writing


The JUSTICE UNENDING Facebook ad.OK, first thing’s first: this is not a post about how to be successful with Facebook ads.

I created my first Facebook ad last month. I’ve run a single one-month test. I’ve got a lot to learn.

But if you’re an author who doesn’t know where to start–or what to even think about–maybe this will help.

Here’s what I learned from my very first test.

What did I do?

I ran one ad  campaign for my YA fantasy novel, Justice Unending. Here are the stats:

  • The campaign ran for 30 days.
  • It had a limit of $30 for that period.
  • I targeted men and women ages 10-40 who listed “fantasy books” or “young adult books” as one of their interests.
  • I ran two ads simultaneously for the first week, then switched to the more effective ad for the rest of the campaign.
  • I added a third ad, which only ran for one week, to promote my Goodreads giveaway.
  • I ultimately got 1,560 views and 65 link clicks.
  • I got 14 followers on Facebook.
  • I made at least one sale.

These are not amazing stats, sure. But I learned a ton from them. Let’s go into the details!

You should really make an fan page for yourself first.

A Facebook “fan page” is, well, a page about a topic, not a person. It’s not your personal Facebook page, with your friends and family and your super-tight security that ensures no one will ever see your pictures of your cats.

A “fan page” is a page about a topic–like that page about your local animal shelter or that government agency that posts tips on how to save energy at home.

And if you make an ad and link it to your fan page, your fan page will be linked at the top of your ad. This has a lot of benefits:

  • People who think your ad looks interesting can easily go to your fan page.
  • You can fill your fan page with fun stuff about you and your books.
  • If someone likes your fan page, then the things you post on that page will show in their news feeds.

And holy moly, people actually do this! They see an ad, which is trying to sell them something, and they go, “Sure, why not? I’ll follow that author.”

And then they’re fans of your page! Do you know what that means? Your ads only run for as long as you pay for them. But people who follow your page? You get those people forever! (Or until they unfollow you, at least.) When you post updates on your fan page–say, about sales or giveaways–those people will see those posts when they log in to Facebook! Because they followed your fan page!

Yes, Facebook has done a lot of tweaking to fan pages. And yes, the stuff you post on your fan page is not guaranteed to be seen by all of your followers, even if they’re active on Facebook. That’s all true. There are lots of things to think about when it comes to Facebook.

But if you’re going to run an ad, linking it to a fan page is an easy decision. It’s a pool of followers you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

People prefer Amazon links.

I ran one ad that linked to my website. Justice Unending is available in several formats, so I thought I’d give people a choice.

But that ad was absolute garbage compared to the one that linked directly to Amazon. The Amazon ad did so well, in fact, that I just turned off the other ad entirely.

So there’s a simple lesson: people trust Amazon.

The payment structure determines how much exposure you’ll get.

You get two options when you make an ad campaign:

  • Advertise every day and set a daily cap. Facebook will run your ad every single day until you manually tell it to stop. So if you do $5 a day, it will show itself to $5 worth of people, then stop. The next day, it’ll do it again.
  • Put in a monthly cap and a time range. If you do this, it will take the amount you want to pay, divide it by the number of days, then spend that much money per day.

I went with option #2. I ended up doing $30 for 30 days. Facebook helpfully told me that my target audience–YA and fantasy book fans–was a large audience. I had a potential reach of many tens of thousands of people.

I did not reach that many people.

Why is that? Well, $30 for 30 days gets you about a dollar a day of advertising. You get billed for every view and every click. And while there’s no cold, hard number for how much those are worth, it meant that only a few dozen people saw my ad (and only about 2 or 3 clicked it) a day. And Facebook limited my exposure, on purpose, so I wouldn’t spend more than $1 a day.

So money matters. I’d be interested to see how more money on fewer days would have gone–for example, what would $30 on two weeks look like? Or one week?

You pay by the campaign, but you can put infinite numbers of ads in that campaign.

Basically, you have an campaign that is full of multiple ads. You pay at the campaign level. So you might set up “Book Campaign #1” to bill $5 a day until you stop it. You could then make as many ads as you want, which will all share that $5 a day.

This means your ads fight for money. The more ads you have, the fewer interactions each will get.

And it looks like Facebook does some calculations to decide which ad gets your money, because I definitely did not see an even split. I had one really successful ad that ran most of September. By the end of the month, I threw in a second one, to promote my Goodreads giveaway. It ran for a week and was seen by all of 4 people.

Why? I suspect that Facebook prioritizes the “successful” ads that got more clicks. My new ad had very little chance of competing against one that had been going for 3 weeks–and there wasn’t enough time left in the campaign to level the playing field.

(On the other hand, starting a campaign with two ads, then closing the one that wasn’t working as well did work. So timing is important!)

So how did it work?

As mentioned above, I got 65 clicks for my $30 experiment, at least one of which led to a sale. I also got 14 new followers to my brand-new author fan page.

And how does that measure up to other things I’ve tried?

Well, it’s definitely not bad. Far more people click on Facebook ads than Goodreads ads, at least based on my also-very-short test over there. It has a rather high amount of interaction, too: I got fan page followers, a fair number of clicks, and a sale.

Those aren’t exceptional results, and they certainly didn’t change my life. But they definitely got me some exposure.

There’s still so much I don’t understand about Facebook ads. They’re so complex, and they blow through your money so quickly! But they do seem to be a strong option, and I can definitely see myself experimenting more with them in the future.

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Yes.

Post’s over! You can all go home now, guys. You–…what? I need to write a little more than that?

Honestly, this is one of those questions I’ve never understood. “The best writers are avid readers” appears in every “Advice for Writers” forum, book, and blog ever written. But writing communities are full of posts asking, “Do you have to read if you want to write?”

The short answer is yes. The long answer is the rest of this post.

Yes, because you must actually like books if you want to write one.

You know what just baffles me? Some of the people who ask “Hey, I want to write. But do I have to read books?” are actually trying to say, “Hey, I don’t actually like reading, but I do want to write a novel! So, uh, what about that?”

And that’s… hm. That’s a problem. Let’s take this question and apply it to other creative arts:

  • I’m creating my own videogame! What’s my favorite genre? Oh, uh, I don’t play games. They’re wastes of time. I really prefer movies, honestly.
  • My dream is to create my own movie! What do I watch? Oh, nothing. I can’t stand sitting down for that long and just watching something for that long. I just wanted to see my name on the screen, you know?
  • I’m learning to compose! But I hate music, and…

Okay, okay, you get the point. This is silly, right? Why would these imaginary people invest hundreds of hours of work into a medium where it’s hard to make something, harder to get it in front of people, and nearly impossible to make money off of? And why would they do it when they don’t even enjoy this thing?

Unfortunately, writing is seen as a low-skill task that anyone can do, so you actually do encounter people who hate books but also want to be a famous author.

So, yes. If you don’t like books, creating one will be especially difficult for you.

Yes, because it helps you learn how to analyze and dissect writing.

OK! So let’s say that you do like reading, and you do read for fun. But, you might wonder, does reading a lot actually help you write better in any appreciable way?

And yes! It does. Here’s reason #1: the more you read, the more you can practice reading critically.

It’s fine to read passively for pleasure, especially if this is how you decompress. I do that, too! But reading without thinking doesn’t teach you anything. To figure out what makes a book work, you have to really peel it apart and analyze it.

And if you’re a writer, this is an invaluable skill to have. When you write a novel, you run into all sorts of problems. How can you make this section less boring? How can you make your characters more interesting? Why is your dialogue so ineffective? These are big, scary questions. And where can you get the answers?

Well, you can get a lot of them from reading! Good books are repositories of successful techniques. If you find a book with really good characters, you can pick them apart. How does that author make them seem real? What made the dialogue good? How did they grow? If you find a really fast-paced, exciting novel, you can study its pacing. How did it keep the action going?

Reading books teaches you how to identify problems, too. Even the most popular, most successful books will probably have a few… iffy choices. And that’s great! Learning how to identify those problems, describe them, and clearly articulate why they didn’t work will help you do the same to your own books.

Yes, because you need to know your genre.

It’s also good to know the genre you write in. Then you can learn:

  • What does a book in your genre look like?
  • What cliches are common?
  • What themes are popular right now?
  • What are the big names in your genre?
  • What are the most anticipated books of this year?
  • How does my book stand out from what’s out there already?

And so on, so forth.

I know people hate rules. But if you are writing a book in a particular genre, there are a few things you have to do for your book to function within that genre (even if it’s just “fantasy books have to include fantastic elements.”) The more you know what a book in your genre looks like, the more you can innovate–because you can point to what other people are doing and explain how your book’s unique.

Also, do you want to sell that thing? Do you want an agent? Then this is really good market research, because it helps you learn what already exists and what’s currently selling.

Finally, if you find novels that are similar to yours, that’s great! You can list them in your query letter as comps, and say “My novel’s like [this successful book], but [different in this way]!”

Yes, because it might help fill your creative well.

And, finally, reading can be important for writers because… well, if you like reading, then you’ll enjoy it, right?

Whenever I can’t write, I read. It always helps. What if I find a book I like? That’s amazing! I can spend days thinking about the things I liked and picking through why I liked it–was it the description? The tone? The way the information was delivered? “Could I do something like this?” I wonder. “It seems like so much fun!”

Or maybe I hate it! That actually helps, too! I can’t imagine how many times I’ve said, “I HATE THIS PARTICULAR TROPE” and then rage-outlined a story that inverts it.

But most of all, reading is relaxing, it’s fun, and it helps me remember the things I genuinely love. And if I’m neck-deep in a story I can’t figure out, which is driving me crazy and making me ragey, remembering that I do actually love this stuff–and that I can do it, too!–helps a ton.

So yes. If you’re writing, yes. You should read often.

This isn’t a judgey thing. You don’t have to be obsessed with reading. You don’t have to feel bad for not reading as much as you’d like to. If you like books and also like reading, you’re golden.

But if you want to be an author, you really should enjoy reading, at all, period, end sentence. That does make sense, right?

Yeah. I really could have ended this post after the first word.

 

After years of writing, I’ve learned a very strange thing about myself: when I feel like garbage, a story isn’t working, and I know it needs a lot of work before it’s “done,” the absolute worst, most demoralizing thing I can think is “but imagine what it’ll be like when it’s published!”

Yes, demoralizing. It makes me want to quit. It makes me want to wallow. It is the most depressing, most frustrating, most upsetting thing I can think of.

Why? Well, let’s dive into my psyche. I might just be hyper-sensitive and neurotic (I probably am, actually), but hey! Maybe you work the same way.

The problem with focusing on big successes is that they don’t always happen.

Here’s the long and short of it: when I’m depressed about writing, dreaming about a wonderful future where I’m a successful author doesn’t help, because:

  • That success is far away.
  • Achieving that success requires me to not be depressed.
  • I still have to put in dozens (or hundreds!) of hours of work to get to that point.
  • It’s extremely common to write something and have it never sell anywhere, or never find an agent, or never find a publisher.
  • Even if you self-publish, it’s extremely common for you to put out a book and have it receive middling-to-non-existant sales.

Which means that if I’m anxious or depressed, dreaming about eventual success is poison. I can guarantee you that my mind is not going to say “Don’t worry! You’re worried now, but you’re going to feel great when you succeed!”

No. My mind is a jerk. It thinks evil things. It’s going to say, “Imagine what it’ll be like if you never publish this story at all, and the 6 months of work you put into this was wasted because you got stuck right now and you never got over it!”

So, uh, that’s bad.

The solution: focus on very, very small wins.

So what does work when I’m deep in a pit? Celebrating small successes like:

  • You wrote today! You haven’t written for a week or so, so THIS IS GREAT. Hurray!
  • You wrote 1,000 words! That’s super fantastic!
  • You accomplished something! Accomplishing something feels good, right? Don’t you want to feel like this a lot? Remember this feeling!
  • Write a to-do list, where the task for every single day is “Just write anything.” Cross off today! CROSSING OFF STUFF FEELS GREAT
  • Good golly, did you finish a chapter?! One down! WOO!
  • You sent a query! Cross that off your QueryTracker list! Who cares if they ever respond? You did your side of the work, which is writing a good query and sending it out. DONE. YOU SUCCEEDED. HURRAY.

OK, so these sound cheesy. They are, really. Believe me, I know. I can’t sincerely throw myself a party for writing 1,000 words, either.

But I do feel genuinely content when I finish something. So that’s what I focus on: the small, nice feeling of accomplishing anything.

So here’s my takeaway: when I’m most depressed, I need to accomplish something.

That’s basically it.

“Hey, maybe you’ll sell this book someday” is not something that I can do in a weekend to snap me out of my slump. But I can do a tiny bit of work.

This stuff is not easy for me. When I feel bad, I want to second guess my accomplishments. “Yes, I wrote 1,000 words, but are they objectively good ones? Because maybe I’ll just have to write those words over again later, and this time was wasted!” or “I wrote a chapter, but there are 27 in this novel, so at this rate it’s still going to take me 3 months to finish this thing, at best!” I’m realllly not a very positive person, usually.

But you know what feels good? Accomplishing something. Accomplishing anything.

The only way I can drag myself out of depression is by accomplishing milestones. Little ones. Preferably ones I can accomplish every day. I won’t cheer myself up by thinking “You won’t feel like garbage 3 months from now, when you’re done!” I have to find something I’ll feel better about today. Now. Something like:

  • You sketched out notecards for every scene that’s working in your novel, up to the point where it isn’t
  • You brainstormed ideas for how to fix your current problems
  • You wrote a reasonable amount of content
  • You wrote something else, and it was fun and liberating
  • You read a book about writing and it gave you some ideas on how to fix your writing
  • You sat down and used your dedicated writing time for something writing-related for once, and you’re going to do it again tomorrow.

All of these are small victories, and you can do them today. They don’t require you to succeed at anything, or to complete a lot of work, or to fix everything. They’re just tiny baby steps you can do today, and tomorrow, and the next day.

It doesn’t always work, of course. But it’s better than clubbing yourself over the head with things you can’t do today.

I still get writer’s block. I seem to fall into a pit of depression about once a year, swear to give up writing forever, and stop writing for a week or two. It happens. And every time it happens, it feels like I’ll never drag myself out of it.

But I always get back on that horse and try again. And it’s never because I remembered that it’d be Really Super Amazing to get a TV show based on my novel. It’s always because I did something small, and writing felt possible again, and accomplishing something felt good, and I figured I should do that more often.

So, yes. Perspective shifts: helpful. Maybe they are for you, too?

That title is a mess. It’ll have to do.

As so many of my posts start, I read a thread the other day that asked “Will writing fiction improve your non-fiction writing skills?” This is a question I’ve seen a lot, in many different forms. And a lot of times, people answer with, “Sure! It doesn’t matter what you’re writing–writing well is writing well!”

And that’s… kind of true? A little? But I don’t agree with the spirit of that answer.

Here’s why.

Some writing skills are universal.

Grammar. Spelling. The ability to choose words that mean what you want them to mean. The ability to identify your target audience and write toward their level of understanding.

These are your transferable skills. It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the point. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, a fact sheet, a lesson plan, or a marketing campaign. These matter. Someone who is good at these will have the basic skills needed to write anything.

But it doesn’t mean that someone with good writing skills will be good at all kinds of writing, because…

Different kinds of writing have different institutional skills.

Unfortunately, “writing well” is not the only thing you need to write a good novel or a really successful marketing campaign. Every style of writing has its own, separate sub-skills that are unique to that medium–and if you don’t know them, you may be okay at writing, but you won’t be amazing.

Think about it this way: do you think that people who do marketing writing have to know different things than people who do technical writing? Or hey, you’ve written novels: do you think you could stroll into an ad agency and get a job as a copywriter, right now, with no other training?

Of course not. There’s a reason that you could get a degree in marketing, journalism, technical writing, and English and learn completely different skills. They all probably have a 101 course to beat basic writing skills into you, and they all probably have professors who’d rail on you for using too many unnecessary words. But they’d also teach you specialized skills that are unique to each style of writing.

For example, let’s look at what I do for a living: web writing.

You don’t write websites like you do novels. All web writing is designed around the idea that people skim, people search, and no one reads everything you’ve written. How often do you go through a website and read every single page on the site? Never, right? Heck, people rarely even start at the top of a page and read every single word on the way down.

So when you write for web, you write in tiny little paragraph-nuggets of information. You use headers to break text into distinct sections, so people can jump to just the part that they care about. You use short paragraphs. You use lots of white space, and things that facilitate white space, like bullets. You have to think about how links are used and how they’re written. And that’s without getting into the more technical requirements, like SEO.

And I’ve seen exceptional writers–people with 20 years of experience writing technical reports–sit down and write 10-page, super-dense, extremely deep websites, with… references? And footnotes?! And the words are good, because they’re great at explaining things, but no one’s going to read that thing because it’s not good web writing.

This isn’t to say this hypothetical person couldn’t be good at web writing. Of course they could! They’d probably pick it up quickly, because they have a really good foundation. But to be actually good at it, writing well is not enough–they’d have to learn the skills that make web writing unique.

This is exactly the same for fiction.

Seriously. Let’s think about it:

  • Being good at writing English class essays doesn’t mean you know how to do the plotting, worldbuilding, characterization, or tension development that’s needed to write a fiction novel.
  • Knowing how to write a good novel doesn’t mean you can write a good query letter. Queries are more like marketing documents than create writing–and a lot of writers struggle with them.
  • And, to answer the question this post started with: writing fiction won’t teach you how to structure a non-fiction book, how to convey real-world experiences or data in an engaging way, or any of the other talents that non-fiction writers use and novelists don’t.  (And to make things worse, non-fiction and fiction books are also queried differently.)

Like all things, the devil’s in the details.

So when someone asks if writing fiction makes you good at non-fiction, or if writing essays or doing online roleplaying or anything that isn’t writing novels would make you a better novelist, I’d answer… not… really? Writing novels, learning about novels, and studying novel-related skills makes you better at novels. Because, in the end, writing well is a lot more than just grammar.

TL;DR: You get better at something by practicing it, not something kind of similar to it.

I guess I could have probably just replaced this entire article with that, huh?