Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Writers Need Cats!

"Computer Cat" (Pat Kight, Flickr)

Today I'm sharing a post I wrote for A Round of Words in 80 Days, an online community of writers who set goals, check-in with progress reports, and encourage each other to persevere. Thank you, Kait Nolan, for leading the way.

"Writers Need Cats!"

You may think that writers work in isolation, hunched over the keyboard, and requiring absolute quiet. But I recommend, for the most consistent kick-in-the-pants, inspirational writing companion, you should adopt a cat.

Before Tiger went to kitty heaven, I had the means to closely observe the links between cats and writerly creativity. 
  1. Cats know when we should stop working at the computer. Not only will they tread lightly over the keyboard and drape themselves gingerly upon it, but should that not be sufficient, they will leap upon your amassed rough draft and mark selected pages with muddy prints, ensuring you take appropriate breaks from intense writing sessions. 
  2. Cats inspire thoughtful analysis. Who has observed a cat gazing into what we cannot see and not realized their attachment to issues far grander than a plot hole – and our own need to think of unique alternatives beyond the outline? Our creativity is enhanced when we explore different perspectives. Cats ensure our connection to the infinite. 
  3. Cats model confidence. They move with distinction, poise, and know with certainty that their needs will be taken care of. They do not fear public speaking nor doubt their writing skills. 
  4. Cats prompt a range of emotion useful for character development. What cat owner has not received tender gifts from the garden? My Aunt Tessie escaped upstairs in terror after attempting to pick up the ‘toy’ snake Tiger had been playing with in the living room. This gave me a powerful lesson in the physical and emotional reactions characters have to stress. 
  5. Cats show us that important fictional and real relationships require love, compassion, and trust. I yet remember that fateful night when I awoke to find my cat nestled next to my tummy, ready to give birth. I learned inventiveness that night as well as respect for the unexpected, useful for plot twists and heightened tension. 
  6. Cats nurture the pleasure principle by allowing us to pet them, rewarding us with a low-throated purr, encouraging us to pamper ourselves when we achieve our writing goals. 
  7. Cats teach tenacity. When a cat hunts, sneaking forward slowly on unsuspecting prey, no matter the outcome or how many times the goal remains out of reach, a cat will persist. As should we in our story-telling skills and ruthless revision and editing. 
And so, my writing friends of ROW80 fame, once a cat is added to your life, I believe your writing will improve, even if you already have a dog leaning on your knee for attention.

"My Office Cat" (Jenny, Flickr)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Potential Self-Publishing Mudholes

Writers fantasize about quitting the day job, readers falling in love with their stories, and 5-star reviews. Today, I'm thrilled to introduce multi-talented, award-winning, and prolific writer of fantasy and science fiction, Ruth Nestvold, and her forthcoming YA novella, Island of GlassRuth points out four potentially messy issues to consider when we are poised on the brink of self-publishing. 

"Potential Self Publishing Mudholes"

by Ruth Nestvold

The last couple of months, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts on “Starting Out as an Indie Author.”  

I began it because a good friend of mine, another writer who was with me at the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop in Seattle many years ago, got the rights back for a traditionally published novel and now wants to self-publish. With all the questions she was sending me, I realized that I couldn’t really do the subject justice in e-mail, so I started “answering” them on my blog.

In my series, I’ve talked a lot about what authors should do leading up to self-publishing their work, but I’ve said very little about the mistakes they can make along the way. 

Perhaps this post will help some of those who are considering self-publishing to weigh the risks against the advantages when making a decision about how to move forward.

Needless to say, these “mistakes” are a subjective list of things I have noticed in myself and others on the road to indie publishing. 

The beauty and the curse of self-publishing is that it is so much easier and faster than going the traditional route, which can take years and (most of the time) still result in nothing. A fact that is often ignored is that self-publishing -- while faster -- most of the time also results in nothing. Which leads me straight to the first mistake made by indie authors.

Great Expectations

Most writers considering self-publishing have heard the stories of outliers such as Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, and H. M. Ward, authors who have landed bestsellers with self-published works. Of course, we would all like to think that we could be one of those outliers, but the vast majority of us never will be. More ebooks are being published every day, and that means that there are more works competing for the attention of readers, while the market itself isn’t getting any bigger.

The indie authors I know personally who are having the greatest success are publishing several books a year, sometimes even one a month. And most of those successful authors are publishing in some kind of romance-related genre, such as erotic, paranormal or new adult. Authors publishing in niche genres such as Arthurian fiction or literary time travel (that’s me, folks!) have little chance of hitting the bestseller lists, no matter how good their work is. 

Underestimating the work needed

Like any other art, writing is a craft that involves practice and training: learning the essentials of plot, characterization, setting, etc.; developing a regular writing routine; learning how to revise and edit your own work. As opposed to many arts, writing is something you can teach yourself, although most writers can benefit from taking courses in writing and/or workshopping their fiction. Critiques from other writers not only help in catching problems in your writing, they can help prepare the beginning writer for the reviews of readers who have paid for the published work -- and which can be merciless.

All of this, however, takes a lot of time and dedication. The advent of self-publishing has made learning the craft of writing unnecessary in order to publish. But the vast majority of those who have never spent much time honing fiction writing skills will most likely end up with scathing critiques and few sales.

Spending too much

This mistake goes hand in hand with the first two mistakes I mentioned above. An inexperienced writer who has not spent much time learning the craft and/or researching the ins and outs of self-publishing can be tempted to put all their faith in “packaging” -- i.e. hiring professional editors and cover designers to hopefully make their work into a bestseller.

While I am a proponent of making your book as professional as you can, there are a number of questions a writer needs to ask herself before she plops down hundreds of dollars for self-publishing services:

- Have I run the work through a critique group, writing workshop, or beta readers and seriously weighed the issues they found and tried to revise accordingly?

- Do I feel insulted/misunderstood when someone I have shown my work tries to provide constructive criticism? A writer who feels this way may not be able to recognize when editorial advice is justified.

- Am I writing in a niche/genre which has little chance of ever making back the money invested in expensive editing services or high-priced cover art?

Spending too little

In my experience, this tends to be a mistake more often made by experienced writers who have been published in traditional venues. Unfortunately, having already received one or more checks or Paypal payments for your fiction does not make you immune to mistakes. Nor does it make you a graphic designer. But as numerous bad self-published covers show, many writers prefer to believe the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

While that might be true, very few readers will be tempted to buy a book with a cover that looks thrown together by someone who has no idea of graphic design -- and little knowledge of standard programs like Photoshop or Gimp.

And while a multi-published author is unlikely to make the same mistakes in the text as a less experienced writer, we all miss typos, etc., in our own work -- which is why we all need either proofreaders or very dedicated beta readers, who are willing to take the time to point out the kinds of boo-boos we were unable to catch because we were just too close to what we wrote.

As with many things, it can be much too easy to overestimate our own editing and design skills. We all need reality checks at times, and those can be provided by critique groups or cover uploads to Facebook or blogs.

In conclusion

Writers considering going into self-publishing should do their best to research the market, read articles and books on the subject, and develop a plan. I highly recommend KBoards as a place to start. Do your best to have fun along the way. Self-publishing is challenging, but if you can develop strategies you enjoy, that will help a lot in getting you to your goal.

Ruth Nestvold's latest book, Island of Glass, will be available on Amazon on October 28, 2014.  

Seventeen-year-old Chiara Dragoni is a master glassmaker of Venice, a position that is both a privilege — and a trap. For the glassmakers of Murano are forbidden to ever leave the islands of the Venetian lagoon.

When Chiara's uncle is caught on the mainland and thrown into the dungeon of the Doge's Palace, she must use all her talents, including magic, to help free him. But the gift she creates for the prince of Venice has unintended consequences, and now Chiara must decide whether to give up everything  — and everyone  — she knows and loves in order to save her dream.

Set in an alternate historical Venice with alchemists, witches and magic, the story uses familiar motifs from the beloved fairy tale "Cinderella" to tell a tale with a very different message.

Island of Glass is a Young Adult fantasy novella of approximately 25,000 words, or 100 pages. It is the first book in The Glassmakers Trilogy. Now available for pre-order for an introductory price of only 99c!

A bit of background on Ruth: Ruth Nestvold’s short stories have appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov’s, F&SF, Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. 

Her fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Tiptree, and Sturgeon Awards. In 2007, the Italian translation of her novella “Looking Through Lace” won the “Premio Italia” award for best international work. Her novel Yseult appeared in German translation as Flamme und Harfe with Random House Germany and has since been translated into Dutch and Italian. It is now available as an ebook in the original English.

Find Ruth Nestvold on the Internet:

Twitter:  @Ruth_Nestvold

Ruth's books are available on:
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/17ONHvK

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Build Your Author Platform: One Step at a Time

We self-published authors often struggle with how to get the word out about our books. The internet is full of writing gurus who offer very helpful advice, 10 steps to get started, 15 steps to develop a fan base, 20 steps on marketing more effectively, 100 steps to . . . meltdown!

In fact, developing a platform that fits your market niche, your readers, and your personal style is rather like searching for the perfect shoes. Sometimes they pinch. But, that old saying perseverance furthers can work for you.

If you can identify the three or four steps you'd like to take in the next several months, why not minimize that learning curve, reduce stress, and avoid overwhelming yourself by picking just one aspect to work on.

What do YOU want your online platform to include?

* a website?
* a presence on Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram?
* an author page on Facebook?
* author pages on your book outlets -- Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords?

Each of these hotly debated "planks" in your platform suggests a different set of skills and raises new issues, not the least being potential costs, how much time you want to invest, and your very own learning curve.

If you are at the planning stage, how do you know you are headed in a good direction for you?

Consider subscribing to e-mailed newsletters from trusted experts in the field. It may feel like a detour before you actually move ahead, but studying the craft of marketing, especially from writers who have already successfully tested their ideas, can be an excellent starting point.

(Note: I have no affiliate links on any of my sites. Below are listed a few of my favorites).

Why not just check out ONE?

  • Joel Friedlander's The Book Designer gives "practical advice on building better books." Latest post: "Thou Shalt Blog!"
  • Joanna Penn's The Creative Penn (includes podcasts). Resources on writing, publishing, AND marketng.
  • Anne R. Allen's weekly posts. Latest: "Do Authors Obsess too Much About Reviews?" 
  • Writers' Digest's weekly newsletter on "free writing advice." Includes a free download of the 101 best websites for writers.
If you are happy with your 'platform,' what has been your greatest success? What would YOU recommend a newbie start with?

A personal note: I made a commitment to post about writing strategies here each week, while writing a poem a day throughout October on my travel blog. I'm currently revisiting France, if you want to take a look. My primary writing project is researching and drafting Rivers of Stone, historical fiction set in Canada and the Pacific Northwest in the 1840s.  Sometimes I think I go rather too slowly on marketing issues, but I'm looking forward to your comments.

View from a Crofter's Cottage, Lerwick, Scotland (Camp 2009)


Thursday, October 02, 2014

5 Ways to Get Feedback on Your Writing

You’ve thought about your overall plan, where you want to go as a writer, and what you’d like to accomplish long term. You already know what you’re writing about and probably have a writing routine that works for you. You have identified your writing strengths and areas that need work – whether that be revising or editing skills.

Photo by Ivanneth, "The Writer" (Flickr)
But I have one question for you. 

After you have revised and edited your story so many times you can't really look at it one more time, how do you get critical feedback?  

First, consider what you want feedback on: A chapter or two? An entire rough draft? Are you looking for quick feedback or do you want ongoing relationships with other writers that will help you strengthen your writing? Consider these options:

You could take a creative writing class. This more structured approach with assignments, deadlines, and accountability will still push you to share your writing and polish your critiquing skills. Check out your local community college or community center to find out what’s available.  Online workshops, like those offered by Holly Lisle, are another fine option.  Downside: Cost? Weekly commitment?

If you are just getting started on outlining or drafting and don’t have a finished rough draft, you may be most comfortable joining a small face-to-face writers' group that meets routinely. Such writers’ groups can accommodate a range of skills, genres, and styles. It may take some time to find a good fit with a face-to-face writers’ group, but the rewards are many in being able to talk with other writers about the craft of writing and sharing your work. Downside: The shoe may not fit if other members are defensive or too critical. Don’t stay in a small group that makes you feel uncomfortable or doubt your writing.

If you’re not able to find a small group in your area, why not try an online critique group. I’m most familiar with the critique group called NOVELS_L, a part of The Internet Writers Workshop.  Here, writers need to submit and/or critique two chapters each month, posting their critiques to the entire list of some 85 writers who currently active members of the list. Other IWW groups exist for short fiction, poetry, nonfiction. Downside: The volume of e-mailed submissions and critiques can be intimidating, but you will gain wonderful feedback and learn from writers who care as much as you do about the quality of your writing.

If you are tearing your hair out and just want a workbook approach to critiquing your writing, two of my favorites are Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript Makeover, and Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel. Both books provide extensive checklists and worksheets as well as discussing the art of writing and revision by emphasizing positive actions to take. Downside: It may be easier to start than to finish, even when each chapter is helpful.  

A very helpful option once you have that rough draft finished is to find a writer you trust to be a beta reader. Your beta reader will read your entire mss and give you critical feedback at the micro and macro level. Downside: Many writers pay for such critiques. This could be expensive. Some writers worry that their precious mss may be stolen (it does happen). But if you know your beta reader, his or her comments can make all the difference as you polish your rough draft. 

How do you “know” your beta reader or find her? Perhaps through that face-to-face writers’ group, or that creative writing class, or that online writing group you’ve joined.

Photo by Nana B. Agyei, Flickr

One last question: What do you do consistently to improve your writing craft? 

Besides writing!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Writer's Construction Zone: Part 3

Oregon coast (Camp)
After the day's writing is complete, most writers have some discretionary time. Without a plan of some sort, many of us will vacillate between what we want to do and what might be the next best step. 

For example, I'd rather do research for my current work in progress (WIP), than critique someone else's rough draft. But one of my goals is to be a part of a larger writing community. So, I put that reader/editor hat on and start reading.

Especially when writers spend full-time at another job, we can be overwhelmed in choosing what we really do need to work on next. With so many choices ahead, why not begin with an assessment of your writing and storytelling skills?

Writing skills:  Take a moment to assess which of the following you are particularly good at. What writing skills would you like to improve? 

  • Planning to sketch out ideas (from simple to elaborate)?
  • Outlining to more formally map out what you wish to write?
  • Drafting to get those words down on paper reasonably efficiently?
  • Revising of content and structure?
  • Editing for exact expression at the paragraph, sentence, and word levels?
  • Copy editing for grammar, punctuation, and spelling?
  • Word processing skills that support all the above?

Storytelling skills? Imagine you are a kid, sitting around a campfire. The grandfather spins a tale, and everyone leans closer. How does he do it? The audience is riveted to his next words, his hand pointing to the stars, and the exciting conclusion that makes it hard to go to sleep in the tent with the firelight flickering low and the rumble of adults still talking. Are you comfortable with these storytelling skills:

  • Fully-developed and empathetic characters that involve the audience? 
  • A consistent point of view that keeps your audience engaged?
  • A setting that brings the story to life?
  • Rising and falling conflict? 
  • Pacing appropriate for the genre and style of your story?
  • A story arc that reaches a satisfying conclusion and resonates with your theme? 

When we can identify more precisely what we want to work on next, we can then find resources to help us -- whether through an article in a writer's magazine, a creative writing class, participating in a online writing community, or simply reading/studying a book.

For example, to work on that slippery skill of matching your characters to an appropriate point of view, I can recommend Orson Scott Card's classic Characters & Viewpoint, an Elements of Fiction Writing put out by Writers Digest (2011).

Next Saturday, I'll be sharing some thoughts on building that professional development plan. 

Meanwhile, may your writing go well!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Writer's Construction Zone: Part 2

Once we face up to our dreams of becoming a writer, many paths open. Maybe we're not sure exactly WHAT we want to write. That's OK. Why not experiment -- poetry, flash fiction, short stories, even a running start on a novella or novel. Why not?

What am I writing? The craft of writing sets up writer and reader expectations depending sometimes on the length of what we write, the format we choose, or the genre. Trust me, writing a cozy mystery with cats and knitting is far different than a noir mystery where all characters carry their own sorrows.

Write whatever piques your interest. Maybe don't worry about finishing what you start. But consider looking at your current writing projects and asking: What am I writing about? Why? What draws me to these stories? Are there common themes, characters, conflicts that resurface?  

It was rather a shock when I discovered that buried in nearly all of my writing is that bedrock issue of abandonment, but I didn't have to think very hard to figure out why this issue remains important to me.

How am I writing? Although some folks criticize the old-fashioned "butt in chair" strategy of writing, I like this approach because you are writing -- every day.

Throughout the rest of the day, when you're not writing, the material is fresh enough that your unconscious is at work and may surprise you at that next writing session.

When you write every day (or nearly every day), you come to know WHAT you require to successfully get down on paper a certain allotment of words. 

What's rather fun is to figure out WHEN is the best time for you to write. You may be a leap-out-of-bed-at-dawn person or a let's-wait-until-everyone-is-asleep writer.

HOW you begin to write is also open to so many different strategies. Do you draft out an outline before writing? Are you a plodder, building that story structure (and supporting research, if needed) before you write? Or, are you a sprinter: do you leap into the story to discover with each plot twist, what happens next? My husband happens to be a 'bleeder,' someone who tortuously thinks for a long while before committing a single sentence to paper. 

Do you use prefer to write by hand? The very act of writing with a pen or pencil slows down how we think about the story we're telling. I tend to use word processing for story telling (drafting, outlining, taking notes, editing, and formatting), for I can type as fast as I can think. 

If you love technology, have you tried any of the writing programs like Scrivener that allow you to use sophisticated mapping, images, and research files in support of that primary document, your story?

How much am I writing? Before we fall into that pit of despair that says we are not reaching those goals we set, consider your writing productivity. 

How much are you writing every day? by the week? by the month? Even 100 words a day can lead to 3,000 words a month, though that's before editing. 

Do you set goals for how many words you write? Deadlines for your writing projects? Do you identify your long-term AND short-term goals -- in words?   

You may want to check out A Round of Words in 80 Days, an online writing community of writers who set goals by each 'round' of 80 days, and then check-in with short updates every Wednesday and Sunday.  

Next Saturday's post will explore the differences between skills we use in the process of writing and those storytelling skills we call 'writing craft'. 

Meanwhile, may your own writing go well.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Writers' Construction Zone: Part 1

A writer friend recently asked how she could jumpstart that novel that's been sitting in a drawer for the last five years. She wants to write, but those first 25,000 words still languish.  

I want to tell her to start at the beginning by thinking about her goals. When she's decided what she really wants to do, then she can begin identifying those "next steps" to lead her to a completed novel and a specific plan for skill building and marketing.

Because finishing one novel is not the whole story.

So here's Part 1 of Writers' Construction Zone, a guided workshop on identifying your writing goals and a self-assessment to determine where you are right now. Part 2 will identify those specific steps you can consider taking to reach your goals.


Some writers begin storytelling as soon as they can read and write. Others take a little longer to discover their dreams. If you are reading this far, you've already made a commitment to being a reader and a writer. But we can be overwhelmed by many different aspects of being a writer, from skills building, to publishing, to creating an online platform, to marketing.

So, let's take this step by step. Take some time to answer these next questions to build an writing plan that's tailored for you -- and that will identify the specific skills you need to work on to achieve your goals.

1.  What are you writing right now?
2.  What would you like to be writing within the next 2-3 years?
3.  How would you describe where you are in your writing career? Are you a beginning writer? Someone who's published a book or two? Someone at the end of your writing career but eager for just one or two more books?

Unless you are writing for your pleasure alone, somehow you'll want to get what you've written into the hands of readers. 

1. Who is your primary audience? 
2. Is your audience larger than family and friends?
3. Can you describe the demographics of your audience?

If you had a finished manuscript in your hands, what would you want to do?

1.  Find an agent and be traditionally published by one of the big 5 US publishers -- Penguin/Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hacette, or Simon & Schuster?

2. Work directly with a small, independent publisher?

3. Self-publish through Amazon (KDP and/or CreateSpace), Smashwords, or Lulu?

Much has been written online and in writing magazines about the strengths and drawbacks of each of these three publishing options. If you were buying a pair of shoes, you wouldn't rely on advice from your friends. You'd want to try them on, right?

Next Saturday's post will depend on your questions and comments. Let me know what you'd like to hear about first and what kind of information you'd find most helpful.

Meanwhile, the sun is shining. Let's write!