Sunday, March 27, 2011

Branding Yourself: An Evolutionary Process

Barbara Luce
1979 - 1998

Develop your brand.  It's everywhere.  I recently went to a leadership conference hosted by my employer (yes, like many of you, I do have a day job) where the concept of branding the leadership within our organization was a major focus.  This didn't shock me, and I felt like I was ahead of the game thanks to my experience as a writer.  I've been focusing on developing my own brand for months now, so it's only natural that the concept would apply to my profession.  Not that the two brands are otherwise connected, only that I get it.  Nor do I think that my organization lacks a brand.

Since before I worked for this hospital, I knew what it stood for - Quality.  As a member of the community, my organization has always stood for quality.  You could go to another hospital in the area, but if you wanted quality, you went to this one.  Now, we want to brand our leaders.  We want to define what our leaders stand for and what it means to be a leader where I work.  It's not only about what others expect of us, but also what we will come to expect of ourselves.

But branding yourself can be daunting.  It's your identity, and to do it, you have to know yourself.  If you don't, you may find yourself feeling anxious about not knowing "who you are."

This happened to me when I was preparing to get married for the second time.  The first time I got married, it was easy.  I changed my name to my first husband's name.  It's a social norm for many people, and doesn't necessarily take a lot of soul-searching.  But getting married for a second time, well, that's a different story.  I now had a list of possible names from which to choose.  Should I hyphenate?  And if so, which names should I use?  The nice lady at the government office pointed out that I could use any combination of my maiden name, first husband's name and my second husband's name.  I was completely overwhelmed, to say the least.  Stick with me here, because this really does matter.

I honestly hadn't thought about what my new name would be when we made this appointment, so I did what any person in a state of panic might have done - I called my mom.  My mom was never the type of person to tell you what you should do.  She's great to talk to, but in the end, you have to think for yourself.  So I ended the call feeling just as confused as when I dialed her number.  In the end, I decided to keep it simple.  I was going from a nice short four-letter last name to one that is nine letters wrong.  Hyphenating was not an option knowing that I sign my name hundreds of times a day as a nurse.  I made a deal with my husband to change my name to his, so long as he did the paperwork.  If you've ever changed your name, you know what a pain in the neck it is, and I had already done it twice (once to my married name, and then back to my maiden name after the divorce).  My husband happily agreed since that meant he was getting his way.  (His vote was for Kobayashi.)  The nice lady was very patient as I worked through my little identity crisis.

For years I've been Michelle Kobayashi and it was never a problem.  Then I decided to become an writer.  Unlike my professional brand, I don't stand for an organization.  I stand for myself.  Who I am and what I call myself are part of what distinguishes me from all other writers.  Early on, I read about searching for other authors with the same name to see what comes up.  Turns out, there is another Michelle Kobayashi who has published graphic novels.  There's also a dentist in Hawaii.  (Kobayashi is like Smith in Japan.)  So I decided to use my middle initial: Michelle A. Kobayashi.  It certainly makes me stand out in search results, but what I realized tonight is that it leaves out a major piece of who I am.

When I was 21, my sister, Barbara, died in a tragic motorcycle accident at the age of 19.  My family was well known in our community, and her wake was attended by an tremendous number of people.  The Luce family was in crisis, and hundreds of people turned out to pay their respects.  I wrote Near Mrs. to share her story and how I dealt with losing her.  I didn't want to focus on such a macabre subject, so I made it a subplot, all be it an important one for the main character, Hannah.  I always intended on publishing this story under both my maiden and married names - as Michelle Luce-Kobayashi.

This led to another identity crisis.  While I wanted to publish this book under my maiden name, I hadn't planned on publishing my middle-grade series under the same name.  My identity now is Michelle A. Kobayashi.  Or is it?

Being one of the Luce-girls (go ahead an giggle, we always joked about it ourselves) is part of who I am.  My father was the only rooster in the hen-house, surrounded by my mom, my sister Janet, Barbara and me.  I will always be one of the Luce-girls, and to think that this would not be a part of who I am as an author is absurd.  My family is a huge piece of my life, and to just be Michelle A. Kobayashi would be like dissecting out an essential part of who I am.

So tonight I made a major decision.  I've been gearing up to start my own website to continue the process of self-branding.  My original intention was to select the domain name "" as I did with this blog and my gmail account, but in light of this little epiphany, I went ahead and registered for  I'm comfortable with my decision.  It feels right when I think about it, and for me, that's a sure sign that I'm on the right track.  You may have noticed that I've changed the name of my blog (again).  I've learned to trust my gut, and it's telling me that this is right.

I didn't start out knowing exactly who I am and what I stand for.  That's something that evolved.  But I know now.  I'm Michelle Luce-Kobayashi, and I'm a writer of captivating fiction, be it women's or middle-grade or whatever else I choose.

What about you?  Have you always known your brand?  Or is it something that you figured out as you went along?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Writing a Synopsis from 0-3 Hours Flat

This weekend I've taken a major step toward submission.  I've drafted a synopsis for my manuscript entitled Near Mrs. (Special thanks to my crit partner, Mary, for the fantastic title!)

I've been putting this off since February, well, actually since January if I'm being honest, because the whole idea of writing one had me scared out of my boots.

For me, ignorance = procrastination.

If I'm not familiar with something, and this goes for all areas of my life, I'm hesitant to start (read: willing to put off forever).  I find lots of other "important" priorities to focus on in lieu of actually sitting down and tackling the task.

So now that you know my emotional reactions to such things, let's talk about what happened when I finally set my mind to it.

I did a brief web search and found a great series of articles at with a list of things to include in a general fiction synopsis.  I like formulas.  Just give me a list of steps, and I can follow along right through to the end.

I eagerly sat down with Mrs. Carmichael's guidelines and started plugging in the requisite information.  At first I had only the bare-bones essentials written, each section a paragraph under the headings.  I re-read the sections, deleted the headings, and started filling in the words that would make it come to life.  With that accomplished, I began to tinker.  Add a word here, delete a sentence there, move stuff around.  I even came up with a one-sentence hook to plant right above the opening paragraph.  This was something that was rattling around in my head since the Writer's Digest Conference back in January.

Time to complete first draft: 3 hours, research included.

Not bad for a first try, if I do say so myself.

It's true what they say about a synopsis requiring a different skill-set from what's needed to write a novel.    My academic writing experience served me well.  (Speaking of which, my article about the medical mission I took to China in 2009 is complete and ready for publication. Yay!)  I filled in all of the synopsis sections with "data" from my manuscript: major plot points, important stages of Hannah's character arc, inciting incidents and their resolution.

Then I happily sent the file to my fantastic peer group from the WD conference.  When I heard back from Jennifer, she faithfully pointed out all of the places where the synopsis fell flat, including my wonderful hook.  Time to revise.

The second draft surprised me.  Jennifer and I have a very similar writing style, so I was able to take some of her suggestions verbatim.  Others were more "concepts" that she was trying to get across.  But they pointed me in the right direction.  And that's when the surprise happened.

Instead of finding more flat phrases, my voice found its way into the words.  What started out as almost a summary of the story is now a miniature version of Near Mrs.  Its got personality and style.

But what totally caught me off guard was the benefit of looking at my story from the 100,000 foot level.  When I'm revising a sentence, I'm at ground zero.  When I'm re-working a paragraph, I'm at 10,000 feet.  But to see my story from start to finish in two pages of dense, single-spaced text was a big eye opener.

That was the magic in the exercise.

Toward the end of Near Mrs., Hannah makes a decision that sends a message contrary to her core values as a person.  So I changed the story to have her sister push her toward the decision.  It makes more sense with both of their personalities for this to happen.  So, now I have to revise the manuscript to match the synopsis, and my story will be better for it.  I never would have seen that one coming.

During my web search, many authors mentioned that they write the synopsis first.  There was no way I could do this.  I didn't know my characters well enough for me to write the details of a synopsis.  But I suspect that's the difference between an amateur and a professional.  With experience comes foresight and the knowledge of what information one needs to know before setting out to write.

I stumbled through a two-year process of getting the words written, and I wonder if having a better idea of where I was going would have helped me work through some rough spots.  I had chapter summaries, but the major difference between a summary and a synopsis is that the synopsis brings out the why of what happens.  It's more than just plot points.  A summary is a pencil sketch, but a synopsis has solid lines and color.

Satisfied for the moment, I saved the file and sent it back to Jennifer.  Time to let it marinate - let the flavors mingle and blend.  And tomorrow night I may get lucky and have another critique to review so I can really polish this gem.

For a link to Kathy Carmichael's synopsis articles, click here:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Are You Ready to Blog?


Definitely, yes.

Next post.


On a more serious note, the idea of starting a blog and "creating a platform" terrifies many an author.  For me, it's not the issue of exploring social media.  I'm comfortable on the computer, and there are plenty of sites and blogs with helpful how-to information.

The thing that stood in my way was - What do I write?

Funny that a writer would be stumped by this, but alas, it's true.

It's one thing to come up with a marketing plan for an object.  Showcase all of the wonderful things it does.  Point out the features, the advantages it gives.  Who are the target buyers?  What do they want to hear?  Seems easy for, say, the latest greatest cell phone.

But tell an author to do the same thing for their writing career and suddenly their house is immaculate, the car is washed, the laundry is done and the refrigerator is stocked with tasty treats, all done while throwing covert icy glances at their computer.

Let's be fair.  Maybe you don't know who your target audience is yet.  My current work in progress (WIP) is a women's fiction novel.  My next project is a middle-grade (MG) science fiction four-novel series.  Sum it up by saying that my audience is moms and their kids.  How am I going to market that?  No idea yet.

When I first started my blog, one of the setup pages asked me for a title.  I was struggling with a title for my MS, and this was a sore spot for me.  So I went on a rant for a few paragraphs about the difficulty in choosing titles.  And I named my blog, "Oh great, another title to think up..."  As my blog evolved, so did my title and the content.

Would you agree that your writing improved over time?  If so, then why wouldn't your blog?

Set realistic expectations for yourself, especially in the beginning.  Writing is about trial and error and figuring it out as you go along.  It's creative and evolutionary.  Why should blogging be any different?  Share your posts with family and friends and get used to writing for them.  As you get comfortable, you may find out a thing or two about yourself and discover a purpose for your blog.

Consider treating your blog like a diary you're willing to show the world.  Let people inside your head, whether you think they'll be interested or not.  Put your blog up everywhere.  I share my posts on my personal facebook page, my twitter feed, Google Reader, Google Buzz, and by email with some people. When I figure out how to share it on my facebook author page, I'll do that, too.

I've been blogging since last October.  Only recently did I decide to take a direction with my blog - define my audience, have a theme for my posts, and have some kind of schedule.  (I usually shoot for once a week, depending on how excited or apathetic I'm feeling.)  And I leave up those original, scattered, flight-of-ideas posts to show that no one's perfect right from the start.

If you can relate to any of this and are still hesitating, this is what I suggest:

1.  Pick a site.

If you have your own website, crate a blog page.  If you don't, Blogger and WordPress are popular.  I've only used Blogger, so I can't make any specific recommendations.  Don't get hung up here.  Pick one and move on.

2.  Pick any topic and write a few paragraphs about it.

3.  Publish the post.

4.  Start your sharing small.  Maybe your personal facebook page, maybe by email to friends and family.

5.  When you get into a groove and feel more comfortable with what you're posting, share your blog everywhere you can.

Optional (but recommended):

  • Follow other blogs to see what your peers are doing.

Some great blog posts to check out:

Cats Eye Writer:  Helping bloggers educate, engage and entertain
5 Ways to Pull Your Blog Visitors Into Your Content

Cats Eye Writer:  Helping bloggers educate, engage and entertain
Why Your Blog Doesn't Need an Audience of Thousands

The Internet Writing Journal
The Best Author Blogs

Steph in the City: Life. Love. And everything else.
How to Get More Blog Readers

Cats Eye Writer:  Helping bloggers educate, engage and entertain
10 Reasons Your Blog Readers Don't Hang Around

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

And, That's a Wrap! (Almost)

I did it.

It's done.

And I'm still around to talk about it.  Not only that, but the backstory that started this whole writing adventure is finally woven into the story, like harmony to the melody.

The backstory of Hannah's sister, Sally, is what prompted me to write Near Mrs.  A little aside: I lost my sister when she was 19 and I was 22.  Every time someone went through a similar experience, I would end up writing them a letter to go along with the sympathy card.  You don't live through something like that and not come out of it with a little experience and some pearls of wisdom after a lot of soul-searching.  And then it occurred to me.  If I could write a story about a character with the same experience, I could share what I learned with people I'd never even met and maybe give them some comfort.

And so it began.  The story had to get out, but I didn't want it to be preachy, so I intentionally kept it from being the main plot.  So I came up with a plot and a character that could carry the story and backstory.  When I was finally done with the first draft, I realized that I had left out most of the backstory, being so caught up in the plot itself.  But that's what drafts are for, right?  So I went back and edited.  And re-edited.  And added and added until the two stories fit together.

I spent the past two weeks weaving the pieces together, and then last night I made all of the edits I wanted to include from my critique-group friends.  Translated, that means I fixed all the typos and grammar errors they found, in addition to incorporating some of their brilliant ideas about the plot, characters and themes.  It's amazing how you can read the same sentence so many times and never realize you wrote "form" instead of "from."  There is nothing that can substitute for a fresh set of eyes that are not your own to point out all the flaws you're become blind to.

And then I found a blog that burst my happy little bubble.  The advice is sound.  Print out your entire MS and read it - out loud - before you even consider submitting it.  As much as I wanted to crack open a bottle of champagne and join Hannah and Olivia in a few mimosas, I'll have to hold off just a little bit longer.  The good news is, I know that I've added all of the scenes and moments that have been rattling around in my head recently, begging to be considered.

The bad news is, I know myself.  I obsess over editing my own work.  I read an email half a dozen times before I send it to make sure the words on the page are the ones I want.  I'm not an easy woman to satisfy (just ask my darling husband), and I know that once I start reading out loud, I'm going to mark up those pristine pages with bright red ink and send myself back to the computer for hours of revising.

As you can imagine, Hannah's back story with Sally is very sad.  I worry that I may have made the story too dark, and I'm reluctant to face that fact, knowing that what I put in was authentic.  While the main plot is very dramatized, the backstory is quite autobiographical.  I relived my own demons to get those words on the page, and Sally's part of the story wouldn't be complete without them.  But I learned from modeling Hannah, Olivia, Marc and Garrett after real people.  The raw material is nothing like what you're left with after you flesh out the details.

Marc may have been modeled after my ex-husband, but he's got characteristics of friends and ex-boyfriends thrown in, and he's totally dramatized to make his character fit the story.  What's left of my ex-husband, now that I'm done, are some idiosyncrasies and a few great choice words from a few of the fights we had.  Marc is now his own person, with his own personality.  Hannah started as me, then became part me, part my other sister, and part made up.  Olivia started as that other sister, then became her own savvy, snarky self.  Garrett is the closest to his origin.  I'm lucky.  I come home every night to my own sweet Garrett who has supported me through every phase of this crazy ride.

I love this motley crew, and I owe it to them to do this final review (with all associated edits), before shipping them off to a stranger to be analyzed, and possibly (even probably) rejected after nothing more than a peek at my query letter.  But I'm staying positive.  My plan is to dive into query-land convinced that I have the next best women's fiction piece to hit the market.  If I believe it, maybe an agent and editor will, too.

I know I've deviated from my blog's stated intention with this post, but after re-reading earlier blog entries, I decided that while my views on different topics may help my fellow writers,  they're nothing like being inside the head of a writer who's reached a milestone.

Do you have a preference for type?  Let me know which it is and why.

Next up:  Are You Ready to Blog?  I'm positive you are and I'll tell you why.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cause All The Problems You Want - The Role of Conflict in Writing

I'm not really comfortable with conflict.  I doubt many of us are.  Well, there are those that seem to get off on it, but frankly, I try to avoid those kinds of people.  In general, I'd say that most people would rather avoid or resolve conflict quickly in order to avoid the consequences that will certainly follow.

And if you do this with your novel, you'll be dead in the water.

I did this.  In fact, I wrote 17 chapters of a nice, neat little life where my characters did what I would have, and what I would have wanted any of my friends or family to do.  They made intelligent, logical choices.  And it was terrible.

Have you ever wondered about a book and thought, "If the character had just told someone what he knew, if all of those terrible things could have been avoided?"  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix many of the problems were caused by Harry not speaking up.  If he had, maybe the terrible consequences of his actions (or inactions) would never have happened.  I would think to myself, "When I raise my kids, I'm going to make sure they talk to their teacher, myself, other adults they trust, so that they won't run into all of these problems and issues."

Good advice for a pre-teen.  Horrible advice for an author.  Because what has readers turning the pages is this nagging thought:  "How is [insert character] going to get themselves out of this one?"  Readers will lose sleep over this.  They'll take your book, either in hard copy or e-reader, and stuff it into their bag to take with them where ever they have to go.  They'll snatch opportunities to read on the bus, at red lights, while getting gas, on breaks, in the bathroom, or at 3am when they have to get up for work at six - where ever they can because they need to find out the answer to that incessantly nagging question.  (I'll admit, I've done every one of the things mentioned.  I had to know!)

And that's what you're looking to accomplish.  You need to convince any agent or editor you pitch that your book will reach out, grab readers and hook them.  The assumption, then, is that they'll tell their friends, who will also buy your book, react similarly, and so on and so forth.  The publisher makes money, your story hits the best-seller list and you, your agent (if you have one), and your publisher are ecstatic.

So, what about my nice, happy little 17 chapter manuscript?  Gone.  Poof!  Start over.  I do have to admit, I didn't figure this out all on my own.  The thing that woke me up was a great little book called The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham.  I say little, because it's only 112 pages long, but there is tons of valuable information between the covers.  I recommend that if you're interested in this book you should buy it so you can underline, highlight, draw arrows and scribble things in the margins.

At risk of sounding like an advertisement, I'll tell you anyway that in two and a half pages, Mr. Bickham showed me what I was doing wrong.  I had broken every single one of his rules about conflict and it showed in my writing.  Once I got over the glare from the lightbulb over my head, I started over, with conflict in mind, and suddenly, the plot took off.  After the hour drive home from the accountant last year, I made my husband drive up and down the local highway for an extra 45 minutes while I finished the basic story-line.  (Hey, I was on a role!)

My chapter outlines were robust and my plot and character arcs were meaningful.  Later in the year I got about half way through the new manuscript, and after some prompting from my wonderfully critical mother, added more conflict.  (Her name is Claudia.)  This brought more layers and depth to the story.

I'm on my final revision, nearly ready to query agents to represent me and my manuscript, and I'm working on still another layer, thanks to the feedback from my critique group, and you guessed it, dear old mom.

So, if you find yourself chickening out and avoiding things that will make your characters uncomfortable, I say, "GROW A SPINE!"  Living vicariously through your characters, you can be irresponsible, rude, obnoxious, ignorant, deliberately malevolent, and whatever else you can think of to cause conflict.  It's your chance to let your characters say all of those socially inappropriate things you read and hear about, but would never dream of doing yourself.  It's actually quite liberating.  And in the end, you'll have the reader needing to know, "How will she get out of this one?"

Good luck, and keep writing!

And, ps, if you pick up Jack Bickham's book, let me know what you think.  It's a fantastic place for a newbie to start.