How to Create a Peer Group

Peer groups are organized around a specific endeavor or vocation. They are a place to talk honestly and confidentially about your experiences in your shared field, and to get honest feedback and moral support.

In my last post, On the Value of Community, I talked about the many concrete benefits members of my peer group have reported. These benefits are a natural outgrowth of a well-functioning peer group. They are not the purpose of the group. Entering in to a peer group with any other purpose than improving one’s self through open and honest exchange is likely to have limited results (IMO).

The following comments are based on the group I belong to, but the principles can be applied to any type of peer group. The principles around which our group functions occurred organically. They are the common principles of any healthy group, as my former colleagues in the addictions counseling field can tell you.

We have few rules in our group.

    Rule #1: Be constructive and respectful.
    Rule #2: No politics.
    Rule #3: What’s said in group, stays in group.
    Rule #4 is unstated, but I have seen this in effect: If you think you may have accidentally stepped on someone’s toes (unavoidable on the internet), get with that person and clear the air immediately.

We have admins, but their role is supportive, not directive. Our group is unstructured. You may find your group functions better with some kind of structure, where everyone reports on their projects and progress and feedback is given. This is a good idea in groups that meet face to face for brief periods, when much must be accomplished in a short amount of time. It all depends on the personality of the group and its needs.

Our home is a private group on Facebook. There are other options. The advantages of an internet group are being able to include members from anywhere in the world and being able to participate from home, as time allows. Discussion threads can be reviewed at a later date. Members spend long and sometimes lonely hours glued to their computers while they are working. Our online venue functions as a lounge where members can take a break when needed.

As a closed group, new members are admitted by invitation only. They are chosen carefully, to keep the group small and personal (Okay, 80 members isn’t exactly small, but we aren’t looking to grow a union of thousands.)

It is critical to vet your members.

As the old knight said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Choose Wisely.”

Our group was initially formed by Indie authors who simply wanted a safe place to talk about their experiences so we could take our careers to the next level through improved marketing. Some of us are self-supporting, some of us aspire to support ourselves through our writing. Some of us have hybrid Indie/Trad publishing careers. All of us believe in the viability of self-publishing.

For our group, a good candidate is one who is personally known by their sponsor, has a positive and constructive attitude, and has self-published at least one book or is in the process of publishing their first book. A sense of humor is also expected.

It is important that at least one person in the group know a candidate well, and can vouch for their online behavior as well as their commitment to writing. This ensures that trust and comfort levels in the group stay high, and that the person is an appropriate fit for our mix of personalities.

We have a range from new writers and old hands with very different backgrounds. Mutual respect is a guiding mantra, so that everyone can express their opinions freely. We keep the focus on writing, publishing and marketing. When our opinions differ, we each state our own opinions without judging those of others and leave it at that. There is no “right way.” We’ve seen different choices work for different people.

Something I learned when I led therapy groups back in the 90’s: An honest opinion is a rare and beautiful thing, especially when it is one you don’t like. It’s vital to protect your space to make it possible for people to speak freely. It is expected that any negative opinion be expressed in a constructive way, as it is just as important to have an environment where people can hear that which may be uncomfortable to say.

Attacking behavior of any kind is absolutely prohibited. If you choose your members wisely, you may not need to worry about this. In the event you wind up with abusive behavior, you must be prepared to act, first by counseling the perpetrator, then by removing them.

Participation is not mandatory. People who are invited to join may come and go, lurk or post, as they like.

We are not in the business of proselytizing or fixing anyone. Feedback is offered to those who ask for it. Members are free to accept or reject feedback as they like and follow their path without judgement. It is expected that people will assume responsibility for their choices, and if they don’t like the results of their choices, they can make new ones. This is not a stated philosophy in our group, but it is how we have come to function.

People are free to vent their frustrations, but chronic complaining is not encouraged. The group attitude is to find new strategies when something isn’t working. Surrounding yourself with people who have this attitude of personal responsibility is key to a group’s success.

We also believe, as a group, that there is plenty of success for everyone who is willing to work for it. As a group, we want to form the high tide that lifts all our members.

Sound stuffy yet?

It isn’t at all. We act like loons much of the time. It’s a blast. I love my group. I think everyone should have one. And now you can.

#WoofWednesday – Merry Christmas!


On the Value of Community


A long time ago, back in the dark ages when cell phones were the size of bricks and I looked like the the woman above (the one in cowboy boots), I was an aspiring artist. Or rather, I was an artist, aspiring to find my place in the art world.

My adorable younger sister worked in a new museum named the Menil Collection (It’s a wonderful place, highly recommended). I preyed upon her to use her status as cute young guard to get me a meeting with the director, Walter Hopps.

I flew into Houston and phoned the museum to verify my appointment. They had forgotten all about it. With a bit of sighing, they fit me in.

The day came. I arrived at the museum and expected to wait a bit, and I did. And did. Forty-five minutes after my arrival, Hopps blew in and past me, his long coat flapping, in an entrance to make any diva envious. Another wait, and finally, I was escorted into his presence.

I was in awe. My first museum director. I could be discovered. Anything could happen.

He looked at my slides, holding the sheet up to the light and more-or-less complimented my over-sized portraits (one of which you see above). He then asked me if I drew from a projected image. I said no, these were all free hand, from snapshots. No grids, even.

Does he act surprised? Does he praise my skill? Not a chance. He proceeded to say it was perfectly legitimate to create art from slide projections, as if he didn’t believe me and was encouraging me to come clean. He seemed stuck on this point and came back to it a few times during our meeting. I wondered if he was secretly needling me.

I decided that Walter Hopps was a sadist.

Walter told me he agreed to meet with approximately three artists per year. He said we all looked to museum directors to help us in some way, and he said flat out that he was not going to help me.

He then explained to me that we are all looking for someone who has already made it to help us, and it didn’t work that way. He said everyone thinks Leo Castelli made Robert Rauschenberg and the entire NYC art scene in the 60’s. This was wrong. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns introduced their friends to Castelli, and the artists made him. He said, “Artists make galleries, galleries don’t make artists.”

He said to look to my peers, and for us to help each other. This is how things happened.

After that, he cited The Color of Money and said, “Character will out.” And I was ushered out of his office.

I pride myself on taking good advice, no matter the source.

Creative folk tend to be loners, obsessed with seeing their vision to fruition, and by nature, not inclined towards cooperation (too many cooks, you know?). I never quite found that group synergy as an artist. I stumbled into it as a writer.

A little over a year ago, I was a regular on the Kindle Direct Publishing forum, where I met a lot of truly fine people who gave me great advice and moral support in getting my first two books published. Unfortunately, the forum became overrun with trolls and flamers. I can ignore that. The part that was unacceptable was this: every time an author shared a significant success, they would suddenly wind up with a string of one star reviews on their books at Amazon. You could still get good formatting advice if you kept your head down, but you talked about how you were actually doing at your peril.

A fellow publisher got sick of this and asked me and another writer if we would be interested in a private, invitation only group. I jumped on this. We have since grown to more than 70 members, and it is the most amazing experience. People report their word count has increased, their writing has improved, their confidence has grown, and by sharing information, we have refined and adopted marketing strategies that have increased our income. We no longer feel alone on our path. We know it actually is a path, and that it leads somewhere, because we are able to safely compare our experiences with others. And we have fun while doing all this.

I feel blessed in these friends.

And no, I’m not going to invite you to join us. But I will share with you how to to create your magical haven.

Next post.

#WoofWednesday – Aftermath

Photo courtesy Angie Hall

Turmeric for Weight Loss: The Saga Continues.

This is going to play hell with my morning smoothie.

In October I posted Turmeric: The New Fat Terminator? after reading an article in First for Women about using it to lose weight. The article promised as much as a pound a day weight loss, starting immediately. Results, BTW, I did not expect to match.

The article suggested taking supplements containing turmeric extract. I hate spending lots of money to put something in a capsule when I already have it in my spice cupboard. I did a little research and found a few sites that said 2 grams was the recommended safe dose of turmeric. A little more research and I found that a teaspoon was slightly more than 2 grams. I decided to try consuming a teaspoon of turmeric a day in hot water, as a tea. I did this in the evening, before bed.

My results, as detailed in Turmeric for Weight Loss: Cautiously Optimistic, were not conclusive.

I had every intention of continuing this experiment with an increased dose of 1 Tablespoon in hot water, in the evening. Two weeks of this again had negligible results, but I intended to keep it up for at least a month to be sure. Then I launched my book and Thanksgiving hit and I fell off the wagon.

Today I noticed that I keep getting hits on those prior posts, so I thought I would do a little more research online to see if anyone had anything more specific to say about using turmeric in a diet. I was pleased to see that more information is now available. I found 3 sites that recommend taking a teaspoon of turmeric before or with each meal to assist in weight loss.

I’m going to give this one more try. Tonight I added a teaspoon of turmeric to my chicken and quinoa, and it was fine with a little salt. I suggest tossing a bit of curry powder in with your turmeric, to improve the flavor. I also read that black pepper increases the effectiveness of turmeric, so I’ll start adding that, too.

Mostly, I’ll drink it in hot water, either before or during meals. No, I am not going to dump it in my smoothies.

I should know by New Year’s if this is doing any good. Stay tuned!

Self Publishing: Cover Tips

In my last post, A Cover is Worth . . ., I talked about the importance of your book cover. In this post, I’ll share my tips for creating an effective cover.

Create one cover for all formats
Format your cover with enough pixels to meet the specs of all your publishing venues.

  • Smashwords and Apple require a minimum width of 1400 pixels, with the height greater than width.
  • ACX (Audible) requires a cover which is 2500 pixels, square.
  • Createspace requires 300 ppi.
  • KDP (Amazon) requires a minimum of 625 pixels wide and a minimum 1000pixels tall. Preferred dimensions are 1563 by 2500 and a height/width ratio of 1.6

Create a master cover file using a layer for each image and piece of text (in Photoshop, this is .psd), then tweak your .psd to fit different formats. I like a wrap-around cover for my paperbacks, so I start with that. I can crop out the front cover for eBooks. A wrap-around image also gives me the extra width for my audio cover. Another option is to use a front cover image that is 2500 pixels wide and crop the height for your audio cover.

Things to keep in mind:
Periodically scale your view down to the size of a postage stamp to see if your cover will pop in Amazon searches and “also boughts.” Is the title legible?

Research other covers in your genre. You want to stand out, but also follow genre conventions well enough that people will know what they’re getting.

Take your time. Look at your cover over a period of days. Today’s great idea may be tomorrow’s vomit-fest.

Your cover should reflect the mood of your book more than anything. Color is the most immediate signifier of mood. Think bright colors for fluff, pastels for romance, dark for thrillers, faded images for nostalgia.

Keep your fonts big, simple and bold.

Use the best art you can get for your cover, but don’t let it overwhelm the title and author. Don’t be afraid to overlap your image with text.

If you are using stock art, run a search on your image to see if it is overused. You may discover that it is associated with other products that would not reflect well on your book.

If you like a certain artist’s style, consider asking them about creating a custom image for your cover. It may cost less than you think.

Cover art does not need to be a literal illustration of your book, as long as it conveys an appropriate idea.

Red, yellow and orange on your cover will pop out and draw attention. A little will go a long way. Don’t overdo it!

You can use layer style settings to set off your text from your background. Subtle adjustments can make your text easier to read. Be careful about going overboard here, it can look gimmicky.

#WoofWednesday – Gossip Fest

Photo courtesy Angie Hall. Caption by Myrna-Sue Shimberg

Self Publishing: A Cover Is Worth . . .

Last weekend I gave a talk about self-publishing at the Regional Gathering of the Cincinnati Mensa chapter, invited by John Cunningham (AKA “Terry Dunn”), my one-man street team. As I spent my odd moments over the past couple months compiling the distilled wisdom of my two years as a self-published author, it seems like a waste not to share this information here. This is the first in a series of blogs derived from that talk.

I couldn’t complete the title of this blog because I can’t quantify the value of a good cover. I won’t say that people buy books because of the cover (though some fans report buying my first book because of the fetching portrait of Max on the front), but the cover conveys the first impression of your book, and may be your only opportunity to grab someone’s attention.

The digital landscape that makes it possible for me to earn a living as a writer also changes the way books are viewed and bought.

At a brick and mortar store, you are given a limited number of options in your chosen genre and are likely to pull out several to flip through. Unless the publisher has paid for a front-facing display, your first contact with a book is via the title on the spine. A nice cover is an asset, but is not necessarily involved in the decision to pick up a book.

Compare this with your experience at an online book store. Whether you browse categories or search keywords, you are confronted with a glut of postage stamp sized images accompanied by text. The image that catches your eye first has the best chance of being clicked. That takes you to a product page, away from the other books.

You have 1/2 second to grab someone’s attention with your cover. If you succeed with this, you have two to four sentences to keep it with your blurb. If you succeed here, people will do one or several of the following things: Buy your book (Yay!); Skip to the “Look Inside,” where you have a page or so to sell them with your prose (or not); or check out your reviews (A portion of your product page over which you have no control).

Unless you have been referred to a specific book by some means, the entire process of selecting a book online begins with the cover. I have had one person argue that they pay no attention to covers. I would argue back, based on my background in the visual arts, that we are affected by visuals whether we are aware of it or not.

If you have to make a choice in where to invest hard cash in publishing your book, put it on the cover. Formatting can easily be done by anyone willing to read Mark Coker’s free style guide at Smashwords. As a writer, you likely know other writers you can trade with for beta-reading/proofing/editing. Unless you’ve got mad graphic skills, I suggest getting a pro cover.

Next: Tips for creating an effective cover.