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."