to share snippets of a talk I gave at the She Speaks Conference two weeks ago. The talk was titled From Blog to Book: How I Got Published Without Being Famous. I’m not sharing it point by point because that’s just not how I roll.

“I write about all kinds of things, but I get the most visits when I write about running. Should I have a blog for runners?” She sat in the back and craned her neck to see the speakers up front.

From where I sat, I could barely see her. But I could hear the question behind the question. I turned my head back to the front of the room to the four women on barstools holding microphones. There were about 75 of us that day in October 2008. It was the first Blissdom Conference, an event for bloggers that has now grown to over 700. It’s been nearly 3 years, but I haven’t forgotten that woman.

She asked an important question, one writers have been asking for centuries, though not exactly in those terms. On some level, she was asking this: How can I make sure what I write matters? It didn’t seem like she really wanted to write about runners, but writing for runners seemed to mean she would at least be writing stuff that mattered to someone. And if what she said mattered to someone, then she would get visits. And it if she got visits, then she would keep writing whatever it was that got her visits. And so she wanted to know if she should have a blog for runners.

I don’t remember how the panel answered that question, exactly, but I will answer it now: no one can tell you what to write about. Don’t ask what’s selling. It kind of doesn’t matter. The market wants you, at your very best, showing up and doing what you do.

It doesn’t matter if you’re starting a blog to make money or writing a book proposal to submit to an editor or writing an ebook about how to write an ebook – the same rules apply for everyone. To be clear, these words are for those of us who want to write for an audience. If you just love to write because you love to write and it helps you live better, then by all means, write in whatever way you wish. But if you want us to care what you write about, then think about this:

Write about something. Anything. Just sit in a chair, set a timer, and make yourself write. There is only one guarantee in publishing, and that is you absolutely will not be published if you don’t write. Start somewhere. I recommend you do this privately. No one wants to read a blog post that starts out “I have no idea what to say, so I’m just gonna start writing.”

If you are a writer and you give yourself permission to just start writing, it is my  completely unscientific and undocumented opinion that seeds will come out all over your paper. You may not know what kind of plant they will be yet, but you know those seeds mean something to you. And they will sit there like tiny little shadows of things to come, and you will stare at them and think Now where did you come from? And somewhere inside, that voice will begin to speak.

Write from the voice.  You know the voice. It’s the one that begins to speak when you’re driving down the highway alone or just before you step out of the shower. It’s the one that speaks just as you lay your head down on the pillow, between the busy day and restful sleep. It is the voice that reminds you of your passion, your heart, your message. It may be the voice that tries to convince you to take some time and space to figure out what that passion actually is. You can’t put it in a sentence yet, but you know it’s there. You can’t ignore that voice.

Write what makes you come alive, not what you think will sell. You can spot the passionless artist from the first word that falls flat out of their mouth. You’re no fool. But neither are we. When you try to write things simply because you think it’s what people will want to read, we know. And we don’t want to read it. But if you are excited about something, chances are great that someone else will be excited about it too.

Write bad stuff. John Mayer said this last month to a group of students at Berklee College of Music: “I can’t stress how important it is to write bad songs.” Artists are afraid to write because they fear the writing will be awful. He says it may be awful now, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Bad songs aren’t always bad songs, they’re just unfinished good songs. One good phrase is worth a thousand bad ones. But if you didn’t write the thousand, you wouldn’t have found the one. Finish. It.

Write with great faith, even if your idea is small. There is nothing more frustrating for a writer who knows she’s a writer to want to write but fears she has nothing to say. No message, no insight into the world, no direction. I felt this way for many, many, many years. I even stopped writing after I was married, thinking that part of my life was over. When I finally picked up a pen again, I did so in the form of this blog. It was January of 2006 and I had no idea what I was doing. I would only post when an idea showed up that seemed to have some redemptive quality. And even though it’s painful for me to go back and remember where I started from (the ridiculous ellipses! the tiny, tiny photos!), it’s necessary. Because even though I didn’t know exactly where I was headed five years ago, I wrote those little things that resonated with me.

Where are you in your writing journey? Are you still wrestling with calling yourself a writer? Are you a writer who doesn’t know her message? Do you have a story and a message but are afraid to share it?

Coming up next: But I want to write books, not blog posts!

Why is it so hard to call yourself a writer?

This week I will be sharing some snippets of a talk I gave at the She Speaks Conference two weeks ago, as well as some thoughts inspired by the topic in general. The title of the talk was From Blog to Book: How I Got Published Without Being Famous. I welcome your comments, questions, and insight as we discuss blog writing, book writing, and publishing this week.

I showed up at my first writing conference alone and a wreck. I knew I had just paid a lot of money to attend a conference that I was about to walk out of, because I felt so terribly out-of-place. I had never had one thing published in my life, I didn’t even know the first thing about writing a magazine article, I didn’t know what a book proposal was, and I thought only actors and athletes needed agents. It was She Speaks the summer of 2008 and the conference was for writers, speakers, and women’s ministry leaders.  As I approached the registration desk,  the kind woman sitting there asked me, “Are you a writer or a speaker?” I paused, looked around a little, and finally leaned in close and whispered Writer. I can’t even begin to tell you how ridiculous I felt.

I grabbed my registration folder and thought for sure the She Speaks police would come find me, point, laugh, and kick me out as in imposter. I literally had to sit down to gather my breath and let my face return to its normal shade. Because I had the same question that I believe many of you have: Am I allowed to call myself a writer?

What does it take to assume that title? Must you have a writing degree? Does it take a published article or a book before you can call yourself that? What about a blog or a newsletter? What about if you enjoy writing in a private journal? Can you call yourself a writer even then?

Let me ask you this – what does it take to call yourself a runner? Do you have to win an Olympic medal before you can assume that title? Or at least qualify for the Olympics? What if you are on the track team in school? Or maybe a running club? What about if you just run on the treadmill or in your neighborhood, are you a runner then?

Some people say you can only call yourself a runner if you run a certain number of miles a year. Others say if you run on purpose for a reason other than because you are late, then you’re a runner. How about this. In order to call yourself a runner, you have to run. I don’t know how much and I don’t care where, but if you value that title of “runner” then you will probably not throw it around carelessly. And if you’re afraid to call yourself a runner even though you run, then you probably are one.

Is it the same way with writing? Why is it so hard for us to embrace this writer identity? Why did my face turn red when I said it for the first time? Why did I feel like a girl playing in her mom’s high heels? I have a few ideas why:

You have great respect for the title. You have likely grown up a reader, and so to you, C.S. Lewis is a writer. Madeleine L’Engle is a writer. J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen and Harper Lee are writers. And so to call yourself a writer feels like you are clumping yourself with the greats, and you wouldn’t want anyone to think you think you’re like them. Because you know you aren’t. You love the title so much that it nearly feels like calling yourself beautiful or humble or talented – it’s uncomfortable, and it seems more legitimate if someone else bestows that title upon you rather than you, yourself.

You worry what it might mean. If you’re a writer, then does that raise the expectation for your work? Does that mean you should pursue publication? What if you never get published in the traditional way? Does that mean you are a failure because writers are supposed to publish things?

It’s hard to define. We like to put boxes around things so we can point to them and categorize them and understand them. It’s why personality tests are so interesting, because we like to learn about ourselves. We like to label our quirks, understand our weaknesses and showcase our strengths. Where is the test I can take to find out if I’m a writer or not?

There isn’t one. Because if I asked you if I’m a writer, you would probably say yes. If I asked a someone who has a Ph.D in comparative literature from Yale, they would most likely say no. It depends on who you ask. So either ask the right person, or stop asking altogether. The fact is, there isn’t just one kind of writer any more than there is just one kind of mother or teacher or artist. Not all writers write for money. Not all writers write books. Not all writers have an audience. Not all writers write blogs. Not all bloggers care to call themselves writers. Not all author’s of books do, either. There are less rules than you think.

For me, it was important to be able to see this part of myself and embrace it before I could move forward with any amount of confidence. Do you love to write? Have you always loved to write? Do you write even when no one is looking? Do you respect the title of writer? Why not just own it? If that feels too presumptuous, try it on for a week. Take yourself seriously. Approach your work as an artist. See if it makes a difference.

And while you do, bear in mind that you are more than the sum of your words. As we continue to talk about some of these things this week, it’s important to remember that you have a Maker who defines you in terms bigger and wider than writer or author or wordsmith. Ask him who you are first. You’ll be delighted with the answer.

Coming up tomorrow: What should I write about?

what life does

And grief washes in and colors everything blue, and you don’t see it coming until it’s already here. There is no warning, just hot salty water on your face. The sobs are deep and even though he wasn’t my dad, he was a little bit.

We have so many layers of person on us. We cry for obvious things, but usually it’s the not so obvious that we need to pay attention to. Like today how I cried when I read this post by Donald Miller. And it’s just a really short post from a few weeks ago about why he’ll be out of the office for a while. But it slayed me. And I don’t even know if that’s a word, but that’s what it did.

It did something else besides reach down deep and shake me up – it reminded me of joy. Joy comes the same way as grief sometimes. She shows up without calling first, but who would mind? She stands there holding her bright pink skirts with two fistfuls of fabric, smile wide across her lovely face. And she looks me in the eye and reminds me of all the gifts, pointing them out one by one. To live fully is to stand in a room with Joy and Grief and hold them each by the hand, giving them freedom to be themselves. Don’t try to boss them. They won’t listen anyway.

31 days :: Coming October 2011

It may only be August, but here on the blog I’m already making plans for this year’s 31 days series. Some of you may remember last year, I wrote 31 Days of Grace – everyday in October, we talked a little bit about this thing called grace, and how it changes everything. It was my sister’s idea to have a 31 day series and she invited seven of us to play along. We’re doing it again this year, only this time we want to invite you to come up with your own 31 days series as well! There will be an opportunity for you to link your series up with ours so we can all benefit from the unique giftedness of one another. Check out her blog for the details.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about what this years 31 days will be about. And I’m thinking big, y’all. You may not get it and you may think I’m crazy, but here’s my topic for this October, for better or worse.

Because here’s the thing: if I really believe that this grace changes everything, then this grace changes everything. And I’m not foolish enough to think that a 31 days series will bring world peace. But maybe in a way it will? Because the truth is, there are as many worlds as there are people. And if the grace that comes from the hand of God is extended into my world (and it is), then everything in my world is different. It has to be. If it isn’t, then it isn’t really grace.

We’ll talk more. Suffice it to say for now that in October, we might find out a little more what we’re made of. And what we’re made for. Until then, I hope you’ll be thinking about your own 31 days series. I wouldn’t recommend writing on a blog everyday all the time, but for one month, it’s kind of a fun challenge. Not only that, if you sometimes struggle with knowing what your unique message is, developing a series that runs for 31 days might help you identify it.

If you would like some tips to help you think about what you might like to write about, check out Define Your Bloggy Purpose and answer the seven questions listed there. And then, remember that only you carry the vision for your writing and your message, and while you consider what you might want to write about, it could help you to first know what you don’t want to write about. I’d love to hear if you have any 31 day ideas off the top of your head – what would you love to write about for 31 days straight? Here are the topics from the eight of us to get you thinking:

Nester – 31 Days of Charming Imperfection
Jen - 31 Days to Balancing Both Beauty and a Budget
Jessica – 31 Days of Memory Keeping
Melissa: 31 Days: Inspired Holidays
Sandy: 31 Days of Keeping the Family Together
Darcy: 31 Days of Photo Tips
Emily W.: 31 Days of the Little Things
Me: 31 Days to Change the World

when she speaks

It feels like 37 years ago, but I did attend the She Speaks Conference again this year. I was humbled to speak to a room full of women about my journey from writing a blog to writing a book, a phrase that still kind of makes me shudder. Mainly because when you hear “from blog to book” you might be tempted to think that the person who is teaching it values book-writing over blog-writing. And I certainly do not.

I did this session with Andrea Doering, one of the executive editors with Revell Books. She has years of experience in the industry acquiring both fiction and non-fiction titles. She is a professional, and she is a friend. She is also the editor who acquired my book and who I hope to work with for a long time. Do you want to know one of my favorite things she said to this room filled with writers and bloggers at She Speaks? She said this:

“One question bloggers should not ask themselves is, What does it take to get published? If you have a blog, you are already published. People are reading your work. In fact, if you have 2,000 readers, then you already have more readers than 95% of authors who have books in bookstores.”

Andrea and I gave this same talk last year – but last year she didn’t say this. In fact, I said a lot of things this year I didn’t say last year, either. Want to know why? It’s because things are changing, and they’re changing fast. If you have a blog, my suggestion to you is to treat it with respect and make it the best art you have.

But what if you don’t have 2,000 readers? Maybe you have 30 readers. Do you roll your eyes at those 30 readers? Do you think of your work as valuable even if only 30 people read it? Consider this: what if 30 women showed up in a room to hear you speak. Would you see it differently? Would you roll your eyes at them? No way! You would prepare and plan and maybe even get nervous. And you would look forward to meeting with these 30 people who made the effort to show up and listen. Lysa TerKeurst said something similar to that a few years ago and I haven’t forgotten it.

I have a lot more I could share with you about our session at She Speaks and I’m considering doing that next week. Would you want to hear more? What types of things would you like to hear?

how August is like a maid

June and July blew through like giddy old friends from out of town. And they made our house feel like home for a while, shared their beautiful memory-making stories. And some heartbreaking, life-changing ones, too. It has been a fast summer, and I don’t want to let go too soon. But today is August.

I do crazy things in August, things like pull out fall smelling candles and start to make soup. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at not rushing ahead to the next season, and maybe I have in some ways. But this year, I can feel that familiar pull towards autumn, that new shoes and pencils itch, a longing for a schedule that school days brings, hope for a cool blast of air. I should know better, living in North Carolina.We don’t get fall until October. Still, August comes in like a maid and readys the house and all her tenets for the transition. She sweeps under the couch and taps your crossed feet off the coffee table, and as she wipes the surface clean, she whispers Get ready, sweetheart. Change is coming.

Aren’t you thankful for times of transition? We have a Maker who doesn’t just throw the sun up into the sky in a shock of fire, but pulls it up slow every morning and down the same way every night. And if you stare as it happens, the change is hard to see, but if you close your eyes and count to twenty, everything is different when you open them back up again. It’s because a lot happens in the transition, secret things, beautiful things, Spirit led things.

And so I wait for the book to release in a few short weeks, and ask for the Lord to calm me. We look forward to school starting up again, and place any anxiety about it in his hands. I sit with The Man with calendars and fall schedules, and quietly celebrate what every future meeting and event means: that we are living, that we are doing what we love, and that we belong to a community. Prepare us, O Lord, in this month of transition.

How do you feel about August?