Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas for a Writer

Just because it's Christmas, I don't stop writing. In fact, for the last 20 years I've composed a special Christmas article that I enclose in a card with the same theme. Unlike the letters many people write, telling of their families trials and tribulations during the past year, my article is about some little-known fact about celebrating Christmas. It's not only a way of practicing my craft, but also a way of giving something tangible to my friends and family.

This year, the number of Christmas cards I have received has dwindled down to two.  Perhaps it’s the cost of postage that prevented many from sending holiday greetings. Or perhaps it’s that most people are just too busy. Whatever the reason, the days of sending Christmas greetings seem to be on the wane. But that hasn’t prevented me from writing my usual Christmas story. The only difference is that I’ve sent it out electronically by Email.

Another big difference in my holiday story is its format. In the beginning, I struggled with the technology to produce a rather crude one-page story with no illustrations. Today, my stories are three pages long with colorful illustrations—a true gift for my family and friends. And who cares if most of them don’t acknowledge my greeting. At least I’ve taken the time to create it.

To read this year's edition, go to my Web site  to read  my Christmas story for 2016, then click on the link "More Christmas Articles" at the bottom of that page and enjoy.

So while I may write about more mundane subjects throughout the year, it’s often Christmas that brings out the best in me. And while it may be too late to compose your own Christmas story for this year, there’s always 2017.

Here’s wishing you all a happy and joyful Christmas and a New Year filled with success.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Writing S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Goals

Success takes planning. And planning means that to achieve success in your writing you need to set down some goals. And right now—the end of the year—is the best time to do that.

For an easy and efficient way to write down your goals, use the S.M.A.R.T.E.R. acronym. Each letter directs you to one of the seven elements of writing goals in a way that makes sure that you cover all of them and get to your end result. So what does each letter stand for?

“S” Stands for “Specific”

Note your intention and describe precisely what you want to do. The more detailed you are, the better. By writing down specific details, you’ll find it much easier to plan the progress of your writing career. If you can’t visualize what you’ve written, then it’s not specific enough for a goal.

“M” Stands for “Measurable”
Decide how you’ll know you’ve completed a goal. Tracking your progress motivates you to take appropriate actions so that you continue to progress. The more successful your progress, the more motivated you’ll be to do the next step, and so on. Creating  clear milestones will allow you to benefit from recognizing and celebrating your work.

“A” Stands for “Attainable”
Stretch the comfort zone of your abilities, but be careful not to overdo it. Goals you set beyond your true abilities slow down your progress. You end up going on a guilt trip for not achieving them even though they were unrealistic for your abilities or the current level of your career.

Before you set down any goal, be sure to assess your capacity to achieve it. Make sure you possess the skills and the resources required to take the next step. If not, what do you have to do, learn, or add to make this happen?

Setting goals that are too difficult will definitely discourage you to move on. Setting them too low tells you that you aren’t capable. So set the bar high enough for a feeling of achievement when you do succeed.

“R” Stands for “Realistic”
Make sure you have the determination, habits and willpower to do what it takes to reach your goal from where you are at the moment. What will you realistically do regularly so that you move from where you are now to closer to where you want to be? Do you have the drive to write, the discipline to do it in a business-like manner, and the consistent work habit required to succeed as a writer? If not, what do have to do to change your attitude or expectations?

“T” Stands for “Timed”

When setting down goals, timing is all important. Give yourself a deadline so you can schedule actions and milestones. Putting an end point to your goal gives you a clear point on the horizon to which you can work. Set a time frame to take these actions and review your results as you go. If you don’t set a timeline, your commitment will be too vague. The goal doesn’t happen because you feel you can start at any time. Without a time limit, there’s no urgency to start taking action now. There’s no driving need to take specific actions at specific times.

When will you take these actions, and at what intervals will you review your results? If you’ve done the task before, you’ll have an idea if your time estimate is accurate. If you don’t sufficient experience with a task or action, you should triple your time estimate. Do you need to complete the actions in a particular sequence? Do any of the actions depend on the actions of other people? Will their schedules fit yours? How can you build in some extra time to make sure your timing isn’t too tight?

“E” Stands for “Energy”

Decide to concentrate your energy to work on your goals. Use your energy in a way that feeds your motivation to keep going towards the end results you desire. You may want to get an article or short story published, but doing everything but getting down to writing either of them and it will be too late, especially if the article or story is timely.

“R” Stands for “Rewards for Results”
Give yourself a reward for persevering and achieving your results and acknowledge what it took to get them. To keep yourself motivated, jot down what you’ll do when you achieve your goal. Something as simple as calling a friend to share your satisfaction or taking yourself out for an extra special treat are examples.

Having a series of milestones creates a situation where progress seems to “pull you forward.” One success builds on another. This not only gives you a solid feeling but the  confidence to set even higher goals. Your confidence builds your competence as you build your success. And remember, at the end of the quarter or the year, review your accomplishments. You may just surprise yourself.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Storytelling is All About Tension

Tension resides at the heart of every story. Alongside it stands unmet desire. Every story is about a protagonist who wants something but cannot get it. As soon as he or she gets it, the story ends. And each time you resolve a problem, you escalate your plot.

Many beginning writers start out their story with a hook that grabs the reader. But then the writer must explain the hook before continuing on with the story. That’s the opposite of escalation—and the end of the forward movement of the story.

Tension drives a story forward. When you resolve tension, you lose the momentum of your story. Many books on writing short stories differentiate between “character-driven” and “plot-driven” stories. In fact, neither character nor plot drives a story forward—only unmet desire does.

You might include page after page of interesting information about your character, but that won’t move the story along, either. It just causes it to stall. Until readers know what your protagonist wants, they won’t know what your story is about and won’t be able to worry or care about whether or not the character’s desires are eventually met.

Plot is a series of related events that the protagonist experiences as he or she moves through a crisis or into a life-changing situation. You might include chase scene after chase scene, but readers won’t care that one car is following another down the street, until they know what the stakes are. If you don’t spell out what the result will be, they simply won’t care. A story isn’t driven forward by events but by tension. Therefore, all stories are “tension-driven” stories.

In order to deepen the tension in your story, you’ll need to create two struggles that play off each other. The protagonist’s external struggle is a problem that you need to resolve. His or her internal struggle is a question that you need to answer. The interplay of these two struggles complement each other until, at the climax, the resolution of one gives the protagonist the skills, insights or wherewithal to resolve the other.

The genre in which you write will force you to use certain conventions that will dictate the precedence of the internal or external struggle in your story. To write successful, marketable stories, you’ll need to include both an internal struggle that helps readers empathize with the protagonist, and an external struggle that helps drive the movement of the story toward its exciting climax.

Your story needs to progress toward more and more conflict, with more intimate struggles and deeper tension to hold a reader’s interest.

The plot must always thicken. Because of that, repetition is the enemy of escalation. Every explosion, sex scene, or conversion means less and less to the reader, simply because repetition serves to work against the escalation of tension in your story.

Instead, continually make things worse for your protagonist. In doing so, you’ll make him or her better for the reader. Start out in the middle of an action and build the tension in your story until its logical conclusion.



Friday, December 2, 2016

Promotion, Promotion, Promotion Redux



This week marks the eighth anniversary of this blog. A lot has happened in eight years, both to me and to my writing. For one thing, I’ve moved on to publishing my own magazine, an ezine, or online magazine. And today, the theme of one of the first blogs I wrote on promotion is more relevant than ever. For today, I have the ability to connect to thousands of readers through social media.



In that early blog, I mentioned that in real estate, the motto is "location, location, location." Today, it doesn’t matter where I’m located because people from all over the world can read my work. I’m not longer limited to the readership of one magazine or to only U.S. sales of my books. Instead, thousands of readers can sit back in the comfort of their own homes or vehicles, or any other place, and read the information I post in my online magazine, The Antiques Almanac. In less than two short years, its readership has gone from a modest 3,300 to over 10,000—all thanks to promotion on social media. And a related blog on antiques, "Antiques Q&A," now has over 127,000 views—nearly 5,000 per month—since it began in 2009.

Sure I can rely on published works to get readers, but today, I have so many more opportunities via the Internet. And while the older generation struggles to use computers and occasionally get online, the younger generation has made this as much a part of their life as texting to friends.

And while producing five issues a year of my ezine is a lot of work, I find it more fulfilling than going the regular publishing route. By publishing it online, I’m able to make direct contact with readers, many of whom send me their questions about antiques.

To see how I’m faring in the world of ezines, I did a search the other day and discovered that most are nothing more than blogs or extended blogs. While they may be called ezines, they really aren’t done in an online magazine format. I’ve carefully designed The Antiques Almanac to reflect the type of content found in print magazines but with the added advantage of interaction. I plan each issue around a theme, an idea I got from a print publication I still write for. I try to make the themes relevant to today’s lifestyles and trends but with a connection to history.

I used to produce a short articles about some facet of Christmas that I would post on my business Web site, Writing at Its Best, and also print out and send to friends inside a related Christmas card. I just posted seven articles, all on the theme of an old-fashioned Christmas, to my antiques ezine. I love researching little known facts about holiday traditions and antiques. These articles are a great way to show my readers that I'm thinking about them at holiday time.

All of my sites—all four of them---are how I promote myself to the world. And they've brought in a lot of business over the years. So if you haven't created a site for yourself already, get started. In fact, make it your New Year's resolution.

But I also use Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and LinkedIn extensively to promote both my ezine and my blogs. You can do this, too. Just remember, "promotion, promotion, promotion."

Saturday, November 26, 2016

What Makes a Great Writer?

You’d think that to be a great writer, you have to be a master wordsmith. While that certainly helps, it takes a bit more to put you at the top and keep you there.

Someone who writes a bestselling book the first time out of the gate may be a good writer, especially if the book is a hit. But it could be the subject matter that sells the book—plus some really great editing.  Having one hit book doesn’t make anyone a great writer, just a lucky one. In fact, can this person even be considered a writer at all or just someone who’s incredibly lucky. Great writing comes with experience and lots and lots of writing. The old saying, “Practice makes perfect,” isn’t far from wrong.

Take Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Some claim her book to be one of the best of all time, but what else did she write? She just happened to write about racism—a really hot topic just about any time—and she did it well. But then nothing for years. Recently, she tried to resurrect one of her old manuscripts, but it more or less fizzled. So in the greater world of writing, she might be considered to have produced a “happy accident,” but she’s not necessarily a great writer.

Then look at writers like Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Ann Rice, and John Updike, and you’ll notice they all have one thing in common—they all have written about various subjects equally well.

Another thing these writers have in common is that they aren’t only aware of the world around them, they scrutinize it’s every detail. So many things occur every day that the number of subjects and even topics within a subject category is almost endless. All of the above writers most likely had so many ideas they didn’t know which to do first.

Prolific writers are students of the world around them. They pay attention to everything because stories worth their time are happening all the time around them. The difference is that they see details others don’t. Their gift is seeing beyond the obvious.

Great writers also know how to fight resistance—that invisible force that works against creativity, production, and progress.  Resistance is that little negative voice that tells you that you can do it tomorrow or that you’re not that good anyway. Resistance is the enemy to anyone who strives to be great. Successful writers are aware of this and know how to fight it.

Creating writing is hard work. Many people who think they want to be writers just don’t make it because they don’t realize just how hard it is. There are probably more half-written novels out there than completed ones.  To be a great writer, you’ll have to keep your head down and move forward regardless of the odds.

If you say no to new ideas, you probably haven’t taken many risks. And writing is a risky business.  Too many beginning writers don’t like to see other succeed where they have failed. And when someone does succeed, they usually don’t know all the details. A great writer believes his or her ideas are possible whether they are or not.

People often see great writers as delusional or egotistic. But it’s really seeing the world for what it could be and expecting nothing less than passion and belief in what they are doing that makes them great.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Tips for Writer/Agent Negotiations

Okay, you’ve decided that you just can’t be successful as a writer unless you have a literary agent representing you. You’ve found one, but just because you're excited someone wants to represent you doesn't mean you should let them take advantage of you. You still must watch out for your own interests. Not all agents are as professional as they should be. Before you sign on the dotted line, be sure to follow these tips while you’re negotiating your contract.

First, find a reputable agent. You’re first thought is: Aren’t all agents reputable. The simple answer is no. Reputable agents generally don’t require payments of any kind when you sign a contract with them for their services. They also don’t charge fees to read your work. And they don’t sell your work to vanity presses. But most importantly, they’ll readily share with you the names of other authors and projects they’ve represented.

Reputable agents don’t charge excessive commissions. Today, the standard is 15 percent for book sales, although you could pay up to 20–25 percent for foreign sales, and 10–20 percent for movie, TV and theatrical sales.

Most reputable agents won’t try to cash in on your speaking fees—they really aren’t entitled to, unless they were directly responsible for getting you the engagement.

Control your agent-related expenses. Ideally your agent won’t charge you for making one or two copies or standard postage, but only for unusual expenses, such as large numbers of copies and priority mail, express or courier services. You agent should work within spending limits that you set and not spend anything over a fixed amount, say $100–$250, without your approval.

Some agents demand that publishers pay them your entire book advance directly, then they’ll send you your share. In most cases, a publisher will send you your 85 percent and the rest to your agent to cover your commission fee. The first incidence can pose a risk. If your agent gets paid your entire advance and then goes bankrupt, you’ll get nothing. Insist that your publisher pay you the entire advance directly, then you pay your agent.

Although most publishers still report and pay royalties semi-annually, typically within three months after the semi-annual period ends—the check for the royalty for a book sold in January will be paid in late September. If your agent insists on receiving all monies owed to you by the publisher, he or she should pay you promptly upon receiving the funds—ideally within 10 days, but no longer than 30.

Above all, you should expect your agent to be honest in their dealings with you., but don’t take that for granted.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Do Beginning Writers Need an Agent?

People generally look for the easy way out on most things. And writers, especially beginners, are no different. So it’s no surprise that many beginning writers believe that in order to succeed in publishing, they have to have a literary agent.

The publishing world is a mess at the moment. It’s no wonder beginners feel that they need help to navigate the confusing maze of publishers and editors. But does having an agent guarantee they’ll get published? Not necessarily.

In the first place, many literary agents won’t even consider taking on beginning writers. And those that do usually are a bit shady in their dealings and take advantage of a beginners ignorance in business matters.

At this point, it might be a good idea to find out just what an agent does for a writer. Essentially, when a writer teams up with an agent, he or she is basically outsourcing the marketing and promotion of their work. A highly successful writer, usually those writing and publishing books, needs someone like this to help with promotional chores. This leaves more time for them to write. But a beginning writer has not such demands on their time. Many beginners usually have just written their first book and are desperate to get it published. They see an agent as an express method of accomplishing this.

A big problem with many agents is that they have a stable of editors and publishers with whom they have close relationships. They rely on these people to place their clients’ work because of past successes. They do this at the exclusion of any other publisher that could possibly want to consider a book, for example.

One writer’s agent sent a book proposal around to 28 different publishers. Each politely declined to publish the book. When he had exhausted his list of publishers with whom he had relationships, the agent stopped sending out the proposal. In the end, the writer never did get his book published.

Another writer worked successfully on a couple of travel books through an agent and a particular publisher. The agent took a hefty 15 percent of his advance as her fee. After completing these two books, the writer decided to try his hand at negotiating himself. He got substantially more money than the agent was able to get him and didn’t have to pay her the 15 percent fee. The writer went on to publish two more books with the same publisher and had the firm consider two more book ideas.

So it comes down to this. Beginning writers are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to publishing their first book. They have no credentials and think that having an agent will miraculously give them some. Also, agent generally don’t promote articles or short stories. The low fees paid for them can’t compare with the advances paid for books. And, let’s face it, 15 percent of not much money isn’t a whole lot.

Next Week: Some tips on writer/agent negotiations.

Monday, November 7, 2016

When Writing and Your Busy Schedule Collide

Every writer perceives the writing process in a differently way. For some the classic rhythm of “Write, edit, revise” is their mantra, for others  order out of chaos rules. But the writing process is flexible, so you can make it serve you by creating your own process.

However, at some point, your busy life and your writing will collide. This leaves you with two ways to go. Become a hermit or get proactive with time management.

Forget choice number one. Do not become a hermit. Isolation will eventually work against you. Don’t remove yourself from your friends and family They will play a major part in the things you achieve. Instead, daydream and seek inspiration whenever you have a moment where getting lost in your ideas won’t be a hazard.

When it comes to making the most of your writing time, there are ways to improve the amount you write, and still have time for your life. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to just  sit down at your favorite place when you have a moment of free time and begin to write. You’ll find this haphazard at best. Instead, schedule your writing just as you would exercise or meals. If you plan on writing say for an hour three times a week, then you’ll look forward to those sessions.

To make the most of the time you do have, you must learn to shut off distractions like Facebook. In order to keep everyone tuned in all the time, Facebook does something pretty sneaky. It may or may not insert a post in your news feed. This causes you to constantly be looking to see if you missed anything. That’s a major distraction which is beginning to cause anti-social behavior in many people. Also, turn off your cell phone. Let voice mail take your messages. That’s why you have it. Now that you’ve eliminated some major distractions, it’s time to write.

Basically writing is one word followed by another. But if you haven’t planned out what you’re going to write, you’ll only get a mish-mash of words that mean little or nothing. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, a little planning and forethought, you can accomplish a lot in a little time.

Professional writers know all too well that planning makes their writing and their life easier. Planning can take many forms. You could begin by creating an outline or you could simply block out what you plan to write. The latter form actually works well for many writers because it allows them to get creative in the process without going off track. If you plan too much, you’ll confine yourself to rigidly and that tends to block creativity.

When it’s time to get back to work, school, chores, eating or sleeping, or whatever else you have to do, remember to pack along a notebook to jot down any ideas that may pop into your head. Wherever you go, inspiration will follow, so be prepared for it.

When you finally sit down to a serious writing session, don’t write too long. Allow time to get a snack and to give your mind a break. Those little breathers will help refresh your brain and actually make you more productive.

Remember, its balancing your life and your writing that’s important. Don’t let your life overwhelm you. Your writing will surely suffer. And the opposite is true. Too much writing will put you out of touch with life around you.




Saturday, October 22, 2016

Blog Writing Tips to Success

One of the most frustrating things about writing a blog is how slow most tend to be to take off.  You can write blog after blog post but nothing seems to happen. (Read my second post to this blog from Dec. 26, 2008) You hear about some bloggers who have followings into the thousands. So why doesn’t anyone want to read your blog? There can be several reasons.

First, let’s separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls. Big-name bloggers usually have large followings because of the controversial topics which they cover. Celebrity bloggers have their ear to the ground and follow every gossipy lead. Then there are the do-gooder bloggers who are out to change the world with their posts. There are many blogs on every conceivable subject.  So your blog may not be standing out in the crowd because there are so many others like it.

When planning your blog, set some realistic goals. Know your schedule and abilities. There’s no rule that says you have to post every day. Start out by posting weekly. Successful blogs don’t have to appear daily.

One of the biggest mistakes beginning bloggers make is that they write on and on. Your readers don’t have time to read long, involved articles. If you have something to say, say it—in 500 words or less. If a topic is too complicated to cover in that amount of words, divide it into two parts. (See my first posts on blogging of August 1 and 8, 2014.) And if you can say all you need to in less than 500 words, do so. Don’t try to pad your blog.

Another mistake beginning bloggers make is not proofreading their work. Nothing turns off readers like spelling and grammatical errors. This isn’t Facebook or Twitter. Correct any mistakes as soon as you discover them. Remember, if you’re aiming at a large audience, you need to make your blog as professional as possible.

Be positive. Don’t air your personal grievances publicly. Look at what’s happened to the presidential campaign. Negativity turns readers off. Offer your readers supportive, inspirational, and informational material.

When writing a blog, avoid using longer paragraphs. This isn’t academic writing. You should be writing in a conversational style. Break your content into shorter paragraphs. And don’t forget to use subheads when appropriate.

Do whatever you can to make your blog come alive. Always look for new angles on your subject. And don’t be afraid of writing on the same topic at different times. A new angle on it is always good. When you really get rolling, you may even consider inviting guest bloggers to post to your blog.

One of the most important things you can do to make your blog successful is to be yourself. Write as you talk. Don’t try to sound intellectual. Find your voice. While it’s your content that draws readers, it’s your personality that keeps them coming back.  Let your readers get to know you.

To get more people to read your blog, you’ll need to include links within your posts whenever possible. You can link to past posts on your blog, other blogs, and Web site that provide more information. Remember, links help to increase search engine rankings.

Every blog, even this one on writing, benefits from at least one image. Images are a part of the social media experience, so use them whenever you can.

Don’t forget to respond to blog comments. Check your comments periodically if you get a few and more frequently if your posts generate a lot of them. While not all comments deserve a response, do respond to those that do. You may even want to respond with a “Thanks for reading my blog.”

To spread the word, post your blog to as many social media outlets as possible. But don’t’ post to just any outlet. Make sure the people following those you post to are interested in your topic. Facebook and Twitter are the two best. Google Plus is a close second.

Now get blogging! Using these tips will help your efforts become a success.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Believability is the Key to Good Fiction

If it’s not believable, it doesn’t belong in a short story or a novel. This concept doesn’t apply in creative non-fiction, because no matter how bizarre, facts are facts. About the only exceptions occur in science fiction and fantasy, whose readers will swallow just about anything for the story. After all, fantasy doesn’t exist except in the reader’s imagination and science fiction doesn’t yet exist.

But in regular fiction, a story’s world can be shattered when an action, even if it’s impossible, becomes unbelievable. It stops readers dead in their tracks. And it can destroy the trust they put in the writer of the story.

There’s an acceptance on the part of fantasy and science fiction readers that just doesn’t exist in other types of fiction. Readers begin reading a short story or novel expecting life in the story to be similar to real life. And while quirky things can happen in the real world, those same incidences become magnified in fiction because the rest of the world isn’t there to balance them.

All writers, fiction or non-fiction, focus on certain actions to tell a story. They ignore all other things going on at the same time because they’re just not relevant. That focus is what leads the reader through the story.

Readers approach stories wanting to believe them. They have both the intention and desire to enter a story in which everything that happens, within the narrative world that governs that story, is believable. As a writer, your goal isn’t to convince readers to suspend their disbeliefs, but rather to give them what they want by continually sustaining their belief in the story.

In the fantasy novel, Weave World, by Clive Barker, an Oriental carpet comes alive as its threads unravel to produce a world of living beings living within it. Unbelievable, yes, but plausible in this fantasy about a world of witches and warlocks and mysterious happenings.

The distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics when it comes to believability. It’s a matter of understanding the mindset and expectations of your readers. Readers want to immerse themselves in deep belief. As a writer, you need to respect them enough to keep that belief alive throughout the story.

Consistency must coexist along with believability. Once you establish an implausible concept or action, you must follow through to the end of the story. Then it, too, becomes believable. That’s exactly what Clive Barker did in Weave World.

All else being equal, as soon as readers stop believing your story, they’ll stop caring about it. It’s important to know what any character would naturally do in an implausible situation. The main character in Weave World accidentally falls onto the rug and for a fleeting moment sees life. That’s how the story begins. In the end, he jumps into the woven world of the rug and experiences chaos as it begins to unravel.

Remember, as soon as your characters act in ways that aren’t believable, either in reference to their characterizations or to the story’s progression, the reader loses faith in your ability to tell the story.

So when something that’s unbelievable or odd happens, don’t be afraid to let your character notice and respond.

If a character acts in an unbelievable way, you’ll need to give your reader a reason why. Always give your readers something believable—or something better. If you don’t, you must satisfy them with a twist or a moment of story escalation that satisfies them more than they ever expected.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Power of Cause and Effect

Cause and effect is the most powerful tool you can use as both a writer of creative non-fiction or fiction. While in the former fact dictates what happens next because it actually happened, in the latter it’s up to you, the writer, to figure out what happens next.

One of the best places to see the bad side of cause and effect is on T.V. Here, writers face a number of challenges—time restrictions, actor availability, and budget. One of the classic snafues of cause and effect was in the primetime drama “Dallas.” Patrick Duffy gets killed off when a problem arises with his contract and then miraculously comes back to life after it’s settled by saying he dreamed it all. T.V. writers are notorious for killing off characters who have contract disputes.

You can see one of the worst uses of cause and effect in the sci-fi drama “Stargate Universe.” Unlike it’s parent series, “Stargate SG-1,” which told its story in a smooth flowing way, this series jumps around so much that it becomes hard to follow as the episodes unfold. Add to that the lack of plausibility of some of the events, and you end up with a mishmash of comings and goings that even a diehard novel reader would find hard to endure.

Everything in a story must be caused by the action or event that precedes it. That’s a fact. If you start playing with flashbacks and flash forwards, you better make damn sure that what you write is clear to the reader. And while that seems like an obvious statement, you’d be surprised how paying closer attention to cause and effect can improve your writing.

Whether you pursue creative non-fiction or fiction, your main goal should be to ensure that your reader is always emotionally present in the story—that is, you want them to empathize with your main character throughout. But when you force readers to guess why something happened or didn’t happen, even for just a split second, it causes them to intellectually disengage and distances them from the story. Rather than remaining present alongside the characters, they’ll begin to analyze or question the progression of the plot. In the process, they lose their place in the progression of things. This is exactly what happens in all episodes of Stargate Universe. .

When a reader tells you that he or she couldn’t put a book down, usually it’s because everything in the story followed logically. Stories that move forward naturally, cause to effect, keep the reader engrossed and flipping pages. If you fail to do this, it can confuse readers, kill the pace and show your weaknesses as a writer.

Let’s say you’re writing a short story in which the bad guy is chasing your lead character.

    Fumbling with the latch, he managed to lock the door because he knew the killer  would soon be on the other side.

Writing is that way, you’d break the reader’s emotional engagement with the story.

Instead, you should reverse the sentence so it reads like this:

    He knew the killer would soon be on the other side of the door, so he fumbled with the latch and finally locked it.

If you find that one sentence is serving to explain what happened in the sentence that preceded it, you can usually improve the writing by reversing the order so that you render rather than explain the action.

If you’ve written a scene in which you could connect the events with the word “because,” then you can typically improve the scene by structuring it so that you could instead connect the events with the word “so.” The stimulus leads naturally to the response.

In more complex scenes, realizations and discoveries usually happen after actions, not before them. Always build on what has been said or done, rather than laying the foundation after you’ve built the idea. Continually move the story forward, rather than forcing yourself to flip backward to give the reason something occurred.

One way of making sure things don’t go awry in complex scenes is to list each event in the order that it’s supposed to happen. By creating this visual guide, you’re more likely to stay on track. This is especially useful in flashbacks and flash forwards.

Your writing will be more effective if you show the reader what’s happening as it happens rather than explain to the reader what just happened.

However, there are three exceptions to this rule—three times when you can move from effect to cause without shattering the spell of your story.

The first occurs in scene or chapter breaks. Here, you can begin with a vague reference in dialogue that you can follow up as the scene unfolds. The reader will immediately be curious as to what’s happening and will want to continue reading to find out what happens.

The second exception occurs when one action causes two or more simultaneous reactions. Your character might sigh and look out the window, the order of which could go either way.

The final exception happens when your character deduces something the reader hasn’t yet concluded. Imagine Sherlock Holmes staring at the back of an envelope, cleaning out a drainpipe, and brushing off a nearby stick of wood, after which he announces that he’s solved the case. The reader asks, “How did he do that?” This peaks the reader’s  curiosity, and later when the character explains his deductive reasoning, the reader sees that everything followed logically from the preceding events.

If the writers took the time to make any of the above happen in the episodes of "Stargate Universe," the story wouldn’t have been so confusing. This is especially important when writing science fiction, which, in itself, can be confusing enough, particularly when the writer creates whole new worlds.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Some Truths About Book Publishing

Any writer who has attempted to write a book knows how much work goes into it. You work long and hard, then one day you’re holding it in your hands. And even though it came from your deepest core, it’s really got a life all its own.
   
One of the biggest misconceptions you can have when writing a book is that if it’s accepted by a publisher, then it must be good—it must be perfect. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While you conceive the idea, then flesh it out, and finally give it form, a book isn’t complete until it runs through the gauntlet of copy and content editors.

When a publisher accepts a book, it’s just the first step. To market a book, it must be molded so that it fits into the marketplace. Most writers become myopic when writing their books. They don’t see beyond its content while publishers have a much broader view.

Realize that your editor is a professional at making at helping authors put their books into the best possible shape. So you must learn to be open and nondefensive.

Most changes editors request are minor. You think about it and get to it, You’ve been so close to your book that you perhaps didn’t realize that a bit of dialogue sounded flat and unrealistic or that there was a small hole in the plot. If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you may have inadvertently switched the facts or left one out that made the subsequent text not make sense. You shouldn’t feel bad since these things happen to the best of writers. A book is a large project, so it’s only natural that a few things will slip by.

But what happens when your editor asks you to make a major change? Eliminating a major character, putting in a new one, drastically revamping the ending with the resultant alterations to the rest of your story to accommodate it—these are big. If your editor asks for a major change and after thinking it over you agree, you’ve got some work ahead of you. No matter how you feel about it, it’ll make you a better writer.

Just the way a book is a series of chapters, any major change is simply a bunch of minor ones. Approach it that way. Make a list of what you have to do, then do it. If you feel stymied or have serious reservations about the suggested changes, talk it over with your editor. The more open you are with your editor, the better..

But remember that in the end, it’s your book. Give your editor a concrete reason for refusing to make a specific changes. Offer alternatives. Stand your ground but also listen to what your editor has to say. He or she knows the marketplace.

Besides the editor assigned to work with you on your book by the publisher, you’ll also have to deal with copy editors. The great thing about copy editing is seeing your book through the eyes of someone fresh to it. Your copy editor will challenge any grammar and mechanics you’ve missed and suggest small improvements that never would have occurred to you. Copy editors also catch all those embarrassing mistakes.Since you’ve been working on this big project for so long, you’re bound to make a few.

Today, all book editing is done electronically. You send your manuscript into the publisher, and the copy editor sends it back to you digitally marked. All publishers use Microsoft Word to edit, so no matter what word processing program you use to write the book, you must save the text as a Word document before sending it to the publisher. Word features a complete editing subroutine that enables the copy editor to not only mark mistakes and other items but recommend ways to fix them.

Nearly all first-time authors get bogged down thinking that they control their book. For some reason, many think that they’ll have a role in choosing the cover of their book. As stated above, the publisher’s job is to get a book ready for the marketplace and he or she knows what type of cover will work best. Your publisher trusts this job to experts in graphic design. This doesn’t mean every cover will be perfect for every book, but it does mean you should relax and concentrate on what’s inside.

Another mistake beginning authors make is putting the chicken before the proverbial egg. They worry more about whether their book will be reviewed by the New York Times than they do about its content.

In fact, it’s rare for a first-timer to be reviewed in The New York Times—or any other major publication for that matter—so don’t get your hopes up. The only way a top reviewer will even consider your book is if it concerns a controversial topic. A few good low-profile reviews will help your book in the long run. But one really bad top review could kill it.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Profit From Anniversaries

Every day is an anniversary of some event or moment in history. Every day is a chance to take your readers back in time.  Every day offers an opportunity for a way to increase your profits as a non-fiction writer.

Newsworthy milestones of all kinds can mean big profits if you’re a savvy writer. Many people love to read about what happened way back when. But the key is to uncover a unique angle on an anniversary, especially for those that are more well known.

While every day is an anniversary, it’s the important milestones that count----10, 25, 30, 35, 40, 50, 60, 75, 100, 125, 150, 175, 200 years—so begin by making a list of these numbers. Subtract these numbers from the current year—in this case 2016. For example, subtracting 100 years from 2016 gives you 1916.

Next find a copy of The World Almanac and go to the historical timeline section. Look up 1916 and see what events happened that year. This gives you a list of centennial anniversaries to write about. Look for the more unusual events—ones that other writers might dismiss as too trivial. Then use your imagination to put your own spin on the ones you select. Repeat this process for all the milestone anniversaries. You’ll end up with a more anniversaries than you’ll have time to write about. Select the ones you think will work out best for you, and you’ve essentially planned articles for an entire year.

When pitching article ideas to editors, remember that most magazines work at least four to six months ahead, larger national publications often work a year or more ahead. So you may want to project into the following year. For example, look at the listings for both 1916 and 1917.

You should only have to do this procedure once a year. Try to do it at the end of the previous year to plan the anniversaries you’ll want to write about for the following 12 months.

A Google search for "historical anniversaries" will reveal lists of event anniversaries. And a search of “anniversaries + [specific year]” can also reveal many potential article angles. The bigger and rounder the number of the anniversary, the more potential the hook. Target these findings first in your queries, because well-known anniversaries are where the competition will be the most challenging.

You’ll also find it easier to narrow down all the possible anniversaries if you follow your personal interests. Use them as a filter to narrow your selection.

One writer had a strong interest in the Old West. When the 150th anniversary for the departure of the first wagon train to traverse the Oregon Trail came up, he did lots of research and in the end sold 16 articles to as many different magazines on various facets of this event. He targeted each article to a different audience using the same basic information but with specific details for each readership.

As in with other aspects of freelance marketing, it’s important to be broad minded. You never know which magazine editor is planning to cover what, or what special issues he or she may have in mind that would be perfect for a particular anniversary piece. Even rejections can open the door to future assignments. Whenever possible, target both local and national publications—and be sure to target each pitch a specific market.

Avoid ideas that first come to mind. Instead, find an innovative way to spin the topic that will make your query stand out from the others. One of the ideas the writer pitching the Oregon Trail anniversary used was to bring to life that first wagon train, based on personal accounts left by the pioneers on rock faces along the way and in diaries they kept. Since actual people signed their comments, it made his article personal and true to life.

Remember, that even what seems like a great idea to you may fall on an editor’s deaf ears. Be prepared to circulate and recirculate your anniversary article queries for multiple successes.




Friday, August 12, 2016

Re-inventing Yourself as a Writer in Today’s Hi-Tech World

Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years or so. So much so that it could have left you in the dust. What made for success in the 1980s and 1990s just won’t cut it today. So how do you re-invent yourself? The answer lies in creating a new business model—one tailored for today’s publishing industry and today’s readers.

To be successful today, you have to be passionate about what you do. While this sound s obvious, it’s even more important in a world run by technology. Readers no longer have just the printed page to turn to for information. Now they have billions of sites on the Internet that opens up an entire world of information.

Secondly, you have to write with a purpose—to fill an informational need, not just to get paid. With all the blogs online and ebooks to read, it’s a sea of information, so standing out on that great ocean can be a challenge. Creating personal, publishing, and community goals that inspire you will help you achieve them.

Today, you have to go beyond normal prose which originally involved only writing on your part and reading on your reader’s part. Today, you have to set up a system of sharing your content. While that may take the traditional form of print media, you should investigate all the opportunities to share your work with online communities.

Use your passion for writing to serve others. Crowdsourcing has now become a reality as creative entrepreneurs fund their projects by asking for it from the people who matter most—their readers. You need to build strong relationships with engaged, committee communities who want to help you because they know, like, and trust you.

After you’ve developed these online relationships, you must make yourself and your work continuously visible to them. Subject integration is the key. Once you write about a subject, explore all the possibilities for sharing that information. Tie articles to blogs and Web sites and vice versa.

Previously, you may not have considered test-marketing your work. But in today’s information filled world, that’s almost a necessity. While you wouldn’t have to test market an article or short story you’re submitting to a traditional publisher, you should do so with any project you’re planning for digital media.

Promote yourself. Before all this technology, all you had to so is produce writing that editors liked and were willing to publish. Today, you have to promote yourself directly to your readers. And the technology to do that is out there.

Above all, you have to remain professional. Maintain a positive perspective about publishing. Run a business that creates a steady stream of scalable content in as many forms, media, and countries as you can.

Build a brand—a business that readers can look to for creative and innovative content. Try to find the essence of what you do and build on it. Maximize your ability to innovate and be creative. Think outside the box.

Make the effects of your efforts sustainable. Begin with people and end with profit.

Finally, create a plan, have patience, discipline, and faith in yourself for the long term. And when you’ve achieved success, no matter how small, celebrate.

Friday, August 5, 2016

How Much Should You Sacrifice for Writing?

No matter how you look at it, writing whether full-time or part-time requires you to make sacrifices. These may be just little things like skipping your favorite T.V. show to getting up at the crack of dawn to going into thrifty mode and cutting way down on expenses. You may choose to do just one of these or you may be forced to do all three. And sacrifices don’t come easy.

Skipping your favorite T.V. show is easy. You may be lucky enough to have the technology to record your program to view at a later time. That also means you’re probably paying your phone/Internet or cable provider a hefty fee for the privilege.

If you’re still working at a full-time job, then you may have to create time to write by getting up before the chickens. While that may sound like a good idea in theory and it may work for a short while, the stress on your body from not getting enough sleep will eventually catch up to you. To be able to rise before dawn means you should probably go to bed at sunset.  That means that you’ll most likely be doing so right after dinner—not good for your digestion.

Lastly, you can cut back on your expenses—or better yet, put yourself on a strict, but reasonable, budget. Doing so will do two things. It will take the stress off of you to work long hours to pay bills that are higher than they should be. And it will help simplify your life. While this may work well if you’re single, it probably won’t work if you have a family. Those little mouths beg to be fed—a lot.

But controlling your expenses doesn’t have to be a severe sacrifice. First list all the expenses you can’t do without, such as housing, food, temperature control, transportation, food, etc. Then list all the expenses that are extra luxuries. This will be a subjective exercise because what’s a luxury to one person may be a necessity to another. While you may not want to give up your Starbucks coffee, you could switch to a less expensive coffee shop. But if you can’t give up the former, build it into your budget.

If you go to the movies once a week, consider getting a T.V. control box that will let you stream movies and T.V. shows from such outlets as Netflix, Hulu, or HBO. You can watch a whole lot more movies and such for the small amount per month that they charge.

A big expense is transportation. Consider driving less or buying a compact car that gets really good mileage and costs a lot less to maintain. You really don’t need an SUV or a van, even if you have a couple of kids. You can also take public transit if it’s convenient for you. Also, shop around for less expensive auto insurance that will give you the coverage you already have. Combining homeowner’s and auto insurance will allow you to get discounts.

Shop for clothes at less expensive retail outlets—skip the mall and department stores. You may even want to buy some of your clothes at local thrift shops. Chances are you’ll find some excellent brand-name items for a whole lot less. Sporting an L.L. Bean shirt that you purchased for $5 is a lot better than buying it new from the source for $50 or $60. Clothes from this retailer are made to last, so even used ones will be fine for a long while.

Cut back on eating out. “Cutting back” is the key here. Eating other than at home will be a treat if you do it once in a while. Also, keep your eye peeled for coupons and enroll in rewards programs. Not only will you get a free-bee once in a while, but you’ll also be privy to special promotions and discounts. Cook larger batches of food and freeze them in meal-sized portions. Not only will this save you money, it will also provide delicious prepared food when you’re too tired to cook.

Skip the gym but don’t skip the exercise. Work out at home. Invest in dumbbells or just do bodyweight exercises. You can also search YouTube for exercise videos. Or do the easiest exercise of all—walk around your neighborhood.

If you put your mind to it, you’ll find plenty of ways to save a buck or two. And before you know it, your life will be a lot less stressful, plus you’ll be enjoying yourself more as you find time and energy to write more.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Changing Face of Children’s Book Publishing

Most writers don’t have any idea how the business of children’s book publishing really works. Most assume it’s the same as that for adult book publishers. But it can overwhelm the creativity of those considering a children’s book idea. But knowing a little bit about how children's book publishing has evolved will help.

Until the late 1960s, children's book publishing was a relatively small part of the overall publishing business. Publishers published only a few new children's books a year and relied on a small number of well-known authors like Dr. Seuss, E.B. White, and Robert McCloskey. The majority of their business relied on backlist titles, titles that had been published in previous years, not on new books from new authors.

All of that has dramatically changed n the last 35 years as publishers realized that they could make real profit publishing children’s books. What used to be a cozy corner of the publishing world has grown into a billion dollar business. First, because this market is full of insatiable readers—how many kids take just one book out of the library—and second, because the market is renewable. While times and attitudes change, kids are kids. Another reason that the kids market has grown is due to the multitude of reading programs in schools that are encouraging kids to read more.

Undoubtedly, what kicked off this explosive growth was the release of the first book in the  Harry Potter series in 1997---Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by first-time author J.K. Rowling. First published in the United Kingdom by Bloomsbury, with Scholastic as the United States publisher, it targeted kids in the 10-12 age group.. Since then, the series has sold over 400 million copies, and the Harry Potter brand, including the books, merchandise, and movies has an estimated worth of $15 billion dollars. It has made J.K. Rowling the highest earning novelist in history and has made unprecedented profits for her publishers.

Most importantly, Harry Potter created a revolution in the publishing industry. Reading, especially among children over eight years old, was suddenly more popular than ever before, and many teachers claimed that Harry Potter got more boys reading than ever before. The release of each new book in the series brought hordes of buyers into bookstores, discount stores, and warehouse clubs. The phenomenon wasn’t only good for the books’ publisher, it was good for all publishers since new releases brought more foot traffic into stores and more customers for all kinds of books. Finally, because the first Harry Potter volume was simultaneously on the adult and children’s bestsellers list, it proved that children’s books also had a readership among adult readers. That showed that children’s books had grown up.

Children's publishers have become better at publishing books that make a profit. For writers, this means there are many more opportunities to get published since there are simply more books being produced. With online retailing, there are also more ways to sell books. And there are more creative opportunities, too. Publishers aren’t afraid of trying new formats and new book/product combinations, plus they’re taking chances on innovative and creative topics. As a result, children's book writers are getting better financial deals and stronger publicity support. 

As the children's book publishing business has grown, it has been affected by the diversity trend that’s sweeping the country. Publishers are creating more and more books with characters from a wide variety of races and cultures that are focused on multicultural themes.

The world of kids book publishing, once the domain of mostly female writers, has opened up to everyone. And more opportunities now exist in non-fiction for children. For those who have good ideas that kids will love, the children’s book publishing world is their oyster.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How to Get Started in Children’s Writing



If you like kids and have a genuine love of children’s books, you’re on your way to writing for them. But you’ve probably heard stories about how competitive publishing is—especially children’s book publishing—and how manuscripts can sit on an editor’s desk for a long time before the editor takes action, one way or the other. But don’t let that stop you.

The first step to getting published is to find an idea that will fit within the category of children’s books you’ve chosen. The idea must fit the category, and thus the age and reading level of the child who will be reading it.

To begin, make friends with the children’s librarian at your local public library. Find out what the new trends are in children’s literature.  Find out what kids are reading these days. The answers will surprise you. And if there are any kids there, watch how they choose books from the shelves, especially in your book category, and listen to their conversation. Then check out a dozen or so books in your chosen category that are similar to the concept you have for yours.

If you don’t have a definite idea, read other media directed at children. You can often get a sense of what the next trend in children's book publishing is going to be by studying kid's magazines. You’ll find a selection them at your library or bookstore. Most come out monthly, so they respond to trends faster than book publishers. Studying Web sites geared for children can also provide cutting-edge information. Many of these Web sites are educational ones. Others tie in directly to product lines or books directed to children. And many children’s magazines have their own interactive sites for kids.

When you come up with some ideas, test them out on some children of the age range you’re targeting—your own or those of friends and neighbors. Tell them about your ideas and ask them what they think. Children, especially younger ones, are extremely honest, and they’ll tell you whether they like the idea. In fact, they’ll ask you how soon they can read your book. This is early test marketing.

If you’re considering writing a non-fiction book for your children’s age group, read the news, either in print or online. Start a file of clippings or printouts of articles that apply to children and your specific subject.

Besides talking to kids about the books they’re reading, spend time with your target readership.
Volunteer at a school library, get involved with a church youth group, or figure out another way to get firsthand experience with kids. Investing your time and creativity into getting to know kids is the best way to learn to write for them.

Attend writers conferences. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, a large international organization for those who write and illustrate children's books, sponsors regional conferences and two large national conferences a year. But don’t limit yourself to just children’s book writing conferences. Networking with other writers at general writing conferences can be helpful, too. Besides interacting with other writers in person, you should also search for children’s writing forums and communities online.

You should do all of the above on an ongoing basis. Once you get a good idea and test it on some children, you’re ready to begin planning your book. The information you gather from the above sources will help you throughout your children’s writing career.

Next Week: The Changing Face of Children’s Book Publishing

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Writing for the Younger Set

Have you ever thought about writing for children? Most writers have the misconception that writing for them takes less skill than writing for adults. In fact, the opposite is true. While most people have either read children’s books when they were kids or have read them to their children or grandchildren, they don’t associate the skills needed to write them with the ones they already have.

Books written for children are special, but not in the way you think. They require as much knowledge of our language as you already have and the steps to producing a children’s book are similar to what you would use to produce a book for adults. Just because a children’s book has fewer words doesn’t mean that it takes less planning and forethought. And don't fall victim to the misconception that writing for kids is a stepping stone to getting published in adult fiction because the writing is shorter and simpler.

The fact is that it’s not easy to publish children’s books. The more you learn about the field and the business of children's publishing, the better equipped you’ll be to achieve success. This is what you should be doing when writing for adults.

But before you start studying how children’s books are published, it’s a good idea to become familiar with their categories. Generally, children’s books fall into six major categories—picture book (toddler to grade 4), easy reader ( kindergarten to grade 3), young chapter book (grades 2 to 4), middle grade novels(grades 3 to 7), young adult novels (grades 8 to 12)., and nonfiction. Publishers base each of them, except nonfiction, on grades in school and also on age. So it’s logical that the more familiar you are with children in the age group of the category in which your book will be placed, the better.

The categories of children’s books are only meant as a guide. Many of today’s books fall somewhere between one category and another.

A generation ago, children's stories were much more idealistic. Main characters almost exclusively came from white, middle-class suburban families. Stories often contained lessons. And the moral was always clear.

In addition to being "politically correct, today's children's stories are more about fun.
In order to get them to read a book, you have to entertain them.

There’s no magic trick. Finding success in the children's market is like any other genre. It takes persistence, patience, plenty of revising, and a true appreciation of children's literature.

Opportunities are limitless. For every idea there’s a potential market, including short stories, chapter books, articles, picture books and poetry. Topics can be serious, funny, factual or pure fantasy. And there's a market for just about any topic, writing style, and genre.

Before you get into children’s writing, ask yourself the following: Do you enjoy browsing the library shelves in the kids' department? Do you find yourself flipping through picture books when you visit bookstores? Do you still like to read kids' books? If you answered yes to each of these questions, then you’re going in the right direction.

Next Week: How to Get Started in Children’s Writing.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Writing Your Way Out of a Slump

The writing business can have its ups and downs. If you’ve been successful at any time in your writing career, you know the rush you get when things are going your way. But what about the times when there’s little or no work or when you just feel empty? How do you get yourself going again or at least maintain some sort of status quo?

Too many writers only look forward to the next article or story. And if you’ve been writing books, the next book. But sometimes you put so much energy into moving forward that your mind just stops and says, “Wait a minute. I need a break.” This especially happens after working on a long book project where the writing adrenaline has been pumping hard for weeks or months.

To get yourself back on track after taking a break or when your motivational power is at its lowest ebb, try looking back. Whether you know it or not, you’ve amassed an incredible amount of information as well as product inventory. What about all those articles or short stories you’ve got in your files that have been published once. And don’t forget the ones you sent out numerous times only to be rejected each time.  Recycling that information or those pieces in your files may just be the answer.

The simplest form of recycling is to sell reprints. This is easy money. All you have to do is find new markets for pieces you have laying around. It used to be that these had to be secondary markets, but in today’s hodge-podge publishing world, you can sell anything to anyone as long as the piece has been idle for some time. In fact, you may want to freshen up a piece before sending it out or in the case of an article, slant it to a different readership. Doing so makes the piece a whole new product.

Another way of recycling is to rewrite a piece completely. This could even be done to a short story that you gave up on a while back. Since you haven’t really looked at it in a while, you may see why it didn’t sell in the first place. You may even consider writing other stories along the same lines to produce a series based on the same theme.

Redoing an article is somewhat different. Articles can be updated, even ones written 30 years ago, as long as the topic is still relevant. Or perhaps the topic is even more relevant today than when you first wrote it. Take the subject of solar energy. Solar technology is finally at a point that average homeowners are asking about it and seeking special grants and financing to get it installed. When you first wrote about it, it may have been just coming to the public’s attention and was super expensive, which limited the publishing potential for your article.

If you write non-fiction, look to trade publications. While they don’t pay as much as consumer publications, they usually need more articles. You can turn articles you’ve written into marketable pieces once again.

As with Mastercard, master the possibilities. Take parts of articles and combine them into new ones. Or expand sidebars you once wrote into shorter full articles. Editors love shorter pieces, so they have a better chance of getting published.

And while you’re searching through your inventory, you may run across an idea for another book which eventually will put you back in the running. Whatever you do to get yourself out of a writing slump, keep it short. Don’t get involved in lengthy projects. Work with what you have. You’ll be amazed at what develops.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Adjusting to the Changes to Our Language

The term “Modern English” can be a misnomer. English used by great writers such as Herman Melville and James Joyce is almost a completely different language from the one writers use today. While much of that has to do with vocabulary that isn’t used anymore, a good bit of it has to do with style—how writers say what they want to communicate.

Back then, life was more formal and so was the language everyone used. Wealthy educated people followed the British model while the common laborer used a lot of slang. Over the years, English has changed a lot. In fact, our language changes about every five years. New words come into common use as archaic ones get phased out. Another change, at times subtle, is punctuation. Semicolons are on their way out while dashes appear more frequently. And change remains continuous in English as the language adapts to the changing needs of those who use it.

As always, change is most easily seen in vocabulary. In its very early history, the Christianization of Britain brought such Latin words as angel, candle, priest, and school into English. From the Danish invasions came such basic words as they, their, them, skull, skin, anger, husband, knife, law, root, and ill. Following the Norman Conquest, people added many French words, such as dance, tax, mayor, justice, faith, battle, paper, poet, surgeon, gentle, flower, sun, to name just a few.

In the 17th century, Latin words poured into English as students studied more of it. Words such as industry, educate, insane, exist, illustrate, multiply, benefit, paragraph, and delicate, all came from Latin.

As English explorers like John Cabot and James Cook reached out to other parts of the world, they brought their language with them. It continued its habit of borrowing, drawing on Arabic for alcohol and assassin, Hebrew for cherub and kosher, East Indian for jungle and yoga, Japanese for tycoon, Spanish for adobe and canyon, and many other languages. The borrowing process continues today.

In the past 100 years, two things have greatly affected the development of the English language. The first was the rapid development of mass education and the resulting rise in literacy. The second is the advancement of science and technology. The more people able to read English in print, the greater their input. 

Today, through the explosion of electronic media, an even greater number of people have access to the printed word.  This is already causing our language to develop differently from one in which writers target only a special literary minority and in which people speak face-to-face.

The technological revolution of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has given English a burgeoning vocabulary of technical terms that have become a part of the common language almost overnight.

Changes in grammar since the 16th century, though minor compared with the earlier loss of inflections and the accompanying fixing of word order (see last week’s blog), have continued in today’s English. Reliance upon word order and function words has become even greater.

Questions in the form of Consents she? and negations in the form of I say not or I run not have disappeared, and have been replaced by the verb do, as in Does she consent?, I do not say, I do not run. And even these have become shortened by the use of contractions—a form forbidden by most English teachers—to I don’t say or I don’t run.

The use of the verb to be has become more common, as in He was shopping or We are studying, shortened further to We’re studying. Other changes include an increase in the number of verbs combined with adverbs or with prepositions, as in He looked up the word or She looked over her new garden. Similarly, writers now use nouns as modifiers of other nouns, as in college student, car radio, gas station, space flight.

English will continue to evolve and writers must stay abreast of the changes. While many are subtle, it doesn’t take much for writing to appear stale and antiquated in today’s high-tech world.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What Do You Know About Our Language?

As an American writer, you write in English. You’ve spoken and written in this language all your life. You take it for granted. But what do you really know about the English language?

Ask anyone who speaks English as a second language, and they’ll tell you how hard it is to learn. While Russian seems like a difficult language, it pales when compared with English. The reason our language is so complicated is that it’s actually derived from most of the European languages. You probably recognize certain French, Spanish, Italian and even Portuguese words. And you certainly know many German words, but did you know English also includes words from the Slavic languages, including Russian, the Scandinavian languages, especially Danish, and also Celtic.

English is directly descended from the language of the Germanic tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—who invaded the British Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries, driving out or absorbing the Celtic inhabitants after the Romans withdrew. We can date the three periods of our language—Old English, used until about 1100 A.D., Middle English, used from about 1100 to 1500 A.D., and Modern English—to this Anglo-Saxon invasion.

Old English consisted mainly of Anglo-Saxon words with a few Old Norse words thrown in. These came from the Vikings who invaded the British Isles in the 8th through the 10th centuries. This early form of English used inflectional endings similar to those used in modern German and a much freer word order than exists in Modern English. Thus, Old English depended upon changes in the forms, particularly the endings, of words to show their relationship to one another. Personal pronouns---I, me, my, mine and so on—are among the few types of inflection remaining in English today.

Middle English was a transitional form of our language influenced by the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Normans also were Vikings who settled in northern France and who had gradually exchanged their native Old Norse language for Old French, which contained Latin, Scandinavian, and French words to England. For nearly 400 years French was the major language of the ruling class while Old English became the language of commoners.

As the Normans became culturally and politically separated from Europe, their association with the English-speaking common people gradually led to the resurrection of English as the spoken language of all classes. For example, beef (boeuf), mutton, and venison—words of French origin—describe meat cooked and served at the table while cattle, sheep, and deer—words of Anglo-Saxon origin—describe meat on the hoof in the field.

Word order became the principal means of conveying meaningful relationships among words in a sentence in Middle English. At the same time, the number and importance of  articles, prepositions, and conjunctions grew. During the Middle English period, the dialect spoken in London emerged as the basis for standard English. Also, most of the major writers of the late Middle Ages used it. And at the time, there wasn’t a single literary language. Goeffrey Chaucer, an English writer of the period, wrote his Canterbury Tales in the dialect of London of Middle English.

The shift from Middle English to Modern English occurred during a series of pronunciation changes known as the Great Vowel Shift. As a result of these changes which took place between 1350 and 1550, English began to sound more as it does today.                        

The invention of the printing press had a positive effect on the development of English. Printing, and the subsequent increase in people who could read and write, tended to slow change and foster greater stability and standardization in both the spoken and written language. The downside was that word spelling became more confusing because of the Great Vowel Shift.  Sir Thomas Mallory wrote Morte d’Arthur, his famous tale of King Arthur, during the early years of Modern English.

Modern English adapts to the changing needs of writers who use it. And while most of the changes occur in vocabulary, modern usage has changed forms and uses of punctuation, and even sentence structure.

Next Week: I’ll be looking at some of the ways English has changed since the 19th century.

Monday, June 13, 2016

CHARACTERISTICS OF COMPELLING NONFICTION CHARACTERS

What makes a character compelling to a reader? Is it one who’s physical description grabs the reader. Or is it one whose personality the reader identifies with? While it could be either or both of those, what makes a character compelling is his or her ability to surprise the reader while remaining internally consistent. Every character, whether in fiction or nonfiction needs to posses some or all of these crucial things—ambition, a desire, a driving need, a secret, a contradiction, and a vulnerability.

Ambition
Ambition drives many people to do some very good and some very bad things. While not everyone is ambitious, those that are tend to be aggressive and pursue life to the fullest, sometimes no matter what.

A Desire
Just as ambition can affect how a person lives their daily life, so a desire can possess someone to the point of altering reality. Sexual desire can drive a character to make rash decisions and can even lead to harming another person. Jealousy is another trait that can adversely affect the way a character perceives reality. Desire intrinsically creates conflict.

A Driving Need
While possessing a driving need may lead to good actions, it can also lead to bad ones, as in revenge. The need for revenge can drive a person over the edge and force him or her to do unspeakable things.

The more a character wants and the stronger the want, the more compelling the  drama. This is because desire intrinsically creates conflict. This is a perfect example of the misconception that simply by giving the character a deep-seated need or want, you can automatically create conflict.

A Secret
A secret is an inclination or trait, such as a disposition to dishonesty, violence, sexual excess, or the abuse of alcohol or drugs, or an incident from the past that, if revealed, would change forever the character’s standing in his or her world, among co-workers, neighbors, friends, family, and lovers. Secrets inform us of what our characters have to lose, and why.

Of all these character traits, you most likely have a true insight into what it’s like to keep a secret and how it can affect your behavior—specifically, how they make us afraid.

A Contradiction
We all know people who are both shy and rude or funny and cruel. This complexity, which often appears during times of stress or conflict, is what can make a character  unpredictable, resulting in the kind of surprising behavior that will keep readers  wondering what’s going to happen next.

Your readers’ minds focus on irregularities—things that don’t make sense or that don’t quite fit. This helps your characters to analyze their environment for threats.  Contradictions reveal to readers what they can’t predict or a surprise.

A Vulnerability
Nothing draws us into a character more than his or her vulnerability. When people appear wounded or in need of help, people are instantly drawn to them. At the same time, they may also be repelled or frightened. Either way, injury to another person instantly triggers a strong response in readers.

Obviously, vulnerability may be the result of the character’s secret: He or she has a fear of being found out. Or it may come from the intensity of a need. For your character, the ambition and focus of a strong desire can imply some form of inner strength, while at the same time rendering the character vulnerable to being deprived of what he or she  wants most

Remember, your characters are human beings to whom your story happens. Unfortunately for many writers, a story begins with an idea. Fleshing out the characters to live in that story comes later.



Monday, June 6, 2016

Bringing Real Characters to Life

You’d think that if you’re writing about real people in a nonfiction piece that it would be easier than making up characters in a fictional short story or novel. Actually, quite the opposite is true. While you have facts about the person to deal with, there are limitations.

Many of the same techniques for writing characters in fiction apply to nonfiction.  Through detail, through gesture, through talk, through close understanding of someone’s life before and after the scope of your story, you make your people vivid in your reader’s mind.

Characters are primary in creative nonfiction, an all-encompassing term covering the personal essays and literary journalism. The chief difference between creative nonfiction and regular nonfiction is that the writer composes the former in scenes with characters just like in fiction. But characters in nonfiction present special problems. While fiction writers base their characters on real people, nonfiction writers usually tell their readers about their characters. The trick is to use the fictional technique of showing, not telling.

When writing nonfiction, much of the work of characterization is done for you. You base your characters on facts, characterization is complete, the family history is in place, the physical description is a given. But that doesn’t make anything easier. The job is merely different. Doing justice to a real person can be difficult because you may have pre-existing biases to that person or their ideas.

Nonfiction readers get to know characters through their actions. But from who’s point of view? It’s all in the moment, all told from a particular point of view. We see the scene—a dark, stormy night off the coast of North Carolina—in the book Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures: Outer Banks, by Bob Brooke. The reader is in the wheelhouse with the captain, Commander George Ryan, and the officer on duty, Lieutenant W.S. French, at 1:00 A.M. as they try to steer the Huron, a converted gunship, through the swirling waters.

        “Hard over,” French shouted to the helmsman. “Leadsman take soundings.” But his orders came too late. The ship swung around toward the beach, heeling over on her port side.
        “What’s out location?, Mr. French?” asked Ryan.
        “I don’t know sir,” French replied.
        “Give the orders for all hands on deck.”
        “Aye, sir.”
        As the mist parted, Commander Ryan finally saw the coastline. “My, God, How did we get here?” he cried.

With just a few words of dialog and some short description, the writer was able to not only establish a time and place, but the military order covering the panic in the voices of the crewmen. From here, the point of view changes as the scene changes to a father and daughter on the shore, desperately trying to find a way to save the sailors.

Once you establish the scene, readers are in a particular time and don’t leave it. What changes is the point of view. Action keeps the scene moving forward.

Often nonfiction writers relate their characters personality characteristics through an as-told-to narrative. This often happens in memoirs where writers use family stories to make their characters come to life. In these, the writer stands back and lets readers draw their own conclusions and make their own judgements.

A character rarely appears fully formed. Readers get to know him or her in bits and pieces scene by scene. You’ll need to will your characters to life by drawing on your unconscious, memory, and imagination until your characters assume a clear form and, with hope, begin to act of their own accord.

This process is inherent to the success of any novel, but it’s also important in nonfiction writing. The key is first to understand what your characters require from you in order to come to life, and then to determine how you can draw on your best available resources to give them what they need.

But what happens if you don’t have all the information you need to flesh out a character in nonfiction? Unlike in fiction, you can’t just make things up. However, you can use your imagination in finding information from other sources.

For instance, let’s say you want your characters to speak but you don’t have access to the exact words of what they said. You can research the same sort of character in similar situations who most likely said something similar. This is exactly what happened in the above example. From captains’ logs of similar shipwreck scenarios, it was possible for the writer to create an exciting, nail-biting scene. He had to do this because Commander Ryan died when his lifeboat overturned and the all was lost, including his log, when the ship sank.

The same goes for how a character dresses. You may find what you need in old photographs from which you describe the type of clothes your characters wore. Similar information may appear in old letters written by a friend or relative of the character about him or her. Remember, you need to find facts about the person to fill out the characterization. Begin with what you know about the person and then do specialized research to fill in any voids in your characterization. You may not need much, just the essence.

Next Week: Characteristics of Compelling Nonfiction Characters

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Stop, Look, and Listen

“Stop, Look, and Listen.” Everyone is familiar with these signs at railroad crossings, but those same words can also help you improve your writing.

STOP
Know when to stop. That’s probably the primary thing that separates beginning from seasoned writers. In the beginning, you sometimes feel that when you’re on a roll, you should just keep on going. But learning to know when to stop writing will help you write tighter and avoid rambling.

While it’s important to come to a logical conclusion, it’s just as important to say what you have to say in a compact way. Back in the mid-1990s, writing for the Internet caught many professional writers off guard. Many had been used to writing longer pieces for magazines, but the writing for Web sites required them to write short articles. For many, writing shorter meant working harder because they didn’t have to write as compactly before.

LOOK
When you’re involved in writing an article, story, or book, do you take the time to look at the piece overall? If you try to do that while you’re writing, it can be distracting. Instead, put the piece aside for while. Doing so will give you some distance from it, thus giving your brain time to forget it for a while. Reading over your work at another time gives you some perspective—a chance to see the bigger picture. It’s then and only then that you’ll be able to tell if what you’ve been writing makes sense.

LISTEN
Join a writers’ group and listen to what the other members have to say about your work. It’s important that any group you join has a leader whose skills are more advanced than those of the members of the group. Only in this way will personalities not enter into discussions as much, thus resulting in more honest critiques. Learn to listen to what others have to say about your writing while at the same time learn how to constructively critique others’ work.

Of course, some members of the group may dwell on grammar and such. That’s good, but you also want to encourage feedback about your content, length, and style. The real purpose of joining a writers’ group is to improve each others' writing, not to massage egos.

Also, listen to authors by reading their work. Learn to read like a writer, being on the lookout for techniques that you can use in your own work. Really listen to the way another writer tells his or her story or the way they delve into a subject in their article. Most people read an article, for instance, without looking at who wrote it. You need to be aware of the writer and be on the lookout for other works written by the same person.

Pay attention to how other writing sounds. If you like the way a piece reads, read a section out loud to yourself or into a digital recorder. Then listen to it several times to pick up its rhythm and style. Really listen then try it in your own writing.

You might also consider taking a writing class to help improve your skills. If you’re just starting out, take a good foundation course in creative writing, for example.  But if you’ve been writing a while, take classes focused on the type of writing you do. An alternative is to attend writers’ workshops and conferences.

When you finally get your big break, and an editor wants to work with you, be sure you’re ready to listen. Don’t be defensive. Don’t be argumentative. Listen. Listen to his or her feedback. Most editors have enough experience under their belt to know a good writer when they come across one. Even if your work is a bit rough around the edges, a good editor will work with you to improve it. They want what’s best for you and your story, and good editors always have a vision for what your article, story, or book can really be. Listen to them and let them guide you.