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#IWSG: What I’ve Learned from the Insecure Writer Support Group

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup It’s December, 2015, the second of the month, to be exact, and it’s time again for my contribution to Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, a forum of bloggers who share their fears, hopes, dreams, and ideas for the benefit of the writing community. You can see a list of them here, as well as throw your own hat into the ring and share your pearls of wisdom.

This is the last post of the year and, sadly for me, my last contribution to the group. I find that running two blogs, reviewing 3 – 4 books per week, trying to write my own books, and teaching three courses at local colleges—just to list my main activities—takes up more time than I’d anticipated. In addition, I’m not sure I have anything else to share that’s really new.

I thought for my last post in the group, I’d talk about the things I’ve gained from being a part of IWSG for the past many months. That’s right; this has been more of a learning exercise for me—I’ve gained much, much more than I’ve given.

I’ve learned that, while writing is essentially a solitary activity, thanks to social media, blogs, and the Internet, a writer doesn’t have to be totally alone. I’ve gained many friends over the past three years, many of them writers, and I’ve learned something valuable from each of them.

Reading the blogs by other members of the group I’ve improved my own writing. Hints on how to develop characters, or to develop meaningful character names, a great post by Jody Hedlund. There were a lot of inspirational posts, like Rachel Shieffelbein’s advice on not quitting when the going gets hard.

There were more, so many more that there’s not enough space here to mention them all. At this writing there were 255 bloggers participating in the Insecure Writer Support Group monthly posting. That’s a lot of potential sources of advice and inspiration. I know—I’ve been inspired and gotten tons of advice over the months. I’ll keep dropping in from time to time, because I know there’s always something new to learn.

In the meantime, my parting piece of advice to all you writers and wannabe writers out there—stop threatening to write, stop procrastinating. Listen to Rachel Shieffelbein; sit yourself down and put fingers to keyboard and WRITE.

Happy holidays to all my regular readers, and a happy successful year ahead. Keep reading, keep writing.

#IWSG: Dealing With Know-it-Alls

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s time again. It’s the first Wednesday of the month and time for another offering to Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group (#IWSG). Here’s where we share and encourage each other, as we write about our fears and weaknesses, discuss our failures and triumphs, and offer words of encouragement to others out there who struggle like we do. Sometimes, we use it to vent our frustrations with the things that devil writers’ lives. If you’d like to be a part of this group, check out the link above.

This month, I’d like to briefly address the know-it-alls, bullies, and trolls out there who seem to have a mission of making everyone else’s lives as miserable as I imagine there are. We’ve all encountered them. They’re the ‘expert’ at the gym who just has to show you how to properly exercise, despite only being a member for a week longer than you, or the ‘helpful’ person at the golf course who feels an obligation to critique the golf swing of a total stranger. If you’re a writer, you’re particularly vulnerable to this type of person, and even though I used three labels at the beginning of this paragraph, that was just for literary effect. In fact, these are just bullies; people who never outgrew the urge to pull the wings off flies.

Where can you encounter them as a writer? I’ve mentioned them a few times in previous blogs. They’re the reviewers who pan your work in the most strident of terms, or who slam you as a writer without showing any evidence that they’ve ever really read it. They’re like the reviewer who slammed a book because she felt the regional dialect of a couple of the characters insulted them; ignoring the fact that in that particular passage, this is precisely what the author was aiming for—for the specific characters, not a particular group. If, like me, you write book review—and I read a lot, so why not—you’re still likely, no you’re sure, to encounter this type. There are those who will attack you because they don’t like the rating you gave something they liked or hated, because your rating betrays a particular political or social leaning they find offensive, etc.

They’re out there, and the Internet has increased their reach. They can now pull the wings off flies from across the globe, and do it anonymously. So, how do you handle them? It’s not easy. No one likes to repeatedly turn the other cheek. Especially when it’s being verbally slapped. But, Mark Twain said it well – “Never argue with stupid people. They will only bring you down to their level, and beat you with experience.

#IWSG: Amazon – Big is Neither Good Nor Bad, It’s Just Big

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s time for another posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. This is where you can see posts from a group of writers who share their success, fear, and advice with you on the first Wednesday of each month. This month, I have only a brief message; about a subject I’ve been avoiding, but there has been so much in the media about it the past several months, I’ve decided to be silent no longer.

In American politics, there are a number of topics that arouse intense debate whenever they’re brought up: immigration, gun control, gay marriage, social security, to name a few. In the publishing world, though, among publishers and writers, there seems to be only one subject that does this: Amazon.

The ‘Zon seems to be the third rail of the publishing world—especially when it comes to indie writers and publishers. Everyone has an opinion on it, and all opinions seem to be at one pole or another; Amazon is either a behemoth that is devouring publishing as we know it, or it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Let me give you my view, for what it’s worth. Amazon is big. It’s huge. And, while big is not necessarily better, it’s also not necessarily bad. Sure, Amazon’s a business, and the business of business is to make money. Amazon has become big because it’s been good at doing that. And, it’s made all that money by supplying what customers want. Along with the thousands of other products available for sale on Amazon.com and its other sites around the world, are tons of books in all forms, from hardcover to e-Book (to audiobook), all of them available at the click of a few keys on your computer; available, I might add, often at relatively reasonable prices. Reasonable prices attract more customers, which means more sales, which means more income—or so Amazon’s reasoning seems to be.

Now, one of the arguments against Amazon has been that it is creating a monopoly which will restrict the availability of books, which will hurt authors. Looking at what’s available for sale on Amazon and my own book sales over the past year, I have a hard time believing that argument. Will Amazon help or hurt writers, especially indie writers? I think the answer to that is, it depends. If you have a large backlist and your books are pretty good, I think Amazon’s business model will benefit you. Take my own case, for example. My books are so-so popular (I have a few diehard fans), and I have a backlist of 60+. Amazon’s new model, which pays authors for total pages read, has caused a 25% increase in my monthly revenue. Why? Simple really; the more you have available to be read, the more will be read. For example, if you have four books and readers read 75% of each, you still won’t do as well as I will with 60 and readers only reading 35% of each. Don’t believe me; do the math.

The same can be said of many of Amazon’s other business models, such as KDP Select, where you make a book exclusive to Amazon for a period of time. It’s easier to do that if you have several books, and can chose which ones you want to make exclusive, and which ones you want available on other platforms (and, I’m talking e-Books here, as paperbacks aren’t exclusive).

So, briefly put, Amazon is in the business of making money. If you’re an author, you should be in the business of gaining readers, and you do that by offering a wide audience of readers a wide selection of things to read. Amazon is the platform to do that. Not the only one, by any means, but a good one. So, rather than getting embroiled in the debate, get to writing.

#IWSG: How to Promote Your Book for Free

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s that time of the month again—first Wednesday—time for a contribution to Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group, a collection of nearly 300 avid bloggers who share ideas, fears—you name it—about writing for fellow writers. If you’d like to become a part of this stellar group, go here and sign up.

This month, I want to address an issue that I know concerns everyone who writes for publication; book promotion, and how to avoid some of the schemes floating around.

Book promotion is like going to the dentist. It’s one of those things that is unpleasant, but necessary for good health, or in the case of a book, getting sales. Social media, as pervasive as it is these days, is a good way to promote your published work, or even create buzz for a work in progress, but the problem is knowing how to use it.

I’ve found Twitter to be a highly effective means to get word out about my books. So, apparently, have thousands—if not millions—of other people. As with any technique that works, it has also spawned a whole new industry of people who offer, for a fee, to help you get your word out to the Twitterverse.

I’m not calling these offers scams, because the majority of them are probably honest offers. But, honest or not, they are unnecessary. Why pay $50 upwards to have tweets posted about your book by someone else, when you could, with a little effort, probably do the same thing yourself? Or, you could find one of the free retweet services, such as CoPromote, to do it. I’ve been using this one for several months now, and during time have reached over 4 million new potential readers, and seen a 25% increase in monthly book sales, both paperback and e-Book. CoPromote is a relatively easy concept. You sign up, link your account to your Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube accounts. You then pick a Twitter, Tumblr or YouTube post to promote and highlight it (the instructions are easy). After you’ve selected a post to promote, you scroll through posts by other members and select up to ten per day. The posts you select are promoted on your accounts, and other members promote your post. My average number of shares during the two week promotion period has been 150,000 to just over 300,000 new shares. That’s a lot of new readers. When I first signed up, Facebook posts could also be linked, but due to technical problems, this is no longer possible. The web masters at CoPromote say they’re working on the problem, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. There is, though, a way around the problem. I have my Facebook and Twitter accounts linked, so that when I tweet, it also does a Facebook post. Helps others more than me, other than the fact that it helps enhance my reputation as someone who promotes others–not a bad thing for a writer.

I use CoPromote primarily to promote published books, but have also used it for other projects, such as my photography.  This gives me extended reach to new readers without having to do frequent sales pitches on my own accounts. And, it costs me nothing. Now, you can’t get better advertising than that. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who has had experience with CoPromote or any other free book promotion site.

#IWSG: PC or not PC – that is the question

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup It’s July, and the first Wednesday of the month already. Time for another offering for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, postings by a bunch of great and savvy writers with hints, advice, and stories of how we can all overcome the fear that sometimes gets us down. Want to join in? Go here and check it out. Sign up if you’ve a mind to.  This month, I want to talk about political correctness—the bane of many modern writers.

On Fathers’ Day, I got into a conversation with my daughter about writing. We started out talking about some of the ultra-right wing writers who set our teeth on edge, and whose work I can never finish because it’s so biased and . . . well, you get it. Anyway, that segued into political correctness, and how much of it is too much in creative writing. This is a topic of particular interest to me because I write a western/historical series about the Buffalo Soldiers in the west after the Civil War, and given the racial and social dynamics of the time, some of today’s PC restrictions (words, topics, etc.), if followed to the letter, would make it impossible to tell the stories of these valiant men credibly.

In a way, though, the same goes for my mystery series. Although it’s set in the present day, it’s about every day (and sometimes not so every day) people who live in Washington, DC – not the DC of politicians, lobbyists, and spies, but the gas station attendants, drug dealers, grocery clerks – you get my drift – the people who live in the real world.

So, how far should political correctness or sensitivity go? In my writing, I have a few self-imposed rules I follow, not so much to be PC, but so nothing gets in the way of telling a good story.

Sex – Got nothing against it, but I avoid overly graphic sex in my stories, even the gritty mystery. My reason: the act itself does little to advance the story. The seduction and the aftermath might, in which case I leave them in, but the anatomical details of the act itself have nothing to do with the plot., so I leave them out. Besides, I find it more enticing to let people imagine.

Profanity – People swear, and that’s a fact of life. Some people swear more than others, and they can be quite graphic and colorful when they do. I don’t put a swear word on every page, but when it’s appropriate to the scene, I use the word the character would use in the situation in real life. Once or twice to let readers know what kind of character they’re dealing with. Usually that’s enough.

Ethnic, Gender, and National Stereotypes   – Again, people do this, and when it’s important to establish this in a character, and it has to do with the story, I let fly. Again, as with profanity, I try not to overdo it—just enough to establish the character.

Handicaps, etc. – Unless it’s essential to the story, I don’t stress  handicaps in my stories. There will be cripples, people with emotional or mental problems, etc., usually, though, it’ll play a role in the story. Gratuitous pokes, though, are a strict no-no. An example of what I mean: in a work in progress, a young man is accused of murdering the man he abused his mentally ill younger sister. The girl’s condition is key to the story, as it explains his reaction, and is also used to set up a couple of key scenes.

That’s not a complete list of PC stuff, but I think it’s enough to tell you where I stand on the issue. Political correctness, in moderation, is not a bad thing. We shouldn’t hurt people with our writing—unless, like politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and other scumbags, they deserve to be hurt. But, we should also be fair to our readers. Writing holds up a mirror to the world, and says, ‘Look, this is how it is. Edited a bit for clarity and flow, but baby, it’s not that vanilla world you’d like to live in, so learn to deal with the bits of nut and chocolate chip.’

I was a diplomat for 30 years. I’ll bet you think that made me ultra-PC. Not so. Contrary to what you might believe from popular portrayals of diplomats, we can be quite blunt at times—when it gets the job done. That’s the how your writing should be.

#IWSG: How Having an Established Routine Can Help You Be More Creative

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupHere we are, another first Wednesday, and time for a contribution to Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG), a talented (yours truly excepted) group of writers who share tips, advice, fears, and other neat stuff about writing. If you have something you’d like to share, trot over to the IWSG site and join up. In the meantime, this month, I’d like to talk about something that might seem counterintuitive—how having a relatively unvarying routine can help your creativity. That’s right, a dull, boring, same-thing-every day routine can actually be a boon to your creative process, so stop shaking your head and laughing and listen up. If the link above doesn’t work, go to http://insecurewriterssupportgroup.blogspot.com/. This is a temporary link until the insecure Writer Support Group moves to a new domain.

My Daily Routine

Every day, except when I’m sick and have to stay in bed (and, thankfully, my sick days are few and far between), I’m up between 5:30 and 6:30. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember. I started life on a farm, where early rising was part of the daily routine, went from there to the army where it was part of the daily routine, and after 37 years of that as a daily routine, it is now hardwired into my system. Since I retired from government service three years ago, my wife has tried to get me to sleep in on occasion, but my body has become so accustomed to the 6 – 8 hour per night sleep, after 7.5 hours, my brain starts urging it to get up, and if I go over 8 hours, I get sore muscles, back aches and headaches. Besides, as you’ll see when I get to my ‘Work Routine,’ having a regular sleep-wake cycle is part of what contributes to my creativity.

After getting up, I do my daily exercise, shower and shave, walk the dog (or when we haven’t had a dog I just walk about half a mile), and fix breakfast. After eating breakfast I check emails, and then write for a few hours unless I have a scheduled activity outside the house.

After a couple hours writing, I take another walk. Then, if the weather is good I sit on my deck for two hours, smoking my pipe and either reading, taking pictures of the birds that visit the feeder, or making notes in one of my journals.

Two to three days each week, when I don’t have scheduled activity away from home, I take a two-hour nap from 2:00 to 4:00. As you get older, you too might find this a refreshing way to recharge and build energy.

In the evening, around 6:00, I feed and walk the dog again, wash up and eat supper, and then watch about two hours of TV. After getting my idiot tube fix, I hit the keyboard again and write until around 10:30, or sometimes 11:00, then I go to bed.

I do this Sunday through Saturday, holidays included. When I travel, it’s much the same except for walking the dog and fixing breakfast—I eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant on the road.

What follows is my writing work routine, and you’ll see how my daily life schedule fits it—and, hopefully, how all this feeds into what little creativity I possess.

My Work (writing, photography, and art) Routine

My focus here is on writing primarily. For starters, I have a daily writing quota of at least 2,000 words per day (I once did 1,000, but now that I no longer have a full-time day job working for someone else, I find it quite easy to make the 2,000 quota, and quite often exceed it by several thousand words. I do this regardless of any other planned activity, writing in portable journals I always carry with me when I travel. I write blog postings, book reviews, and work on whatever book project that is in progress—often having two or three books going at the same time.

I spend at least one hour each day reading. I read everything; books for review in several genres, books for pleasure—also in several genres, but mainly mysteries, thrillers, history, and science fiction—checking current news both local and international. When I’m reading, even for pleasure, I make notes of passages that strike me as exceptionally well done. These become guides or jogs for my own writing.

When I’m working on a book project, I write until I’ve reached a point where the ideas begin to slow, but not before I’ve done 2,000 words. I never stop at the end of a chapter, though, writing at least the first paragraph of the next chapter before closing it out. This makes it easier to pick up the next day.

Before I start on a book project, I do a rough chapter or section outline with main plot themes, characters involved, and the action for each chapter. I make character lists, with names, origins, ages, gender, occupation, and special characteristics of each character listed, and refer to them frequently as I write. I also do a timeline for the whole book, with start and end date, and then research to learn what historical events took place during that period. Sometimes the events will be specifically referred to, and at other times, I’ll have a character react to some historical event. I find this adds authenticity to stories and helps put readers more into what’s going on.

Sometimes I’ll devote most of a day to either photography or art (drawing and painting). For either I’m thematic. For instance, if I’m taking pictures, I’ll focus on birds or landscapes. Same with art, I’ll pick a specific subject and do drawings or paintings of that subject for a few hours.

How my Routine Helps my Creativity

At this point, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with creativity. Well, since I have my day pretty well mapped out, and I’ve been doing it so long I no longer have to think consciously about it—for instance, when I put on my shoes I always put the left shoe on first for some reason. This leaves my mind free to focus on the creative aspects of my work. While I’m cooking my breakfast, for instance, I’ll be thinking about my work in progress. I might, for example, think about how preparing a meal could be worked into my current story, and how it might be used to foreshadow a key event in the story.

Even when I’m out taking pictures, my mind is taking in details of my surroundings. What sounds do I hear? How does the ground feel beneath my feet? What does the forest smell like at certain times of the day, or during different seasons? What color is the sky in the early morning as compared to late afternoon? All of these can add to the depth and richness of what you write.

Even when I’m taking my afternoon nap, my mind is working. I usually fall asleep thinking about my work in progress, and when I wake up, I’m one of a fortunate few people who can vividly remember my dreams. Immediately upon waking up, I go to my journal and jot down the most memorable parts of my dreams.

Now, I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. By having a well-established routine, your mind is free to roam; to go off on those creative tangents that help to enliven your writing. You get more done—sort of two for one, if you will—the day-to-day activities of life get done, and at the same time you are creating what could very well be something a great number of people would enjoy reading or seeing.

#IWSG: Where Story Ideas Come From – 2

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup In this month’s offering for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group monthly blog, I’d like to continue my post from last month about the source of ideas for the stories I write. First, though, a few words about the group. This is a posting on the first Wednesday of each month by some outstanding bloggers from around the world addressing the insecurities and fears of writing as well as advice and tips on how to get the most out of your talent. You should pop over and check it out, and while you’re there, sign up to join this august crew.

Okay, enough promotion, now on to the finale of ‘where story ideas come from,’ an adaptation of a post I did a few years ago.

When I started writing the Al Pennyback mystery series, I didn’t have a specific sub-genre in mind.  It’s not a hardboiled mystery with a hero who is always battling bad guys; nor is it a procedural mystery – I go light on the technical aspects of crimes, criminals, or police procedures.  I was just going for a good story that had a crime as a central element, which the hero, Al Pennyback, would then set about solving.

My main motivation for writing this particular series was the fact that I live in the Washington, DC area, and have for more than 30 years, and most of the stories set in this locale are about politicians, spies, or high-powered lobbyists.  I know that the average Joe and Jane who happens to call the Washington metro area home lives a life that can be just as exciting as the K Street crowd, or the boys across the river in McLean, so, about ten years ago I started drafting.

My first, Color Me Dead, went through more than six years of rewriting; the title changed, the central plot changed, and most importantly, the name and background of the main character changed.  I no longer remember what I called him at first, but, one day as I was sweating over the tenth or twentieth draft, Al Pennyback was born.  He’s an African-American; after all, the area is predominantly African-American; he’s retired military; being retired military, I can relate to that, and the area also has loads of retired military people; and he’s a sucker for puzzles and unsolved mysteries.  Despite, or because of, his military background, he hates guns, preferring to use his wits or his martial arts ability to get out of tight spots.  He’s a widower; gives him an air of sympathy; but, has a girl friend.  The sex scenes are only hinted at.  I think too many modern mysteries go overboard on the sex.  And, the language is mostly mild. On occasion, Al or one of the characters lets fly with an earthy expletive, because that’s the way people talk after all, but you won’t find curse words on every page.

That’s sort of the definition of a cozy mystery; cosy in British English; but, I didn’t set out to write cozies.  Despite that, one of my British readers has decided that’s the sub-genre of at least one of the stories in the series, Dead Man’s Cove.  He gave it such a good review, I don’t have the heart to argue the point.

Following the advice given in most books on writing, I try to show, not tell.  I let the characters’ dialogue and action move the story rather than filling page after page with exposition or descriptions.

Now, the question one might well ask is; where do the ideas for this series come from?  The answer is – everywhere.  I read newspapers, print and online, and every edition has at least one story idea.  Till Death Do Us Part, for instance, came from an article I read in a South African newspaper on a flight from Capetown to Copenhagen a few years ago about a couple who’d come to Johannesburg on vacation and been victims of a carjacking.  The wife was killed, but the husband escaped unharmed.  It turned out later that he’d arranged the incident in order to get rid of his wife.  I changed the setting to Jamaica and was off to the races.

I’ve done two books about radical militias, Dead, White, and Blue and Deadly Intentions.  The proliferation of militias and other hate groups in the U.S. over the past several decades has always concerned me, so this was a natural.

Deadline started out as a story about scams against lonely women, but about one-third into the first draft I decided to throw a ghost in just for the heck of it.  I’m a bit agnostic about ghosts – I don’t know that they are real, but I don’t know that they’re not, so there you are.

Whatever motivates the story idea, my main objective is to write a story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the page to see what happens next.

There you have it; that’s where story ideas come from. I’ll bet if you stop and think about it, you’ll find that your inspiration is similar.

#IWSG: Where Story Ideas Come From – 1

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup It’s that time again – time for another issue of Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group First Wednesday postings. Despite it being April 1, I’m not treating readers like fools, but I am reissuing a post I did long before becoming a part of IWSG, on where my story ideas come from. Hope you like it, and do suggest you go on over to Alex’s site to check out how you can become part of a great blogging experience.

Ideas for writing come from all kinds of places.  My Buffalo Soldier historical series grew out of a combination of inspirations. One day, I was sitting at my computer, surfing the Internet, and I came across a site about the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry on the western frontier, and I realized that not many Americans know a lot about the colorful history of these African-American soldiers and the role they played in the westward expansion of the country.

The germ of an idea was planted.  What if I did a series of short stories (more like novelettes actually) that introduced them to readers?  The more I thought about it the more it excited me.  Several years ago, when I lived in North Carolina, I was a writer and artist for a short-lived magazine, Buffalo that was based in California.  I had a regular cartoon feature, did a few historical articles, and did the illustrations for several of the magazine’s covers.

So, I already had a bit of grounding in the subject; it was just a matter of how to kick it off.  I decided to center it on a few fictional characters, with the main character, Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Carter, and show the kinds of activities they were engaged in.  While I strive to make it historically accurate, I try to avoid long lectures on history.  Instead, I insert the historical facts and incidents in through the characters’ dialogue, or short descriptive passages to establish context.  My main objective is to tell an interesting story that will keep the reader turning the page.

I can’t be sure I’ve succeeded.  Reader feedback has been limited, but what has been received is encouraging.  raise indeed.  My friend, Zimbabwean author Virginia Phiri (Highway Queen), who has read and reviewed a number of my books, also commended the series, describing them as ‘good writing, and good reading.’

I use a lot of my own military background, as well as my childhood in Texas during the 50s and 60s, to establish the social, cultural, and geographic setting, as well as trying to make the language used by the characters as credible as possible.  None of the specific incidents in the stories are real, but they’re all based on historical events of the era after the Civil War when America was opening up the western frontier to settlement and development.

I do research on a continuing basis seeking new story ideas, and to make sure that the equipment, tactics, and events have a ring of credibility.  For instance, during my research, I discovered that the US Cavalrymen, contrary to what you might see in the movies, didn’t use repeating rifles during this period.  They used the single shot Springfield because the army viewed it as more reliable and durable than the new Winchester repeaters, and it was cheaper.  Even in those days, the government was concerned about the bottom line.  I also learned that white soldiers received $24 dollars a month pay, and black soldiers $12 – which wasn’t bad money in the 1870s when you consider that when I enlisted in 1962, my pay was $72 per month.

So, you see, ideas for your writing can come from anywhere.  You just have to open all the doors and windows in your mind and let the light shine in.

#IWSG – What Does it Mean to ‘Write What You Know’?

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupHere we are again – first Wednesday, and time for another session of Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, a forum of writing advice, pats on the back, and anecdotes on the writing life to help us all get over those little bumps in the road. You should drop over and take a look at all the great writers who are a part of this group, whose mission is to ‘rock the neurotic world of writing.’

I want to talk this month about an issue that I’ve addressed before, but taking a different tack. If you’ve read any writing advice or instruction books, you’re sure to have seen the commandment, ‘write what you know.’ Unfortunately, too many people take this advice quite literally, and believe they can only write about things they’ve personally experienced. Big mistake – and just plain wrong. Thing about it. If all writers took this advice literally, we’d have no great works of historical fiction. Think, for instance of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. Since she wrote of prehistoric times, there’s no way she could have directly experienced it, or even learned about if from direct sources. She studied it intensively, and then used her imagination to create a story that even years later I remember vividly. Her book was even better than the movie.

So, what does it mean, ‘write what you know’? I think it means that you should do what Auel did. Learn as much as you can about your subject, and then let your imagination do the rest. I write a series of novels about the Buffalo Soldiers of the post-Civil War era on the Western frontier. I spent time in the army, so I understand military tactics and protocol, but mainly I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about the era, the weapons, events, etc. And, I try to infuse the color of the time into my stories, all of which are fictional, with a backdrop of historical events for authenticity.

Unless you possess a completely blank brain, you can do the same. Write what you know, but resolve to know something new every day. That way, you’ll never run out of things to write about.

See you next month.

#IWSG: To Write or To Have Written: Which is More Important?

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For my second Insecure Writer’s Support Group offering of 2015, I wax a bit philosophical about writing. This is also, by the way, the second year of my participation in Alec Cavanaugh’s blogging effort. Comments are welcome, and if you have anything to contribute, check the IWSG link and sign up.

InsecureWritersSupportGroupWhen I worked in Zimbabwe (2009 – 2012) I wrote occasional opinion pieces that appeared in the independent press which was opposed to the government. Some of the more popular of those pieces were put together in a little book which was provided to schools and youth groups. The book, Where You Come From Matters Less Than Where You’re Going, was quite popular, but aroused the ire of the government even more than the original editorials had, generating weeks of back and forth over, of all things, the title. I defended the title, while the government’s propagandists attacked it vigorously. Looking back, I now realize that a better title might have been The Journey is More Important than the Destination.

I mention that episode as a digression of sorts to introduce a topic that I’ve been thinking about lately – is it more important to write, or to have written? Now, working on book number 52 that might seem like an academic or even moot question for me, but it’s not. The question ‘do I want to be known as a person who writes, or as a person who has written?’ is still a valid one. It’s in fact a question that every writer should ask – and answer.

I think I know the answer for myself. After I’ve finished writing something, except for the unavoidable marketing once it’s published, I pretty much forget about it because I’m already working on the next; and sometimes thinking about the one after that. Having written is nice, but what really drives me is the desire to write, write, write. I wake up in the morning thinking about writing. I go to sleep at night thinking about writing. Most of the hours in between are about writing. Sometimes I even dream about writing.

You see, having written is a destination. Once you’ve arrived, where do you go next, if that was your focus? Writing, though, is a journey; one that is always fascinating to me because I never know what I’ll encounter in that next sentence, paragraph, or page.

So, stop a moment and ask yourself the question: which is more important to me, writing or having written? Answer it honestly. Then, you’ll know if you’re really a writer.

#IWSG: Writing Your Book in 5 Easy Steps

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Happy New Year, and welcome to 2015. I think this year will be an interesting one for writers. I imagine most of you have made your resolutions for the year, and I hope, if you’re one of those people who have always been threatening to write a book, finally doing it this year will be one of your resolutions.

This is my first post of the year for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group, a dedicated group of bloggers who offer advice, hints, or just anecdotes about the writing life on the first Wednesday of each month. Another of your resolutions should be to consider adding your voice.

For now, though, to my topic of the month, how to get that book written. Here are the steps I follow. This is not the only way, but I offer it for your consideration.

  1. Outline your book. I’m assuming here that you already know what you want to write about. Whether your book is fiction or nonfiction, having a rough outline will help you develop a coherent structure. Like me, you might not be a person who works from a detailed outline – and, that’s okay. I rough out the number of chapters and briefly describe what happens in each. As I write, I often make changes (add or subtract chapters, move action from one chapter to another, etc.). This is much easier to do if you have it written down than if you’re trying to keep it all in your mind. This is also the point when I develop character lists (names, biographies, etc.), locales, time frames, key events, etc.
  2. Do your research. Before you start writing, research the information you want to include in your book. You’ll want to dig up more information than you’ll actually use, but don’t get so involved in research you neglect to do the thing that’s most important – write the darn book.
  3. Develop a writing schedule. Many would-be writers shy away from tackling book length projects because they feel incapable of creating something so vast as a 60,000 word-plus book. If you make a schedule – say, plan to write 1,500 to 2,000 words a day, it is suddenly not so gargantuan. After all, that’s the equivalent of a magazine article a day, and if you write 2,000 words per day you can complete the project in 30 days. That’s right; you can write a full-length book in a month.
  4. Write it. When you’ve completed steps 1 – 4, the only thing left to do is write. When you begin, let the creative juices flow. Don’t try to edit or proofread as you write. Get the story down on the page – or on the screen. You’ll want to take some time writing that first chapter. That’s the one that most often determines whether or not readers will keep reading. Take some time to get it right. While writing that first chapter, give a lot of thought to the two most important parts – the first sentence and the last. It’s a good practice to end each writing day by writing the first sentence or two, or even a paragraph, of the following chapter. This helps keep you on track when you pick up the following day.
  5. After you’re finished writing, let it cool, then edit rigorously. When you write that last sentence, put the book away for a few days. Take walks, start making notes of your next project, grab a camera and take pictures – anything to take your mind off the book you just finished writing. Then, after a few days, go back to page one and read it line-by-line, word-by-word for typos, grammatical errors, or formatting glitches, correcting as you go. When that’s done, go back and read it again for plot, flow, dialogue, and the other things that you look for in a good book.

If this sounds simple, it actually is, and the more you do it, the less intimidating writing a book becomes. It’s said that each of us has a novel inside. Some of us have more than one – and maybe a nonfiction book or two as well. These five simple steps can help you get them out where they belong, in the hands of readers.

#IWSG: Writing Book Reviews – A Great Way to Improve Your Own Writing

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupHere is it, the first Wednesday of the month again, and time for another offering for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group. It also happens to be the last first Wednesday of 2014, and I want to take the opportunity to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this fantastic blogging community, offering advice and commiseration to fellow writers. Go here to join in and to see all the great blogs that are participating. This month, I’d like to offer a little advice on a way to improve your writing that you might not have thought of – writing book reviews.

All good writers are avid readers. I doubt that anyone would seriously disagree with that statement. Reading is a way to see how others do it, and learn new things – all important to a writer. If you seriously want to become an effective writer; one that people want to read; you should read, and read widely. Not just in the genre that you write, but broadly. You’d be surprised at the things you might learn by reading authors of a genre you’d never think of writing in. I, for instance, would never try to write a romance novel, but I find the way many good romance writers handle dialogue quite useful when I’m writing a mystery or western. I also like the way they handle character emotions. I’d never go so far in my own writing, but I do pick up some great ideas.

Back, though, to my main point – book reviews. Going beyond mere reading, and delving into a book in order to review it, is an effective way to improve your own writing techniques. As you read a book for review, pay close attention to the parts that particularly impress you – positively or negatively – and make a note of why that is so. In reviewing a novel once, by a fairly competent wordsmith who was a master at plotting, I found myself irritated that the author used one word – I forget the specific word now – over and over throughout the book. About halfway through, I found myself counting the number of times this particular word appeared. Later, as I was working on one of my own manuscripts, sensitive to what I’d just gone through, I picked up an annoying habit I had – I was obsessed with the word ‘nodded.’ I had characters nodding two or three times per chapter; sometimes more. I then went back through a couple of books I’d already published, and, what do you know – there was that damned ‘nodded’ cropping up over and over again. I have to confess, I haven’t totally eliminated the word from my vocabulary, but I am now more sensitive to its use, and I try to find alternative ways of indicating a characters assent to something. If I hadn’t noticed another author doing it – and if I hadn’t been reviewing the book, I might not have – I’d probably still be peppering my manuscripts with ‘nodded.’

I also get great story ideas from reviewing other books. After all, there are no new ideas; just old ideas dressed up in new clothes. My YA novel Wallace in Underland came to me when I was reading an autobiography of Lewis Carroll.

So, among all the things you’re doing to hone your skill as a writer, don’t ignore the humble book review.

#IWSG: Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking and Sell More Books

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup Here we are, the first Wednesday of the month, and time for another contribution to Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Group. If you’d like to share your thoughts, hints, or fears about writing, go here to join in. This week, I’d like to share my thoughts about a fear that can be turned to the advantage of every writer seeking to more widely promote his or her work – the fear of public speaking.

Most people have an almost irrational fear of speaking before an audience – many fear that more than death. But, for a way to get your writing known by a wider audience, using public speaking opportunities is one that should not be ignored.

I have, like many, had a fear of making public speeches. When I was a teenager, during my freshman year in high school, I would get tongue-tied and absolutely panicky at the prospect of getting up in front of a group and talking. Luckily, I had a freshman home room teacher who recognized the fear and had a way to help me overcome it. During the early weeks of the semester, she would make me stand in front of the classroom until I said something – anything. Her shock therapy worked. After a few weeks, I found it possible to speak without stuttering, and after I said something funny one morning and cracked the whole room up, my fear was mostly conquered. I’m now a regular on the podium, speaking on a range of topics with which I’m familiar. I still get the occasional attack of nerves, but once I start interacting with an audience, the jitters disappear.

Enough background – what you want to know is how I use these occasions to promote my books. It’s really simple, and it has worked well for me.

First, I always take a good supply of my business cards to events. My cards contain links to my blogs and to my Amazon author page which contains ‘buy’ links for all my books. I also take along a few copies of books – preferably, but not always, related to the subject of my speech. I place them where they can be easily seen by the audience, and during breaks and at the conclusion of my remarks, I’m always asked about them by two or three attendees. As we discuss them, I hand out cards. After each such event, I’ve noticed an uptick in my sales – and, not just the books on display, but others as well. After one speech on ethics at the Army Command and General Staff College, for instance, where I had copies of my Buffalo Soldier western/historical series (appropriate to the venue since the Buffalo Soldier memorial is there), sales of one of the books in the series jumped to 800 for the month, and each other volume in the series had increases from 2 – 3 copies to over 20 each. In addition, the staff college foundation magazine did a feature on me and my books, which still generates sales of that series.

At a speaking engagement at Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, I got into a conversation on writing during a break in the session, and several people asked for my card or for links to my books online. Again, that month I had an uptick in sales.

Contrary to some cynics, word of mouth is an effective way to sell books, and one of the most effective mouths to start that process rolling is your own. Public speaking shouldn’t be scary. When you stand before an audience – hopefully, talking about a subject with which you’re familiar – you can and should be in control of the situation. Like any other skill, it improves with practice. So, get over that fear of public speaking, and get out there and sell your books!

 

#IWSG: Finding the right voice in your writing

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup It’s time once again for my contribution to Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group, where bloggers weigh in on issues relating to writing – problems or advice on how to improve your writing. If you’re interested in being a part of this select group, go here to join. This month I’d like to talk about voice in writing.

One of the most difficult things for beginning writers of fiction – or any other type of writing for that matter – is finding their unique voice. Writing guides and advice books pour out reams of advice on this aspect of writing. The problem is that most never clearly define what they mean by voice.

After decades of pounding out millions of words, I must confess that I remain in something of a fog myself on this problematic aspect of the writing craft – or art, depending upon your point of view.

My fog, though, is not so dense that I don’t have a vague idea of what is meant by voice in fiction, so I’ll add to the pool of thought on the issue.

Multiple Voices

Looking at my own writing over time, I’ve come to realize that any work of fiction has multiple voices. First, there’s the individual writer’s voice; the unique way a writer expresses him or herself. It is the author’s style or unique way of expressing personality, character or attitude. It is shown in the choice of words, how sentences or paragraphs are structured that conveys that individual’s uniqueness.

Of equal importance is the voice of the characters in the story. It is the speech and thought patterns, or persona, of a first-person narrator, or the speech patterns and mannerisms of characters in third-person POV. Careful selection and differentiation of speech patterns of characters makes it easier for readers to identify individual characters even in the absence of tags or descriptions, which can help the flow of your writing.

Finding Your Voices

The best way to find your own voice in your writing is to let it find you. Know your story and where you want it to go – what impression you want it to make on a reader, and then write the words you hear in your mind as you mentally map out the story. What word selections or sentence structures do you find natural when you write? Let them flow and your voice will emerge. What do you want your reader to feel or think about your writing? Select the words and sentences that convey that. That is you communicating to your reader in your unique voice.

As for character voices, what image of the character do you want the reader to have? Chose words and mannerisms that convey that image, being careful not to have every character act or speak in the same way. Presto! Your character’s voice will emerge, and the character will come alive for the reader.

You’ll notice I haven’t made any specific suggestions – short versus long sentences, long versus short paragraphs, colorful metaphors, etc. For your own voice, pick the ones that are you, and for your characters, pick the ones that convey the image you want the reader to have.

Finding an appropriate voice in writing is like learning to ride a bike. You keep getting back up and pedaling every time you fall down, and one day you’ll discover that you’re no longer falling.

You will have found that elusive voice.

#IWSG: Dealing with Mindlessly Negative Reviews

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It’s that time again, the monthly posting for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group, where we talk about a host of things, from problems to solutions. If you’re interested in participating, go here to join. My post this month is on dealing with not just negative reviews, but those that are mindless, pointless, vapid outpourings of people who probably haven’t even read your book.  Read on. Comment if you care to.

 If you publish what you write, you put your work out there for all to see – and comment upon. We all would like to get all five-star reviews that wax eloquent about our deathless prose and fantastic story-telling ability. But, not everyone will like what you write, so you have to be prepared for the occasional negative review. If you’re smart, you’ll not respond to such reviews, but you will take note of them, for they might just give you advice that could improve your future efforts.

There’s one category of review, though, that is negative, and doesn’t help you at all. That’s the review that mindlessly slams your writing – often for the most vapid of reasons. The ease of posting comments (including reviews) on the Internet makes this one of the unavoidable facets of the writing life. How do you deal with it?

How, for instance, do you deal with a one-sentence, one-star review that doesn’t even talk about your book? I recently received one of those, and after I stopped fuming, I laughed. The review said nothing about my book, so I don’t know if the reviewer even read it. It was, however, a verified purchase, so, unless this person returns it for a refund, I at least get paid for it. As useless as it was, it also put the title out there for others to notice, and I can only hope that more rational readers will see the review for what it is – or isn’t – and maybe be curious enough to get the book for themselves and form their own opinions.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep on writing; keep putting my stuff out there; and hope for the best. Or, if not the best, at least more fair and legitimate reviews that help guide other readers to my work. Have any readers who are also writers received reviews that make no sense? Share your ‘worst’ review of this type in the comments below

#IWSG: Advice – To Follow or Not To Follow, That’s The Question

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It’s that time again – time for another contribution to Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group. You should really pop over and join. My offering this month is about following (or not) advice.

InsecureWritersSupportGroupThere’s tons of advice out there for writers: how-to, what you shouldn’t do, you could fill the Library of Congress with it. I’m taking a poke at one piece of advice in particular – some people are adamant that you should never give what you write away for free as this devalues it. I’m not taking a side, nor am I attempting to debunk that belief. I’m doing what all the how-to authors should do, and telling you what works for me.

I’ve been publishing my books on Kindle for several years, but I resisted participating in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDP Select) program for a long time because of the aforementioned advice. It was only after I’d launched my Buffalo Soldier series that I decided to give the KDP free offer a shot. I did the free 5-day giveaway with the fourth in the series at the same time I published the fifth, just to see what would happen. Up to that time I’d been getting 3 – 5 sales per month. That month, though, after over 600 downloads of the free book, I saw a significant uptick in sales of the earlier books. The new book also had amazing sales (nearly 800 during the first three weeks).

Since then I’ve been doing a 3 to 5-day giveaway each month. My sales went up after I started the practice, with an average of 100 – 150 per month. I can’t attribute all of the new sales to the promotion, but then again, who knows. Maybe it is a bad idea to give your work away, but then again – –

#IWSG: Putting the People in Your Stories

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It’s absolutely amazing how often first Wednesday’s come around – like once a month, and to a busy writer, that’s like light speed. Well, here’s another installment for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a group of bloggers who share hints, fears, tips, and a lot of good dope on the writing life. You should pop over to Alec’s site to get a gander at some of the great blogs in this group. In the meantime, here’s a little piece on what to do about secondary characters in your stories:

InsecureWritersSupportGroupYou’ve done your book outline, created fully-rounded main characters, given your protagonist(s) daunting challenges, planted clues, and painted scenery that adds to the suspense and mystery, so you think you’re ready to dash off 40 to 50,000 words of deathless prose. Think again. There’s one more thing you need to do to have a story that your readers can really dive into – you need to create a cast of walk-ons – the nameless supporting characters that make your story truly come alive for your readers.

In the movies, the background characters never  have names. They’re merely ‘the policeman at the intersection’ or ‘the convenience store clerk,’ but, without them, a story is one dimensional. It’s little more than the main characters talking to each other against a flat backdrop. The same is true of written fiction. Background or supporting characters add the necessary color and authenticity that makes it possible for a reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy your story.

While it’s not necessary to spend a lot of time crafting these characters, care must be taken to keep them from being flat, cardboard stereotypes that can turn a reader off. By flat, I mean characters like ‘the vapid blonde’ or the ‘stingy Scotchman.’ If your protagonist enters a store or fills up at a service station, he or she is likely to interact briefly, or at least notice, the staff. Without using too many words, paint a picture of these characters that adds a touch of realism to the scene. Getting to know the demographics of your setting is the way to do this. Who, for instance, is most likely to be a taxi driver in your area during the time of your story? In Washington, DC, where many of my stories are set, during the 1970s until the late 1990s, most cabbies were African – mainly Nigerian. In the past decade or so, that demographic has altered. Now, many DC cab drivers are from west Asia – Bangladesh or Pakistan. In many of the city’s urban neighborhoods, the convenience stores were once run by Koreans, but that too has changed. Now, your protagonist is likely to buy from an Indian or an Ethiopian.

If you want these characters to be more than cardboard props who make change, study the cultures and even though they remain nameless, have them speak and act in character. This can be done through dialogue. Many Asian languages, for instance, form plurals of nouns by merely adding a number rather than changing the noun. In Korean, for example, the word for man is nam-ja. A man is not ‘a man’, but merely ‘man,’ and more than one man is not ‘men,’ but ‘two man’ or ‘many man’ (tu nam-ja or mani nam-ja) and often a foreigner will, when speaking English, do a direct translation from his or her own language, making these phrases come out ‘two man’ or ‘many man.’ Inserting such a phrase in a bit of the character’s dialogue, along with a description, effectively paints the picture. Be judicious, though, when you do this. Once or twice is enough to let the reader know the character’s background, and if the character speaks again, even if you write it in standard English, the reader will make the translation because you’ve already set it up.

It can also add interest if you turn stereotypes around. The ‘dumb blonde’ for instance, could be a blonde receptionist who is reading a copy of National Geographic or Scientific American. With just that bit of prose, you’ve created a character that will stand out in the reader’s mind.

Creating credible secondary characters can make your story stand out, and is worth the effort you put into it. And, it’s not all that difficult. Keep a journal with you as you travel, and make notes of interesting people you see – how they dress, how they speak, and any peculiar mannerisms. Then, when you have to insert a walk-on character into your story, mix and match your observations. Don’t name them unless they will play a part in the story at a later point. A brief description that makes them unique is enough.

You’ll find that rounding out your supporting cast will make your story come alive.

 

#IWSG: Engaging all a Reader’s Senses

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InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s another first Wednesday, which means it’s time for another Insecure Writer Support Group post. Hope this bit on engaging readers’ senses will help all you up and coming scribes out there.

 

PUT YOUR READER FULLY IN THE PICTURE

If you want readers to identify with – and hopefully love – what you write, you have to engage them in the story. This of course means having characters with whom readers can identify and snappy dialogue that moves the story along. Another element of the story, though, that should not be overlooked is the setting. Giving readers a good sense of time and place puts the characters and their witty dialogue in a frame that will help with a reader’s effort to become a part of the story. Every tale takes place somewhere, and how you describe that ‘somewhere’ is important.

Setting can be described in detail – as some authors do – or sketchily. I tend to the latter. Which road you take is up to you, but if you engage all the reader’s senses, she’ll go along for the ride.

Sight

A room, a house, a town, whatever; what does it look like? Is it neat or messy? Gloomy or well-lit? You can use visual descriptions of the setting to help set the mood for your story, or even foreshadow events in the story. By letting your character(s) react to what the scene looks like, you can use it to give the reader clues to them as well.

Sound

Do the floorboards creak? What about the sound of wood settling in the cool of the evening air? The sounds of traffic or birds singing? You don’t need to go into excessive detail. A few words about the sounds in a particular setting tell the reader where they are.

Touch

This sense is often overlooked in describing settings, but used properly it can do a lot to help establish the setting in a reader’s mind. The smooth hardness of a metal door knob or the silkiness of a linen bedspread can evoke memories for some readers – or, more importantly, for your character as he or she navigates the setting.

Smell

Think back to your childhood. Remember the smell of bacon frying early in the morning, the pungent, sweet smell of the trees in a pine forest? How about the dusty smell of a closet, or the talcum that your favorite aunt sprinkled on her ample bosom?  Everything has an odor, and describing a few of the main smells of a place will help to make it unique.

Taste

You probably think this is reaching, but think again. Think about how your mother’s cooking tasted as compared to the same dish at the local greasy spoon.  How does your food taste when you’re angry or upset? I’ll wager not the same as when you’re happy. While description of taste is character-specific, when done in conjunction with a particular setting it can be extremely effective in establishing mood or motivation.

If you want to see how setting is used effectively in fiction, check out the works of some of the masters.  George Orwell in 1984, for instance, opened with “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  Another excellent example of describing setting is from William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” As a final example, here is Sinclair Lewis in Babbitt, “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.”