Saturday, May 31, 2014

Making Time to Write

One of the questions that established writers get asked repeatedly is "How do you find time to write?" Between day jobs, familial obligations, errands, and social commitments, it's easy to let your schedule get in the way of your writing time. Obstacles and challenges will pop up when they are least expected. It's important to have a system in place to deal with this adversity.

It seems like there is always something else that needs to be done when I sit down to write. I have a to-do list, a job, a family, and friends that all need my attention. However, writing is both a passion and a part-time job for me and I need to devote time to it. Everyone has a different system for making time to write. Here are a few of my top tips for making time to write.

Add your current project to your daily to-do list, with a defined goal. When you just list "writing" on your list, you don't have an objective way to cross it off. On the other hand, if you list "write two articles" or "write 1000 words on my WIP (work in progress)" then you know what you have to do.

Make a date with yourself. Open your appointment book or online calendar and take a look at your weekly schedule. Find a few blocks of time during the week that you can set aside to devote to writing - try for once a day if you can! Then write down your plans on your calendar. Treat that appointment the same way you would a date with a friend. Show up on time and ready for action.

Set your alarm clock one hour earlier. This idea is rarely appealing to writers, but once they try it for a few weeks many find that they have incredibly productive writing sessions and avoid distractions from their friends and family. Begin by waking up 15 minutes early and devote that much time to your writing project before work. That's not so bad, right? Each week, set your alarm back another fifteen minutes. In less than a month, you will have worked your way up to an extra hour of early morning writing time.

Invariably, things will come up during your writing time. The phone will ring, the kids will ask for a snack, you will remember you haven't vacuumed, or someone will arrive at the front door. It's important to learn to identify procrastination from actual needs. Do you really need to vacuum right now, or can it wait for an hour until you are done? If possible, turn off the ringer of your phone during your writing time!

Emergencies will happen. What is important is that you get back to the business of writing once you have taken care of the obstacles. If you have to miss your writing appointment one day, get back on track the next. Don't let a day become a week or a month.

It is a difficult process to become a professional writer. Don't let time get in your way!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Ten Tips for New Bloggers

Starting a successful blog is a combination of business and art. Here are my top ten tips for creating a lasting (and lucrative) blog. A small amount of research and prep work can increase the odds of making your blog a success.

1. List your goals
Are you creating this blog to earn money? Voice opinions? Keep in touch with friends? Know why you are starting a blog before

2. Choose a topic
What do you love? What are you passionate about? What do you think you can write about on a regular basis? Choose a topic that you can build upon as you grow your reader base. If you run out of things to post

3. Read the competition
Read other blogs to discover what's out there and to learn what your likes and dislikes are in a blog. What can you bring to your subject that is new and different?

4. Decide on a host
There are a variety of blog hosts out there, including Livejournal, Blogger, WordPress, and MySpace. Browse several and study their features. Some are more customizable than others, and your goals will determine what features you need.

5. Choose revenue programs
Google AdSense is one of the most common advertising programs, but there are a variety of other paid links and affiliate programs that you can choose from. Compare several with your goals for the blog and find the ones that best suit your topic. For example, I have a blog that frequently discusses books, so I joined the Amazon affiliate program and link the book names to their Amazon page. If someone makes a purchase, I earn a commission.

6. Find a proofreader
Do you have a close friend who is willing to take a look at your posts for you? It can be easy to miss your own typos, so find a good pair of eyes to double check for you.

7. Start writing!

8. Find your unique voice
Everyone has a particular style of their writing. Comedic, serious, sarcastic, compassionate - try to keep your voice consistent so that your readers know what to expect. That will keep them coming back for more!

9. Find appropriate places to advertise
Never spam your link, but consider targeted locations to make your web presence know. Are you active in any message boards where there might be an interest? If they allow links in your signature, add your blog. Link to blogs on related topics that might be of interest to your readers, and let those bloggers know.

10. Have patience
It can take time to build a following and start earning revenue from your blog. Continue to add new posts and network with other bloggers.

Keep writing and good luck!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Advice for New Writers

If you asked one hundred writers to give you their best piece of advice, many of them would contradict each other. What should a new writer do to work through the glut of advice on writing? If I could only give one piece of advice to novice writers, it would be to not worry about how other people work and to find what works best for you.

Every writer has a different path to follow. We all work differently, which is why there is so much contradictory advice out there! For example, some authors suggest scheduling a time every day to write while others only write when they are inspired. It can be frustrating as a new writer when two established authors are telling you to do opposite things. This is why it's important to discover your own work style.

Many writers have told me that I should outline my stories and novels before I write them. However, I have never been able to work like this. My writing ends up feeling flat and I lose the excitement that I have for the story. I find it easier to develop a good character or two, and let the story take me where it will. This approach may require more editing in the end, but it is what feels right to me.

Besides, everyone has different taste! Fictional elements that one person might not be able to stand are another person's favorites. Personally, I hate Hemingway's novels. I have read several and had to force myself to get through them. I can see why other people might find his work successful, but I think his characters are flat and unrelatable. However, he is my best friend's favorite writer. If a new writer was trying to please both of us, they might rip their hair out from frustration!

When you are presented with a new style or technique, try it out! Experiment with a variety of processes and see which one feels the most comfortable with you. Don't feel bad if someone's advice isn't right for you. Focus on making your writing time the most productive that it can be.

Do what works for you. You will never be able to please everyone or take all their advice, especially when it contradicts! Listen to established authors and learn from them, but don't feel obliged to walk someone else's path. It would do a disservice to your writing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Most Pointless Reasons to Write a Novel

Many writers handicap themselves by writing for external reasons. Far too often, people decide to write a novel in hopes of achieving fame or fortune, or to impress friends and family, or simply for the ego boost and bragging rights. However, people who pursue money or celebrity rarely end up with books published through legitimate publishing houses.

The idea of writing a novel is a romantic one. People imagine the words just flowing out of their fingertips and the story translating easily to paper. They do not consider that an average novel can be 75,000 words or more. While the first few pages may come easily, most writers will eventually hit a wall - especially with their first novel. External motivation may not be enough to push through and complete a rough draft.

Others do not understand that the writing process involves far more than getting a first draft down on paper. Rewriting and revising are stumbling blocks for many people who do not have personal reasons for writing their story. It isn't just about fixing grammar and style problems - many stories are almost completely rewritten from the first draft to the second.

For every JK Rowling or Steven King, there are hundreds of other published authors who still have to work their day job, not to mention the scads of potential authors who have not managed to get their work published. Submitting a final draft to agents and publishing houses can be a frightening process, and one that requires a thick skin. Many of the most famous and popular writers out there have stacks of rejection letters to prove the difficulty of attracting attention. You must have confidence in yourself and your writing. It is easy to be discouraged.

The best reason (and I would argue the only reason) to write fiction is because you love it. If writing is a passion and something that you feel you have to do, then you should write your novel. If you have a story that is bursting to get out, then write your novel. If you are tenacious and thrive on hard work, then write your novel.

When a writer loves what they do, it is evident in their story. The characters are vivid and the dialogue pops. It is obvious that they have studied their genre and enjoy reading it for fun. The story is filled with passion and life.

Like all rules of writing, there will be exceptions. There are working writers out there who have immense talent but lack the passion, or who focus on the paycheck rather than telling a story. However, these exceptions are few and far between.

Let the success stories be inspirational, but write for yourself first!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Art of Flash Fiction

Crafting a flash fiction story can be a challenge, but it is well worth the effort. It goes by a variety of names, including microfiction, short short stories, and postcard fiction. Whatever the name used, the experiment is the same. Some wonderful writers have tried their hand at flash fiction, including Anton Chekhov, O. Henry, Franz Kafka, and Ray Bradbury. Could you be next?

The term "flash fiction" means different things to different people, but is most generally characterized by a word count of less than 2,000 words. The majority of flash fiction falls in the range of 250 to 1000 words, but there are notable exceptions. For example, one form of microfiction called "55 Fiction" is defined as a complete story that consists of exactly 55 words.

Creating an entire story in as little as 250 words is not an easy task. Flash fiction should include all the standard narrative elements - it needs a protagonist, a conflict, and a resolution. If you tend to be verbose, give flash a try. It forces the writer to cut out unnecessary words and get to the heart of the conflict quickly.

Flash fiction is still a relatively new genre. The oldest magazine specializing in its publication, "Vestal Review," has been published since the year 2000. The internet is a contributing factor to the growth in popularity of the style. Readers are looking for short, tightly written pieces that convey the story quickly. Shorter stories and paragraphs are easier to read on a computer screen. Critics sometimes challenge flash fiction as being written for a generation with no attention span, but I don't find this to be the case.

Writing tightly and conveying a strong message is not easy. I took a short course in flash fiction to learn the genre, and discovered that it almost seemed easier to write a novel. While it can be easy to paint the scene in so few words, the problem comes with showing a dramatic scene that actually has some sort of resolution.

Using the number of words in this article, several flash fiction pieces could have been crafted. It may seem impossibly, but that is part of the challenge. Why not give it a try?

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Importance of Quality Writing Online

Anyone who has spent a little time surfing blogs has noticed the declining quality of writing on the internet. Sometimes it seems that the entire English language is in decline. That begs the question, why is it necessary to post well-written content online?

Writing quality content for your website or blog can help improve readership. If a potential reader finds your site difficult to read because of grammar and spelling errors, it is unlikely that they will come back. A website that presents content in an attractive format with no obvious mistakes is more likely to retain readers.

Give the visitors something to come back for with your content. Have a consistent style or subject matter on your blog or website. Pick a focus that you can write about on a regular basis and become a resource for. No matter what your passion, you can put your opinions out there. Try to find one special "hook" for your subject matter - for instance, many popular blogs take a humorous or a snarky approach to a common subject, separating them from the masses.

Proper writing can also help with search engine optimization - if you misspell your keywords, you won't find traffic to be increasing as much as you might like.

If your goal is to publish your work on more prominent online magazines and websites, then quality is of the utmost importance. These magazines still maintain the same quality standards as traditional print magazines and journals.

If the writing in question is associated with your real name, or easy to find from a web page with your real name, it could impact your offline life. More and more employers are Googling potential employees and taking a look at their online presence. Presenting yourself in a professional manner and showcasing your best writing can only help. In the literary world, many agents and editors also search for writers who submit to them. Incoherent writing does not reflect well upon the author.

Don't let the prevalence of poor writing and textspeak affect the quality of your writing online. Take the time to practice and improve your work. Happy writing!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

How Keyword Research Can Help You Connect to Readers

Internet content writers are frequently looking for ways to improve their search engine optimization, or SEO.  Many writers turn to keyword research to boost their location on search engines and connect with new readers.  Keyword research can improve not only the traffic to your website, but the quality of your content and the number of backlinks developed.  Keyword research may even give you new ideas that can be interlinked with the content that you have already created.

Benefits of Keyword Research

  • Improve search engine rankings.  Optimizing the keywords on your website can help your content appear closer to the top of the list when a user searches.  Look for keywords with low competition and use them several times throughout the article.  Many SEO experts suggest using the best keywords near the top of the article, in the title, and even in the URL if possible.  Strong keywords should also be used in subheadings throughout the article as well.
  • New readers.  Not everyone who is attempting to find content similar to yours will type the same keywords into a search engine.  By diversifying your keywords, you may catch readers who you previously wouldn’t.  As an added bonus, changing up your word choice leads to a more interesting article.  Too many writers attempt to maximize their SEO by repeating the same keywords over and over.  Creative word choice can both help catch new users and keep them interested in what you have to say.
  • Increased traffic and backlinks.  As your website or blog is found by more readers, they may recommend your work to friends or post links on their own websites.  This is one of the reasons that good content is the most important factor in developing traffic.
  • Know the competition.  Keyword research tools allow you to see how much competition there is online for specific terms.  For example, by looking up “Keyword Research” on a keyword research tool, you will find that there is low competition for the number of web pages available, and over 90,000 monthly searches on the subject.  By understanding what your competitors are writing about, you can determine what areas to target and be the most successful in connecting with new readers.

Keyword Research Techniques

There are many free resources available to writers, webmasters, and bloggers who want to research keywords to improve their search engine listings and potentially attract new users.  Google AdWords contains a keyword research tool which is one of the best free keyword research products available on the web, due to Google’s status as the largest search engine available.  To use the Google Keyword Tool, log onto Google Adwords and click on “Reporting and Tools.” 

Webmasters and content creators can then enter a key term for the subject that they want to write about, and Google will provide a list of related terms.  These new terms may include alternate ways to phrase the keywords, similar topics, or expanded variations of the keyword.  Webmasters can then look at the amount of competition available, the number of monthly searches, or other factors that may help them determine which keywords would be the best choices for their content.

Writers who are interested in maximizing the ad revenue that they receive can also use this tool effectively.  There is a column available that will show the average CPC, or cost per click, of ads using this keyword.  Websites or blogs using Google Ads to develop revenue will earn a portion of this revenue every time a visitor clicks on one of their ads.  Both high value and low value ads can have importance on a website, depending on how often they might be clicked.

Conclusion

Researching keywords before writing an article is a great way to reach out to new readers, increase ad revenue, and improve placement on search engines.  Search engine traffic is still one of the largest ways that web users find new content.  However, once you get them to your site, you have to maintain their interest.  Ultimately, writing the type of content that people want to read is more important than all the keyword research tools available in connecting with people.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Why You Don't Need Experience to Submit Work to an Agent

Every famous writer had to sell their first novel before they made it big. Everyone stars at the same place, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. If you lack publishing credentials, don't let it stop you from querying top agents in your genre. What matters is that you can write a convincing query to let those agents know your book is worth reading.

Agents are in the business to make money. It is as simple as that! If an agent has confidence that they can sell your novel, they will make you an offer of representation. Polish and edit your novel to the best of your ability before you query, so that you are putting your best foot forward.

Do your research before you start sending letters to prospective agents. If you write fantasy and query agents who don't represent that genre, you will get form rejection letters. Find agents who represent the books most similar to yours, and begin your hunt with them.

In many cases, it can actually be easier to sell a first novel than a second or third. If your earlier works had disappointing sales and did not earn out your advance, many publishers will be wary about giving you a second attempt. If an agent believes in your work, they may be willing to help you work around these obstacles. It could be as simple of a fix as choosing a pen name is in order to distance you from previous works.

With nonfiction, it may not be important to have publishing experience, but you should have a "platform" on which to build your book. Most publishing houses prefer authors who have an expertise or authority on the subject. Anyone can write a diet book, for example, but your odds are far better if you are a respected nutritionist or physician. Have a good reason why you are the right person to write your book before you create the proposal.

When you send your query letter, do not draw attention to the fact that you have no prior publishing credits. There is no need to specify that this is your first book - just omit the information entirely. If an agent does not see listings of previous credits, they will assume you are a new author. It's ok! Make sure your query letter is engaging and intriguing enough to convince the agent to ask for the first few chapters. Unless the agent's website or listings specify otherwise, include the first three to five pages of your novel as a writing sample.

However, you may want to consider checking up on your web presence. As the internet becomes more prevalent in the publishing industry, many agents now Google the names of potential clients to see what comes up. They just might stumble across your Helium articles, so make sure that they showcase your best work!

Like all authors, you will face rejection. Do not be discouraged! It is not uncommon for new writers to query dozens of agents before finding their perfect match. Work hard and listen to critiques, and your writing will find the right home.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Appeal of Book Series

For me, novels are a way to escape into a fantasy world and take a break from my real life. Picking up a book from a series is appealing for many readers because of the comfort provided by familiar characters, settings, or writing. When I already understand who the characters are and what they have been through, I appreciate their future struggles even more.

Novels allow the reader to watch the main characters learn, grow, and face the challenges in their lives. A series can show far more of this development than a stand-alone novel ever could. Relationships can be built and crumble without feeling like they are forced, or each character can have their own moments to overcome their weaknesses.

While they may just be words on a page, these characters can become real friends to the imagination. Many people wonder what the future lives of their favorite characters will be, or write future stories themselves through the medium of fan fiction. Reading a book series is appealing because you can discover more of what the characters are going to face in their lives and see that they live happily ever after.

Book series also provide a comfortable familiarity. While the plots are different and the characters grow and change, readers will generally find that the writing style or main themes remain the same. Despite any plot twists, they know what to expect when they pick up a book in a favorite series. To some people this may sound boring. However, to me it is a great blessing to find something joyful that I know I can count on for an escape from the moment.

Many authors find themselves far more knowledgeable about the lives of their characters than is necessary to write a single book. They may be able to clearly picture what other adventures they will find themselves on. Writing a book series gives the author a chance to share these other stories, without doing additional world building or developing many new characters.

Publishers can be leery of first time writers who approach them with a series because they do not want to obligate themselves to print more books if the first one does not find an audience. However, after an author is established a series is a huge plus. Readers will want to purchase the next book to see what happens in future installments and the audience will grow.

There will always be pitfalls for authors who write series. They may not end them in time and find the writing suffers, or they may feel pressure to continue after they want to finish it. But for readers, a book series is an appealing way to spend their leisure time. Reading the latest novel is a way to visit with old friends and explore your imagination.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Tips for Finding Story Ideas

Story ideas surround us every day, but when a writer gets blocked it can seem like there is nothing new in the world. There are an infinite number of ways to shake up your routine and get the creative juices flowing again. Many of my favorites involve writing prompts or observing the world around me.

The best part about ideas is that the more of them you use, the more you seem to have! The simple act of sitting down with your computer or notebook and free-writing can trigger a flood of ideas.

Try your hand at writing exercises and prompts. Many websites and message boards have a list of these for writers. A quick Google search for "writing prompts" can bring up more than you could finish in a lifetime of writing. There are also entire books devoted to writing exercises to help stimulate your mind and improve your writing. My favorite is "The 3 A.M Epiphany" by Brian Kiteley. This book contains over 200 exercises focused on every part of writing.

My favorite prompt: Spend ten minutes writing about your favorite food. Use all five senses when you describe it. When do you normally eat it? Is it from a restaurant, or homemade? When was the last time you had this meal? Food is a universal experience, and everyone has something to say about it. If your writing meanders during this exercise, run with it! You never know where your brain is going to take you. You may remember an experience that triggers a great idea.

I like to keep a pocket-sized notebook nearby as much as possible. Have you ever been out running errands and been struck by a great idea, only to have it disappear before you reach a computer? Jotting down notes, even if it's just a few words, can help you keep these ideas in mind. I also have one computer file devoted solely to future ideas. They range from one sentence to several pages, and are there to browse through whenever I am ready to start a new project. Many writers tend to find ideas right before they go to sleep or in their dreams, so keeping your notebook by the bed couldn't hurt.

Spend time people-watching. If you have a friend who is a writer, this can be a great game. Get a cup of coffee and find a public spot to sit down. Pick out someone from the crowd, and make up a story about them. What do they do for a living? Do they have a family? What is their average day like? Just try not to get caught staring!

Art museums can be a wonderful place to come up with ideas if you are fortunate to live near one. When you have a free afternoon, grab your notebook and sit down in front of a work of art. Whether you choose abstract paintings, sculptures, or photography, ask yourself questions. I once did this exercise with an exhibition of photographs of homes. I spent time looking at one, then asked myself who might have lived there and what kind of life did they lead.

Find your characters first, and let them tell their own story. Often, if a character is well developed, they seem to have their own ideas about how the story should go. Plot points that might have been planned out suddenly don't seem natural for their personality. If your characters seem to be leading things in a different direction, run with it. It means that you have done your job well and created realistic people to inhabit your world.

Ask "what if" questions about experiences in your own life, or about stories you hear from others. What would have happened if someone made a different choice? How would things have changed? By looking at old experiences with a new perspective, you may just stumble upon a gem.

Happy writing!

New Posts Coming!

I haven't written on this blog in a long time, but if you're still here, you'll be seeing an influx of new posts in the upcoming weeks.

Another website that I wrote for years ago (Helium), is closing down.  The articles I've written for them are going to be deleted from their websites by the end of the year.  I haven't written for Helium for several years, but it's a little sad for me.  That was the first site that ever paid me to write something.  It was a learning and growing experience.

So, I will be taking those articles and bringing them to other sites I write for.  I'll be updating and tweaking for the blog.

This process is really an interesting journey for me.  I'm re-reading things I wrote as many as five or six years ago.  Some of it still rings true for me, while other pieces seem like an entire lifetime away.  I don't even remember writing some of these posts, but there they are, in my voice and style.

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I am enjoying finding them again.

Writers who Influenced Your Life

As far back as I can remember I have always taken a book with me when I leave the house. Reading held the highest honor in my family and each member has their own large collection of favorite books. Books were my friends when I felt alone and my hiding place when I needed quiet time. They were also my entertainment and never failed me, even when the power went out! Many writers have touched my life throughout the years.

Like many children, some of my earliest reading material came courtesy of Dr. Seuss. My favorite of his stories had to be "The Sneetches." Of course, as a young child I never realized the depth of the message that I was learning from the Star-Bellied Sneetches! Seuss managed to take some of the most complicated moral issues and turn them into fun rhymes and colorful tales. He is one of the most wonderful influences that a young child could have.

C.S. Lewis is another author who managed to turn deep moral and religious issues into children's stories. I wasn't aware that the Narnia stories were Biblical allegories when I first read them. They were fun and exciting tales that I could relate to - like most children I had a rich imagination. I always wondered what would happen if I was suddenly swept away into one of my worlds. As an adult convert to Catholicism, I often wonder if my childhood reading had anything to do with my religious practices now.

In high school I began to write more seriously and dream of being a published author one day. Then I found "Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg. While I applied the mantra "practice makes perfect" to nearly every aspect of my life, somehow I hadn't thought to use it with my writing. Her emphasis on writing practice made so much sense, and helped me develop my talent over the years.

For my high school graduation, my cousin gave me a copy of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" by Richard Bach. His inscription said that it was a book which helped him through a difficult time in life and he hoped it would do the same when I needed it. He couldn't have been more right! I keep this book close by at times when I feel like no one understands my dreams.

Most recently, a book on freelance writing came into my life through a recommendation on a message board. It is called "Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer" and is by Jenna Glatzer. I had always dreamt of writing for magazines and journals and popular websites, but was unsure of the process and lacking confidence. I needed help to learn, but didn't personally know any freelancers. Glatzer now feels like a friend, because she has taught me something I desperately wanted to know about.

Writers have an amazing opportunity to influence people's lives with their words. I feel blessed each time someone tells me that my writing had an impact on them. There is no greater joy.