Monthly Archives: May 2011

Pocket God — or How to Be a Mean Author

So, a while back I heard about this phone app called Pocket God.  I kind of wanted a smart phone just to be able to play this game.  Basically, the idea was you get this little man that you can torture in all kinds of fun ways.  You can strike him with lightning, or feed him to sharks, or any number of equally cruel and painful things.

We can learn several important life lessons from Pocket God…at least from a writer’s perspective.

First, as writers, we can and should inflict pain and horrific experiences on our characters.

Second, pain should never be frivolous.

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Diversifying Your Writing Portfolio

Writers love to write.  That’s why we do what we do, write?   Ummm…right?

In finance, advisors always tell clients to diversify their portfolios.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  That kind of thing.  So, as a writer, is it wise to diversify your efforts?  For instance, if you are a novelist, is it wise also to write short pieces?  Dabble in article writing?  Do a little nonfiction on the side?  What about some freelance editing?  Or penning for the silver screen?

It all depends on your temperament.  For me, I like a little bit of everything.  I like to write what I want, when I want.  My muse inherited the overeager gene, I think.  And it is, in part, driven by practicality.  If you write to make money, then the financial advice to diversify might make sense.  At the same time, you don’t want to fly in so many different directions at once that you have a nervous breakdown and never write anything at all — or worse, turn out subpar material and leave everyone dissatisfied, including yourself.  So how can you diversify your writing portfolio without going bananas?

Write what you know.  Okay, we’ve all heard this advice before.  But use it when considering whether or not to diversify.  If you love writing sci-fi novels but you are also totally into cars, or mountain biking, or opera, then you may be able to turn that passion into articles for magazines or trade publications.  You’re not diving into some subject matter that is completely alien to you.  You are simply using your writing skills to share your knowledge with others in a different venue.

There’s an added bonus to this as well: article writing requires a slightly different skill set than writing novels or short fiction.  This can provide you an opportunity to hone and develop your craft in unexpected ways.

Write what you want to know.  Let’s say your next novel is a historical piece.  You’re already delving into records and historical accounts, digging up gems of knowledge with which to adorn your characters, setting, and plot.  Since you’re doing the legwork already, why not turn some of those gems into stand-alone articles?  Again, with this strategy you aren’t wasting effort or distracting yourself unduly from the work at hand.  Economy of motion is crucial to avoid writer burn-out and a decline in productivity.  Will writing an article get your novel written?  Of course not.  But you are giving yourself a different opportunity to capitalize on your new-found knowledge.

Make writerly activities your new day job.  There was a great article in Writer’s Digest online just recently on making money as a “Word Nerd”.  Freelance editing was the subject.  If you have a gift with grammar and an eye for detail, freelance editing can be a terrific way to use your passion for language, expanding your portfolio and padding your wallet at the same time.  Editing is part of every writing project, whether it’s a school term paper or a company website.  Offering your assistance to companies and writing buddies (for a fee, of course) can be a win-win situation for everyone.

What’s the bottom line?  Don’t be so expansive that you lose sight of your personal goals.  Writers are a fiercely independent lot anyway, and we like to set our own personal benchmarks for success.  Sit down and decide what you want to accomplish with your writing career.  If you just want to write novels, then diversifying isn’t for you.  If you’d like to have multiple money-making avenues open to you, then it’s worth exploring ways to turn your existing efforts and knowledge into additional sources of revenue.  Perhaps you aren’t in this for the filthy lucre, but you just want the freedom to pen whatever inspires you.  Whatever those goals are, articulate them for yourself.

Ultimately, you’re the only one who can decide whether diversifying is right for you or not.  But keeping yourself organized and your goals in sight and using the principle of economy (getting the most mileage out of your existing work) will keep you from fraying at the edges.

When Good Stories Go Bad…

Well, “bad” may be a bit harsh.  And maybe what I want to talk about today isn’t so much when a formerly good story becomes a mutant monster of epic proportions.  What I want to talk about is something I have a bit more experience with — when a good story idea starts bad.

You see, of the writing projects I’ve spent the most time on in my life, the majority found their origins sometime during my teenage years.  In the case of Down a Lost Road, I was 12 years old when I got the idea, based off a creepy dream I had.  The Grey Tide?  My earliest draft dates from when I was 10.  Oathbreaker began when I was about 14.

Now, why do I lump all these three novels into this rather unflattering category of bad-starts?  Well, the reason is obvious.

Maybe the story had good elements.  Maybe it was the characters.   Maybe the core of the plot.  Maybe the world I imagined for them.  In any case, they all had some aspect that intrigued, captivated, or mystified me.  But none of those things are enough for me, looking back on those earliest drafts, to call them “good.”  They were childish.  Immature.  Cliched.  Predictable.  They sounded like they had been written by a young person with no real experience of the world — which is precisely true.

Funny how you get a perspective on things as you get older.

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The decision to self-publish

Well, today is the official release date of my book, Down a Lost Road.  As of this moment, it is undergoing the publishing process at Kindle, and is in queue at Smashwords…and the proof copy of my paperback is on its way to me.  So, all that being the case, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to talk about self-publishing.

Now, I know there are writers and laymen out there who probably hear the phrases “self-publish” or “indie author” and crinkle their noses up in disgust.  How do I know that?  My nose has a line across the bridge from all the crinkling it used to do at the very same phrases.  I was a very pompous stickler for the “real” publishing process.  And my thoughts on those who stoop to self-publish ran along these lines:

Self-publishing is cheating.  Obviously no self-published book could ever withstand the scrutiny of a real professional.  Obviously every self-published book failed to gain attention in the “real” publishing world because they are all #@$!.  Obviously the author was lazy.  Or they aren’t “serious” writers.  Self-publishing is for losers.

So…why the change of heart?

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Crossing the Finish Line

You’ve typed the last sentence, added the last end punctuation. You sit back with a satisfied sigh and hit save. It’s finished…finally.

Isn’t it?

Not quite.

The editing process is probably the most arduous and time-consuming part of the craft of writing.  And indeed, as we all know, he who refuses to edit is a fool. But there’s a funny thing about editing. It’s like a singularity — a black hole. Once you get sucked in, you may never come out again…or, if you do emerge, it may be in a totally different place in writerly space/time. So how do you balance the necessity of editing with the dangers of becoming consumed by it? How do you know when you’re finished…really and truly finished?

Part of this depends on where you are publishing. If you write for a magazine or have an editor at a publishing house, then you can be assured that whatever you send will not be exactly what is printed. Editors will tweak.  They can’t help themselves. (I know — I was one.) With that understanding, your job as a writer is to send them something that meets the following basic criteria:

  1. It has NO grammatical mistakes…at all.  Zero.
  2. It fits within the parameters of the assignment.  Don’t submit a 2,000 word piece for a 500-word column.  Or a 750 page novel to an imprint that only publishes 300-400 page manuscripts.  Your editor does not love you that much.  I promise.
  3. It makes sense.  Your plot lines are logical, your characters consistent, your timeline flawless.

But what if you plan to self-publish?  How do you know when enough is enough?

In situations like these, a writers’ critique group or good friend can be invaluable. (No.  Your dog does not count.  He must be able to read for himself.)  Make sure you’ve met the three basic criteria above and then submit it to the group or give it to your friend for a read-through.  When we have lived within a story’s world for months (years?), we lack perspective.  We know our characters inside and out.  We know the plot so well that we mentally fill in any gaps…sometimes neglecting to fill them in on the page as well.  Your critique group can spot them and you can adjust before any of your readers suffers death by narrative fissure.  Once you’ve made the suggested corrections, do another read-through yourself.  If you still have any friends left after the first go-round, buy them a latte and ask them to read it again.  Make the final changes and consider yourself done.

Another option worth considering is to hire a freelance editor to go through your work with a fine-tooth comb.  This is especially worth investigating if you aren’t confident enough in your grammatical prowess to handle step #1 on your own.  Freelance editors can do anything from a simple proofreading for grammatical errors to full-blown editing (suggesting storyline adjustments, content changes, etc.) and everything in between.  The drawback?  You need cash to hire one.  (They don’t work for lattes.)  And the larger the project and more extensive your needs, the higher the price.  But it could pay big dividends if your brilliantly polished piece lands a solid contract.

There you have it.  It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.  Editing is necessary and should be undertaken with care, but it should not become all-consuming.  So take heart, writers, and do not fear the editing process!  Hold your heads high and cross that finish line with confidence!

The Face of Terror

Photo courtesy AP

Usama Bin Laden is dead.

The man whose face has become associated with terror, war, destruction, and inhuman chaos has been annihilated.  Crowds outside the White House and in Times Square greeted the news with cheers and celebration.  Al Qaeda greeted the news with vows of retaliation and retribution.

For Americans, this is a moment for relief, for triumph.  It’s been a long time coming.  For me, I’m not sure if the whole thing has quite sunk in.

Maybe you’re wondering what this topic has to do with a writing blog…or a writerly blog…or at least a blog maintained by writers to deal primarily with writing topics.  Maybe it just has to do with me, as an American, celebrating the victory of our forces overseas, and the downfall of one of the most hated men of recent memory.

But I do actually have a writerly reason for talking about UBL.  Usama Bin Laden is — was — one of those devastating figures who was capable of dividing almost everyone who knew about him into one of two camps.  You adored and followed him, or you despised every fiber of his being.  I don’t know many people who would think of Bin Laden and say, “Oh, he’s a decent fellow, but I’m rather indifferent to him.”  No.  You hate him, or you love him.

I think even the people who loathed the man would have to admit that he — in some ways like Hitler — had an enormous power of personality.  You take one look at his face, and you have to say, “That is a dangerous man.”  You take one look at his face, and in some way you can understand why people would follow him.

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