Monday, August 11, 2014

The House of Closed Doors Giveaway

It’s here at last . . . and it’s been a long time coming. It’s taken me way longer than I intended to get a print edition of The House of Closed Doors up and running, but the buy links are finally populating their way through the internet. The paperback is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble so far on the US market, on Amazon UK and Waterstones in the UK, and on Fishpond in Australia, with faster delivery, apparently, than in the UK. I’m watching this slow propogation with a certain fascination—I used Ingram as my printer/distributor and they promise 29,000 distribution channels, but I have no idea what they are! And I think the time of delivery is determined by whether Ingram has a local POD (print on demand) facility. Some of those 29,000 outlets should, logically, include your local bookstore, into which you can theoretically march and request that a copy be ordered.

You’ve probably gathered that this whole process is not under my control. Indeed, I’m still wondering what payment from Ingram is going to look like (their service geared specifically to self-publishers, IngramSpark, is fairly new and I haven’t seen examples anywhere on the internet, PLUS it apparently takes 90 days to work your way into their lists so I won’t be seeing any money for a while). I’m planning to do a big post on getting paid, comparing and contrasting different media, once I get my first IS statement and can produce images for you.

Be that as it may, I now have two cartons of books in my office, 25 of which are reserved for Goodreads and LibraryThing giveaways starting September 1 (I’m a little less confident about the LT giveaway actually happening for reasons I won’t bore you with, but am pretty sure about Goodreads).

And in the meanwhile . . . . 

Drumroll . . . .

Here is The House of Closed Doors Super Giveaway, consisting of:
  • A paperback copy of the novel, signed in any way you wish (or left unsigned, I’m easy)
  • A beaded reticule, for that nineteenth-century touch
  • A pendant key-shaped watch, in the hope that you find a lock to fit it into
  • A special super secret prize or two

How do you win?

I know that some people have huge problems commenting on this blog, so I’m going to take advantage of the fact that Facebook now allows me to run a contest through a simple post on my Facebook page. Yay! Here’s the link. And here are the rules:

1. The contest will run from today (August 11, 2014) to 9 a.m. CDT next Monday (August 18, 2014). All entries received after 9 a.m. CDT on 8/18/14 will be disregarded.
2. You must be 13 or older to enter. The House of Closed Doors would probably rate about a PG-13, but standards vary so check the reviews if you’re unsure about its suitability.
3. To enter, you must Like and comment on the post. Your comment should answer the question: What is your favorite kind of book? and be in the form of a complete sentence.
4. The reason why I require a comment is to weed out obvious spammers. If you include a link to anything in your comment or anything about your comment looks fishy, it’s going to get deleted. It’s my Facebook page and I reserve the right to delete comments, plus I really want the prize to be won by someone who actually reads books.
5. The contest is in no way sponsored, endorsed, approved or administered by, or associated with, Facebook, and you can’t hold Facebook responsible for anything connected with the contest. I have to say that under Facebook’s rules.
6. You’re going to have to supply me with a residential address if you win the contest—no post boxes or business addresses. I won’t share your address in any way.
7. I will tag you in the comments if you win, or you can check back on this page after 8/18/14.
8. The contest is worldwide, but be warned, I’m going to use the cheapest shipping method possible.
9. Under Facebook’s rules I’m not allowed to require you to Share the post to win, but you’re free to Share it with book-loving friends.
10. I’ll pick the winner via a random number generator.
11. I won’t be sharing or using names or any kind of data that comes my way as a result of this contest, except to count how many people join in. I’m holding this contest for fun and in celebration of making it into print at last, although I’ll admit there’s always a “soft marketing” aspect to things like this.

So there you have it. I hope the contest works OK—first time I’ve tried doing a contest via Facebook! And I’d love to hear from any of you who decide to buy the paperback about the purchasing experience, especially if you’ve tried to purchase via a bookstore. I try my best to make the book as widely available as possible in as many forms as possible, at the most consistent pricing possible, but this is turning out to be an unpredictable journey. A couple of friends on Goodreads have said they’ve asked their local libraries to purchase a copy—this is definitely a win for me, as it still represents a book purchase AND possibly gets my name and writing in front of a few more people.

One more thing—not only does Blogger (or Google) make it hard to post comments on this blog, it doesn’t tell me when comments are posted. It’s beyond me how I can fix this. You’re probably better off visiting my Facebook page or even my personal Facebook profile (which is public) if you want to engage with me over anything I say in this blog. I’m a chatty person, as you probably noticed, and I love having intelligent discussions, so if I don’t reply it’s simply because I haven’t seen you. Alas, Google.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Why I love Mondays

Who am I kidding? I don’t particularly like Monday mornings any more than anyone else does. But as a writer who’s entirely responsible for her own career, starting a whole new week is another chance to improve over the week before. I’ve realized that the best thing I can do for myself is to make sure that every week brings an incremental change for the better, a constant forward movement even if it’s a small one.

Less than a year ago, my writing life was kind of flagging. I’d had a blast writing and publishing The House of Closed Doors, which wasn’t the first novel I’d written but the first one I felt was a story other people would enjoy reading. Go back a little farther into 2011, when the novel had been written and edited, and I’d taken the decision that was to shape my writing life—I had resolved to self-publish, as a career choice rather than as a last resort, at a time when that choice was still seen by many writers as foolish hubris. It’s hard to imagine that now, with top self-publishers enjoying steady, high incomes, but yes, back in 2011 telling people you’d decided to self-publish would still earn you looks of pity.

Of course, like most self-publishers I’ve learned that the big rewards take time to come. Unless you’re a 24/7 self-promoter with a skin like rhinoceros hide, strike it incredibly lucky or start your self-publishing career with a well-established fan base from a traditional career, building an audience for your work is tough for any new author, self-published or otherwise. After the heady days of learning the ropes of putting a book together and actually doing it, launching The House of Closed Doors and enjoying an incredibly good freebie promotion when over 40,000 people downloaded the book, and then reaping the rewards of that good luck in the form of a small avalanche of sales, things settled down and it took me a while to get used to the idea that I wasn’t going to be an overnight success. Combined with a slew of issues in my personal life and my struggles with the draft of the sequel to The House of Closed Doors, which I’d written quickly enough but which was proving unsatisfactory on many counts, my Monday mornings were becoming sloughs of resigned calm rather than invigorating bounces into the week.

But I never wanted to give up writing and self-publishing. Maybe one day I will, but that day has definitely not come yet. I did, however, largely withdraw from blogging and social media, tired of the relentless effort of trying to grow my Twitter numbers and Klout score and the difficulty of coming up with new things to say on my blog. And I’m not sorry I took that break. I needed time to deal with the changes that were happening at home, none of which were life-shattering events but which did consume a lot of time and energy. And I needed time to think about my commitment to what I was doing, and figure out where my priorities lay.

Now, I’m starting to look forward to Mondays again. During my quiet year I made the decision to rewrite my sequel, and got some affirmation of my writing skills in the form of many positive reviews and a BRAG Medallion for The House of Closed Doors. I very slowly pursued my dream of putting out a high-quality print edition that would most definitely not say “self-publisher,” and I kept in touch with what was happening in the self-publishing world, watching opportunities expand and new services appear.

The turning point really came around November of 2013, when I took the plunge into National Novel Writing Month, not, this time, with the gung-ho expectation that I could write an entire draft, but with a quiet resolve simply to write consistently and add 50,000 words to the rewrite I had already started. I succeeded, and best of all, I didn’t stop writing every day. I started logging my writing, which led to the determination to write 365,000 words in 2014 and the creation of a new habit.

This is why I’m sitting here writing on what is technically Monday morning but still feels like late Sunday night. I didn’t write on Saturday because my day took an unexpected turn and I found myself on a yarn crawl with the Blond Knitter. Today, or rather yesterday, was similarly fibrous as after church Orangina wanted to go to a local fiber and craft fair. So we came dangerously close to acquiring an angora bunny (oh help me, they now make them in miniature), I bought more yarn than I should have given my resolve not to add to my stash in 2014, and by the time I’d wound my purchases into balls it was time for dinner and . . . still no writing done.

But Monday mornings in August 2014 are different from Monday mornings in 2013. Now I have a commitment driving me on. I share a spreadsheet with my critique partner the 10 Minute Writer, and I would be downright ashamed to enter two zeros in a row simply on the basis of a weekend’s shopping. So here I sit with my eyelids drooping and my fingers flying over the keyboard, my brain half-dead and my butt in the chair regardless.

And since it’s Monday morning and by the time most of you read this your own week will be off to a new start (even if not a good one) I will lead off my week with a bit of promotion. I went onto the Amazon website to see if my new print edition of The House of Closed Doors had gone on sale yet (it hadn’t) and realized that the audiobook version had been accepted into the Whispersync for Voice program, whereby you can pair the audiobook and Kindle book and have the narration read to you while the words are highlighted in your Kindle. Orangina uses this feature all the time as it helps her reading comprehension, so I’m pretty keen on the program and had asked ACX (the production arm of Audible) how I could get on it. They gave me instructions for submitting the book, I complied and I hadn’t heard from them since, so I figured it hadn’t been approved yet.

It was a lovely surprise to see it had—and, in addition, for reasons best known to itself, Audible has cut the price of the book to a crazy low $1.99—for nine hours of listening! (I should explain that I can set the price of an ebook with reasonable assurance that retailers will stick to it, set a retail price for a print edition, but have absolutely no control over audiobook prices—go figure.) So this means very little in the way of earnings for me but a huge boon to you, the reader, so I’d advise you to get out there and grab the audiobook before they put the price up again.

And there I am in my selfie with a print edition AT LAST, and I’m very pleased by the way the book looks and feels and can’t wait till it populates through to websites and other retail outlets. I published through Ingram, so theoretically you should soon be able to walk into bookstores worldwide and order a copy, since Ingram boasts of 29,000 distribution channels across the globe.

And I’ve been making some new efforts to improve productivity, with the eventual aim of spending more time writing and devoting at least as many hours per day to my book business—production, curation and marketing. It’s not easy carving out a business as a writer of fiction, but every step I take toward creating the writer life I want is making Monday mornings more exciting for me.

And now I’m going to publish this post and go to bed. Happy Monday, everyone!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Life's (messy) joys

Some of you may know that I have two daughters. I codename them Orangina and Wasabi on this blog, out of respect for their privacy, and I don’t tend to post about them a whole lot nowadays. That’s partly because the focus of my blog gradually shifted from writing about life in general to writing about the writing life in particular.

But it’s also partly because I feel I never post about my family except to whine about them! Admittedly, I started this blog back in 2009 when my kids were teenagers and my mindset was pretty much stuck on GET ME OUT OF HERE. I’m one of those people (and I think we are legion, if we’re going to be honest about it) who had the biological urges to have kids without the patience, forebearance, fun-lovingness and playfulness to make a particularly great mother. I possibly wasn’t as bad as I recall (OK I HEAR THAT CHORUS OF ‘YES YOU WERE,’ DON’T THINK I DIDN’T) except for the dollhouse incident, which is legend in our family. One day I’ll write about it.

Writers have many challenges in our lives, and for many of us the biggest obstacle to creative peace are those people who share our living space. Virginia Woolf hit it right on the head when she said, in the appropriately titled A Room of One’s Own, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I was sitting at a conference once when prolific historical novelist Lindsey Davis was giving the keynote speech, and during the Q&A session afterwards one of the attendees asked her how she got so much writing done. Her answer shocked us all into silence for a moment: “I’m a childless widow.”

Yep, the freedom to do exactly what you want, when you want (including writing) is vouchsafed to very few of us. And for some writers who ARE solitary, this is not their choice and their aloneness weighs on them and interferes with their creative process. But for the non-solitary majority, the challenges are many and different.

But the odd thing is, it’s sometimes those very challenges that provide the creative spark that sets us on a lifetime course. I started writing fiction because a story wouldn’t leave me alone, and it was a story and a world that simply never would have touched me if I hadn’t given birth to a child with cognitive and developmental disabilities.* Writers tend to use the environment around them—whether it’s aloneness or our ridiculously over-scheduled executive+soccer dad+writer life—as a kind of manure in which to grow their roses. It’s muck, it stinks, and it produces some very nice specimens.

I see I’ve drifted away from my daughters and back into writing, which is fairly typical of me. It’s a characteristic of writers (and other creative people) to link up every thought that comes into their head with another thought—manure again!—and, according to a recent article mouthwateringly called The Neurological Similarities Between Successful Writers And The Mentally Ill (oh yes, it all makes so much sense now), we can’t stop this from happening. The author tells us that
the most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories. They cannot focus on one thing quite like the average person. Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off…
But what I’m TRYING to get round to saying, and perhaps all the above blathering is a form of avoidance, is that having a disabled child made a huge impact on me, both emotionally and in practical terms. The challenges changed over the years, starting with her physical disabilities (now relatively insignificant), moving on to speech and language acquisition, through social and learning challenges at school, through behavioral issues which crested at around 14 when we FINALLY got both the diagnosis and the meds right, to my current challenge of having an adult child who can never live by herself, who will never drive and who will always need a certain amount of supervision and support. The emotional stress brought about by these overlapping issues, and the strains on our family dynamics that they caused, occasioned many times when I felt like my creative brain had been removed and replaced by an inert substance. Learning to use writing to relieve the stress, rather than allowing the stress to block the writing, has taken five solid years and I’m still not sure if I’ve mastered that skill.

But you know what’s weird? I’m now in the lifetime, all-day phase of caregiving (viable alternatives not being available in Illinois) and instead of finding it a hinderance, I’m enjoying it tremendously. Having Orangina with me at home has turned out to be a joy, now that we’re free of the stresses and demands of education and have been able to settle down into a way of living together. I tend to view myself as her Executive Assistant rather than her caregiver, as the help she needs is all about providing transportation, managing her calendar, ensuring she makes good nutritional choices, keeping tabs on her health habits and liaising with medical professionals, and dealing with the alarming amount of paperwork and financial tracking that has to be carried out when you receive benefits (which she MUST receive in order to stay on the waiting list for services she’ll need later in life, it’s a very skewed system).

And at the same time, Orangina’s MY Executive Assistant in all things household. She’s accepted her role as an adult member of the family team and (fairly) willingly pitches in with household projects and yardwork, which I no longer tackle alone as I’m simply running out of time to do it all. I find I’m involving her more and more in planning and organizing, which her OCD finds hugely satisfying. And we’ve begun walking together, which is not only good for our health but allows us an extended period of time to talk. This all works, of course, because she is a willing participant in the process—for many people with disabled adults, the picture is nowhere near as happy and I’m grateful for the blessing I’m getting right now.

I've never wanted the fate of many writers with disabled children, which is to use my writing to advocate for them. It's just not in me, although I try to pay back in other ways. But the awareness of difference and the amount of time I've spent with people who have to try harder is fertile ground for a writer. I may sometimes moan and groan about the interruptions to my writing day, but I suspect that when I look back over my lifetime, I'm going to see the muck of my life as valuable enrichment for all those little buds of ideas.

*That novel’s still waiting to be rewritten. It was the first one I wrote, and as soon as I began editing it, I realized I had to learn a whole lot more about the craft of writing before I proceeded. But the act of writing it downloaded it out of my head and allowed a whole slew of other ideas to rush in. It’s ironic that for many novelists, the first novel has a biographical side to it and is about some aspect of our past that has deeply affected us.  That first novel is in the wrong place—it should really be our last, when we’ve become a good writer through practice and really processed all the events and emotions it covers. It’s often an author’s strongest novel, because the author truly cares about it, and that’s one of the reasons why sometimes it’s so hard to write that second book. We purged ourselves of the emotional wave that carried us through our first act of novel writing, and we’re left, for a while, high and dry as we search for what we’re supposed to say next.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The dumbest writing advice I've ever heard

Let's face it, some of the writing advice that floats around the internet is pretty dumb. Here's the one that really gets my knickers in a twist:

Don’t read other people’s work when you’re writing, because it will influence your voice.

Whoever thought that one up was an egomaniac, not a writer. I will concede that there are very special people out there who have wholly unique voices, are deep and dedicated thinkers, and are probably best left alone with nature and God because the rest of us are, compared to them, a bunch of ants. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he who wrote The Little Prince, is reputed to have only been interested in reading two books (Pascal’s Pensées and Plutarch’s Lives), but I bet he read them ALL THE TIME and pondered them deeply, as well as observing the world around him at a level most of us don’t achieve.

No, it’s not those people that I’m talking about. It’s the rest of us. Since I write every day, if I didn’t read while I was writing I’d never read. If I thought that meant I’d become a profound thinker, I might be prepared to make that deal—but if I’m honest with myself, if I didn’t read my thoughts would probably become increasingly repetitive and trivial and I’d start watching Fox News.

Writers need other people’s stories (and in this I include non-fiction, as good non-fiction always tells a story). It’s like a big conversation that started thousands of years ago, and that with luck will go on for another few thousand. Who are your influences? Goodreads asked me when I set up my author page, because a writer usually doesn’t become a writer out of nowhere. We are readers first, and while most books are forgettable, some make an indelible impression on us that make us want to put down the book and pick up the pen. If you’re not reading, you’re not part of the conversation—you’re talking to yourself.

My counter-advice: read all the time, and let other people’s work soak into your brain and spill over into your writing. But learn to develop a critical eye when it comes to your own writing, and observe where the fine line lies between writing that’s informed and infused by all that you’ve learned from other people, and writing that’s derivative. (And even derivative writing has its place—just as art students learn by copying the work of the great masters, a writer can learn a lot by trying to write in the style of a favorite author. Usually, what you learn is how difficult it is.)

More useless writing advice:

Write what you know.

It’s absolutely true that when a writer intimately understands a place, or time, or profession, or issue, their writing can be that much deeper and richer than it might otherwise be. Angela’s Ashes wouldn’t be as powerful a book as it is if Frank McCourt hadn’t lived that childhood. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, began the novel by writing pieces in the voice of her family’s maid. So yes, writing what you know can be an effective way to give your writing depth.

My problem with this piece of advice is that people quote it all the time as if it’s the only way to write well. It’s not. There are two great tools that can come to the writer’s aid in any situation: research and imagination. You can project your writer’s mind into just about any character’s if you take the time, do your homework and stretch that imagination till it hurts. For many of us, trying to write what we know would just result in a whole bunch of whiny trash about the hardships of suburban life*, and although there are a few people who do that well, most of us don’t.

My counter-advice: Write what appeals to you. If you don’t know much about it, research. If you can’t find facts, make bits up. If you’ve made stuff up about a real person or situation or place, be honest about this in your Author’s Note.

I’m on a roll now. Here are two more bits of dumb writing advice:

Read books about writing.


Don’t read books about writing.

Yes, I really did just contradict myself, but bear with me. I think there’s a point in most writers’ lives when a writing craft book or two can come in handy, but I’m against dogmatic pronouncements about whether you should read craft books, and especially against pronoucements as to which books you should read. Aside from owning (and using) a good dictionary, a thesaurus, and a style manual and/or punctuation/grammar reference, I believe that most writers should take their time in building up their writing advice library. The most important step toward becoming a writer is to write, edit, and put your work in front of some critical readers. If you’ve also read a lot of books (see above), you’ll soon start spotting the flaws in your own writing at the editing stage. If you’re courageous about putting your work in front of other people—and if you’re writing with a view to eventual publication, NOT putting it in front of people doesn’t make sense—you’ll get feedback that will guide you to where you need to be.

Frankly, a lot of books about writing won’t tell you what you need to know right now. Some of them (quite a few of them) really aren’t all that good. You’ll encounter a lot of examples from novels that you’ve never heard of (yes at least I TRIED with Angela’s Ashes and The Help, hey they both got made into movies) and a whole lot more neurotic navel-gazing or accounts of how much neurotic navel-gazing you’re going to be doing now that You are a Writer.

So, be cautious in picking up these tomes, read all of their reviews first, and if you feel you must validate your existence as a writer by reading craft books, try to make sure they apply to your specific circumstances. And take everything they say with a pinch of salt, because they might just be wrong.

And here’s my last piece of dumb writing advice:

Read writing advice posts like this instead of writing. 


What’s the dumbest piece of writing advice you ever received?

*Most of us have never known real hardship. And are rich beyond the dreams of a large percentage of the world's population.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Writing with an English accent

This post on the Alliance of Independent Authors blog fascinated me to the point where, instead of leaving a ridiculously long comment, I decided to blog about it instead.

And that led me to the conviction that I’ve blogged about my Englishness before. And that led me to the back end of this website where I searched for the post and failed to find it. And that led me to read a couple of my old posts and think “hey, I should reblog this”. And so on. I’ll admit to being easily distracted. All this to say, if this sounds familiar then please find the original post and hit me on the head with it.

I’m a British writer living in America, but there’s more to it than that. The 54 years of my life have been geographically located thus:

21 years in England
16 years in Belgium
17 years in the United States

From which the mathematically inclined among you will note that I’ve spent far more time out of my home country than in. And yet I still sound British! Apparently.

And it gets more nuanced than that. Most of my first 21 years were spent in the south of England, to be more precise the Home Counties (those close to London). BUT I spent four years or so in the Midlands, north of the linguistic divide, and during that time my sisters and I all switched our accents because we were children and the other children teased us for sounding posh. And then when we returned to the London area (partly, I’m convinced, because my mother couldn’t stand our Nottingham dialect) we switched back again because we were teased for talking funny. So I’d describe my accent now as London-ish, with a certain veneer from years of education but not, in English terms, a posh accent. And having lived ‘oop north’, I don’t have the southerner’s disdain for vowels originating north of Luton.

And then I went to Belgium where, in addition to speaking French on a daily basis, I hung out with and worked for Americans and Brits. In my working life I estimate that I had to use American spelling 70 percent of the time, British spelling the other 30 percent—when I was writing in English. When writing in French, ho ho, even the punctuation was different. To confuse things further, many of my British friends were long-term expats who spoke franglais fluently—I still tend to throw in French phrases when talking with Felsted, who is American but went to British schools and lived in Belgium for 33 years.

By the time I left Belgium I was accustomed to American spelling, although I didn’t entirely accept it. During my tenure as an editor in a Belgian law firm I recall writing a long and pompous memo on why we should switch from the American habit of putting a period after the abbreviations Mr. and Mrs. to the more correct British version, Mr and Mrs (because they are contractions and not abbreviations—look it up). I didn’t win that argument, and nor should I have, since we were mostly catering to American clients. But I was young and still linguistically opinionated.

And then Felsted wanted to move back to the land of his birth and we ended up in Chicagoland. Now, Chicago itself—at least the South Side—has an accent, but on the whole the suburbanites speak a sort of standard American that doesn’t mark them out as being from any particular part of the USA. At some point soon after we moved here I made a conscious decision to adopt American spelling in all written forms of communication, since obviously I was going to have to use it at work and the children were going to be taught in American, so getting into arguments about spelling would be fairly counterproductive.

But I didn’t make any effort to SPEAK in American, other than using American words when I knew them rather than the British equivalents or in situations where saying things in American was necessary. So, for example, I say truck instead of lorry, sidewalk instead of pavement, and when ordering in restaurants try to use the American pronunciation because the poor server has enough trouble hearing amid the background noise. I have been told on many occasions by my children that I can’t say certain words properly, and admit to a total inability to pronounce ‘water’ in any way that restaurant personnel can understand, so I don’t order water much. When in a certain coffee shop, an order of a TALL latte can result in the production of TWO lattes unless I’m very careful to spot the misunderstanding early.

Hanging on to a British accent is interesting in two ways when you live in the States. For one thing, it makes me stand out. If I had a buck for every time people have told me how much they love my accent…Do you remember the TV show The Nanny? The boss and the butler are both British (well, they’re doing British accents, don’t get me started) and at one point one of them says “everything we say sounds like Shakespeare” and they laugh maniacally. BUT IT’S TRUE! I’ve been told more times than I can count that when I’m talking I sound intelligent because of the accent. It’s also very handy at writer events, because people tend to remember me.

And secondly, I sound posher than I am. Remember I told you that in England my accent’s not all that posh? BWAHAHAHAHAHA it is over here. Not that I bother to go to many social calendar-type events, but let me tell you it’s social gold dust. Of course that only works until the point where you’re introduced to another Brit (they’re all over this area like a rash) and they’re posher than you, and when your mutual American friend tells you that you both sound the same you LOOK at each other…

So how does this translate into writing? Well, since my current series is set in America, the American spelling and knowledge of its idioms helps. I set up some linguistic insurance by giving my heroine an English background, and besides this is the Midwest in the 1870s when the majority of the inhabitants were not born in the region. And my American beta readers and writing buddies are quick to put me right when I write something English enough to sound jarring in the context. But I have had reviews that remark on a certain Englishness, so I’m not fooling everyone.

On the other hand, I’m also working on some ideas set in England, and that IS a problem. Since my home market is American, I feel like I need to use American spelling and some American idioms in descriptive passages, but do I want to make my characters sound American? I don’t think so. Furthermore, when these projects approach production stage, I think I’m going to have to find readers and editors based in the UK, because I’ve been away so long that I might inadvertently make my characters say American things even if I’m trying not to.

And if you read the comments on the ALLi article mentioned in the first paragraph, you’ll see that my dilemma isn’t an uncommon one. The world has gone global, but we haven’t caught up linguistically. Many writers who write in English no longer live in English-speaking countries, or live in a country where a different English is spoken from their original one. And what about, to give a very common example, countries like India where standard English is taught but local variations are common?

All these variants would be OK if we were all tolerant of them, but we’re not. Readers can get quite unbelievably hot under the collar about word usage, the more so if they’re writers themselves. Skirmishes between writers about words are rife on Facebook groups and blogs, and I’ve lost stars on reviews for using a word a reader didn’t think was quite nineteenth-century enough. ONE WORD.

You think writing is easy? It’s a bloody minefield, mate. Pardon my English.

Monday, July 7, 2014

I want to be a writer, not a crusader

Last week’s post about reciprocal reviewing got a fair amount of attention on Goodreads, which is where I get pretty much all of my blog comments. It was even picked up by IndieBRAG, who asked me if they could repost it.

I’m glad so many people felt I was representing what they thought about one of the many hot-button issues swirling around the publishing world. And it would be easy to write a few more posts defending one side or the other in one of the many debates that writers get into. Amazon vs. Hachette, self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, reviewers vs. authors, Anne Rice vs. just about everybody . . . there’s quite a list.

But when you’re a writer, there’s a career choice involved in deciding to become a crusader for a cause. A couple of days ago I received a newsletter from Hope Clark, who runs the Funds for Writers website, and with her permission I’m reproducing part of her editorial:

For some reason, fussing about the odds, the difficulties, the competition, and the processes we must endure has become commonplace - way too commonplace. 
 So stop and take note . . . the grand majority of successful authors are not making noise. They are quietly writing. And they are smiling. They enjoy their work. They enjoy their story-telling. They do not waste time talking about the journey, and instead just keep putting one foot in front of the other. 
 What if potential readers see your posts? What if someone who's considered reading your work sees a snarky remark on Facebook and changes her mind? What if you put down someone or something that the reader feels the polar opposite about? 
 Don't give in to the dark side. You're more appealing when you are all about your stories.

Hope, I totally agree with you. And here are more reasons not to become the crusading kind of writer:

It’s darkly seductive. It does work for some authors to be known for their stance on certain issues: Joe Konrath, Kris Rusch and Barry Eisler spring to mind as writers who are well known for championing self-publishing against traditional publishing in a way that seems to work to their advantage. And I’m sure there are many writers who’d like to be the next Joe, Kris or Barry, and get invited to speak at conferences all over the place. But most writers who try to use issues to hoist themselves into public visibility end up tripping themselves up in some way or the other. They sound whiny rather than strong. They end up annoying people. And they don’t see it. In their own head they’re superheroes, but to the rest of us they’re just time-wasting egomaniacs.

It sucks up creative writing time. One thing that wannabe crusaders need to note is that Joe, Kris and Barry have written and published a ton of books. They do their crusading in their spare time. I conclude that they need way less sleep than most of us, or perhaps they’ve arranged their lives so that writing’s pretty much all they do. Like many other writers, I only have so much time in the day for writing, and aside from this weekly blog post I intend to spend it writing fiction and reviewing other people’s books.

It saps creative energy. On the rare occasions I do get involved in a kerfuffle, I find it hard to write. Not only because I’m spending all my time responding to what other people are saying, but the agitation produced by the kerfuffling activity kicks me out of the mental state I need to be in to produce a good piece of writing.

You end up grandstanding. There’s an author who constantly posts links about hot-button issues on a genre-related Facebook group I belong to. She tends to become passionately involved on one side of the issue, so when (inevitably) another author challenges her views on the thread she’s started, she becomes upset and starts an argument. This not only makes our otherwise rather nice organization look like a hotbed of contention and rivalry when it’s not, but it makes her into a grandstander: someone who uses a larger platform than their own to win attention and, hopefully, applause from others. She may not even realize she’s doing this, simply believing that the causes she espouses are good and she must defend them, but I can see that this grandstanding is not only failing to win people to her causes, it’s doing her own reputation considerable damage. I observe, and I learn.

You need to be careful who you’re mixing with. Crusading isn’t a one-person activity, so as a writer who espouses causes, you’re inevitably thrown in with a bunch of other espousers. Friends are quickly made online, but who are they? What’s their agenda? Yes, everyone has an agenda. What’s their history of online activity? Are they genuine, or is who they seem to be online a shell that hides something else? Are they fair-minded, or are they the sort of person who can only see one side of the issue and tries to win by shouting down everyone else? (Hint: causes tend to attract the latter.) I’m pretty careful about whom I spend time with online, and in the course of a long life have learned to spot the toxic people and run away from them, but I know very well that if I begin waving a flag some of them are going to turn up and stick around. Some issues—the question of whether negative reviews are bullying is one—have led to some spectacularly bad behavior, often against the terms of service of host sites and sometimes even illegal. And I’m talking about both sides of that particular issue. If someone my crusading links me with decides to get dirty, do I want their dirt to stick to me? It's a possibility all wannabe crusaders should consider.

There’s always going to be another issue. Crusading never stops: as one issue fades, another pops up. Petitions fly back and forth, well-known writers get their controversial views published in the New York Times or The Guardian, people scream and howl, and it all begins again. As I said above, it’s a career choice.

So while I’ll occasionally post on matters where I feel I can come up with a rational, balanced argument, I have no intention of becoming a crusader. Writing, producing and curating fiction is a full-time job that I’m still barely beginning to get a handle on, and I love doing it. I love the title of this blog, Keep Going You Fool! because it represents what I do: I keep plugging along in an effort to learn to do an exciting job better. And I’m smiling as I do it, Hope. I never lose touch with what’s happening in the book world, but I try not to let it consume my time and energy. Thanks for the reminder.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Reciprocal reviewing is not OK, authors. Here's why.

The above is an invitation from a self-published author on Goodreads. Nice of him, huh? I’ve received many such invitations from this guy, whom I’m not going to finger specifically because he’s not the only author who uses back-scratching to make his book more visible, not by a long chalk. If you’re thinking that maybe he’s just being nice to other people, here’s one of his latest asks:

He sends these invitations to over 7,000 people, and I still get them even though I’ve unfriended AND blocked him.

Is this kind of thing wrong? I say yes. OK, he’s not technically buying reviews or ratings, which is against the terms of service of most review sites, but he’s soliciting/encouraging a practice that skews ratings and deceives many readers into thinking a book’s getting more attention than it actually is. And there’s a funny thing about a book getting attention—it encourages yet more attention, out of curiosity or a desire to keep up with what other people are reading.

This practice, dear friends, is reciprocal reviewing. Or reciprocal Facebook page likes, or Pinterest pins, or whatever form of social media floats your boat.

So wait a minute, I hear you say. If you like my Facebook page and so I go to your page and you seem interesting so I like you back, is that wrong?

No, it’s not.

But if a whole group of people get together and decide they’re all going to like each other’s pages? Now we’re getting a little squicky.

And if a website exists for the sole purpose of getting self-published authors to click Like or vote for or give a 5-star rating to each other’s books? Are you beginning to feel a bit dirty now? I actually followed such a site for a while when I was a dewy-eyed new author—I wish I could remember its name—and gave other people’s books a few clicks before my brain caught up with what I was doing. 

Self-published authors soon learn that visibility is the most important factor in influencing sales, more important—in the short term—than whether your book’s any good. Reviews, in particular, are a visible sign that someone has read your book and has cared enough to review it. Or at least, that’s how it should be. Readers assume they’re reading reviews written by other, impartial readers who have rushed to their computer because a book made a strong impression on them. 

The invitations above are one small step away from buying reviews, but they’re at the end of a long spectrum of back-scratching that infects the book world like a nasty disease. A lot of writers think such arrangements are awesome—you’re supporting the team, being a friend, it’s a fellowship of authors. As one of the 300+ people who had responded Yes to the first invite at the time of writing said, "promotion and fellowship is everything in the independent publishing game”. The responses to this author are full of appreciation for his support of self-publishing, for being a great guy in general. It’s a giant love-fest.

And this kind of thing isn’t new, and self-publishers certainly didn’t invent it. For many years writers in the same genre, with the same agency, with the same publisher, belonging to the same organizations and so on have been encouraged to help promote each other’s work. At some point some bright spark in marketing realized their promotional efforts could be printed right on the cover, and the jacket blurb was born. But the reader recognizes the jacket blurb as marketing, whereas she might not be as quick to see reciprocal reviews as promotional material.

Writing’s a lonely game, and we all crave affirmation and support. So we come together in writing groups, organizations, clubs, societies, conferences, you name it. After all, there’s nothing wrong with writers getting together to read and critique each other’s writing, discuss strategies for getting published or compare notes about their research. There’s a whole ecosystem out there of writers who make more money out of advising, mentoring, editing and even publishing other writers than they do for their own writing. Again, not wrong. 

And we go to each other’s launch parties and author events, and buy each other’s books. Sometimes we even read them. Sometimes we review them—I’ve done it, often, although I always mention the relationship in the first line or two of the review, and I only post a review if I genuinely liked the book. The declaration that the author’s a friend serves as a warning to the savvy reader that yes, I’m going to be more polite about this book than I would if there was no chance I’d ever meet the author (although, frankly, I have shaken the hand of more than one author whose book I’ve previously snarked on—I always hope they don’t pay attention to reviewers’ names).

Because you just CAN’T be completely impartial when reviewing a friend’s book. The fellowship and mutual support and professional courtesy that surround the ways authors interact with each other inevitably spill over into the review. I dream of being able to be scathing about a friend’s book and then have them laugh about it and buy me a drink, but in real life, feelings get hurt.

Some authors cope with this dilemma by refusing to review a friend’s book. I don’t want to get into that position because my own genre, historical fiction, is a relatively cozy one and if I stopped reviewing the books of people I’ve met, I’ll end up reviewing very few books and I like to review. So I try to be as honest as possible while remaining professionally polite, and I always declare the relationship. If I’m asked to review a book for the Historical Novel Society and the author’s a good friend, I decline on the basis of the relationship.

I’ve been asked to do reciprocal reviews a couple of times. The first time was when I was a new author and got to know someone on Goodreads. She reviewed my book fairly, and I . . . just found too much to criticize in her book to give it more than one star, so I kept quiet. And then there was a writer-friend in real life whose book I read, and for the same reason I declined to review it. She gives me some odd looks nowadays, and I feel bad about having her review on my pages. In all, out of the 100+ reviews I’ve got, I’d estimate I feel slightly squicky about five or so of them, and they’re all from the very early days when I didn’t really understand what I was doing.

Reciprocal reviewing/rating/liking or any kind of reciprocal promotion that hides behind a structure set up for people to give their impartial opinions is wrong. It deceives readers and chips away at a writer’s integrity. Taken as a whole, such practices discredit authors, self-published authors in particular, in the eyes of their readers and their peers. It’s very easy to pass from a fairly harmless stance of supporting others to ending up like the guy whose invites I received—for all I know, he may have started out quite innocently trying to help others, but he’s created a monster with hundreds of heads that might prove very difficult to root out.

And when readers discover that the popular author whose books they’ve been loving and discussing made himself popular by buying reviews or soliciting reviews unfairly, or engaging in any of the shady practices that exist—there are far more than I’ve described here—their reaction is one of disappointed rage. Is that how you want to be remembered? To mangle Milton, I’d rather serve in heaven than rule in hell. I did make mistakes when I first started publishing, but I’ve learned better. In fact, I’ve learned a lot from the readers themselves about how to conduct myself with integrity and become a better writer. A lot of the trouble starts when authors only listen to each other and not the readers they write for. Start listening to your readers, fellow authors, and promote your work fairly.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Is your book ready for publication?

Image credit: humusak2 on FreeImages

When, exactly, do you know a book is ready?

If you’re a traditionally published author, somebody else usually decides that for you. If you’re lucky, your wonderful agent made many suggestions to improve your book. Then your terrific editor at your publishing house held your hand as you brought your novel up to the starting line—maybe you had more than one editor, with several rounds of substantive and line edits.

Maybe. As a reader and reviewer, I can tell how much editing’s been done and at what stage of the book—a story marred by too many plot lines and extraneous characters that don’t move the plot forward, for example, has suffered from too little editing at the developmental stage, while the lack of a line editor/proofreader is betrayed by slips such as ‘dust moats floated in the air,’ ‘her interest was peaked,’ and ‘they were in the throws of passion’ as well as elementary mistakes about timelines or locations. Of course mistakes can slip through any number of good editors, but believe me when you read as many books as I do (and I'm pointing at you, traditional publishing) you can smell shoddy or absent editing a mile off.

But a defining characteristic of traditional publishing is that at some point, someone else makes the decision that the book is ready to go into production. If you’re a true self-publisher (i.e. you’re not using an assisted self-publishing company) you have to make that decision yourself. Unless you have the budget to use a really good editor (and so that you know what I’m talking about, I’d expect to spend $8,000 for really good substantive and line editing.)

So, how do you know when your book is cooked? In some ways, it never is. A book is to its author what a garden is to its gardener—there’s always one more tweak that could be made to bring about perfection, to bring it closer to the ideal creation you have in your head. And if you read something you wrote a while ago, you inevitably realize how much better you could do it now. That’s just an occupational hazard.

But at some point, you need to publish, which means that YOU need to decide the book is ready. I’ve met self-published writers who don’t do much editing at all—a quick read-through and fix a few things here and there, and then perhaps they’ll use a proofreader to spot the typos before they go into production. This can work very well for certain types of writer in certain genres—romance and thriller spring to mind—where it’s important to bring new books to market constantly. If your readers are happy with that, all well and good, and I kind of envy writers who can push books into the production phase that quickly.

And then on the other hand there are those writers who spend way TOO long at the editing stage, if they haven’t got someone else hurrying them along. The ones who just can’t let go…enough said?

There’s an art to knowing when a book’s ready, in my opinion. But that’s a very unsatisfactory answer. Like when Felsted asks me, how do I know when the vegetables are cooked? and I say, they just smell right. He doesn’t need to know that’s how I do it—he needs me to say six minutes so he can put the timer on. So let me see if I can encapsulate the stages you need to have gone through to ensure your book’s ready to go.

  • First, you need to have done at least one good solid round of substantive editing. That usually involves a reader, maybe someone from your writing group—someone who understands how the kind of writing you’re doing works. Someone you can trust to look at your book and say what DOESN’T work. And then you let that good advice macerate in your brain, and work out how you’re going to rewrite that sucker to get it right.
  • Second, you need to be sure that every character (or every chapter, for a non-fiction book) serves a purpose. If you can’t point to exactly why the character or chapter is there, you need another round of editing.
  • Third, you need to be sure that the action (for non-fiction this can be the argument of the book) moves forward in every scene, without repeating itself (unless there’s a point to the action repeating itself.) Ask yourself, if I cut that chapter, will the reader be deprived of something important? If the answer is no, you need another round of editing.
  • Fourth, have you read the book aloud to yourself? If you want a really cheap idea how to improve your book, this is it. You’d be amazed what you pick up when you read a book aloud. If you’re out of breath by the end of a sentence, the sentence is too long. Cut it, or chop it into two sentences. If you’re bored at any point, the reader will be bored. If you lose track of who’s speaking, so will the reader. Fix those things.
  • Fifth, have you had someone proofread for typos, bad grammar and punctuation mistakes? I don’t care if that’s a professional editor or your Aunt Sadie. Get some eyeballs other than yours on the text before you move on to production.

There’s a distinction between the editing phase of a book and the production phase. When you’re done editing, you have a (more or less) finalized text. I learned when producing The House of Closed Doors that you need a master text file, preferably in .rtf format in the case of fiction. This means that there’s no formatting except for italics and bold—NOT a Word document with all the extra formatting dear old Word throws in. That master file is the one on which all future changes to the text MUST be made, and it’s helpful to decide at a certain point that this file is the definitive version. Then, you’re done with the editing phase.

And then comes production. From that master file you’re going to produce your ebook versions and your print version. Plus, that master file is going to be the basis for producing the file that you send to your audiobook narrator. As print, ebook and audiobook all have their own challenges, the resulting versions may differ in very small degrees, but that’s OK. Those differences are a production issue, not an editing issue. Do you get my drift?

And for heaven’s sake, save your various files, especially that .rtf master, somewhere safe. You never know when you’ll need to use that master again.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How I became crunchy

This post is not about writing. It’s about the next best thing: FOOD. Or at least, my relationship with food. Or possibly my medical history. Basically, I’m going to talk about myself for, oh, a thousand words or so. If you don’t want to read it, here’s the bottom line: AMERICAN FOOD IS POISONING ME.

I am, as some of you may know, not a slender woman. I’ve got junk in the trunk, generous curves, excess adipose tissue…and yet it wasn’t always that way. Before I made the leap into motherhood, I was a slim woman who could eat whole pizzas in a single bound without putting on weight—yes, one of those annoying people.

Then came the years 1991 to, let’s say, 1997 which was the year we moved to the States. Pregnancy, three deaths in the family, another pregnancy, the realization that our oldest (Orangina as she is known here) had developmental issues, some waves rocking the marital boat and the not unrelated decision to leave Belgium for Felsted’s ancestral home were enough to distract me from focusing on my own health, and I assumed my sudden ability to pack on the pounds and a variety of less obvious symptoms were simply part of the aging process combined with bad eating habits. By the time we settled in Chicagoland and I got my very first American driver’s license, I had to admit to a weight which put me squarely in the Woman of Size category. (Since then, I’ve done what every good American resident does and lied about it just a little bit.)

I tried a variety of diets over the years before admitting that dieting did little for my post-kids body. I would invariably get thin legs when I dieted, then my face would go scrawny, and then my metabolism would slow down to a point guaranteed to make the rebound a thrilling YE GODS I’M HEAVIER THAN I WAS BEFORE experience. So I gave up dieting in general (although from time to time I’d try cutting out a particular type of food or low-carbing or something fairly incompatible with survival and happiness) and just tried not to overeat and to exercise as much as I could.

And yet not only was I getting heavier, I was getting sicker. I had major problems with water retention (I remember one summer spent with my feet in the air because my ankles were so painful); I had PMS of the murder-suicide variety; and increasingly, I had gastric symptoms. By about 2003, I knew where all the bathrooms were over a 50-mile radius, including the very nastiest forest preserve latrine I’ve ever had the privilege of discovering.

I found out at some point that my thyroid had switched off, probably during those pregnancies, but this was followed by the discovery that synthetic thyroid pills give me severe muscle spasms so I’ve never gotten that issue properly under control. To be honest, it was the least of my problems. The stomach thing was getting worse, and to add to the fun it was sometimes accompanied by an asthma attack. My allergist was stumped. I had a food allergy test (EXPENSIVE) and came up with nothing. I was getting to the point where going out to eat felt like Russian roulette.

I tried giving up dairy. That was quite revealing, since certain hormonal symptoms (ladies may relate to Headlights Permanently On) disappeared. I instantly started buying organic dairy products for the family, despite Felsted’s wails that they cost twice as much as the ordinary kind, but never went back to drinking milk after that.

I tried going gluten-free. Man, that’s difficult. I salute those of you who’ve successfully made that switch. I’ve never wanted to eat bread or cakes more than I did during that period, and there was no noticeable difference except for the Paleo Pancakes that had me running for the loo before I’d even finished them.

After one series of symptoms that were alarmingly like heart attacks but weren’t, my doctor theorized a gallbladder problem, and I contemplated living on flaxseed tea, raw beetroot and a green soup I tried making once but which tasted like pondwater. Then I went for some thorough testing and my gallbladder was hale and hearty, so screw the green soup.

Somewhere toward the end of the last decade, the seed was planted in my mind that there was something wrong with my food. That made me feel a bit like a crazy lady who suspects They are trying to harm her and she should wear a foil hat to stop Them reading her brainwaves, but it had some basis. For one thing, a different allergist came up with an idea about certain food additives. Then I spent a lot more time back in Europe than I had over the last few years, and noticed that my stomach problems were less severe in England and almost absent in France. Then a dish I ate at a “healthy” chain restaurant gave me a gastric/asthma attack and they were kind enough to help me find the culprit: a preservative called polysorbate 80, used to extend the life of cream and creamy sauces.

And there were other things. I realized that the weird bumps on my neck and under the hairline, that turned into zits at certain times of the month, went away when I stopped eating yoghurt, which I’d always thought of as a health food. There was only one conclusion: My food was trying to kill me.

I had gradually been buying more and more organic food, but by now I was starting to get serious. I started reading labels. I stopped eating anything creamy at social gatherings. I started checking out counter-cultural blogs and getting interested in the whole debate about food processing that’s been creeping slowly around the internet. Gradually I dropped all convenience foods and learned to love kale.

Last year I got my summer veggies, and pastured eggs, from a local organic farm. This year I went for the three-season share, a little worried that it’d be too many vegetables but that’s really not the case. I discovered my family were more resilient than I thought they’d be about being experimented on with interesting new vegetable dishes, although the moment I leave for Europe Felsted’s straight down the supermarket buying instant mashed potatoes and flavored rice.

And yet it was Felsted who prompted the very best move of all. One day, out of the blue, he said, “Let’s buy a bread maker.” So we did, and I ordered a large quantity of organic, unbromated, unbleached flour, and—

My stomach problems, which had already lessened under the combined impact of additive avoidance and organic goodies, disappeared almost immediately. I am not gluten-intolerant after all, just intolerant of the wheat used by most food manufacturers. I eat yummy home-made bread, bake my own cakes, and have even tried my hand at homemade pizza dough (after not having eaten pizza for years because let me tell you, American pizza does not like me.)

So now, I am crunchy. My body is too used to its current weight and my thyroid too lazy to make slenderness attainable, but running, cycling and walking keep it in pretty good shape, and I’ve learned to love my larger self. Every so often I’ll notice that another niggling little health symptom has improved or disappeared: this morning I realized that the white bumps around my eyes (for which the technical term is milia) have gone.

I’m not fanatical about my new awareness of what America’s standard diet does to me, but I’m finding it easier and easier to avoid processed foods. The other day I arrived STARVING at a Special Olympics event and ordered a hot dog, only to take one bite and realize it tasted so disgusting I couldn’t eat it. I gave it to Felsted. He is, after all, American.

Monday, June 9, 2014

How the 365K Challenge has energized my writing life

In November of 2013, I embarked on National Novel Writing Month for the third time. For all my whining about how difficult it is to write regularly, I had noticed that once I’d committed to NaNo I had no great difficulty in getting my daily word count done. In fact, in 2010 I seem to remember I committed to a stretch goal that involved writing 3,000 words a day AND I DID IT.

So I decided I’d have to identify what worked about NaNo and replicate it, in order to achieve my first step toward Stupendous Success: Becoming a prolific writer.

Was it the community? Well, I was definitely motivated by seeing my writing buddies add to their word counts daily. But I’m not a fiercely competitive type, so seeing that Writer A had just written 5,000 words didn’t drive me to my keyboard to write 6,000 words. I was quite happy with the daily word count I’d decided on. And I don’t participate in many of the community activities in NaNo: write-ins, writing marathons, discussion boards and the like. So I figured it wasn’t the community aspect that was motivating me.

And then…the lightbulb moment. IT WAS THE TRACKING.

When you participate in NaNo, you get a progress page that informs you how you’re doing in terms of your daily and monthly goals. You can see how far behind or ahead you are—so, for example, if you’ve written more than the 1,667 words a day you need to arrive at 50K on November 30, your page will helpfully tell you that at this rate you’ll finish on, say, November 24.

And I realized, in a blinding flash of inspiration, that I could motivate myself by tracking my work.

So I set up an Excel spreadsheet to track my post-NaNo writing through December 2013. I’m not skilled enough at Excel to get it exactly the same as the NaNo page, but as it evolved over the ensuing months it became fairly nerdy (see screenshots below).

And it worked!

I’d set myself a daily word count goal of 1,000, which can take me anything from 30 minutes to two hours depending on how inspired I’m feeling. If I have to stop and do research, it can take a lot longer. I set up the spreadsheet to track how far ahead of my goal I am, so that I can “bank” extra words for days when it’s just impossible to write. This allows me to take holidays or travel into account, although on my last trip I got words written in the airport (when Scrivener FINALLY bring out their iPad app, this will be easier).

It was a revelation how motivating keeping this spreadsheet was for me. I got a real sense of achievement out of logging my words on it. There are, by the way, apps that will do a similar job for you: I have WordTracker on my iPad and it’s pretty cool, especially if you want to track your writing speed, but the problem with WordTracker is that I kept forgetting to turn it on and besides, with all the interruptions I get my stats become skewed pretty fast. For me, apps like this reinforce the myth that I need a block of uninterrupted time for writing, and my head in some kind of order, which isn’t true—all I need is to sit down and write!

Having ascertained that tracking provided motivation, I set myself a challenge for 2014:
365,000 words. 1,000 words a day, with a monthly target of [days in month x 1,000]. Originally these were going to have to be 365,000 words of fiction, but by now I allow myself to include blog posts, book reviews and other kinds of writing.

Take a look at my progress for March:

And here's how I keep track of my overall progress with a little graph, which I designed to be as similar to NaNo's as possible:

When I took this screenshot I wasn't quite done with April, but as you can see I was already about 8 percent ahead of my 2014 goal. 

I mentioned the idea to my critique partner, Katharine Grubb, and she jumped right in there with me, so I now have both nerdy tracking AND accountability. She set up a shared spreadsheet on Google Drive, so I enter my word count twice, once on my own spreadsheet and once on the shared one. Not strictly necessary, but the additional tracking features built into my own spreadsheet are useful for analyzing, for example, how much more engaged I am when at a certain point in a novel draft.
I set up a graph on our shared spreadsheet to track our joint progress:

As you can see, Katharine’s ahead of me (she is motivated by competition!) And you can see that at the time of the screenshot (April) we were both comfortably on track to write over 365,000 words in 2014.

This does not mean that we’re both about to start publishing three novels a year (100,000 words is a good length for a novel). At the time of writing I’m between novel drafts—I’m editing Eternal Deception as well as my daily word count, and am also in the preliminary stages of plotting the third novel in the House of Closed Doors series. But take a look at the March spreadsheet again. During that month I finished up the first draft of Eternal Deception, wrote two short stories, one of which I may polish up and submit to a writing competition at some point, wrote some key scenes for the next novel, and did some concept writing for a new series. If I can refine my plotting/research methods (I’m working on it) I could conceivably write three novels a year, but I think that’s pushing it for my kind of writing.

There are so many ways you could make this challenge work for you. You could, for example, write about your travels if you happen to be traveling—and then look for a market for travel writing (a popular nonfiction category). You could develop your creative nonfiction skills by writing about a scene from real life that really struck you. Or you could just use a prompt from the many online writing prompt sources just to increase the range and depth of your writing. On the infinite monkeys principle, some of what you write over the course of a year can be turned into cash—you just have to devlop the skills to identify the good stuff and submit it at the right time, in the right place. I’m still working on that.

Do you log your words? Any tips that could improve my methods?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The two biggest stumbling blocks for writers, part two: time

Last week I talked about the two biggest internal stumbling blocks to becoming a writer. How many times have you heard (or given) these excuses?
“Some days I just don’t feel inspired to write” 
“I need to carve out a block of time for writing, and that’s so difficult!”
I dealt with the first issue, inspiration, last week. So now let's talk about finding time to write.

Our internal blocks are affected by external circumstances. At the moment of writing this post, I’m struggling with a ton of distractions. Orangina, my cognitively disabled older daughter, has to be constantly prompted to move through her day, not a huge deal but I keep having to remove my head from its writing space and put it back on its mom/caregiver shoulders so that I can go do the reminding. I’ve been getting texts from one of my sisters about a parent’s health issue of the month, and took time out to fire off a bit of a rant (a mild one) in her direction because I have ideas that perhaps she hasn’t thought of and felt like I needed to share them. Opening the mail revealed that another family member has run up some unexpected bills. AGAIN. We had a minor basement flood last night, which was partly my fault, and I’m dealing with some of the aftermath. I have emails to answer and paperwork for Orangina that must be done. That adjectival dryer is beeping again.

And I bet you can EASILY top that list of concerns. Every day I meet or hear of writers who have way more to cope with than I do. Full time job? Homeschooling the kids? At Mom and Dad’s beck and call? Disabled spouse? Pain and/or disability of your own? Juggling college and job? Yes, your external stumbling blocks are significant. But if you’re reading this, I imagine it’s because you want to pursue your writing dreams…somehow…one day…

So how about making that day TODAY?

And here’s a great place to start: you don’t need big blocks of time to write. The image of the author reclining in his (why is it always HIS?) leather chair in his paneled library, gaining inspiration from the wonderful view from his window, is so far from the reality of the writing life as to be entirely—FICTIONAL. Even the most successful writers still have external stumbling blocks in their way (imagine trying to write and do everything else while you're expected to make public appearances and give interviews...) But the successful writer has conquered that inner voice that says they don’t have time to write, and that’s a huge step toward a bona fide writing career.

Take my critique partner, Katharine Grubb. With five young children to take care of and homeschool, she didn’t really have any time to write. But she wanted to, so she figured she could write for ten minutes every day. She wrote a novel that way—it took her five years, but she did it. And in the meantime she started blogging as the 10 Minute Writer, and ended up guest blogging elsewhere. Writing in ten-minute increments became so natural to her that she found herself setting that timer more often. She’s now a professional writer with an agent, a contract, income from self-publishing and…a community of writers with similar time-crunch issues.

I met Katharine when she was still in the process of writing her first book, and I’ve seen her grow as a writer and start meeting her goals. It’s hard to chart your own growth, but when you’re close to someone else’s writing and see true progress springing from the effort of finding time to meet your goals, that’s pretty powerful.

So what’s my advice?

Figure out a daily, or weekly, or monthly goal that will work for you. It might be two thousand words a week. Or 700 words a day, my goal when I started writing my first novel (which is still unpublished because I want to rewrite it). Or ten minutes a day. Or ten hours a month. Make the goal as small as you like, but commit to it.

(I attended a productivity webinar the other day where the very astute point was made that it's better to set a weekly or monthly goal than a daily one. If, for example, you tell yourself you must write 1,000 words a day and you get one of those days and simply can't write, you feel like a failure. If you've set yourself 31,000 days for the month of May and you miss a day, you simply catch up.)

And then make an effort to track how you are achieving that goal. I’m a great believer in logging my word count each day, and this works for many people. I HATE having to put a zero against any day, so I go out of my way to find time to write even when it’s been a horrendously busy day and I haven’t had a minute. Basically, that means giving up my evening’s relaxation, and that’s tough when I feel like I deserve to relax.

And if you like, you can report your progress to me. Sometimes that little bit of accountability is all a writer needs to keep going. In the next couple of weeks I’ll tell you about the 365K Challenge, and how that’s keeping both Katharine and me on track to bust through our previous writing records!

Monday, May 19, 2014

The two biggest stumbling blocks for writers, part one

If you’ve been paying attention over the last couple of weeks, you’ll know that time has become even more of an issue for me than it was before. But also, my commitment to writing has grown. So how, exactly, do you keep writing when you feel like the Red Queen—you know, when you feel like you’re running as hard as you can just to stay in the same place?

Well, first of all, acknowledge that you’re not alone. How many times have you heard people say, “I’ve always dreamed of writing a book. I’ll do it one day, when I have time”? Are you one of those people? Or are you now actively writing, and can look back on the days when you dreamed of writing that book AND WISH YOU’D STARTED IT SOONER?

OK, maybe you’re one of those people who’ve been writing since the day your little chubby baby fist was able to grasp a pencil, can’t go a day without writing or you’d literally explode, writes 10,000 words a day in a trance and then wakes up at dinnertime, etc. etc. If you are, just go sit in your happy little corner and smile derisively at the rest of us.

Because most writers, let’s be truthful about this, have to exercise a little willpower to get the job done. There’s this thing that one writer, Steven Pressfield, in a book called The War of Art calls Resistance, and it tends to jump in between the writer and his/her good intentions on a fairly regular basis.

The two most common excuses for not writing are probably:

"I need to carve out a block of time for writing, and that’s so difficult!"
"Some days I just don’t feel inspired to write."

Just to be contrary, I’m going to tackle the second issue first. That inspiration thing. If you’re waiting for inspiration to start writing, then you’re not serious about writing. Yeah, you heard me. You’re not treating writing like a job. Do you wait for inspiration to get up and go to the office? Must the Muse knock on your door to inspire you to make dinner before you’ll head to the kitchen and actually open the fridge?

But those are obligations, I hear you whine say. If I don’t turn up at the office, I won’t get paid and I’ll end up with nowhere to live. If I don’t cook something for dinner, I’ll starve or end up ordering pizza AGAIN and I know that’s not good for me. I can’t afford not to do those things.

Serious writers (whether they earn money from their writing or not) treat their writing as a job they have to turn up to. As a meal they have to prepare or face starvation. They sit their butt down in their writing place and they write, whether the Muse shows up or not. And some days, she doesn’t turn up at all and the writing session is just agonizing, but they do it anyway. (The good days are when the Muse obliges and you write your 1,000 words or whatever in record time.)

Do you think I waited for inspiration before I sat down and started writing this post?

Nope. It was the next one on my list, and after a couple of minutes’ thought I just started writing, not really knowing quite where it was going to end up, but knowing I could edit out any absolute nonsense later. When I put up my first post after my long absence, I told you guys I now have a plan. And that plan is to just write, dagnammit. Whether I want to or not. And it appears to be working.

Another example: The other week, I sat down to my daily writing session with absolutely NO CLUE of what to write. I could have used a prompt (just google “writing prompts” and you’ll find loads of good ones online) but instead I decided to follow the image that flashed into my head of a woman running. Where was she running? Why? Who was she? I began writing, almost at random, and a story emerged. Twenty-five days and 25,000 words later, I had an incredibly cruddy draft which is going to serve as the concept story for an entirely new series, and I’m very excited about it. Because I forced myself to write about anything at all, inspiration showed up.

So don’t wait for inspiration, Dear Writer. Sit down in that chair and write till you force it to stop hiding in the corner and come sit on your shoulder!

Next week: the block of time myth.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rewriting a novel: (re)plotting and writing

Image credit: hisks at FreeImages

To recap: Back in September 2013, I decided to rewrite Eternal Deception, the sequel to The House of Closed Doors that I’d been working on for nearly a year. Having got to the stage where I knew roughly how I wanted the new version to look, I very fortunately came across an online course taught by historical novelist Stephanie Dray on using Scrivener for plotting. (She’s going to publish it eventually, she says, so hold your horses—but in the meanwhile googling “Plotting with Scrivener” will net you a whole bunch of advice, all of which I intend to read as well as the book The Plot Whisperer, lent to me by a writing buddy).

Stephanie took us through various well known plotting methods: the Snowflake Method, the Hero’s Journey, character-driven plotting, scene-based plotting, and so on. It was tough to have to keep re-plotting the story from all these different viewpoints, and I’m still not sure if I’ve found MY ideal plotting method yet, but the resulting heap of ideas gave me some insights that lent richness to First Draft #2. Once I’ve finished editing Eternal Deception I’m going to start plotting Book 3, The Shadow Palace, and this time I’m going to work at this stage even more comprehensively.

The other thing that was great about Stephanie’s method was that it made considerable use of Aeon Timeline, another app that syncs with Scrivener. Again, there are other timeline apps out there, and I’ve tried one or two others but Aeon is my favorite. One of the issues I had with First Draft #1 was that I wanted it to be set over a six-year period, which turned out to be surprisingly difficult to manage. Using Aeon Timeline intensively during the plotting process convinced me that I was going to have to reduce the timespan of the novel to four years, which is just an easier period to manage for this particular plot. For the next book, The Shadow Palace, the timeline will be much tighter, so Aeon will become a very important part of my life. I’m glad I got to know this app better!

I did most of the plotting last October, while in England (most of the time without an internet connection—very conducive to hard work!) So by the time NaNoWriMo rolled around, I was more or less ready to write.

As I said in my last post, I allowed myself to write as long as I liked. No rush to get to the end of the story meant I could indulge myself in getting to the bottom of even some of the secondary characters. And I LOVED that. One character in particular took on so much depth that I was quite surprised at him, and the extra conflict I’d decided on at the mindmapping stage was a whole lot richer for letting my imagination wander around a bit.

So I wrote my 50,000 words or so (I think it was a bit more) for NaNoWriMo, and wasn’t nearly finished. At that point I lowered my daily word count from the 1,667 I needed to “win” NaNo to a more manageable 1,000 words a day (more about that later!) And I kept going…

Until March 10, 2014, when I finally wrote The End.

Only one problem…

The manuscript is now 175,000 words long. So instead of my usual editing challenge of having to add more into scenes to make them richer, I now find myself looking for words to slash. I guess it’s a nice problem to have, but I know I’m still going to end up with a chunkster of a book. Never mind—I’ve found the story I wanted to tell. My reaction when I read it through recently (I always do a read-through before I start editing) was a pleased smile rather than the frown of doubt that darkened my brow during 2013. This is a story I’ll be happy to put in front of my readers.

Oh, and I can’t finish this tale without admitting something.

That draft I sent to my beta readers? Like all my other novels, it resided in a Scrivener file.


I suspect I overwrote it, but to this day I don’t know how I could have done that. I’ve been using a computer since 1985 and am very, very careful about file naming and replacement. The thought that I would have ignored the “do you really want to?” message and gone ahead and overwritten a file is pretty much unthinkable.

Unless, subconsciously, I wanted that story to die. I do have it as a compiled document, in both docx and pdf format, because I output it to send it to my beta readers. So it’s not strictly lost. But losing the Scrivener file meant that it would have been annoyingly difficult to re-use bits and pieces of that draft in my new draft. And yet—by the time I realized I’d lost the file, I was so far into the rewrite with barely a reference to the previous draft that I knew it didn’t matter whether that draft existed or not, because it wasn’t the right story anyway.

Do you rewrite? Or does the idea scare you?