The distasteful business of self-promotion

1912formattedMost the lessons I’ve learned in life are not from people who excelled, but from people who were jerks, morons, mind-numbingly boring, or teeth grinding obnoxious. I have this moment when I realize I am or have been that person. I’ve actually displayed that kind of attitude or conducted myself in that manner. Believe me, this kind of epiphany is the best behavior modification I can think of.

This brings me to the subject of self-promotion, or self-aggrandizement, defined as “an act undertaken to increase your own power and influence or to draw attention to your own importance.” For me, even the definition, sounds distasteful and a huge personal turn-off. This is probably because, as a former aspiring politician, I’ve done so much of it myself – until, you guessed it, I had one of those behavioral modifying moments.

Second only to the previously mentioned calling, we writers seem to be the most flagrant self-promoters. Indeed, we are encouraged to be. Some agents and publishers, as part of their submission process, start by asking how we personally plan to promote our work – this even before they decide whether what is being submitted has merit. Many people in the industry suggest you begin building your profile even before you’re published. Just what you would say, and who would be interested I’m sure I don’t know.

A new twist to the self-promotion game came with the launching of Harper Collins website Here’s what this publishing giant has to say about their site.

The site “…invites unpublished and self published authors to post their manuscripts for visitors to read online. Authors create their own personal page on the site to host their project – and must make at least 10,000 words available for the public to read.


“Visitors to authonomy can comment on these submissions – and can personally recommend their favourites to the community. authonomy counts the number of recommendations each book receives, and uses it to rank the books on the site.

HarperCollins hopes to find new, talented writers we can sign up for our traditional book publishing programmes – we’ll be reading the most popular manuscripts each month as part of this search.”


When you upload your manuscript or wip you immediately receive requests from other authors basically saying, “if you plug mine, I’ll plug yours.” There is no caveat about it being well written or a good story, or requests for suggestions on how to improve the work. The emphasis is on self-promotion and networking not good writing with these ambitious wannabes hoping to secure enough recommendations to get their work before the decision makers at HC. The assumption appears to be that HC will be so impressed with their self-promotion skills that they will over look the fact that the work is crap.

Frightening, but maybe they’re right.

I recently came across another writer’s version of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’.

I was intrigued by an offer that appeared on my publisher’s forum expressed as an opportunity for fellow authors to promote one another. It amounted to author’s writing positive reviews of each others books and than posting them on various sites like Goodreads, and Amazon.

What makes a review credible? The absence of conflict of interest would be a good start.

I think the importance of self-promotion is blown way out of proportion. Contributing to blogs, managing Facebook and Twitter, uploading stuff onto U-Tube, keeping a website up-to-date and sending out that newsletter all takes time. Though some of this might be necessary, even essential, it needs to be kept to a minimum because it takes away from what’s important, writing.

Beyond putting you’re work out there, self-promotion is only marginally effective, in my opinion, because it lacks a most important ingredient – credibility. However, an unsolicited* endorsement has the sincerity that can generate a word of mouth ground swell that spreads exponentially. I believe a worthwhile story told by a good writer can do this, and will ultimately prevail over all the hi-tech gimmicks and new age marketing chicanery.

Naïve? Unspohisticated? Old-fashioned? Out-of-touch with reality? Maybe, probably, but

I’ve learned the hard way that, indeed, you can fool some of the people all of the time, but in the end the merit and true value of what you’re doing becomes apparent to almost everyone (except maybe yourself), and what you’ve sacrificed blowing your own horn is dignity, self-esteem and character.

Perhaps a certain amount of self-promoting has to be done but surely it can be done graciously and with humility. As we build confidence in our ability and our work, hopefully the need to applaud one-self in public will diminish. If not, we’ll be the ones avoided at social gatherings.

As Emerson said; ‘A little integrity is better than any career.’

*Unsolicited as in without conflict of interest. Anyone that stands to gain either personally or financially in supporting your writing is suspect including; your publisher, agent, publicist, spouse, friends, family, etc. 

Why I critique

The best way I’ve found to become a better writer is to have my work critiqued by other writers. It can be painful, disappointing, even infuriating but it’s been absolutely essential for me and contributed immensely to the small measure of success I’ve had.

It’s ironic that the best advice is also the least expensive.  The price of a critique is paid in time not cash, which makes it more practical than conferences, online courses, night school, or creative writing programs.

To get the most from the experience I adhere to a few guidelines. Here is my Critiquing W5.

WHAT to have critiqued.

I send my best work. Critiquers aren’t editors nor are they book doctors. They aren’t there to write my story only to comment on what I’ve written. To send in less than my best is disrespectful, not to mention unprofessional to those taking the time to read it.

I submit the beginning, the end, or anywhere in between, but no more than 3,000 words, about ten pages. I get the most response (on-line) when my submission is short enough to read in one sitting. If my critiquers are sitting across from me I go shorter still. It’s very discouraging to see stifled yawns and fidgeting half way through reading aloud your opening chapter.

WHERE to critique.

I prefer on-line critique groups since I get more and varied responses. Not only are there several different perspectives, but the critiquers can take their time and give me a considered and in depth opinion. In your face critique groups are, by definition, spontaneous and can be confrontational.

Local chapters of the RWA likely have a critique group but other sites include:


Writer’s Digest

Romance Writers Community (RWC)

WHEN to critique.

I don’t submit work until I’ve completed a second draft. By that time I’ve corrected most spelling and grammatical errors as well as plot glitches in the first draft. Most importantly, I fully understand my plot and characters, which allows me to consider if the comments I receive are relevant. By this point I’ve also invested too much time to get sidetracked by criticisms that address the story and not the writing.

I use to rush to submit. It was embarrassing. Now I let my writing rest and revisit it a week or so later. I’ll also read it aloud before I sending it.

WHO to critique.

Ideally, you will give and get critiques from people writing in the same genre and at the same level of skill or better. I find it difficult to fully critique genres that involve werewolves or vampires because I’m not steeped in their culture. Sending erotica to someone who writes inspirational may not only be personally insulting but also professionally a waste of time.

WHY to critique.

Having my work critiqued by other anonymous writers provides two essential things – an objective opinion, and instruction. The person analyzing and assessing my work doesn’t know who I am and has no vested interest in pleasing or displeasing me. Equally important is that the criticism is coming from another, ideally better writer, who knows more about the craft and the pitfalls than I do.

When I was a kid I use to watch Dick Clark’s American Bandstand – yes, that’s how old I am. One of the features on the show was “hit or miss” where Bandstand regulars would rate a new record (yes, record, not CD). After jiving up a storm the teens would gather around Dick and rate the song out of ten.

“It had a good beat, you know,” a young man with skin-tight pants and a Brylcreamed waterfall would volunteer. “I’d give it a seven.”

“The words were groovy,” a pony-tailed, bobby-soxer would swoon. “It’s a nine for me.”

“Only a four, it was hard to dance to. ”

Thus the new song was “critiqued”.

In the beginning, my critiques were reminiscent of this. On one hand, coming from a reader they were honest and important, but on the other hand, coming from a writer they were superficial and unprofessional. Because I’ve learned so much from the well-considered and knowledgeable insights of magnanimous strangers I wanted to return the same. I wanted my critiques to be of value so I began to read books on the craft of writing to learn how other writers addressed the issues I was seeing in the submissions I read (see a short list at the end).

Some submissions I critique are from beginners. In those I try to explain Point of View, Goal, Motivation and Conflict, and Showing instead of Telling. I do this in broad strokes and try to be patient. Regardless of how sensitive I think I’m being some people still get their feelings hurt.

When I submit a work for critiquing I assume it’s going to be criticized. After all, that’s why I sent it in. Even after several rewritings it’s still not perfect, I seldom get it right, and for sure it can always be improved upon. In my opinion, a critique that’s not critical is an oxymoron.

I have to admit sloppy submissions do make me crazy. Poor punctuation, bad grammar and repetition of errors leads me to believe the writer is either not serious or not skilled enough to take this step at this time.

A submission from an accomplished writer can be intimidating. I usually look for subtleties and nuances like voice, the characters’ and the author’s; pacing that involves a variety of sentence lengths; plotting including leaving room for the readers imagination; and, character development – consistency and believability. I’ll often comment on language – a more appropriate word sometimes makes all the difference.

When I submit my work and begin receiving critiques back, I remind myself of two things: everyone is entitled to their opinion; and, unlike almost any other situation I can think of, all opinions have some validity and should be appreciated. I watch for common threads in the criticisms because that’s likely where the work is needed. And though it might make sense to defend my work to an editor, it never does to a critiquer.

This mental task of addressing the errors and weaknesses in other people’s writing makes mine better. The adage that ‘to teach is to learn twice’ has no other better application than then when it comes to critiquing other writers.

Here are a few books on the various aspects of writing fiction including the writing experience. I’ve found these books educational, entertaining and, not surprising, well written.

Things Feigned and Imagined – by Fred Stenson

Self-editing for Fiction Writers – Renni Browne and Dave King

Stein on Writing – By Sol Stein

The Fiction Writer’s Guidebook – by Edwin Silberstang

Show, Don’t Tell – by William Noble

Make that Scene – by William Noble


If it don’t sell, it ain’t good

Star Tree Creativity is subjective. “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” – could be applied to a Bateman masterpiece or a black velvet reproduction from Walmart. This overused adage also applies to literature. It’s an excuse for a multitude of sins including a distinct lack of artistic ability as well as just plain bad taste.

So how does one decide whether their creation has any artistic merit? For me, if it don’t sell, it ain’t good.

Of course I to put it out there. I’ve offered my photographs to the public through various venues including retail stores, websites, flea markets, Craig’s List (you name it – I’ve tried it).  My writing’s been sent off to agents, publishers, magazines, newspapers as well as posting it on various websites.

Then I wait.

How long I wait depends on how patient or delusional I am, or both, at any given time. If nothing happens I eventually give up, withdraw, and move on – hopefully to improve. I used to call it a “learning experience”, but now I understand that phrase as a euphemism for failure.

I’ve rationalize my lack of success with all manner of excuses – I’m ahead of my time; misunderstood; not commercial enough (a good thing?); the economy is in the dumps; the weather was rotten; the stars were misaligned; or, like Van Gogh, who only sold one painting in his entire life, my genius will be appreciated once I’m gone.

Six new photographs of mine were recently shown at The Metro Theatre Lounge Gallery. Theatre-goers could view my work prior to the show and at intermission for the entire run of seventeen performances. The Metro is a good venue. People that attend are inclined to the arts and have the time to take a look, unlike a coffee bar gallery where all you want is to get your latte and leave. The box office for that production was 1621 and I would imagine at least 1,000 patrons visited the lounge at least once.

There were no sales, nor any enquiries regarding my photographs. According to my own philosophy, there’s only one conclusion.

The reason I take this uncompromising approach to my work is so I’ll continue to strive to improve. When I look at my first public offerings, in either photography or writing, they were so awful I cringe even now as I think about them. Had I continued to assign any of the above excuses to the lack of response to these works I wouldn’t have attained what little success I have.

I’m still determined to create something good enough to overcome all the obstacles – real or imagined. What I lack in creativity I hope to make up in part with perseverance and the ability to learn from past mistakes and failures. There’s no shortage to draw from.

Until then, I can appreciate (and marvel at) the success of others while I keep honing my craft and perfecting my eye. It’s not about money. It’s about recognition and respect from my contemporaries, and a sense of achievement for myself.

Nietzsche said, “Art is the proper task of life…”,  and that may very well be the case, whether it sells or not.