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SHY EXPLORER SERIES: Asking the Experts by Judy Clement Wall

March 10, 2011

I’m on a quest, asking the experts – people already in the industry – for publishing advice to writers…

One of the people I was most excited to interview for this series was writer/blogger Justine Musk. I found her blog, Tribal Writer, by accident one day, and was immediately hooked. She was grappling with all the same things I was (albeit with more poetry and badassery) – how to write bravely, build a platform, network in a way that felt true to her sense of self.

I sent her an email asking for an interview, and crossed my fingers that she’d be open to talking to me about what she’s learned blazing her own creative, authentic, social-networky trail. When she said yes, I did a little happy dance. It was not as big as the one I did when I read her answers to my questions. You’ll see why.

BIO: Justine Musk writes supernatural fiction (and some other stuff). Her blog, Tribal Writer is for creatives who want to come to grips with social media in a way that is not only fun and rewarding, but builds careers and enriches lives.

Follow Justine on Twitter: @justinemusk

j: You’ve said your blog, Tribal Writer, sits at the intersection of blogging/social media, creativity and entrepreneurship. Reading your blog was the first time I ever thought of writers as being entrepreneurs. I like the word because it encompasses creativity, productivity, saleability… a whole host of ideas. How does it help writers to think of themselves as entrepreneurs?

Justine: I like the word because it suggests a very particular kind of mindset. Entrepreneurs take ownership and responsibility for their careers, are solution-minded, educate themselves about whatever it is they need to know in order to do what they do. They understand about vision and risk and putting in long hours with no guaranteed outcome other than the chance to build something cool. They stay connected to the marketplace without being enslaved by it; they understand that sometimes you need to give people not what they want, but what they don’t know they want. Entrepreneurs play to their strengths, and not to what they think they ‘should’ do or be. They can’t survive otherwise.

Publishing is undergoing such significant changes that I really do think it’s a case of adapt or die. You still have to be the best possible writer that you can be. That won’t ever change. But I think more than ever it pays to be open-minded and experimental and a little bit visionary, to pay attention to the changing landscape and find ways and opportunities to take advantage. Resistance to change will only hurt you. Not to mention, the idea of creative entrepreneurship really kicks in once you’ve established a massive platform and can sell to your readers directly. That’s an extremely difficult feat – not all of us are meant to be like Seth Godin –but the fact that it’s possible at all just blows my mind. We’re entering a new era.

Also, entrepreneurs have an incredible work ethic. They know how to show up and start. Writers need to be able to do that.

j: You write a lot about platform, which I think is this big scary thing for many writers. What is “platform” and what are the most important elements of it?

Justine: Your platform is your ability to command attention at any given time, and to convert that attention into book sales. It means that people give a damn. They find you compelling. What writers need to understand is that you DO NOT just blast people with pleas to buy your book. You don’t broadcast. People will tune you out. Instead, you give them useful content that’s kind of like a campfire: it draws them in, gets them talking to you and each other.

So the most important part of the platform is your message. You need to have something to give to the world that excites and engages people. For fiction writers I think this gets a bit more complicated, becomes enmeshed with your voice, your identity, your quote-unquote ‘brand’.

Then you need your ‘hub’, your online home. Usually it’s a blog, or hybrid blog/website. Then you range out across the platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, various forums, etc., wherever it is that your readers gather. Each platform you use becomes a kind of door, an opportunity for people to enter your home — to click through to your blog – where they will hopefully get more deeply invested in you and your work.

You also need your list, your ‘opt-in box’, where people volunteer their email addresses so you can keep them up to date about your work. The list is crucial. Start building your list today.

I’m fascinated with the idea of platform because of how you can use it not just to promote your work but to reach out to people, to influence people, to do some good in the world. Book sales become a kind of byproduct. You can take what you’re most passionate about and start your own movement. People don’t want to be sold to, but they do want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and your platform is your chance to give them that.

j: You are a big advocate of writers blogging. Should all writers blog, and what about writers for whom blogging does not come naturally?

Justine: I believe that the ebook revolution will come to mean – probably sooner than we like to think – that if you’re not online, you don’t exist. So yeah, I’m a big advocate for blogging, partly because blogging is so much fun, so rewarding in and of itself. But you have to find a way to make it work for you, to enjoy it, otherwise it truly is a waste of time. Blogging is flexible enough that you should be able to find some way to tap into your sweetspot. You can frame it through your interests and passions. You can use it – as I have – as a form of self-education, a kind of personal quest you invite others to share with you. If long posts are not your thing, you can go short and frequent, you can microblog (Posterous, Tumblr). You can do podcasts or videoblogs. The important thing is to adapt social media to you – your interests and strengths and personal style – and not the other way round. To engage the platforms that come most naturally to you. Like anything else, it’s a process of trial and error. You experiment. You tweak. You learn your way around.

j: You have a big (wonderful) online presence. As it grows and becomes more diverse, do you find balance more difficult? I guess I’m wondering how writers can nurture their platforms, blog their passions, explore their creative limits…. and write. What is your advice to writers about how to effectively manage their time?

Justine: Thanks! I’ve been online a long time by this point, and I’ve gone off in some different and unexpected directions. What I want to do now is pull the different parts of my online self together in a way that’s more…unified. I’m about to get my blog/website professionally redesigned. It’s about freaking time.

I think it was Jane Friedman who advised writers to take half the time you set aside for writing and use it to build your platform. But your platform and your fiction can work to complement each other; ideas you’re exploring through your blog can cross-fertilize your fiction, and vice-versa. When you blog, you start to develop a sense of what truly resonates with both you and your audience, and that can work to strengthen your fiction.

Part of the creative process involves incubation. We think hard on a plot problem, for example, but then we need to think about something else entirely in order to give the subconscious the chance to resolve it. So when you work on your platform, you are giving your fiction the space to grow and deepen inside your own head. Likewise, an entire blog post can assemble itself in the back of your mind while you are working on your fiction.

Make your fiction, your ‘real’ work, your priority, but schedule in some time to nurture your platform, even if it’s just fifteen minutes everyday. Maybe it can act as a kind of warm-up to your other writing. Or maybe your platform is something you can switch to when you’re stuck. Your platform is essentially a series of small acts done everyday over a long period of time. It’s a drip-drip-drip kind of growth, which is why it’s so important to start as soon as you can. Start small. A few tweets a day. Feel your way forward.

j: There are so many publishing options open to writers now – serial online excerpts, university presses, traditional, specialized and indie publishers, self-publication. (I’m probably missing a few.) What do you think writers should consider when making a decision about how to publish their work?

Justine: The first thing any writer should consider is this: is the work truly ready to be  published? Just because you can publish it yourself doesn’t mean you should. I still believe in going the traditional route, at least at first – submitting to agents and editors – because that can provide such valuable feedback as to where you are in your development as a writer.

I think writers need to consider who and where their audience is, and then – if they’re considering self-publication – whether or not they have the ability to actually reach that audience. They also need to consider the form that their writing tends to naturally take: if you’re doing an online serial, for example, then you need to hit those cliffhanger plot points. Whereas a tender and ruminative coming-of-age novel would likely need a different publishing vehicle.

I want to experiment with self-publishing – I haven’t done so yet – and in my mind I have a sense for what projects I want to self-publish (novellas) and what projects I want to submit to traditional publishers (the upmarket psychological thriller I’m working on now). I think in the future a lot of writers are going to mix the two – self-publishing and traditional publishing – myself included.

j: I’ve been so inspired by your blog. You seem very optimistic. I’ve asked almost everyone I’ve interviewed in this series what they think about the future of publishing – whether they think it’s a good or a bad time to be a new writer with a book to sell. What do you think?

Justine: I think it’s always a difficult time to be a new writer with a book to sell. Times  and circumstances change, but that fact never does. The most powerful thing you can do is to write a great book, one that is uniquely you, infused with your heart and soul and written from your core, your emotional sweetspot. Do that, and you’ll set yourself apart from the pack. You’ll carve out your own niche, and dominate it.

j: Finally, what do you like to read, and what are you reading now?

Justine: I’m an obsessive reader and an information junkie, so I read everything about anything that snags my interest, like social media. Right now I’m reading about sex addiction as research for my novel. And some short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. And Josh Kaufman’s THE PERSONAL MBA. The last novel I read was Emma Donoghue’s ROOM. My favorite novel, the one I would kill to have written, is Siri Husvedt’s WHAT I LOVED. Go read it. It’s fantastic.

**We at the IBC  disagree with Ms. Musk’s statement that new writers should not self-publish, particularly with all the incredible options available in this ever-changing, fluid digital environment.

While the views of many traditionally published authors can be very different than what we present to our collective on a daily basis, we do believe in presenting all sides. We welcome this very real feedback as a caution to what our writers will face as they venture out into the world of publishing and hope it doesn’t prevent someone from following their dream.

Thank you.

Carolyn, Rachel, and Amber

Your IBC Co-founders and team

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2011 7:30 am

    Hi Justine. Very informative. I agree with going a traditional path first, but have fallen in love with the whole indie process. It’s not as easy as people might think, but can be very rewarding.

    Arthur Levine

  2. March 10, 2011 11:54 am

    A great interview, Judy! I’ve been a fan of Justine’s since discovering her blog recently and have linked to her a few times in my Creativity Tweets of the Week.

    Justine, I love your use of the word entrepreneur. I spent four years being an entrepreneur in building a nonprofit from scratch, now I’m turning that effort to a more personal pursuit, building my platform. You’ve learned the lessons I’m trying to learn now.

    On sex addiction, I recently decided to read books by Vermont and Bennington MFA instructors, and thus read “Love Sick” by Sue William Silverman and “When Katie Wakes” by Connie May Fowler. They’re both masterful books, but I then read Patton Oswalt’s book to bring a little sunshine and humor back into my life. Good luck keeping your equilibrium while writing your novel.

    • March 12, 2011 12:00 am

      Patrick, thank you, and thank you so much for the tweets & links. I actually have read LOVE SICK — but not the other one, which I’m going to look up now.

  3. March 10, 2011 2:39 pm

    Another excellent interview, Judy. Justine’s views and experience are very informative.

    I also agree that the traditional route is well worth pursuing, but that indie/self publishibg is now, more than ever before, a worthwhile and worthy alternative.

    Thanks to both of you for the post.

    PS I love that word ‘badassery’ 🙂

  4. March 10, 2011 4:07 pm

    Hi —

    Thank you so much for the interview, but I did want to clarify: I never meant to imply that new writers “should not” self-publish. I don’t believe that at all. My point was more about the kind of feedback and education you can get through interacting with the world of traditional publishing, which you can then use to your advantage in self-publishing.

    all best!

  5. March 10, 2011 8:59 pm

    Awesome interview, especially for a guy that struggles with the concept of marketing and promotion on many levels. This helped, thanks Justine and Judy.

    And also, Justine’s “clarification” is pretty much how I read her comments the first time. I’ll take all the help I can get…

    • March 11, 2011 10:47 am

      Thanks, Michael. Justine is one of the people I look to when I’m feeling like all the messages are getting kind of smarmy. I love that she connects it all – the creativity, the promotion, the work, the soul.


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