Monday, June 28, 2010

More Writer Tools

After I posted my last blog entry, I realized I had forgotten to talk about a whole cartload of writer tools, ones that have nothing to do with words and the act of writing. For example, as I write I often take notes about characters, events, and things in the story for continuity. To manage these notes I will sometimes use a spreadsheet so I can track them all. I've also used a spreadsheet to lay out the basics of the magic system I'm using, and to track unique expressions of main characters so that sound authentic. I also keep notes in my smartphone. These notes tend to be short and on specific topics like the names of religious orders or history of a given setting in a story.

Since I'm writing fantasy novels, a map (or in this case a series of maps) is essential. For each map I make, I use Photoshop and Illustrator. More recently I purchased Campaign Cartographer, which specializes in making maps for role-playing games. I bought this application to see if it was be an improvement over Photoshop and it is. But I can't import the maps I've got easily and redrawing them will be too much work. However, if you are starting from scratch, Campaign Cartographer might be a big win for you.

Likewise, I mapped my entire fantasy world some years ago. If I were started from scratch I probably wouldn't do that. I'd use Fractal Terrains. The nice thing about that program is it integrates with Campaign Cartographer I believe, and will randomly generate the entire world in a snap.

I also spent a lot of time doing research on magical components, plants, metals, animal parts, used in alchemy and spells. I collected the information in a database. I was using FileMaker for this, but have moved over to Bento because it integrates with my smartphone, making it easier to look up information when I need to.

Other tools to consider: name generators, town generators, and other vertical-market role-playing software. These can be a real time saver when all you want to do is write and not be bogged down by the details. This happens to me when I've got a great idea and want to capture it. I'm often writing so fast I don't care what the minor characters are called because I can always change this later.

And that's the majority of the other software tools I use. Of course, if I find more I will share. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Writer Tools

I am something of a technology junkie. I not sure why exactly. All I can say is that at the subconscious level, I'm equating using a computer with playing a video game. In fact that's probably why I  use the machine so much; it's nothing more to me than a giant video game. The fact that I can do real work with it is secondary.

That, however, has not stopped me from looking for new tools because I firmly believe in using the right tool for the right job. I would never try to mow my lawn with a pair of scissors and I don't think anyone should try to write a novel with Notepad (or TextEdit for you Macintosh users). And I tried a variety of applications to see what makes the most sense for me.

To that end, I wrote a draft of my first novel in FrameMaker many years ago. Who those familiar with the application, FrameMaker was the tool of choice among technical communication specialists for creating computer manuals, once upon a time. I chose it because it was the first application with the concept of a book. Chapters were part of the book and page numbers and styles were maintained using the book file. I like this approach; it was a natural one for me.

However, FrameMaker is hard to learn, not that this stopped me. Another problem with the application is no one in the publishing industry uses it, a fact I failed to consider initially.

So when I wrote my second draft I choose Word mainly because everyone uses Word or RTF files or text files and Word can handle these formats. I've learned Word inside and outside; I've fought with its quirks and shortcomings and lamented when versions of RTF became incompatible.

And yet I still looked for better tools. I purchased a copy of Indesign because I thought I should have a page layout program. I like to use InDesign for laying out text but the problem here is that no one in the publishing industry deals with InDesign files so using it complicates the workflow process.

These days there are other tools especially for writers too. The one a friend recommended is called Scrivener. I use it for novels because I can all the information for the book in one place. The plot notes, character descriptions, and anything else I need. Plus it exports to Kindle and ePub so I can go directly to the output formats I need.

I still use Word, mostly for short stories. One of its best features is text-to-speech which allows you to playback the text you've written. I use this when I'm tired and my eyes aren't catching my typos. My ear always does. More importantly, I end up writing for my ear as well as my eye, a trick I learned in college during my poetry and playwriting days.

If you want to use Word too and find it hard to grasp, I suggest taking a course at a community college or even the local library to help you learn how to use this application.

To learn Scrivener, use their tutorials and online help.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Getting Feedback

Feedback and editing are essential to the success of any story or novel. It does not always come easily to writers, so you need to look for it and get it where you can. My experiences in this area have been hit and miss. I began paying attention to this aspect of the writing process after I had revised my novel for the umpteenth time. Suddenly I realized what I needed was feedback from a group of people. Up until then I was getting feedback from people who had agreed to read my work, friends and co-workers mostly. But getting them to agree made me feel like I had just sold a family member a used car. The other problem was the quality of the comments wasn't always the best. As time went by I got better at identifying people who could help and get there assistance but then I was suffering from a death of a thousand cuts.

What I needed was a quality feedback all at once so I could take my medicine and be done with it. (This, of course, it a fallacy. You're never really done until the thing is published and even then you aren't done because the book takes on a life of its own, but I digress) So I began looking for writer groups. At first I couldn't find any where I live, even though I live outside a major city on the East Coast.

So I went online to look. Here I found all sorts of web sites, online communities usually, and I tried a few and found the quality varies. Sometimes I got good feedback and sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I didn't get any feedback at all. Most often I found the site needed to provide a way to have the user locate material easily. They also needed to encourage giving feedback. Depending on the site, they succeed or fail to varying degrees.

Then friends pointed me to a few local resources. There were in fact writer groups in my area I just hadn't been able to find them. I tried to join a few and was rebuffed. Why? Because my writing wasn't up to their standards. Frankly, I cringed at the thought. Who were they to stand in judgement of me? Worse still they did not give specific examples what was wrong with my work from the sample they had me submit in order to join. They just said my writing was juvenile, take some writing classes, and come back in a year.

Well, more than a year has passed and I've not gone back. Frankly I don't need that attitude. So I tried starting a group myself. I found people willing to attend and we had a few meetings one autumn but the group dissolved by New Year's.

Since then a friend on Facebook pointed me to meetup.com. It turns out there are hundreds of meetings happening all the time (who knew?) and some are in my area and of interest. But I finally came to realize, I'm not a joiner. Writing is a solitary act and that's probably one of the reasons I like it so much. That is changing slowly thanks to all the social network software flying around these days.

So how do I get feedback? Well, as luck would have it, my wife is an awesome proofreader. She has no interest in my genre but for straight copyediting she can't be beat.

For other types of feedback I have friends who are willing to help here and there, which I use for final drafts. Otherwise, give yourself time. Put the story you've written away for a period of time and then go back to it with fresh eyes. The other trick I have learned is to wear the editor's hat when needed. This is harder to do because your story is your child and you love it right down to the misplaced comma and split infinitive.

I've also learned to be dispassionate and edit looking first for logic errors and later for consistency errors. Then I look at dialogue and description. I usually have to go over a scene multiple times before I get it right.

This doesn't really replace the need for a writing group or another pair of eyes to read your work but it's a good start. 

The other thing to know is not all edits are equal. When you give your work to someone else be specfic about what you want. Typically you want a hard edit to show you where the story stalls or is weak. Anything else is a waste of time and effort.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Writer's Block

One more than one occasion, I felt unable to write a thing. Some of this was the result of burning out but some of it was the result of writer's block. I am told most writer's suffer from this inability to string words together at some point. And I've seen countless books on the subject offering advice, suggestions, and techniques to overcome it.

When it happened to me, I was frantic because it was my job to write. I had a schedule to keep and a deadline to make. So I tried everything I could think of especially anything I thought would have a fast result and good payoff. For example, I resumed writing in my journal. I had kept a journal through college but stopped after entering the workforce because my life was busy and I had little time.

I now made the time.

I also read a few books on the subject to understand the problem. The best one was Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser. This is a great book. I have no idea if it is still in print, but if it is, read it. The basic thing I learned from it was that most writer's block is based in fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of exposing too much of one's self. Fear of sounding stupid. Fear of saying too much or saying too little. Fear of wasting the reader's time because you have nothing important to say, and so on.

Notice that the bottom line here is fear. Apparently we all suffer from some sort of fear in regards to writing and in other parts of our lives.  Most of us accept this and live the best life we can within the confines of this fear.

When I read this, it blew my mind. I never realized that this could be the trouble. So after I read the book, I took a long hard look at myself and realized I was afraid. I was afraid of losing my job and failure. But I was afraid of other things too. And then something snapped and I got angry. And in my anger, I hated myself for being afraid. That's not who I thought I was and yet I could not deny my feelings. So I resolved not to be afraid. In fact, I rounded up all my fears, threw back the curtains in my mind that my fears were hiding behind, and exposed them to the light of my scrutiny. And in that light they faded and died.

Suddenly I felt empower and ready to write again. I also felt ready to tackle other personal goals that I had been afraid to up till then.

Now even though I felt ready to write I still struggled with it now and again, partly because that's the nature of the beast and partly but I was still recovering from burn out. But the solution there is to read. Your brain picks up sentence patterns and words use when you read and that was exactly what I needed.

So if you are suffering from writer's block take a look at what's going on behind the scenes and confront your fears. Even if that does not resolve the entire issue, I'm guessing it will help.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Burn Out

One of the many obstacles I've had to overcome is burnout. This happened to me many years ago when I was writing more than I was resting. I remember distinctly something in my head giving way and looking at the screen as if English was a foreign language. After that, I struggled for months trying to put sentences together, copying existing work more than writing new text. It was very much like that Twilight Zone episode where the meaning of words shifts and the main character suddenly finds everyone around is speaking a language that makes no sense. We see him at the end of the episode relearning basic vocabulary so he can talk to people again.

It wasn't quite so bad for me, but it was bad. I had a job to do and I was unable to do it. Worse still, I couldn't (or didn't) tell anyone because I was afraid of losing that job. The fear didn't help; in fact it prolonged the problem because I had to suffer silently and try every trick I could think of.

The good news here is that brain research shows the elastic nature of this most amazing organ. Patients who suffer brain damage as a result of stroke can and have gone on to relearn and regain lost functions. So too, after some years, I found that writing easier and natural again. How did I do it?

It was a lot of work. I resumed writing in my journal, which I had stopped some years before. I read a lot too. Reading helped more than writing. I read non-fiction mostly; I don't know why. I also read books on writing, ironically, and a few self-help books. These books led me down paths not-quite-so-dark as the one I was on. Slowly I got by; I even changed jobs and found working with other writers helpful.

The moral here is to feed your creative processes. Read regularly. In the development stages of a project, write 1000 words a day and then stop. Also stop if you are tired after writing for an hour or more. Brainstorm for ideas regularly too. This should be more like play while doing useful work. And above all play and rest in whatever form works for you.

For me, the ideal day goes like this: I get up and start writing. I do this because I know I am best in the morning after resting overnight. I'm a morning person. If you are not, then write in the evening. I review a little of the work from the day before and then add to it, writing 1000 words or until I feel drained. Usually that takes all morning. In the afternoon I read, either a novel or something thought-provoking to generate ideas. After an hour or two of reading, I rest, play with the dog, handling the chores around the home, do errands, whatever needs doing. The next day I repeat the process.

If I am not actively writing but editing then the workflow is different. I read and edit until:

a. I get tired and know I can't edit anymore.
b. I see I have lots of edits and I really need to revise and rewrite. Editing alone won't do.

Notice in the both workflows that I watch for internal signals to tell me I'm done. It has taken years to recognize these signals but they are very important because there's no point trying to write or edit if I'm unable to do it well.

So take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. The writer is like an athelete; he or she trains for years and has to perform to achieve. He or she has to rely on cues from the body and mind to know what works for him or her and what does not. So pay attention and happy writing.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Are You Serious About Writing?

If you are a writer, the first question you need to ask yourself is: Are you serious about it? Sure you say. I write on a regular basis, at least once a week.

But are you serious enough to get published? Here is where responses will vary I suspect. Some say, no, of course, I write for myself and for fun. Others will shrug and say maybe, someday. And still others will say, sure, as quickly as I can turn out stuff.


And what kind of publishing are we talking about? Self-publishing/blogging? Small press publishing? Electronic publishing? print? Both? I don't think the type or method of publishing matters. I do think it is important to remember why you are writing.

I say this because I lost sight of this recently. I , like others, started writing for fun and enjoyment. I figured that if I wrote it, it must be good and I should able to get it published and make a zillion dollars. 

Wrong. I forgot that if I want to be published, I need to treat writing like a business, which it is. I was treating it like a hobby and I can't do that if I want to be published because I'll cut corners and rush something out without the proper review and checks and such. 

Suddenly it became clear why I was getting rejections on everything I was submitting. I wasn't serious about writing.

And that's my message to those of you who want to publish, treat it like a business. Make sure you can handle rejection and critiques of your work. Be open-minded when you receive comments, and be wary of praise. Many who give praise don't look very deeply at your work or want something from you.

As for me, once I realized my problem I changed my behavior and outlook and I devised a way to test myself.

I wrote a short story and gave to someone who agreed to review and publish it in his blog. It turns out he really liked the story except for the ending. That was good information and was the first encouraging feedback I've received recently. It has given me the confidence to revise the ending and work on a second short story. It has also encouraged me to try to submit my novel to another small press.

My focus now is to build my publishing history so that anyone considering my work will know I am capable of writing quality stories. Sure, I don't need that if I self-publish the novel but I don't want to publish trash. The only way I know my work is good enough is to have an independent evaluation. And that means someone else has to publish it.

There's no other way for me. If I am serious about writing then I must aspire to write stories and novels that are worth publishing. Anything less means I'm not serious and I care too much about my work and my potential readers to do that.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Oh no! Not Another Blog.

That's right, Virginia. Another blog. And worse still, another blog on writing. What can I say? I'm a writer; it is only natural that I write about the thing that has kept me going for 25 years.

I should also say that I don't want to write a blog. But as someone who aspires to be published, I've come to understand that I need to grow an audience. This will help me sell my work. Of course, at the same time, I can inform and educate my peers which certainly appeals to me as I've been writing informationally for most of my writing career.

So I am stuck writing once or twice a week on topics related to writing. You, of course, are not. If are free to leave and never return. I hope you won't however. I hope you'll find something in here worth reading and, if I'm lucky, sharing.

Now for the shameless plug part: if you do find something of value here, please recommend the blog to others. Obviously I have no way to know if you do or not. But I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn't ask. I won't ask again. Promise. (I'd add Scout's Honor except I was never a Boy Scout, only a Cub Scout and then only for one year; the writing fever had grabbed me by then).

You will also find me on Facebook and on Twitter for the same reasons I have a blog. In fact, I've set up the blog to automatically post on Twitter  and Facebook so that anyone following me in any of these services can see the blog, effectively extending my reach.

So let me tell you a little about myself: I'm a city boy born and raised in the eastern Massachusetts. I discovered my love for writing at the tender age of 9 but didn't write my first tale until I was 11. 

I had lots of ideas for stories as an adolescent; none of them will every see the light of day because they were all pretty silly. I studied writing in college, both under-graduate and post-graduate and it was only within the last few years that I suddenly realized I had the material I needed to write fantasy stories.

I had developing ideas in a fantasy setting for years. Some of it comes from the role-playing I did in college and some of it coming from reading the works of fantasy masters. The ideas for my fantasy world were building during this time and I was collecting them, drawing maps, day-dreaming about possible adventures for years and years and years.

And then the bubble burst and I realized I should write stories in that setting. So I did. The early draft was really only an outline (a 1000 page outline). The current telling divides the story into seven books. Book 1 covers only the first chapter of the original tale. Somehow I managed to take 40 or 50 pages and make a 250-page novel out of it.

And that brings me to the present. I'm now finishing up my first book and working on some short stories too.

Till next time, thanks for stopping by.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Writing is Sharing

I am told that I write because I have to. I am told this by others. Other non-writers. I don't think they quite understand the motivation to write or the need to. I don't write because I have to. I have other interests to keep me busy. So why do I write? Because I love to write. It is the clearest form of self-expression I've found and that's saying something since English is something of a blunt instrument when it comes to self-expression.

But there are other reasons too...

It is probably different for other writers so I will only speak for myself. I get these ideas in my head. Lots of ideas. They swim around like goldfish in a bowl and eventually one of them comes up for air. That's when I want to grab it and get it out of my head.

I need to get the ideas out of my head to make room for other things, like more ideas. So another reason I write is to clear my head. But that's probably the least important reason because ideas hit me like a meteor shower and if I didn't have a way to take notes on all these things I'd go mad.

No, the main reason I write is to tell a story and to share it. It is the sharing part that's key. Writing without sharing is like talking to yourself. Sharing makes the act of writing social and very, very human.

Storytellers have been sharing stories since mankind first learned language. Back then the stories were about the hunt completed or some myth to explain why the sky is blue. Nowadays, the stories are more complex but the need to tell a story is the same.

Unfortunately, sharing stories is more complex too. Oh, I can post text in one form or another on sites from here to China, (and in fact I've tried a few sites), but that doesn't guarantee a broad audience and doesn't compensate me for my work either. In fact, despite the technology at our disposal, the majority of readers do not leave comments or identify themselves. So this form of sharing is unsatisfying.

No, the type of sharing I'd like to do a close interaction with the reader. And the only way to do this is to show to a show, such as an author expo or convention and talk to each person. It is a slow process to be sure.

Perhaps some day there'll be an easy way to reach a broad audience.