Breaking Through The Creative Wall
As fiction writers it is our job to entertain our readers through our words. There are times however when it becomes a struggle to come up with new ideas for that short story or novel you’re attempting to pen. Every writer suffers from a creativity deficiency at some point in their career. They hit a creative ‘wall’ of sorts and find themselves in need of a little extra push in the right direction. Some method or activity is needed to help them break through that creative wall so that the words they write once again sparks the imaginations of their readers. I’d like to share here with you some of the methods and activities which I’ve found to be very useful. The list is by no means comprehensive but it is my hope that you might find at least one or two of the suggestion to be helpful.
Grab a piece of paper and a pen and write down every idea you have whether good or bad, interesting or mundane and write until you have run out of ideas altogether. Now take the list you’ve just made and start crossing out those ideas that you know just don’t work or don’t fit with the current project. You will be surprised to find that some of the things you’ve written down are actually quite good and have lots of potential. Expand on these ideas until you have something that can be fleshed out and made complete. I use this method often when I am trying to come up with the next novel or short story I want to write.
Critiquing is a great way to ramp up creativity as well. Fresh insights from a trusted colleague, friend or relative can shed new light on an otherwise obscured idea. Many times I’ve had someone read my work and say that they really liked it but wouldn’t it be cool if such and such were to happen. Most of the time their ideas even though they went unused were quite helpful in giving me my own ideas which I then developed and incorporated into the piece I was writing.
Change Your Methods
The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over yet expecting different results. Attempting to write when you have hit that creative wall is a lot like that. If you are sitting at your computer day after day and not getting anywhere maybe you should switch up you methods. Try writing with pen and paper or perhaps even dictate into a small tape recorder. I have heard the latter works quite well for writers who have hit the wall though I have never used that method myself. I hate the sound of my voice so much I don’t think I could bring myself to play it back. The bottom line is take yourself out of the rut you are in and approach your writing from a different direction.
Grab A Bite To Eat
Take a break and grab a bite to eat. Go to the kitchen and fix yourself a sandwich or run to your favorite fast food restaurant for a burger. Hey, it worked for George Lucas. Lucas claims that the idea for the design of the Millennium Falcon was inspired by a hamburger with an olive on the side as the cockpit. Eating helps relax the mind and when your mind is relaxed it is better able to think creatively. Use that to your advantage. Don’t do it too often though or you will end up hating your bathroom scale.
Get Away From It All
Move away from the computer! Getting away and doing something other than writing is often times the best method for breaking through the creative wall. Some writers find that going for a walk, or listening to music is a great way to get back on track creatively. Other authors prefer watching an old movie or perhaps taking a hot shower. I like to go for short drives through the country for about a half an hour or so and it was on just such a ride that I had a breakthrough with my most recent book. I wanted my book, HAWTHORNE: Chronicles of the Brass Hand, a steampunk retro-scifi novel, to stand out from other books in its genre but didn’t quite know how I was going to do that. Not thinking about anything in particular it dawned on me while I was driving. I would write my book in 19th century styled prose. One of the sayings I came up with, and a favorite of mine is, “What you can say in two words I can say in a hundred”. I get a chuckle from it almost every time. In any case, I rushed home and began to write HAWTHORNE in earnest; I had broken through the creative wall and eight months later the book was finished.
There are all manner of methods and techniques which can be employed to break through that ominous creative wall and there are many more still, I’m sure, but these are the ones I have found to be most effective for me. You are encouraged of course to experiment in the effort to discover what works best for you. Whichever method you choose remember that there are no hard and fast rules so do whatever it takes for you to break through that creative wall.
When you don’t yet have a large author platform, getting positive reviews and lots of them is one of the best ways to get readers. Reviews can seem like a catch-22 sometimes. You might say to yourself, “I need readers to get reviews, but I also need reviews to get readers.”
All up-and-coming writers must deal with the same seeming contradiction. Fortunately, there is a process you can use to gather more reviews on your book. If you invest the necessary time, energy, and money into building up reviews, then you’ll find new readers for your work.
Here’s a seven-step process for getting your book from nine or fewer reviews into the double or triple digits:
1. Improve Your Package
Think like a reviewer. Does your book look professional enough to sway someone who’s never heard of you before? Even though you’ll give the reviewer a free copy of your book, you still need to remember that the critic is at heart a reader. Reviewers won’t read a book that doesn’t look good or sound interesting.
When you request a review, one of the first things the reviewer will look at is a sample of your book. If you don’t have a strong hook at the beginning, or your writing needs a serious edit, then you’ll never get that reviewer to give the story a second glance. Your book needs to grab the reviewer right off the bat with an opening paragraph and page that makes him want to read more. Enlist the help of some beta readers or a developmental editor to help you punch things up. Additionally, make sure your book is well copyedited before you solicit reviews.
Strengthen your book description or blurb by looking at the most popular books in your genre. Take notes and figure out what the blurbs have in common. Make sure your blurb isn’t just a summary of the action. You need to actually pitch the book to your potential readers. Include a paragraph at the end that uses sales copy-worthy adjectives to promote your book’s best qualities.
While people say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, book reviewers do and will. Books with a cover that includes a stock image with ugly block lettering on top will get tossed into the rejection pile pretty quickly. Unless you’re a professional designer or you’re married to one, you should spend a few hundred dollars on a professional-looking cover.
2. Create the Pitch
For better or worse, the way you’ll get most of your reviewers is by sending them direct pitch emails. Check out step three to take a look at the three different ways you’ll gather these contacts.
The number of reviews you receive will depend on the quality of your pitch. As more and more authors become savvy about review gathering, these critics will cut down the percentage of requests they accept. There simply isn’t enough time for them to review everybody, so it’s important that you stand out from the crowd.
The short and direct approach of sending a one-line “will you review my book” isn’t going to get you far. Reviewers need to know why you asked them and what it is about your book that makes it a good fit. They get dozens of requests a day, so the promise of a free book isn’t enough. You need to sell your book on its best qualities.
In addition to thinking like a salesperson, you need to be overwhelmingly polite. You can’t look at emails as a convenient way to communicate with fewer words. Treat your request like a formal letter or a job interview. You’d be surprised by how many people are curt and downright rude in their email reviewer requests.
Lastly, you need to show your personality. If your email is an obvious cut and paste from a template you found somewhere, then the reviewer will be quick to delete or reject your request. Play up your subject matter, whether you’re a dark and brooding horror author or a goofy middle-grade adventure type. The more a reviewer likes you and the style of your email, the more likely it is she’ll choose to review your book.
Here’s a sample review request:
Dear Joe Glow,
Happy December! I saw that on at least one occasion you reviewed a book in the action-adventure or fantasy genre. I recently published a novel that mixes the two genres for a middle-grade audience. Would you be willing to honestly review my book in return for a free copy?
My name is Hans Franz and the book I’d like to send is called Erik the Dancing Viking. It’s the first book in a new series. Here’s the link on Amazon.
I’d be happy to provide you with a digital file of the book for your convenience.
I completely understand that you’re under no obligation to review my book. I also realize that if you do review it, you’re entitled to your own opinion. I promise that if you accept me, I’ll do the best I can to teach you ballroom dancing via email.
Thank you so much for reading this message! I look forward to hearing back from you.
Sincerely, Hans Franz
Spend time working on your pitch email. You’ll be sending this to a lot of people, so you want to make sure it’s perfect, from the link to your book to your entertaining personality quirks.
3. Gather Contacts
This is the part of the process where most authors fail to put in the necessary time. Even though reviews are incredibly important, many people will send out 10 to 20 requests and call it a day. Seeing as the follow-through rate for most review requests is around 5 percent, you’d be lucky to get even a single review from those emails.
Set a goal for the number of reviews you want on your book. Multiply that number by 20. That’s how many people you need to email to reach your objective. If you want 100 reviews, you likely need to email 2,000 people. That sounds crazy, but you have to go above and beyond to succeed as an author. Sending boatloads of review requests is something that sets successful authors apart.
There are several key ways to start collecting these contacts. Whether you choose one or take on all three, this is a time-consuming process. If you’re able to outsource any of this to a freelancer through ODesk, you may have to put out a couple hundred dollars, but you’ll save precious time that you could spend improving your craft.
There are thousands of book bloggers who review hundreds of thousands of books every year. When self-publishing was in its infancy, most of these reviewers read whichever traditionally published work they could their hands on. When Kindle Direct Publishing exploded onto the scene, these bloggers became a prized commodity for indie authors.
There are bloggers who’ll read anything under the sun. Some will only check out certain genres. Many will reject you out of hand because they have so many books in their “to-be-read pile.” The massive number of books in their queue is why review requests only have a 5 percent success rate.
While you could spend a lot of time searching for these bloggers individually, there are several websites that collect links to these review-friendly blogs. Check out Blog Nation, Book Blogger Directory, The Book Blogger List, and BookLook Bloggers to find active bloggers who are seeking indie work. A Google search may still be helpful, particularly when it comes to finding reviewers who remain active. Use keywords related to your genre and the word “reviews” to search entries that have been posted in the last week or month.
Each site has its own book review submission policy. Use a spreadsheet to keep track of what each blogger requires. To give your book the best chance of being reviewed, make sure to follow the blogger’s instructions to a T.
Author Marketing Club’s Reviewer Grabber is a premium tool that helps authors to find more reviewers with a few clicks. The program searches through books on Amazon to collect a list of critics who’ve reviewed books similar to yours. It compiles email address when they’re available and information about what book the critic reviewed. If you’re hunting for 2,000 people to email, this is a tool that can help you find that number much quicker than a Google search.
Before using the tool, collect a list of at least 100 books and authors as search terms you can put into the Reviewer Grabber’s search engine. One way to collect these titles is to comb through the bestseller lists or the highest rated lists for your genre. Once you’ve collected your list, start plugging and chugging these titles and author names into the Reviewer Grabber.
To build up a sizable list, you’ll likely need to do a couple hours of clicking. This may seem tedious, but it is one of the best ways to gather the number of reviewers you need. Export your list every so often, making sure to check the box above the list of email addresses and websites the tool has collected before you save the file. While the Reviewer Grabber does garner email addresses, approximately 75 percent of the contacts it gathers will be websites. You’ll need to visit the sites and collect the email addresses and contact form page links from those reviewers manually.
The Author Marketing Club is a premium service that costs $105 annually. You’ll need to buy the subscription to get access to the tool.
StoryCartel is the third and final method for collecting potential reviewers. The website lets authors post their book for fee on an attractive page for a 21-day period. The service collects the email addresses of the people who download the book and provides you with the list in a spreadsheet.
StoryCartel works best when you have a website with a fair amount of traffic. Most books on the site are lost in the shuffle, even if you use their paid feature in which they send the book out to their email subscribers. You’ll get more reviewers’ contacts if you can get onto the site’s front page, which indicates the most popular listings.
If you can funnel readers from your website or from a blog tour, you may get the traffic you need to collect several hundred emails from your StoryCartel campaign. This is not a “set it and forget it” system. You’ll need to work to get your listing some traffic.
StoryCartel costs $25 per listing, and you can list the book as many times as you’d like.
When you combine the hunt for book bloggers with the Reviewer Grabber and StoryCartel, you’re looking at either a several hundred dollar freelancer bill or 20-30 hours of work. Nobody said that gathering reviewer contacts would be easy. You need to spend a lot of time or money on this step if you want to be successful in getting your book to the number of reviews it deserves.
4. Send Your Requests
Once you’ve built up the desired number of reviewers, keeping in mind the approximate 5 percent conversion rate, it’s time to send your pitch to potential reviewers. Make sure you’ve expertly crafted your pitch using the recommendations in step two before you begin.
Send these contacts individual emails using their names. You may be tempted to grab all the addresses together and send a giant bulk message. This would be considered spam. The only way to comply with the federal CAN-SPAM Act is to send these emails one at a time.
While this does take a considerable number of hours, there are some major advantages to sending your requests this way. By personalizing each email, you’ll already be in the top 50 percent of people who send them messages. This approach also provides you with an opportunity to personalize emails further by either mentioning the critic’s blog or talking about the specific book that person previously reviewed.
This is another step where authors tend to cut corners. Put yourself at another level by spending the necessary time on this crucial part of the process.
5. Keep Track
You’ve sent out hundreds or thousands of emails. This certainly deserves a pat on the back, but your work is by no means over. To optimize your chances of gathering reviews, you’ll need to keep track of reviewer responses.
When a critic emails you back, either asking for a review copy or requesting further information, put that data into a spreadsheet. This is the best way to make sure you don’t accidentally email someone the wrong information. It’ll also give you a one-page glance into whether or not your campaign has been successful.
As bloggers start to respond, you’ll likely get multiple requests for paperback versions of your book. There are differing schools of thought when it comes to paperback review copies. Some feel as though the cost of sending the book isn’t worth it. Others average these costs out with a “cost per reviewer” mindset. If 100 reviewers take on your book, but only five want paperbacks, the $50 you spend on sending books averages out to only 50 cents per reviewer. It’s up to you whether or not you want to incur this additional cost.
6. Follow Up
You may be exhausted after sending so many reviewer requests. It’s understandable, but you should try to respond to reviewers as quickly as possible. A critic’s plate can get full fast, so if there’s an opening you should respond within 24 hours to ensure your success.
Once you’ve gotten a few rounds of responses over the first couple of weeks, it’s a good idea to follow up with the bloggers who didn’t respond. Wait at least one full month before you send a second volley of emails.
The message should be short, polite, and to the point. Do not repeat your sales pitch, because the reviewer can always look back at your prior message.
Here’s an example of a follow-up you can use:
Dear Joe Glow,
Good morning! I sent a review request your way for my book Erik the Dancing Viking about a month ago. Since I didn’t receive a response, I thought I’d check back in with you to see if it slipped through the cracks in your inbox.
I completely understand if you’re too busy or you’re not interested. But if you would be willing to review my book, then I would be happy to provide you with a digital copy.
Sincerely, Hans Franz
You’d be surprised at how often a follow-up works. Once again, this step can be time consuming. Will yourself to work harder on this than other authors, and you’ll get better results than they do.
7. Find More Opportunities
There are plenty of other ways to get reviews on your books, and more methods will come out every single month. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to get your book reviewed.
Take chances and experiment with new and unusual ways to gather critics. Hold giveaways, make your book temporarily or permanently free, and continue to grow your following. And when a new opportunity presents itself, make sure to jump on it.
It Gets Easier
Gathering reviews is just one part of creating a successful author career, but as you work on the other aspects, more reviews will come naturally. Keep writing more books and spend time on building up your email list. New fans will start to shuffle in, and the chances of them leaving a review are higher than what you’ll get from a cold email.
Play the long game. Grab up as many reviews as you can using the above methods, but keep in mind that if you continue to improve and grow your fan-base, you’ll circumvent the catch-22 and show potential new readers that your work can pass the review test.
During the editing process you need to cut, cut, cut. In writing, economy is gold: too many words can spoil a sentence and distract the reader. In my novels I end up cutting from 10,000 to 20,000 words from an average first draft of 100,000 words.
Everybody is guilt of lazy writing and that’s fine with your first round, but don’t keep those tens of thousand words that just hang around the page, don’t move the plot forward, don’t show anything, don’t give the reader strong descriptions. They are lazy ink users, or pixels noise.
Don’t be afraid, kill your lazy darlings, they only decrease the intensity of the narration.
Here’s some (lazy) examples.
“Manfred bursted into the room holding a blaster in his hand.” Where else would he hold it? In his ears? Drop the “in his hand.”
“Manfred bursted into the room holding a blaster.” Is the room holding the blaster? Of course not, but changing location can make the sentence — and the right image — stronger and more precise. “Holding a blaster, Manfred bursted into the room.”
“Both Alaston and Mênis were unable to answer and stared at him.” Imagine a scene with three people involved in the conversation and only two were asked the question, “Both” doesn’t add a thing. Also, can you remove the passive form? “Alaston and Mênis stared at him, unable to answer.”
“’That’s weird,’ Annah said hugging herself.” This is dialogue, we can cut the “That’s”. More, we don’t even need ‘said’:
“Weird.” Annah hugged herself.” A lot of “said” can be sent to the garbage without a second thought. Besides, without ‘said’ the sentence reads cleaner. The words that are left work harder and we get rid of a lazy ‘said’ showing an action. Who says “Weird.” in the scene is obvious.
“Dan and Manfred left the Council Room together, at the same time.” ‘Together’ and ‘at the same time’ are repetitious. If Dan and Manfred leave the room together the action has to be performed at the same time and vice versa, right? “Dan and Manfred left the Council Room together.” If Dan and Manfred left the room within a few minutes of each other the scene that needs to be conjured would be different.
“Manfred stood up from the chair and walked up and down across the room.” The reader doesn’t need a movement-by-movement description to get the vision of an impatient Manfred across the room. Also, he would stood from a previous sitting position. The reader can figure out he had to stand from where he sat in previous scenes before he could walk. Also, use precise verbs: what is walking up and down if not pacing? “Manfred stood, and paced the room.” Don’t you feel good when you create the same vision with six words instead of fourteen lazy ones?
“She read worry on his face for her.” You don’t need the “for her”. The situation show what he is worried about. “She read worry on his face.”
“Her whole family.” ‘Family’ means all members and makes the word ‘whole’ unnecessary. The reader knows you mean all members unless you specify some of them. “Her family.”
In each piece you write, go back and examine each word and weigh its place in the story. Ask youself these questions:
1. Is it repetitious?
2. Does it make sense?
3. Isn’t it obvious?
4. Is it that way because of grammar (dialogue can be ungrammatical to sound real)?
5. Do you have a clause that could be reduced to a word/verb?
6. Are words in the right place?
7. If I do a global search for “ly” will I find too many adverbs?
8. If I do a global search for “ing” will I find too many —ing verbs that might be strengthened?
9. If I do a global search for “was/were” can I make the sentence stronger removing the passive form?
10. For every sentence and for every paragraph, ask yourself “So what?”
Finally, always ask whether you killed all your darlings.
Find Alaston, Mênis, Annah, Dan, Manfred and others in the “Daimones Trilogy” – Daimones: Daimones Trilogy, Vol.1 – Once Humans: Daimones Trilogy, Vol.2 – The Rise of the Phoenix: Daimones Trilogy, Vol.3