A Lazy Writer’s Guide to Building a Platform

My agent was getting ready to submit the first non-fiction book I’d written, which meant we were busy cobbling together a book proposal. Fiction writers – which I had been before this – don’t bother with book proposals, so I was a bit skeptical of the whole process. Somehow I had to not only explain what the book was but also demonstrate that there was a market for it. Lacking a crystal ball, I didn’t understand how this was realistically possible.

“You talk about your platform,” my agent explained. “Those are the first people who will buy the book.”

“My platform?”

“You know: Author magazine, the blog, the interviews, Author2Author, your teaching. Your platform.”

“That stuff? I don’t know if that’s a platform.”

“I deal with platforms and promotion all the time. It’s a good platform.”

“Really?”

“Yes!”

I took her word for it. Until then, I did not think I had a platform, because I had heard that an author must build a platform. Building something seemed like a lot of work. I like doing stuff, but I don’t like work. Doing stuff becomes work when I don’t want to do what has to be done. So I guess I’m lazy in that way, but it’s all right because I still get a lot of stuff done – like all the things that comprise my supposed platform. I built that platform by just doing what I wanted to do.

Just doing what I want to do is a defining preference I share with many of the writers I know. It’s a practical one too, because to write a book or a story or a poem or an essay is a discipline of asking myself over and over again, “What is most interesting to me right now?” My writing is never so alive and original and, yes, salable, as when I am hot on the trail of what interests me most. I cannot manufacture this interest; it is either present and I follow it, or it is not and I don’t.

I can’t simply turn off this practical laziness when I leave my desk, either. It has brought me too much happiness. Actually, it has brought me all my happiness. Which is why a little rebellion always stirs in my heart whenever I hear some well-intentioned expert tell me what I have to do to have success in this very competitive business. All I ever have to do is follow my curiosity. It is the only thing that has had led me anywhere I want to be.

So if you are like me, and you love to write but you are a little lazy, and you have heard that you need a platform, and you think you don’t know how build one, don’t worry. Writing has already taught you everything you need to know about building platforms. I go could go on about blogs and websites and mailing lists, but all of that is useless until you are curious. Without your curiosity – which doesn’t care about hits, or likes, or retweets, or sales – nothing you start will be finished. You will rebel, and feel bad because you haven’t done what needs to be done, and maybe even tell yourself that you aren’t getting anywhere.

And so you go back to writing, and eventually you finish something, and you wonder, “How could I share this other people?” And you find that question interesting, which is to say you are curious, and now you are on your way.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Friendly Math: Why Everyone Wants What You’ve Written

Every writer I know wants to share what he or she has written, and the moment we share one piece of writing with one other person we become authors. But many of the writers I meet at writers’ conferences tell me they don’t feel like authors because they haven’t yet sold something they’ve written. The problem, they tell me, is that nobody wants what they’ve written. The more of these gloomy conversations I have with writers, the more I wonder if the real problem is just the opposite.

Writers are people first, after all. Like a lot of people, I own a bunch of things. I like these things; that’s why I own them. I like my house and my car and my computer. I like the new pair of shoes I bought recently. Every time I put them on they please me. When I’m wearing these shoes, no one else can wear them. It’s just not possible. If I shared them with someone else, I wouldn’t have them to walk around in until I got them back.

Whenever I write a story or an essay, I always write about something I like. Actually, I write about something I love. Just as it is easiest to walk a long distance in a pair of perfectly-fitting shoes, so too it is easiest to write about what I love. As soon as I am done writing something I love, I want to share it with other people. I want to share it in much the same way I want to share a song I found on iTunes or a book I found at a bookstore. The only difference is that I wrote the thing I’m sharing and I might get paid to share it.

Some confusion can set in, however, when I go to share it. I know a story isn’t a pair of shoes, but there is an idea that’s been going around for about 10,000 years that goes like this: There isn’t enough. Enough wheat, enough gold, enough land, enough time. And everyone seems to want more of what there doesn’t seem to be enough. I have certainly felt some days that I didn’t have enough of what everyone wants. I don’t like thinking that I don’t have enough and that I’ll somehow have to scrabble away against all the other people to get my fair share, whatever precisely that is. It’s a friendless world, that.

Which is why it can get confusing when it’s time to share something I’ve written. Within me are thoughts of what shoes I’ll wear or what book I’ll read and or what story I’ve just written. I always want more of what I love, and I know the reading world is filled with people who want more and more and more of what they love too. If I believe for one moment we are all somehow in competition, I will tell myself it’s not ready to share, or no one will understand it, or there is no market for it, and try to protect something that cannot be lost.

Every reader will make a story their own. If they loved it, they will walk about with it in their hearts. Meanwhile, that same story will remain in mine as well. It defies the unfriendly math of a world in competition with itself, hording happiness in preparation for some end-time when it’s finally run out. Fortunately, sharing is how happiness grows, and as long as there are two people in the world, there will always be enough of it.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Writing, Fame, and Kindness

When I was a young man, I wanted to be famous. It didn’t matter so much as what, though early on I recognized that writing was the most appealing path to follow. Fame, it seemed to me, meant freedom – freedom from worry, freedom from poverty, freedom from irrelevance and obscurity, and freedom ultimately from the suicidal thought that nothing I did or said actually mattered. If something I did or said reached and moved other people, then somehow this meant that what I had done or said mattered, which meant I mattered, which meant life itself mattered. So I wanted be famous.

I ended up spending about twenty years waiting tables, which was perhaps the exact opposite of my original career goal. When you’re a server, you have to forget about yourself. To do your job well, you have to forget about what you want and listen carefully to what other people want, bring it to them, and then go away. Your opinion matters little, though your patience and compassion mean everything. People come to dinner in all different moods, and from all different walks of life. To do your job well, you have to treat them all with equal kindness.

All the time I was serving people I was also writing; it’s just that no one was reading what I was writing. And yet sometimes I would come home after a shift, and there I would be, sitting alone in my living room, my wife and children already asleep, and if I didn’t think about being a waiter, or the stories I hadn’t sold, or how old I was, I found I would forget what it was I thought fame would free me from. I did not know what to make of this experience. It felt like giving up, and yet it wasn’t.

By and by I left the restaurant and was asked to start an online magazine. Now, people were reading what I was writing, which was strange because the experience did not feel significantly different than when people weren’t reading what I was writing. There is not much that can influence what it is to sit alone at your desk and translate your curiosity into essays and stories, except the unanswerable question of how to measure whether what you are doing matters. Does it matter if no one else is reading it? What if one person reads it? What if a million people read it?

A better question to ask, I learned, was, “What is the very best thing I can share with other people?” When I asked this question it was as if I was a server again, because to answer it I had to forget about myself. I had to forget about whether I was better or worse, whether I was right or wrong, and just listen. I was never as kind to myself as when I sat alone at my desk and listened. To listen was to be free from the idea that the difference between people matters.

Some days I listen better than other days. Some days I find I am just listening for what I want to hear. There is no kindness in this, only judgment. When I was younger and dreaming of fame, I would not have guessed that judgment is imprisonment and kindness is freedom. It got all mixed up as I looked and looked for what I already had.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Music Lessons

For years my wife, herself a writer, was my first and only beta reader. Every draft of every novel went under her nose, and she’d return with her likes and dislikes. It was not a peaceful arrangement. Often her dislikes outnumbered her likes. I came to hate this process. I didn’t really want her feedback; I just wanted her to love it so I could send it to agents or editors with some confidence. Eventually, I relieved her of her duty as beta reader, and there was peace in the kingdom.

About the same time I stopped showing my wife my books, I started writing music. I discovered that using Garage Band I could compose anything from a pop tune to a piano sonata to a symphony. I was thrilled. I’d wanted to compose music my entire life but I hadn’t the time nor discipline to learn to play the piano well enough to write what I heard in my mind. Now I could put little black dots into the program, press play, and hear what I’d written. Sometimes what I’d written sounded like what I heard in my mind, and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes I liked what I’d written more than what I’d imagined and sometimes I did not. I was my own beta listener.

I was so excited when I finished a song or a little symphony. Even though I had chosen every little black dot, the song still felt a bit like something I’d discovered on the radio. I was the beta listener, after all. And since I always liked the songs, and since whenever you find a song you like you share it with someone you love, I’d play it for my wife.

At first, she was as delighted as I was. “You wrote that?” she’d ask. “Yes!” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?” Once she’d gotten over the shock that her husband of fifteen years was now writing music, she began to listen with a more critical ear, commenting, “Oh, that beginning’s really dynamic.” Or, “The middle kind of bogs down, don’t you think?” And then one day, after listening to my latest piece: “That just doesn’t work for me. It has no center.”

And that was when a miracle occurred. I didn’t care. To my own amazement, I did not care one speck that she thought it had no center. What she or anyone thought of this or any piece could not change my relationship to it, could not change why I’d written it, or what I’d learned writing it, or what I thought of it. The two experiences were totally separate. And I thought to myself, “If I learned to write music for this lesson alone, it will have been worth it.”

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter