Writer's Corner

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with Elmarié Porthouse

Author, online content writer, online marketer, SEO specialist, social media marketer, event planner but most of all, mother and wife. Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1967. She has 3 daughters who still live in Cape Town. She lives with her husband, Tony, in Queensland, Australia. Elmarié started working in the hotel industry and even now wedding planning and event management is a passion of hers. While in South Africa, she used to be a teacher and started by homeschooling her own daughters, later taught at a Christian school and her last years as a teacher were spent teaching at a public high school in Mitchell’s Plain, just outside of Cape Town. For her writing she draws from years as a teacher and counselor, where she saw the best and the worst side of people. She chose to not only tell the pretty, feel-good stories but also those stories that make you think about humanity and your role on this earth. The world of online marketing has always interested her. 

Social media platforms each have their own unique appeal. Please tell us what you consider to be the main points of difference between the following:

Facebook  As far as Facebook pages are concerned, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that unless you’re a big business intending to pay to have your posts boosted, only a small part of the people who liked your page will even see your post in their feed. This is something I think Facebook is getting very wrong. Why would I even like pages any more if I’m not seeing what they post anyway? For businesses that pay to have their posts promoted, essentially using it as advertising, it can work well. For those among us who aren’t prepared to spend most of our advertising budget on Facebook, it’s time to focus on a different platform.

Twitter Twitter as a social media platform is a place to build quickly and with little effort. As long as you post relevant content, using hashtags appropriately and stick to a few rules for Twitter etiquette, it can be a valuable platform for building your tribe. One thing I have a bee in my bonnet about, is buying followers on Twitter (or any other social media platform for that matter). I believe that at some point Google is going to pick up on this and you will be penalized for what will basically be seen as buying social media leverage. Why would you want to buy followers anyway? It is not like these fake followers are going to interact with your website or buy your product, is it?pen

Google+ Since Google+ is Google’s own social media platform, one can be sure that it will be the most effective as far as social media engagement for SEO is concerned. I have seen for myself that posts I linked with my Google Authorship and posted to my Google+ profile, did a lot better on search rank than those posts I did not. So if you’re building a business where your position in search rank matters, Google+ is a must.

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Are there any major differences between a playwright and a novelist?

In most cases I think there is a very distinct difference, even though there are some similarities. Most plays are written for pure entertainment value. Although playwrights sometimes also have to delve deep inside, their ultimate goal is to entertain because if a play doesn’t entertain, it won’t make it to the theatre. This forces the playwright to always see his work from a commercial perspective. In the case of most novelists, you see a tendency to delve deep into oneself and bear your soul across the pages. Even in novels where the characters are completely fictional, you can pick up a lot of the author between each line. Although most authors write because they need to make a living, it’s almost impossible to write for purely commercial reasons and not to leave some of your own battles inside the pages. Often this is exactly what makes a good book. It is a gruelling process but part of the joy of writing. 

Redemption is a universal theme about the plight of the soul, is romantic fiction a salve for this dualistic condition or merely another form of escapism from the trials of life?

For the reader a romantic novel is pure escapism but for the author, it is a completely different story. It is more than mere redemption. Authors write for different reasons but at the core, it always comes back to being a way to set things right. I find myself writing bits and pieces of myself and my own life into my story lines. I usually only catch this after it is completely written. But I also see how I have taken some simple truth about my own life and (maybe because romantic novels can sometimes be equated to wishful thinking) manipulate the outcome so it reads the way every one of us wish life really was. 

Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and the great poets seem to imply that we have an inescapable destiny to fulfil after a cathartic attempt to avoid it. Is this a simple plot or just old mindset?pen

It is much more than a plot. It’s life. We run across this when we go to Sunday School the first time and learn about Jonah in the belly of the fish. Whether in the Bible or in Greek tragedy, a destiny will never be unfulfilled. It’s a case of life imitates art imitates life. Whether you believe it or not, you will one day be exactly who you were destined to be. Trying to force yourself into a different box will merely postpone the inevitable. 

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Creative writing, journalism, poetry – do you have any recommendations for courses for beginners, online and offline?

There are so many places out there where you can nowadays learn how to blog. My own website that I run, ETP Writers Community, is aimed at helping writers with solid advice on both the writing process and marketing. I took some literature and writing courses at university. I learned a lot about plot, setting scenes, etc. But just writing and learning through my own mistakes have actually taught me a lot more. (Can you tell that I’m prone to mistakes? At least I try to learn from them!) Writing is hard work and if you don’t have your heart in it, all the head knowledge in the world won’t keep you at it. Most colleges have good courses on different forms of writing. These courses are valuable tools in teaching you the basics about writing, editing, etc. But don’t get bogged down doing one course after another, never feeling like your writing will be good enough. If you want to become a writer, there is no better school than just writing.

Research can be time-consuming, do you have any advice to expedite the process? 

Since a lot of my freelance work involves copy writing for websites, I spend a lot of time on research. A trap I see many content writers fall into, is regurgitating what others have already written. If you don’t have a fresh perspective on a topic, you’re better off not writing about it at all. Research is crucial when you are given a project to write about a topic you know nothing about. (I’m currently writing a landing page about sewerage tanks!) I will do 3 Google searches for the keywords my client is targeting. I don’t do more than 3 because then it becomes too time consuming and not worth the effort. I read the related articles, making notes of certain facts. Then I will walk away from it for at least half an hour. During this time, I keep my mobile phone on me. I use it to record notes as they come up in my mind. It’s my brain’s way of sifting through the information. When I get back to my laptop and start writing, I use both my handwritten and voice recorded notes to compile my article/s. For topics that I regularly write about, I have a file on my computer called ‘reading to do’. As I’m going through my day and receive newsletters or happen to run across articles relevant to writing and online marketing, I just file them all in there. I give myself an hour every day to ‘fuel up’ on both knowledge and inspiration by reading these. Then, when I sit down to write, the ideas just flow.

Are the majority of your customers word-of-mouth referrals?pen

I’m good at helping others with their marketing, while forgetting about my own. I suppose it’s true what they say: those who can, do and those who can’t, teach. So most of my book sales and also my freelance work come from word-of-mouth referrals.

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Is a Unique Selling Proposition more dependent on a point of difference or a point of excellence?

I would say that it depends on the product you sell. When it comes to marketing and your Unique Selling Proposition, if your product is very similar to that your competitor is putting out there, you need to see that it is a lot better than his. And you need to make sure that the public knows about it!

Should an Indie author outsource marketing and advertising of their product?

That will depend on your own skills set. If you are well versed in marketing and advertising, then it’s okay to do it all yourself. However, I see many Indie Authors with tremendous writing skills whose books go unseen by the public because they have no idea how to market themselves. Being an Indie Author means you take control of putting out your own book. It doesn’t mean that you have to do everything yourself. Be honest with yourself about what you are able to do and outsource the rest. I offer a service where I help Indie Authors with every part of the publishing process. Some have a manuscript but don’t have the technical know how to get their book out there. Everything from proofreading and editing to publishing and marketing of your book can be outsourced, while you are still the one in control. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

What avenues of peer review are available to aspiring authors?

There are almost too many avenues of peer reviews to mention. Of course you have the mainstream ones on Amazon and the likes. However, you should also consider getting reviews on other sites. On my new website I’m busy building a platform for authors to post a short synopsis about their books. They can then get friends and family to write reviews for them as well as backlink to their own sales pages. penMy aim is to also be involved in writing some reviews. If an author writes a synopsis there and then send me a copy of his book so I can read it, I will also write a review and get other authors to write reviews as well. I would love this website to be a place where authors can come to find any help or advice they need. If I can’t help you, I will find someone who can. If you are interested in placing your book on my new website for review, please contact me via the contact form on the website and I will get in touch with you. One place many of us forget to place reviews, are on the author pages of our own websites. I have been lacking in these myself and I intend on fixing this very soon!

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Technology has evolved from being a tool to being an environment we now take for granted. It has created a level playing field for anyone to utilize. For artists, authors, musicians, etc what are the benefits and drawbacks?

The availability of technology has seen the evolving of a whole new creature, the Indie author. A few years ago you had to mail manuscripts all across the globe, looking for a publishing house that would be willing to publish your masterpiece. Now Indie authors are able to take complete control of their own manuscripts. They can have as much control as they like. Everything from the cover to the selling price of your book is now in your own hands. Of course you can outsource as much of the publishing process as you like but at the end of the day, the buck stops with you. This total control has it drawbacks, as it doesn’t always allow for as many checkpoints as used to be the case. In fact, you don’t even have to proofread it if you don’t want to. This has allowed many very low quality publications to see the light. With technology making publication so easy, it has immensely increased competition in the book market. Where publishing houses published only a few books a year, millions of books are being cranked out every year now. With so much competition, new writers find it that much harder to sell their books. 

Even a very small percentage of a very large market can spell large numbers. Would you say that niche marketing is a better option for new startups, given the increased competition in traditional marketplaces?

Start-ups find it nearly impossible competing when they go after big business. Trying to compete with big companies to sell a whole range of products or services, will see you in line to file bankruptcy long before you make any impact on the market. The secret lies in finding your niche and utilizing it. Unless you have more money behind you than any of us can dream of you can hardly compete with Amazon when it comes to selling housewares. However, if you make candles and make that your niche market, you have a much better chance of making a success. You need to do everything you can to spread the word so people will trust you as an authority in their niche market. Only then will they start buying from you. Establishing authority in a smaller market is a lot easier than going up against the retail giants. It will still be hard work but at least you will stand a chance.

 Quality, relevance, consistency. What other attributes do you consider important when marketing your product or service?
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At the end of the day, it all comes down to giving your prospective customers what they need. Without someone who needs what you’re selling, you will not sell a thing. Research your market and find out what people are looking for. If everybody is buying a red dress, the Blue Dress Shop isn’t going to do much business, is it? We all want to stick to exactly what we like. Unfortunately that doesn’t always give us what we need. You may like ‘blue dresses’ and want to sell just that. But if you don’t look at your customer, adapt and start selling ‘red dresses’, your business is bound to fail.
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Rupert Murdoch’s formula for his tabloid media is ‘scandal, celebrity and conservative public opinion’. Can social media help to break the nexus of the ‘gutter press’?

As much as we would like to think that social media will go the opposite direction of tabloid media, it’s not true. In fact, if the trend continues as is, it will probably get worse. Unfortunately, it’s the ‘gutter press’ type subjects that get people talking and while so many websites are in search of traffic, they will use whatever means possible to get it. Post anything scandalous and you see how much engagement is garnishes. A post about a politician having an affair will beat a post about that same politician’s political views any day. Add a few racy pictures to the mix and you have a winner that will outlast anything else published on that day. Some marketers will publish smut just to drive traffic. In fact, I was overjoyed when I read that Google doesn’t take any engagement on Twitter or Facebook into account for page ranking. Too many low class websites tried wrangling their way into rankings by publishing what can only be labelled as manipulative content. Just look at how many Facebook pages post pictures of abused children or pets. Very few of these pages actually have anything to do with children’s rights. Then they write something like ‘one like means you want to abolish cruelty to children, ignore means you want this child to suffer’. How ridiculous is that? It doesn’t matter how many good, wholesome social media posts we publish. The gutter press has migrated to social media and it’s here to stay.

With so much more control of media input in the hands of the consumer, will this mean that higher quality content is necessary to compete for audience attention?

The type of content I was referring to in my previous answer, will probably always get more attention. However, to a quality content marketer who wants to be competitive in the online market in the long run, that kind of flash-in-the-pan publicity isn’t worth much. Quality content written from the heart is what will win you the audience (and eventually the customers) you need in order to be an online success. If you care about branding and want to be successful in the long run, you need to pay careful attention to what you put out there. Once people start associating you with low-class smut, you will never be able to convince them that you have a good product they need. You need to keep delivering content that will drive traffic (even though it may be not the kind of numbers the more provocative sites get) that will eventually be converted into sales. Keep on delivering quality content and you will eventually achieve success. This really is a case of slow and steady wins the race.

Are television and newspapers becoming the dinosaurs of the information age?
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As long as television delivers quality programming, people will have it in their houses and keep turning to it as a source of news and entertainment. Although almost everything is now available online, some people still tend to watch it on television rather than online. It is a different story with printed newspapers, though. More and more people are turning to the internet for all forms of reading material. Digitized newspapers are here to stay and are gaining a greater readership every day. The same can unfortunately not be said of its printed cousin. The production and distribution costs of printing newspapers will soon see the last few that are still hanging in there, close up shop. 
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Blogging has become the ‘People’s Press’. With the emphasis on content and quality, are ‘social signals’ enough to gauge our success or lack of it?

There is a lot of talk about social signals and its efficacy to gauge the success of a website or blog. Social signals do matter to the extent that it gives feedback to a blogger about the popularity or lack thereof of a certain article. However, there is a misconception that Google uses especially Facebook and Twitter likes, follows, favourites, shares, retweets, etc. to determine page rank. According to Matt Cutts this is untrue. Personally I believe that they do take social signals from Google+ into account since it is Google’s own product and they have complete control over it. Social signals should not be our only way of gauging a blog’s success. I myself received an e-mail from a reader last week who let me know how much she enjoys my writing. She follows me on just about every platform I’m on but she never comments. So social signals is not always a good barometer. Three things content marketers should always look at are blog traffic, their bounce rate and their conversion rate. You want your traffic and conversion rate to be high, with your bounce rate as low as possible. If your bounce rate is high, it should tell you that your readers aren’t getting what they are looking for from your blog so they go looking for it somewhere else.

Creating original content is both an art and a skill. If someone wants to take up blogging, do you have any advice as to where to start?

Apart from a small bit of technical knowledge about blogging, it is important to be sure you know what it is you want to write about. Also do some research on the search terms within your niche. People like when they search for something and the keyword search actually takes them to the information they want. If your URL is roses.com and you are writing about the English rugby team, people searching for information about roses will click away immediately, your bounce rate will be sky high and your blog will fail. My golden rule of thumb for blogging success: Write what you love and others will love what you write.  

What’s a good way to increase readership?
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Engagement, engagement, engagement. First of all, don’t ignore comments on any articles you have written. People love knowing that you are real and that you care enough to reply to them. It makes you approachable and very soon you will find that they recommend your writing to others, post it to their social media sites and help drive traffic to your blog. I always have a few places I post links to my articles to. Depending on the subject matter I wrote about, I will usually post to Google+, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (especially the LinkedIn groups), Pinterest, Tumblr and StumbleUpon. I make sure to regularly check for comments and reply to every one.

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When you wrote ‘Children of the Flats’ was it difficult to separate your own emotions from the events in the book?

Writing Children of the Flats was an emotionally gruelling process. You have to understand that I knew each one of the children (and of course the adults) I wrote about in the book. I was a part of many of the situations as they occurred and it all had an impact on my life and on me as a person. During the time I taught there, I grew very close to the children and their families. Having some of these things happen to them, was like having it happen to a family member. While I was writing the book, all the memories came flooding back. But the worst part was living through some of those emotions again. I tried separating myself from the emotions and in some places you will notice that the book was written very ‘flat’ and without any emotion attached. I couldn’t draw my readers into the emotions I had been feeling. It would have made the book an unbearable read.

Now I’m going to reveal a secret to your readers. In some cases the real situations were so bad that I had to soften the blow to the reader. In fact, two of the stories happened to the same girl. But telling people that one person could have all that travesty in one short lifetime would have made it unbelievable. This is a case where truth really is stranger than fiction.

When do you think your sequel will be released?

I’m currently working on the closing chapters of the next book in the series. It has the working title Hello, Katrina. This book is a full-length novel, not a compilation of short stories. It is also not about the children of Mitchell’s Plain but a combination of the stories of some of the mothers I met over the years. I’m becoming a grandmother in July and my goal is to have the book published before then. 

When you author, do you sometimes feel that it’s someone else doing the writing or looking over your shoulder?

I wouldn’t say so much looking over my shoulder than getting into my head. It sometimes feels like the character is taking over and doing the writing. More often than not, I feel myself becoming the character. Especially when I do fictional writing and I’m not basing the story on anyone specific, the characters seem to start living real lives inside my head. (Now I really sound crazy!) It’s at these times that I sometimes find it difficult separating my own feelings and emotions from the character’s, even long after the laptop has been turned off. Imagine what my husband must be going through!
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