Monday, April 27, 2015

What If Harper Lee Became Published in the Era of Social Media?

I've been thinking a lot about Harper Lee these days. With news that her newly discovered book, Go Set a Watchmen, is suddenly about to be published, it had me thinking about how social media has changed the experience of readers connecting with authors.

Harper Lee's story has been a fascinating one for me. There is a part of me that longs for the time in which she wrote, where time seemed to stand still while a book was written, where people seemed to wait more patiently for a soon-to-be published book, nurturing the author to develop the best book possible.

Things are fast today. Perhaps too much. So fast that books are planned and marketed even before they are written. As a writer I wonder what my life would be like if an editor would spend time pouring over my pieces, years and years’ worth of pondering on word choice and story arcs that would make a book become an instant classic.

But that’s when I stop myself. Because for all the nostalgia that the writer’s days of old seems to hold, there is value in today’s world as well. It is a different time. Our books mean different things. I believe that we’re all on this individual path with writing, not just within our own words but in the words of our entire generation.

Harper Lee’s book changed our world and made us look at justice and racism a different way. We discuss her words with each other and there is value in that, but she herself is far away. The daily closeness of social media and blog writing that gives us a more intimate look at our writers is a benefit of today’s writing world. 




We don’t have the editors or publishers who will give us weeks and months and years to work with us on manuscripts. We are given tips and advice and must go back alone and rework our words in our own time. We can use beta readers and critique groups, of course, but the main responsibility falls on us in a way it didn't with the writers that were coming up a generation ago.

Our books will not perhaps have the same singular impact that Lee’s book has had, but we will discover that our own writing destinies have a meaning all their own.

There is value in the closeness of readers and writers today. Of people who tell you what a book meant to you by a tweet, an email, a comment on a blog post. There is value in the casual closeness we have with writers and readers. In having our books reach, not millions, but the exact people they were meant to reach. 



There is value in growing a platform step by step, conversation by conversation… we’re able to hear instantly what people think, how our work touched them, or what didn't resonate with them. This helps us find the right readers, the people meant to read our work. It helps us remain grounded, with a pulse on what our readers want and what they detest.

We are no longer looked at perhaps as hallowed writers, untouchable and mysterious, but as creative people doing creative jobs. The allure and mystery that writers once had has faded but that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay.

Harper Lee had a place in history with her book and we have one with our writing. No one can sit in the exact same chair in the theater of history, but we all have a place. 


While publishing has changed so has our ability to connect with readers. And perhaps that’s the way it was meant all along.


Cherie Burbach is a poet, mixed media artist, and freelance writer specializing in lifestyle and relationships. She's written for About.com, NBC/Universal, Match.com, Christianity Today, and more. Her latest book is: How to (Really) Make Money BloggingVisit her website for more info, cherieburbach.com.


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Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Review - Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

I first heard of the book “How to Turn Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life's Work,” by Steven Pressfield while listening to Joanna Penn on “The Creative Penn” podcast.  She seemed to mention the book every few months. Curiosity had the best of me. I located it up on Amazon.com. One-click later I had a charge for its purchase on my credit card and the e-book downloaded to my Kindle.

Steven Pressfield’s name registered with me as the author of the novel “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and the non-fiction book “The War of Art.”  Maybe it was the book’s subtitle “Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life's Work” that caught my attention. A quick read of several Amazon reviews showed a common theme. Most agreed the book helps you navigates the passage from the amateur life to a professional practice. I agree.

In “Turning Pro” Steven Pressfield teaches you how to be a professional artist. The book's lesson is the reason so many of the writers, producers, bloggers, painters, and designers have a copy of his book in their studio or office. The principles shared in the book worked for them. They will work you you as well. When they have self-doubt, they reread the book and regain their focus.

Pressfield teaches the artist how to:

•    Fight resistance,
•    Believe in themselves,
•    Find their muse, and
•    Commit themselves to their craft.

He sells the dream of turning pro, of being able to quit your day job. It’s the dream most writer’s I know what to see fulfilled in his or her life. I include myself in the aspiring group.

"Turning Pro" tells us we all have a job to do. It is not the same job for everyone. For some, the job is art. For others, the job they have to do is working in the business world. Creative endeavors like acting or writing await others.  Instead of embracing and doing the job, we spend our energies running from it. We do anything but what we were born to do.

Why do we run? Pressfield argues this is because we are not professionals. We have not learned how to turn pro.

Turning pro cannot be reduced to a formula or streamlined process. The trip is too convoluted, too intimate to allow that. It is a journey. The passage has many steps.  We’ll see those in a minute.
The book is divided into three parts.

Book One is The Amateur Life. 

Pressfield believes that the real problem is that we remain amateurs and never become professionals.

Becoming a pro is about growing up. He says it’s about becoming a man or woman in a world filled with adult children. One of the most important quotes from the book is this: "The difference between an amateur and a professional is their habits." 

Most people haven't appreciated the power of habits as much as they should have. We need to realize how much of our lives are shaped by our habits.

To be an amateur is to walk or run away from your true calling. Avoidance is the life of the addict or amateur: a life being distracted from your true calling. We need to not be distracted from what's important.

Here is a second powerful quote from the book is: "The amateur is an egotist. He takes the material of his personal pain and uses it to draw attention to himself. He creates a ‘life,’ a ‘character,’ a ‘personality.’ The professional has turned a corner in his or her mind. They have succeeded in stepping back from themselves." 

Why do we choose distraction and addiction? It’s because we look short-term instead of long-term. Addicts and amateurs know that they're called to something great, but then they back away from the hard work and pain necessary to fulfill their calling. Addictions are the shadow form of our true calling and a metaphor for our best selves.

Steven Pressfield catalogs our addictions. He discusses addictions to failure, sex, distraction, money, and trouble. He philosophizes more on the meaning of addiction, saying "The addict seeks to escape the pain of being human in one of the two ways--by transcending it or by anesthetizing it."

Book Two is Self-Inflicted Wounds. 

In Book Two, Steven Pressfield states "Fear is the primary color of the amateur's interior world. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking foolish, fear of under-achieving and fear of over-achieving." The professional is also fearful, but the difference between the two is how they handle this fear, something the book deals with in Book Three.

Reading “Turning Pro” can change your life. How? You face your fears, your activities, and your habits. You structure your days to achieve an aim. And it changes how you spend our time and with whom you spend it.

Book Three is The Professional Mindset

In Book Three, Steven Pressfield gets to the payoff: how to Turn Pro. He lists twenty characteristics of a pro:

1.      The professional shows up every day
2.      The professional stays on the job all day
3.      The professional is committed over the long haul
4.      For the professional, the stakes are high and real
5.      The professional is patient
6.      The professional seeks order
7.      The professional demystifies
8.      The professional acts in the face of fear
9.      The professional accepts no excuses
10.    The professional plays it as it lays
11.    The professional is prepared
12.    The professional does not show off
13.    The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique
14.    The professional does not hesitate to ask for help
15.    The professional does not take failure or success personally
16.    The professional does not identify with his or her instrument
17.    The professional endures adversity
18.    The professional self-validates
19.    The professional reinvents herself
20.    The professional is recognized by other professionals

I recommend “Turning Pro.” It will make you think. Many of his applications and stories use his journey to becoming a writer as the illustrations to lead us to how to apply it to our life.

Joanna Penn still mentions “How to Turn Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life's Work,” by Steven Pressfield every few months on “The Creative Penn” podcast.  I now understand why she gushes over his work. It's a wake-up call on how to cross the threshold from being an amateur to becoming a professional.


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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rising Above the Sewage


How does a writer rise above the sewage swirling all around her? I'm not talking about less-than-stellar writing, books that just plain stink (but somehow manage to get published anyway), or the problems of daily life that plague us like... well, a plague.

I'm talking about sewage. Yeah, that kind of sewage.

A mere 18 hours after moving into our new-construction, never-before-lived-in apartment, we awoke to a geyser of sewage emanating from the toilet adjoining my bedroom. As the bacteria-laden flood engulfed most of the apartment, we went from owning several nice pieces of furniture (many of which were handcrafted by my daughter) to owning a dining room table with its four chairs and bench, a hutch, two wardrobes, two dressers (one an antique), a nightstand, bed, two living room chairs, countless boxes of clothes, books, dishes, and family photos and mementos all soaked in E. coli and other nasty bacteria--in other words, one big, apartment-sized bio-hazard.

It looked sort of like this--
only imagine sewage instead
of fresh water--yeah, yuck.
So, back to my question. How did I rise above that gigantic, stinky mess to write? Simple. I didn't.

Instead of making my word count each day, the past three weeks have been filled with discussions with my insurance company representative (who denied responsibility), reviews of the damage by two professional cleaning services, and finally, an attorney. The apartment complex denies responsibility (even though they admitted it was caused by construction debris lodged in the building's sewer system) and we were left with no option but to seek legal action. Sadly, that's the way of life for so many today. What is right is no longer the issue; sadly, it's company policy and deniability that rule the day.

So there was simply no time to write. Was I upset? Yes. Did I regret going to bed each night (in a borrowed bed, no less) knowing I hadn't even begun to reach, let alone achieved, my word count for the day? You bet. Do I feel guilty? No.

It's true that our writing figures significantly in our thoughts every moment of the day, but there are times when we must set aside our desire to write to attend to the less appealing aspects of life. Illness, death, accidents, disasters, and all manner of bad things, as well as the joys of weddings, births, new homes, or vacations figure prominently in our lives. They must be addressed and even though these responsibilities interfere with our writing plans and our creativity, there are times when we must put aside what we want to do for those things we have to do.

And that includes living with sewage tsunamis, dealing with uncooperative insurance companies and delinquent landlords, and eventually, talking to an attorney.

As with all writers around the world and throughout the ages, however, I've gleaned considerable insight from my recent experiences. First of all, don't put your complete trust in "new." Just because it's new doesn't mean it's in perfect running condition. Check your insurance policy. You might have renter's insurance, but it doesn't always cover sewage damage (go figure). Keep in mind that the cheerful, cordial, and welcoming friends you encounter in the front office before you rent or buy can turn into uncooperative and ornery enemies in the time it takes to contaminate all your earthly belongings and prized possessions into sodden messes and potential agents of illness and/or death. On the other hand, look for the good people who will ultimately rise to the top (sorry about that image) to help you with great advice and professional opinions, lend you furniture, feed you, and commiserate with you.

The same applies to most aspects of life, I would imagine. Our first (new) draft is most certainly not our best. The premise or setting or characters might be superb, but there's always room for improvement. We might hope our virus protection is going to take care of every nasty bug out there, but there always someone, somewhere, working against us night and day. Sooner or later we'll all be felled by the sewage that hackers (who apparently have nothing worthwhile on which to spend their time) spew at us constantly. That's where our insurance comes in. Make sure your computer is protected against the latest bugs. Lastly, there are both good and bad people in the publishing world (as there are everywhere), and we'll no doubt run into some of each. Ignore the bad ones and cherish the good.

I thank God I wasn't under a hard and fast deadline when this happened. Yes, I would love to get back that lost time, but then wouldn't we all like to go back in time and change some aspect of our lives? It happened, and there was nothing I could do about it. Cleaning up and pressing on is the best I can do. I certainly don't need guilt hounding me for something I can't control or time I can't get back or writing I didn't complete.

With that said, I still hope I can salvage something from this experience, and I think I've discovered just what that is. Think about it. Who could resist a book about sewage explosions, rising waters, stinky carpet, ruined belongings, lost valuables, an uncooperative insurance company, displaced family, the legal system, medical concerns, and a landlord who's still hounding the protagonist for this month's rent despite the fact the apartment is uninhabitable?

Move over, Stephen King and John Grisham. There's a new legal/thriller/
horror/medical/suspense writer in town!
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Monday, April 20, 2015

Thoughts on Balancing a Day Job, Family, and the Writing Life

Do you need twenty-seven hours in your day to do everything? Sorry, I can’t give your day extra hours. What I can provide are some of the lessons I’ve learned and techniques I employ to make the best use of my time.

Maybe like a current television commercial’s characters you are stupid rich. That is where you can pay someone to handle your pitches, contract negotiations, research, reporting, editing, billing, collections, Twitter, Facebook, and personal website. Stupid rich allows you just to write. If you are stupid rich, this article isn’t for you. However, if you don’t have a housekeeper that does the cleaning, a nanny taking care of the kids, and a virtual assistant, read on.

My guess is you are more like me. You have to do it all. You would add to the above list driving the car pool, church and community goings-on, and your children and grandkids school activities. You might also be caring for aging parents as well as having a time-jealous spouse that cannot figure out why you are driven to write. They view your writing as just a hobby.

Like me, you have to figure out how to manage your writing time. Like me, you work a day job to support your writing habit. Like me, you struggle keeping the spouse, children, parents, and world happy.

You may find your life so interconnected with others that you can’t can’t turn off email, Facebook, and Twitter. You rationalize, it’s okay, after all, you use them to promote your writing. And the iPhone or Android smartphones have to be on all the time for instant access to voice and text communication.

Okay, go ahead, take a deep breath. I find all live similar lives. I won’t kid you; it is hard to write, stay organized and productive while balancing a day job, writing and family. We all know there is no silver bullet or magic formula to handle these conflicting demands.

Here are some time management tips I’ve learned over the last thirty-five years of freelance writing. During that interval, I’ve been writing while working and changing careers three times. I’ve been a United States Army officer. I admit I learned lots of discipline and time management skills from Uncle Sam. Next, I was a full-time Christian educator holding such job titles as Minster of Education, Associate Pastor, and Day School Headmaster.

For the last nineteen years, I have worked in the information technology field as a technical documentationalist, support engineer and systems engineer. It has been the never-ending on-call, long hours and weekends that go with an IT job. Along the way, I raised a family, worked a day job, was active in my church, managed staying married to the same lady for forty years, and carried for aging parents and parents-in-law. It’s not easy, but you can do it.

How have I done it? I learned finding time for writing requires five things. It requires balance, focus, understanding expectations, flexibility, and the ability to multitask.

I learned a writer needs balance. Balance means meeting writing deadlines while marketing to existing and new clients to keep work coming in. An editor at Lifeway Christian Resources told me thirty-five years ago others wrote better than me. He also added I wrote to specification, met deadlines and was easy to work with, so I was offered assignment after assignment over the better writers. Professional writers balance the writing life with the rest of their life. It isn’t either or, but both and.

I learned to maintain my focus is critical. What I mean by focus is being able to switch from task to task or project to project without getting distracted. I learned to do this by viewing writing as a professional job. Just like showing up at the day job and beginning working when my shift start, I do the same with writing. I have an appointed time and then just write.

I learned to manage my expectations. Creating realistic expectations for how much can be accomplished in an hour, day, week month or year took time. It helped where I didn’t take on too much work. I learned the balance needed to meet deadlines and not be overwhelmed. It helps you end up with the right amount of a workload. Clear expectations allows you to have time for your family and friends.

I learned to be flexible. In freelancing for trade journals and magazines, I have been called at three PM on a Friday and asked if I could have them an article by the beginning of business on Monday. Why such a short deadline? The person with the original assignment missed their due date. I say yes only when I can deliver. Flexibility is staying loose enough to deal with the unforeseen circumstances that unavoidably crop up while keeping enough structure to finish projects on time.

I learned to multitask. I hate the word and concept. I can only work on one thing at a time, but can work on several projects. I just think about multitasking like when I had six of seven classes in high school or college. I would have homework in more than one class. I learned how to handle it. Working on multiple projects simultaneously is a regular part of a freelancer’s life. For example, you may blog, Tweet, be working on your novel, and coordinating the church social all the same week. Somehow we do it.

Well, I hear you thinking about now, “Where are those time management suggestions?” You guessed it, here they are. I call them approaches for managing time. Ultimately, better time management should equal higher productivity.

 I have a regular place and time to write. It doesn’t matter if it is first thing in the morning, after lunch or in the evening. I have found when I do that The Muse will eventually show up because The Muse knows where and when to find me. I write most mornings at Starbucks for an hour before going to the day job, longer on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Writing at Starbucks removes my interruptions. I also write for the last thirty minutes of my lunch hour four days a week. Never forget, writer’s write. You have to make time for writing.

I avoid interruptions. Here is where you disconnect or turn off the phone. It’s where you don’t check email, Facebook or Twitter. You write. If working from home, don’t answer the doorbell. It is the time to write, not the time to research. If you are writing and need to research, make a note, but keep writing. You can research later. I actually write many times with the Internet turned off or using software that limits the time I can be on the Internet. Avoiding interruptions helps you make writing a priority where you can write. 

I write to the clock, not for a word count, though I try to write at least a page a day (about 250 to 300 words). Because of working about 50 hours a week at my day job, I don’t have the luxury of writing until I reach a certain number of words each day. I have to stop and go to work. 

It is amazing how many words I write just by having a regular schedule. You can use the timer on your phone or one from your kitchen to track the time you write. While writing, I always get up every hour to stretch and clear my mind, etc. Monday through Friday, I write from 6:00 AM to about 7:05 AM. On Saturday, I write from 6:00 AM until 10 or 11:00 AM. Sundays I write from 6:30 AM to 8:00 AM before attending church. Again, I take a short break each hour and then keep on keeping on. 

I set goals. When working on a novel or an article I use what was called the backward planning process when I was in the US Army. Backward planning means first identifying your goal. Next you select the actions that are most likely to help you to arrive efficiently at your goal. For example, if I plan on writing an 80,000-word book on speculation, I know I can write a first draft in 320 days if I write on average just one page a day. I write the date I want to have the deadline and then plan the steps to get there. I outline, so this helps. You build in catch up time. Remember flexibility? 

I reward myself. I get excited when I write one page or more in the morning. When making my goal, I may treat myself to a second cup of coffee or a walk in the park. Sometimes reaching a goal gets me the reward of a new book to read. I know several writers who set daily or weekly goals. They reward themselves for concluding tasks or meeting goals. Remember, the rewards don’t have to be big. I do something bigger when a project is completed like celebrate with friends and family. 

I schedule time for my spouse. We spend time together. Sunday we attend church and Bible fellowship class together. We go out to eat lunch on Sunday. It is our “standing date.” Any major family or household management issues are handled Sunday afternoons. We often walk together in the park or mall as well as attending a movie or watching a favorite DVD or DVRed movie on Sunday. 

I use a to-do list to keep me on track. I know many writers hate them, but I us them help keep me on track. 

Last, I keep track of what I write and submit. You must submit what you write. I have used an Excel Spreadsheet and a paid service to help me in this area. The paid service I used is Duotrope. What I like about Duotrope is it is my personal submissions control panel. Like Writer's Market, it has marketplace information and how to submit. It has an online submissions tracker that allows me to record and track submissions. 

Duotrope has the average number of days it takes to get a reply and the acceptance to rejection ratio on over 5,000 markets. It allows me to search publications and publishers by how they pay, acceptance ratio, and average days to get a reply. It tracks my submissions by category: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and an overall summary. It lets me keep track of my pending submissions, how many I have sent in the last 12 months, how many I have sent this month and my acceptance ratio. It allows me also to manage my list of pieces, my saved searches, my tracked deadlines, my favorite markets, shows me ignored markets. 

The two photos are screen captures of my two monitoring systems. One is a simple Excel Spreadsheet I made. It shows my submissions this year. The other is the Duotrope Dashboard. If you look closely, you will see how often I submit. I found when I track my writing I submit more, sell more and resubmit more quickly. It keeps me from sending the same piece twice to the same market. As you can glean I have been rejected by some of the best: The New Yorker, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Poetry Magazine. I also get my share of acceptances. 

We may not have twenty-seven hours a day, but we can write on a regular schedule. We can also plan and keep track of our work. Writer’s write. Writer’s submit, rewrite and resubmit.



My Submission Tracking Excel Workbook

Duotrope Submissions Dashboard




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Friday, April 17, 2015

The God Hater, by Bill Myers

Bill Myers wrote the quintessential novel involving Christian apologetics, wrapped in a compelling plot and peopled with lively characters.
Travis Mackenzie has developed an amazing computer program that tests the different socio-economic philosophies on a tribe of realistic on-screen personalities. The primary of these "people," Alpha, was developed by replicating the personality and the emotional and mental patterns of Travis's dead nephew. Travis brings each system to its ultimate, logical conclusion, which always results in the society's self-destruction. Finally giving up on socio-economic models, he introduces religion in the form of pantheism--for the characters to survive, they must believe in something, right?
But as that model begins leading the society again to destruction, Travis calls upon his nephew's father--his brother, Nicholas, a renowned philosopher and staunch atheist. Nicholas must develop a system that will ensure the survival of the tribe--because if they can design a successful system that will save the computerized community, they can use that system to save the world. Governments and private enterprises are using extraordinary means to steal Travis's work, which puts Nicholas, his only friend, Annie, and her son, Rusty, in constant, nail-biting danger.
When it comes to the reading experience, The God Hater hits on all levels. Heart, mind, and adrenal glands get a workout in this riveting, soul-satisfying novel.
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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I'm Not a Quitter -- Honest!

This post originally was published at LibertySpeidel.com on 8/6/2012.

Being a writer means making lots of choices. Why did Uncle Melvin kill off Cousin Carl? How will Detective Haskins discover the killer? Why did Sarah run off with Luigi? And on and on...
One of the toughest things about being a writer is knowing when to quit. Not necessarily for the day, but when is the story done. Or when it's not done, and there's nothing you can do at this point in your life to make it done.
by Astroboy_71

I'm facing one of those times right now.
For the last 6 1/2 years, I've been working on a novel project. It's had a lot of names, but right now, it's "Homebody". This novel predates my children being born, and the two main characters actually predate my marriage.

Over the last year or so, I've struggled with the book. I'm on like the 7th draft or some crazy thing, and I keep feeling like I'm circling around when it could be considered done, but just not quite there. Those who have read it say the same thing. But I can't figure out what's wrong with it, not now at least. For a while, I thought it was done: I submitted it to agents, and have received a few nice, even encouraging replies, but nothing that would have me thinking I'm almost there.

In a last-ditch effort, I asked Texas Momma (aka Linda Yezak) to take a look at it this spring. Between all her battles, she read a few chapters, but life happened and she had to return it, mostly unread, but with a few very helpful suggestions.

Then, last week, I got that niggling feeling again, like it was time to let it go.

I've had that feeling off and on for a while. I'm not sure why, but after it came back stronger than ever, I decided I'd e-mail Texas Momma about it. Even though I asked, I wasn't quite prepared for the blunt reply:

"Give up on Homebody. Save the personalities for another book, if you'd like, but I'd quit on it."
My stomach clenched reading those words. This book has become so much a part of my identity the last several years. How can I just give it up? It's almost like abandoning one of my children at the grocery store.

One thing you should learn early on as a writer is to kill your darlings. In other words, that turn of phrase you think is so clever, or that scene that you love but doesn't necessarily fit with the rest of the book. Perhaps it's the same way with this book--it's become my darling in many ways.

When I first started it, I was a completely different person than I am today. I had different goals, different aspirations, different worries. And, writing... and rewriting Homebody was cathartic in many ways. In the past six years, I've started work on several other projects, most of which I've finished, one or two I haven't for whatever reason--my creative juices ran out, I lost interest, etc.
Homebody wasn't the first novel I wrote. No, that disgraceful thing happened back in my teens. I pray it never again sees the light of day. A couple more came in between, both before and after a hiatus in my last semester of college into the first year of married life. Perhaps Homebody is that transition for me--the one I needed to get out, but isn't yet worthy of being published. Perhaps the next one or two books I've got on my plate will be it. I hope so.

For now, I must say goodbye to this story. Thank you for helping me grow as a writer. I'm sorry I had to use you to do it, that you never reached your full potential, that I wasn't the writer you needed me to be. Just know that even though you will remain on my flash drive, and I may never open you again, you've been valuable. I will always have fond memories of writing you.

As for my characters, Amanda O'Flannigan and Richard "Rick" Pierce, I think they'll be around again. Almost as soon as I made the decision that it was time to cut it loose, I got a new idea which would be perfectly suited (I think) for them. And, Homebody definitely allowed me to come up with a great deal of back-story for these two. I hope it comes to fruition, mostly because I love both of these characters dearly. I'm not quite ready to quit on them, even if I have to quit on one of their stories.

If you're a writer, how do you gauge when it's time to cut a story loose permanently and stop working on it? Have you ever had to do it? Did you mourn for the story and/or characters?

__________________________________________________________

Liberty Speidel has been a voracious reader since reading her first Nancy Drew book. But she was telling stories long before then with her figurines from Disney's Rescue Rangers. When she's not writing, you may find her gardening, baking, crocheting, or hiking. A lifelong Kansan, she now resides in the Kansas City metro area with her husband, children, and chocolate Labrador where she could rival Captain Jean Luc Picard in consumption of Earl Grey tea. She is the author of Emergence , Retaliation, and Capitulation, novellas and novels in her series featuring superhuman and police detective Darby Shaw.

She blogs sporadically at LibertySpeidel.com.
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Monday, April 13, 2015

Weak Word Habits

***This post originally appeared on Katherine Harms' blog January 27, 2015.

Scholarly analysis speculates that there are at least 250,000 distinct words in the English language, and some methods of counting distinct meanings produce an estimate three times as large. If that word count is even approximately true, why do writers and speakers use so few of them? When I edit book manuscripts, despite the broad spectrum of subjects and genres in those manuscripts, some words and phrases pop up everywhere, and many are terribly overused.

Overuse of any phrase annoys readers. A phrase that recurs on every page of a book starts to feel like sand in a flip-flop at the beach. If it is annoying the first time, it soon becomes a major hassle. A writer who annoys his readers on every page soon loses the readers. Even such a simple element as a repeated form of inflection such as –ing, or a suffix such as –ly, can make a reader wish for fly spray.

My husband is an avid reader of action and thriller novels. Several months ago he picked up a book by a writer new to him. After slogging through page after annoying page littered with adverbs that ended in –ly, he made the decision not to read any more books by that author. He liked the story very much, but he could not make himself read another page full of words ending in –ly.

I recently edited a wonderful story by a new author. Her plot had interesting twists and turns. Her characters were credible. The idea around which the story was constructed was engaging. She had no spelling errors, very few punctuation errors, and almost no grammatical errors. The most prominent problem in her story was that she narrated each speech with the same speech tag: as he or as she. Her scenes sound something like this: A character named Ellen is arguing with her boss. “You never listen to my side of the story,” Ellen said as she slammed her notebook on the desk.

“Well, you never pay any attention to the rules,” said Margaret as she stood up and pointed to the door.

This device for describing the scene is legitimate, but if it is the only way the writer portrays dialogue throughout a long book, the reader will tire of it. This author actually varied the actions frequently, but this phrase was repeated in every dialogue. Use of this phrase is not in itself a writing error. However, a reader does not want to read that every character spoke “as he” did something. There are many different ways to set speech inside the story. Overuse of any device wearies the reader.

Some problems occur in almost every manuscript. For example, many writers say that a character “ended up” somewhere. The phrase end up has become a common element of conversational speech. When writers incorporate it in stories or blog posts, it sounds comfortable and folksy. It does not sound professional. If a writer wants to sound as if he is speaking conversationally with the reader, the phrase end up to express arrival at some point or destination is acceptable. However, if a writer wants to sound authoritative when writing about a complex subject, or if a writer wants the prose of his novel to express his art, he will find some other way to construct the sentence that contains the phrase end up.

Here are some examples of the way the phrase "end up" appears in the writing of both beginners and experienced writers.

Problem: A dangerous mistake can end up costing you.
Improvement: A mistake may be expensive or even dangerous.

Problem: A counselor may end up with a skewed view of himself.
Improvement: A counselor’s view of himself may become skewed.

A sentence may have more than one issue.

Problem: Counselors may end up with a skewed view of themselves.
This sentence not only includes the weak, overused phrase end up, but it also includes a number problem.

counselors (plural) may end up with view (singular) of themselves (plural).

The subject “counselors” is not a group that acts as one, such as a national association of counselors. The association might end up with a single view by engaging in a deliberate effort to reach consensus, but a number of individual counselors will end up with various individual views. Both the phrase end up and the inconsistent number of subject and object must be revised in order to improve the sentence.

Improvement: Counselors may develop skewed views of themselves.
Some sentences have so many problems that the idea must be extracted and completely rephrased.

Problem: At some point in everyone’s life they’re going to end up in a cave.
What is wrong with this sentence?

First, it includes the weak and overused phrase "end up."

Further, the word everyone is singular, but the pronoun referring to it is they, which is plural. In daily conversation, people who fear being called out for sexism struggle to say anything that will not be criticized, and in the process, they fall upon the usage of third person plural as the generic for the singular of either gender. It is extremely common in conversation, and even professional writers of news copy have begun using this device. There are some situations where no other alternative is really available, but this sentence is such an utter disaster, that a writer should simply keep in mind that his writing goal is to engage the reader with his ideas, not to send the reader into the throes of gender activism.

The phrase "end up" cannot be valued even for adding color. A novelist writing dialogue can credibly use this phrase, because it sounds natural in dialogue. A person writing a book or even a blog post on the subject of life skills will have no reason to waste a moment of the reader’s attention on meaningless words and phrases. A nonfiction writer might use the metaphor of a cave for things such as addictive behavior or depression. He will not waste the precious reading time of his target audience with such an empty phrase as end up.

Improvement: Hardly anyone lives a normal life without spending some time in a cave.
Many words and phrases heard commonly in conversation have no place in writing outside dialogue. The reason is that sentences in conversations are created on the fly. People rarely examine a spoken sentence and repeat an edited version of it. When spoken words create confusion in the hearers, people use both actions and words to clarify meaning. Writers, on the other hand, usually have the freedom to examine what they wrote and make it better before they need to share it with a reader.

When a writer uses the phrase "is going to," he normally is talking about something in that will happen in the future or he may be discussing a predictable outcome. He might even use the phrase to talk about something constant. The sentence below describes qualities required in an effective advertisement:

Problem: A well balanced ad is going to need both the intellectual and visual to make the most impact.

The phrase "is going to" in this sentence simply replaces an auxiliary verb. The problem with this phrase can be eliminated by replacing it with the word will. To do so replaces a phrase of general usage with a more specific verb for future tense. However, as soon as the writer sees the flow of the sentence “ad will need both” he is likely to realize that this statement is a statement of a universal principle. It is true in the past, the present and the future. Hence the best way to improve the statement is to say,” . . . ad needs both . . . .”

Additionally, The Chicago Manual of Style prefers hyphenation for the phrase well balanced.

Good writing uses parallelism for smoother flow, and in this sentence, it improves parallelism to use the article “the” for both objects of the verb need.

Finally, the closing infinitive phrase to make the most impact sounds disconnected, because the reader is focused on a well-balanced ad. The place to make the point that well-balanced ads have more impact than those that are not well balanced is in the introduction of the need for balance. This sentence is about achieving the balance.

Improvement: A well-balanced ad needs both the intellectual and the visual.

Most good writers can write coherent copy in their sleep. However, if they yearn to write books and blog posts that glue people to the page—or the screen—then they must revise and rewrite. The content of this post addresses few real grammatical errors. The problems are not elementary. These improvements make the difference between correct writing and good writing.

Think about your own work. Do you habitually use weak or inexact phrases? What are your word habits? When was the last time you cleared away foggy writing and crafted something powerful and beautiful in its place? Share your experience in comments.

****Katherine Harms is an editor who can be found: www.katherineharms.com



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Friday, April 10, 2015

Lightning on a Quiet Night

Donn Taylor, a one-time contributor to AuthorCulture, is one of my favorite mystery writers, and he won me over again with Lightning on a Quiet Night
In the years following WWII, Lisa Kemper moves to the tiny town of Beneficent, Mississippi with her widower father, but what she really wants to do is go back to college. Nothing in Beneficent pleases her, and she feels trapped.
Veteran Jack Davis sees no wrong with the town that supported him during his military service and the death of his parents. He is working hard to repay a loan on his farm and bring his dreams for the land to reality. He is a stalwart citizen of what he views as a perfect town.
Then, a cheerleader is murdered in this perfect town, where everyone believes evils are committed only in other places by other people. Surely no one in Beneficent is capable of committing such a heinous crime!
Secrets unravel, truths unfold, and opinions change in this powerful historical romance/mystery. Written with wit and an understanding of the human heart, this novel should be in the hands of every reader.
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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Unfinished Business Stock Photos

Stock photos are everywhere today because authors are using them on book covers and even blog posts. But let’s face it, some of the photos are really cheesy and awful. I just saw a book cover that had used the same stock image that I did for a blog post. My post was about toxic friends and showed a woman cringing in anguish about her lack of positive relationships. The novel was about a different subject entirely, but when I saw the cover I immediately thought of my blog post.

One of the major complaints about stock photos is how unnatural the images are. Recently a movie about the business world, Unfinished Business, played on this concept by putting Vince Vaughn and his costars in the same poses and settings as those stock photos. The result? Hilarious! 






What’s more, they’re offering them for editorial use. Adweek has some more info (and shows all the pictures) but you can download four of them right from iStock/Getty for editorial purposes.

Since this promo has received so much attention, I can’t help thinking of how writers can learn a marketing lesson from this. Can the writer of a business or humor book do something similar? Or could writers create artwork or a meme that could be passed along to help promote their book? Promotions like this are golden opportunities to learn because the basic principles of marketing (and what gets people’s attention) remains universal.

©iStock.com/Dan Trunkman and the team from Apex Select. See Unfinished Business in theaters starting on March 6, 2015.


Cherie Burbach is a poet, mixed media artist, and freelance writer specializing in lifestyle and relationships. She's written for About.com, NBC/Universal, Match.com, Christianity Today, and more. Her latest book is: How to (Really) Make Money BloggingVisit her website for more info, cherieburbach.com.



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Monday, April 6, 2015

Conversation With My Unpublished Sequel

Book 2: "So, you gonna finish me or not? Where you been?"

Me: "Oh, hey. Well, um, writing other books."

Book 2: "But you kind of left your readers hanging. Not nice. Admit it. You're avoiding me."

Me: "Well, I tried. My editor's not crazy about you."

Book 2: "I know. Sent me back twice already. She's still open to another pass, though."

Me: "Right. I've rewritten you twice, yanked out all the parts she doesn't like. You're full of holes. Plus, I'm afraid the third pass might be the kill shot."

Book 2: "Tell me about it. To tell you the truth, don't even like me."

Me: "Excuse me?"

Book 2: "Since you asked..."

Me: "Did I ask you?"

Book 2: "You're telling the same story. Boring."

Me: "What? How can you say that? It's from the guy's POV this time, and he's struggling with..wait...hmmm. Yeah, it's the same story. I hadn't thought of it that way."

Book 2: "Your characters grew in the first book. Why let them stagnate with the same type of conflict?"

Me. "I see your point."

Silence

Book 2: "Well?"

Me: "Hush, I'm thinking."

Book 2: "'bout time."

Me: "So, maybe satisfy the reader at the get go and launch a new story?"

Book 2:  "Your peeps have grown, and they want to say something different. Of course, you've got to figure out what they want now, and what's going to stand in their way. Raise the stakes."

Me: "Might seriously work. But it's been 2 years since the first book came out. That's death to a sequel, right?"

Book 2: "All the more reason to make me stand gloriously alone."

Me: "What took you so long to speak up?"

Book 2: "Waiting for you to grow as a writer. I think you're ready to kill me now."

Me: "I'm kind of attached to you. Okay, seriously attached to you. Or rather the first version of you. I barely recognize you now."

Book 2: "Thanks for the love, but remember why you're doing this. If you're going to impact your readers, I have to die. I offer you the bones, now flesh me out. Make me live again.

Me: "Hmmm."

Book 2: "Come on, you planted some seeds in Book One that need to sprout, and your secondary characters are wanting some of the spotlight. Lots to work with."

Me: "So. You're saying satisfy the reader's expectations by tying up some lose ends, but continue to grow and develop the characters with a new type of conflict and higher stakes?"

Book 2: "Atta girl. You can do it."

Me: "Thank you. Well, I guess you'll have to die. It's killing me, too."

Book 2: "In a way. My heart's still beating. Just give me new life."

Me: "Rest in peace."

Book 2: "Can't wait to see what happens."

Me: "Me too."

Book 2: "So what are you waiting for? Write!"
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