Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Dickens of a Christmas

Today, everyone gets swept up in the retail, shop-til-you-drop world of Christmas. But for several centuries, it’s been writers who have memorialized holiday traditions or even created new ones through their stories. Two that come to mind are Clement Clark Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol,” my all-time favorite.

It just doesn’t seem like Christmas without ole Charlie Dickens’ classic. Sure, the ghosts are spooky, but he draws his readers into the story in such a way as to make them experience cold, snowy, in some ways, desolate 19th-century London. I’ve seen every film version and have read the story many times. In some ways, it was Charles Dickens who inspired me to be a writer. And to think it all started with Christmas.

“A Christmas Carol”is probably the best-known and best-loved Christmas story of all time. It has even been credited with changing the way 19th-century Brits and Americans celebrated Christmas. Dickens’ tale tells the story of a greedy, rich, Christmas-hating old man named Ebenezer Scrooge who’s constantly proclaiming “Bah, humbug!” One Christmas Eve Scrooge receives a visit from three spirits. These spirits—the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come—show him scenes from his past, present, and future. This supernatural experience transforms him into a joyous, generous soul who cherishes Christmas above all other times of year.

But what inspired Dickens to pen such a story? Most literary historians believe it was his
concern for the poor that brought him the inspiration needed to write “A Christmas Carol.” In September of 1843, at the invitation of Miss Angela Burdett Coutts, a wealthy philanthropist and a friend of his, Dickens toured one of London's Ragged Schools. Funded by private charity, these schools sought to educate some of the city's poorest children. The visit moved him so deeply that he spoke on the link between poverty and ignorance at the Athenaeum, an organization dedicated to educating workers, in Manchester. It was while he was in Manchester that the idea of transforming his impressions of the Ragged School into a work of fiction planted itself in his imagination. That October he plunged into a new story called “A Christmas Carol.” And while his social concerns may have inspired him to write the tale, it was his empty pockets that provided the motivation to undertake his new project.

Lately, Dickens’ financial situation had become dire since the sales of his latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, were floundering. Dickens felt sure that a story like “A Christmas Carol” would appeal to readers at Christmas time and thus generate needed cash. For he wasn’t only a good writer but a sensible businessman.

Dickens blazed through the writing of his new story, completing the manuscript in only six weeks. The project seized hold of him, inspiring him to work from morning until late at night. He passed some of these nights striding as many as 20 miles through the shadowy, still London streets, meditating on the story. In a letter to a friend he confessed that the work so charged his emotions, he found himself alternately laughing and weeping, an experience he transferred to his main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in his story.

Dickens financed the publication of the slim little book himself, insisting on illustrations and a quality binding. It appeared in bookshops on December 19, 1843. Dickens complained that booksellers seemed uninterested in promoting the story. Nevertheless, the entire first printing of 6,000 copies sold out in less than a week. After subtracting what it had cost him to produce the book, though, Dickens earned very little from its first printing.

But Dickens managed to celebrate Christmas merrily that year, exclaiming in a letter to a friend that he had rarely experienced a Christmas season so full of dining, dancing, theater-going, party games, and good cheer. He even attended a children's party where he entertained the assembled company with magic tricks, to all appearances dumping the raw ingredients of a plum pudding into a friend's hat and pulling out the finished product. The children’s party also appeared in his story. It was as if Dickens, himself, had become Scrooge and relished in the joy of Christmas.

So while writers may write about more mundane subjects throughout the year, it’s often Christmas that brings out the best in them. And while it may be too late to compose your own Christmas story for this year, there’s always 2015.
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Time is of the Essence

Time is an elusive thing. It can get away from you if you’re not careful. Before you know it, days disappear into weeks, weeks into months, months into years. And what have you accomplished? For many, the answer is not much. Well, it’s time to put your foot down and get something done—at least as far as your writing is concerned.

So how do you find time to write? Finding time to write in today’s busy world can be a real challenge. Ever since computers appeared on the scene, life hasn’t been quite the same. Now Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and God knows what other social media happenings fill the hours between sunrise and sunset. And don’t forget about Email. Sending and especially answering electronic mail can take up a big chunk of your day.

And then there’s work, school, or whatever other endeavor you’re pursuing, plus the time necessary for basic necessities like eating and sleeping—oh, and don’t forget exercising. So where does writing fit in?

Everyone has the same amount of time every day. How you choose to use that time makes you successful at what you do. However, if you aren’t willing to devote some serious time to writing, then perhaps you should take some time to think about how you use your time.

Focusing is the key. You must focus your time so that you accomplish what you set out to do in writing, as well as some but not all of the other stuff. You need to decide what you want to do and what you can do without, so that you can write more—or forget it.

The choice isn’t between writing and doing something else that you don’t want to do. The choice is among a nearly overwhelming array of things that you enjoy doing, such as checking in with your friends on Facebook, reading for pleasure, or having people over for dinner. Then there’s going to the movies, watching T.V., and traveling. You may rather do the dishes, walk the dog, or do laundry than write. So faced with so many options, most beginning writers tend to choose too many and feel like they’re short of time.

While some people can fit little bits of writing or editing in between other chores, that’s just not being realistic. To get any major writing project done, you have to dedicate time to it. To get published requires a considerable effort, so little bits of time writing here and there just won’t cut it.

Writing productivity demands dedication. To get anything done and done right, you have to just do it. And that means intense concentration for the time you’ve chosen to allot for writing. Wanting to write—a dream a lot of people have—and actually writing are two different things. Writing every day produces not only more writing but also more ideas for future writing. But writing posts on Facebook or answering Emails doesn’t count. The type of writing you should be doing is the kind necessary to advance your writing career and improve your writing skills such as articles, short stories, and plays.

Writing, like exercising, is its own reward. When you don’t do it, you feel as if you’re cheating yourself. Successful writers don’t just sit around waiting for inspiration, they sit down and begin to write. At some point, inspiration usually strikes. This is much like runners who exercise in all types of weather, no matter how busy their schedule may be. Like physical exercise, writing is often not enjoyable while you’re doing it. And like exercise, it’s just a matter of discipline. If you aren’t a disciplined person, you can certainly become one.

Distractions are the bane of serious writing. They kill the flow. So turn off the Email reminder and your cell phone and let voice mail answer for you. Stay in flow. Focus on what you’re writing. This is especially important for big projects like books. Find a convenient spot to stop for the day or stop after your daily quota if you’re writing fiction. Don’t write until you get tired. You’ll only have to redo it.

To stay focused on your writing while fulfilling your daily responsibilities, including answering Email and catching up with Facebook, set aside an hour or so every day to write. Or at least set aside an hour three days a week, or even one day a week. The key is making this time a regular slot in your schedule. Don’t let anything deter you from it. And while you’re at it, write at the same time every day. And lastly, write no matter how you feel----even if you feel like you don’t feel like writing. If you want to be a writer, you must write.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Feeding Your Muse

Did you ever wonder why some writers produce an exhaustive amount of material and others very little? The same thing seems to go for songwriters. The answer is complex but usually boils down to the fact that prolific writers do some things that the others don’t. They feed their muses in a number of odd ways.

First, there are the writers that proclaim they have a book inside them waiting to get out. So why can’t it escape the confines of their brains. Usually, it’s because their writing skills aren’t advanced enough to express their idea successfully. Later on in their career, after their writing skills have developed more, they can develop that same idea with little effort.

But what about the writer who produces one successful book and then seems to disappear from the scene. Much like the musical artist that produces one hit and fades into the background, so the one-shot-wonder puts so much effort into their first work that they lose sight of the bigger picture and don’t produce anything again.

The difference lies in looking versus seeing. Most people, including the one-shot-wonders, look only where they have to to survive. They focus so hard on that first, or perhaps even second or third, work that they don’t prepare themselves for anymore. But prolific writers and musical artists embrace the world around them. They pay attention because ideas worth capturing are happening all the time right next to them. They just see it where others don’t. Eyes that look are common while eyes that see are rare.

Prolific writers know how to beat resistance—that insidious force that works to stop creativity and progress. It’s the voice that says, “You’re tired. You can do it tomorrow. You’re really not that good. You could spend ten years slaving away and, chances are, it’ll all be for nothing.” Resistance is the true enemy to success. Prolific professional writers realize this and know how to beat it by constantly keeping something in the works, by constantly keeping their irons hot. They’re constantly writing. While they may not be writing books all the time, they produce blogs, stories, and articles—all sorts of projects that require the same method of creative thinking.

Creating something is difficult, usually lonely work, for any writer. Most think they can do it, but then find out they can’t. There are probably more half-written books out there than there are completed and successful ones. Professional writers live with the fact that producing a book is hard. So if they want to be a successful, prolific writer, they have keep their head down and trudge forward when everyone else has given up.

Successful writers don’t say no to new ideas. They know what risk is all about. They’ve tried things and failed. They can taste success. Let’s face it, mediocrity loves company. Prolific writers see beyond their ideas. They believe anything is possible. Whether or not it turns out to be true doesn’t really matter. Genius is seeing the inevitable before everyone else, the possibilities before it’s even a consideration.

Above all, prolific writers have passion—a passion for writing in general and for one type of writing in particular. Some derive pleasure from writing non-fiction books, realizing that fact is often more tantalizing than fiction. Others like to delve into the fantasy world of novels, literally creating life before them. And still others fall in love with the beautiful rhymes of poetry. Whatever the end result, a writer’s passion is what’s behind a work’s success.

If you’ve ever listened to prolific writers on T.V. talk shows, they all seem to have one thing in common—a stubbornness that’s often seen as ego or attitude. Sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s simply seeing the world for what it could be and expecting nothing less than passion and belief from those who normally don’t. But nothing great ever came from mediocre minds. So feed your muse daily and sit down and write.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Elephant in the Room

Copyright is probably the most misunderstood concept in writing. With information being so readily available on the Internet, everyone is on the defensive. If someone uses even one word of a text, the author is ready to jump on them. The same goes for ideas. Many people believe that if someone uses an idea the same as or similar to there’s without permission that they have stolen it. But actual copyright is very different from these common misconceptions.

Most beginning writers think that if they put their work out in public view that someone will steal it. If it only were good enough, someone might do just that. But most of the time it isn’t worth stealing. So how did they develop this notion.

It all started back when they were in school. Teachers ingrained in them that all their work had to be original. Let’s face it, the last time something totally original was created was at the point of the creation of the universe. Everything since then is influenced by all that came before it. Traditionally, academics have a fear that someone is after whatever they’ve uncovered or created. But that’s not how the real world works.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, copyrighting a work reserves the rights by the author to reproduce, distribute, and perform a literary, musical, dramatic, or artistic work. That covers a lot of territory.

It all began with the Statute of Anne, passed in England in 1710, that recognized that authors should be the primary beneficiaries of copyright law and established the idea that such copyrights should have only limited duration, after which works would pass into the public domain. The U.S. Congress enacted a similar law in the United States in 1790. Over the years, subsequent legislation changed the duration of a copyright and the necessity of registration.

Essentially, a copyright is placed on a work from a particular date onward for a period of time during which the copyright holder has exclusive rights to reproduce, modify, and distribute the work in whatever way he or she sees fit. In the U.S., that period is 70 years plus the age of the author at the time of publication. For anonymous works, that period is 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation date.

A work that was created in tangible form for the first time on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death.

Copyright law protects short stories, novels, nonfiction articles, poetry, computer software, software manuals, text advertisements, manuals, catalogs, brochures, and  databases. Other categories include plays, films, musical and sound recordings and multimedia works. Copyright law doesn’t protect your ideas, facts, words, and names, although it may protect the way you express them.

You own the copyright to your work, unless you assign those rights to a third party. Copyright protection arises automatically the moment you create it. The work must be "original," and not based upon someone else's work. The fact that your short story may be similar to other stories doesn’t mean it isn’t "original” for copyright purposes, so long as you don’t copy the complete story from another source.

For works published before March 1, 1989, you needed to place a copyright notice— “Copyright © 2014 by Your Name. All Rights Reserved”—on your work in order to receive copyright law protection. That’s no longer the case. For works published after March 1, 1989, you don’t need to place a copyright notice on your work in order to be protected by copyright law.

Such a notice warns people who view your work that you take copyright issues seriously and may have a deterrent effect upon possible infringers, especially those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of copyright law. Furthermore, if your work carries a proper notice, in the event of a subsequent infringement lawsuit the defendant will be unable to claim "innocent infringement"—that he or she didn’t realize that the work was protected.

Do you have to register your copyright? Not necessarily, but if you need to take legal action, a registered copyright will hold up in court. You may register the work after someone has infringed upon the work, but the registration will only apply to infringements that occur after the registration. However, if you register your work within 90 days of publication, the statutory damages provisions apply to infringements before and after the actual registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages up to $100,000 and attorney's fees in successful litigation.

Registration costs $35 per work. To register, you simply fill out the copyright application and mail it to the U.S. Copyright office with a check and a nonreturnable copy of your work—one copy if your work is unpublished and two copies if it has been published. Works that have been published must be registered within three months of publication. This is called "mandatory deposit."

Copyright registration is considered effective the day the Copyright Office receives all the materials required for registration. You may copyright the work in a pen name or pseudonym by simply checking the "Pseudonymous" box on the application.

Works published or created after January 1, 1978 aren’t subject to renewal registration. For works published or registered prior to January 1, 1978, renewal registration is optional after 28 years but does provide certain legal advantages.

The length of copyright protection depends on when the work was created, who created the work, and when the work was first distributed commercially. For works created on and after January 1, 1978, the copyright term for works created by an individual is the life of the author plus 50 years.

The term of the copyright for "works for hire" is 75 years from the date of first "publication" or 100 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.

Remember, it’s up to you to enforce the copyright to your works.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Getting the Flow of Ideas Started

Ideas are fleeting. If you don’t catch them in time, they’ll likely disappear. Your main source of material is your ideas, so as a writer you need to practice some idea-saving techniques. Granted, not all ideas are worth saving, but if you don’t do something when the idea enters your mind, you won’t know unless you save it.

Get your idea out of your mind and onto paper—any kind of paper. This might be a piece of scrap paper, a used envelope, or a page in an organized notebook. It really doesn’t matter, just as long as you write your ideas down. Above all, look for ideas that are ripe with meaning for your reader—not yourself.

The are two main methods for developing those bits of concentrated thought. The first is
brainstorming. This method uses word associations to develop lists of words that get more detailed as you go.

To begin, start with one word, preferably a noun. Under this word, list five to ten words that come to mind that are related to that word. Now take a word from that list and place it at the top of the page, then repeat the procedure from before. After completing the second list, repeat the whole process a third time so that you have three lists. Now look carefully at the original word and compare it to the last word in the third list. Notice how far removed or not it is from your original idea.

Brainstorming helps to empty your brain of related ideas. While you may not use any of the words you produce, some of them may spark new ideas of their own.

The second method for developing ideas on a subject is clustering. To begin, choose a word, again preferably a noun, and place it in a circle in the middle of a sheet of paper. Free associate branches of words fanning out from the center, each encircled and connected by a line to the original word. Some of the words you’ll come up with are details of words you have already, so place them in a circle connected by a line to the secondary word or subject that branches off from the original one. Let evocative words on the branches be nuclei for other branches.

Clustering enables you to develop groups of words on topics related to the main subject in the middle of the page. In this way, you’ll be able to focus your subject down to a narrower level.

And even though you generate lots of ideas, focusing them down so they’re manageable is important. To do so, you can start with the broader subject, then focus it down to a central idea which, in turn, can be focused even more to detailed questions that will help you decide exactly how you want to write about the subject. Remember, a subject is the broader term, a topic is what you write about.

For example, begin with the subject “holiday.” Under your Central Idea, list “Thanksgiving.” Finally, under Detailed Questions, try “ What are some Thanksgiving traditions?” Notice the difference between subjects and topics.

But to begin writing, you need to have more than a question. You need to have a Topic Statement, a simple statement about what your finished piece will be about and what it will try to accomplish on your given topic. Using a Topic Statement will help you achieve consistency in your writing.

You can take this focusing procedure one step further. While you’re at it, why not list as many detailed questions as you can think of concerning your Central Idea, in this case Thanksgiving. But what about a different Central Idea, say Christmas. Now you can do the same thing with a different holiday. And the list is endless.

Most writers have an idea and begin to write about it before developing it, not fully developing all its potential. You’ll soon discover it pays to do so. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

8 Ways to Encourage Creative Ideas

Creativity isn’t so much a matter of finding ideas as it is one of learning to become receptive to them. Creative ideas are all around you. It’s up to you to prepare your mind to see them.

The following eight ways will help you do just that. Practicing one or several of them will ensure that creative ideas begin to flow and stay flowing.

1. Have a fresh mind. Nothing blocks creative thinking like a mind clogged with all sorts of other stuff. Everyday life fills your mind with everything from trivial items, like what to make for dinner, to stress over finding a healthcare provider before the deadline. To get creative ideas to flow, you first have to clear your mind of all extraneous thoughts. That doesn’t mean you should forget them, only that you should put them on the back burner.

2. Meditate. An easy way to clear your mind is to meditate. No, you don’t have to seek out the service of a Indian guru. But you do have to find a quite spot where you can be alone with your thoughts. Go sit in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor and your arms at your sides. Close your eyes, take a deep breath through your nose and hold it for four counts. Then let it out slowly through your mouth while you count back from 10. When you reach 1, let your entire body relax. Imagine yourself in a beautiful place. Let your mind wander. Do this for about 20 minutes a day and soon you’ll find yourself overloaded with creative ideas.

3. Exercise your body. Nothing refreshes your mind like physical exercise. No, you don’t have to join a gym. But a brisk walk will do wonders. While walking, breathe through your nose and exhale through your mouth. This will increase the flow of oxygen to your blood and your brain.
You don’t have to be a long-distance walker—even a half mile will do. But do it regularly.

4. Find an activity that unblocks your creativity. To unblock your creativity and get those juices flowing, find an activity that you enjoy. It has to be something that will encourage your imagination—something besides writing. Perhaps you need to reorganize your storage spaces or plan a new kitchen. Whatever you choose, make sure it requires you to think.

5. Try a change of scene. While some writers think that if they go off in the woods that ideas will come to them and they’ll be able to finish that novel that’s nagging to come to life. But honestly, the same thing can happen working on your laptop while sitting at your kitchen table. However, once in a while it’s good to get away. No, you don’t have to book a flight to a far-off island. But you can get away for a weekend to some place different—some place that will stimulate your mind and inspire creative ideas. This may be a trip down a coal mine to learn how miners endured long, hard days below ground, or it may be a trip to a big city to immerse yourself in its cultural sights. Wherever your go and whatever you do will spark bring you back home refreshed and full of creative ideas.

6. Experience new things. Along with getting away, you may want to try new things. If you’ve never flown before, book a flight. Or perhaps take skiing or mountain-climbing lessons. If adventure isn’t your bag, then try something that’s more to your liking, such as trying new foods or experiencing a new, intense culture.

7. Seek out creative people. Nothing brings out your creative side like hanging out with other creative people. See if there’s any sort of creative/artistic group in your area that you can join. Take classes—either writing or other artistic subjects. Meet with your classmates for coffee to discuss the class and the subject, and ask them about what they’re doing creatively at the moment. Collaborate with another creative writer on a project. The two of you will encourage each others' creativity thought process.

8. Know when to stop. Above all, no when to stop. Nothing ruins creative flow like going on a binge. Limit the time you pursue creative ideas. The more time you spend at one sitting working on a project, the more limited your creative thought will be. Periodically give your mind a rest by working on something else or even doing household chores. Because while you’re washing last night’s dishes, your subconscious mind will be hard at work on your next batch of creative ideas.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Developing Your Creativity

Now that you’ve unlocked your creativity, it’s time to develop it. Everyone is creative—even if you don’t think you are. You use creative thought every day. Some people use it a lot, others not so much. However, many writers become slaves to inspiration. They sit around waiting for the light bulb to go on. But you can do more than wait around. You can make sure the light bulb goes on by practicing some basic mind-developing techniques.

Sci-Fi author Ray Bradbury once said, “The more you put into your head, the more you get out.” Author David Ritz, a virtual writing machine with seven books out this year alone, is a voracious reader. He puts a lot of information into his head on many different subjects.  It’s only natural that a lot will eventually spill out in his writing.

But before you can develop your creativity, you must find time to be creative and let your creativity flow. In today’s busy world, this isn’t always easy. Look at your weekly schedule and see if you can find an hour that you can devote to creative pursuits. Once you start, you’ll look forward to that time. Eventually, your mind will think more creatively the rest of the week.

The creative mind knows no age limit or I.Q. The way you direct your thoughts is more important than knowledge, itself.  Your imagination is directly related to the kind of person you are.

To successfully develop a creative mind, you’ll need a few things. The first is solitude, especially in the beginning. You can’t afford to be distracted. The second is patience—it won’t come all at once but will take time to develop. And the third is intuition. Most people think only women have this ability, but men do, too.
You may be a creative person already but just don’t know it. Do you possess a sense of curiosity?
Do you perceive the world differently? Do you persevere when things get tough? Do you have a heightened awareness? Do you have ambition? And above all, are you enthusiastic? If you answered yes to even a few of these questions, then you’re a latent creative person. All you have to do is wake up that latent creativity. But how?

There are some things you can do to stimulate your creative mind. One is to develop a special interest. People used to call this a hobby. This is something that you enjoy doing, but it also fosters creative thinking. You’ll be developing your creative mind while doing something you enjoy.    This includes all types of subject areas, from learning to play an instrument to gardening, collecting various items, painting—you name it.

Another way to light a spark to your creativity is to spend some time with another creative person. This may be someone you already know or perhaps someone that you haven’t met yet. You’ll know that the person is creative by how they talk about the world around them. And it’s not just artistic people that are creative. What makes a person creative is how they solve problems. Scientists and inventors are very creative people.

And from now on, whenever you meet someone for the first time, ask them about themselves before you tell them about yourself.

Reading is a part of writing. It’s how you take in information. But just reading anything won’t do. To develop your creative mind, you need to read stimulating material, such as non-fiction or biographies. While fiction may be good for entertainment, they do little to stimulate your mind, no matter how well they’re written. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read a novel or short story once in a while.

To get yourself on the road to developing a creative mind, start a pet project. This could be designing a new garden or redecorating a room in your home. Or perhaps you need more storage and you need to design units that meet your specific needs. Or maybe you’d rather do something artistic like create a photo essay or learn new photo techniques. Whatever it is, it’s bound to stimulate—as Agatha Christie’s famous character Hercule Poirot says—your “little gray cells.”


Friday, October 24, 2014

Unlocking Your Creativity

Many writers are naturally creative people, but for some, keeping up that creativity can be a challenge. If you’re in that group, you may want to look beyond your writing to the rest of your life.

Whether it applies to writing or something else, creativity is a combination of new thoughts. Sometimes it’s needed when solutions to problems don’t work—when you don’t have the right tool but substitute another instead. Or sometimes it’s necessary when solutions to the problem at hand don’t exist. And sometimes, you creativity sparks when you’re dissatisfied with the way your life is going.

But no matter what sparks your creativity, it’s more than just using your imagination. It’s a focused thought process based on your current knowledge and situation. So just as you set out to solve everyday problems, so you should apply that same procedure to solving your writing problems.

Is there a solution that’s similar that you can adapt to your needs? Is your idea the opposite of what’s out there? Is your idea one that’s associated with another?

When you were in school, teachers only stressed original thought. But that’s not how the world works. Most great ideas are not totally original but adapted from ones in existence. Take designing a Web site for yourself. Instead of wracking your brain to come with a totally new idea, why not study sites of other writers to get some idea of where to start. Other sites will also spark variations on what you want to include in your site. In the end, your site will be so different from those from which it grew that no one will know that’s where your ideas originated. Film and television writers and producers do this all the time. While sometimes a standard plot is obvious, most of the time, you’ll have to study the film or T.V. show to uncover it.

However, don’t ignore your imagination. You need that to get started when trying to think of a creative idea. It’s something your mind does deliberately. Unfortunately, many people put their imagination on hold as they get older instead of letting it shine.

Many writers sit around waiting to be inspired. Unlike the imaginative process, this one is more accidental. You have to be in the right place at the right time for things to happen. But if you prepare your mind, things will happen. Going to work in a cabin in the woods won’t make you a better writer. It most likely will make you a lonely one.

But when the light bulb goes on, that’s when everything comes together. This is called illumination. It can happen while driving to work or in the shower or while washing dishes. But it doesn’t happen all by itself. It needs imagination and inspiration to flourish. When the light bulb goes on, it’s all systems go for your idea.

Creativity is a five-step process. First, you need to prepare by studying the problem and doing research to find out if anyone else has come up with a solution. The more you know, the better off you’ll be. Second, you need to concentrate on the problem and possible solutions, looking at all the angles. Third, you need to take a break from the problem—let it incubate. This could be for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, or several months. After letting your subconscious work on the problem, the moment of insight—the “Ah Ha” Moment—will emerge. That’s when the light bulb will go on in your mind. Finally, you must adapt the insight to the problem and solve it.

How does this apply to writing? The preparatory step is obvious. You need to do lots of research to find out what’s been done before and how your idea fits. Then you concentrate on your idea, weighing in the research to firm it up. At this point, you work on another project, taking your mind off the new one. At some point, the solution will hit you and almost knock you over. That’s when you know you’re ready to begin writing.

Next Week: Ways to Develop Your Creativity

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Writer's Haunted Life

When is a writer’s life like a haunted house? Always.

Writers, most of them anyway, live a haunted life. Ghosts appear at every turn. Sometimes, these are the ghosts of previously written pieces that come around to bite them in the ass. Sometimes, these are the ghosts of editors who still carry a grudge for one reason or another. And sometimes, these are the ghosts of poorly made decisions. But whatever haunts you, you can bet it will be far worse than going through a haunted house during the Halloween season.

While visiting a haunted house is meant to be entertaining, living a haunted life certainly isn’t. The bad times far outway the good ones. Usually the euphoria that comes with the good times certainly lingers longer. But the truth is that bad things that happen to writers can have lasting effects.

Take the first time someone critiques your work. You feel scared as hell—your skin may itch, your eyes water, your stomach churns. And what if the critique turns out to be horrible. Will you crawl in a hole and die? Certainly not. But you may get terribly depressed. In fact, you may never write again. It happens far more often than you think.

Perhaps you’ve been working with an editor for a long stretch and you have developed a great working relationship. Then the editor tells you that they’re leaving for another job. You know what you have, but you have no idea what you’ll be getting. The new editor may love your work and give you more than you can handle. Or the new editor may end up telling you can’t write, leaving you without a good regular market.

Or what about when an editor promises you’ll get paid, but you never see the money. If you’re a full-time freelancer, the bill collector demons may be knocking on your door—or calling you every hour. Boy, could you use that money now. But it never arrives. And what about all the work you put into that piece. Sometimes, you can’t even sell it elsewhere.

But then you get a call from your publisher with a nod to a book proposal you sent him months ago. Hallelujah! You dig in and begin working on the book. You’re having a fantastic time. You send in the manuscript. Your editor loves it. Then you wait. One day, you get an Email telling you the publisher decided not to publish your book because the market took a downturn. You get to keep the advance. But no one will ever read your book. And unless the publisher releases you from your contract, you’re stuck.

Haunted houses are full of surprises. They’re meant to be. But so will your life be as a writer. Often you won’t know what the next day will bring. Too many surprises can cause a lot of stress. This turns a lot of beginning writers away from freelancing. The New York Times is in the process of laying off nearly 100 reporters and editors. You can bet a bunch of them will try their hand at freelancing. They should succeed, but many of them won’t. Why? Because they don’t like surprises. Working for a salary has its advantages.

It takes more than writing skill to be a successful writer. It takes stamina. You’ve got to be on top of your game all the time. And when you’re hit with too many ghosts coming at you, you tend to back off and your writing suffers.

You’ve only heard about all the good things that happen to famous writers. But they, too, have had their share of surprises—ghosts that have come back to haunt them. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Who Cares?

Lots of people think they have a story that everyone will want to read. But unless you’re a  celebrity or have done something extraordinary, no one cares. You could be the best writer in the world, but if your story doesn’t grab readers, it won’t matter. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your story will be interesting to anyone beyond your family and close friends. And even they may not be interested.

Many writers truly believe that their story has the makings of the next New York Times bestseller, whether it be a messy divorce, their battle with cancer, or the adventure of a lifetime. But most of the time, their story lacks what it takes to make it big.

Those that have endured a traumatic experience often feel that the experience, itself, is enough to a make a story engaging. It isn’t. What’s needed is a hook, something to draw the reader in and keep them there. How much you’re involved in the story is irrelevant. What matters is how it affects the reader.

Once there was a woman whose husband had died after a failed operation. She blamed the surgeon and wanted to lash out at him by writing a book about the incident. What she didn’t realize was that she wanted revenge, not to educate her readers on how to avoid a similar situation or what to do if the same thing happened to someone they loved. This beginning writer wrote her story and then paid $8,000 to a vanity publisher to have it printed. What she ended up with was a room full of books and no way to sell them.

But in today’s digital world, you could write a book and put it on Amazon for next to nothing. So it’s important that you write your story with your readers in mind—what’s in it for them, not what’s in it for you.

Another problem with the scenario above is the word “beginning.” As a beginning writer, and most likely one who hadn’t written anything before, the woman would have lacked the writing skills and research expertise to enable her to do a professional job on her book.

A lot of seniors fall into this category. They feel that because they’ve lived a long life,  everything they have to say is interesting. They read memoirs of famous people and say to themselves that they could write a book just as good. But most of the time they can’t. The situation leads to a lot of frustration and disappointment.

So what does it take to hook your reader? First, your story doesn’t have to be earth shattering, but it does have to relate to readers on their level. It has to offer them something—information, advice, hard facts—that will allow them to apply whatever happens in the story to their own lives. This applies to both non-fiction and fiction.

Many beginning writers chose to fictionalize their stories to avoid having to be associated with them, thus avoiding the possibility of getting sued. Even if you turn your true-life story into a novel, you still have to relate it to the reader. And if your characters are anything like the real people in your experience, you could still get sued. But frankly, a non-fiction version will offer a lot more credibility since it actually happened to you.

Professional writers target their readers. They usually don’t write to a general audience, but to a specific group of readers—men, women, young, old—who would most likely benefit from what they have to say. True, bestselling books often get read by a large audience, but they weren’t written that way. They were first written for a specific one and then got picked up by other groups when the book became a viral hit.

So before you pour your heart out in a book that may not go anywhere, think about what you have to offer your readers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Focus on Your Reader

Throughout your schooling you were taught one thing—that the writer is the most important part of the process.  But when you decided to start writing, expressing your ideas and thoughts, you discovered that not so many people wanted to read your work. In fact, it may have felt as if no one was interested. To make sure people are interested, you must focus on them, your readers.

Sure, the ideas you work with mostly originate with you. Many beginning writers keep journals in which to record their ideas and their musings. But no one reads your journal but you. When you write for your readers, you have to look at your writing in a whole new way.

When you record your innermost thoughts and experiences in a journal, you do it in a highly personal and uncensored manner. But often these writings are haphazard and unorganized. They make sense to you but to your readers they appear chaotic and disorganized. That’s because they were never meant to be shared with your readers.

Keeping a journal can be a healing process after a traumatic experience. It can guide you through the early stages of becoming a writer. It lets you see your mistakes and bad habits and the patterns that develop so you can correct them later on. But keeping a journal won’t improve your writing because you don’t pay attention to style and technique, two things your readers look for and want to see in whatever they read.

Learning to write for publication is somewhat difficult for the average beginner. You wrote all those compositions in school for one reason—to practice the writing skills you were taught. If you could go back and read them, you’d discover that they are probably boring and don’t speak to you at all.

So to write material worthy of publication, you must make a definite shift in how you interact with the reader. What the reader wants and needs is of the upmost importance. Your creativity will have to move from self-orientation to interaction. Whatever your motivation, you need to move from daydreaming to a purposeful way to express your thoughts and feelings so that your readers will empathize with you. When you tell a story, you must engage your readers—you must make them feel a part of it.

There are a lot of people who go through a traumatic experience. They’re either overjoyed or deeply hurt by it. For those who come through feeling a sense of euphoria, sharing that with readers may be an uplifting experience. But those who are deeply hurt only want to lash out and blame everyone. Sharing that with readers turns them off because there’s nothing in it for them. Writing a memoir can be cathartic, whether or not writing makes you feel better is secondary.

There are many reasons to write. Ask yourself why you want to write. Is your goal to entertain or inspire foster understanding or inform? To make your article or story hit home with your readers, it must first be meaningful to you. It must satisfy your own curiosity.

Not only are you a writer, but you’re also a reader. You have the opportunity to see any piece of writing from your readers’ perspective. First and foremost, you must make whatever you're saying clear. You need to transform your ideas and facts into something that better serves others. By taking your specific circumstances and tapping into universal themes, you can create a story that's more relatable to your readers. And in doing so, your story transcends yourself and becomes meaningful to others.

So before you write anything, ask yourself who will be the main audience. How old are your readers? What gender are they? What demographic group do they belong to? How educated are they?

Paying close attention to the answers to the above questions will not only make your writing better, it will also make it read. And isn’t that the goal of writing for publication in the first place?

Friday, September 12, 2014

When Should You Quit Your Day Job

People daydream. Writers daydream even more. Perhaps you’re sitting in your cubicle right now dreaming of the day when you can tell your boss to stick it and take up the full-time life of a writer.  Lots of people do it, so why shouldn’t you?

Daydreams keep you on an even keel. They help balance the frustrations in your life. They give you hope. But what they don’t tell you is just how you’re going to make it after you quit your day job.

Believe it or not, the writing business ain’t what it used to be. Publishers are paying writers the same amount for articles and stories as they did 30 years ago. Advances for books are actually less today than they were 30 years ago. What business do you know that hasn’t given its employees a raise in 30 years? The answer is none. Even burger slingers at McDonald’s have seen increases in the minimum wage.

The problem with most writers, yourself included, is that you have no idea what’s happening in this business. Your daydreams take you to some far off glamorous place where you see yourself making the big bucks, like all those famous writers you read about. You effectively don rose-tinted glasses and see the world through a fantasy-like haze.

Well, it’s time to come down to Earth. Take off those rose-colored glasses and see the writing world for what it is—a rather gruesome place to make a living. Well, it may not be all that bad, but it’s not what it used to be.

If your goal is to become a full-time writer, you need to plan ahead. Getting one or two articles or stories published is a start, but it won’t earn you a living. Oh, but you plan to write books and make lots of money. Better think again. Writing books for most writers is a labor of love. If you’re lucky, you’ll sell one book a year, but the reality is that it may take you several years to sell a book in today’s market. And don’t forget the 15 percent your agent will take and another 20-30 percent that the IRS will take, and you aren’t left with much.

But you say you don’t have to wait that long with ebook publishing and outlets like Amazon’s Kindle. If you’re selling a book for $2.99—the average price for an ebook—just think how many books you’ll have to sell to equal your current salary.

So unless you’re insane, don’t quit your day job until you’re making enough money from writing to pay at least some of your bills. If you have a family, that may be never.

The solution to this vexing problem is to diversify. Writing, at least the type of writing you’ve been daydreaming about, can’t be your only source of income. You’ll need to put on your creative thinking cap and come up with ways to supplement your writing income.

The first rule is to try not to do anything that isn’t in some way connected to your writing and what you write. You could do other types of writing, such as copywriting, public relations work, or screenplays. You could also capitalize on the subject matter you write about, especially if you become an expert in a certain area. Armed with the knowledge you’ve gained from writing articles and books, you could develop courses and lectures. Yes, there is that old adage that those that can’t teach. But don’t you believe that for a minute. In fact, those that can have more insight and are better teachers.

You need to look at the bigger picture. Think of all the ways you can make money from your writing. Then work like hell. Only then should you quite your day job.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Asking for Feedback

Writing is a solitary and usually isolated venture. But if you keep your writing to yourself, you’ll never know how readers will react to it. Soliciting feedback can be a slippery slope, even for a professional.

It’s one thing to solicit feedback for your writing, and quite another interpreting it. Who gives you feedback is as important as the opinions they offer—and that’s the key word, opinions. If you take everything everyone says about your writing at face value, then you’re sure to fail.

Many writers got into writing because friends of theirs told them they had a knack for it. Have you heard statements like this: “You communicate so well.” “I can’t put down anything you write until I finish it.” “You’ve got a real gift.” All are words of encouragement, but they’re not constructive criticisms, and that’s what you want and need to improve your writing.

The first step to receiving usable feedback is to determine just who you want to give it. Ordinary readers just won’t do. What you need are expert readers—people who will read your work critically and offer suggestions for improvement. They can be other writers or editors or people who are knowledgeable in your subject area. The worst ones are probably academics—English teachers, researchers, etc. Academic has it own set of rules, and, for the most part, they’re very different than those of general writers—those who write articles, non-fiction books, short stories, and novels. You’re not looking to just have someone catch mechanical mistakes like spelling and punctuation, but instead you need to have these readers give you feedback on the content, plot, and general organization of your work.

To make the most of feedback, you need to follow the Writing Cycle. This is a eight-step method that each piece you write must follow. First, you need to think about what you’re going to write. Second, you need to focus your idea. Third, you need to organize it in a logical manner. Fourth, you need to write a first draft—get everything out on the paper. Fifth, you need to seek feedback. Sixth, you need to adjust your work and add details if necessary. Seventh, you need to revise and polish your work based on that feedback. Eighth, you need to proofread your work.

Getting feedback for most writers means letting someone else read what you’ve written. But in the feedback stage above, it’s not about reading your rough draft. Instead, it’s about telling the other person about your idea, then having them ask questions based on what you’ve told them about what you’ve written. If you do want someone else to read your work, you’re going to have to proofread your rough draft before they see it.

At this stage, you need to go back and make the adjustments that the person or persons has suggested. Then put your work away for a awhile. Let it sit for a couple of days, a week, even a month. Then take it out and read it as if you are the reader. Mistakes and misplaced content will stand out. Make it right based on your own opinion of your work.

Now it’s time to expose it to a select audience—to test market your work. If you were writing a children’s book, the logical test group would be children of the age to understand your book. You’ll know immediately after they’ve read it if you’re on the right track. For mysteries, other mystery writers and mystery readers are your target group, and so on.

Many people are on Facebook and other social networking sites these days. But these are not the people you want to read your work and offer feedback. First, people on Facebook, for example, usually skim through posts and don’t read anything at length. Second, these are not people with astute opinions.

You might consider joining a writing group. However, members of these groups have a tendency to stroke each others egos and probably won’t offer any useful feedback.

So selecting the right readers for your work is crucial. These should be people you trust will give you their honest opinion and offer constructive criticism—criticism that will help improve your work. Never ask if they like your work. Instead, ask specific questions about characters, plots, and general content and organization.

In receiving criticism, it’s essential that you remain clear about retaining ownership over your material and letting go of what may not ultimately work. Only then can you successfully sort through responses and weigh the validity of comments that might improve your work versus those that may be clouded by a particular reader’s personal taste, bias or overall reaction to content. Everyone, even experts like editors have opinions. After writing regularly for a publication for seven years, a new editor told a writer he couldn’t write. Now how can that be? That’s the power of personal opinions.

You can’t listen to everything everyone says about your work. The more general the reader, the less useful feedback they’ll offer. The most helpful feedback comes from readers who want you to succeed. Rather then change your work, they want to help make it better.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Too Good to Be True

“Make a great living while working from home (or from a coffee shop, or poolside, or while you travel) ...YOU decide what you write about and for whom.” Sounds almost too good to be true. In fact, that’s just what it is.

The above blurb, promoting a free webinar and report, recently appeared in a Writer’s Digest Update Email. Look at the phrases used—great living, working from home, coffee shop, poolside, while you travel—all things you’d love to do. And that’s the catch. Each of these phrases causes unsuspecting writer wannabees to start day dreaming about a life they’d love to have, away from the drudgery of the cubicle they inhabit every day.

There are lots of seminars and come-ons out there, enticing beginners. Each plays on the dreams of people like you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad to dream. But as far as writing is concerned, it pays to add a touch of practicality to your dreams.

Let’s look at each of these phrases.

Make a great living. Yes, you can make a living as a writer—I’ve been doing it for 29 years. But only a handful of lucky writers makes a “great” living. In fact, as I’ve said so many times in this blog, writing is hard work and generally the pay is often in the moderate range. Unless a writer produces a blockbuster bestseller, about the only way to make big bucks is to do corporate writing. And that puts you right back in the cubicle, even if only virtually.

Working from home. In today’s technologically inspired marketplace, you can do a lot of things from home. Computers make that possible. So why writing? You may be passionate about writing. Or perhaps friends have told you that you write well. Or you may look at writing as a way to get people to notice you.

From a coffee shop. Everyone imagines themselves sitting in a Starbucks writing the next great American novel. Have you been to a Starbucks recently? Chances are you won’t find a seat. That’s because so many people use it as their mobile office. It seems everyone in the place has a laptop open to the Internet or is working on a document or spreadsheet. However, if you ignore the caché of Starbucks and try Dunkin Donuts, for example, you’ll usually have the place to yourself.  Isn’t what you’re doing more important than where you’re doing it?

Poolside. The same applies to sitting poolside and working on your laptop. This isn’t the safest place to work, unless you just happen to have your own pool. If that’s the case, you probably don’t need to make a living as a writer in the first place. But if you try this at a public pool or swim club, chances are the kiddies will splash that shiny new laptop of yours and ruin whatever you are working on.

While you travel. Everyone—and I mean nearly everyone—dreams of traveling the world and writing about it. It seems like the ideal glamorous life. However, they see it from a vacation perspective, not a working perspective. Most likely the only travel they’ve done has been on vacation, where time isn’t important and they can do pretty much what they want. But working while traveling is something else. You’ll be constantly living out of a suitcase. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll have to beg someone else to pay for your trip—and travel isn’t cheap these days. And finally, depending on your schedule and the work you need to accomplish, you may not even have time to enjoy the places you visit. And forget about a family life. You won’t have time for it.

So before you get suckered into free webinars or costly seminars that promise to show you the way to writing riches, think carefully the practical side of being a full-time writer.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Time is of the Essence

One thing you have on your side as a freelance writer is time. It can work for you or against you. Essentially, it’s all about how you play your cards—what you do with your time.  Play them right and you win. Play them wrong and you lose. But there’s always that constant of time.

You have plenty of time available. But does it seems to fly by more quickly than you’d like? That may be because you probably squander your precious working time. Realistically, you can’t write for hours and hours. The quality of your work will suffer, and your body will rebel.   

During an average workday, a writer’s work load consists of various important as well as less important items. Much of your time involves sending and receiving information. During the long hours you work, you’ll be doing a lot of fragmented things. Does this sound like your typical work day?

You need to be realistic when it comes to using your time wisely. Don’t take on too much, or you’ll set yourself up to fail. Only you know how much you’re capable of handling. Overestimating the number of projects you can handle at any one time will surely lead to disappointment. And if you keep that up, it will be more difficult to become more productive.

One of today’s biggest problems for writers is Email and varied other electronic distractions. If you receive lots of mail, you may find yourself taking care of it instead of your writing. It’s easy to procrastinate. And then there’s Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, to name a few of the social media distractions facing all of us daily. They’re addictive. And as with your Email, you may find yourself spending more time on them than on your writing. Set aside down time to take care of these tasks.

You may want to check your mail the first thing in the morning, then at a couple of specific other times during the day. But limit the time you spend with it. Before you know it, you could easily spend most of your morning doing basically insignificant tasks. And turn off any message or sound telling you that you have mail. That will surely draw you away from your work.

Avoid other distractions, too. Let your voice mail or answering machine take messages for you. You can call whoever called you back later. And don’t forget to turn off your cell phone. If you’re constantly checking your cell, you won’t get any work done, either.

You may also want to keep a piece of scrap paper handy on which to jot down thoughts about other projects that may pop into your head as you’re working. If you don’t, you won’t remember them later. And if you stop to pay attention to them while you’re in the midst of writing, you may find that they’ll knock you off your writing track.

Make writing a priority. But it’s also important not to write for long periods at a stretch. Take breaks every so often. Get up and walk around. Go for a walk, Do laundry. But don’t take your break at your computer. Surfing online isn’t really taking a break, and you’re body needs to get up and move around.

Schedule other duties around your writing. Write when you feel mentally sharp. That can vary from person to person. You may feel sharper earlier in the morning, so get up earlier to write. Or you may feel sharper later in the afternoon. Figure out when your mental peak occurs and work with it. Do menial tasks like cleaning or taking out the trash during your mental down time.

To help you get the most out of your time, create a daily or weekly To-Do List. (See my post “Smart To-Do Lists Get Things Done” from Sept.6, 2013). Use the A-B-C priority system. Once you have made your To Do List, place an “A” next to items of top importance, a “B” next to those less important but that still need to be done, and a “C” next to those with the least importance.  You may find that the ones with a “C” next to them may complete themselves automatically or may not need doing at all.

Schedule five minutes of review time into your day. Look at what happened yesterday, what will happen today, and what you need to do tomorrow. The more you plan out your day, the more you’ll accomplish.

If time is getting between you and your writing, start doing something about it before it’s too late.

Friday, August 8, 2014

So You Want to Write a Blog - Part 2: Positioning for Success

Location, location, location. That’s the mantra of real estate agents. And it should be your mantra as far as your new blog goes. In this case, it’s not where you post the blog----there are numerous free blogging sites that you can use. Instead, it’s how you position your blog among the other blogs in your category.

So before you do anything, you’ll need to do some surfing. No, you don’t need to go put your swimsuit on and get your boogy board ready. But you will need to spend some time surfing the Web for other blogs in the subject category that you’ve chosen. When you find several you like, study them. Don’t just read the latest post, but check back through the archives and find the thread that keeps all of the posts in line with the bloggers goal.

And that brings us to the next step. You’ll need to define your goals for your new blog. What do you hope to accomplish with your blog? What type of blog will it be? (See last week’s post). Are you trying to establish yourself as an expert in your field? Are you trying to promote your business? Or are you blogging for fun and to share your ideas and opinions? Write down your short and long term goals for your blog. What do you aim to gain from it in six months or a year. Then design, write and promote your blog to meet your goals.

What are your target audience’s expectations? The design and content will vary according to your audience. And even before you post another entry, your audience will size up your blog. If you don’t meet its expectations, they’ll move on without a second thought.

Once you begin posting your blog entries, you’ll need to be consistent. Nothing screws up a blog more than when the blogger jumps around and rambles on and on. Your blog represents a specific message and image to your audience. Your blog's design and content should consistently communicate your blog's image and message. Being consistent allows you to meet your audience's expectations and create a secure place for them to return to again and again.

Another stumbling block to gaining a good audience is not regularly updating your blog. If you fail to update regularly, your audience will perceive your blog as a static Web page. Your blog should be anything but static. It should be a vibrant living thing that’s also timely.

To garner a good position for your blog among your audience, it’s imperative that you invite your readers to join in a two-way conversation. Ask them to leave comments. Pose questions from those comments that will solicit more comments. Continue the conversation by leaving comments on other blogs inviting new readers to visit your blog. If you don’t gain loyalty from your audience, then your blog will fail.

Much of your blog's success will depend on how you promote it on the social media networks. Find bloggers in your subject area and comment on their blogs.

Look for enhancements for your blog. There are plenty of plug-ins and features available. But don’t overload your blog with gimmicks. Try holding a contest, for example. It’s a simple way to engage readers. Take the time to research new tools and features, and keep an eye on the latest news from the blogosphere.

Remember, your blog is an extension of yourself. Your loyal readers will keep coming back to hear what you have to say. Inject your personality into your blog and adapt a consistent tone for your posts. People don't read blogs simply to get the news. They could read a newspaper for news reports. Instead, people read blogs to get bloggers' opinions on the news, the world, and more. Don't blog like a reporter. Blog like you're having a conversation with each of your readers.

If you follow the old real estate developer adage, "If you build it, they will come," you’ll surely be disappointed. Sure, some readers will find your blog and read it a few times. Others will stick around for the long haul and read your every post. But developing a successful blog requires hard work by creating compelling content on your blog as well as working outside of your blog to promote it and develop a community around it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

So You Want to Write a Blog - Part 1

Blogging is all the rage today. It seems that everyone wants to write a blog. And although it’s relatively easy to get started, maintaining the momentum is the hard part.

All blogs are not create equal. Generally, they can be broken up into several categories—news, instructional, advice, opinion, promotional, journal, and general musings. Each has its own use.

You may want to write a news blog—not one that deals with national news but one that covers little known local news. Elena Santangelo’s “Norristown Diary,” a blog about her hometown in eastern Pennsylvania, is a good example. Not only is she covering news that slips past the mass media, she’s also learning a lot about her town as well. There’s a need for a blog like this—if nothing more than to raise awareness about local issues.

Instructional blogs like this one have their own niche. Blogging is a great way to share your expertise on a subject, especially if you’ve been successful with it. In this case, you need to be somewhat of an expert on the subject you tackle.

And then there are advice blogs dealing with personal finance and investments, health, food, travel, you name it. With this type of blog, you also need to have some expertise, otherwise your readers won’t take you seriously.

If you’re a person with lots of strong opinions, especially on trendy subjects like climate change and gun control, then you may want to share your opinions with your readers through a blog. In this case, you’ll need to do creditable research so that you can back up your opinions and not just rant and rave.

You can also promote yourself or your business through a blog. Promotional blogs can go a long way in social media marketing. Then can help establish you as an expert in your field, thus attracting customers to you. They can also promote your products and services.

Perhaps you travel and want to write a daily blog en route. In this way, you can take your readers along with you. This shouldn’t be a boring diary of where you went, what you did, and what you ate. Instead, it should be a lively look into the location and culture, and even the people you meet along the way. This type of blog is usually short lived, spanning only the length of the trip. It does, however, make you more observant because you’re constantly looking for good blog material.

Lastly, you may want to write a blog that can only be classified as a general musing. Usually, this sort of blog is intended for a small group of close friends or followers who may be interested in the comings and goings of your life. But even this type of blog needs to be planned out and organized. It should offer some insight into your life. It should not consist of just your daily ramblings. That will eventually drive even your closest friends away.

How often should you update your blog? The answer varies. Some bloggers update once a week while others do it every few days, and still others daily. Maintaining a daily blog can become a chore.  Except for news and journal blogs, most are updated weekly.

There are probably millions of blogs on the Internet. And there are millions of readers for those blogs. But matching your blog to even a handful of those readers can be a challenge. To do that successfully, you have to imagine your target audience. Your blog has to speak to them to get their attention. It has to offer something unique—something they can’t get elsewhere.

NEXT WEEK: Some tips for making your blog a success.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Writing for Web Sites

The Internet, the World Wide Web, commonly known as the Web, has changed over the last decade. Originally, a collection of sites that were mostly one way portals, it has grown into a sophisticated communication medium in which writers and readers can interact with each other. And if you think you can take previously printed articles and sell them to online markets, you better think again.

Writing for online publications is a lot different from writing for print. First, they’re mostly written in the second person. That’s because you’re speaking directly to readers—one at a time. So when you use the pronoun “you,” the reader thinks you’re speaking to him or her.

Second, online articles tend to have links. They’re interconnected to other pages on a site or other sites on the Web. But you can’t include too many or your reader will drift off to other sites and not finish reading your article.

Before you begin writing for any sites, you should set out to learn as much as you can about Web writing. Just as you studied magazines to learn about their style, length, and approach, so you should study Web sites to learn their style, length, and approach to the subject.

The first rule of Web writing is to write tight—yep, that’s right, put the girdle around that article. Online readers, unlike print readers, aren’t there for the duration. They’re busy people who have a little time to see what’s happening. So they surf fast, and read as little as they can. You’ve got to say what you mean and mean what you say in as few words as possible. Cut right to the chase. (Whew! The clichés are certainly flying here.) Web articles tend to be shorter and more to the point than print pieces. The majority of online blog posts and articles fall in the 500-800 word range. If you write pieces longer than that, you’re asking for trouble.

And since online readers don’t linger over a page or an article for too long, you should use subheads, bullets, and numbered lists to help them find what they want fast. Today’s readers use various devices to access Web content—cell phones, tablets, laptops—so you also need to be aware of how your article will look on the page. Break the content into shorter sections with clear headings to make it easy for Web readers to browse.

Although all articles demand compelling leads, online article leads need to be especially so. If you’re going to hook online readers, you need to do it quickly because their attention span is 10 seconds, so it’s even more important to make that first sentence and first paragraph really engaging.

It used to be that just about anything could be posted on a site and readers would consider it. Not anymore. The competition among sites is fierce, so today’s Web developers insist that their sites have a style all their own—and that’s not just for the layout and graphics, but for the content, too. Good Web content has a strong voice and direction tailored to appeal to a specific  reader. Note the style of the text on the site for which you wish to write and imitate it as nearly as possible in your own piece. Learn the site’s voice and tone. And note the topics that it covers regularly. Some sites offer style guidelines the way magazines do.

In order to successfully write for the Web, you need to know something about search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO makes websites more “visible” for search engines by including specific keywords in articles. You can’t guess at these. In fact, most Web site editors will give you a list of keywords that they want you to work into your article. It’s important to include them subtly so they don’t stand out. Sometimes, it may be difficult to figure out how to include them, but get creative. Site editors like it when you do.

Writing for Web sites usually means you’ll be given tight deadlines. That’s because everyone wants everything yesterday. With the immediacy of the Web, you may be expected to write a piece in less than 24 hours. Deadlines for print are much longer and more forgiving. Web sites need lots of content—and everyone wants it to be original. Realistically, that’s a tall order. It means you have to begin from scratch every time you write an article. All sites want exclusivity. Again, let’s get real. That’s no way to run a business. And while Web developers may get rich from advertising income, they’re mighty stingy when parting with that money to pay you for your time and effort. In fact, many site owners want everything for free. And that’s the downside of the Web.

You as a writer can only make a profit from Web writing if you’re able to sell pieces again and again, just as in print. Unfortunately, the Web hasn’t gotten there yet. Even though there are millions of online users, every site thinks they should have them all.

So pay will be pretty paltry in most cases. Web developers expect the world for a penny, so to speak. But because the volume is so great, you can make a decent amount of income if you’re efficient. That means getting your writing routine down—no lingering over a draft, no extensive re-writing, no over-editing. Learn to write each piece with a 1,2,3 attitude—(1) think out your piece and plan it, (2) write the draft, (3) edit the piece. With all your information at hand, you could even do all of that in an hour. But that’s cutting it pretty close.

To make things easier, consider using information from articles you’ve already written. Recast topics from research you have on hand. Save the heavy duty pieces for sites that are willing to pay you for your time and expertise. Don’t waste your energy for $10-30. And if a Web developer balks when you say no. Tell him, “You get what you pay for.”

Saturday, July 19, 2014

How Good a Promotional Tool is Facebook?

Social media is all the rage today. It seems everyone—or almost everyone—is on Facebook, the leading social media platform. There’s a lot of buzz about how social media, especially Facebook, is a prime promotional medium for small businesses. But as a writer, is Facebook for you? And if so, how?

First, it may be good to begin by dividing writers into two groups—those who write books, either fiction or non-fiction, and those who write shorter pieces like short stories and articles. You may ask what’s the difference. There definitely is one.

If you’re a book writer, commonly referred to as an author although a writer nonetheless, you produce a product that you can sell directly to readers. With the ever-increasing proliferation of ebooks available from such online distributors as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, among others, you can write, publish, and sell your books directly. But that also means you have to do your own promotion. And that’s where social media networks like Facebook come in.

Create an Author Page
By creating a Facebook author page, you can promote your books and stay in touch with your growing list of reader fans. Through your author page, you can alert fans to book signings, new or upcoming books, reprints of older editions, updates of non-fiction books, and special book sales. Author pages also allow you to offer teasers for upcoming books in order to build reader anticipation.

Unfortunately, the range of options isn’t as great on Facebook if you write short stories or articles. This is mainly because you normally don’t sell directly to readers but instead sell your work to magazine editors. Editors are busy people and don’t have time to actively seek out writers on Facebook, so unless you know an editor personally, chances are they won’t be following you on Facebook. Of course, you could sell your short stories and articles either individually or in collections as ebooks for Kindle or Nook. This is especially good for pieces that are too long for magazines.

In the above case, a Facebook author page probably isn’t the best option. Instead, consider setting up a business or professional page on Facebook. It works much the same way as an author page but allows you to also promote other writing projects, courses, and other communication services. For this you might want to create an umbrella title, such as “Your Name Communications,” substituting your name in the title. That’s broad enough to encompass a variety of projects and services. Check out my page for Bob Brooke Communications.

Remember, both author pages and professional pages have “likes” not “friends.” The people who follow them are essentially fans of your work and want to know more about you and what you write about.

Facebook’s Downside
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to Facebook. Many users, perhaps yourself included, have become frustrated that no one “likes” or comments or shares their posts. With the shear volume of messages on Facebook each day, that’s only natural. At best, it’s an indirect communication medium. Most of the time only those Facebook users who are actual real-life family members, friends, and acquaintances take the time to “like” or comment on a post. So you can see that could seriously interfere with promoting yourself as a writer or promoting your writing products.

However, if you have either an author or professional page, you have control of the content you post there. You decide just what you want your fans to know. And because they like you as a writer, they’ll interact to what you tell them. And it’s only on author or professional pages that you can see how many people have seen your posts. Personal Facebook pages don’t offer that. In this way, you can see which posts receive more attention and can then post accordingly. Think of your author or professional page as being the online headquarters of your fan club.

Getting the Most Out of Facebook
So how can you get the most promotional mileage out of Facebook? First, Facebook isn’t the place to post your writing for feedback or criticism. Facebook users generally don’t read more than they have to. Everyone is too busy to linger over long messages. If you want your fans to read your work, create a Web site or post to someone else’s site and then post a link on Facebook back to either.

Another way to get people on Facebook to read and share what you have to say is to write a blog, then link your blog to your Facebook page, either directly or through Networked Blogs. While you may not notice too many Facebook users accessing your blog on Facebook, itself, they may do so through any number of other outlets through Networked Blogs. You can even set up a special Blog App tab on your Facebook Page that enables fans to go directly to all your past blog posts right on your Facebook page.

Remember, the main purpose of your Facebook page is to keep your fans in the loop. Keep them informed as to what’s going on in your professional life. Don’t just hawk your books or other writing. They’re bombarded with sales pitches all day long on the Internet. Try to be a bit more subtle. Take them behind the scenes when creating a book or perhaps give them actual information on where your books are set. Offer contests, trivia about your book’s subjects, reviews, writing tips, whatever. Facebook users love to look at photos, cartoons, and infographics (photos with text overlay). Post these regularly on your favorite subjects on your Facebook page and you’ll definitely see results.

For some good examples, check out the author page for mystery writer Elena Santangelo. And the professional page for Bowers Watch and Clock Repair, even though this isn’t a writing page. Both have been extremely successful in their Facebook efforts. 

And one more thing: You need to have patience, lots of it. A successful Facebook Page doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a lot of effort and a bit of time to maintain it. If you don’t have enough of either of those, don’t bother.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Two P’s to Success

Success as a writer depends on two things—patience and perseverance. Do you have enough of both to succeed? Many writers don’t.

Recently, Dagda Publishing posted a message on Facebook, stating that best-selling novelist Joanne Harris said that J.K. Rowling’s “little story about wizards” distorts the truth about author’s pay. Essentially, it misleads beginning writers into thinking that they, too, will make lots of money at writing.

But what that statement leaves out is how long it took for her to achieve that kind of success. And what did she have to endure to get there?

The first thing you need to succeed is patience—lots of it. Writing success doesn’t happen overnight. It can take up to 10 years for things to begin happening for you. Somewhere along the way you may get a lucky break. But that’s a big maybe. Are you prepared to wait that long?

Om today’s fast-paced world, many people expect everything to happen quickly. They believe because they created a Web site or Facebook page, for instance, that people will flock to it. They also often believe that their writing is so good that everyone wants to read it. Sorry, but the answer is no on both counts.

Part of the problem is the shear volume of writers out there. They produce thousands of articles, short stories, and book each year. And with more newspapers and magazines folding, there’s a growing tide of out-of-work editors and reporters that have been thrust onto the freelance market. They believe that all their experience must count for something. But what most find out all too quickly, is that they have to start nearly at the bottom like everyone else. But they can’t afford to be patient because of their sudden loss of steady income.

So what do you do while you’re being patient? You persevere. Perseverance, or the act of continuing to plug away at what you believe you’re meant to do, is as important as patience.

Persevering means continuing to write even when other pieces you’ve created don’t seem to be going anywhere. It also means searching out new contacts and markets for your writing. If you don’t constantly search, you won’t be open to opportunities that may come along.

Perseverance also means following through on your ideas and finishing writing projects that you’ve started. If you’re trying to write a novel and get stuck halfway through, take a step back and analyze what you have done so far. It’s possible you didn’t plan it out well enough. Too many beginning writers make the mistake of just starting to write without giving any thought to the direction in which they’re headed.

By making patience and perseverance part of your daily life—not just your writing routine—you’ll have a very good chance of succeeding in your dream of becoming a writer.