Friday, April 10, 2009

Building a Platform for Fiction

I’ve received a lot of questions about the importance of building a platform for fiction writers. Should you write platform-building pieces under your real name or the pseudonym you want to use? What if you wrote mystery short stories, but now want to write romance novels? Do those short stories even count toward your platform? Do you need to worry about blogging now to build a platform or should you just write?

Holy cow, folks! Just write and write and write and write. If you are someone who writes short stories very well and wants to submit them to literary magazines while working on your novel, go ahead. It’s a bonus to have a writing platform like that, but not every novelist can write short stories and not every short story writer can write a novel. It just isn’t that easy, so if you’re someone who doesn’t feel strongly that you can do both, why are you wasting your time focusing on your weakness instead of your strength or instead of on what you really want to do?

As for blogs, I’ve said it over and over and over again, but I’ll say it again. Go ahead and write a blog if you really want to, but don’t feel that it will necessary do anything for a future publishing career. The only thing that’s going to do that is the book you’re writing or the book after that or the one after that. And frankly, at this point, I don’t care what name you do it all under.

Let’s worry less about the peripherals of publishing—platform, credentials, etc.—and more about our writing. Because that’s really what’s important.



Kimber Li said...

Absolutely, the writing must comes first, because if you don't write you'll have nothing to offer and you can't grow without the practice.

I don't know what kind of 'platform' having a book review blog has created for me. I still don't have an offer in hand. However, I have become acquinted with a lot of authors with most of the well-known publishers, agents, and editors, and I've enjoyed a lot of fabulous advice from them. So, yanno, there are other benefits.

One thing's for certain, if you don't enjoy blogging it will show and backfire on you. Only blog if love it.

PurpleClover said...

Awesome information!

I think people need to ask themselves if something is helping them move forward or if it's just filling their time.

For me blogging helps me escape from Sponge Bob and Dora so that I can regrow my adult vocabulary. ;)

Kristan said...

THANK YOU! I used to be one of the people who stressed about stuff like that, and then I came the realization that you stated: it's the WRITING. Nothing else matters near as much. I hope other people will listen to you. (Or do I...? Maybe more people should worry about blogging and platforms, so my writing can sail through, eh? ;P)

M. Dunham said...

*claps* This post gets a HUGE thumbs up.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Jessica, interesting post.

I agree the most important thing a writer can do is write. Tell the stories. Get into the habit of writing regularly. Writing to your strengths is good advice once your figure out where your strengths are. Some writers know their strengths some have to experiment. Get used to putting your work out there under public scrutiny—that’s scary the first few times you do it. The first time your critique partner or group reads your work. A lesson you learn quickly is writing and what constitutes good writing, and how to go about it, is very subjective and often conflicting. This holds true for most aspects of the publishing process.

I think name recognition is vital for authors. Some of us do it by joining RWA or similar groups, or joining writing forums and participating. Others add blogs. A good thing about blogs is you get used to writing to the public. If you have your blogs set up for certain days, this helps you practice writing to deadlines. If you are serious about getting published, I think any prep work you do to build name recognition is good, especially prior to publication. The balancing act is not to spend so much time doing the short stories, articles for publication in various magazines, or blogs, your forget the most important part of the process—writing regularly, perfecting your writing skills and writing your stories for publication.

Emily Cross said...

thanks Jessica, i'm definitly one of those people who wonder about pen names. thanks for the wake up call :)

David said...

Great post.

A related matter that bugs me is writers who concentrate on an image instead of on their writing - e.g., by behaving or dressing in an unusual way.

That probably attracts attention, but it may not be the right kind, and it doesn't improve their writing.

Vivi Anna said...

I agree Jessica. We all get so worried about doing this, and doign that, trying to find that extra magical formula, the one thing that maybe will set us apart, or take us to the bestseller list, when what we forget is the ONLY thing we have under control is the writing.

Judy Schneider said...

I agree. It's first about the writing. A colleague of mine who has over 50 books to her name recently told me she was reading through the 17th draft of her novel.


I wonder how many writers who submit queries to agents have fine-tuned their manuscripts that thoroughly. Her writing is snappy and fast-paced and memorable (she works hard to make it read that way). It's definitely about the writing and revising.

Thanks for reminding us!

Devon Ellington said...

Thanks for driving that point home.

Too many are getting caught up in marketing plans for stuff they haven't written yet -- and they don't have the track records to sell it without the writing -- and without the writing being darned good.

ryan field said...

Blogging is fun. You meet some interesting people from all over the world.

I've used several pen names, but I've always had reasons for using them. Most of the time I stick with my real name and pray they spell it right.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for addressing this!

I write and submit shorts because I love them, but most of the publications are tiny print pubs or online zines. Not exactly noteworthy in a query letter. ; )

I don't blog because it doesn't interest me. I'd rather spend my time on my novel. (And short stories.) Maybe if I publish, that will change, but for now . . . who the heck cares what I think? Really, I'm boring.

More than once, I've heard published fiction authors insist that you MUST HAVE a blog to set yourself apart and build your audience pre-publication. That you NEED a platform to get the attention of an editor. In my heart, I've suspected this wasn't really true, but it's good to hear it from an agent.

Carol said...

I'm in the process of writing a novel, and I fell for the advice that every novelist needs a blog. I use it to post my book reviews, interesting sites I've found, and tidbits of knowledge I find fascinating. So far, there's not one thing that has to do with my novel. I enjoy it, and it keeps me organized, but I can't see it working as a platform for my fiction.

Anonymous said...

As an unpublished writer, I do understand the need to focus on writing above all. I do plan on using a pen name and have come up with one, but I have no idea if it will be "approved" by publishers if I ever get that far (I know...IF). The point is, when it comes to networking at meetings I don't know if I should stick with my long and ethnic real name only to make connections that will have no idea who I am if I get published under a pen name...or do I start using my pen name and risk having to change it in the future if it isn't "liked". I have already submitted to contests under my real name. As unimportant as pen names are at this point, I feel that this issue would affect the establishment of my platform. Any advice?

Rick Daley said...

I think I'm too narcissistic to use a pen name ;-). Plus my real name is the same as multiple mayors of Chicago, so I hope that buys a second glance from some people.

I have two blogs, one I write to entertain my readers, and the other is a Public Query Slushpile, but the latter is more a maintenance job than writing- I post queries writers submit, and then anyone can critique them.

Most of the blogs I read are similar to this one: focused on the business and craft of writing, always informative and oftentimes entertaining.

Traci said...

The best thing that blogging has done for me is that it has put me in touch with other writers (networking). They are always very supportive, and many of them give great advice on mastering the craft.

I also read agent/publishing blogs, which are a wealth of information.

I think it's important to put all of that stuff in the back of your mind (it's useful), but keep your focus on what works for you. If you are passionate about what you are writing, it comes across to the reader.

Joy said...

Here here! Well said!

Erin Cabatingan said...

Thanks for this post--I really appreciate it. I didn't use to worry about platform, until I sent to an agent who was interested in my writing somewhat, but asked me to fill out all this info on my background and platform. That really started me worrying because I don't have much of a platform. It's something I've kind of been stressing about lately. So I'm glad to hear it's not that big of a deal if I can write a decent book.

Kimbra Kasch said...

Great, helpful information. I just love to write - kinda like I love to talk.


PurpleClover said...

What is the law on using a pen name like Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer?

Just curious...not like I was thinking about it...

Joyce Tremel said...

Excellent advice!

I recently cut back on blogging. On my own blog, I only post when I have something to say. I'm also a member of a group blog and I just cut back to every other week instead of every week. I was spending so much time trying to come up with blog topics I wasn't getting any real writing done.

And Judy Schneider, I know exactly who you're talking about!

Unknown said...

I got really excited when I read the title of this entry ... and then not so excited when I read the content.

I've never heard someone mention such a thing as a fiction platform -- although I see now what one might constitute if it is successful and the writer can write all of those things.

Well, I'm blogging because I love it, I'm writing short stories because I'm in school and that's what they teach, and I'm writing novels because I simply adore novels. I guess you're right: follow your own inclinations! :)

Amy Sue Nathan said...

It seems to me that the outskirts of getting a book published are what hold up authors and keep their dreams at bey. If we worried less about how many people read our blog and more about how our characters are developed, we would be on a better path.

I find it odd that writers think a blog is a writing credential, but I know many do.

I blog to connect with others, and to get thoughts out of my head that interfere with writing. I enjoy it, and I have blog pages that list my published writing, but it's not the focus. I've never included my blog in a query letter for a published article or essay and it's not in the draft of the query letter for my novel. I think those who use their blogs in that way (unless they have tens of thousands of readers) look amateurish to other writers and agents.

Jessica Nelson said...

This is great stuff to know. :-)

Sookie said...

On the days when the words don't flow, it is tempting to piddle away the hours meeting people, exchanging ideas--interacting. However, it doesn't finish or polish a book.

It's nice to have someone smack me upside the head and say, "Get back to work!"

Thanks. I needed the nudge.

Confucius says, "Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart."

Elissa M said...

"Let’s worry less about the peripherals of publishing—platform, credentials, etc.—and more about our writing. Because that’s really what’s important."


Jim MacKrell said...

Worrying about blogs and platforms is a lot like my actor friends who would "Hold Court" with other unemployed actors discussing how unfair the "business is". One actor said, the greatest comment about the business is a payroll check after a weeks work..Makes sense to me.

Nicole O'Dell said...

Thought-provoking post.

My thoughts: Yes, the writing MUST come first. But, the platform needs to be built alongside the writing if the goal is to get published and to have a career. Publishers like to see a platform in place. So, if writers want to pursue platform-building techniques while they hone their craft, I think that's a good thing. That's just my opinion, though.

But, you're right, the writing has to be the primary focus.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Excellent! I'm much better at writing than at building a platform :^)

T. M. Hunter said...

I'd have to say that the writing is most important, but right behind it is building a fan base to jump-start the promotion. Otherwise, you run the risk that no one is going to see the next book you write. With publishers shifting to promoting only the big names, it's going to become more and more important for the other authors with a house to do so.

But that's just my opinion...and maybe I'm just mistaking what it means to "build a platform."

Anonymous said...

But, the platform needs to be built alongside the writing if the goal is to get published and to have a career.

I'm sorry, but I don't agree. Most of the published authors I know didn't have ANY platform before they got a contract. No blog. No published short stories. Not even a website. What they did have was a dynamite manuscript.

Obviously, having a platform can help, but as Jessica just pointed out, it's not a prerequisite for getting published.

A couple of years ago when my agent was shopping my mystery novel, I had the opportunity to speak to an editor for Penguin, who was interested in my manuscript. She didn't ask if I had a blog or even what I did for a living. All she cared about was the work at hand.

Juliana Stone said...

I gotta second what anon 2:41 and a lot of others have said. It's the writing that matters most. A great book with a great hook, written in a voice that pulls the reader in. This is what's going to land you an agent and eventually a sale. Not your blog, or your website etc. These things come into play much later I believe, mainly the website which I feel is very important, but really, more so after you've established your name. It's for your readers and fans to visit. Visiting blogs and such was a great way for me to meet other writers who've helped me in many ways, but they certainly didn't sell my book for me.
Sorry! :-) but that's all on me!

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful to hear from an agent. I feel like writing novels, writing short stories, and blogging take such different focuses and talents to do well. I've been upkeeping a blog, and it's not what I like to do. Sure, sometimes I feel like I've written an interesting blog post, but most of the time I struggle with even wanting to do it.

But I feel so pressured to build an audience and be accessible before I even get published, that it makes writing novels, which I love to do, frustrating and less fun.

I look at all the writers who were published before websites and blogs became popular, and each of them made it. Each of them gained fans and an audience based on their books. I don't like having to sell myself online. I just want to write and sell good books without feeling like I'm not popular enough or well known enough to make it.

Since when did being a writer become a game of who writes the best blogs and who markets themselves the best?

How do people even find time to writing between all the blogging and tweeting and social upkeep?

Thanks for the encouraging post, Jessica!

Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks so much for this. There's a lot of misinformation out here in the blogosphere.

It's nice to hear from somebody in the industry who thinks it's OK for writers to write instead of working at self-promotion 24/7.

Sarah J. MacManus said...

I don't really have the kind of personality that lends itself to blogging. I find that if I blog/twitter too much I feel exposed and nervous.

But if I never hear the word "platform" again, I'll die a happy woman. I'm working on an anthology for charity, and the other editor is a relatively well known performer to our target audience. Our publishing mentor has told us, at the 11th hour, that they think we need 'more of a platform'. After a year of work to date!

I understand that this is very different than suggesting that authors develop a platform, it's more like a non-fiction project. But, it's still rather frustrating.

K. said...

This is EXTREMELY helpful advice...Thank you!

Anonymous said...

"Just do great work and everything else will fall into place?" Reality check: factors that make or break book deals are market circumstances, trends, this year's budget, timing or celebrity status. This is about making money not winning a writers award. There are rows of bookstore shelves to fill and the ones who decide what goes on them don't do so on the basis of "high standards of quality" but on the basis of what sells. Not all well written work gets a book deal. And not all well written books sell well. And not all successful books are well written.

The question was about marketing, not what Jessica made of it: a question on her opinion on what makes a good writer. As a famous actor/writer recently said: "The difficulty is not doing good work but getting THE CHANCE to do good work." Blogging increases that chance, so does any other marketing. Writers should "choose" between blogging or becoming a better author? What? In times of a weak publishing industry that lags 10 years behind modern marketing, a blog, twitter feeds, comments, ratings and all other ways to generate consumer interest that cost little and gain good attention are vitally important for any writer, even the good ones. This is not a matter of choice, unless he is a genius and needs no marketing at all, but who is?

This post is a probably intended to reduce the amount of bad MSs landing on Jessica's overloaded desk and release some of that bottled up frustration. But it does little else. There are many agents out there and each one proposes "their" version of quality to publishers. Not all "quality" work submitted by all agents will be published. A clever agent can sell bad work better than a bad agent can sell good work. We all know the cases of quality books being rejected by agents. And every new book deal contains the compensated loss a publisher who bought "quality" work from an agent that didn't sell in the market.

Apart from doing the obvious: writing something sellable, a writer who wants to live off writing first of all needs to find the right agent who can refrain from lecturing and sell it to the right publisher, secondly he should of course do marketing as much as possible, while continuing to produce the products that finance his life. The "stop everything and practice writing" advice does not really sound like the way to go in this century.

On a meta level, Jessica's self-centered post excusable by too much stress, says a lot about what writers with regular or better than average quality work need to do to make it past the averagely overworked and confused agent into the publishing business. Do not expect to be understood, especially when you talk about modern forms of marketing. All too quickly your work which up to this point might have been just about good enough for publishing can quickly loose a few points on the agent's quality scale and not make it into book form this year.

Don't be fooled by this post. The only two places where it's about the writing is at your desk and at a writer's award. In Jessica's world, It's about sales and obedience and not questioning the monarchy of the old-school publishing world with too much modern, democratic technology. Unless you are a writer genius of course, but then again, if you were, and you could choose your agent, would you choose worn-out Jessica who likes to say things "over and over and over and over again" or rather a modern-world agent who compassionately embraces the modern world and who's language reveals respect for other human beings. No swamped desk excuses a bad work attitude.