"The Journey is the Destination"—a Life Lived Out Loud

Our good friends Eva and Yoel Haller invited Rob and me to a special Santa Barbara International Film Festival luncheon last week to celebrate a new film about an extraordinary young man named Dan Eldon. "The Journey is the Destination" tells the compelling story of how Dan, in his brief lifetime, inspired people to work for peace and social justice in parts of the world where both are in short supply.

Dan was born in London in 1970, and the family moved to Kenya in 1977, where his British father headed the east Africa division of a European computer company and his American mother, Kathy Eldon, was a freelance journalist. He attended the International School of Kenya, where he met students from around the world and developed his insatiable appetite for travel and adventure. While Kenya remained his home, he traveled widely, and, following in his mother's footsteps, became a journalist.

From an early age, Dan worked to help others. When he was 14, he raised money to pay for open-heart surgery for a young Kenyan girl. At 15, he helped support a Maasai family by buying their hand-made jewelry and selling it to fellow students and friends.

After graduating high school in 1988, Dan attended college in California and Iowa, but ultimately returned to Africa to pursue a career as a freelance photographer. His work caught the attention of Reuters' editors, and Dan was hired as a staff photographer covering Somalia's terrible famine in the early 1990s. As the situation worsened, violence drew American intercession and the attention of the international community. Despite the danger, Dan continued to work in Mogadishu, hoping his images would bring attention to the unfolding tragedy in Somalia. In July 1993, American forces mistakenly bombed what they thought was a meeting of warlords, and many innocent civilians were killed. Dan and three of his Reuters colleagues were killed when a gathering mob turned on them. He was 23.

Dan's mom, Kathy, founded a nonprofit organization—Creative Visions—to honor Dan's legacy. "The Journey is the Destination" is the realization of Kathy's long-held dream of telling Dan's story. A book of the same name features the drawings and artwork he jotted in his journal.

We met Kathy at the luncheon last week, as well as Maria Bello, the actor who portrayed Kathy in the film. It is a deeply moving and ultimately uplifting film, which also screened at the Toronto Film Fest and opened the DC Independent Film Festival this week.

Creative Visions continues to honor Dan's memory, supporting individual artists working to effect positive social change. You can find out more about Creative Visions here, and read more about Dan's story here. Kathy has also written several books about her own journey, which is just as inspiring. See her story here.

Dan's extraordinary life reminds us that all of us, each of us, has the power to bring about positive change in our world. If you have a chance, see the film. And support Creative Visions.

Should You Write for Free?

Debates rage in chat groups, on Facebook and LinkedIn, and on writing sites like She Writes and Redroom. Should writers write for free? In a word, no. 

If you want to make writing your profession, or if you are already a professional writer, you should not – ever – write for free. Not for supposed exposure. Not for promised attention at some future point. Not for the possibility you will be hired later. Don’t do it.

As a professional writer for the past 30-plus years, I can’t afford to write for free. It’s my living. In the past two years I have been approached a number of times with invitations to write for free. The supposed advantage is something along the lines of, “You’ll get exposure!” or, well, I can’t think of anything other than that, and it turns out that could be a very empty promise. Exposure adds up to exactly what?

When the Huffington Post first started, I was invited to blog. It seemed like a great opportunity at the time, but after several months and a half-dozen blogs, it became clear I was spending a lot of my time writing for very little tangible benefit. About a year ago I was asked by Redroom.com, an author promotion site with which I have an author page, to write a column for AOLnews.com. Redroom offered to donate $100 to a charity of my choice for doing it. So I did. But when they asked me again, I said no. The time I would have to take to write a thoughtful, well-researched piece for AOLNews’ opinion or travel section (which they had proposed) would have cost me far more than I would realize in either book sales or potential clients.

Yesterday I received another “offer” to write a monthly column for a website. They promised me exposure to their members (the number of members and the number of unique visitors to the site weren’t specified), plus promotion on their home page and links to the sites where my book is for sale. Earlier, at the urging of my publisher, I had written answers to questions about publishing they posted as an interview on their site, and they seemed pleased by that. Thus the invitation to write monthly for them.

Honestly, it’s tempting. But the time it would take to write a monthly column would be time taken from the hours I would otherwise be making money by teaching, coaching or writing for other publications. If I knew that each column would result in the sale of at least, oh, I don’t know, say 100 books, it might make financial sense. But that is a very big if.

Professional writers are under siege these days. Many of us are former journalists whose newspapers have folded or downsized. We are experienced. We know our ways around a government agency. We know how to track down a scandal or root out corruption. We are expert at researching and interviewing, and we know how to nail a source to the wall if need be. We also know how to write a balanced multi-sourced story and make it interesting and informative.

Changes in the publishing industry, not least the rise of internet publications, has created a new world for those of us with longtime journalism and writing experience. Unfortunately, our skills and talents are devalued, and we are competing against people – young and older – who are willing to write for free to get the experience they need to (perhaps) get better writing jobs.

The Huffington Post has come under severe criticism for essentially profiting on the backs of thousands of bloggers who helped make the Post a major player in the world of internet media. I think much of it is justified. But we as writers have to do our part and refuse to be exploited.

Social Media Marketing for Writers

Do you know what SMM is? You should. It stands for social media marketing, and as a writer, it’s crucial for you to understand how to use and benefit from the various social media in existence today.

There are five reasons to get social media marketing savvy:

  • You can build a platform (brand) to launch a bookwriting career and to land a book contract
  • You can create a revenue stream (by blogging)
  • You can self-publish
  • You can showcase your published work
  • You can promote your fiction, short stories or poetry

Social media operate on the concept of a viral loop, or viral marketing. In the old days we called it word-of-mouth advertising. One person tells another person about a great movie they saw, or experience they had at a new restaurant, and that person tells two others and pretty soon you’ve got some good buzz going. Marketing magic. That’s how social networks operate.

The key to successful social media marketing is to provide something of value. Generally, stay away from the hard-sell. People don’t like to be berated with sales pitches. Generally, about 80-85 percent of your content should be educational/informational and no more than 20 percent sales and promotion.

Decide what you want to accomplish with social networks and devise a strategic plan. Do you want to build brand awareness? Sell your book? Advertise book signings and appearances? All of the above

Here are some of the most important networks and ways you can take advantage of them.

Facebook: Barely six years old, Facebook passed the 500 million-user mark in mid-July. Its rate of growth (it’s added 100 million users just since last February) has it on track to hit 1 billion by early next year. Facebook is essentially an Internet-based water cooler. People swap information, share stories, answer questions and rave about new products or services.

With Facebook, you can send messages to all your “friends,” post or re-post interesting tidbits of information to your wall for all your friends to see, establish a group dedicated to a common purpose, or create a fan page for, say, your latest book. Fan pages are best for businesses, celebrities and musical groups who want to promote their latest movie, etc. A group page, which is set up and connected to a specific user, is better for more personal interactions and can be selective about membership. The average age of Facebook users is 35-64. People who follow you on Facebook are your “friends.”

LinkedIn: With about 70 million users, LinkedIn is a network for professionals and is becoming very popular with writers seeking connections with other writers and editors. Writers who teach and consult can network, find clients and post testimonials. You can join interest groups and find sources and editorial contacts. LinkedIn followers are called “connections.”

MySpace: Initially the stronger social network, MySpace now plays second fiddle to Facebook, but is quickly becoming the social network for music, particularly for young bands interested in making names for themselves.

Twitter: The go-to place for social networking, with 105 million twitterers. It takes a little while to understand how it can be an effective tool, but once you master it, it can be very powerful. Tweets are short bursts of information or musings posted in less than 140 characters. Experts suggest you tweet at least four to five times a day, and up to 20 for optimal effect. They also say the most-effective times to tweet are during Eastern Standard Time business hours, Tuesday through Thursday. On Twitter, people “follow” your tweets and become your “followers.” 

I use Twitter to promote my blog posts, to retweet timely and relevant information for other writers, to send links to my home page and others’, and to promote my appearances and workshops.

The cool thing is you can link Twitter to your Facebook and LinkedIn accounts so that everything you tweet is also posted on those sites, almost instantly. You can also put a widget on your own website that shows all your recent tweets.

Blogging: While blogging is not a social network, it is a critical part of any social media marketing strategy. A blog (short for Weblog) is simply an online diary. Or, as I like to think of it, a brief personal column. Should you blog? Yes. Particularly if you are a nonfiction author, blogging regularly, and by that I mean every day or at least every other day, can help you build a platform, garner speaking engagements, establish you as an expert in a particular field, and even create a revenue stream if you can attract advertisers. (Check out Ree Drummond’s blog, “The Pioneer Woman.”)

If you combine all these tools and provide content that’s relevant and useful, you’ll find your “followers,” “friends” and “connections” will grow – and so will your writing career.

(Want to learn more? I’ll be teaching a one-day workshop, Facebook and Blogging and Tweeting, Oh My!, in Santa Barbara, CA, on Saturday, Sept. 18. Visit my website for information and to register.)

Navigating Book Party!

Had a great time at the party Saturday for the launch of my new book, Navigating the Rough Waters of Today’s Publishing World, Critical Advice for Writers from Industry Insiders. Despite a bit of a breeze, it was warm and sunny in the Santa Ynez Valley. (See photos here.) Many thanks to our hosts, Jeff and Joanne Lockwood of Bella Cavalli Winery and Horse Farm. What a beautiful setting! Thanks to all who joined us!

The book is officially out June 1 from Quill Driver Books, but you should be able to find copies in bookstores soon, and it can be ordered online as well.

Here are some early reviews from folks who bought it Saturday:

“Your book is splendid! What a valuable writer’s resource you have created!” – Dianne Dixon, author of The Language of Secrets, just out from Doubleday.

“Your new book is SO INFORMATIVE and interesting – an easy read that can save writers hours, maybe years, in the struggle to get published. Thanks for sharing your expertise!” – Sharon Dirlam

“I began reading your book the moment I got home and am so grateful for the wisdom you share. I will recommend Navigating the Rough Waters of Today's Publishing World to every writer I know!” – Janet Lucy, writing coach and author of Moon Mother, Moon Daughter

“I went straight home and read your book cover to cover. Got lots of great ideas and my SBWC fix all in one sitting!” – Lynn K. Jones

This is a difficult time for writers and publishers alike. Traditional publishing has been turned upside down by technology and the economy. How can you, as a writer, navigate all the changes? My book offers some much-needed guidance in a world of uncertainty.

I will be speaking to writing groups and conferences in coming months, and would love to come and speak to your writing group about publishing challenges, as well. Send me an e-mail if you’re interested.

And keep writing!