We hear so much about
what’s trending that we sometimes get in the rut of writing about the same
subjects everyone else is. This time of the year it’s making New Year’s
resolutions. But why not consider a terrific alternative. Let’s think about
setting a few reachable goals.
The first thing I
have to admit is that I stole this idea from a good friend who is an
inspirational writer and speaker. The idea of writing about setting goals not
making resolutions is hers. She writes that when we make resolutions we set
ourselves up for failure, but when we set goals, we are constantly succeeding.
Even if we don’t reach every goal we move forward with every step we take. The
remainder of this blog is mine.
As the years catch up
to me, I find myself wanting to finish more and more projects before I get too
old to accomplish them. This year I will set goals that will take me toward
finishing those projects. If we make lists of what will get done say in a day,
a week, even a month we are more apt to achieve them. Tiny steps take us ever
closer to achievement. Usually I don’t manage to complete everything on the
list, but without that list I would not finish the majority of them. Probably
wouldn’t even get started on some.
As writers, we face
deadlines, and we’ve learned to meet them. Setting a writing goal becomes
second nature. Butt in chair, keyboard under fingers, we work toward a daily goal.
Some like to use time, say they will write for three hours a day. Others set a
goal of so many words per day. That’s the way we write books.
A resolution is often
an invitation for failure. Think about last year’s resolutions, if you made
some. How many of them did you keep? By setting goals, we work our way toward
fulfillment. There is no failure.
Some time back, while
giving a workshop, I was told by a participant that she felt she was too old to
begin a writing career. I urged her to set goals and not look back. Last week I
took part in a book signing in which she participated. Her first book has been
published by a prominent small publisher. She turned 81 this month. She has a
publisher, has completed a long book signing tour during which she sold 90
books, and is working on the second book in her mystery series. This is a phenomenal
Setting goals is the
secret to the success of most people, be they writers, sales persons, football
players, or anything in between. It’s like climbing a mountain. Taking it in
short spurts will get you there in better shape than trying to reach the summit
the first day. Even if at the end of the day you are two miles from your first
goal, you have made progress in trying to reach that goal. You have not failed.
It’s the same for
anything we attempt. So this year, instead of making resolutions that can spell
failure if you don’t keep them, set some goals that will bring about success,
even if you don’t accomplish every one. You have not failed, you have
accomplished something on the way to reaching your goals.
I cannot count the number of Mondays I spent getting ready for work wondering, “Where did the weekend go?” Where did the Summer go? 2015 is done and gone, but the number of projects on my list of things I want to get done is not done and is not gone. So for 2016, I am going to take the bull by the horns and wrestle me down some time management skills.
Time management is a skill which can be learned by anyone but to be successful at time management, like any skill, you must practice it whenever you can. I have dusted off some old time management training manuals and reviewed the steps:
• Set goals
• Prioritize what you want to accomplish
• Manage interruptions
• DO NOT Procrastinate
Step 1 – Setting Goals
I know the important thing about goals is they should be specific not broad. The broader the goal the more difficult it is to accomplish. Cleaning the house on Saturday is too broad a goal. Vacuum rugs, clothes in the wash, dishes in the dishwasher and organize the book shelf, these are specific goals that are easier to accomplish. The end result is the same, a clean house, but one is accomplished by small steps. The same is true for writing. For 2016, if I am stuck on a scene and not seeing the big picture, I want to think about the small things: how are the characters dressed, what does the restaurant look like. When those fill in, so will the whole scene.
Step 2 – Prioritize
Prioritizing what needs to be done can be as simple as writing a list. Lists are great. Crossing things off a list as they are accomplished are even better. For 2016, I plan to have a rolling list of things I feel I need to do, blogs, talks, festival. When are they due, what needs to be completed for them to happen, what can I do ahead of time? Hopefully, this list will keep things in site rather than me saying, “Oh, was that last weekend? I must have missed it.”
Step 3 – Manage Your Interruptions
This one is hard. Interruptions are everywhere. In 2015, I would start out planning to look at my emails, then a few blogs, see what is on Facebook and then before I know it, it is dark and time for dinner and the afternoon has fluttered away without notice. Not in 2016. My plan is to have a timer. 15 minutes for email. 30 minute to read blogs. When the timer goes off, I am done.
Step 4 – Do Not Procrastinate
This I don’t find as hard as managing interruptions. The most important thing is to recognize when you are procrastinating. Are you doing low priority tasks over high priorities? Do you sit down to do something and then find a reason to do something else. Start to write a chapter and decide you need a soda, or to call your sister, or check the mail. These are sure signs of procrastination. The easiest thing is to flip it around and use those distractions as rewards.
When I finish this chapter, I can have a soda. I don’t get to talk to my sister until I write 1000 words.
These are my thoughts on how 2016 is going to be my friend. I thought I would share them with you in case time has not been in your favor.
I hope all of you have a wonderful and productive new year.
I'm three days late with my blog post, but finally...here it is!
Never, ever have I been even remotely tempted to participate in NaNoWriMo. Not once. Not even part of once—you get the idea. I always figured that spitting out 50000 words in a month is just a bit silly, and that the focus on quantity over quality would not work for me. But something strange happened over the course of three weeks from the end of November to roughly the middle of December. I began writing a short story that I'd had in mind for years, and the story 'magically' grew into a novel. In three weeks! I was writing 3000 to 7000 words a day most days, and before the end of those three weeks I had a complete first draft that weighed in at 55000 words.
I'm not sure exactly how it happened, and I still don't quite believe that it did. The story was so much fun that I just kept going. There was no pressure to meet a goal because I had completed the original target of writing the short in two days. There's also the fact that I was in procrastination mode: I was supposed to be working on a paper on critical and cultural theory, which apparently motivated me to focus all my attention and energy—elsewhere.
So who knows? Maybe it's time for me to rethink NaNoWriMo. Seems I may have stumbled across a foolproof formula: 1. It must be a lighthearted, fun project, and 2. There must be something else of critical (pun intended) importance that I absolutely should be doing during that time instead of fooling around making stuff up. Now that I've figured this thing out, I might actually give NaNoWriMo a whirl next year.
Here's wishing the Novel Spaces community of writers and readers a very merry Christmas and a productive, healthy and happy 2016. Jewel Amethyst shared the meme below on Facebook and it encapsulates my sentiments for the season perfectly.
(Marissa wrote an excellent column on lessons learned in the writing trade a few weeks ago. If you haven't read it, yet, you should. You can go ahead and do that now, if you'd like. I'll wait. My column this month is not so much a response to hers as a footnote.)
I am by nature contrary. Most of the interesting stories from my childhood begin with someone telling me I couldn't do something.
Early on in my career - as in before my first sale - an editor who had taken several fledgling writers under his wing (including, if memory serves, our own Dayton Ward) told us that how a story opens determines whether the reader (or, more importantly, the acquisitions editor) will continue reading past the first page. Among several tips on writing openings, he told us that we should never open a story with talking heads (that is, people talking with no sense of place,
context, or action), with the character waking up, or with a description of how bored and boring the protagonist is before whatever exciting, life changing event the story is about happens. Me, being me, proceeded to write nothing but stories that began with talking heads (which actually played to a strength of mine, more on that in a moment), the narrator waking up, or the character bored out of his or her skull wishing something would happen.
The first short story I sold opened with a talking head – a guy dictating his diary and random thoughts to a recorder. My second sale opened with the narrator waking up. My third with, you guessed it, one hundred and thirty-seven words of the lead character literally siting at his job wishing something, anything at all, would happen to end the monotony of his existence. Do these three sales prove that rules are meant to be broken, or some similar bit of foolishness cosplaying as wisdom? Nope. They prove that I'm hard headed. Over the three years it took me to sell those three stories, I wrote and submitted over forty more that did not sell. If I hadn't insisted on doing things my way – which is to say the opposite of what I'd been told – I almost certainly would have sold more stories and sold my first story sooner.
One thing my early mentor said that I took to heart immediately: The reader does not owe us, the writer, a chance. Or the benefit of the doubt. Or even one second of their time – we can't ask or expect the reader to bear with us while we get going. We owe the reader the best story we can write, delivered in the most engaging and entertaining way possible.
Here's the 'more in a moment' thing about talking heads:
Dialog is the heart of every scene (or monologue, if the person is talking to herself). I say that because I started out to be a playwright - which is all about telling a story through the words of people talking on a stage. My first, rapidly jotted draft of a scene is almost always dialog - quotes with an initial to identify the speaker and the rare note on scene or blocking or business. Later I fill in the specifics of where they are and what they're doing. More than one writerly friend who never aspired to playwrighthood has tried this technique and reported that by first going with the flow, the give-and-take of the spoken word helped them "see" the conversation/confrontation as it would play out—which in turn made it easier to structure the movements and setting of the scene.
That's my only original pro tip.
But I'll leave you with a better one:
Don't write what you know. Write what you want to know. Keep pushing yourself, keep growing as a writer.
We tend to receive a lot of wanted and/or unwelcome advice this time of year, about what gifts to get for family and friends. Gifts for kids, for parents, for significant others, the mail carrier, the guy who cuts your grass or cleans out your gutters, your kid’s teachers, and so on and so forth.
Last year around this time, I posted a (hopefully) humorous and helpful list of holiday gifts for writers. Well, as it tends to do this time each year, the holiday season is once again upon us, so I figured this was a topic worth
So, what to get the writer in your life? Maybe you’re the
writer in the lives of those around you, and you’re hoping they might see fit
to give you something useful or desired as you chase your muse. Here are a
handful of ideas, a few of which are carried over from last year's list. Most
of them are actually...you know...real, though I couldn't resist a few "unreal"
ones, as well:
Books! Every writer loves books, right? We all need
to let our mind recharge after a long day at the office or a weekend spent
pushing through to meet a grueling deadline. Leisure reading is still a
preferred method of relaxation for many people, especially writers. One suggestion
I’ve seen elsewhere is giving a book that has a special meaning to you. A
cherished title—perhaps something you’ve loved since childhood—offers insight
into your own reading tastes. Meanwhile, an autographed copy from the
recipient’s favorite author is usually a guaranteed home run.
Books About Writing. These are always appreciated by
serious writers, who are always students and never stop learning how to improve
their craft. However, serious writers also tend to hate those plodding,
pretentious tomes that spend too much time whining about how writing is art and
it has to grow and suffer and be nurtured, blah blah blah. Writers want to know
how to get on with the writing and finish what they’ve started so they can get
on with writing something else, while figuring out how to repeat those first
two steps as often as possible. They want books with titles like Get Off Your Butt and Write Right Now, which may not be the title of a book anywhere in the
known universe except my head. Still, I figure there’s something out there
following a similar theme.
Food. Face it: Writers tend to eat like crap,
particularly if we’re neck deep in a story and all other considerations and
priorities have been rescinded. If we’re not skipping meals, then we’re eating
junky snacks. Feed us, for crying out loud. We’re writers, so we’re poor. Take
us out to lunch once in a while. This has the added benefit of exposing us to
social interaction with other members of our species, which works out for
Kale. Speaking of food, kale apparently falls into
this category, and we’re all supposed to be eating it. I don’t know why. I
don’t think anybody knows why. It’s healthy, or something. So, give some to
your writer friends and perhaps nudge them just a bit off the Road to Death
that is littered with empty potato chip bags and candy wrappers. I’m willing to
give it a go. Maybe if I eat enough, my consciousness will see fit to escape
the meat sack that is my body, leaving my intellect and soul to soar among the
cosmos unencumbered by physical form. Hey, if it means never again having to
wait in line at the DMV, I’m game. Since that’s unlikely to happen, you can probably
just stick with that time-tested standby option, Chocolate.
Lounge Pants. Last year I advocated buying comfy sweatpants for
that special writer in your life. Since then, I’ve discovered the unfettered
joy that is hanging around Ward Manor in lounge pants. These things are
glorious. They exist in that odd realm between pajamas, sweat pants, and yoga
pants, which is good because while I think I make yoga pants look awesome, my
opinion is almost certainly shared by precisely no one else on this planet who
has functioning eyeballs or otherwise inhales oxygen. However, with the right
pair of lounge pants, I’m only a tattered, stained T-shirt and a pair of
flip-flops away from a run to Walmart.
Notebooks/writing pads. There’s something about good,
old-fashioned pen and paper that almost always gets my creative juices flowing.
Many a story has begun as a series of hastily scribbled notes on a legal pad or
one of those composition books like we used in elementary school. I still use
them today. Something a bit fancier, though, makes for a simple yet elegant
gift. Oh, and they’re also handy for making lists, such as things to buy at the
grocery store, or household chores you hate doing but suddenly find compelling
when faced with getting some actual writing done. Tell me I’m wrong.
Story Cubes. How have these been around all this time
and I didn’t know about them? These things are great! I found them at a small
toy store here in town. Each set of Story Cubes contains
nine dice, with each side depicting a little image. You roll all nine dice, and
then attempt to tell a story using the nine images that are face up. It’s not
really meant to be a competitive game, but more of a casual or party pastime.
These sets are small and relatively inexpensive gift options, averaging under
$10 per set, and they even have one for
Batman! While all of the sets look to be appropriate for all ages, I must
confess that I did wonder how the results might be enhanced by the inclusion of
alcohol or other illicit substances. I know, I’m horrible.
Tea, Coffee, or other Favorite Beverage. Whether it’s
black coffee, herbal tea, and/or hot cocoa, we all have our fuel; the special
elixir that helps get the words moving. I’m partial to vodka, served
intravenously, with the occasional diversion toward Monster Energy Drink if I’m
really in the zone and want to keep typing until my fingers bleed. Whatever the
nectar of choice, just start it flowing. We’ll tell you when to stop.
“Writer At Work” Sign. For those days when you’re
taking up space at a coffee shop or bookstore cafe. Lean this up against your
laptop and leave no doubt that you’re gracing the rest of the hipsters with
your presence to push words in a totally forthright and professional manner,
and that you’re absolutely not playing Solitaire or Minecraft. At all. Honest.
Writer’s Hut/Shed. We’ve all heard about these little
sheds or shacks that we stick in our back yard or some other quiet space,
loaded up with everything we need to get on with our writing, which we can then
call our own while we wrestle with our muse.The very mention of such an intimate refuge conjures images of George
Bernard Shaw working in a quiet corner of the property surrounding his home. Granted,
a gift on this scale is likely a budget-buster for most people, but if you’ve
got a trust fund or just won the lottery, something like this would probably be one of the coolest gifts you could ever present to any writer:
Well, except me, I guess. I’m thinking I’d have better
luck with something like this:
So, somebody get on that for me, okay? All righty, then. What else makes a good gift for the
writers on your shopping lists? If you’re a writer, what sort of gift would you
most appreciate? Be you gift giver or hopeful recipient, do you have your own
suggestions, sincere or otherwise?
I stumbled across an article by Kevin
Kelly, Senior Editor of “Wired” magazine. This piece has been
circulating since 2008. Kelly's premise is that if you can acquire a
thousand “true” fans, you can raise your sales and make a living
off your art. The entire article is posted at
Kelly believes you don't have to have a
hit to survive, or in writing terms, a bestseller. What you do have
to do is collect a loyal fan base that will buy whatever you're
selling. By pulling in one new fan a day, you will have your 1,000
fans in 3 years. The challenge is to create and maintain DIRECT
CONTACT with fans. You will also need to nurture them, something not
everyone is willing to do.
My problem with this article is the
same problem I have with every “How To” article I find on the
Internet. It's a good idea, possibly a sound one, but what I'm
looking for (and I bet you are too) is the magic formula on how to
implement this theory. Information is no good if it leaves you in the
I have nearly 1,000 fans. I haven't
tested to see if they are “true” fans yet, I'll do that when
Black Opal Books reprints my entire series of astrology mysteries.
For now, I'm creatively building my fan base. I'm going to explain
EXACTLY what I'm doing and perhaps you'll pick up some ideas of your
First of all, readers are inundated
with all sorts of come-ons. “Buy my book,” “Read my blog,”
Watch my video.” I delete most of those and so do you. Instead, I
offer fans something other than my own work. I entice them with what
they want, which is free books. Oh, not my books—I refuse to offer
my work for free. I write a monthly column for Kings River Life
Magazine called “Coming Attractions.” I announce titles a month
before they come on the market. There is always a drawing for about 8
or 9 books just by making a comment.
The column is nothing more than fun,
quippy blurbs I concoct (for the latest column go to
) . I get the material from Amazon. Under the
blurb are listed other books coming out in the future by the
publisher. I also made a point of subscribing to Romantic Times
Magazine which announces a variety of books two months in advance. And, a site
called “Fantastic Fiction” lists every series an author has written plus books the author recommends
http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/ (if you aren't listed on this British site, get in there!) . I keep these on file and right now I can tell you books coming out
in August, 2016.
I began collecting the names of people
commenting and “friending” them on Face Book by thanking them for
their interest. I noticed my readership was primarily older women wanting to win cozy mysteries. With that info I decided to gear my
column to their tastes. I also regularly checked in on them and from
their FB postings discovered the name of their pets and their
hobbies. I “liked” their memes and soon they were “liking”
mine as well.
I'm the type that knows there's a next
step. I divided up my list of fans into those who read dog mysteries,
cat mysteries and culinary mysteries. When a book of that sort is
offered as a prize, I contact them individually and nudge them to
enter with something like “Fluffy thinks you'd like this new dog mystery.” It
works because I take the time to remember their pet's name and
readers are flattered by the attention. I also post the link to Cozyville Cozies then “friend” responders from that site. When
an author posted my column on her site, I hijacked 24 of her fans.
And, by researching authors who write astrology mysteries, I've been stealing that fan base as well.
What I'm doing is paving the way for
readers of my own novels. I haven't done the “hard sell” yet, I
want readers to know me as a friend and one who has their interests
at heart. Because I really do enjoy each and every one of them.
Anyone can copy me and do their own
column, either through blogging or by offering it to an ezine or
reader's site. There are plenty out there. I'd like to see someone do
one for romance novels, historical fiction, thrillers, erotica,
sci-fi and horror. Authors are more than willing to give away free
books for free publicity. Two things are crucial: publishing the
column on a regular basis and promoting it. Growing 1,000 true fans
takes commitment and creativity.
This month's theme is on where we live, the good and bad
points, and the writing community.We
live in the middle of a forest in northeast Texas.That is, when we don't live in Mexico.But first, Texas.
Our home is about twelve miles from a small town of 3,400.We are surrounded by pine, oak and hickory
trees and we overlook a small lake on our property.All is peaceful and quiet. Except, four years
ago, the Keystone Pipeline declared they had the right to run a pipeline across
our property. Thus began our fight over eminent domain. A year later, they
clear cut a path one hundred fifty feet wide and a third of a mile long across
our property. Hundred foot-tall pines were toppled. Fifty year old oak trees
went down along with large hickories.For
months we could hear the heavy machinery, even if we could not see it without a
walk through our woods.
has passed, but it provided the genesis for Over My Dead Body.In this mystery, Syd Cranzler also objected
to his property being taken by eminent domain. He also lost.
small town we live near is Winnsboro. It does have a small critique group and a
number of active writers. Not far away, though, is a larger and much more
active writers' group, The Northeast Texas Writers' Organization, or NETWO. It
holds critique sessions, gives workshops and a great writers' conference each year,
and sponsors both fiction and non-fiction writing contests.
We love our home in the woods.
We have a lovely place we share with many deer and other wild animals, some
more favored than others. It is very private. As our driveway is nearly a mile
long, if we hear a car, we know they are coming to visit us.
At the same time, we are remote. And there are times when it
would be nice to be "in the middle of things."
where Mexico comes in. We spend four to six months each year in Puerto
Vallarta. Our place there is right in the middle of town, and there are always
people, music, and activity close by.Our condo is in a building with people who have lived and traveled all
over the world. Conversation at a party here might center around any number of
different countries.A five minute walk
can put us at a dozen world-class restaurants. No Dairy Queen here, though.Rather than a small lake, our condo is ocean
There is a writing club here, the Puerto Vallarta Writers'
Group. They meet weekly and have had an annual writer's conference for several
years. While many of the writers are from the
U.S., there are also some from
many other countries.
from my writing space in Mexico
My next novel, due in the spring of 2016 and titled The
Silver Medallion, is set half in Texas and half in Mexico.You can guess where much of the research was
We love the activity, the different views people from other
countries have, and the weather.But, on
the minus side, there is always stuff going on and finding writing time is more
Perhaps it is the great differences that make us love both
places.Contrast. Ah, and contrast is an
important thing to remember for any writer.
Over the past couple of
decades, I've learned a lot about writing. Some I learned from attending
classes, some from other authors, from editorial letters by talented
publishers, some from trial and error through writing my own stories, some from
reading other author’s works, and a whole lot from reading non-fiction books
about writing. Two of my favorite books are On
Writing by Stephen King, and Story by
Robert McKee, which has been beaten up and scribbled on with love. I love the
fact that Robert McKee says story itself is about principles, not rules, and that
craft is an art.
As I write, many principles
come to mind as far a dos and don'ts. The biggest ones for me are:
Try not to begin the
first sentence of a chapter by describing the weather right off the bat.
Don't repeat a word in
the same sentence or paragraph. (She fled the scene and fled to Mexico)
Allow your characters to
surprise even you.
Keep the drama going in
every chapter but move it along.
character's names. (Sally said, or “Sally, why?”)
Practice the simple use
of he said, she said.
Don’t use passive voice.
(an editor taught me this years ago)
Delete words like just, really, quite, perhaps, that, so, well,
unless totally necessary. Use your words as if each costs money. Make them
Narration brings the
story from A, to B, and eventually to Z, but don’t tell.
Description creates a
sensory for the reader. It begins in the writer's imagination, but should
finish in the reader's.
Don't slow the pace with
too many descriptions. (a big lesson for me)
Dialogue brings characters
to life through their speech.
Try not to tell the same
information twice, even if a character is telling it to two different people.
Change it, make it brief the second time. It is a waste of the reader's time.
They already know it.
Show as opposed to tell.
Research, but put it as
far in the background as you can.
Let the characters do
things their way. Be true to them, not you.
Listen to your
characters as they try to talk to you while you're showering or trying to fall
asleep. Take note.
If the chapter is in one
character's POV (point of view), and the other person is on the phone, we cannot hear what the
person they're talking to is saying.
“Beat” builds scenes, “scenes”
build the sequence, “sequences” build the act, the series of “acts” build the
The first sentence and
the last sentence of each chapter should be fire, just a beat above all that's in-between.
What does the
protagonist want? What is his/her conscious desire? What stands in the way?
What is the inciting
Get to the back-story
Find an Ideal Reader to
test read, and ask what bored them.
What is the crisis
within the climax?
Curse if your character
is one to curse. The prefix for phone numbers should be 555.
Use clichés if your character
would say those words. They will be familiar, relatable words to the reader,
and the reader will not think you're lazy, or that you stole them. Try not to
use them in narrative.
An adverb here or there
never hurt anyone.
Read the first draft
aloud. Revise. Print it out, pencil in hand, revise, and read it aloud again. Two
drafts and a polished third draft.
I do fudge on some of
these a bit, but not a lot. Like sometimes, I believe it is okay to briefly describe the weather at the beginning of a chapter, for purposes of setting. Still, I
honor the principles, and more than anything, I respect them. They were hard
learned lessons by those writers who created masterpieces before us. Yet along the
way, we learn what works best for our design. We as writers are word architects, building
our character’s story from the ground up, utilizing all of the tools necessary
to transcribe what we see and hear. Stay true to those characters!
The craft lessons are indeed voices that we listen to as we write. They are voices that remind us what to do
and not do, what to try and not try, what to delete or keep, like a wise and
Robert McKee said, “Talent
without craft is like fuel without an engine.” We must study up, read up, write
up, and write on!
Writers, are there any specific craft principles that ring consistently
as you write? Please share.
Did I mention I have a harem of WIP? It’s a growing Harem. Every couple of months I add a new bride when the idea bug bites me. I am infatuated with that new bride and spend countless hours with her until life takes my attention away. Sometimes, like any good husband, I go back to my old WIPs and spend some time with them. That’s just what I did last week. In spite of adding two new brides in the past six months, I went back to my old bride from almost a decade ago. What a ride!
That old WIP was written before I published. It was actually my third manuscript. I wrote it while receiving the many rejections of my second book, A Marriage of Convenience. You see, I have a policy: if publishers reject one manuscript, just keep writing. My first manuscript had already been rejected into oblivion, when I wrote my second novel. This old WIP was my consolation for the second round of rejections. But somewhere after 110 pages of writing, A Marriage of Convenience got accepted by Dorchester Publishing. My attention now diverted to edits and rewrites and deadlines, and promotions, this third bride was abruptly abandoned. I revisited it briefly a few years back, but it didn’t fit into a genre mold: it had elements of romance, but it didn’t fit the formula of romance. It didn’t quite fit neatly into any category that was hot on the market at the time. Consequently I abandoned it once more and worked on other “publishable” work. As I read that old WIP I was amazed at the flow of my writing. It was raw and unpolished, yet it gripped me so that I couldn’t put it down. Back then I didn’t worry about POV. It was written in a God-like omniscient narration where the storyteller knew everything that every character was thinking, feeling. It was not written for a particular audience. It was written because I had a story to tell and I wanted to tell it. It was also written in discrete bits that left it up to the readers’ imaginations to fill in the blanks. It had a unique voice, my voice, and I loved it. I picked up another manuscript that I had written after publishing my first two books. The writing was different. This one didn’t hold my attention as much, but it was polished and written to a specific readership. It had all the things I had learned going through the rounds of editing for my first two published books. It was marketable. Why was my writing before publication different from my writing after publication? You guessed it: the emphasis had shifted from creativity to marketability. I was now writing what I think could be published rather than what came out of me naturally. I had transitioned from writing as a hobby, to writing as a profession. Some things get lost in that transition. One of those things is creativity and sometimes even your unique voice. It can become formulaic. So what’s more important in writing? Is it creativity or marketability? For those professionals who make a living by writing the answer is obvious. For the hobbyists creativity is more important. But for those of us who are transitioning from writing as a hobby to writing as a profession it is an agonizing question we wrestle with constantly. And if you think that you don’t have to choose, just be aware that for publishers, even indie publishers, the bottom line is the most important thing that determines whether a book is published. So for all reading this post, I pose a question: which is more important creativity or marketability? Why?
writers run out of things to say. Oddly, I find that more prominent when I sit
down to write a blog than when I’m working on a novel. How strange that writing
short pieces is more demanding than writing a hundred thousand words.
I've been thinking a
lot about all the advice we're given for optimizing ourselves on Facebook, our
blog, and all those other sites: Pinterest, Twitter, Google+. Well, you get the
idea. I'm supposed to define my mission, which I'm told is not to market my
books, but rather to intrigue, inform, inspire and entertain without ever
saying to the reader: Have I got a book for you. I know you'll like it cause
I've been on your website and/or your blog and see what you are interested in.
This is today considered spamming.
Okay, that's too
"in your face," so I'm working on something. I tried posting a few
blogs about the historical stories I've unearthed during researching my books.
So far, people don't seem all that interested, though I've had a few comments.
Mostly from people who already read my works. I realize I need something that
will attract a core of new readers to my work. They're out there somewhere, but
it's hard to know where.
Lately I've changed
my blog's focus from aiming at writers to aiming at readers. (Does this mean
writers don't read?) No, of course not, it only means writers who know lots of
writers can only afford to buy so many books.
Back to my mission.
Hey, that would be one of the keywords I should use for this blog. Or not. I'm
not sure if keywords have to be subjects that everyone recognizes or stuff like
mission, create, research. I don't think these words are particularly zingy.
They're even dull, in fact. So let's try keywords first, then write a blog using
a few? Afraid I'd end up with something less than readable. Using keywords that
people are using to search for my type, style, genre, is important, if I could
only pin down what they are.
I'm told to bold
subtitles, add bullets followed by a list of facts. To me, this would get old
fast. Since I'm a reader of fiction, I don't want to read stuff written like it
would be for a college English class, or perhaps history.
does that interest any of you? Does that tell you much about my work? It might,
but it seems a dull way to do it to me. I'd rather write about a western woman
I knew of, one who courageously headed west with a goal in mind, something she
felt so passionate about that an entire book could be written about her. Then
you might be more likely to say, hey, I liked that, maybe I'd like to read one
of her books. To me, that's what blogging is all about.
Bulleted lists are
too schoolified for me. As for Instagram, I never look at it. Boring. So, am I
the 1% that we don’t worry about, or are there a lot of readers out there like
friend Lisa Wingate is very good at promoting herself without it sounding like
promotion. She’s managed to get her name so well known that people look her up
and buy her books. This is a tricky way to do it. On Facebook she has a running
commentary on the antics of her cute dog with photos. She has a blog that
focuses on what she calls her scrapbook. It contains her comments on fellow
authors and their books with photos. Of course, she has a website with all her
books, her book signing schedule, etc. And in addition, she’s a fine
storyteller with lots of good books out there. Now if I could only think of
something that applies to me that would be as clever as that.
have noticed that my blogs that are personal get the most comments and are
clicked on the most. Why do people care what is going on in my personal life?
What do you think?
Let me know what sort of blogs you truly enjoy.
I have the pleasure of being one of the last in the month to add to this blog. What I enjoy in reading these blogs is the diversity of experiences, of places, of lives. From the Great Northwest to the Butt End of the Caribbean, writers using their voice to give a hint of what might have brought them to this place at this time is interesting to read.
If I were to script my life, it would have been filled with as much variety of experiences as I could fill into each day, but instead, 30 years ago, I took a job as a forensic toxicologist with the Illinois State Police. It has been a wonderful career, with fascinating cases, published papers, court testimonies and two murder-mysteries, all from a base in Springfield, Illinois.
Would I call Springfield the melting pot of diversity? Ahhhh, NO.
I would call it a safe place but safe in the way a child peeking out from behind their mother's skirt feels safe. A place where tuna fish from a can is pretty exotic stuff to some.
Museums, parks, art galleries, and theaters... Well, if you count the museum with the re-creation of Abraham Lincoln's cabin, where he's reading by a fire and an art gallery where you can walk home with the painting if you pay for it, technically we do have these features. Plus, we are host to the Illinois State Fair, where you can get anything battered and fried, if you can get it on a stick.
But, in all my tongue in cheek description of this state capital sitting in the center of Illinois, it offered me an opportunity I could only have gotten from living in Springfield. When I accepted a position, which required me to visit all the forensic laboratories in the State, monthly, I became a veteran of the road. Four hours to a lab, four hours back, listening to the radio for hundreds of hours.... until one day.... I turned off the radio and as I drove through the flat prairie fields of corn and soybeans in silence, I listened to a story, in my mind, and the story lead to a book, and the book lead to a publisher, which lead me here to you reading and participating in this blog.
As a writer and a scientist I often consider the Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and wonder if it applies to us. It says you can never simultaneously know exactly where something is and exactly where it is going. We constantly have the choice to step off from what is known or hold tight to it. I think Springfield holds tight but its most famous citizen, Lincoln did not. When I can, I choose to step off that known path; certainly not as much as some but more than others. The challenge is recognizing when you are being offered that step.
In the real estate industry, there are three important watchwords: location, location, and location. Publishing, it appears, is not quite that geo-fixated. Let me illustrate. When most people think of the Caribbean, this is what they picture...
Maracas Beach, Trinidad, West Indies
...and this does in fact exist, many times over. This particular beach is a 45 minute drive from my home in Trinidad, at the butt end of the Caribbean. [see illustration of butt end below]
Map of Caribbean illustrating butt end, aka Trinidad
When I first got serious about writing for publication in the late 1990s, my location mattered a lot. The Internet existed but accessing it was a slow, tedious process that involved dial-up modems and, if one did not own a computer, long hours spent twiddling one's thumbs in Internet cafes waiting for a single web page to load one[minutes pass]thin[more minutes pass]line[maybe I should step outside and get some fresh air]at[sigh...they need to fix the AC in here]a time[damn and blarst..my half hour is up!].
So, I got info on publishers and literary agents from a friend who printed out a few pages for me now and then, and from magazines like Writers Digest which advised me to invest in a monstrous telephone book-like tome called Writers Market that was published every year and was out of date before it hit the shelves. I bought it anyway. Back then no one was accepting queries by e-mail so I became familiar with SASEs--self-addressed stamped envelopes--and IMCs--international mailing coupons--all of which were a pain in the assets. I had to acquire rolls of US stamps to stick on the envelopes, figure out how many I should put, wait months--and usually in vain--for a response, etc.
I did not do much querying back then, and no wonder. More than six years of inactivity passed between my first flurry of queries and my second.
The second bout of querying, at the bottom end of 2005, began in much the same vein, but then I discovered the website AgentQuery, a database of agents that could be sorted in various ways, including by those who accepted e-queries. I sent out the first e-batch in the first week of January 2006 and got several responses immediately, four of which requested my full manuscript. Printing out the 420 page monster plus synopsis times four cost me money I could ill afford: photocopying was expensive here in Butt End.
Two months after I sent out those first e-queries...I had an agent and let me tell you, no milestone in publishing has thrilled me, literally bringing me to my knees, like that day the agent called with her offer of representation. This was BIG, I thought at the time. Susan had sold The English Patient, one of my favorite films, to Miramax, and Holes to Disney, and repped Julia Cameron and Jonathan Safran Foer. This wasn't just good; it was stratospheric.
"I have to tell you--I'm in Trinidad," I told her haltingly, thinking of her telephone bill.
"That's okay," she responded. "We have clients all over the world." I said it before and I'll say it again: this was my kind of agent. She sold the book some months later.
Over the years my location has become less and less relevant to my publishing life. High-speed, wireless net access caught up with Trinidad and with me, as did lightweight laptops, netbooks, tablets and phones that are way too damned smart. Self-publishing platforms such as KDP, D2D and Smashwords, as well as social media utilities like Blogger, Facebook, Twitter etc. also helped to shrink my world and give me near instant access to everything and everyone I needed. My network of writers and readers is modest by some measures, but far outstrips the reach I could even have imagined back in 1997 when I bought that Brother electronic typewriter and converted my tiny scrawl on piles of legal notepads into a readable manuscript.
There are still downsides to my location in Trinidad: the popular conventions, workshops, retreats and book fairs are too far away and thus too expensive for me to attend. I seldom meet my online writer people in person--I've met only one to date, actually. But I don't complain. I have consolations, like writing retreats on the coast with local writer friends who are a lot like me. Writers. Dreamers. Thinkers. Just like every other kindred writing spirit I've found around the globe.
I now have 29 titles (two novels, several novellas and a slew of novelettes) out there in the world under a variety of pen names and in several genres. With the exception of the first novel, I managed every aspect of their publication myself. And I've done it from right here on my little rock at the butt end of the Caribbean. You asked about my location? Location, schmocation!
In rejecting a story of mine a British editor once wrote that if I was serious about writing horror I needed to "get away from that sunny southern coast and spend a few Februaries in the Midlands." After Googling "February in the Midlands" I decided to quit writing horror.
Odds are you've seen a lot of Wilmington without realizing it. Or at least the Cape Fear, as the southeastern corner of North Carolina, where Wilmington is located, is known locally. (The way I heard it, the British naval officer charged with charting this bit of the North Carolina coast in 1662 wanted to call the area "Cape Fair" – but after a few attempted colonies failed tragically the name was updated.) The film industry came to the Cape Fear in the 1980s. One website I checked lists over 300 movies and TV series have been shot here in the last thirty years. Films like Firestarter, Weekend at Bernie's, Bedroom Window, Amos & Andrew, and Iron Man 3; TV shows that have tangled local traffic include: Dawson's Creek, Homeland, Matlock, One Tree Hill , Revenge, Revolution, Sleepy Hollow, and Under the Dome.
[When I was a school teacher I earned money in the summers working as an extra. I'm seen from behind, lost in the crowd, or just out of the frame in seven movies and twelve episodes of three TV series. However, my face does appear in episode seven of Stephen King's Golden Years and peering over Brian Kerwin's shoulder several times during minutes 15-19 of King Kong Lives.]
My wife Valerie and I did not come to Wilmington for the film industry. In fact, other than my summer jobs and the traffic problems, the film industry had no direct impact on our lives. However, movies and a couple of hurricanes did change the city and its culture profoundly – which in turn affected our family.
We came here thirty years ago because of a career opportunity gave us a choice of relocating to one of three cities: Fayetteville, Jacksonville, and Wilmington. A Marine base, an Army base, or a quiet coastal town of about 50,000. Our first child had just turned two and the town on the coast sounded like the best place to raise a family.
What we did not research before moving was the racial tensions in Wilmington. When we moved to the Cape Fear in 1982, we found a beautiful city between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean that had great beaches, wonderful weather, cheap houses, and the unshakable conviction that the year was 1952. Our first house was a craftsman fixer-upper in a predominantly black neighborhood not too many blocks from the river and withing walking distance of the alternative school where I taught.
Schools had not integrated until the 1970s (15 years
after it became federal law) and out of that turmoil came the Wilmington 10 – nine black men and a white woman who had been falsely convicted (and a decade later exonerated) of arson and assault. Seventy-some years before, in 1898, Wilmington, NC, was the site of the only coup d'etat in American history. Up until 1898 Wilmington was 2/3 black and was a progressive, racially mixed business and political community. That was when an organized army of 2,000 white supremacists executed a carefully planned reign of terror and – in the course of a few days – overthrew the elected government, set black neighborhoods and businesses ablaze, murdered between twenty-five and ninety "troublesome" black citizens, and drove middle class black families, black professionals, and whites who supported the black community out of the city.
[In the 1980s I became friends with Jerry Jacobs, seated far right in the picture, and was a pall bearer at his funeral. In 1998 Valerie and I were part of the 1898 Centennial Commission's "Wilmington Black and White" week of commemorative events; we conducted a seminar on racially blended families and interracial relationships.]
The aftermath of the 1898 uprising formed Wilmington's culture for the next century. It led to the resistance and violence surrounding desegregation and, at least during our first decade here, shaped how people responsed to our family. There was in Wilmington a sharp and uncrossable demarcation between white and black; between haves and have nots.
In 1984 Firestarter, the first of several Stephen King movies shot in Wilmington, put the Cape Fear on the map for major studios looking for a fresh, non-union, location. The studios began expanding and various support and ancillary companies appeared. At the time there was no pool of local workers with the skills they needed, so they began importing their own people from California – people who didn't give a damn about Southern "traditions" like racism (and expected restaurants to serve something other than barbeque, pancakes, or Calabash seafood). I don't think they were unaware of the color line, they just chose to completely ignored it – and with the amount of money they were infusing into the local economy, their behavior was more than tolerated.
In 1996 the Cape Fear was devastated by two hurricanes that hit back-to-back: Bertha and Fran. People came from all over the country to help – particularly from coastal and eastern Texas, where they were familiar with cleaning up after hurricanes. Many of these people liked what they saw (Have I mentioned how beautiful the region is?) and decided to bring their families here and settle down. Between the summer of '96 and the 2000 census, the Hispanic presence in the population in the Cape Fear went from <1 data-blogger-escaped-10="" data-blogger-escaped-2010="" data-blogger-escaped-5="" data-blogger-escaped-br="" data-blogger-escaped-census="" data-blogger-escaped-in="" data-blogger-escaped-it="" data-blogger-escaped-the="" data-blogger-escaped-to="" data-blogger-escaped-was="">
The most immediate impact of Bertha and Fran on our family was flooding – not just inundating our house, though that was serious, but the swarms of Norwegian wharf rats trying to escape the rising river. As soon as we got our house back in shape to sell, we moved out of the city to an unincorporated rural area of blueberry and strawberry farms known locally as Ogden. Our house was the first in what is now a housing development and the only strawberry farm left is a pick-your-own tourist attraction. When we moved here in 1982 there were just under 50,000 people in Wilmington and not quite 100,000 in New Hanover County as a whole. Today, thanks to the film industry and those two hurricanes, the populations are nearly 80,000 and over 200,000, respectively. The old guard of Wilmington, the racists, the southerners, still fight being dragged into the twenty-first century tooth and nail. They aren't yet the minority politically, but they are no longer the driving economic force of the region and they know – despite recent Tea Party advances – that in the long run it's a losing battle.
So how does this environment, my thirty-three years in the Cape Fear, influence my writing? Seeing a city, a region, a way of life, go through such a fundamental sea change, having been part of that change, inspires and informs my fascination with cultures in transition and with how individuals and communities cope with – and either reject or find common ground with – the Other. These themes in turn shape what I write about and how I write about it. Would I be a writer living anywhere else? Certainly. I just wouldn't be the writer I am today.