I specialize in audience-centered brand storytelling, and my favorite aspect of onboarding a new client is discovering the bits and pieces that culminate into a narrative.
As a little girl, I remember sitting at my grandfather’s knee, listening to stories about WWII, growing up in the South, inventing contraptions, and bizarre friends. The topic didn’t matter as much as the time spent learning from a real storyteller. Whether we were wandering through a forest learning about birds and plants or reliving a distant event, he knew how to keep things interesting.
Thanks to Grandpa, I learned stories capture our attention by striking an emotional cord. This is true of brand stories and applies to any product.
Establishing credibility as a company means demonstrating an understanding of the pains customers face. You’re solving a problem with personal impacts, not just providing a technical fix. An essential aspect of your narrative will be social proof.
The driver for most high-value purchases is emotion. We want referrals from friends or an endorsement from a trusted influencer. Price or specific features are important but typically don’t outweigh negative feedback from a peer.
Digital content strategy should revolve around making a connection with your buyer. Even if your product is technical! Technical buyers are more emotional than we’d like to admit. They don’t make purchase decisions based solely on technical specs. They’ve been burned by vaporware and ask people in their social network whether they’ve heard of a vendor. They want recommendations and assurance.
What is a Brand Narrative?
A brand narrative isn’t about your company or the product.
A brand narrative tells a story about a customer’s struggle, the solution to their problem, and their life after the solution is implemented. A brand narrative should be all about the ideal customer: the difficulties they face, how these problems impact their lives, and, yes, how a product solves their problems and improves their lives.
Focusing on technical features and differentiators from word one is a common mistake. People want to kick off their presentation or website with a claim that they’re the number one premium provider of the product.
The problem is, anyone can be creative and find a way to make these claims.
Consumers are skeptical. Just look at how news outlets are viewed by either political party. It’s not enough to claim something or even supply evidence. People have to feel like it’s true.
Once developed, a brand narrative serves as the backbone for all future major pieces of content. It should be consulted when establishing or redesigning a website, used as the foundation for your pitch deck, and inform your content strategy.
Who Should Have a Brand Narrative?
Not everyone needs a brand narrative. If you’ve got a simple product that offers a straight-forward solution with zero competitors, you can skip developing a narrative.
If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you will benefit from a brand narrative:
Most of us can benefit from a brand narrative. I’m a freelance writer, and I absolutely need one to help differentiate myself from my many, many competitors. Even if you have a simple product and zero competitors, a brand narrative can help you tell a cohesive story about your company in a way that appeals to customers.
Who Should Design Your Narrative?
I know many business owners who have tried to form their narrative and are confused about why people don’t get it. They don’t understand why friends don’t respond positively to their elevator pitch or why they ask questions to clarify what they do.
As a novelist, I learned very quickly that I should not edit my work. After spending months staring at the same words, they start to run together. Backstories I’ve created in my mind don’t make it on the page, and characters make confusing decisions without knowing their backstory.
The same happens with business owners. It becomes tempting to focus on the technical innovations that make the product unique and efficient. Many come up with new terms for their niche product.
New terms lack meaning and are often confusing. While technical buyers will eventually want to know the details behind how your product works, they won’t trust a word you say until you prove your product does what your marketing department promises.
Customers just want to know if you’ll solve their problem and be a trustworthy business partner.
Hire an Expert
If your marketing department is very lean or you are a marketer heading a lean department, consider outsourcing to a freelance specialist.
If you’ve got open headcount, find a marketer who fixates on telling your customer the perfect story. You’ll need someone who’s technical enough to understand which metrics to track to determine whether the messaging is effective.
Even if you have a large team, an outside perspective can be tremendously helpful.
DIY With Guidance
If you’re in the seed fund stage and need to run on a very lean budget, you can teach yourself. Read The Challenger Sale, Gap Selling, and Contagious: Why Things Catch On then study Andy Raskin’s perfect sales narrative.
Take notes of competitor messages you like and words you hate. Develop your narrative using the guidelines and template I’ve provided below. Try it out on friends, family, and coworkers.
The real test is whether your pitch deck or website resonates with your target audience.
Research Your Ecosystem
Before you can build a narrative, you need a deep understanding of the accounts you’ll be targeting. You’ll need to determine how many primary customer profiles you have (the people making the purchase decision). You’ll need to decide whether or not you have influencers (people who find your company and advocate for your product but don’t have purchasing control). It’s also an excellent exercise to determine whether these two groups are the end-users of your product and any gatekeepers.
Using a children’s book as an example:
Using marketing automation software as an example:
Define Your Buyer’s Problem
When I ask business owners this question, I hear, “They don’t have our product.”
Why did you build the product? You noticed a gap in the market. What made you see this gap? Did you experience the pain of inadequate solutions yourself or watch others struggle?
Let’s say you sell digital storage with unique analytics capabilities.
Your prospect’s problem isn’t a lack of storage options or analysis.
It’s a lack of time. They’re so busy writing reports and trying to mine network traffic that they’re missing areas to optimize their storage and prevent future breakdowns.
It’s a lack of visibility. They’re missing potential risks. Not knowing what failed adds time to find a fix, which goes back to a lack of time.
It’s a lack of respect. Because the tools they’re working with are limited, they look like they don’t know what they’re doing, especially when executives expect their network always to be functioning.
Starting your introduction with empathy for your prospect’s problems will go over much better than merely telling them they need your product.
How You Solve Their Problem
Your product is the solution to your prospect’s problem, but how you solve it needs to be framed from the prospect’s perspective. Give them an outcome, then follow it up with how you reach the outcome. Make your copy relevant to a specific audience.
For example, if your product is a marketing analytics solution and you’re selling to a CFO:
Allocate Resources By Proven Impact
It’s frustrating to sit through a budget conversation that doesn’t tie an investment back to revenue. When every marketing tool is integrated with your CRM, ROI data is at your fingertips. You can even view progress on new initiatives in real time.
You know a CFO’s primary concern (aka problem) is maximizing their returns on investment. With a marketing tech stack that’s fully integrated (your product), they can finally have budget conversations with CMOs that are data-driven (their problem solved).
If you were selling the same product to a CMO, you would frame the same solution differently:
Prove Marketing ROI Without Question
Integrating your entire tech stack allows for easy access to marketing ROI. When early funnel activity can be tied to sales productivity, it’s easy to advocate for the tools necessary to be effective. These insights also make marketing’s value a no-brainer.
You know a CMO’s primary concern (aka problem) is proving their team is producing pipeline and revenue. With a marketing tech stack that’s fully integrated (your product), they can finally do their job without everyone second-guessing them (their problem solved).
List multiple outcomes/solutions by target persona. Keep them laser-focused on your target profile, make it clear that your product is different from competitors, and highlight how your company is special.
This is the most crucial part of a brand narrative. Not only will prospects be more likely to believe what your customers have to say about you than your marketing department, but you’ll also be able to validate that your key outcomes/solutions are aligned with what your target audience cares about.
If your customers rave about features you didn’t think to include (such as outstanding customer support), figure out what to throw out and incorporate the new finding into your outcome list.
Customer evidence can be hard to get, especially for fledgling companies. Whenever you sign up a beta customer, make sure to set expectations early that you’ll be asking for feedback. If you’ve spoken with a customer and they were willing to rave about you over the phone but they don’t have a great email response rate, try drafting a quote for them using their words that they can approve or change as needed.
The less work you ask them to do, the more likely you’ll get a positive response.
The Brand Narrative Template
To help illustrate the final output I deliver to my customers, I’ve populated the brand narrative template below with my own business values and goals. This is done after researching their current web presence, social media accounts, and a minimum of one hour spent with the client asking detailed questions about the current state of their company and their future vision.
Keep in mind this isn’t the format I would use for a web page or pitch deck, but elements would be used and reused for many company assets.
My top priority is bringing my customer’s unique voice and personality to the forefront.
I believe in celebrating diversity and that inclusion should be a given. My customer’s culture should be respected and preserved.
Every engagement is important and must be carried out with transparency, authenticity, and respect.
Trust is everything, and connecting with customers only happens with authentic communication.
Quality is more important than quantity.
Our goal is to connect with readers on an emotional level while adhering to data-driven practices
Technology Startup Founder/Marketer
You're focused on customer acquisition, but you have a suspicion your message isn't hitting the mark.
I focus on your target audience’s problems and then highlight why you’re the solution using evidence and storytelling. In today’s market, trust is everything, and connecting with customers only happens with authentic communication.
It’s Hard to Rise Above the Noise (The Problem)
You developed a cutting-edge product engineered like none other. You're proud, and you should be!
It's not easy to meet user demands, let alone plan for the future.
Now you're focused on customer acquisition and retention, but you have a suspicion your message isn't hitting the mark.
Customers Want Solutions, Not Features (Why Change)
A cloud-native IoT scale-across hybrid-enabled security-conscious application isn't enough to inspire the most technical of audiences.
Sure, they'll want to know how the product works. Eventually.
But their main concern is solving a problem painful enough to push them to consider a change.
Connect With Your Customers (Why Us)
Camela specializes in creating customer-centric brand narratives. We'll focus on your target audience’s problems and then highlight why your product is the solution using evidence and storytelling.
In today’s market, trust is everything, and connecting with customers only happens with authentic communication. That’s why Camela applies her values to her own work. Camela handles every client engagement with authenticity, transparency, and respect.
Whether you’re redesigning your website or developing a content strategy, Camela can help.
What Her Customers Say
"Camela has been a huge help in developing and refining our company's message to our various stakeholders, honing and articulating our value proposition, content optimization and web infrastructure improvements, and overall company branding. Camela's help, advice and guidance have been instrumental in taking our business to the next level." — Neil Jirele, Founder/CEO of AppyHour
"Camela is legit. She stepped right into a tight turnaround and delivered above and beyond what we were expecting. So much so that we're now working with her on a regular basis. And each and every time she's delivered superb work. Can't say enough about how much I enjoy working with her." — Chris Nixon, VP Growth of CaliberMind
“Our marketing and sales orgs love having Camela on board as she always has the entire marketing and sales process in mind. Camela excels in understanding and delivering messaging on the customer journey from unware to conversion. It's a true joy working with Camela- she takes the challenge away from content creation and has turned it into a process I look forward to!” — Whitney Wiliams, Strategic Partnerships at aboutGOLF
“Camela operates with a high degree of precision and commitment, with well-timed and effective communications. She was an indispensable member of my team at Qumulo and I would hire her again, in an instant.” — Peter Zaballos, Member of the Board of Advisors at Simplata Technologies
Why Camela? (Key Outcomes/Benefits)
A Writer Who Puts Your Voice First
Camela’s top priority is bringing your company’s unique personality to the forefront. She believes in celebrating diversity and that inclusion should be a given. Your voice should be respected and preserved.
Worry-Free Client-Facing Representation
Camela is an articulate professional who has extensive experience interfacing with customers and executives. Whether you need copy created from scratch or existing copy revised to meet new guidelines, she can help.
Technical Content Made Simple
Finding a talented writer who understands technical concepts can be a challenge. After fifteen years in the technology industry, Camela’s experience as a system administrator and analyst give her a solid foundation for picking up the nuances of your technology
Quality Content, Measurable Results
In this age, it isn't enough to publish a high volume of content. You need a writer who is skilled at connecting with readers on an emotional level and understands technical practices. SEO optimization and social sharing strategies are incorporated into every article.
Call to Action
Camela is considering new clients at this time, but space is very limited. Contact her today.
If I only had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a salesperson ask for something only to have a marketer spring up and say, “We sent that out a month ago!”
The strange thing is, they’re both right.
These points of disconnect are symptoms of a fundamental difference in selling objectives between the two departments.
At a 20,000-foot view, a marketing copywriter’s job is to create content that resonates with key personas at different points of the buyer journey. Even use case studies have to be high-level enough that a prospect doesn’t walk away from a sale because their configuration or scenario is slightly different than what is outlined in the document.
On the surface, this may sound a lot like what the sales team does. However, salespeople’s selling cycles are saturated in detail. It’s their job to figure out what’s motivating their decision-maker and cater their pitch to show the product they’re selling solves the buyer’s specific problem to a tee.
Compounding the marketing content delivery issue, a given salesperson is juggling multiple deals while trying to bring in new prospects. They simply don’t have the time to dig through a content platform, read long-form content, and figure out how or when to fit snippets into their presentation, email, or phone call.
Marketing typically focuses on lead generation while sales focuses on closing each deal. The need to bridge the gap with catered content is largely responsible for the number of people with “sales enablement” in their title tripling since 2017.
Whether or not your organization has a budget for a sales enablement team, there are best practices marketers should use to help drive sales content adoption. These practices especially apply when marketing signs up for creating a pitch deck or any mid- to late-funnel pieces of content.
Before development begins, have a conversation with the people who are asking for the content. This helps avoid confusion over terminology. When sales asks for a use case, they may actually want a sheet they can leave behind or content that dispels common objections.
Requirements gathering also gives you an opportunity to understand what kind of materials they’ve tried and what has (or hasn’t) worked. You may save a lot of time by giving an existing piece of content a much-needed overhaul or save other sales reps the pain of using a piece of material that’s incorrect.
Don’t be afraid to ask sales more about the persona they’re targeting and the details they want to convey.
Involve Sales in Development
I’ve never understood department silos.
Salespeople are constantly talking to prospects and are a fabulous resource. They understand who wants to buy when, and they have a finger on your market’s pulse. Chances are they’ll sense a shift in market behavior long before anyone else in the business.
Salespeople create a ton of content. They know what works and what falls flat. Talking to successful sales reps throughout your development process will help you keep the message on point and increase the chances your work will be used.
I once heard a regional sales leader say, “Salespeople gossip like old ladies in a knitting circle.” He isn’t wrong. Salespeople are extremely adept at sharing what they love (or hate) from marketing. Pitching your content to an influential seller and incorporating their feedback can help you gain an ally who will encourage people to adopt the content.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
As someone who has been personally responsible for sales CRM adoption, I can tell you they’re a tough group to sell to. A great deal of this has to do with how little time they have to review communication that doesn’t directly pertain to an upcoming sale.
Always start emails or presentations with WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). You make a career of presenting value to prospects. Use those same skills when you speak with sales. Position your content by stating what it’s intended to help sales do, who the audience is, and when it should be used in the buying cycle.
If you’re creating a piece that has been in high demand or you believe will make a big impact, don’t forget to loop management into your communications. They are more likely to check their email and amplify to their team. Just remember to keep your email short. Bullet points following your value statement are a great way to go.
Spoon Feed Them
When a key piece of content drops for my clients, I draft a communication for their leadership team to send. The format I use is:
This is only done for epic content. I recommend a monthly newsletter for all content with a short blurb on where it fits in the sales cycle, who the intended audience is, and how it can be used. They may not read it, but you’ll have a handy summary to forward when you get questions.
Here’s an example of a communication I drafted for an aboutGOLF article feature in Bloomberg (credit for coordinating the feature goes to Matthew Pilla, PR representative):
Does this seem too long? Sure. But the opening few sentences summarize what they’ll find throughout the email and it’s broken out with headers to make it easy to skip to the parts they care about.
Keep the Feedback Loop Open
It’s not easy hearing something you worked hard on isn’t useful. Finding out the content you’ve been creating for years can’t be used by sales is even harder.
Risk soliciting negative feedback and find out how to fix your content going forward. There’s no better time to lean in than now.
Have you developed a formula for better sales adoption of your content? I’d love to hear what you do or suggest to engage sales.
Quarter-end is a stressful time in a startup. Due to tight budgets, the people responsible for pulling together quarterly business review reports are stretched thin wearing other, equally important hats. According to CaliberMind’s latest Revenue Marketing Report, marketing ops spends up to a week each month merging disparate data together with baling wire and duct tape (AKA CSV dumps and Excel). Those are expensive reports!
Between shuffling priorities and aggressive QBR deadlines, data is often produced within 24 hours of executive review.
Believe me when I say I understand the need for QBRs. They’re a great way to uncover insights, drive accountability, and decide what needs to be elevated to the board.
But if your department only compiles data on a quarterly basis, you’re courting trouble with a capital T. Particularly in times of economic instability, teams must be expected to maximize ROI. They can only do this if they can catch a tailspin before it hurts and amplify tactics that show promise.
Does your team need to reproduce your QBR deck every week?
Does your team need constant access to real-time leading indicators?
You better believe it.
The Quarterly Landmine
When I watch an executive get surprised by their own team’s data, I feel for them—especially when it’s bad news. When I watch an executive get surprised by a different team’s data, I want to crawl under the table.
A deck walk-through prior to the executive review is an easy way to prevent the first problem. However, the adage that always plays through my mind when I see a landmine is “bad news should travel faster than good news.” This means finding ways to develop internal KPIs that flag problems throughout the quarter (more practical tips on how to do this later).
Uncovering an issue before quarter-end gives your executive time to understand why something went wrong and develop a game plan to turn things around. It also gives your team a chance to pivot tactics before sales output drops.
Ideally, department heads immediately seek out their counterpart when a cross-functional issue arrises. Whether it’s because they assume the other team is already aware of the issue or they feel ignored after escalating appropriately, QBRs are a very public way to pressure a team for a quick resolution.
As the marketing analyst, take the high ground. Form relationships with peers across departments and socialize issues early and appropriately before resorting to the nuclear option.
Why Aren’t We Embracing a Weekly Reporting Cadence?
While reading the February 2020 CMO Survey, two main findings conjured an emotional response:
As a copywriter who uses metrics for everything from tweaking email subject lines to mapping out editorial calendars, this blew my mind. Then I remembered my days as a marketing ops professional.
Despite the explosion of tools to help marketers do things faster and (in theory) better, we either can’t mine the right data or don’t know how to translate what our systems are telling us into action items. As a result, the perceived contribution of marketing analytics to company performance has remained flat over the last eight years.
In an interesting article by Allison Frieden, she pointed out that most of our marketing tools aren’t helping us focus on what we need most: to connect with prospects in a meaningful way. Each tool often adds a layer of complexity to an already convoluted data environment. We need insights into what message works when, but a tool that makes content look awesome may not mesh with your CRM. As a result, marketers are left making decisions based on gut feel or popular internal opinion over real productivity data.
The Cost of the Quarterly Cadence
Quarterly reporting is a hustle that takes place four times a year to fulfill executive demands. It’s easy to look at those bursts of marketing ops activity and write them off as an acceptable expense. People forget to also take into account:
Too many marketers are still spending their time looking backward. The high-level indicators produced for QBRs aren’t detailed enough to understand the root of a problem, and because of system complexity, it takes a lot of time to understand what went wrong.
Marketers need the ability to dig into a problem and fix it as it’s happening. To do this, analytics need to be prioritized, understood, and delivered on a regular cadence. This means choosing tools that can properly integrate or finding a platform that does the integration for you (they exist!).
Building a Sustainable Model
The quickest way to break your marketing ops professional’s heart is to let them know you’ve just purchased another tool. Without them. Again.
As a marketing operations professional, I witnessed countless application purchases made because of promises that were never delivered. Slick demos and a lack of knowledge about system requirements on the part of the buyer made for a hot mess more often than not.
Include your marketing ops professional in toolset discussions before you make a purchase. Let them hold requirements gathering sessions and figure out which features are a must-have and what people can live without. Including them on discovery calls also allows them to ask critical questions the rest of the team wouldn’t know to ask about integrations, usability, and reporting options.
Marketing management must change its mindset about tool acquisition. If you want to have the information needed to make the right decisions, you must prioritize your budget to acquire tools that can deliver a good visual and the data to prove your campaign works. This means tying early funnel and in-flight opportunity marketing activity to sales data.
Teach Your Team How To Fish
Marketing operations professionals thrive on delivering key insights and fine-tuning processes that drive real change. Unfortunately, a great deal of our time is dedicated to trying to make the tech stack work properly, cleaning up bad data, and answering one-off questions about individual campaign performance.
Now seems like the perfect time to remind you that marketing ops turnover is a big problem. Check out Sara McNamara’s great insights into why.
Empower your entire team to operate efficiently by:
Return on investment visibility should be a top priority, especially given our current circumstances. But even if you don’t have the time or budget for tool integration, there are still insights that can be gleaned from the systems already in place.
Data-Driven Decision Making Done Right
Right now we’re witnessing one of the most drastic about-faces in economic memory. I’ve watched companies slash budgets, furlough personnel, and produce copious amounts of poorly developed content to compensate for a drop in website volume and sales.
Only 35% of marketers can quantitatively prove the impact of their efforts. In an age when ROI is more critical than ever, this is unacceptable.
I’m not suggesting integrated technical stacks and on-demand reporting will be easy. It takes a lot of research to find the right technology. It requires an investment in the right talent. It takes time to switch the average marketer mindset and train people to know what to look for when in order to optimize their campaigns for revenue production.
The decline in the perception of marketing analytics' impact on sales production isn’t universal. Multi-billion dollar companies invest a higher portion of their budget on analytics and see a bigger benefit.
Start with leading indicators provided in the systems your marketers already use.
Don't take common knowledge for granted. For example, ensure your digital advertising team knows how to access insights and interpret them. Discuss how email metrics such as open rates are tied to subject line effectiveness or formatting choices and click-through rates correlate to content.
Take the time to understand your ICP and buyer demographics.
Set up a monthly brown bag to discuss a best practice and encourage people to attend webinars and user groups hosted by experts in their field.
Demanding a weekly reporting cadence will empower your team to make the right decisions about their campaigns earlier, prove marketing’s value to the company with greater clarity, and allow you to maximize your ROI.
These are unusual times. Despite warnings from epidemiologists we were overdue and unprepared for a pandemic, I didn’t think about it unless writing post-apocalyptic stories.
Okay. I suppose I’ve had more practice thinking about this stuff than most, but very few of us prepared for a pandemic to happen.
When the first few cases of COVID-19 were reported in Washington State, I wasn’t too worried. The infected had flown in from China. When word got out a nursing home in Kirkland reported their first case without contact with a person who had traveled, the time to worry had arrived.
The virus is among us, uncontained.
My husband and I are shrinking further into self-imposed isolation. I’m “high risk” with my psychotic immune system, and despite people’s jokes that the time to weed out the weak is here, I’ll do what I can to thwart Darwin’s theory. We stocked up on non-perishables, grocery shop online, and rely on kind friends willing to run errands and leave stuff on the doorstep.
All of this isolation means ramping up self-care and finding novel ways to socialize.
Stick to a Routine
It’s tempting to sleep in, forget to brush your teeth or shower, and reach for the most comfortable clothes possible. You’re not seeing anyone in person, right?
One hallmark of depression is a lack of self-care. Mental healthcare professionals push patients to re-establish a routine for a reason. It helps. Try to keep a normal(ish) routine and don’t give in to the temptation to let things slide.
Your activities may need to be adjusted. Commit to waking up at the same time during weekdays, swap out jogging and YouTube exercise for going to the gym, maintain your hygiene, and eat on a schedule. Many churches hold live-streaming sermons, and some offer live chat so community members can connect.
If you’re one of the many people new to telecommuting, consider designating a specific area of your living space for work. Use your camera in remote calls as much as possible. Don’t apologize for being interrupted by pets or children. And for the sake of all that is good and holy, don’t use the bathroom while you’re on a call.
Break for lunch to take a quick walk and clear your head. Get up at least once an hour to refill your drink. Define work hours and try to adhere to them. It’s easy to get sucked into work and put in sixteen hours.
Embrace the Internet
Working remotely with clients requires video conferencing, frequent email communication, and adopting their internal chat tools. Now I these same techniques to socialize with my friends.
I use my Zoom account for virtual face-to-face time with family and friends. I’m coordinating a virtual book club with friends, so we have more to talk about than COVID-19. My grandparents are in their 90s, and technology is a little confusing to them, but they enjoy being able to talk face-to-face.
My husband and I also video game with my brothers and friends. We play Gears of War 5, which I prefer over Fall Out or Left4Dead.
I cut myself off social media for Lent, and the timing was perfect. Many people use Facebook to share incorrect information or a meltdown. While I’m all for venting one-on-one, avoid social media diatribes.
Exercise Is Essential
One of the best mood boosters is exercise. According to a recent study, you don’t need to do much exercise to feel the benefit. They suggest high-intensity exercise, such as running, for fifteen minutes or lower intensity exercise, such as walking or mindful yoga, for an hour.
As long as you following social distancing recommendations, outdoor exercise is best.
For those of you new to the world of outbreaks, the social distancing definition recommended at the moment by the CDC is avoiding gatherings and maintaining at least six feet from other people. Because COVID-19 can be transmitted through coughs and sneezes in the air, this is a smart policy. Note that six feet of space are not helpful if you’re in a poorly ventilated building.
Consider practicing meditation or yoga.
Try apps for meditation such as Calm or Headspace. I use Insight Timer. They offer a ton of free content, so you can find the technique or person’s voice that works for you. I recommend Andrew Johnson’s recordings on Insight Timer, which range from three minutes to an hour.
If you’re trying yoga for the first time, MBSR yoga is a great way to go. Mindful Hatha yoga instructors frequently remind students to listen to their body and skip anything that doesn’t feel okay. You can sit in a chair while you practice. Here’s one of the two versions I use.
Thank God for Nature
In the morning we walk up to four miles with our dog, Kevin. We move at a fast clip. Between the hills and the stairs, I don’t always pay attention to the beauty around me. But sometimes it hits me.
Earlier today, we walked across UW campus and took in the cherry blossoms from a distance. Despite the craziness going on in the world, nature is still doing her thing. Spring is here, and the signs of new life spread warmth through my chest.
Annie is of a more dignified age, and we walk her closer to home. Crocus blooms, daffodils, and cherry trees are around every turn.
I suggest hiking because the investment in equipment is minimal. Check out your state’s online resources for hiking, such as the Washington Trails Association. One of the few benefits of social distancing is it’s a nice excuse to go for a ride and immerse yourself in nature.
Don’t Eat Like a Teenager
Food cravings are normal, particularly in times of stress. Cortisol increases cravings for fatty and sugary foods because they’re cheap fuel for periods of flight or fight. Unfortunately, we can’t run away from a pandemic. Sugar actually increases cortisol, we remain stressed out, and a vicious cycle ensues.
Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, try offsetting sugar cravings with fresh fruit, and eat whole grains as part of your balanced diet. Treats are fine occasionally, but try to resist the impulse to binge.
I recommend avoiding caffeine (exacerbates anxiety), alcohol (a depressant), and other substances (for obvious reasons).
If you’re stuck avoiding people because of personal illness or because you’re a caregiver for someone who is high risk, you’re not alone! I hope you find these tips helpful and find creative solutions to connect with your community.
You spent precious years on your novel. Sometimes it feels like your child. At other times it's your enemy. Your story is a part of you in every sense of the word.
Then you had to edit the damn thing so much you considered printing it out to burn it.
Having a billion edits under your belt, you're certain your novel is ready for scrutiny.
You're so confident you envision an agent opening your manuscript and crying tears of joy because you presented them with the book they've waited their entire life to find.
Slow your roll ... As the kids say.
Your job is far from done. Now you get to fumble through the art of selling, which includes getting very familiar with the sting of rejection (probably over and over again). And it all begins with the query letter.
After sitting through several agent panels (and happy hours) and listening to their cautionary tales, I developed a list of the top ways to shoot yourself in the foot.
Ignore the Fine Print
An agent or editor who takes the time to give you detailed instructions for submission on their website does this for two reasons:
Think of a query as an interview. Put your best foot forward by showing you can follow simple instructions.
Details like “only send the first 10 pages” and “be sure the sample is double-spaced” are the first things agents look for. If you decide your story is more well-rounded at twenty pages, the agent has every right to reject your query before they read the first line.
Don't give them a reason to think you're difficult to work with.
Use the Same Query Letter for Every Submission
Your query letter is your first, and sometimes only, introduction to the agent.
Don’t waste your chance.
Writer's Digest provides exceptional examples of successful query letters. There are also coaches and editors out there who can help you make a great first impression. Learn from the best, and sweat the details.
Putting the wrong person’s name in the intro line is more than embarrassing. It’s a query killer.
Query Multiple Agents at the Same Agency
Coworkers talk, which means if one agent at the agency isn’t looking for your kind of story, but knows someone down the hall is, they’ll pass your query along.
It also means they’ll know you queried multiple agents at the agency. Trust me. It irritates them. A lot.
Use a Non-Traditional Font
It may seem like an opportunity to flaunt your uniqueness, but using an unusual font will get you as far as dressing up in cosplay for your in-person pitch session (in case you’re wondering, that’s almost as bad as following an agent into a bathroom to pitch your novel).
Using uncommon fonts also makes your submission harder to read.
Periwinkle blue may be the color of your character’s hair, but it’s not legible against a white background.
Tell me this color is a good idea. I dare you.
The whole point of a query is to make the agent or editor want to read your book. Do your research, use common sense, and don't forget to treat this like an interview.
These faux pas were tailored for a cold query submission, but apply to warm submissions after an in-person pitch.
Are there lessons you learned while enduring the query process?
I got started young. My first memory is watching my uncle play Asteroids on the Atari. Not long after, I was toddling around with a Duck Hunter gun. When I was eight, we were lucky enough to have a generous great aunt who had heard about computers on the radio and insisted on setting us up with one of the early PCs. At such a young age, navigating the DOS prompt felt like hacking and I thought I was pretty cool. I couldn't wait until computer time at school--I was a Number Crunchers and Oregon Trail ninja.
I didn't think of PC games as "gaming." The games we played were educational. Where in the World is Carmen San Diego was a favorite and is the only reason I have a decent knowledge of geography. I memorized the names of bones and organs on an early, very pixelated bio game.
My girl friends played by talking, imagining different complex scenarios to play along with, or watching television. None of them had any interest in console gaming and couldn't understand why I liked playing Street Fighter or Double Dragon. I got judged pretty harshly for my interest in conflict and violence. Honestly, I'm not sure if my interest was atypical, or if other women shied away from gaming at a young age because of the gender roles impressed upon us at a young age. Women are supposed to resolve conflict, not start it, right? They don't battle with swords.
I suspect the answer is complicated, but it's likely a combination of gender bias and individual preference. I know I'm atypical. I reveled whenever I beat my extremely coordinated younger brother at anything. I'm competitive and drawn to technology. When PCs were evolved enough to support graphic game play, I was all in.
When I got to college and found another woman who enjoyed games, we were instant best friends. We set up our towers in the boy's dorm and reveled in kicking butt and taking names. Most of the guys thought it was cool, but many changed their minds when they lost. I still run into problems with a vocal few when I beat them, so I game with people I know. Life is too short to listen to some dork threaten physical harm after I blow his head off in combat.
Who is a Gamer?
Gaming is more popular than ever, but how people define "gaming" always leads to debate. I maintain that anyone who spends time on a digital device killing time by leveling up--whether it's lining up fruit, growing vegetables, or killing orcs--is a gamer. There are scores of time management, puzzles, and multi-player games for our phones. Pokemon took the streets by storm, causing me to mutter under my breath when people suddenly stopped on downtown sidewalks or wander into our office. Even my grandfather spends time on the PC playing solitaire.
There are console and PC gamers who would scoff at this definition, and if you are one of those people, you need to take yourself a little less seriously. Even those of us who have spent hours on a game of choice will reach different points in our life where it's not practical to fall into the ranks of a hardcore gamer, and that's okay. I feel that some of us can take being a geek to extremes, finding ways to exclude others because they don't follow our brand of fandom. Those of us who grew up as geeks before it somehow became trendy should remember that similar behavior made us feel different and excluded.
So knock it off.
Don't knock the Wii. My nieces and nephew love it.
When I talk to people who want to game but aren't sure if they have the time or resources, I start with basic questions:
Smallest to Largest Time Investment
VR is the lowest time commitment out of necessity. The visuals are just sketchy enough that nausea is a common complaint. If you're a high-roller who likes to be on the cutting edge, go for it.
If you have kids and a job and really only want to kill time while on public transit or while cheering on a soccer game, there are plenty of apps available for download on smartphone. I, for one, won't judge you if you want to be a fashionista who designs for the runways or shoots birds at blocks from a slingshot (as long as it's digital and not IRL). Handheld gaming devices by companies like Sega and Nintendo are also an option. At this point, I wouldn't recommend 3D, just because the technology isn't quite where I'd like to see it yet.
At this point in my life, I work 10-12 hour days and spend my spare time writing and promoting my books. I have a couple hours on the weekend to spend on gaming, and I also enjoy starting a game up when I'm sick to take my mind off whatever physical ailment I'm battling. I prefer first person shooters and open world role playing games. Back in the day I played online more, but I no longer have the time to level up to the point where I can hold my own in a face-off. I stick to playing with people I know who are in a similar situation or go against AI teams.
My favorite game and gaming buddy when I can clear a few hours.
I maintain that PC gaming is your largest investment. Not only do you need to spend the time in your chosen game, but you also need to get ready to do some research on what to buy. There are a few laptops on the market with the visual cards and power necessary to game, but PC towers are still the most robust options. Several companies will piece together your computer for you after walking through a build tutorial. You can also go hardcore and research the top of the line components. There are tons of articles and opinion pieces to walk you through building your gaming tower.
The other reason I have PCs under the most time consuming option is because this is where the biggies like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars live. If you want to play on teams in these games, get ready to invest a lot of time building skills in order to qualify as an attractive contributor.
Smallest to Largest Financial Investment
If you already have a smartphone and a decent data plan, you're looking at your most cost effective option (if your data plan sucks, make sure you're on WiFi). Consoles run around $500 to start while PCs start around $700 and you'll spend more time researching your options. Laptops will run higher. Virtual Reality is going to come in at the highest point unless you try to hook up a shell to your phone, and I'm telling you right now you will get very sketchy results.
Some additional options to consider are purchasing used consoles/video games, and renting games. Rental quickly becomes less attractive if you've found a game you'll play for months at a time, but it is a great way to test drive before making a commitment.
Genre & Skills
Determining which games to play can be the biggest challenge. If you're not comfortable going to a local video game store like GameStop for pointers, there are several reviewers online. I would recommend finding a reviewer you like and going through different articles until you find a match. I also recommend going to YoutTube and watching screenplay. There are many people out there who just record themselves going from level to level, and plenty of video game reviewers have their own channel. I don't have a favorite--I'm usually online only if I'm stuck on a level.
Finding People to Game With
If you are headed down the path of PC gaming, this likely won't be an issue. Console games also have online options that automatically pair you with people around the same skill level. Meetups, conventions, and even the workplace (especially if you work in Tech) are great places to meet fellow gamers. There are also a lot of online gamers who hang out at tabletop game stores.
Additional Resources for Women
Visit my Geek Girl Con co-panelist's website! Ally Bishop is a talented editor and writer who also has a lot to say about gaming.
There are conventions out there for just about anyone, and they’re a wonderful place for people to share their excitement and learn about their favorite thing. I have friends who love Emerald City Comicon, Norwescon, Sakura Con, and PAX. I even know some coworkers and friends who go to the more...um...niche cons. Speaking of which, my husband and I inadvertently walked into the Rainfurrest convention. The amount of time people spent on their costumes was amazing. We walked into the hotel as the social hour ramped up and discovered the term “scritching” for the first time. I may have gaped a bit at a bird with an articulating beak.
I digress. But it was quite distracting!
Geek Girl Con and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) conference are two of my favorite cons, and this year I couldn't use my new day job as an excuse to skip. All too often I forget how important conventions can be in keeping motivated. This time I had the honor of presenting two workshops with my friend and co-ex-Booktrope author, Tiffany Pitts. Not only do I enjoy her writing (she features a nanobot enhanced cat that is hilarious in her Thanatos Rising series), but she is also an excellent co-panelist and roommate. She’s the unicorn squirrel of convention friends. We competed with pitch blocks and hangovers, so we had a small crowd. However, that led to some truly interesting conversations. My favorite parts of the presentation were when we went completely off script and helped brainstorm the ideal position on a space sled to avoid making oneself a larger target and the likelihood of data-linked companies being hacked.
I had my own convention “a-ha” moments as a writer. While I'm wading through the middle of a book, I tend to forget that the simple things are the most important. I was reminded that a single question is often the inception of a story (and the basis of a logline, which comes in really handy when you’re trying to explain or pitch your book). “What would push a woman to take revenge on their stalker?” was the question that kicked off a series of additional questions that formed the scaffolding of All the Pretty Bones. This reminder helped me understand the underlying motivation of my science fiction project. It’s funny how something that seems so small can have a prolific impact.
My friend, Eliana West, gave a wonderful closed-door workshop on writing diversity. She created an environment where people felt comfortable asking questions they’d normally never feel comfortable bringing up. Eliana shared many of her own experiences to illustrate a perspective, and I watched a few key moments when people sat back in their chairs in realization. It’s a really cool thing to watch when it’s happening as a collective. I was so excited to hear she has been invited back next year to give a master class.
Cherry Adair had me in stitches throughout her workshop on backstory and I’ve put into play her tip on picking and birthdate and using Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs to choose characteristics. If your character doesn’t fit the sun sign, make up a backstory for why they’ve broken away from the mold. I may lose a little of my enthusiasm after choosing one particular sign for my current project’s main character. She has a doozy of a backstory, so I’m optimistic it will work out for the best.
I owe people the slides on our technology and science workshops, but I’m afraid I’ll need to beg off for a week or two. In addition to some great motivation and new connections, I also walked away from PNWA with pneumonia. My doctor and I caught it early and the initial X-rays look good, but it’s taking time to improve. I’ve been fortunate that lupus doesn’t impact me for the most part, but every once in a while I get walloped with a big reminder. It’s so easy to take breathing for granted until you feel as though you’re being forced to breathe under water. Annie has been a wonderful nap assistant, which is saying something when I’m sleeping sixteen hours a day.
It’s going to take a while for me to get back to normal, but I know I’m feeling better because I’ve been writing a little. In the meantime, I’ve also been listening to It on Audiobook and reading Cherry Adair’s Stormchaser. On the non-fiction side, I recently finished Forensics by Val McDermid and Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter.
Do you have any book recommendations?
I had an interesting conversation with the CIO of my last company several months ago. He knew my words had stalled and it frustrated me. His recommendation? I should write a female protagonist in IT. Perhaps I could imbue code with magic if I needed a paranormal slant, but he knew I had enough material from my years in tech. He was right (except for the bit about magic infused code--it didn't strike a chord for me), and I've been developing a science fiction novel. When my friend contacted me asking if I'd be interested in speaking at PNWA, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Since I was elbow deep in research for my story, the topics I proposed were tech related and appealed to a coordinator looking for science fiction workshops.
When I research a book, I read just about anything I can get my hands on that is reliable. I've studied human and animal anatomy, aging theory in terms of genetics, and various forensics developments for The Hunted series. A small fraction makes it on the page (I find it interesting but my husband yawns when I go into detail), but because I'm breaking the common vampire tropes, I believe it's important to provide rational reasons and stick to my own rules. I've grown frustrated with series I've read in the past because the author either forgot or broke a rule for the sake of convenience. I also want to consider people in the professions represented in my writing. Would they think my scenes are passable or get frustrated and abandon the book?
My day job typically lands me either in one of a company's operations departments or with their IT department. I manage business applications that are used by different parts of the organization. I've supported sales people, support, and marketing organizations. On top of having a technical job, I live in the largest tech mecca outside of Silicon Valley. Since leaving college, I've worked for various companies that reside in the technology industry. My coworkers are highly intelligent and tend to be voracious readers. I get my best book recommendations from my fellow tech nerds, and I get to hear their rants when they stumble onto a book that defies established science.
My first workshop on Saturday (July 22nd) is "Technology and Science: Write it Right." I'm presenting with a writer I met through Booktrope, Tiffany Pitts. Tiffany has a history in the sciences and also has a passion for research, creating logical rules, and sticking to them. Our goal is to give a baseline for writers to use when reviewing their work. We want them to ask questions like: What would an expert think if they read this? Did I do my homework? Does this make sense?
The second workshop, also presented with Tiffany, is "Technology's Impact on Society." While I find this topic very interesting, it was hard to structure because of how strongly I feel about representing realistic experiences across demographics. I think many of us can quickly list off positive impacts of technology: greater efficiency, medical breakthroughs, better forensics, etc. But what about the hostilities many of us encounter on a regular basis? I can think of a few examples of science fiction I've read recently that present an "always wired" network as a utopia. What happened to the harassment, threats, and other hurdles we face online?
If you're attending PNWA, I hope to see you there! Otherwise, look for more content on these topics in the coming months.
This weekend I helped man a vendor booth with my friends at Norwescon, a science-fiction and fantasy convention that has been running for forty years now. Many people stopped by (I think we can credit Tiffany's lucky rancor and kick-ass crayons for a great deal of interactions). There were quite a few veterans, some newbies, and a lot of really cool costumes. Michael G. Munz, Tiffany Pitts, and I had several conversations with attendees related to Sherlock, Doctor Who, Supernatural, iZombie, Fallout, Star Wars, Firefly, and Star Trek. The noticeable missing segment of fandom was the anime crowd, but that wasn't a surprise with Sakura-Con running the same weekend. As welcoming as the fellow vendors and customers were, I struggled and it took me a while to figure out why.
I get really uncomfortable when it's time to sell my books. Like it or not, our culture has some gender based idiosyncrasies, and I'm still working through my internalized biases. After a long Friday, I went home and did a lot of thinking. I finally figured out my problem. I view talking up my work as bragging, and that makes me feel gross. This is not a female-only phenomenon, but I hear more women authors express their struggle with talking about, pitching, and straight-up selling their own work.
I did exactly what I coach women in corporate not to do. I under-sold my work. I forgot that representing my novels to their advantage is simply smart business. I didn't give myself enough credit. It's hard to get published, and I managed to get a book contract with a publisher. This is a big accomplishment. I'm also thoughtful about what I put in my books. Like many authors who strive to constantly improve, I'm hyper-critical of what I've put out in the world. My series evolves with each book and will continue to do so.
I need to stop internalizing every little critique and look at the big picture. My reviews are strong. I can write. And doggone it, people like me.
I can't tell you how many interviews I've sat through trying to pull out a woman's experience with certain technologies or processes. Too many times I hear the words "I'm not an expert" only to uncover enough examples to prove the interviewee is more than qualified. If you've worked in tech long enough, you know that a certificate is nice, but not always indicative of aptitude or expertise in real world applications. The men I've interviewed don't usually have the same issue with sharing their prowess, but it does happen.
How can we separate "bragging" and accurately representing a skill-set? Where is the line between the two? There's a difference between confidence and over-confidence, but how do we get better at embracing one without crossing over into the other?
All three of us expressed discomfort with pitching our work, so the first two days at the convention we stepped in for one another. I loved what they said about my series and found the repeated line "Seattle vampires that actually kill people!" entertaining. Friday night, I verbally let go with my husband, expressing my frustration and confusion. This led to an epiphany. I would embrace the conference vibe and have more fun. Most importantly, I would be proud of my hard work and represent myself with pride and honesty.
I have a series featuring a woman who evolves from a victim to an apex predator. The Hunted features vampires with bite and delves into diverse mythology, introducing a different take on demons, sirens, berserkers, and more. If you miss the vampires of the 90s and like women's adventure, we'll get along just fine.
In addition to not being shy about my accomplishments, here are a few more learnings from this convention:
Do you struggle with selling your work? If not, what advice would you offer to authors who do struggle?
I've been reading and video gaming to fill up a sudden influx of spare time. Where did those hours come from? I gave up on myself as an author. I did the one thing that marks an author as a failure. I quit believing in myself. There were a lot of forces contributing to my epic burn out, but there's always that *one* moment that pushes a person over the edge, and that moment happened when someone gave me the wrong feedback at precisely the right moment. My increasingly fragile grip on my writing career shattered into a thousand pieces.
I don't blame that person because that moment was equivalent to a match falling on the trail of gasoline leading up to an already impressive bonfire. I already had problems. Lots of them. That extra gasoline took off my eyebrows and made me realize that it was time to walk away from the blaze for a while.
Magical Thinking has been a topic on this blog. As a perfectionist, I have a habit of setting unrealistic standards. I know this about myself, but I persist in this silly, damaging habit. The expectation that my first novel would hit the best seller-list was one of my most epic unrealistic goals. Once it became apparent I had to keep a day job to maintain a decent standard of living, there was a period of adjustment (read: disappointment). Burning the candle at both ends took its toll. The more challenging my day job became, the less I wrote. But there are so many unpleasant things writers face (particularly women, non-white, and/or LBGTQ) that it wore me down.
There are two things you need to be an author: Persistence and Empathy.
Persistence almost outweighs empathy in importance. An author must somehow handle a metric shit ton of rejection and criticism. Even the best authors are gleefully shat upon. You've seen J.K. Rowling's rejection letters, right? If that isn't enough proof, go to Goodreads, look up your favorite author, and read the reviews. I swear there's some kind of cult that rewards experience points for the most scathing reviews. I can hear them now. "I'm a level 28 cyber troll. I specialize in depressive potions and explosive commentary. I've been known to cause optic blood vessels to spontaneously burst in authors foolish enough to read my reviews." Goodreads reminds me of the movie where the angry mob gathers for a hanging. No matter how terrible the criminal is, the eager expression reflected in the collective gazes of the crowd makes my stomach clench.
Empathy is necessary to create realistic characters, particularly if diverse representation is a focus. I've known writers who create vivid worlds with interesting events, but the elemental spark necessary for the reader to make a connection to the protagonist is missing. The people in their worlds are two dimensional, and although at times I can't point to any one thing that is wrong, something is off. It's like today's scary artificial intelligence robots. They look almost real, and that narrow gap between fake and real is what makes them so fucking creepy. It's almost right. But not quite. That "not quite" turns out to be really important.
By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=389170
Empathy is not my problem. I'm one of those people who maybe has a little too much. I've been known to cry during toilet paper commercials.
I had a major persistence fail.
Kameron Hurley is my new hero. I've been reading Geek Feminist Revolution and she had me hooked in the first paragraph of the first chapter (if you're a writer or a geek and consider yourself a feminist, GET THE BOOK). In the first three paragraphs, she succinctly boiled down each of the pressures that had combined to blow the lid off my operation. Negative feedback, a preoccupation with perfection, and a paralyzing fear of contributing to the damaging stereotypes that saturate fiction. I mistakenly believed that the spin on each of these factors was unique to my situation. It turns out there are a lot of writers who share my pain.
I've already mentioned Goodreads and rejection. Negative feedback comes in a lot of forms. I write vampire fiction, and people tend to try to squish me into a neat little box labeled "Paranormal Romance." I enjoy paranormal romance. I struggle with the tired tropes, but that doesn't mean I don't like the genre. The thing is, I don't write it. I like action, mystery, and high stakes. There are relationships in my books because humans (and non-humans in my universe) are social animals, but it's not the foundation of my work. In fact, I've had to recruit my good friend, Eliana West, to coach me on key scenes. Even though I'm as romantic as ludefisk, inevitably there's that guy at writing conventions who rolls his eyes and explains to me what I write and why it sucks, which is why I have a lot of empathy for romance writers. Their novels have just as much value as the next, but too many times they are treated as a sub-par category of writers. It's bullshit.
Because I write about vampires, even my family has expressed disappointment. I'm talented, but it's wasted. When am I going to write something better? Perhaps I could crank out a romance or focus on something I know. Instructional manuals on how to improve existing Salesforce configurations in growing companies perhaps? (On the upside, that's actually a book that would sell.)
With all of that disappointment and disdain swirling around, it didn't take long for me to join the bandwagon. You see, my first book was far from perfect. I'm lucky that people like it, but I was so intent on writing the story that I missed all of the stereotypes that snuck in there. I take full ownership and can list them off for you. In the second book, I had fun with the stereotypes and revealed the characters to be more complex than first glance. In the third book, I introduced some diverse characters I love. While writing the fourth, I got stuck in a hyper-critical loop that broke my brain. Ever heard of analysis-paralysis? I'm here to assure you it's real.
Combine all of this valid and not-so-valid stuff with the knowledge that gazillions of people have published books to compete with and a lot of them are better, and I shut down like an introvert in a rave. I needed to spend a few months rocking in the corner and plugging my ears. And video gaming. My Skyrim character is fricken' awesome. But thanks to Kameron Hurley, I've finally figured out I'm not alone. I will get better at writing. I just need to persist.
Freelance writer and Dark urban fantasy author featuring vampires with bite.