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3 Ways to Start to Hone Your Expertise
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2013
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2013

Earlier this month I had the privilege of moderating Deborah Siegel’s Thought Leadership for Writers webinar.

There were a lot of things that stood out for me about the three-week course, but none more than Deborah’s concept of getting out in front of your idea. This pretty much encapsulates what publishers want you to do when they assert the importance of platform. As I’ve heard Ted Weinstein, friend and agent, say on many panels: “Go get famous first, and then get an agent or a publisher.” Though the definition of fame here might be loose, the message is the same regardless: You have to get in front of your idea. Meaning you need to be establishing yourself as an expert on the topics and ideas your book covers long before you pitch to a traditional house.

In the six-month memoir course I teach with Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Association of Memoir Writers, we cover platform around Week 9, which just so happened to be last week. In that class we always emphasize the importance of blogging, social media, guest posting on other people’s blogs, and writing articles or op-eds. I heard from our students the knee-jerk reaction I always hear from memoirists and novelists when I tell them about the importance of building an online presence: “What do I have to say?”

If you are compelled to write a book, lord knows you have something to say. The key to wrapping your mind around platform is learning to harness what you have to say into concise messages—in other words, to think like a marketer. Not surprisingly, most writers don't think like marketers. They typically don’t like 140-word limitations on their expression. They often have a nuanced way of thinking about things and the idea of distilling something down into a sound bite can border on causing physical pain. I’ve often worked with writers on what the publishing industry calls “sales hooks,” only to witness how difficult it can be for a writer to get a firm handle on what it is about their book that makes it saleable. And yet you MUST understand what makes your book saleable long before you try to sell it to a publisher.

So here’s what I suggest for those writers who are stumped:

1. Create a list of topics.

Your book, no matter what the genre, has topics ready and waiting to be plucked out of it. Memoir topics might include something like an eating disorder, or cooking, or travel—central themes your book is covering. Novel topics might include something like the Civil War (historical); education (protagonist is a teacher); socially relevant messages (central character is LGBTQ, had an abortion, is a person of color, etc.). Your job here is to ask yourself why you chose to write your book in the first place. What do you want readers to know or to learn? And from there you start to make your list. I have a client who’s writing a memoir about having been an evangelical Christian in high school. It’s a coming of age memoir about finding faith and then losing it. Initially she struggled to figure out what topics she might write about, though she was clear she wanted to contribute to the conversation. She wanted to be a thought leader. After many months, she came up with a list of ten or more topics, and out of that came her first three blog posts, which were about permission to leave; the danger of labeling kids; and the difference between rebellion and truth-seeking—all great posts and all very much in alignment and in support of her memoir. (And very topic-driven.) This exercise opened up a whole new world of possibility for this writer and helped her start to see how much of an expert on her topics she already was.

2. Use Google Alerts.

Once you’ve identified your list of topics, select the top three and create Google Alerts. This will help you keep your finger on the pulse of the conversation you’re wanting to be a part of. What are people saying in your topic? What books are being published? Sometimes this is an intimidating exercise, because mostly you’ll find that there is much already being said about your topic. But remember, that’s a good thing. If you want to have a voice, you need to jump into the fray at some point. Start small, by posting a link to something topical on Twitter. A next step would be giving an opinion about something on Facebook. Then try writing a blog post for your own site. And eventually try writing something for another site, or for a national publication. This is how you grow your platform incrementally and become a go-to person—which in turn makes you “famous.” At least enough for an agent to take you on and to be an honest contender for a book deal.

3. Don’t demur.

This one is important, especially for women. If you are writing a book, you are becoming an expert in your topic, or you already are one. At Seal Press we used to bat around the term “expert by experience,” which I love. This makes someone who’s survived cancer an expert on cancer; someone who spent a year in Africa an expert on living in Africa; someone who transformed her life through dancing an expert on dancing. For novelists, you become an expert by doing research and immersing yourself in your topic, though many novelists are also experts by experience because their back story informs their writing—like the Jewish novelist whose parents were Holocaust survivors writing about the Holocaust, or the vintner who decides to write a novel based in the California wine country. Or maybe you learn through research, as was the case for Layne Wong, whose protagonist in Shanghai Love was an herbalist in China, an area of interest for Wong that only grew as she was required to learn all about it in order to bring her character to life. Point being, all of these women are experts—on cancer; on living in Africa; on dancing; on the Holocaust; on wine; on herbal medicine. And these topics could be a component of these authors’ platforms. Once the decision is made to call yourself an expert, own it completely. Don’t ever qualify. 

Once you have these ideas down, you start implementing them and living them. Take on your topics like they’re part of your resume. Comb through your Google Alerts and get jazzed about your topics. Start posting—a little at first and then more prolifically. Blog regularly if you can and/or are able, and pitch stories as and when you can—to places like your local paper, a favorite blogger you follow, Huffington PostiVillage, and beyond.

You are an expert, and if you want to get your book published you have to feel it down to your bones--and if you don’t you have to fake it till you make it, because your agent, your editor, and your future readership expect nothing less.

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  • Stacy S. Kim

    You did it again Brooke. So thoughtful, informative, and action-inspiring. Thank you!

  • Sherrey Meyer

    Thanks for these all important tips and especially for giving some clarity to the concept of platform.

  • Kay Rae Chomic

    Thanks, Brooke. I'm going to give this a try as I've been struggling with, What should I blog about?

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Debbie, Mayra, and Pamela.

  • Debbie Knight

    That's great advice. Many thanks for sharing.

  • Mayra Calvani

    Thanks for the great tips, Brooke!

  • Pamela Toler

    I use Google alerts. I have a list of topics.  I never thought of linking them together. *headsmack*