I’m not a fiction writer. I stick to what I know and what I know is English literature and social media. Yet this past week, I attended a workshop at the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL) on writing historical fiction. On Wednesday night I assisted Jill Swenson, the host and experienced writer, editor and CEO of Swenson Book Development LLC. It was the last meeting in a month-long workshop series at the library, where registered writers gathered once a week to learn the nuts and bolts of writing in this specific genre. I hope the workshop was valuable and educational for the participating writers because, as it turns out, it was an education for me, too. I learned about writing novels from a writers’ perspective and, as a reader and hopeful future publisher, that’s memorable.
The goal of the workshop was to guide local writers as they craft and develop a historical fiction manuscript. In four, hour and a half long sessions, Jill covered everything: a definition of historical fiction, how to create a character sketch, useful research tools and approaches, the importance of backstory and its correct use, and even favorite books in this genre. The hour and a half long sessions also offered opportunities for local writers to share excerpts and receive feedback.
This last, September 28th session concluded with information on getting published (once your manuscript is complete) and insight into current trends and challenges in publishing that directly affect writers preparing to query publishers and agents. Previous sessions had worked on putting the “historical” and the “fiction” in historical fiction to create a compelling and well-written story, which I missed because I returned home to Seattle to see family and friends. Though I missed the opportunity to hear all of the story concepts, I was able to get the gist of a few writers’ projects when excerpts were shared. The topics ranged widely: Civil War and early American independence, post-WW2 in France and Japan, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, a contemporary return to Jane Austen Regency era, a paranormal twist for young adults to the Cinderella story, and many more. Not only is Ithaca a hub for writers, but it is also a home to historians. I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, Cornell University is only a half-mile up East Hill and boasts impressive graduate study programs and research opportunities.
I was also proud to share my experiences using social media with Swenson Book Development LLC and offer guidelines and tools for writers to develop their online platforms. Several writers mentioned feeling overwhelmed – not just by the amount of research that must be done to write the novel, but also the amount of time they need to spend on preparing query letters, full proposals, and using social media.
Yes, writers today need to wear many hats. It’s a long, grueling process. Everyone may have a book in them but few are suited to write and publish it. If you write for the sake of writing, wonderful: keep notes, keep a journal, or – if you want to share – start a blog. But if you want to write for readers, well, that’s a whole different ballgame.
A writer, in any genre, must have stamina. Perseverance. Devotion. Patience. Confidence (for more on this, see author Chuck Wendig’s hilarious post on writers lacking self-confidence). If you work in non-fiction or historical fiction, curiosity helps. Curiosity drives an inclination to do research for hours on end, over and over and over again. Above all, a writer needs – to borrow a few words from author and blogger Meghan Ward – a damn good manuscript and an editor. Not only does Swenson Book Development look for and desire writers who are willing to put the time and energy into their manuscript (from writing and selling to promoting and touring), but literary agent/representatives and publishers want that too. In fact, they expect nothing less.
Jill and I may have been a bit harsh on this point to the writers in the historical fiction workshop. I admit it. I know I can sound preachy and seem an obnoxious know-it-all. But that’s just because I want to help. I like sharing useful information. I may possess traces or whiffs of a Social Maven, but I doubt it. I’m still a post-grad nobody working retail to pay the rent. Jill, on the other hand, has first-hand experience so I trust the information she shares. My point is that writers need to know this information, “the facts”. They need to be prepared. Being honest about the writing and publishing process helps make for better writers, which in turn makes for better books. And, here’s the kicker: it also makes for better bookselling. Even if, as with several writers in the workshop, you resist social media and refuse to create an online presence via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or some other socializing network, it’s work that absolutely has to be done. Writers need a landing page and a public “face”. Writers need to be clickable.
Scary? Yes. Hard work? You betcha. But writers don’t have to do it all, or do it alone. Writers don’t need multiple online platforms to pique the interest of editors and agents – just one good, strong site will do. If Twitter isn’t for you, chuck it. If you want Facebook to stay personal and separate from your writing life, ramp up privacy settings. Bored with blogging and scrambling for ideas? Go on a hiatus. And, please, don’t forget that there are people, including the team here, who can help develop online author platforms and can coach writers with branding and virtual interactions. If you are lucky, your twelve year old kid, niece, nephew, or neighbor will teach you the basics for free. Social media doesn’t have to be a time-suck. Writers can keep writing, but they also can keep tabs on their audience and foster meaningful, real interactions with readers. Genuine online interactions help create fans and loyalty but they also create community – at the center of which is your writing, your work, your passion.
That’s what I loved best about the workshop. There was a sense of community in which writers are connecting and sharing experiences and anecdotes. It was a real-time, face-to-face conversation with writers on writing, lead by a local professional with experience in the writing and publishing industry. Ok, so there was lecturing and furious note-taking, too. But there were also conversations about writing, about history, and about local happenings and resources. There was even the prospect of a new writing group emerging from the workshop discussions and contact information was swapped.
That’s the side of social media I like to be a part of. How about you?
Six or seven years ago my advice to aspiring authors of nonfiction books was to build an audience platform by blogging. An example of how critical blogging could be to securing a publishing contract can be found in the case of Ann Marie Ackermann, author of Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee. After an initial assessment of her manuscript, I had recommended she start a historical true-crime blog, and she did. In fact, the editor of the ideal book series at Kent State University Press became a fan ofRead more…