Should You Focus on Your Writing or Your Platform?

Balancing Act by Digital NativeCraft!

Platform!

Craft!!

Platform!!

It’s a debate that might span eternity: how much time should you devote to writing versus platform building?

I don’t know if there was ever a real beginning to this debate, but if so, it was when editors and agents started telling nonfiction authors that their book was only viable if a platform was in place. Which made sense for technological and cultural reasons. Take the ease of word processing and affordable personal computers, add Baby Boomers with free time to pursue their dreams, and presto! Suddenly there were more people than ever trying to write a book and get it published, with limited skills and experience, and often no credentials.

So what does a well-meaning agent or editor say to one of these people? The easiest thing to say is: You need a platform.

Fast forward a decade or two, and we now live inside an unending media conversation wheel, where anyone can find a niche readership, do solid work on building a platform, and even put writing on the backburner—and still reasonably claim to be a writer. 

I think there’s a backlash against some of these people, which I understand. It’s applying the entrepreneurial, get-rich-quick Tim Ferriss mindset to the world of literature, where we tend to believe that blood, sweat, and tears (and rejection) are demanded before you gain recognition.

Plus: Real writers write. (Right?) They don’t tweet, they don’t blog, they don’t connect with readers, at least not joyfully.

I exaggerate, but you know the people I’m talking about.

The horrible catch is—at least for beginning writers without fame and fortune, who are starting their careers in a transitioning industry—focusing on your writing work to the exclusion of all else can hamper you later down the road. If you shut yourself away and don’t learn to navigate the online world (the personalities, the flow of conversations, the tools), you’re terribly disadvantaged when it comes time to get a publisher, market your work, and find readers.

Excellent arguments reside on each side of this debate, which often boil down to: “Writing is all that matters,” and “audience is all that matters.”

But the truth is a little different for each of us, and that’s why it’s next to impossible to give general advice on platform. It necessarily varies based on the author and the work in question.

But it does rip me apart to hear very new writers feel anxious that they can’t figure out their platform, especially when they have not a single book or credit to their name.

Well, it’s not a mystery why platform is so confusing when you don’t know who you are yet as a writer!

This has been a very long preface to what I’d like to offer: a set of general guidelines to help any writer understand how to balance writing with platform building.

Balance is the key word here.

Focusing on your writing probably means spending 10%-25% of your available writing time on platform activities. I never recommend abandoning platform activities entirely, because you want to be open to new possibilities. Being active online—while still focused on your writing—could mean finding a new mentor or the perfect critique partner, connecting with an important influencer, or pursuing a new writing retreat or fellowship opportunity.

Without further ado, the list.

 

When to focus more on your writing

  • If you are within the first five years of seriously attempting to write with the goal of publication
  • For novelists: If you have not yet completed and revised one or two full-length manuscripts
  • If you can tell that what you’re writing is falling short of where you want and need to be
  • If you see a direct correlation between the amount of writing you put out and the amount of money that comes into your bank account (the JA Konrath model)
  • If you are working on deadline

When to focus more on your platform

  • If you start to realize you’re on the verge of publication
  • If you have a firm book release date of any kind
  • If you want to sell a nonfiction book concept (non-narrative)
  • If you intend to profit from online/digital writing that you are creating, distributing, and selling on your own
  • If you need to prove to a publisher or agent that your work has an audience

Let’s open up the discussion. What would you add to these lists?

Photo credit: Digital Native / Flickr 

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About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. This fall, she's proud to be offering two creative nonfiction courses from experienced university writing professorsFind out more.

Comments

  1. says

    Jane,
    Thanks for the excellent advice and insights. I would add this tip for authors planning to self-publish: spend at least six months planning your blog before you launch it. Do your research. Visit popular blogs. Find out what topics are popular. Above all learn to focus on giving value to your readers. Do some test blog posts and send them to critique buddies. Find your voice as a blogger, which is different from your voice as a writer. Craft a mission statement for your blog. Who do you want to reach? Then launch your blog at least six months to a year before you publish your book. Thanks again, Jane.

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  2. says

    I didn’t complete and revise one (or two) full-length manuscripts before I got sidetracked with social media—a.k.a. the longest bunny trail EVER—and as a result, I have yet to return to my WIP with the dedication I know is necessary! ::frown face::

    I love that graphic of the unending media conversation wheel. Intimidating, but I think it’s also an accurate a portrayal of potential distractions we newbie writers are up against.

    Thank you, Jane, for the excellent advice. I have to remind myself every day to keep it all balanced.

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    • says

      I’m in a similar situation with blogging. I started planning my novel (actually two), went searching for advice online, and found lots (too many!) great writing blogs.

      Then I read that I have to start building my platform now, so I started my blog (with not nearly enough planning). Now writing my blog and reading others is taking way too much of my time. I’m trying to cut back on how many I follow, and limit my commenting time.

      Along the way I also realized I should try to get some short stories published, so I’m trying to focus more on that at the moment.

      I haven’t even touched Twitter, Facebook, etc. yet, and I’m afraid of how much time they’re going to take.

      Very little progress on my novel planning of late. It’s hard to keep it in balance. But the blogging and short story writing is great writing practice anyway.

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  3. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Jane great advice, thanks for bringing it down to earth. Because I’m a great procastinator and avoider of scary new things, I’d add two more guidelines:
    focus on your writing if your platform is your favorite means to procrastinate on the wip.
    focus on your platform if your favorite justification for not sending the finished wip out to agents and editors is because you don’t have a platform yet.

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  4. says

    New writers might benefit from a slightly greater focus on platform in that blogging and commenting on other blogs, and posting and relating on Facebook, will help them learn to be concise, write to an objective, and develop discipline. I also get fast feedback on my writing, in that my commenters will let me know if I’ve moved them or nor (cue crickets.)

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  5. says

    I look at it all as parts of my full time job. I have to do it. I try to manage all of the parts of my job, giving time and attention to both, when necessary.

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  6. says

    I think there’s a lot to be said for the discipline that both require. It’s knowing how much you can “write” (novel, article etc) productively every day and scheduling that into your day. Then establishing much you can productively achieve building your platform and schedule that.

    I’ve learned that two hours of solid writing early in the morning is manageable and keeps my books ticking over. Platform building is something I then do in chunks throughout the day.

    Suspect too that the art of balance will always be a work in progress.

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  7. says

    Thanks for the well-balanced advice, Jane. I would give some myself except I haven’t had smashing success in the platform arena…yet. :) Still, one thing I’ve found that drives traffic (and regular readers) to my blog is writing for and linking to other online resources with similar themes. This has not only built up a reader base but I’ve also met some wonderful people and made some great new friends as well.

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  8. says

    Excellent post, Jane! I’ve been torn lately and now I know why: I fit 3 out of the 5 of the “focus on your writing” bullet points…and only 1 of the “focus on platform” (my 2nd traditionally published non-fiction book releases in a few weeks). But since I already have an extensive platform and readership, I can more than afford to slack on social media. It’s just so addicting (and, perhaps, a good way to avoid the creative angst of finishing my first novel).

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  9. says

    Great advice, Jane.

    I’ve spent almost two years working on a manuscript without even thinking about platform. (I didn’t even know of “platforms” until I’ve started to research submission guidelines, etc.) Now that the book is coming out in June I’m pressing to build up an audience, and I have to say: social media is very time consuming and the results can be very slow. So, I’m glad that I’ve written the book first otherwise I don’t think it would have been possible.

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  10. James says

    Great post Jane!

    There are many of these classic Yin/Yang scenarios. The answer is exactly as you laid it out: do both and know when to do one over the other.

    Any single point answer is not sufficient.

    Some of my other dancing pairs: does distribution need media or the other way around; who calls the shots, talent or capital.

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  11. says

    I struggle with this question as a creative writing teacher. For a long time, I didn’t address the “biz” of writing at all, but now I do. I talk about my quandary here, if anyone’s interested: http://cathyday.com/2012/03/18/survey-results-2/

    On one hand, I know that most of my undergraduate students are *at least* a few years away from having a book of publishable quality. As graduation looms, they want to feel like they’re “doing something” related to starting a career. It’s hard to convince them that the “something” they should focus on is the writing itself, not perfecting their website or improving their Klout score. On the other hand, I’ve found that by encouraging them to become “literary citizens” (a term I prefer to “platform building”) and to connect with a writing community IRL or via social media, they’re far more likely to keep writing after graduation.

    The checklists for “when to focus on writing vs. platform” are incredibly useful. Thanks, Jane.

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  12. says

    Thanks for this, Jane. My first book releases in November, and I’m maintaining my blog and presence on Twitter and Facebook. However, I’ve also got to have the time to write the next book, and the next. So I still think focusing more on writing time is what I need to be doing. I also think, in terms of social media, that quality if more important than quantity, and I love supporting other authors. For me, it’s “do unto others.”

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  13. says

    I’ve tended toward focusing on the writing since I started in earnest (could it really be nine years now?). My background is in product distribution. We were moving product, but what we really sold was a service–getting that product to those who wanted it, when they wanted it. Repeat business was our bread and butter. My focus was on making sure that product and the service of getting it delivered was top notch–ensuring my customers would come back.

    We realized that even the most amazing marketing and promotion in the world could only create that first order. If the product or the service didn’t live up to expectations, in a competitive market place, there wasn’t a marketing technique in the world that would bring the disappointed customers back.

    Sorry for the long comment, Jane, but this is the attitude I’ve brought with me from the biz world to writing. I’ve finished four manuscripts–a series. If I don’t deliver on the first, no platform-building or marketing will ever give me another opportunity to reclaim those readers. Hence, I remain heavily focused on the product. The WU community is my exception. Connecting here started with craft, but has incidentally yielded great platform benefit as well as a full heart.

    As always, thanks for helping me to clarify my thoughts, oh Wise One. :-)

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  14. says

    Useful post for me because I’m in the thick of it, swinging, like a dementor, between both ends of my work. I’m frustrated very often by not being able to commit to either well enough because I believe also that I must interact with those who read and comment on my blog posts. I believe in building relationships and that means I must invest a lot of time to a single post over the course of a day. I use Facebook well to build my nonfiction humor personality and have built a following there as well.

    All this takes away from my big writing project, no question, but I see no other option. I also LOVE the interaction with my readers and my network of contacts. If it means my book is going to be slow in coming out, that’s fine.

    I cherish the journey, the stops, the getting off and on the bus to get on my way again and don’t worry so much about the destination. Hopefully, I won’t get lost. There are a couple of friends who are like a Garmin GPS. They call and yell when they feel I’m getting off track:-)

    Kalpana Mohan
    http://www.saritorial.com
    http://www.kalpanamohan.org

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  15. says

    Oh Jane, all I can say is that worn out cliche … everything in its time. I have the sensation of not wanting to or as you mentioned earlier this week … acutally resenting the “need” for platforms, marketing, networking, and connecting until my head explodes. I think not. I instead refer to your first grouping and to Porter’s recent post. I imagine the time will present itself when I might become engaged in twitter, horrid though the thought may be. But for now, I love the blog because it allows me one day a week to experiment with a different octave in my voice. I do Facebook three times a week and use it to focus on the books, music and TV/or movies that incluence me as a person and a writer.

    Twitter has yet to engage me as a viable dialogue or because I’m being stubborn or all of the above. Truly, it will have to wait until I find my place in time and then only as I do the blog (once week) or Facebook (three times a week) since I am not a communications or marketing person, I am a writer and I’d rather spend most of my time “writing.” Make sense?

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  16. says

    Commonsensical and grounding, thank you.

    Where I struggle is that I’m not always sure what is the writing and what is platform. Blogging and essay-writing have helped me get a clearer understanding of my voice and the themes I’m exploring through my fiction. I’m also someone whose fictional productivity is sparked by external commitments and ideas. It’s not always clear when I’m sidetracked and procrastinating, versus joyfully experimenting. If you have any advice on that, I’d love to hear it.

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    • says

      Fantastic question.

      This will be oversimplifying, but it’s a starting point:

      • When you’re writing for pay (or something you expect to sell), that’s focusing on the writing.
      • When you’re not writing for pay, that’s focusing on the platform building.

      Where this gets tricky is when the non-paid writing leads to paid writing, paid speaking, paid consulting, etc, which is often the case for nonfiction writers such as myself! Most of my online writing is done for free, but if I stopped doing it, I’d see a lot of paying opportunities (and other interesting gigs) dry up.

      Also tricky: Any kind of writing practice is going to contribute to building your skills as writer. Blogging builds discipline, develops voice, etc., as you well point out.

      So, each of us has to judge for ourselves the value of non-paid writing, especially writing that is not contributing to skill in the genre/category we wish to earn money from.

      Lucky for me, I see my online writing as a form of practice/discipline/development AND platform building. It can be both for some writers.

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    • says

      Out of sheer necessity – to preserve happiness and sanity — I’m having to come to terms with this myself.

      For years, part of me has resented my day job as corporate copywriter for stealing time from what I really want to be doing – writing fiction.

      But my work has improved my writing, undeniably. I realize it’s just another iron in the fire for a working writer. I’m grateful I can earn a good wage at a job that that also contributes to my passion and makes me a stronger communicator.

      Nor is my voice stifled. I gain word-of-mouth clients by being known for a certain informality in my style and my abhorrence for management-speak.

      Some of my captive “audience” will probably read my fiction when published, too, if only out of curiosity. ;-)

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  17. says

    Love this post! I’ve been playing with the balance here for some time, and I love your suggestions for when to focus on what. I’ve swung back and forth between promotion overload and hermitage, and I think I’ve finally discovered a happy medium — or I’m on my way towards a happy medium. Really, great post.

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  18. says

    As a beginning novelist I found exploring Goodreads groups and a variety of bloggers reviewing books like mine was an incredibly helpful education about the market. I recommend that process start as early as possible because it’s a huge arena and it takes time gradually to get to know what’s happening. The best benefit has been getting to know other authors and developing some wonderful friendships. I’d also recommend joining organizations like Sisters in Crime and other professional writing orgs. Not the online focus of the article, but a really good complement and a place to get advice on navigating the brave new world.

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  19. says

    Dear Jane:

    Excellent post, as always. There’s a lot more to be said about the subject than I can say in a comment. There are many reasons why now is the best time ever to be a writer, but the three essential, simultaneous activities writers who want to be published by a New York house have to do the moment they start writing a book are

    * test-market their books in as many ways a possible, starting with a blog

    * build their platform, their continuing visibility, online and off, on their subject or the kind of book they’re writing with potential buyers

    * crowdsource their success by building engaged communities people who want to help you

    It takes as long as it takes, but that’s how to maximize the value of their book before they sell it, which is the only way to get the best editor, publisher, and deal.

    Please call if you want to talk.

    Onward!

    Mike

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  20. says

    You can and must do both because it’s now crucial for writers to help publishers promote your book. So have fun when you engage with others, leave comments on blogs you love, and always be kind and generous. But don’t forget to go, in person, to writing events. That is where you will meet present and future online friends. And possibly an interested agent or publisher.

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  21. says

    A great post. Here is the rule of thumb that I recommend to new authors who ask me for advice….

    It’s really hard to make any serious money with one book out. So if you have only one book your biggest priority should be concentrating on the next so you should divide your time 90/95% writing and 10%/05% promotion.

    Once you get to three books, if you are selling less than 1,000 books a month (across all titles) then you need to “prime your pump” so concentrate more on promotion so that you can get your books in front of people. Concentrate on “influencers” like bloggers who will get the word out to multiple people at once.

    Once you start seeing a following (more than 1,000 a month) then you are starting to get word-of-mouth sales and readers are spreading the word for you – cut back on your promotion (but don’t turn it off) maybe 80% writing 20% promotion because at this stage you need to feed the voracious fans which in turn will spark increased sales on your other titles.

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  22. says

    For fiction writers, to a large degree your writing *is* your platform. So you know where I like to see most time invested.

    Platform building is a broad concept but for fiction writers I believe it boils down to two key needs: connecting with existing readers (fans) and building awareness among future readers.

    There was a recent industry study of factors leading to “awareness” of a book prior to purchase in a bookstore. The biggest factor–? (Surprised me.) In-store promotion at 18%. Next biggest–? (No surprise to me.) Recommendations of family and friends–i.e., word of mouth at 13.5%.

    *Least* useful means of building awareness–? Get ready. Worst: bus and train station poster ads at 0.18%. (Sure.) Next…”heard author in person.” (Readings) Then…*social networks* at 0.82%. (Yep. Read that again.) Then…print newspaper ads at 0.86%.

    So, check it out. Readings and Facebook rank rock bottom with train station and newspaper ads in influencing book purchases. Print reviews, online reviews and best seller lists beat them by multiples.

    The greatest influence on book purchases, by far, are store displays and word-of-mouth.

    So, where ya gonna spend your time? I’m all for platform but let’s get real. Platform’s just a lump of concrete until you’ve got a rocket to launch from it.

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    • says

      I’m curious where things like comments on Amazon and Goodreads fit in to this. Are they ‘word of mouth’ or social networking? It seems to me they are hybrids with a weight toward social networking.

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      • says

        In my mind, social networking is ALL ABOUT word of mouth. (If you’ve been using it for the hard sell, I think that’s a mistake, since it generally doesn’t work.)

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      • Shelley Schanfield says

        Right you are, Bree. Goodreads and Amazon are hybrids. I’ve found some very intelligent readers/reviewers in my Goodreads groups who have pointed me to some great books I might not have found otherwise. Hopefully, I’ll get to know some of those reviewers well enough to ask for a look when my book gets out into the world…

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    • says

      I think a challenge with this for most writers is that placement in stores is not something that is within their control (nor, for that matter, are bus/train posters!). So no writer is likely to be spending time on “platform” with in-store placement as the goal… but that doesn’t mean time can’t/shouldn’t be spent on platform for other reasons.

      This goes back to balance and having clear goals about why you’re doing what you’re doing online and off. Or to oversimplify… thinking of Facebook as a billboard for your book is very different than thinking of it as a place to connect with readers and fans. Knowing what you’re trying to accomplish helps lead to balance and realistic expectations which, I think, leads to balance much more easily.

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    • says

      Donald, I agree with this to a point — in that *anyone* who has tried to use social media to direct-market to me has simply provoked me to stop following them. But fully half of the books I’ve bought in the past year, I first found out about by following the progression of a writer’s career through social media platforms — not as direct marketing, but through social sharing of resources and the shared excitement of the other writer’s work. Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Makkai, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Adrian McKinty, Tea Obreht, Alan Heathcock and Alexi Zentner are all authors I knew first through online social media, for example.

      Key to resolving the disparity in the statistics are that, if I were answering the questions for a survey that resulted in your statistics, I might have said I chose the books based on recommendation of a friend, not segregating the friendship as a “social media” recommendation.

      That said, even to the point it sounds like I’m disagreeing, I appreciate your comment as it clearly directs those of us still working on novel drafts to focus on the writing — and that message is the important one. Thanks.

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  23. says

    I’m currently starring in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and your introductory remarks: “Craft!” “Platform!” “Craft!” “Platform!” made me think of the “Horse!” “Mule!” conflict at the end of “Tradition” – thanks for the laugh as I pictured my very theatrical but non-writerly costars yelling your version at one another to the choreography! ;op

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  24. says

    The problem I see with this—and the challenge for writers—is that you have to build a platform long before you need it. It’s not like you are going to get a publishing contract and then decide you need to build a platform. If so, you’re too late. It’s not going to happen.

    I don’t think it’s either/or. You have to find a way to do both. Thanks.

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  25. says

    Speaking very broadly after reading these comments:
    Some days I feel grateful I’m not a new writer!

    Here are three people I deeply respect and admire for their experience and work, all commenting with insight on a critical issue, and they all have slightly different takes, and I think they are ALL correct:

    Michael Hyatt (former CEO of Thomas Nelson): “You have to build a platform long before you need it. It’s not like you are going to get a publishing contract and then decide you need to build a platform. If so, you’re too late. It’s not going to happen. I don’t think it’s either/or. You have to find a way to do both.”

    Donald Maass (longtime literary agent and successful nonfiction author and novelist): “The greatest influence on book purchases, by far, are store displays and word-of-mouth. So, where ya gonna spend your time? I’m all for platform but let’s get real. Platform’s just a lump of concrete until you’ve got a rocket to launch from it.”

    Michael Larsen (longtime literary agent and successful nonfiction author): “Writers who want to be published by a New York house have to … build their platform, their continuing visibility, online and off, on their subject or the kind of book they’re writing with potential buyers.”

    And there are also many valuable comments here from authors sharing pearls of wisdom from hard-won experience.

    If you are a new writer reading all this, what I’m left with is this philosophical adage: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

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  26. says

    Thanks for this article Jane. The ‘platform’ question is of course paramount now to artists in any medium. I remember reading an article/interview with Rauschenberg quite a few years ago, when this issue was in infancy regarding art and artists. He said that all his students wanted to know from him was ‘how to find a loft and how to get a gallery’. That was around a decade ago. These days as in any, the youth will carry the ball into the future and to me that spells out in one word: Hollywood. The nature of the beast applied to any current situation is fairly clear, and it is my belief that there is nothing that is going to stop it. The good side is that actual writers will all eventually get back to doing what they love: writing.

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  27. says

    The three Ps: Platform, Product, Promotion. Every author is in a different place with this. Therefore the answer is different for everyone. I’m currently in Phoenix where I will present Write It Forward at Desert Dreams and I spend quite a bit of time on the Three Ps, telling every author they are in a unique position which mean they have to evaluate all information differently.

    One suggestion I have is that authors who are new or not published yet, is to focus on community building. It’s a question of quality over quantity. It’s also the bigger question of networking. The absolute bang for the time for a writer in the current market of discoverability gaining prominence over distribution is to connect with the people who can help with discoverability.

    One simple suggestion to writers: go to blogs like this from industry experts and make intelligent comments. People, like Jane, read their own comments. Do it enough (NOT promoting) but discussing the subject, and you will make your mark.

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  28. says

    I really like the ratio idea for finding balance. Knowing that I have X amount of time to get my blogging, commenting, and tweeting done really makes me focus. It also makes me prioritize which blog I’m going to read, etc… which is helpful.

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  29. Adrienne LaCava says

    Excellent distillation, Jane, and a valuable conversation. This is a struggle I’m faced with every day right now and I love how you’ve provided common sense keys for when it is a contest. I bet they’ll work better than the dice roll I’ve relied on so far.

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  30. says

    Platform, Product, Promotion

    Very useful advice here, particularly from Michael J. Sullivan and Donald Maass.

    Only engage in ‘the platform’ when you’ve thought of something new to add.

    Don’t check stats, rankings or do anything that is only observational and passive.

    On the word of mouth front:
    if anyone wants to read my book for free…
    …contact me via the website email.

    The deal is:
    If you like it you have to tell ten of your friends!
    If you don’t like it, you mustn’t tell anyone!

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  31. says

    As always, Jane, you are brilliant and helpful.

    Here’s my mantra: All writing is writing practice.

    I blog like a crazy person, even though my only publishing credits are a short story in Sou’Wester five years ago and close to a hundred articles for regional press (one forthcoming in a national pub with a totally niche audience, Sculpture Magazine).

    And I love doing my blog, and my readership is increasing little by little, so I feel like–even though I’m probably spending too much time by anybody’s’ standards–it’s a huge win, asset, etc.

    But like Jan O’Hara above, blogging has really helped me, as an act of writing practice–even during the short time I’ve been blogging seriously (since August)–to figure out what ideas are best for essay/CNF/fiction, and which are best for blogging, and I think that when the novel I’m working on is finished, my blog will be totally useful in trying to get pubbed.

    It’s definitely true that I’m not spending enough time on my WIP by my own standards, but I probably spend more time writing daily (usually 3-4 hours) than doing anything else, and more time still on writerly-activities, like researching and thinking and taking notes.

    So I love the Nietzsche quote, and absolutely agree that it’s going to be different for everybody, and that some of us (stubbornly) need the learning that happens while we make our own path.

    Thanks as always. I love this discussion.

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  32. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Love the Nietzsche quote, Jane! Seems to run parallel with the Thoreau quote about different drummers. I think both are sound advice for anyone, and most especially for artists.

    As a wet-behind-the-ears-to-professional-writing-writer–this post gives me a lot to think about. Your lists on when, and when not to focus on platform are wonderful guidelines.

    I was also–I guess–relieved–might be the word to use in this case–to see Donald Maass’s statistics on what makes a book sell. W.O.M. -Word of Mouth is still king of the mountain. Always worked for me when picking up a book(or now downloading to my e-reader), and as Vaughn noted in his experience with the business world, you might sell a lot of clients once–but it best be a great product to keep ’em coming back.

    Like Vaughn, I have pulled out of my solitary writer shell somewhat, thanks to WU. Once again I am bookmarking a WU post for future reference. Thank you.

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  33. says

    This is such an important post. That checklist will be valuable to every writer trying to break into the business.

    Your comment about writing for pay vs. writing for platform hit home for me. I’ve been doing so much writing for free that I nearly missed a deadline on my next book. There’s so much pressure to join in every promotional blog and FB event out there that we can totally lose perspective

    This is one powerhouse comment thread. But I’m most impressed with what Mr. Maass says about what actually sells books. Not blogfests, apparently. So I’m about to check out of Cyberia for a bit and go write some fiction!

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  34. says

    As a book publicist, you think I’d be all about having a platform, but I find the writers who contact me for help with marketing their books often have a poorly written product to sell. So, I have to agree with Donald Maass — without that rocket, the lump of concrete (platform) is not going to help.

    That said, when it comes to promoting a book (or a number of them), who you are as an author is as important as the book itself. I once had a radio producer in New York tell me about one of my authors, “Paula, I don’t care how good his book is, I only want to know about him.”

    I recently heard a keynote speaker at a writers’ conference say that the most important thing is for writers to “find their tribe.” What she meant was that there is an audience out there for the type of books we write, and the key to selling is to know who that audience is and where to find them. So, when writers are creating their books, they do need to think about who will ultimately want to read them.

    And in today’s market, quantity is beginning to be as important as quality. I’ve read blog posts by a number of successful authors who suggest not self-publishing until authors have at least two or three books ready to market.

    So, there you have it — you must write good books (a lot of them) if you hope to be successful in today’s publishing world. And you must bring something to the table yourself when you go to market your books. And you need to know who your audience is and how to reach them.

    Those are a lot of balls to juggle in that balancing act.

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    • says

      Paula-

      I would add only two commas (not comments, commas) to your trenchant statement:

      > And you must bring something to the table, yourself, when you go to market your books.

      So very true. Promotion–and I would include social media–is about putting yourself forward so that fans, and future fans, may feel a connection. But they won’t want to connect with you unless your story first causes them to feel.

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  35. says

    It would be nice to know for sure what actually sells books or why certain books take off and others don’t. From my own observations I’ve seen books take off with little or no blogging/social media on the part of the author and I’ve seen books sink when the author is full out promoting. That tells me it really comes down to writing, getting more out there, and how the market responds to your work.

    Yes, some books don’t take off until later but I think the best we can do is have our platform ready, our social media ready for when a book takes off and be there to interact with fans. We can’t force it. So my plan is to launch books but then focus on writing.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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  36. says

    Don Maass is right on the money when he discusses word of mouth as being a big factor in book sales.

    What I think is being left out of the equation (or might not be accurately reflected in those statistics) is how much word of mouth can be spread or amplified online. About 90% of the books I bought this year I did buy from word of mouth … online word of mouth … from a blogger mentioning the book, from a video, from an online article in a major media outlet, from a Facebook post, from a tweet, etc.

    Store display was a huge deal when I was working at F+W. I have to guess it will become less important as physical bookstore spaces shrink, or as they close.

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    • says

      Jane-

      The study I cited did tabulate”awareness” generated by forums, blogs, Google, author and publisher websites, publisher e-mails, online ads, digial retailer push, etc. But you have to add up all those to come close to the power of recommendations of family and friends.

      Interestingly, the picture fluctuates a bit when you break down “awareness” by genre. For instance (not surprisingly) schools and book fairs do a lot for young adult. Online forums and publishers websites are more effective, and personal recommendations count for less, for science fiction. Author websites are the fourth largest factor for romance. Best seller lists disproportionately sell thrillers.

      Interesting stuff, all of which tell me that “platform” building is a scattershot idea that can be fine tuned depending on what you’re writing. But again, in-store and word-of-mouth (which the study defined as friends and relatives) are the msot effective in all categories.

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  37. says

    totally agree with regards to balance. It’s usually always the answer. There will be times it sways one way, and then the other, but you should always try and get a good balance and one YOU are happy with

    We ultimately need to enjoy what we do :)

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

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  38. Virginia Dodds says

    Write first platform later. I really dont see how you build a platform around something that does not exist. How do you know what the work will become until it becomes. When you have a finished manuscript then you start to build a platform. The time between sending out the work until its printed should be plenty to build the platform. Write first build later.

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  39. says

    “Focusing on your writing probably means spending 10%-25% of your available writing time on platform activities.”

    Thank you. For writers without a base, like myself, I think we can reprioritize our writing schedules for a season (Robert Lee Brewer’s April Platform Challenge at http://robertleebrewer.blogspot.com/, for example) It is good business to be aware of the business side of writing. But then we need to get back to the 10-25% guideline. We will learn much by following, and being followed, by fellow writers, but our ultimate goal should always be to be read by readers.

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  40. says

    Interesting discussion. I write first and do the platform stuff second. I learned to write first from hearing Nora Roberts speak at romance writer conferences. She always emphasized that writing was her job and if it doesn’t involve blood or fire, don’t bother her. So I developed the mentality very early on that writing is my job. I write first in the morning and have a daily page count goal. Writing also entertains me and that keeps me coming back.

    I never developed a web site until I self-published my first book in December 2011, inspired after I heard Jane speak at the Willamette Writers conference last August. (I had tried for ten years to sell six books to the traditional publishing world with no success. At least, I am building a body of work.) As for platform, I didn’t feel I had anything to say. At the conference Jane said the web site is central and drive traffic to it. I put up a web site. After I put the site up, I found I had not only the book to talk about but a whole bunch of other stuff. Plus I started getting good reviews of the book, and I’ve been adding them to the site. I set up a blog on the web site about the writing process, which may help other writers. I am slowly developing platform but some days it is bewildering. Thank you, Jane, for your thoughtful posts.

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  41. says

    You’ve completely summarized in bullet points my general rant against aspiring novelists who spend all their time “building their platform” and none of it writing an actual novel. Balance is key and you shouldn’t totally ignore platform if you can be doing something to build it, but if you don’t even have a book or any writing under your belt, what are you expecting to sell?

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  42. says

    I think Donald Maass’ comments are quite insightful, especially if there is data on the assertions. For myself, I had to establish “street cred” for my genre (automotive history) for my first book, so I worked on it (my platform) long and hard.

    Lucky for me I had some articles in print and more on the way that I could post on a web site I built provided with my NAIWE membership. A blog has helped me get some clips out there for others to see. Now I have to market my stuff and capture emails, etc; another step. It’s all about making steps as you can find the time. As Michael Hyatt pointed out, it has to be done over time. Mine took four months – check it out if you are curious.

    Where will my platform come in handy? To establish my expertise when I have to pitch my book to a group of skeptical editors. That’s when I believe my platform will help me make the sale.

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  43. says

    Balance is the word that caught my eye in this two-pronged discussion. So glad that you provided some insight on this challenging issue.

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  44. Laura says

    Great post Jane and a very lively discussion in the comments as well. There are so many sides to this topic so I’ll write from my perspective.

    When I get blocked with the project I’m primarily working on I spend a bit more time on social media. Reaching out, seeing what others are doing, hearing their successes and failures, empathizing with their rejections, and celebrating (from my computer screen) with their successes gives me a rush that then boosts my creative juices to start flowing again. I regularly update my social meida sites and blog, but for when I’m blocked that little bit of extra time browsing gets me excited again about why I choose to write instead of go back to working in “corporate” America.

    Thanks for a great post with valuable ideas.

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  45. says

    Jane. As always your topics are insightful, educational and make me go back and examine what I’m doing. I have learned a great deal about writing simply through the process of developing a platform via writer’s blogs, artcles and 10 Steps to Landing an Agent. As with most of those who’ve commented, I’ve looked for a balance between the writing and the building. Most days the writing takes prescidence – when it doesn’t, I go out and buy a Starbucks and tell myself it’s all part of the package.
    Thanks

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  46. says

    Honestly, this is a great, great post, and the comments are impressive. You have some serious connections, Jane! Anyway, when it comes to platform, I admit I only blog and fiddle around on Twitter. I don’t plan on doing anything serious in terms of continuous promotion or anything like that once my novella is published. I like to think the book and what connections I do have will help out more than spamming the interwebs with yet another book they HAVE TO READ NOW. You know?

    Basically I lean more towards the “platform helps but social media isn’t the end-all marketing solution” side of things.

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  47. says

    Jane: Your guideline highlights a difference that I agree with: non-fiction vs. fiction.

    You should focus on platform first in the area non-narrative non-fiction, because sharing your ideas allows you to build authority and an audience at the same time. The interaction and connections are also great ways to sharpen your focus for the book.

    On the other hand, what can fiction authors do to build their platform before they have a finished story? It’s hard to judge your work without a completed novel. And unfortunately, it takes a tremendous amount of time and creative energy to get a book of a decent length ready to be read. Still, I wonder if it’s possible for fiction authors to give readers a taste of what they can do, like publish short stories for free on a blog. If there’s an audience for the shorter stuff, maybe they’ll like the longer stories too.

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  48. says

    THANKS, Jane! I ponder this daily.

    I’m going to tweet this blog just as soon as I hit ‘Submit Comment’ and then I’m going to pour myself into my WIP as it is due Sept. 1.

    But, wait! I’ve got a novel coming out August 1.

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  49. says

    I do think having some kind of online presence before the book is out is important. So there’s not the “HERE I AM – MY BOOK AND ME AND MY BOOK BOOK BOOK and me!” kind of feeling. People coming to know the author as a person before the author and his/her book(s) are out creates community.

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  50. says

    Thank you so much for this Jane, I missed you this thursday in Dans class, and I am sorry I did, this was the question I was going to ask you. You must have read my mind. I am always trying to juggle which one to do. and I seem to end up on my platform, however if I don’t finish my book, why have the platform. So this is an eye opener for me, and a great sense of direction. Thank you for a great post. Ritchie

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  51. Lynda Schuessler says

    “If you are within the first five years of seriously attempting to write with the goal of publication
    For novelists: If you have not yet completed and revised one or two full-length manuscripts”

    These two points alone were worth the time I spent reading this post. I’ve been struggling with platform, thinking that I was not doing enough. What a relief to realize that I’m right where I need to be.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post, Jane.

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  52. says

    To throw a wrench into things, let’s look at one of the biggest selling novels in recent memory: Water for Elephants. And here’s my question:

    What was Sara Gruen’s platform?

    WFE was *nothing* like her previous novels. So different, in fact, that her own publisher rejected the manuscript (which, in retrospect, has to feel a lot like being one of the people who rejected J.K. Rowling). It could be argued that she’d established herself as an advocate for animals, but only among the horse-oriented audience of her previous novels. But platform? I didn’t see it as such. She took a radical departure, stepping away from a potentially ongoing series of horse-oriented romantic novels. And she was not promoting herself like crazy online during the amazing ascent of WFE.

    I’d argue that her book simply made it by being a great freaking book. And people who read it told other people about it.

    Which to me beats the hell out of any platform.

    So for me – and I’m speaking strictly about fiction – platform is more of a nice-to-have than a necessity. Which I guess means that I agree with The Donald: your writing *is* your platform.

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  53. says

    It seems those who are arguing no platform is necessary are using already published writers as examples. Yes, great writing often leads to success, but these days a new writer is ALWAYS asked about his/her platform. I’ve heard, and read, publishers comment that they’ve rejected great manuscripts b/c the writer had no platform.
    What I’m hearing mostly, is balance is necessary, but the right kind of balance. Base your platform on what genre you’re writing, and you don’t always have to assume platform=online. It might be speaking engagements, or just having the biggest, most vociferous circle of family and friends ever! But ignoring platform is the kiss of death for an unpublished writer.
    On the other hand, social media is as addictive as TV. Furthermore, while both can be useful and informative, the temptation to simply use both as simple entertainment is almost overpowering.
    An intelligent, focused platform is what’s needed, both online and in the “real” world–and the self-control to make it the servant of your writing, not the substitute.
    How to do this? Plan, implement, and step back regularly to critique yourself.

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  54. says

    I agree with Jane Ann McLauchlan: My narrative non-fiction, SLEEPING WITH A WITCH DOCTOR, will be released this fall. I’m “building a platform” by joining groups of people that I think will relate well to the topic and will be supportive when the book comes out. I’ve Facebooked for a couple of years now and enjoy chatting with people in Thailand, Bangladesh, and America, but that’s because I like them. Maybe some of them will become part of my platform. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I”m spending most my time writing my next book which will be a narrative non-fiction about Bangladesh.

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  55. says

    I loved the article as well as the comments.

    What a great joy it is to see so many familiar names and faces in this comment section. I appreciate their POV all the more after spending a month with them on the MNINB April Platform Challenge.

    My cohort included newbies like myself as well as more established writers, folks with and without credentials, a real cross-section of talent and experience. But I believe that although there was plenty of grumbling and grousing about losing time to writing the REAL stuff, I think everyone who participated found that overall their writing will be stronger and more focused for the experience.

    As a new writer, I joined not to get rich quick. I joined to test out some theories, test out myself as a writer, and test out a potential audience. Isn’t that what writing conferences are all about?

    I view platform building as my virtual ticket to an ongoing writer’s workshop/conference hybrid. How’s that for a concept?

    Thanks again for the article, Jane!

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  56. says

    Hmmm? Well, it seems to me that most writers of fiction get this back to front. If you build it they will come. But that doesn’t mean the platform. It means the product, which is the book, and the next book, and the one after that. And if the book is good, word of mouth will take care of everything. Then the author will be free to play on her blog, with her fans on FB, Twitter, Google+ and anything else she deems necessary, while writing another book.

    Excellent post, Jane. I’m not sure which I found most impressive, the post, or the discussion in the comments. : )

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  57. says

    Wow — excellent post, Jane. I was also impressed by the intelligent and insightful comments in response.

    My take:

    I still think it’s possible for a new writer to get plucked out of the slush pile without a platform; I know at least one writer who got her first book contract with a major publisher this way. BUT I also believe that these days, it’s the exception rather than the norm.

    I went about things in the reverse order from most writers: I created my platform long before I had something to promote. I couldn’t help myself, though — I’ve been a fan of online communities years before the term became popular.

    I agree with one of Jane’s comments above, that there is no One Right Way. What works for one writer might not work for another. I even think that if a writer who is not suited for social media (and forces herself into that venue despite hating it), her so-called platform could end up hurting her chances of publication than helping.

    Hm, and this discussion has given me a great idea for a new comic for Writer Unboxed on Saturday. :-)

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  58. says

    I tutor writing three days a week at a community college, so that leaves me four days to write…and attend to the other chores of life. To build my platform, I dedicated one of those days solely for that purpose. Giving myself a schedule helped prioritize my days releasing the stress I felt for not having enough time to write and the need to build a platform for my books. Now that the platform is done, although it changes weekly, I still use that one day to attend to its major revisions, and about 15 minutes at the end of each work day to make minor updates.

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  59. Bailish says

    Thanks for the advice. I think you’ve got a pretty good formula there, and distinguished well where each writer falls.

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  60. says

    As a new writer, I focused all my attention on writing, revising, writing, editing, revising, and more writing. I was determined to create the best book possible. I realized that I needed to build a platform, but put that venture on hold. I usually don’t procrastinate, but the thought of building a platform was something I chose not to address. I did skim over a couple of books and listened to one of your webinars. Now just a month or two away from self publishing my work, I’m scurrying about trying to create my social identity. After reading your post, I’m not sure if I delay publishing my book or just dive in. How do you determine when the time is ripe?

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  61. says

    This is a great post. I’m trying to build my platform, and I’m struggling with the time part. The first time I got on Twitter, I quit after 2 months because it was exhausting and time consuming trying to keep up with 10 tweets a day. Some days, I feel like I never get away from the writing, because I’m always having to either write or blog or tweet. Lately, I’ve been backing off social media over the weekend because it’s getting to be too much — and I’m not doing it as much as other people.

    I’ve found I periodically have to reassess what I’m doing and make changes. I was blogging three times a week, but I went down to twice a week because it was too hard keeping up, especially since I haven’t figured out what works for me. At times it’s discouraging because I can’t see the progress.

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  62. says

    This post really makes me chuckle…I wonder how much time folks spent reading and chewing on and commenting on and spreading the word about a post ABOUT platform rather than actually spending any amount of time actually cultivating and working on their own platform?

    I am a person who does not distinguish between writing, selling, specializing, self-promotion, and continuing ed, and also a person who sees all of these things as essential and necessary to my writing career success.

    I put writing in the center and I keep coming back around to it over and over, not because I have to, but because I WANT to.

    For me, there is no separation. Writing is the center. (If you read The Writer’s Workout, you saw the diagram.) But it’s all critical. There’s nothing to debate.

    The only thing I can’t understand is why we need to take such a phenomenal amount of time out of any day to get all worked up about things that we should be waaaaay beyond debating.

    Do you need to write well? Heck yes. You need to crush it.
    Do you need to sell yourself and your work? Ditto.
    Do you need to zoom in and do more with your strengths (while addressing those pesky weaknesses)? Ditto again.
    Do you need to promote yourself and your work? Why are we still asking this?
    Do you need to spend the rest of your career staying open to new ways to do all of the above, especially those things that amplify whatever influence you already have (AKA social media)? Can I get an amen?

    If you are truly working at your work, you don’t have the time or the luxury for long should-I-or-shouldn’t-I types of debates…because you are too busy working and relishing your work. Because you love it. All of it. Or don’t go down this road.

    And there is no perfect way to do any of it. So just do whatever it is you do your own imperfect way.

    That’s my advice.

    And now I’m going to get back to work. Ta’.

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  63. says

    All great points about balance and timing. I’ve just finished my second novel, so it’s time to get more serious about platform while I work on the third. My writing schedule is four hours a day.To prevent writer’s block I always have a productive back-up project available, usually the next book, so I can diddle around productively. “Platform” has moved into that slot. It helps to have a “small bites list” of platform tasks to turn to when the novel needs some percolation time. Setting a timer is critical to curb the tendency to wander off into the weeds online. Presently I’m building a new web site with weebly.com, since the stunning first web site now reeks with amateur markers. Keep it fun!

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