Our guest today is Deborah McKinlay, author of some half dozen, nonfiction, humor titles, and the author of two novels The View From Here (Soho Press, 2011) and That Part Was True (Grand Central, 2014), a NYT Book Review editors’ choice on February 16th, and one of Parade Magazine’s “Ten Books You’ll Love For Spring.” It has been optioned for screen by the BBC independent film unit.
From New York Times Book Review (Feb 9th, 2014): “When the British author Deborah McKinlay takes us to ‘the depths of the English countryside, in a house that was an advertisement for the English countryside,’ we recognize that a Lively voice — à la Penelope, that is — will be reporting with wry detachment and affection.”
Deborah wanted to write this post because she “managed to find a happy middle (as a writer) after a long, dry patch (I won’t say ending because it’s a long road) and think some of my experience might resonate with people, and hopefully encourage them.” She believes there are a lot of mid-career, mid-life, authors who are feeling pretty lost in the current, increasingly slippery, publishing landscape. They started their careers in one world and find themselves suddenly in another.
Connect with Deborah on Twitter @yourauntlola.
How Seth Godin Saved My Career: Six lessons a marketing guru taught a literary novelist
In May 2010, Garrison Keillor wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the sad demise of traditional publishing – a charming piece, tied up with some winningly written nostalgia. I am a great fan of Mr Keillor’s, I read it nodding. I went on nodding until I was whomped by the following epiphany: I am not Garrison Keillor; a successful, established, fabulously talented author with a New Yorker background, whose op-eds are published in the New York Times. I was, in fact, a mid-life, mid-career writer, scary broke and a single parent. Luckily, these last two facts rubbed together enough to make some sparks. I figured that if the world was changing, it probably wasn’t smart to sit around nodding with the Old Guard. I decided to find out who was riding the forward wave. It was Seth Godin. These were the lessons he taught me:
Join the conversation: I stopped treating the internet as either a postcard substitute, or a portable encyclopaedia. Given that what I do best is write characters, I invented a Twitter persona and started to tweet as her – I still do. One advantage of this was that I could do it anonymously at first, but the secondary appeal was that by tweeting samples of my writing, rather than processes, or other people’s writing, I found some readers. I now have a way to connect with them and, importantly, to figure out who they are. (Not always, as it happens, who I thought they were.)
[pullquote]His advice is, ‘Do anything that won’t knock you out of the game.’ I repeat this to myself regularly – it stops me agonising over semi-colons. I write, I edit, I take a hard look and, if it’s good enough not to embarrass me, I ship. I am often surprised by what sails.[/pullquote]
Find a tribe: Seth Godin’s definition of a Tribe is a group who unite around a leader, but don’t simply follow – they share ideas and purpose. I stopped just looking for an audience and had a go at connecting with people who would find each other. I focused my Twitter energy on getting retweets, rather than new followers. Then, I figured that novels might also benefit from some ‘shareable’ aspect. That Part Was True tells the story of two people who correspond about, among other things, a love of cooking. In the rewriting I consciously expanded the cooking element. It is the part of the novel that readers comment on most, contact me about most and ask me to write about most – it’s ‘shareable’.
Ship: I heard Seth Godin say in an interview ‘I ship’. His advice is, ‘Do anything that won’t knock you out of the game.’ I repeat this to myself regularly – it stops me agonising over semi-colons. I write, I edit, I take a hard look and, if it’s good enough not to embarrass me, I ship. I am often surprised by what sails.
Ignore geography: I already had some feel for this – I had sold my first novel, The View From Here to Soho Press in New York, despite the fact that I was living in a remote corner of South West England. But the emphasis in Seth’s Godin’s work gave me the push I needed to hold out for an across-the-Atlantic agent. I got a great one. I remind myself often now that the perfect reader/publisher for any piece of work might be in Scotland, or Sydney, or Ohio. I can find them.
Colour the cow: Seth Godin illustrates the need for differentiated products by talking about purple cows. This is pretty close to standard publishing lore – make your story stand out. There is plenty of good, logical, and sometimes inspiring information around about how to do this (see Donald Maass). I have read, and recommended, much of it (see Donald Maass), but I find the simple question “What is remarkable about this cow?” an excellent, grounding reminder that I my job is to produce product. It that has to compete with other product.
Nurture relationships: When I first came across Seth Godin’s work, I sent a two line email to him, telling him how helpful I had found it. He wrote back immediately and extremely informally. At that point I went from fan to admirer. When I sold That Part Was True, I thanked him once more. He wrote back again – immediately and informally. I went from admirer to evangelist. Recently, I have had quite a few messages from readers. Lucky me. I write back immediately and informally.
In September, 2012 I got a big break… into Garrison Keillor’s lovely, traditional, editorially rigorous publishing world. I am very happy there. But, given the nowadays necessity for frequent ventures out of the Literary Bubble, I am very glad to have found, in Seth Godin, a guide to a comfortable spot between sepia and green. (P.S. If you want to come, too, you can bring your Corona.)
Are there lessons you’ve learned in unexpected places that you can apply to your writing ventures? We’d love to hear!