The Research Phase

I am totally fascinated by life before advanced technology. In a new writing project, I am working on describing what is was like before even electricity. Yes, we know about gas lamps and candles and machines that operated on a strictly manual basis. I see a story with characters who are miraculously transported into the 21st century and are utterly dumbfounded by what they see. I can have a lot of fun researching how things used to work and make one the focal point of the tale. Since I am sitting here staring at my new ceiling fan, why not insert a belt-driven version into my book?

I got online in an instant and found out all sorts of little known facts about this one ubiquitous item. I had no idea they were even invented before electricity was in wide use. They go back easily to the end of the 19th century when pulleys drove motors. A belt would be used if there was more than one fan. You call this system a “belt drive motor” and it could be attached to a wall or the ceiling, like the ones here: It can’t have looked very good—pretty primitive in conception and appearance.

Amazingly, before this time, fans belts were driven by water wheels that weren’t even in the same building. Man, electricity is so much better! I will have my character built the fan and set up the contraption as a surprise for his pregnant wife who is experiencing night sweats. He is a simple man who works in a factory and copies the arrangement there on a smaller basis. At work, five fans are driven by the same belt and motor. He only needs one at home. This is actually based on fact: belt-driven ceiling fans originated in commercial buildings. My character will thus be a bit of an inventor. Let’s say he likes to tinker in his equivalent of the modern day garage—a barn.

I think it is going to be amusing to go back to days of yore and use a lot of literal detail to make the era come alive. By the way, I am totally fascinated that these old-style marvels still exist in some restaurants and hotels. They are actually still manufactured and cost a fortune—up to several thousand dollars. The belts are very obvious so it must be for show most of the time—a nod to better times perhaps. There seems to be a craze in this country for old things such as vinyl records and antiquated stereo systems. I see that you can build a belt-driven ceiling fan on your own with a kit. It is a kind of antidote to an overly-tuned technological era. Perhaps this will be the ultimate moral of the story. After describing the character in two different worlds, the reader can make his or her own comparison and come to a judgment. I will, of course, insert my particular view.

Completion Ritual

It is a major accomplishment to finish an article or story, not to mention a full-length novel. It doesn’t happen every day! Whatever your specialty as a writer, you owe yourself more than a mere pat on the back. You have worked hard and probably gone through a few dry spells.  Hopefully, the critical accolades will come later. For the moment, it is time to bring out the beer or whatever pleases your palette. For some it is a hamburger and fries, for others a steak and baked potato dinner. A friend who is a published author treats herself to chocolate cake or a hot fudged sundae depending upon the time of year. We all have our completion rituals. Whatever you do, it is a time of celebration for sure. It is a tough job to finish a creative work that springs mostly from your imagination. Then it takes writing skill to make these ideas come to life. Yes, we all do research and get inspiration from a variety of sources; but it is the stimulated brain that puts it all together.

I mentioned the celebratory beer and I must tell you that I have lots of it in my handy beer fridge. I keep it nearby in my home office. It isn’t huge, but it contains enough for a spell of creative output. It is something I enjoy even by myself although I have been known to invite writing friends over to join in the fun. Some of these people have previewed the work while others get their chance during the rejoicing. You have to love beer as much as I do to get invited to the party. I bought the best beer fridge I could afford some time ago when home brewing was just starting to get popular. I got the best one I could find in the size that would fit under the side panel of my desk. You see, I can just reach right over. I don’t usually drink while working as it makes me too relaxed; but if I finish a chapter, for example, it is time to indulge for a short while. Then it is back to the computer with my full attention.

One friend who writes poetry takes the celebratory ritual as an opportunity to do a private reading. This is special and I prefer not to recite my prose. I will discuss my work, however, at any time. I will divulge my best resources because they are always changing. It makes my writing more appealing to readers. I have been reading a lot of novels these days by foreign writers so I have a rather long list to share some day. Their vision is so unique and gives me an entirely new perspective. Even in translation, I can appreciate the novelty of various writing styles. If you want something new to enhance your normal sources of inspiration, I highly recommend taking a look at Japanese, Indian, French and South American authors. It will be a real eye opener for you.

Writers’ Panel

Smokers get on my nerves. They insist on imposing their need on others. They can’t let go, even when it is too cold outside to smoke. You would think they would give up for a few hours. Not so. They must find a way to indulge their need and make a big noise about it. Why can’t they keep their pain to themselves? Nicotine is a nasty habit that grabs you by the throat, literally. Just get a grip, I say. They start pacing about trying to decide whether to brave the freezing temperature just for a “fix.” They are a far calmer lot come spring. I try to stay away from these nervous types as much as I can. They unfortunately appear from time to time at public events.

This is the kind of behavior I witnessed at a local writers’ panel in the county library. I welcomed the opportunity to hear from my fellow authors and share ideas. Most of us are loners who don’t get out much. I welcomed the opportunity. However, there is always something, as the old saying goes. One attendee was useless in this regard. He spent most of the limited time freaking out about finding a legal place to smoke. The building, of course, did not allow it even in the lobby or hallways—as it should be. I felt like shoving him out the window. It didn’t matter that icicles hung from the nearby trees. I would even give him my coat and wool neck scarf. He just kept at his bitching. Finally, he let an unused cigarette sit hanging from his lip as an antidote. It was revolting. I could write a story about it. Ha!

The smokers annoying antics bothered others as well. Finally, one exasperated writer suggested he chew gum. He pulled a pack from his pants pocket. The smoker grabbed it and immediately started to calm down as he chewed. Finally, he would be able to participate in the day’s events. We all clapped and nodded to the clever writer. Maybe he had been a smoker at one time. Whatever the case, he was our savior now. I had been too passive to help.

Now I could pay attention to the presentations and participate in the panel discussions through the day. A crisis had been averted. Some of us read from our journals while others passed around copies of stories. There were topics of mutual interest. We talked about the difficulty of getting published and how rewarding it is when it happens. It was a fruitful session at which I learned a great deal about self-publishing. You never want your work to go unread. Thank you, Amazon, for creating the Kindle Store.

Writing can be a Pain in the Neck!

I have often been asked about the joy of writing. People who know that I have self-published many books are somewhat in awe as they feel they could barely pen one. To encourage them to continue their enterprise, I try to indicate what is so special about the craft. It is from my perspective, of course, but what I have to say is pretty universal and should apply to all would be writers who are experiencing a bit of a slump. You must write daily to get in the habit and to encourage brain waves that produce creative thought. You can keep a journal, write in your tablet, or record your ideas on a machine. As long as you devote regular time to writing, you will be in the zone more often.

I get a lot of pleasure about completing a book or an article. It is an achievement that merits a pat on the back each and every time. It isn’t easy and takes time and effort. Hence, I go the extra mile to treat myself to some praise after the fact. Needless to say, I spend a lot of time at the computer, hunched over the keyboard like a slumped rag doll. It is a position that works for me, but according to my doctor is causing recurrent neck pain. He tells me that I am doing this to myself, but I can’t stop. Who can write lying down in bed? Not me. To stop writing from being a pain in the neck, he had some suggestions from

  • Sit up straight. This is obvious but a key to a better position and less stress on the neck.
  • Take breaks as often as needed, at least one-hour intervals. If you simply can’t exercise or at least walk around, sit and roll your head from side to side, then around in circles each way. It loosens everything up. If it hurts, you know you waited too long.
  • Limit writing time to three times a week if the soreness persists. You can go for a longer session if you get up now and then.
  • Stand up and bend over and release the back. Bend your knees if it is difficult and you are not limber. Stand up after twenty seconds and repeat. Stand up and bend from side to side, stretching the opposite arm in each direction. Try to straighten the arm over your head for a better result.
  • Sitting on the floor, create a V with your legs. Bend over with a round back and repeat with a flat back (which is harder. It will become easier over time).
  • Still on the floor, lie on your back and roll your body side to side with bent knees. For an extra stretch, straighten your legs a bit and reach them as far as you can so the back twists and even cracks. Resume bent knees and roll gently side to side to finish.

Spent the Day Researching

For my last project, I wrote a short story and had to do a whole bunch of research to make sure that the technical details were correct. Even the best plot can be ruined if the reader finds errors. You must do some legwork to make it right. It may be time consuming, but I don’t know a writer who pens books straight from the head. It is a good way to start and you can play with ideas and characters, but in the long run what makes a book really interesting are the details. They must be credible and accurate. I can easily spend a whole day on a very short story. The more arcane the topic, the more time I need to spend. I love learning new fodder for my work and I want to be taken beyond the boundaries I have known.

Somehow, I had gotten interested in panning for gold and metal detectors. It would be an odd way to make a living for my character. He would be colorful in his old baggy pants and miner’s hat. I could make it modern day or an historical story. I wanted to see it develop first. Why would someone want to hunt for gold in this day and age? I will tell you. As a commodity, it stands at the top of the list. Even though it fluctuates, it always has value. People love collecting gold coins. You can sell them, or any old jewelry, in every city in the world. It is even better than cash.

My character will find gold in a park with a sophisticated metal detector that had the highest frequency. I had to find out how these gadgets work and what makes one better than the other. I assumed it was the difference between finding a trashed soda can and a gold coin. Some detectors go deeper than others. This helped me round out the story and create a dilemma for the character. He could have a moral issue with Finding a Fortune, reporting a found coin or try to sell it for a profit, only to be stymied by local laws. I could make him the target of an assault by someone who had watched him dig up the gold. Or, he could be on to some real buried treasure. If you don’t tell, you won’t be found out. It is not always that easy. When you sell gold, it is weighed and evaluated. Your fingerprints must be taken in case there is a reported loss or robbery. In effect, it is legal to sell gold within limits. The dealer will check police records.

I want the story to proceed and the plot to thicken so I like the idea that the character himself is robbed. He will go on the hunt for the culprit having seen his face from afar. It pays to look over your shoulder is the moral of my tale.

Change of Scenery

Writers are said to live in their own world, as if they were on a different planet—a sphere that is more mental than physical. But you have to delve into the real world now and then to get ongoing inspiration. I can’t write well if I am not experiencing my surroundings in new ways. I read tons of books and ideas flow through my brain, especially how I could do better. If I am stuck in a rut, I can open a new novel that has achieved some acclaim. But it is better is better to go for a real change of scenery rather than a fabricated one. You can get your own angle on things. Going to a new area may be required. That’s what writers do. They draw from every possible source, real or imagined. It is a difficult process for many and successful writers are few and far between.

I am seeking a change of scene as I write, one where I can take my laptop and work as I wish. I create my own schedule as long as I write several times a week. A laptop is the answer to note taking as well. You can jot down thoughts and images even if you plan to write it up later. I carry my laptop safely in my business bag to protect it from harm ever since reading a post on Business Bag Review. It becomes my portable desk. The bag contains other essentials for a writer out in the field. I have a camera (apart from my iPhone), a notepad, a printed calendar, and a flashlight. I stock bottles of water and pens. Energy bars are frequent visitors to its innards. If I were an artist sitting in the park, no doubt I would have a sketchbook, charcoal pencils, pastels, and an eraser. I would also have my phone to take pictures of things I would want to remember and work into a painting later. Creative work demands relocation and you have to tote your stuff with you. The tools of my trade are always on hand. I never know when I will sit for a while and compose a story—round out a plot or develop a character. Inspiration comes when it wants and it can’t be stifled. It may never come back. Relish its appearance, my friends.

Some people take their world with them in a briefcase and some in a lowly paper bag. I have a great, now business bag that I bought to support my productivity. It isn’t just for a desk job. Most bags these days have compartments for laptops and this is essential for me. I like a zippered pouch to make sure there is never any water damage. I have also seen people spill their cans of soda inside. The biggest tip I have is to keep it covered, preferably in a padded section of your bag.

Making a Great Series

There are so many cool things about writing a series: you get to work with familiar characters that you enjoy writing about, you can explore more than one plotline, you can add things and new characters that you felt were missing from the previous book(s)… the list goes on and on.

The first step to writing a great series is creating interesting, well-rounded characters. Giving your characters depth will not only make it more enjoyable for your readers, but it will help you perpetuate the series. You can give more details as you go, but you can give yourself opportunities for expansion while still being true to your characters.

Another thing you have to keep in mind is to provide yourself with multiple opportunities. If want your series to be about an athlete, make sure they are young enough at the start torealistically keep playing throughout the books. There’s a reason why so many murder mystery/thriller books have detectives or police officers as main characters: it’s much more believable for people in certain fields to come across dead bodies, after all.

Another thing that is incredibly important is for each book to have an ending. Certain plot points can continue throughout a series, of course, but wrap up something. This will avoid having readers feel cheated. If you do it well enough, your audience won’t feel like they just dropped good money on what is essentially a commercial for your next book and instead will be anticipating the next installment. You can bring up things from previous books as you go along to refresh the memory, but there will be readers who are picking up a book mid-series and you don’t want to lose them entirely by talking at length about old plotlines.

Pay close attention to the timeline. Be clear about how much time passes between the books. If it’s the next day, let readers know. If a year has passed, work that in somewhere. If you have kids in the books, be sure that they’re aging and moving up in school appropriately. You can use all kinds of little tricks, from adding the date to the chapter headings, to mentioning holidays, to outright mentioningthe amountof time in the first few chapters of the next tale. Whatever works for you.

Authors who write the best series have an end goal in mind the whole time, regardless of how vague it is. Think big as you’re writing the first book so that you have an overall direction you want to head in. Each book should bring you closer to that goal. If you start to feel like you can’t say anything new, end the series. You may disappoint a few readers but it will be better for you – and them – in the long run to move on to something new and better instead of regurgitating the same thing over and over.

Hope these suggestions help and inspire you!b

Inspiration from an Unlikely Place

As an inveterate writer, I look for inspiration near and far. You never know what will strike a chord. The notes of a writer’s craft are plot, characters, witty prose, and a clever turn of phrase. Anything can provoke a barrage of new thoughts, many of which are fodder for books, stories and articles. While I have published my share, I still am in the hunt for new ideas. It is not always easy as life is distracting. We all have our routines that interfere with creativity. You can’t just turn it on and off, as much as we would like to do this. There are times of great productivity and fallow times as well. I would rather share the former with my blog readers, but I must devote equal time to writer’s block, for example, to be fair. I promised you the trials and tribulations of an author, and that is what you are going to get.

I can get inspired by very mundane things. If you are a fellow writer, you surely know what I mean. Any subject is fair game for a story and when it comes to fiction, you have to pull from your immediate environment. Writers keep a journal for this reason. If something interesting happens, I take notes or even jot down a few key paragraphs. If I am on a roll, I go to my desk, prop open the laptop, and go to town. I can go for hours.

So what was the latest happening that got me started on a new story? It was so simple. I never dreamt of having something like this be the prompter of a book. It was my nephew jumping on his mini kids’ trampoline from Trampoline Choice. I was visiting my sister and he goes with the territory. He is usually off somewhere playing video games, watching TV, or texting friends on Facebook even at his age. They all do it. I loved seeing him get some exercise on the backyard trampoline. It is small enough to fit in his room, but my sister liked the idea of pairing its usage with fresh air. Good thinking. I was mesmerized watching him jump up and down without nary a breather. I resolved to focus on obsession in my story.

I would create a character who had an obsession with trampolines. He travels far and wide to test them out, always in search of the ultimate one. The story will take him to exotic and unexpected places. This will give the story color and reach. It will be an adventure that readers can track. The trampoline is a mere foil for the action and the revelation of the obsessive trait that dominates the character and changes a normal life into a madness. How’s that for a concept? Again, any topic can work if you find the right words to develop it.

Self-Publishing Tips

Self-publishing a book is both exhilarating and scary. You are putting your words out into the world and have to hope for the best. When you’re under the protection of a publishing house, you know there are lots of people reading your work—you’ll get notes from professionals on how to improve, they’ll correct your typos, and a professional will design the cover art. There’s a whole marketing team to develop promotion strategies, and a sales team that uses their connections to get your work onto bookstore shelves.

When you self-publish, there’s just you. So, how can you give yourself the same kind of support team as a traditional publishing house?Well, it’s hard. Here are a few tips to help you as you go.

First, you need to find beta readers. Go beyond your significant other and your friends – those people might be good at finding a typo or two, but they might find it hard to be objective, even if it is to your detriment to keep quiet about something. You want to find somebody who has some experience with writing and editing, has familiarity with your genre, is totally honest with you about your writing, and is a reliable worker. How do you find a person like that? The internet! Type Beta Readers into a search engine and you’ll find people of all backgrounds. Some will be willing to do a critique swap where you read their piece and they read yours, others will be expecting payment. Know the person’s experience and agree on the terms before you hand over your work.

It’s also worth hiring an editor. You’ll probably miss some things because you’re too close to your story. There are freelance and networking sites where you can find one in your price range. Choose someone who is reliable, knows their stuff, and is easy to work with. Make sure they “get” your style and your writing so that you can be assured that they are trying to polish your work, not make you change it. The same goes for a cover artist – they’ll help you create the vision you have and make it appealing for readers, and you can hire one online as well.

If you’re working on several platforms at once, for example ibooks, kindle, epub, etc and you’re not familiar with them, you can hire a formatter. Or, you can have testers with access to each type (maybe you have an iPad but not a kindle) so that you can be assured that table of contents works correctly and the type looks good. If you’re creating physical copies at a printer, whether it be a print run or print-on-demand, please ask for a proof. It will help you catch anything that could be a problem before the real copies start going out the door.

Lastly, be active on social media. You have to be your own marketing and PR department, but the internet makes that easy. Create pages online for yourself and your book. List the addresses of your social media sites inside your book so readers know how to reach you. Provide links to any public appearances you’ll be doing to draw attention to you and your work (your local library and book stores love home grown authors. It never hurts to go in and talk to a manager about a reading or signing). Sell your book on your site. Write a short story based on the same characters and let fans download it for free if they want. Get creative with how you do things, and you’ll find you enjoy it.

These are just a few ideas on what you can do to help yourself put your best work out there and get it noticed. There’s plenty of other things you can do, too, and I can cover some of that stuff in separate posts at a later date, if you’re interested!

Good Writing Software

Many people just use a word processing program to write and that works for them. Other people swear by certain dedicated writing programs. In this post, I am going to highlight a few of varying price for you to see if any interest you.

If you are a screenplay writer, whether you’re an industry pro or a hopeful working on your first, Final Draft is your go-to program. Designed specifically for film and television, this program will help you organize everything from formatting your screenplay to brainstorming to script breakdown. The format of a screenplay is extremely important, and many movie studios opt for the format used in Final Draft. Another very popular program is Movie Magic Screenwriter. There are others out there, potentially cheaper, possibly less complicated, and less robust, so it might be worth a look around.

If you are writing just about anything else, you have plenty of options. There’s Scrivener, which is a beast of a program that takes a long time to learn. However, if you self-publish like I do, it is easy to export files to places like iBooks or Amazon. It’s much easier to move sections around if they would fit better somewhere else, and there is a storyboard-like feature to keep your character details and plot straight.

For PC users, there’s always Microsoft Word, which most of us have used at some point in our lives. It’s a popular file format, too, which makes it easy. Mac users tend not to have the same (relatively) smooth user experience with Word, so Apple created Pages, a similar app with more of Apple’s style. You can even work on your book from your iPad or on your PC through the cloud. And, unlike Word, it’s free.

There are more options for the budget-conscious.There is WriteMonkey, a free program that looks suspiciously bare-bones but has a lot of power. It is a bit on the minimal side, but that is intentional: a lot of the options are hidden so that it is less distracting. Known as zenware, they appeal to those who don’t like a lot of user intervention in order to work. There are plugins you can add by donating to the developer. Some of these include sentence highlighters or a corkboard feature.

What if you’re familiar with Word but don’t want to shell out the money for Office? Then the open-source program LibreOffice is perfect for you. It has many of the features you’re used to but without the expense. The good news here is that it has all the office software you could possibly need, the price is right, and you will find yourself pretty familiar with it from the get go.

No matter what you use, make sure you back up your writing somewhere, whether it is a cloud backup or something physical like a flash drive or a hard copy. Protect yourself and your writing by not leaving anything to chance and having more than one copy of everything you write!

Always a Writer

I am not sure if there was ever a point where I felt like I ‘became’ an author. I am pretty sure I always have been one; there’s nothing else in life I have ever wanted to do other than write. I don’t know if you would consider writing my calling. For me, it is as natural as breathing.

As soon as I had enough of a vocabulary to put words together, I would tell my mom stories and make her write them down for me. I couldn’t necessarily read them at the time, but I did make her read the stories to me before I went to sleep. Eventually academics caught up with my mouth, and I was able to write my own stories. When I wasn’t outside with friends, asleep, or at school, I was writing.

I wrote about nearly everything. Some stories were only thinly fictionalized accounts of events to help me cope with situations and experiences that were going on in my life.Others were completely made up fantasies of places and people from the far reaches of my imagination. Sometimes I made up characters to populate fictional worlds, and other times it was a great way for my friends and I to have epic adventures even when we weren’t together. Writing all the time allowed me to find my own voice and experiment with different genres to find what interested me.

Although I make some money now, it wasn’t always this way. Being a writer can be hard work with little to no pay. It is easy to get stuck on a plot point or dialog and be tempted to give up. When you’re a self-published writer, you don’t have the same deadlines as a writer who has a contract with a publishing house, which is both good and bad. You may find the lack of deadlines freeing, or it becomes easier and easier to procrastinate because you aren’t beholden to a calendar. Writing can also be very lonely, isolating work when you aren’t regularly submitting pages to someone else. And if you don’t have the support of people around you, it can be even harder.

I am so grateful to have the support of my family. I always felt the approval and pride my parents had for me. They never once tried to deter me from my dreams, nor did they tell me that I needed to be practical and find a real job while I lived under their roof. Now I also get to experience that same support from my wife and son, who allow me to lock myself in the office/guest room and basically play pretend all day, secure in the knowledge that I have their unwavering support and understanding. It certainly makes it all easier for me, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of them and the things they have done for me. I only hope that they enjoy my writing as much as I enjoy their support!

Printing Books

If you’re self-publishing your book and you want physical copies – because there aren’t many things in life better than seeing your words on real pages with your name on the cover – you may be overwhelmed by the options (and costs) involved. Here’s some info on the terms you’ll need to know and what they mean.

Let’s start with the way books get published. There are, essentially, two types of printing: offset and digital. Offset is a more traditional type of printing. The process is more complicated and requires some lead time. However, if you’re going to print lots of books, offset becomes a very appealing (and cost-effective) measure, which is why it is still around.

Digital printing, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like. Your book is printed from a digital version instead of from plates like in offset printing. You are more limited as far as page size and cover options go, but for small print runs or rush jobs, digital printing is absolutely the way to go. A quality digital print copy will look nearly indistinguishable from an offset copy.

If the number of books (or the cost) of a traditional print run is intimidating to you, never fear! There are plenty of print-on-demand sites out there for authors just like you.With print-on-demand, you order the exact number of copies you need so that there’s never extras floating around taking up space and eating at your profits. There are printers that will happily run even 1 book at a time for you. Sure, it will cost more to do each copy individually than in large batches, but if you don’t have the space to store lots of copies, or are afraid of the upfront costs, this is a great option for you.

Print on demand services through places like blurb are actually not as expensive as you would think, and you get a professional looking product at the end. They’ll even help you sell your book at any stage – frompre-sales through Kickstarter straight through to the printed book on their website. They’ll handing the printing and shipping directly, all you have to do is sit back and get paid. They aren’t the only ones that do this. There are other companies out there as well, you just have to look for them.Having the ability to control the size of a print run really gives you the power to make smart decisions about publishing. It will allow you to maximize profits while still experiencing the joy of having physical copies of your books available. Plus, it is always fun to say, “let me contact my publisher,” or “I just got my book in from the publisher.”

Seeing your name in print is one of the best parts of being a published author. It’s great that there are so many different options on how you can reach that accomplishment. Good luck, and I hope you find the right size publisher for whatever your needs are!