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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ten Reasons I'm Not Reading Your Blog

I hit hundreds of writers’ blogs every week (except this week, when my Internet connection has been squirrelly. Arrgghh.)  But I do like to keep up with followers and people who comment here.

Thing is—with all those blogs to check—I only have a moment for each one, so some of you are losing me. If I can’t grasp in a moment what your blog is about, who you are, what you write—and comment or follow if I choose, I’m out of there.

I’m not saying this is true of every blog reader. There may be lots of blocked writers leisurely surfers who have time to waste linger in the blogosphere. But most of us have other priorities. Like our own blogs.

In an interesting post last Thursday, social media guru Robert M. Caruso of Bundlepost likened social media to a freeway, where thousands of cars pass by every minute. He says you need to have a fleet of cars of your brand on that freeway, so you can catch the attention of your audience, who are standing by the side of the road for only few short minutes each day.

Excellent advice as far as it goes: Tweet often.

But the truth is, more and more people are like you: driving on the freeway. Fewer and fewer are on the side of the road waiting for great content to come by. So your audience is no longer standing still—even for a few minutes. They’re sailing along on the freeway with you.

So you’d better be able to get your message across in an instant.

Here are some things that aren’t grabbing me during my drive-by visits.

1)     Your site takes too long to load. If you have animation on your site, or lots of graphics, you’re stealing reading time from yourself. If I’ve got a minute, and you take 30 seconds for loading—your content loses out. If you’re an illustrator or write for small children, yes, your blog needs graphics. But if you’re a writer, don’t snail down your loading time with a lot of visuals. And keep in mind that lots of people are reading you in RSS feeds or on other devices, so they don't see the graphics at all. 

2)     No focus. If your name is buried somewhere at the bottom of the page, I can’t see what kind of stuff you write, and you call your blog “meanderings in the mush of my mind,” I’m gone. Your blog is like your book’s first page or your story’s lead—you gotta have a hook.

3)     Music. I’ve yammered about this before. Unless you’re a musician hawking your wares, skip the sound track. If I want to listen to music, I’ll choose my own, thanks—and chances are yours isn’t in the same key.

4)     Your posts are simply snippets of your WIP. This tells me:

a.      You’re a newbie: professionals don’t do this. You’re throwing away your first rights and embarrassing your future, better-writer self.
b.     You’re needy and trolling for praise. (If you want critique, go to forums like Absolute Write or AgentQuery Connect )  
c.      You’re not thinking about your audience. I have no idea what your book is about or who these characters are, and I don’t have time to find out.

The exception to this is blogfests. When everybody’s publishing a “first kiss” scene or whatever, all those entering are reading each other’s posts. That's an excellent way to make friends and find writers whose work you like.

I also enjoy reading the occasional bit of microfiction or a short poem—but remember that’s “publishing” so the piece can’t be submitted to most contests or journals after you’ve posted it.

5)     You thwart comments, with--

a.      No comment button, Apparently there is a new program some bloggers are using that requires a secret handshake to be allowed to read the comment thread or make a comment of your own. If I can see there are “10 comments,” but can’t read them until I search the site for instructions, I probably won’t.
b.     Making us jump through hoops. I’ve said before that word verification is annoying. I’ve never run into any spambots in over a year without it. Some bloggers have told me they do have trouble with bots, so I understand—but realize you’re less likely to get comments when you put up obstacles. And making people “await moderation” eliminates the possibility of interaction with other commenters. So unless your blog is routinely visited by trolls, keep comments open on a new post or “moderate” at least once an hour. Old posts do collect spam, so screen comments on posts more than a week old, but if you’re holding comments in limbo for days, you’re sabotaging yourself. Courtnee Howard has some great tips on blog moderation at the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog 

6)     No follower button. You make people subscribe to your blog by email in order to find you again. My inbox fills with 100s of emails daily, so I’m not going to sign up for one more thing to clog it up unless your content is spectacular—or you’re an industry professional I need to follow. Even then, I’ll read you a whole lot less than if you were a networked blog that appears on my Dashboard. (Interesting that Blogger named it a “dashboard”—in keeping with our freeway theme.) One agency blog switched from WordPress to something that’s not networked a while ago, and I’ve gone from reading it daily to maybe once a month. If I can find where I’ve got it bookmarked.

7)     Your posts are too long, dense, and/or you’ve posted about more than one subject. Even if you have fascinating things to say about your new iphone app, the use of animal imagery in Faulkner, and Kate Middleton’s taste in underwear, if you can’t link them in one spectacular flash of brilliance, discuss them in separate posts. It all coagulates into an unreadable mass when we’re speed reading.

8)     You come across as condescending or narcissistic. Don’t assume all your readers are newbies who don’t know the basics. Or they are fans come to worship at the feet of your greatness. If somebody disagrees with you in a comment, argue respectfully, or delete if it’s offensive, but don’t say— “When you’ve written a whole novel like I have, you ignorant pipsqueak, you’ll know I’m right.” You may be talking to a bestselling author—or an agent’s assistant who’s about to read your query.

      And please NO STATS! Yes. Bloggers love us some stats. We check daily to see how many devoted fans are reading our bon mots. But this is something to do in the privacy of your own dashboard. If you have fewer hits than average, you look like a loser. With more, you look like a narcissist. If anybody gives a rodent’s derriere about your stats, they’ll check with Alexa, blogbiz or another blog rating site.

9)     Your blog is too busy or hard to read. Keep in mind that dark text on a light, solid background is the most reader-friendly. White or pale space is soothing. Don’t make your content a needle in a gadget-stack. Too much going on and a reader doesn’t see any of it. Forest/trees and all that. And I’m not a big fan of the new format some bloggers are using that looks like a newspaper, with a bunch of blogpost headlines you have to click through to get the content. You’re making me load one more page and taking time I haven’t got. It does have a cool look, but it's a barrier to readers. 

10)  Advertising. Ads are distracting, undermine your credibility, and usually pay very little. If you’re a writer and “monetize” with Google, they’re going to post ads for rip-off vanity presses, fake contests, and bogus agencies. Yes, I know some higher-end advertisers do pay pretty well. I’ve reached a high enough Alexa rank that I’m getting offers, but I’m still not going there unless it’s a product I already love. Your blog is like the cover of your book—the hub of your “brand” as a writer. Would you sell advertising space on your book jacket?  

But note: it’s fine to have click-through thumbnails of your own titles or favorite books by other authors. In fact it’s smart. If I like a blog, I’ll take a look at your books, and sometimes I even buy them.

BTW, if I haven’t commented on your blog, it doesn’t mean I think you’re doing anything wrong—or even that I’m not reading you. I haven’t got time for many comments. Also, I tend to hit blogs randomly and I may have not made it to yours yet.  

What about you? What attracts/repels you when blog surfing?

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Has Facebook Peaked?

This week former agent Nathan Bransford asked the Nathanites if we thought blogging had peaked. I don’t see much evidence of that, although my own stats are down. But I think that’s caused by more blogging rather than less. More readers are becoming bloggers, and we can’t all keep up with each other’s sparkling cybermusings.

More bloggers means the readers—and advertising funds—are spread thinner. This means blogging for money is indeed fading. But as tech blogger Tom Johnson  pointed out, if you “let it accompany your career choice, your blog efforts always provide an indirect financial return on career growth.”

In other words, blog about books and you might sell a book someday—so blogs are still valuable, at least indirectly.

But I’m not so sure about Facebook.

Yes, I know Man of the Year Mark Zuckerberg and his brain-child are flying high. There’s the much-lauded film, and this week Facebook is even credited with bringing down the government of Egypt—which I guess puts Zuckerberg up there with Caesar and Alexander the Great.

What started as a college geek scheme to meet girls has burgeoned into a multi-billion dollar network where upwards of 44% of Americans meet, re-connect with old friends, and share photos of the grandkids. Recently, small businesses have discovered the new “like” pages are a goldmine for free advertising.

Facebook is even bragging it will take over email. 

But I’m not so sure. I’m getting inklings that Facebook is on the way out. Unlike other social media giants like Twitter and the various blogging platforms, Facebook is essentially an advertising delivery system. And a bully.

Facebook is hard for a newbie to learn, and its relationship with users is adversarial. If you can’t figure out how to get around the obstacles and traps the Facebook elves have set for you, they’ll invade every aspect of your privacy. They’ll spam you mercilessly with updates every time somebody "friends" a friend of a friend you didn’t even like that much in high school, and fill your inbox with blow-by-blow reports of your old college roommate’s kid's romantic woes. They constantly urge you to "friend" your stalker ex-boyfriend and the agent who sent the soul-crushing rejection last week. They try to bully you into turning over the names and addresses of all your friends with the voracity of a 1950s HUAC subcommittee.

And besides, Facebook just isn’t that cool anymore.

Photos of the family reunion, daily Bible verses, and advertisements for Joe’s Used Tire and Bait Shop aren’t exactly cutting edge. My 20-something nephews say they never look at their Facebook pages any more, and neither do most of their circle. After all, Grandma’s there. And their Aunt Anne. And when the cool people leave, the rest of the culture follows quickly. Remember MySpace?

A few weeks ago, CNN’s Douglas Rushkoff said, “the news that Goldman Sachs has chosen to invest in Facebook while entreating others to do the same should inspire about as much confidence as their investment in mortgage securities did in 2008.”

And he reminded us that “Rupert Murdoch's 2005 purchase of MySpace for $580 million coincided pretty much exactly with the website's peak of popularity.”

And before that. We had the AOL-Time/Warner fiasco.

When big corporations take over, new media gets old. Fast.

On Nathan’s blog, writer Neil Vogler said, “Everyone I know seems to be pulling back on their FB usage…I think we've gotten past the age of net-based communication as novelty, and what we're seeing now is the beginning of a new age of maturity. A whole bunch of early-adopters and previously heavy users are taking a step back and seeking more of a sense of balance in their everyday lives. Information overload is a real enough hazard, and the dangers of sharing too much detail about your day-today movements on the net are becoming more evident.”

Yeah, like the discovery that burglars are using Facebook to find out exactly when you’ll be out of town, leaving untended that fabulous new flatscreen you posted all the photos of, and perverts are helping themselves to those sweet grandkid pictures, photoshoping them, and selling them as kiddie porn.

Neil includes Twitter and blogging, too, but personally, I think they'll survive. Twitter is still trending, and although blogging will (I hope) settle down to a “more mature” pace as he predicts, I think it’s here to stay. It’s a free interactive website. What’s not to like?

But Facebook has a lot not to like. Take the case of loyal Facebooker David Fagin, who, instead of ignoring all those suggestions of people to “friend” went ahead and sent requests to the proffered names. The next day, Fagin was blocked from Facebook for being a spammer—just for following Facebook’s own suggestions.

And there’s the vacationing couple who friended a fellow RVer in order to exchange photos. The RVer turned out to be a wildly proselytizing Christian fundamentalist, whose hourly religious outbursts were plastered all over the couple’s Facebook page—much to the irritation of all their friends at their synagogue.

And there’s the time I stupidly clicked on one of those quizzes to find out what famous writer, Disneyland ride, ABBA song, or whatever I most resembled. I filled out the quiz, but couldn’t get the answer without agreeing to give the quiz-makers access to my email. OK, I was idiotic, but I clicked yes—and when I was finally informed I was the incarnation of Kurt Vonnegut, or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or Super Trouper or whatever, the answer was randomly sent to ten people in my e-mail address book—two of whom were agents I’d just queried.

I got instant rejections on both queries. Arrgghh.

Who wants to hang with people who would do that to you?

Twitter can be a time waster and has its own annoyance factors, but it has never once undermined my career, insulted my friends, or blocked me from my page to punish me for following their own directions. Neither has Blogger.

I still have a Facebook page, and it’s great for things like quickly exchanging design ideas for my new book cover, getting news of local bands, and finding out who’s teaching with me at September’s Central Coast Writer’s Conference  (shameless plug there.)

But mostly I’d rather blog, thank you.

What about you, writer-friends? Have any Facebook horror stories? Do you think it’s fading? Will you still use it when it’s as dorky as an AOL email address? 

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Do You Know How to Spot a Bogus Literary Agency? 8 Red Flags to Watch For

I’m working on a couple of new projects—watch this space for exciting developments—so I’m running a New! Improved! version of an oldie-but-goodie. The original post garnered a visit and an approving nod from agent Janet Reid—the Query Shark herownself.

I belong to the generation of women who were told we were more likely be shot by terrorists than find husbands. Several decades later, we’re all writing books about our fabulous single lives—as desperate now for literary representation as we once were for the white dress/gold ring thing.

I haven’t seen statistics about the comparative likelihood of being shot by a terrorist vs. finding a literary agent, but given the global political climate, I’d say odds heavily favor the terrorists.

Maybe we can fantasize that someday we’ll be shot by a terrorist who works for Curtis Brown.

We can’t blame agents. We’re in this situation because there are less than 450 members of the Association of Author’s Representatives while most of the 230 million of us who own computers have at least one novel in progress in the files.

If as many Americans bought books as wrote them, our situation wouldn’t be so dire—so if you really want to increase your chances of publication, buy more books.

With such vast herds of us overpopulating the planet, it’s inevitable that we’ve attracted our share of predators.  

In order hang onto your dwindling cash reserves during this soul-crushing process, keep an eye out for these red flags:

1) The agency advertises aggressively. Be wary of agents who advertise. When I finished my first novel, a librarian friend forwarded me an intriguing ad from an agency soliciting submissions. He’d found it in a highly regarded literary magazine. I visited the agency’s charming, positive website and almost fell into the trap until I Googled them. They appeared on the “THUMBS DOWN AGENCY LIST” at Writer Beware. This agency refers unsuspecting writers to their own pricey editing service and sells books only to their own vanity publishing company. They’ve changed their name, but they’re still in business.

Do the math: agents don’t have to advertise. We’ll find them no matter where they hide.

2) They badmouth the publishing industry or other agencies, and claim to be “different.” Publishing is a business that relies on networking. Anybody can call herself a “literary agent,” but the successful ones generally learn their trade by interning for more established agents or working at a publishing company. Putting down their mentors would be just plain dumb. And if they haven’t worked with/for other agents—beware. They may mean well, but they probably won’t have the contacts needed to make sales.

3) They charge “mailing fees" up front. This has been a popular scam for decades. Bogus agencies sign thousands of clients and charge them each $250 or more per quarter for “copying and mailing.” But they never make a sale. I’ve seen heartbreaking letters from writers who’ve lost as much as $3,000 before they caught on.

Small agencies may legitimately ask for copying and mailing fees AFTER they’ve sent out your manuscript—usually every quarter—but in the 21st century almost all submissions are done electronically, so I’d worry about any agency that’s still partying like it’s 1999.

4) They refuse to forward rejection letters. Most agents send on your rejections every quarter or so. Some scammers “submit” manuscripts to a publishing house in a mass mailing addressed to no particular editor. Those are not real submissions. They go into recycling without a response. You are not actually being represented. Move on.

5) No client list on the website.  If there’s no client page on their website, give them a pass. Agents don’t keep client lists “confidential.” If they represent a literary star, they’ll pound their chests and bellow about it.

6) You can find no record of recent sales. Even if somebody in the agency can claim to have represented Steven King, if it happened in King’s pre-Carrie days and she hasn’t sold anything since, don’t go there.

7) You can’t find them listed at any of the commonly used databases for writers. If the agency isn’t listed with AgentQuery or QueryTracker, go check the forums at Absolute Write, the lists at Preditors and Editors, and the tireless watchdogs at Writer Beware for any reports of scamming or bad faith. All of these organizations volunteer their time to weed out the bad guys who are preying on fledgling writers.  Membership is free for all these sites.

You can also check the Association of Authors Representatives, but as Janet Reid pointed out—an agent does NOT have to be a member of AAR to be legitimate and even top-notch. New agents have to work for a certain number of years before they’re allowed to join—and it is the newer and hungrier agents who are reading queries from new writers and actively building their lists.

8) They charge a “reading fee.” You know this, right? It’s not just about the money. Unscrupulous agents can actually hurt your career, since publishers consider these tactics unethical and won’t do business with them. At best, they’ll sell you worthless editing advice. If you have to pay somebody to read your book, it’s not ready for publication.

If you’re a newbie, DO pay a qualified freelance editor or book doctor, but never with a promise of publication attached.

Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware had a great guest post on February 11 about all things scammy in the literary world. from Marian Perera, in her review of Jenna Glatzer's new book, The Street-Smart Writer. 

Don’t forget: Google is your friend. Check ’em out.

How about you, fellow scriveners—anybody have a tale of agent scams to share?  

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Should Writers Kill Our Televisions?

I figure this is an appropriate post for the #1 TV-watching day in the U.S. Enjoy the chicken wings, football fans!

But first, congratulations are in order. In Nathan Bransford’s Most Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Contest last week, 2 of the 17 winners (out of more than 1500) are regular followers of this blog!

Congratulations, Ann and Ben. Maybe some of that good writing mojo will rub off on the rest of us.

Memoirist Ann Best got an hon. mention for her wonderfully evocative piece, and Beniot LeLièvre placed among the six finalists with a powerful opening that contained the line—

“It’s local custom to shell up in a living room and anesthetize your dread of the coming week with a massive dose of televised entertainment.”

It gave me chills—not only the great writing, but the timeliness of the message. I realized I’ve been doing just that—anesthetizing my dread. I watch about three hours of TV a night—sometimes more, as I zone out and numb my brain to all my lurking fears.

Strangely, I’d often rather read a book, but I feel a bizarre obligation to watch—as if regularly going comatose in front of a cathode ray tube is a requirement for membership in modern civilization.

I guess this is because I belong to the first generation to grow up with TV. Everything that made Boomers who we are came from television—from the chirpy mind control of the Mickey Mouse Club, to the first-ever televised horrors of war, to the astro-turfing of the Tea Party.

Boomers’ psyches were formed in a time when TV dominated American lives. Everybody we knew watched the same shows. Missing an Ed Sullivan show on Sunday night meant you couldn’t join in the conversation on Monday morning. The average Boomer has spent two years of life just watching TV commercials.

And even though I lived for long periods far from television—a decade or so traveling the world as a hippie vagabond, and more in the theater as an entertainment provider rather than consumer—I came back to it every time.

TV-watching is my default mode.

But I’m about to put an end to that. I’m having a birthday in a couple of weeks and my gift to myself is—NO TV. My Direct TV service ends on February 22.

OK, I’ve gotta admit this is partly out of financial necessity. Direct TV has tripled its fees in the last month and my health insurance has gone up twice in the past six. It’s easier to do without TV reception than a house, which I would lose if I got sick with no insurance.

But I’m embracing the change as positive because I’ve been feeling for a long time that TV is standing in the way of my success as a writer. It’s wasting my ever-dwindling time—time I could spend writing and (just as important) reading.

And there’s what Ben LeLièvre said: television anesthetizes us. I’ve read it reduces your metabolism to a lower level than sleep.

Writers need to be fully alive. We need to be paying attention. We can’t do that if we’re hypnotized drones offering up our free will to corporate advertisers.

We also need to get our plots and characters from our own original observations of life—not old TV scripts.

Plus, when your head is stuffed with teleplays, your fiction suffers. As editor Victoria Mixon said in her great post, 6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot : "Far, far too many aspiring writers these days are trying to write fiction the way they see storytelling done in television and in movies. But fiction isn’t screenplay. The page isn’t film. They’re not the same medium.”

They say if you want to be a success at something, act like a successful person. If you ask most successful writers how they do it—writing a couple of novels a year, doing the publicity, marketing, reviewing, and social networking—plus staying connected with family and friends, they almost all start by saying:

“I don’t watch a lot of television.”

The television age is fading. It’s becoming a medium for people who have given up on their own lives in favor of watching Snooki’s.

“Nobody watches TV but old people,” my twenty-something nephews told me recently. They won’t watch one even if it’s on in the same room. They’ll boot up their laptops or grab a book—as if they could catch geezeritis just from glancing at the screen.

Statistics say they’re right about the TV demographic. According to an article in Gawker last August, Television has become seriously engeezerated in the last ten years: The average age of a TV watcher is now 55. The most decrepit watch Fox News, and the merely middle-aged watch the other Fox—the one with the Simpsons. And the Superbowl.

(I wonder why network executives don’t notice this and give older actors and un-botoxed newspeople work—instead of doing pathetic stuff like hiring unfunny hotties du jour like James Franco and Anne Hathaway to host the Oscars. Execs—go ask Grandpa if he’s ever heard of Franco or Hathaway—I dare you.)

I’m not saying giving up TV will keep my brain cells from aging, but my looming birthday reminds me I have a limited amount of time on this planet—and I think I’ve already offered up enough of it to the television gods.

I know I’ll go through a little cold turkey. I’ll miss my ritual of eating dinner with the local newscast (I know—how geezerific is that?) And I won’t be able to watch the much-anticipated second season of Justified, or next summer’s Mad Men, until they come out on Netflix. But I’ve got a library nearby (until CA shuts them all down, anyway) and a pile of unread books and literary magazines waiting for me—not to mention all those BBC radio dramas I can listen to on my laptop. I’ll be fine.

In fact, I think my home entertainment is about to get an upgrade.

So what about you? Anybody still watching the boob tube? Have you given it up recently? Did it affect your writing?


A final note: I belong to a fine organization called the SLO Nightwriters (SLO stands for “San Luis Obispo” and is not intended as a description of our mental functioning.) Every year we hold a 500-word flash-fiction contest, and recently there’s been a poetry category as well. This year’s theme is “illumination.” There are cash prizes. Info is at the Nightwriters Website.

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