Six Tasks Part 1 – The Chart

Several weeks ago, I taught a full day workshop on writing and publishing. I’ve decided to post some excerpts from the workshop here on the blog – although attendance at the workshop was really good, everyone in the world was not there. You might have missed it.

This segment – Six Tasks – was really popular. (Maybe people just like to colour.) If you weren’t there, you didn’t get the handout, but you can create one yourself. Take a sheet of paper and draw a circle on it. Now divide the circle into six wedges. Presto – you’re ready to go.

And here we go:

Defining What You Do Well

It could be said that a career in publishing is about partnerships and alliances. None of us are good at everything, and all of us have our individual inclinations and preferences. That said, we can all learn – or we can compensate.

I’m going to suggest to you that a successful writer is good at six tasks. Incredibly, you have a handout with a pie chart on it, one that has six wedges.

Go ahead and write each skill on one wedge:

• storyteller
• writer
• editor
• marketer
• administrator
• negotiator

There are probably a few items on that list that surprise you. Let’s walk through the list and define my terms.

Storytelling is the art of constructing a story. A storyteller knows how to include conflict, and how to raise the stakes. A storyteller knows to resolve the main conflict last. A storyteller knows how to balance the internal conflicts so that the middle doesn’t sag. A storyteller knows how to keep the pacing crisp. A storyteller knows how to give a subplot or secondary character just enough dimensionality to be interesting and complement the primary story and characters, but keeps either from overwhelming the main show. A storyteller beguiles and enchants, grabs the reader on line one page one and doesn’t let him or her go until the last page is turned. A storyteller instinctively finds the plot holes in movies or synopses.

Go to the wedge of the pie chart that you’ve marked Storyteller and grade your skills by shading in part of that triangle – a little teeny tip of pie means you need work here; a fully shaded triangle is for a master storyteller.

Writing is the craft of presenting a story. A writer has a strong voice, and knows when to wield it. A writer knows the right word to use in any situation, and is sufficiently adept with a dictionary to find it. A writer knows that grammar is a tool and uses it with competence. A writer chooses point of view with deliberation and always ensures that the POV character is the one with the most to win or lose. A writer makes each character’s voice distinct. A writer instinctively finds a line that doesn’t say what it means, or notices a character speaking out of his or her voice, or the implication of a sentence.

Go ahead and shade in your level of skill as a Writer on your pie chart.

Editing is the ability to ensure that the right words are in the right places. This is similar to writing, but at a more molecular level. An editor ensures parallel verb structure, for example, the proper use of the conditional, the appropriate usage of who/whom. An editor defends the distinction between British and American spelling, the continuity of story threads and of characters’ perspectives. An editor cross-checks everything that both the writer and the storyteller do. An editor instinctively red-lines a book or manuscript or really anything in writing, making corrections.

Again, rank yourself as an editor in that section of the pie.

Marketing is the art of drawing attention to the book, an increasingly complicated task in a crowded market. A marketer is more than a sales person: a true promoter infects the world with his or her enthusiasm. The marketing of a book begins before you might think it does. It begins with the title. It can even include the author name or brand. Marketing is certainly the driving force behind the cover art. Marketing includes web site creation, blog design, graphical branding for the author and/or series, slogans, tag lines, blog tours, advertising, positioning of the book in the store, and reviews.

A successful marketer often appears to be motivated more by enthusiasm than money. A marketer is gregarious and easily approaches strangers. A marketer has a tremendous amount of energy and an abundance of fresh new ideas. A marketer understands the market for the given book, as well as the nuances of its genre or subgenre and knows how to communicate effectively with potential readers. A marketer is innovative and optimistic. A marketer instinctively tweaks slogans, taglines and press releases, then shares them with everyone.

You know what comes next – rank yourself as a marketer.

Trick question here – what did I miss? Those of you who wondered why I didn’t mention authors marketing themselves to editors and agents should colour another big bonus chunk of that Marketer wedge.

Administrating is the necessary evil of time management and detail-juggling. In the long and complicated process of getting a book to market, each task not only has to happen but it has to happen on time and within budget. An administrator has one eye on the clock and another on the calendar. If he or she had a third eye, it would be on the bank account. An administrator ensures that deliveries are made on time, that forms are filled out, that tasks are completed and that other people can fulfill their commitments based on that. An administrator is alert to time and cost over-runs, and to the effective management of time. An administrator takes care of software and hardware upgrades, as well as ensuring version control on revised manuscripts, back-ups and archived copies. An administrator double-checks that everyone else is doing what they’re supposed to be doing, in a sufficiently timely fashion that oversights can be corrected. An administrator is caught in a love triangle, equally smitten with her Day-Timer and her watch. An administrator instinctively creates a spreadsheet to compare options and possibilities or tabulate results.

Rank yourself as an administrator.

The final task managed by successful authors is that of a negotiator. A negotiator negotiates terms for new business and new contracts. A negotiator reads the fine print – in contracts and other agreements – as well as ensuring that those terms are fulfilled in a timely fashion. A negotiator polices rights reversions and the timely payment of monies owed. A negotiator is also a mediator, the one who smooths troubled waters or negotiates compromises. And a negotiator is a strategist. This includes deciding when to say no to contract offers, when to rebrand the author name, and when to move to other ponds, perhaps because of changing market conditions. A good negotiator listens, is always up for a bit of scuttlebutt, and is constantly trying to assess the changing direction of the wind in the marketplace. A good negotiator knows what is fair to expect, when to push and when to cede.

Rank yourself as a negotiator.

Take a look at your pie chart. Chances are pretty good that yours is as lopsided as mine. None of us can do everything, and that’s okay. This exercise is similar to an exercise proposed in The Artist’s Way for ensuring your life balance – the wonderful thing is that doing this chart almost automatically gives you an action plan.

I love action plans. Maybe you’ve picked that up already.

You can make this chart more balanced in two ways:

1/ by learning new skills yourself;
2/ by forming alliances with others who possess skills you do not. Ideally, you will learn from these people instead of becoming reliant upon them. Be a student, not a parasite.

For example, if you see a deficit in your storytelling skills, you can take workshops on heightening conflict, on adding high stakes to your story, on using high concepts, on improving your pacing, etc. etc. You can also join a critique group or get a critique partner to help you build those skills. To learn better how to construct stories, you might learn to deconstruct them – a screenwriting workshop could help, as could a course on modern film. You might take an English Lit class that focuses on analyzing the classics, or read a book on the archetypes of storytelling. My point is that once you recognize that there’s an issue, you can work on minimizing its influence.

So, your take-home assignment is to create an action plan from your pie-chart for the year ahead. Your goal is to have a more evenly rounded chart a year from now. This is a perpetual project – as you learn and grow, that chart will become lopsided in new ways, giving you new action plans forever and ever.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about alliances that authors often form to deal with all of these tasks.