Monday, July 31, 2023

"Never Quit Learning": The MuseInks Interview with Writer and Writing Professor Julie Bonner Williams

It is my pleasure to welcome my writer friend (and fellow tea aficionado) Julie Bonner Williams and introduce her to you.

Julie writes across many genres: fiction, essay, non-fiction, and poetry. Publications that have featured her writing include Seventeen, MichiganBLUE Magazine, Grand Rapids Magazine, and The Grand Rapids Press. She has taught writing at Grand Valley State University, Kendall College of Art and Design/Ferris State University, and Grand Rapids Community College. 

Julie lives on the Michigan lakeshore, where she has amassed an absurd amount of legal pads and Bic pens. Her interests include playing with her dogs, antiques, learning French, and growing organic lavender. I'm grateful she agreed to chat with me and share her writing journey with you.

Ami: How long have you worked in the publishing industry? What are some of the positions you’ve held?

Julie Bonner Williams: This is a tough one to answer, because I’ve had such a variety of roles over a lot of years. In my own work being published, that began when I was seventeen. I submitted poems to Seventeen magazine and, over the course of a year or more, they accepted five of about eight I submitted. I was underage, so my mother had to sign my contracts. I made $15 per poem, which I thought was awesome at the time. I was, after all, making minimum wage ($3.35/hr) at my part-time retail job. So if we start here, I’ve been in publishing – with having my work published – since about 1982. 

If we’re talking about being in the publishing industry in regard to publishing the works of others, while I was an adjunct English professor at Grand Rapids Community College, I was the English department advisor and writing contest organizer. At the time I was also teaching Writing for Publication and composition writing courses. Years later I worked as managing editor for an imprint of HarperCollins.


Ami: You've been involved in publishing from both sides of the editorial desk. What specific skills does a working writer need? How does one go about developing those skills?

Julie: What first popped into my mind with this question was, "A working writer needs a thick skin and tenacity."  

Being a working writer comes with a lot of "no’s."  Keep in mind both Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King accumulated dozens of them. King strung his on a huge nail at his desk.  It’s discouraging. It’s sometimes disheartening, even defeating. I read recently that seeing “NO” as an acronym for “Next Opportunity!” is a positive way to think of the word.  

The tenacity piece here is necessary to not simply give up as a result of getting rejections or -- sometimes worse -- getting no response at all. 

Developing those skills is an individual thing. Some people are naturally able to let things roll off easier than others are. I feel the pain. Then I look for ‘uplifters’ – people who encourage me, quotes that inspire me to keep going, songs that boost my mood and have a ‘go get ‘em’ message. The paradox is sensitive people are often the ones in the arts, and we’re also the ones who are hurt easily.


Ami: What is your favorite part of the writing process?

Julie: Ha! To quote Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing, but I love having written!” 

My favorite part of writing is after I’ve completed a piece, edited it a couple of times, and can sit back with a gleaming smile of satisfaction. It’s that moment when it all comes together. I also love research, specifically anything to do with history or hearing people’s stories.


Ami: What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on? What made them so special?

Julie: I was a contributing writer for two magazines owned by Gemini Media in Grand Rapids (since sold to Hour Media in Troy, Michigan). I was given a coveted assignment to write an entire supplemental magazine featuring a world renowned architect and his work and lifestyle. I worked with one of the best photographers in West Michigan and the two of us created the publication. 

I also loved having assignments I co-wrote with another writer or writers, each of us writing a portion of a large, multi-part feature. When you partner with talented people who are top in their game, it’s an amazing experience.

Ami: What subject area are you most interested in writing about? Why?

Julie: I love memoir. Love it. 

I love hearing people’s stories. When I go to the dentist, knowing I have to sit there for 20 minutes with instruments in my mouth so I can’t talk, I tell the hygienist, “Tell me your life story.” 

I did this just a week ago, and she started with, “I was born in Grand Rapids… then I went to dental school…” so of course I asked, “Did your mother come to the college to change your diapers? I think you skipped a few years there.” 

We backed up a bit and I heard about the New Kids on the Block posters on her bedroom wall as a kid, and how she married her high school sweetheart.

It's cliché, but it’s true – fact is stranger than fiction. A lot of the great writers knew this. Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote about people in their social circle and their lives. Truman Capote did the same – which cost him pretty much every friend he had. Come to think of it, that came full circle he was a character in To Kill a Mockingbird, written by his childhood friend, Harper Lee. There’s a lot of good stuff in real life.


Ami: How do you choose which projects on which to focus your time?

Julie: One word: deadline. 

I do well with accountability. If I have a deadline – and/or a contract and pending check – that accountability gets me moving. 

I don’t know if all creatives are like this, but I can be a fickle writer. I’m in love with a project and as I’m working on it, it sparks some too-amazing-to-not-start-writing-right-now idea and *poof!* off I go to start in on that new one. So, deadline, accountability, and falling in love in the moment.


Ami: What advice would you give to someone who wants to write for a living?

Julie: I'm going to address this one in stages:

A.  Writing “for a Living”: 

If the person wants to support him/herself solely on writing (and there’s no second income or sources of financial support), my advice is to find more than one stream of writing income. The kind of money needed to support oneself is going to come from gigs other than trying to write and publish a novel that may or may not be published and may or may not sell copies. 

A lot of writers teach writing (or literature) as K-12 teachers or college professors (part-time or full-time). There are other options that can be more lucrative and allow more freedom, such as teaching writing workshops. 

B. Be Open to Learning from Others:

After years of teaching writing in various forms (Creative Writing, Writing for Publication, Journalism, Composition Writing, Business Writing) and taking writing courses years ago, I offer this: check your ego at the door. Remember to remain humble. No one likes a prima donna. 

I have been stymied by the outright arrogance of students in college writing courses, my own and others. I once took a course taught by a successful Hollywood screenplay writer. A student, maybe 18 or 19 years old, argued rudely with the professor that, “If it don’t rhyme, it ain’t poetry! Poetry has to rhyme!”

The professor tolerated it to a point, but the guy wouldn’t stop, and finally, through gritted teeth, the prof half turned from the eraser board, and stated loudly and bluntly: ”No. It doesn’t.” 

Not long ago, while teaching a writing course, I asked the students to write their introduction paragraphs, then to write their conclusion paragraphs immediately after. A student in the class didn’t want to, insisting loudly, “I don’t write like that!”  -- It’s a class. You’re here to try new things. You don’t have to adopt it for the rest of your life. But you do have to open your mind and try it now.

C.  Get That You Can Always Glean Something from a Writing Book or Course

I used to have this "I know how to write" thing going on. The more I read great writing books and listened to successful writers on YouTube and other sites, the more I realized there’s always a new perspective, new ideas, and new approaches. 

Sometimes I hit a chapter or book and yeah, I already know what they’re talking about. But then I may flip forward a chapter or so, and sometimes find a cool quote or insight that’s useful.

Never quit learning!

Monday, July 24, 2023

The MuseInks Interview with Publishing Operations Consultant Vi La Bianca

I am beyond thrilled to introduce you to the incomparable Vi La Bianca! 

A writer, editor, and publishing operations consultant ("What is that?" you may be asking? Read on!), Vi lives in Portland, Oregon with their partner and one-eyed rescue cat. Vi holds a BA in Journalism and has a Master's degree in Writing and Book Publishing from Portland State University.

Vi is the founder of Media Alchemy Guild, a one-stop shop for industry experts in content creation, writing, and publishing. They are also an Associate Editor at SAGE, a global academic publisher. I've had the great good fortune to work on numerous projects that Vi spearheaded, and their drive, organization, and project management skills are second to none.

Go to ViRoseLaBianca on LinkedIn to learn more about their services. I'm so grateful to Vi for taking the time to answer my questions. 


Ami: How long have you worked in the publishing industry? What are some of the positions you’ve held?

Vi: I’ve worked in publishing since 2014. I’ve worked in trade publishing, indie publishing, hybrid publishing, even headed up the content publishing division of an SEO marketing firm. Most recently, I’ve picked up an editorial position with an academic publisher. So I’ve seen this industry from just about every angle.

As far as positions I’ve held, I’ve pretty consistently gravitated to content. I’ve got over a decade of writing and editing experience, but in the last five years I moved into the operations and management side of things. Turns out, I love it! I served as Head of Content at First Page Sage and Content Operations Manager at Scribe Media. Now I’m back in the editorial world with Sage Publishing and doing growth and operations consulting for small to medium-sized publishers as a passion project. 

Ami: You include “process refinement” as one of your specialties. What does that entail? What kind of client benefits most from it?

Vi: Process refinement can look very different based on where you are as a company and what your services are, but basically it looks at how you do what you do. Can you do it more efficiently or effectively? Is it scalable? Is it agile?

The pre-process refinement publishing company.

Pretty consistently, I’ve seen small to medium-sized publishers grappling with implementing a technology stack that may have served them in the past, but is struggling under the weight of their new goals. It could also look like not having an up-to-date playbook or resource library that effectively trains new hires and maintain quality assurance. Process refinement identifies and repairs the holes in how things work to save time and money. 


Ami: What role does a publishing operations consultant play in a startup company’s growth and development? How do you find a good publishing operations consultant?

Vi: In general, a publishing operations consultant is an industry expert who can provide guidance to startups who are hoping to avoid pitfalls and take advantage of market trends. Want to know what kinds of structural stressors stop hybrid publishers from scaling successfully? Hire a publishing operations consultant! Curious about what services authors or other clients want and how to build those services into your process? You guessed it: publishing operations consultant!

Finding the right consultant is going to depend on what you’re looking for, and that individual’s background. Some consultants are going to be much more attuned to the trends happening in the trade publishing universe. Some are going to get down and dirty in your technology and CRM architecture, others are going to be more high-level and offer more holistic growth and development coaching.

Personally, I offer both one-on-one consulting for company founders and CEOs as well as what I call “strategic integration,” which allows me to get deeper into the inner workings of the company and do the hands-on process refinement and resource creation many of these publishing startups need during that first big growth phase.

Ami: What is your favorite part of the publishing process?

Vi: Whether you’re talking to me as an editor or an operations specialist, my favorite thing is taking something with a lot of potential and polishing it into an impactful, shiny final product.

If you think about it, a startup is very similar to a manuscript: lots of time and attention has gone into it, it’s someone’s baby. The best ones are a perfect blend of creativity and technical skill. The most successful ones understand it’s all about audience building, whether you’re talking about a readership or client base.

That moment--where you’ve got a tangible, functional, and exciting thing you’ve built with blood, sweat, and tears, and you need someone to help you get it to the next level so you can share it with others--that moment is where the magic lives. And I thrive in that space. It’s the thing that makes publishing a uniquely exciting industry, whether you’re talking about the books or the companies that make them.

Ami: What is one of your favorite (or most memorable, or most rewarding) projects that you’ve worked on?

Vi: One hybrid publisher I worked with had a problem with author experience when it came to their editing-only offering. They noticed that across their services, most of the dissatisfied clients had signed up for this one service. The internal teams were the same, the editors themselves were exceptional, and it was a substantially less expensive option than their higher-end, full-service offerings. So what could the problem be?

My job was to answer that question and propose a solution.

After speaking with the teams on the ground, picking the brains of the subject matter experts on staff, and doing a deep dive into their process of delivering an edit, it became immediately clear: this offering was unique in three ways:

  • wait time between contract signing and first deliverable 

  • level of additional contractual negotiation before beginning their project 
number of people the authors talked to prior to seeing any return on investment 

Once I had identified what was going wrong, I was able to propose a streamlined process that not only eliminated these pain points but also saved the company weeks of work hours and thousands in expenses per project.

Ami: You have worked “behind the scenes” of publishing for some time. What sort of future do you envision for the industry?

Vi: Many of the folks I’ve talked with have asked: “Is the publishing industry oversaturated?” and I genuinely don’t think it is. 

Humans are storytellers first and foremost. We will always want to tell our own stories and read other people’s stories. It’s as close to a renewable resource as we will ever get. There will always be content and a market for content.

That said, for the publishing industry to hold onto their positions as valuable team members in this universal collective storytelling endeavor, they will need to care about quality and long-term sustainability. Use AI, but know how and when. Conserve costs, but know when investment is nonnegotiable. Branch into tangential markets, but don’t lose focus on the core of what you do.

There will be many flashes in the pan in the next ten years, but what will come out of it is a new ecosystem of established gatekeepers and changemakers, even as corporate publishing begins to falter and lose relevance. Only the publishers who focus on quality and long-term sustainability will be able to claim their place at that table.

Ami: What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting a publishing company?

Vi: Be realistic about your goals and don’t go too fast. What will set you apart is not how flashy you are, or how many ancillary services you offer, or how fast you can fill up a backlist. In fact, focusing on those things will ensure you don’t make it past your first big restructure.

Focus on doing one or two things really well. Make access to those one or two things so irresistible that you build a waitlist. And then make them wait for it. Take your time making sure that you’re set up for success from a structural, operational, and process standpoint so that when you do scale, you can do so seamlessly and sustainably.

And if you want help doing that--or if you suspect that you haven’t done that and want to correct it as soon as possible--invest in an industry expert who knows the terrain and can guide you on that journey. 

Monday, July 17, 2023

The MuseInks Interview with Ghostwriter Anastasia Voll

It is my absolute joy to have you meet ghostwriter and editor Anastasia Voll. They are the founder and owner of VCM, dedicated to helping businesses thrive through compelling content. 


Anastasia is passionate about the power of words. For more than a decade, she has specialized in transforming rough ideas into literary gems. As a professional ghostwriter and editor, they help people take their rough ideas and polish them into nonfiction books that both start conversations and grow brand awareness.
I'm so happy they agreed to talk with me about how words can boost a brand...

Ami: How long have you worked as a ghostwriter?

Anastasia: I’ve worked in communications, editing, and copywriting my entire career, starting as an intern at a Fortune 500 company while in college. I moved around in my career from communications to advertising to project management to marketing. I started freelance ghostwriting blogs, articles, and website copy in 2019 in addition to my day job. I started ghostwriting books in 2020, moving to full-time freelancing in 2022.


Ami: How did you get started ghostwriting books for other people?

Anastasia: I started off working as a contractor through a company that’s since gone under, but that introduced me to an incredible network in the publishing industry. Since then, I’ve mostly gotten clients from word of mouth and through my LinkedIn presence. 

Ami: What exactly is a ghostwriter and what specific skills does one need? 

Anastasia: A ghostwriter is the person who takes your vague book idea, helps you build it out into something that will actually fill a book, organizes it in a way that will resonate with your target audience, gets all of the information out of you, writes it in a way that is both coherent and sounds like YOU, and then revises it with you to ensure everything that sound be included is and everything that distracts is removed.


A ghostwriter needs to be able to interview, organize, write, and edit


That’s very broad, so let me drill down a bit. You need to be able to sit with (or get on a call with) your client and ask them the right questions to get the information you need to write the best possible version of their book. That means keeping them on topic, clarifying where points get vague, confirming when things sound weird, etc. 


You need to be able to take all of that information and organize it in a way that will make sense to the reader. Clients have a tendency to jump around when they’re talking about a topic, and it’s your job to put it in an order that makes sense, both on a chapter level AND an overarching book level. 


Then, you have to do the actual writing part. It’s more than just grammar though. It’s being able to write in a way that the reader can hear the client’s voice in their mind when they’re reading it. It’s a hard thing to explain and harder to teach. 


And of course, you have to be able to edit your writing based on feedback from the client. At each step of the way, you also need to know how to push back when the client is going to make a decision that hurts their book, rather than help it. It’s a fine line to balance. 

Ami: What is your favorite part of the ghostwriting process?

Anastasia: Interviewing my clients! It’s so much fun talking to them about something they’re so passionate about they’re writing a book on it. I love getting to know them on a deeper level in the process. I’ve become great friends with many of my clients. 

Ami: What are some of the ghostwriter’s unique challenges?

Anastasia: The biggest challenge I’ve faced is knowing when and how to push back against an idea that the client thinks is great but that you know through experience is a bad idea. It sucks to burst someone’s happy bubble. I don’t like doing it. But I also want to make sure they get the best possible book out at the end of the process. Usually what I’ll do is try to come up with other options that won’t detract from the book but scratches whatever itch the client has. 


Another challenge is knowing when a client has crossed the line from providing necessary context for their book into trauma dumping/be my therapist space. When you work so closely with someone and connect with them, it’s really easy for that line to blur. 


Every ghost will have their own level of comfort with where this line is, and you probably won’t find it until someone’s crossed it.


Ami: In your experience, what kind of person benefits most from working with a ghost?  

Anastasia: I’ve found that people who do best are people who: 

  • are better verbal processors than writers
  • don’t have time to sit down and write for hours at a time
  • struggle to organize their thoughts in a way that makes sense in a table of contents
  • can talk about a topic well but struggle to make that translate to the page
  • who already know they don’t want to physically do the writing themselves

A Sampling of Anastasia's Titles

Ami: What should a person expect when working with a ghost?

Anastasia: Hiring a ghostwriter does (or it should, if you choose a high-quality, dependable ghostwriter) cost you a good chunk of money. But it’s absolutely worth it. In addition, you should know: 


We can't read your mind. If you don’t tell us all the nuances of your story or every step to take, we can’t write it. This leads us to…


We don't make assumptions on what you mean. If you aren't clear, the writing won't be clear, no matter how talented the writer.


We can’t make you something you aren’t. If you want your book to be funny, you have to make some jokes. Even if we can add some extra oomph, you still want your book to sound like you.


For the best collaboration, be as detailed as possible when talking through content with your ghostwriter, and be yourself. Your ghostwriter will make sure your personality shines through the writing, but only if you're authentically yourself with them. 


A ghostwriter is a partner in the writing process. But there are a few things we are definitely NOT: 

  • Your therapist: It’s fine to tell us about a life event that you want to include in your book, but don’t tell us all about events and situations that aren’t useful for your book OR expect us to talk you through your feelings on a situation (aka trauma dumping).
  • A mind reader: Don’t expect us to read between the lines to know what you really meant but didn’t say. Explain exactly what you mean, or else you won’t be happy with the copy we produce.
  • Your decision-maker: At some point, you’ll have to make final decisions about your book: whether to keep that section or not, whether it’s time to lock the manuscript and send it off to layout, whether you want to put this topic in chapter four or chapter five. We can advise, but in the end, it’s your book and your decision.


You don’t have to tell people you used a ghostwriter! That’s why we’re called ghosts. If you really like your ghost, though, and want to mention them without saying they did the writing part, you can always credit them as an editor, researcher, or coach. 


Writing your book will take some time investment on your part. A lot of ghostwriters use an interview process to get the information out of your head to put on the page, which means you have to show up to the interviews. You’ll need to show up for the revision process too, meaning you’ll need to read the manuscript several times and show up to editing calls. However, that’s a fraction of the time you’d be putting in if you did the writing yourself.

Ami: What are some reasons people write a book in the first place? 

Anastasia: There’s a never ending list, really, but the biggest reasons I’ve heard from clients are: 

  • Establish themselves as a thought leader in their space
  • Use as collateral to get speaking engagements or bring in clients
  • Ego booster: “I’ve written a book.”
  • Genuine desire to share knowledge
  • Inspire readers to take action/improve themselves
  • Leave a legacy


Ami: What subject areas are you most interested in ghostwriting books about? Why?

Anastasia: My favorite subject areas are spirituality (aka "that woo woo shit"), science, history, and productivity books**. They are always so fascinating! I always learn something new that I can apply to my life—and without fail, that thing has always improved it for the better. 


Writing health books taught me about the more subtle ways food intolerances can show up in your body, which led me to find that I have several major food sensitivities. Cutting those foods out has made a DRAMATIC impact on my overall health. 


Writing spirituality books has taught me new ways to show up for my mental and soul health and helped me reconnect with myself, which can be hard to do in our fast-paced world. My stress levels have decreased dramatically since I wrote the last “woo woo” book. 


But my favorite type of book to work on is the one where the author is over-the-top passionate about the subject matter. Passion is infectious! I love working with nerds who are unashamed of their nerdiness. They’re my kindred spirits. 


Ami: What advice would you give to someone who is considering hiring a ghost?

Anastasia: Go in knowing that it’ll cost you quite a bit of money. 

Writing a book is an investment. People tend to get sticker shock if they’ve never talked with book ghostwriters, but it’s definitely one of those things where the adage “you get what you pay for” really is true. If you’re still shocked, think about it in terms of time. How much do you charge your clients (or do you make) per hour? Now think about how many hours you would spend writing your book yourself and do the math. A ghostwriter will get your book done on time and done well. 


** For everyone who wonders why I love to feature other ghostwriters on my blog and asks, "Aren't you afraid they'll take business away from you?" I present THIS answer as Exhibit A. I can conclusively say that woo-woo spirituality topics and productivity tomes are not my cuppa tea, but I'm thrilled to know that Anastasia eats them for breakfast! Ami


Monday, July 03, 2023

When Life Gives You Vinegar...

One of my favorite YouTube channels is Tasting History with Max Miller. Every Tuesday -- sometimes more often -- Max makes an old recipe and "while that's cooking," he dives into the history behind the dish. He is charming and informative and blessed with a hundred ways to reference hard tack.

Usually, I watch from the comfort of my couch as Max cooks and noshes on historical foods. However, he recently made something that I just had to try...

The past 5 weeks since my main source of income dried up have been... interesting. The future is more steeped in uncertainty than usual, which leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

If I had a dollar for every person who told me "when God closes a door, He opens a window," I'd be able to pay this month's electric bill.

Sure, make lemonade when life gives you lemons. But what about when life hits you with vinegar...?

Well, Max recently came up with the solution:


Make shrub! 

This once in-vogue drink made from a sweetened vinegar-based syrup hearkens back to Colonial America. Delicious, beautiful, and oh so refreshing, it pairs as well with sparkling water as with gin.

To Make Shrub:

Simply cover bruised, mashed berries (I used strawberries) with white wine vinegar and let sit undisturbed for a day. 

Yes, it smells like vinegar. Ya can't avoid sticky situations when making shrub. Instead, you just have to soldier through...

At the end of 12 - 24 hours, boil for a minute, then strain the mixture through a sieve, saving all that clear liquid. Discard any seeds and pulp. (My chickens thought it was Christmas!)

Add sugar and simmer till well dissolved. 



The result is a decadent jewel-tone syrup. It's the sort of thing that makes you hold it up to the light and drown your gaze in its super-saturated color.

Just pour a bit of the shrub over ice, fill the rest of the glass with sparkling water, and stir. It. Is. Divine. No vinegar taste. The vinegar ordeal is over.


Shrub is my new favorite summertime drink. It is impossible to make without the vinegar. And it got me thinking...

When your plans have been smashed, doused with an acid bath of setbacks and naysayers, it's in your best interests to take some time to ruminate. To sit undisturbed and reflect. To let good ideas marinate.

Then you owe it to yourself to act. 

This past week, I began working with a superb business coach. I can confidently say that had Scribe not imploded, I would never have entered into this new relationship. I can also state with equal confidence that this new adventure has energized me more and brought me more creative excitement than anything else has done for years. It's a very shrubby experience.

Don't be afraid to put your good ideas to the test -- to see how they react when you get fired up.

Keep your vision clear on what you intend to accomplish. Discard what threatens that clarity.

Sweeten your new endeavor with supportive allies as you persevere toward your ultimate goal. 

I have no doubt you're like me -- you've been around the block enough to know that life ain't always easy. It's full of complex ferments and unexpected acid tests. When overwhelm threatens to mash us down, that's when it's time to take a page from the ones who came before us: 

Make shrub and find a way to enjoy, rather than be overcome by, this wild ride that is your life!

Chin up, my pretties! I have faith in you. You can do this!