Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Writing Fast: Sometimes You Get Lucky

There's much to be said for banging away for a while on a new book or article. Essentially, you are grabbing the most prevalent ideas and organizing thoughts as you write. 

You hope so, anyway. It's also possible to write 5,000 words and wonder why you got to a stopping point. The answer may be that you didn't spend enough time gathering thoughts early in the writing process.

I cannot claim to be an outliner or a pantser (as in one who writes by the seat of a pair). Usually I get an idea, or perhaps an opening sentence, and write the equivalent of a chapter before deciding if the idea is worth growing into a book. 

I have a lot of one-chapter folders with the start of a story that did not advance.
I also have a lot of finished books that started the same way.

For me, nothing gets finished without stopping to make notes about where a story is going after that first few thousand words. Oddly, some of these notes are on the Sunday program at my church, usually not while listening to a sermon. Most are on a yellow pad in a coffee shop or at my desk.

These broad brush notes become scenes and then chapters, and the ending of a mystery is not always what I thought it would be when starting. It probably would be more efficient to do a detailed outline, but my brain is simply not wired that way.

Perhaps my most useful habit is doing a reverse outline, by chapter. There is a great deal of detail, far more than if a publisher asked for an outline. Essentially this reverse outline becomes a guide as the book progresses. It helps me move scenes or remember if I planted a certain clue.

At the bottom of the outline I make quick idea notes, some things I may want to use later. While more cryptic than the reverse-outline bullets, I need enough detail to jog my memory later. It's amazing what leaks out over the course of a few days.

I have always liked the expression “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," which is attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca.

I wrote plays and stories for years, but my best preparation for books was years writing nonfiction for work. I think quickly. Sometimes that leads to writing before an idea is well-formed, but mostly not.

Lately, several friends and I have been feeling especially grateful that we can write books for a living. Semi-retirement and ebook publishing hit concurrently. Some might say we got lucky, but I prefer to think of it as the Scout motto coming to fruition.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Target Your Audience - or Miss Them

A friend and I were discussing how to reach more readers and I commented that I have begun spending more time skimming books in my genre (cozy mysteries) to see what the best selling authors do well. "Oh, I just write and don't worry about that," was the reply.

Every author has their own technique for getting words on paper or, very important to me, selling them. I wrote several books and plays thinking only about the story and characters. At the time I hoped to publish them or see them produced. Now I'm glad they weren't, as what I've written since is better.

What helped me sell more books was putting more thought into what people want to read. I don't mean simply doing research on search engine optimization (SEO), which means figuring out which items come up most in search engines.

For those who don't know, one approach to SEO is going to Amazon and starting a search relevant to your books. For example, type in "cozy mysteries with" and you get:
  • a psychic
  • witches
  • narration
  • cats
  • gardening 
  • recipes
This means people looking for cozy mysteries often type in these types of queries. If you haven't started a book and you don't care about the protagonist's profession, these are popular today. They may not be when you finish your book. That's why you probably want to pick a sleuth's profession that interests you or you are comfortable writing about.

Enough about SEO, especially since I said that wasn't my main purpose.

I believe the best way to learn what readers want is to read reviews -- of your own books or those of other authors in a genre. I'm not talking about the one-line I love/hate this book, or the ones that mostly repeat the plot synopsis.

Many readers write very thoughtful comments. For example, I was surprised that several reviewers  said the Jolie Gentil character (in early books of my Jersey shore series) was not likable or was self-centered. Part of it was intentional on my part (we would all tend to be more self-absorbed after a husband embezzles money from us). I had not intended for some of her internal thoughts, which I found funny, to be thought of as snarky.

I believe I've made her more likable. At least those comments don't appear for newer books. I didn't have to do that, but it made sense. Readers wanted a protagonist they felt more sympathy toward.

I also learned Jolie was not the favorite character in the books, so Scoobie appears more and Aunt Madge and he got their own book for the holiday season.

You reach a lot of readers by making your books stand out for those with similar interests. My friend Karen Musser Nortman writes the Frannie Shoemaker Campground Mysteries. She and her husband are regular RV campers, so that puts her in contact with people who could be interested in the subject -- in fact she wrote the books because she could not find camping mysteries. She also advertises in publications geared to campers. Very smart.

I made Jolie a real estate appraiser because I wanted a profession that gave her a flexible schedule, and one that could appeal to men and women. In retrospect, I don't hang out with a lot of appraisers, so maybe another choice would have been better. However, I can get her in a lot of trouble in vacant houses.

I continue to read cozy mysteries of bestselling authors, even if the locale or profession isn't one I would usually look for. I learn a lot about good writing. Reading their reviews also tells me more about what readers like. Of course, they don't want to guess the ending early.

Many positive comments have to do with believable characters or settings described so well they can be envisioned. I don't do the latter nearly as well as some other writers, so if readers look for that, I may need to consider painting a better picture.

In essence, go where readers are. Maybe it's joining book clubs at the library or participating in Goodreads groups. I belong to groups relating to mysteries and to writing or publishing in general. Seeing other readers' discussions of what they like in a cozy mystery is really helpful.

So, write how you want in terms of style or substance. As always, it's the readers who decide if you've written a good book.

And by the way, my second series features a gardener (the River's Edge series). I wish I could say I knew that was a popular search item. Sometimes luck wins.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

From Baby Steps to a Book

“I have a great idea for a book.”

“I have no time to write a book.”

“I’m waiting to start until I can spend the entire weekend writing.”

People who say these things may some day finish a novel. It won’t be soon.  Why?

Because they are looking for a sea of time when writing is more likely to get done in trickles.

While it’s true that a page a day produces a 365 page book in a year, writing in fragments has its own challenges. By the time you are back “into” the story, it’s time to get to bed so you’re alert for the day job.

If you can carve an hour or two once a week, there are ways to make it productive time. The first assist has nothing to do with writing paragraphs. It’s about remembering what to write. Carry a three-by-five card or small notebook at all times.

Ideas for a character or plot point wander through a writer’s brain while driving, cooking, or coaching softball. No, don’t jot a note while driving. Pull over.

Those ideas seep out as quickly as they sneak in. There are few things more frustrating than being certain that you had a great idea and lost it.

Capturing thoughts helps build a positive frame of mind for writing, in part because the writing process becomes more a part of your routine.

Here are a few more ways to keep a project moving when you can’t write every day.

Writing distraction Stella.
  • While on the subway or when waiting for a child to finish music lessons, read something about writing or an article that deals with the time period or something else related to your novel.
  • Work on a computer without Internet access.
  • Forget about perfect prose in your first draft. Grammar errors will be there to fix in the second draft.
  • Put a padlock on the refrigerator.
  • Leave the mobile phone in another room.
  • If a random idea occurs as you write, add it to a bullet list at the end of a chapter. If it’s in the computer file you won’t lose the thought.
  • Put the cat or dog on the porch.
  • If you have an hour to write, write the entire time. Research isn’t writing.

I wrote a 100,000 word book in pieces over two years. It’s not very good and will never be published. What I learned by writing regularly even when I “didn’t have the time” taught me a lot about putting a book together. And just maybe those later books are better because I valued that early writing time so much.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Getting that Book Into Print

I've had a lot of fun the last few years -- fifteen books, a bunch of writers' conferences, many book signings and...most important...many new reading and writing friends.

Indianapolis Barnes & Noble. Yea BN!
At a Sisters in Crime Booksigning at an Indianapolis Barnes and Noble in December, another author asked how I had published so many books in just a few years. I love this question, because the answer is simple. Write every day, or as close to that as life permits.

The question prompted me to write (in three weeks) Writing in Retirement: Putting Your New Year's Resolutions to Work. I was told the title might limit sales. However, the point is that those of us of a certain age have lots of experience and hopefully more free time than in our thirties and forties.

Writing in Retirement takes you through the "do I want to do this" thought process, discusses types of writing, lets you know how to put your books for sale at online retailers, and provides guidance on marketing your books. While geared to self-publishing, the ideas apply to those who want to get a publisher.  

Writing can be fun. I enjoy it, but I also treat it as a part-time job. The ideas come fairly easily. Getting them into decent shape for a book, which I'm asking readers to pay for, take a lot of time. And a couple of cuss words now and then. I try not to have too many of those make it into books.

Writing to sell is a major commitment. I don't say that to scare people. The nice thing about semi-retirement is that our deadlines are largely our own. If a sick child or grandchild needs attention or some volunteer work
 becomes more pressing, those are important. Once those obligations clear, writing can be prominent again.

If we wait for the perfect time to write, the so-called large block of time, there won't be too many finished projects. Writing is a lot like learning a foreign language. You need to spend a consistent amount of time regularly, and you can't worry about doing it badly before you do it well.

In case you say you don't know where to start, I can recommend another of my books: Words to Write By: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper. The premise is that we have done many things well, so we may not want to tackle something (writing) that seems daunting. The book offers an approach.

Just take it in pieces, and start with something you know. Or begin with something you want to learn about. That's even more fun. Just get started Writing in Retirement.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Writing in Spite of Technology

Sometimes technology gets the better of me so much that I have to laugh. Mostly because it beats crying.

Here are my system failures, so to speak, of the last couple of months. Most are in the last two to three weeks.

1)   Laser and ink jet printers die almost simultaneously. I figure one was mourning the other. Problem solved by buying two new ones, with a dent in the wallet where bills used to be.
2)      Hard drive died on the laptop. I don’t own a PC, though I have one of the original Acer notebooks with one gig of RAM (honest). After much help from Office Max staff, I decided to buy a new hard drive. Reasonable price (on sale, even labor!), but the wallet is again lighter.
3)      Cell phone (which also gives access to email, though not a smart phone) won’t retain a charge. Find a battery for $5 online (because of course no local store has it). Yea! Battery does not help. Turns out when a phone is dying, it won’t hold a charge. Boo!
4)      Buy a new phone, not a smart phone. (Like I could really learn to use GPS on one.)  The voice part of my new touch phone transfers immediately. Not so data in any form—text or email. Spend more than two hours on live chat. (I did like that direct access.) After many resets and “is it working now?” exchanges, two technicians decide I have a dud and they will replace it. At least the old phone can be turned back on. It works when plugged in and for 15 minutes on battery.
5)      Return envelope arrives to send back nonworking new phone. Ask me if the replacement phone is here yet, after ten days. Nope.
6)      Buy another new phone, this time online so it’s just like my old phone (which is kind of like a Blackberry). It’s coming via FedEx today. I figure it will arrive too late for me to go run errands. Odds are the original replacement new phone will arrive in two weeks. No acceptance signature for that one!
7)      In the midst of phone fun…remember that new hard drive? The computer dies.
I’m talking no booting, RIP, time for burial. (See hammer, which I would like to use on the laptop.)
8)      Good luck here. It’s the day before Thanksgiving (yes, that’s good luck, no 
computers used during dinner). That means sales afterwards, and I get an HP Laptop for a really, really cheap price. And no one got trampled. Wallet is now very light.
9)      Gee, computers need software. I’m 900 miles from home and don’t have any of mine with me to load, so try the free 30-day Microsoft Office 365 trial. It lets me work but – and this may be the biggest advantage to the computer meltdown – I don’t like it at all. So, good old Office 2010 awaits me upon return home.
10)   Are you laughing yet?
11)   Take RIP computer to Office Max. Ask them to migrate my many gigabytes of files to a 32 gigabyte flash drive – for no charge. They agree, and will also study the dead computer—likewise for free.
12)   Just had a call from the Office Max staffer who installed the new hard drive. Computer is fine. Hard drive came loose. He has added more screws. (No, I did not say screw you, he’s young and has been very patient in explaining many things to me over the last couple of months.)

Is there a moral here? A couple of people have suggested yellow pads and pencils, but I compose at more than 100 words per minute on a keyboard.

The moral is: email yourself important files. I had all the fiction I was working on stored in my yahoo email account. Yes, one can use Google Drive or some other online storage system. Ask me how. Go ahead, ask.

I have no clue. I’m sticking with email (and flash drives) because my mind is so tired of learning new technology.

When the Fed Ex truck comes with the second new phone, I’m going to pick up my now-fixed computer. All wagers on the next breakdown will be accepted. Prize is a dead phone.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Learning to Tell the Difference

I’m appalled at what happened in Paris and Mali—and continues to happen in Syria.

My mother once described her reaction on December 7, 1941. She was sitting in a Redskins football game and said she and friends wondered why so many members of the military were getting paged. Later, she felt sad, but also guilty that she was enjoying herself when so many people were dying. My father and uncles were part of the Greatest Generation who fought in that war. We didn’t suffer through bombings and watch siblings get blown to bits as Europeans did, but we helped win that war against hate.

However, our reluctance to accept refugees meant far more people died in Hitler’s camps than might have otherwise. Look at history books. You’ll see references in diplomatic cables to the U.S. having its own “Jewish problem” and not wanting more. I admit, my initial exposure to the horrific rejections (that led directly to death camps in some cases) was largely through Leon Uris novels. And supplemented by Erik Larsen’s “In the Garden of the Beasts,” though it’s mostly about how we coddled Hitler before 1941 because we wanted war reparations from World War I. We KNEW what Hitler was doing in his camps.

I looked today for articles that cited the U.S. policies during WWII and found a new one in the “Times of Israel.” It notes how similar our reactions today are to those in the 1930s and 1940s.

“No historical parallel is perfect, obviously,” says Allan Lichtman, co-author of “FDR and the Jews” and a professor of history at American University. But U.S. limits on refugees during World War II, influenced by anti-Semitism, were fed by fears the Nazis “would plant agents, spies and saboteurs among the Jewish refugees and that they would pressure the Jews, particularly those whose families were still in Germany, to act as agents on behalf of the Third Reich,” Lichtman said.

So what about refugees today? It takes fully TWO YEARS to be vetted before you can become a refugee to the United States. Refugees stay in overseas camps or other dire circumstances while they go through the process. They meet with the FBI and other security officials.

You want to worry about terrorists (other than people like Oklahoma City bomber Terry McVeigh or the Connecticut man who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School), worry about tourist visas. Worry about someone who walks across the border without one after overstaying a visa in Canada (where it would be easier to blend in than Mexico). Worry about the loner who’s stockpiling guns in the basement of the home where he lives with his mother because he has no social skills and can’t keep a job. Worry about the conspiracy theorists who say the Sandy Hook shooting never happened, it was made up by gun control advocates.

Should we be concerned about terrorists who say they act on behalf of Allah? Of course. They aren’t a large portion of the Muslim population and are despised by most Muslims. I know many people of that faith, have for decades. To say that all Muslims are terrorists is like saying that because some German Christians fought for Hitler it means all German Christians at that time were evil. (Hitler was not a Christian, but many who fought for him were. And the Catholic Church? Read about how often the church in Rome refused to help many Jews.)

What started this post was reading that Cedar Rapids, Iowa--home to Syrians for many decades, some of them refugees—may be less welcoming in the future. There are three mosques in Cedar Rapids. Christians helped the Muslims rebuild one after the 2008 floods. Muslims are part of the fabric of that city.

How can this hate be happening in our country? Why do good people stay silent while others profess that an entire religion is bad because of some horrible fanatics who act in its name? I’ve been to several countries with Muslim populations, most notably Morocco. It’s the only place (among about 30 countries I’ve been to) where someone invited me (a stranger) to their home for tea.

I get it. We're scared. Bravery takes many forms. Speaking up may be one of them.

I was at a prayer breakfast in my town in Illinois this week. A child from each faith gave a brief talk and prayer (Christian, Jews, Muslims, and more). I complimented several of them.

Here’s something to think about. We white folks often think ‘they’ all look alike, whatever the ‘they.’ While I waited to talk to the kids, I asked one woman if she was the mom of the girl of Hindi heritage who spoke. Nope. She was the aunt of the Muslim boy. Who, by the way, sat next to the Jewish boy. That’s America.

Refugees are not the enemy. The terrorists who create them are. We need to remember that.

I implore good people not to be still and let the discussion in our country be dominated by people who cannot tell the difference or want to use terrorism to score political points.


   *     *     *
Why is a discussion about U.S. fear of refugees on a blog that mostly deals about writing? Because I feel very strongly that not to speak up about this means letting the fear-mongerers take charge. That's scarier than letting in people who have been terrorized by ISIS.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

In Honor of Reviewers

Reviewers are high on my list of good people, but I review few of the books I read. I'm selfish, but trying to do better.

Largely it's a time issue, but I also blame my mother. (I mean, why not?) She stressed being uncritical in personal relationships, and what is more personal than the connections with the books we read?

Not that my opinions are negative--usually quite the opposite. I finish a book by Sue Grafton, Terence Faherty, or Anne Tyler and think, "Why am I bothering to write?" It's sort of like visiting an art museum. You realize you are a speck on the planet's pallet.

But, why be maudlin?

The biggest benefit of reviews is not for the writer. Reviews help readers decide what to pick up next. We all have authors whose books we grab as soon as they are out (Robert Harris, Erik Larson), but given we are busy people, we may want to know what others think about books they've read.

There are common places to look, such as sites that sell books (Amazon, BN, Kobo, itunes). If you want to read reviews and talk about books with other readers, there is Goodreads. Join a group. I belong to several that talk about cozy mysteries.

You can also look at the lists of paperback giveaways. Goodreads must approve every giveaway offer, so you know it's not a way for some rogue website to get your email address. I have  used the Goodreads Giveaway program for my last few books. It's a neat way to garner interest while doing something for readers, too.

Here are some good sites to check for book reviews. Some let you sign up to review books.

Complete Review  Links to reviews (in English) in major publication, not all in the U.S.
More Than Review Good rankings on violence or sex, in addition to a general review.
Best Book Review Sites  Links to major sites, such as Kirkus and NY Review of Books.
New York Times Book Review   Have to be a subscriber to see the full paper, but you can get an email with the link to reviews.
Self Publishing Reviews  Good site for looks at indie books.
Goodreads lists of reviewers  Many blog authors note they will review books, and you can link to the blogs.

If you want easy access to best seller lists, check out the online version of Publishers Weekly. (It's a fee-based site, but there is a lot you can see without subscribing.)  Some sites, such as Kirkus and Self Publishing Review require that authors pay for a review. They don't guarantee a good review.

Finally, where is the best place to learn about good books? Your local library. Most have librarian favorite lists, and they nearly all have subscriptions to the book review magazines.

Next step? Start a good book.