Friday, July 30, 2010

Managing Your Time

I traded a few posts with someone the other day. They wanted to know how to manage all the things crowded into their life and still have time write, edit, revise, and all the others writers generally need to do to keep going. Part of my answer was to manage your time.

For some, time management is like breathing and for others it is rocket science. I think I'm somewhere in the middle. I know generally which tasks take longer than others and know which tasks are more important. I generally try to do the simple, small tasks first because I've found it leaves more time for the others. I also try to do tasks that others are waiting on first so that I can get them checked off and then do what I want the way I want to.

Sometimes it is not as neat and easy as I may have made it sound here and sometimes I just want to -- need to -- goof off. I also can get side tracked. For example, I frequently go to read my favorite comics in the morning. There have been times when I see an ad for something, a game, maybe, in the sidebar and it looks interesting. I decide to learn more and click the ad. Next thing I know I'm playing it and several hours have gone by. This was not my plan when I sat down, of course, I just wanted to real the comics and get to work.

The moral: you need self-discipline as much as you need skill in managing your time. You need to know how to strike a balance between your work and the rest of your life. I generally do this: when my wife suggests we do something together I do, regardless of where I am in my writing and what I was planning to do. Why? Because we don't do much together these days and I know my writing will keep. I can use the time to think about the current issues I face in my writing while I'm off doing other things. Additionally, I may use the experience with my wife in the next scene for all I know. So I better have that experience or the next scene could be deadly dull.

But like anything else, managing time requires practice, just like writing and self-discipline do. So get out there and do it. And be sure to leave time to enjoy yourself too. You'll need it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What Do I Do Now?

I think I goofed. I submitted my novel to a small press that takes months to return a decision. I think I should have waited to send it to them. Even though they accept multiple submissions, many others don't and the other small presses turn around their submissions faster. I could have gone to one of them and if I was rejected still have submitted to the current small press that selected.

In the words of Charlie Brown, Rats! Oh well, guess I'll wait a month or so and see if I get a response. In the meantime, I have a few short stories to finish and the second book in the series. Giving some depth to my publishing history would not hurt and would help me sell the novel 1 if I get a rejection.

I could also spend some time broadening my audience. The number of followers that are reading my blog is growing, so I assume I am reaching some number of people, striking some kind of chord with those reading my posts but am I reaching the audience for my novel? I doubt it. Fantasy readers aren't likely to read a blog by someone who is unknown in those circles. Perhaps after I sell a few books they might, but not now. And I'm not sure how to reach them either without a published book to point to. Hmmm. This requires more thought.

What else can I do? I have some books on writing to read. I like to do this every so often. It helps me rethink my writing and my processes. But I don't think I'm ready to do that now, however. Of course, there are other books, fantasy novels and other books that are waiting for my attention. I could read one or more of those.

Or I could forget about writing for awhile and focus on other projects. My house, my yard, my DVD collection, all could use some attention. I'm not likely to do that but it is worth considering, if only to be fair and to examine the issue from all sides.

May I'll work on the web site for my book. No, I can't do that without an ISBN number and cover art. I have neither.

Maybe some poetry. Maybe. We'll see.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Taking Risks


It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. Yet most people don't. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever.  -- Philip Adams


I found this quote and realized how true it is. Most people don't seem to live up to their potential or take risks. In fact, it seems to me that our tolerance for risk has waned. That's understandable in one sense. The world is full of uncertainty and violence. Add to that no job security or no job at all, disaster after disaster reported in the news, and the very planet we live on seems to be coming apart and is it any wonder our tolerance for risk is low.

And yet...

It is the job of some folks to handle and manage risks. Bankers for example when giving out loans must assess the risk of the loan. They seem to have done a really lousy job of late and so the real estate market is a mess now too. 

Publishers are in the same position when considering a manuscript for publication. They must assess the risk of publishing and no sales vs the likelihood of sales. My understanding, however, is publishers are taking less and less risk.  That seems odd to me since risk is at the center of what they do. I assume part of the reason for this is reading books is down. Many people prefer ebooks now or that traditional publishing represents greater risk. 

I understand that and the bigger the publisher the more they have to risk. But they also need to publish something. Something I want to read and will buy or they go out of business. And while larger publishers fill bookstores with their wares I increasingly find I want to look at the publications of small presses because that's were the next crop of new and interesting writers will come from. Small presses seem to welcome new writers more readily too and I find that I want to support these writers.

Writers also take risks. I'm only as good as my last story or blog post. If I write enough material that is unsatisfying, eventually people stop reading me, I lose sales or perhaps I never get started in my writing career. It is for this reason, I think, I want to help new writers and I encourage everyone reading my blog to do the same. 


Monday, July 19, 2010

Making Maps

When I started developing my fantasy world, even before I had the plot for my first novel, I began by drawing and detailing a map of the kingdom in which my stories were set. Originally I drew it by hand because I had no computer to help me. I've never been able to create art on a computer, but I can sketch if you give me a pencil and paper.

The original map was created on hex paper, borrowing the fact that many war games use a hex grid because it gives a more natural feel to the terrain than graph paper does. I don't recommend drawing a map by hand these days or even using a hex grid. Using a grid can be helpful to give you a scale, but a grid of equilateral triangles works better if you can deal with creating that grid.

Ultimately, you'll need longitude and latitude (latitude at least to determine weather) so that may be your best bet for a grid.

The scale of my first map was simple, each hex was a day's travel on horseback. Since horses can travel about twice as far as people on foot, it was easy to know if the characters were walking to double the distances.

Now you might ask, "Wait, you created a map before you had a plot? Isn't that put the horse behind the cart?"

Well, in one sense yes, but actually no. I had already sketched out much of the world's history so I had places and terrain in mind when I created the map. It was a natural next step for me.

The map reflected the information I had too; it was a composite of terrain, climate and political maps. This was partly because I was doing it by hand and partly because I never stopped to think about the different types of maps I could have created.

Since then, I've learned a lot about cartography and realize that elevation/terrain, climate/vegetation, political, and resource map should all be done. Using Photoshop (or an equivalent application) this is not that hard, just time-consuming. You just need to put each map its own layer.

That may seem like a lot of work and I would agree with that assessment. This is one reason I often look for ways to randomly generate such things, maps especially. And while you can purchase software to randomly create an entire world and provide much of terrain, elevation, climate, and vegetation information for you, there are dangers with it too.

For one, you'll need a way to export the maps into a standard graphic format like a JPG file so that you can place your cities and towns. I don't know any software that will do this. The software I use, Fractal Terrains, lets you export to Campaign Cartographer. That application does not permit exports to standard graphic formats, I don't believe.

Another pitfall is much of the information about terrain and vegetable is lost when you export. So that forces me to use Fractal Terrains to access this information. That can derail a really good writing session if I don't plan ahead because I waste time extracting the information I need about the world from the application that created it and lose my writing focus. For me, this is no good. When I'm in the zone and am writing well, I want to stay there as long as possible.

Consequently, what I've found it is often easier and faster to use a home-made map so I know all the details about a given location before I start writing. If you aren't sure what will work best for you, experiment. Try both approaches and see which one you prefer.

These days I have my maps in Photoshop and occasionally work on them. But since I'd rather be writing, I use my maps in the state they are in. They are not perfect but they do suffice.

My other piece of advice is built only what you need. Don't map that entire world if your stories all occur  on an island in the great greasy Limpopo river. Just map out the island. You can expand from there later.

Happy mapping.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Life is what happens when you are making other plans

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post on building community. In that post, I lamented that even a social networking site like Facebook does not seem to allow me to build a community the way I would like or had hoped to. From there I go on to explain why that might be and point out a community of writers would be great because it could help all its members write, publish, and sell the work of the members.

Whether you read the original post or not, it appears some people did and they liked it... a lot. The next day, I found one of my Facebook friends had linked to it on his wall. I was surprised. That was a first, for me at least. Then one of his FB friends read it and loved it. So much so that she took action and creating a writers' group on Facebook. Again, I was surprised. It is not often one's writing spurs others into action.

But, as I pointed in a comment or a follow up post, even this is not enough. We need people to participate in the group. Without people actively posting items and reviewing the work of others, this group is no better than any other on Facebook. And I cannot help but wonder if the group can even survive. (Yes, I know it hasn't been two weeks since the original post but already the group seems to have stagnated)

Perhaps, the majority of writers on Facebook are there because they self-publish and promote themselves independently of any publisher and do not want a group to participate in. I certainly get that feeling. Perhaps a group to help writers write better, get published, and sell their work is not needed. Perhaps the very solitary nature of writing precludes the possibility that writers can form a community.

Perhaps. But I don't think so. Most writers I know like to talk to other writers because we all learn from one another. That fundamental point is the real push behind all this. Why don't we gather a large number of writers together so we can talk, at the very least?

Are people that busy that they cannot take a few minutes out of everyday to share experiences with others? Or is the computer screen a barrier for most? It would be an interest social experiment to get there same people in the sample physical location and see if they came together.

Frankly, I think people don't push themselves out of whatever comfort zone they make for themselves and it is high time they did. All writers need to network and build bridges to other writers, to readers, to editors and publishers, to the community as a whole. We need to be connected because ultimately it makes us better writers and better people.

Facebook offers us a simple way to come together, one that may not be nature for wordsmiths in general. But we must go places we are uncomfortable to learn and explore the experience. So please go to Facebook and join the Writer's Haven group. Help all of us come together and let's see what will happen.

With luck, we'll all be surprised.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Handling Rejections

Eventually all writers face rejection. It is inevitable. You write something; someone else reads it and does not like it. Or worse -- they hate it. Many writers have to face of rejection and that's why they don't write. Others write but do not publish. To them all I can say is you need to face your fears and do both. Writing is about sharing and sharing requires publishing.

Personally, I'm no good at handling rejection. I usually receive it when I try to get something published. I suspect I'm not alone in this and that's one reason self-publishing is so big now. It is one way to minimize rejection, at least from publishers. You still have to face the reviewers though.

My problem with rejection is sometimes I take it too personally. Sometimes I need a day or two to distance myself from the story and see the point being made from the person making the comment. My natural assumption is almost always, the other person is wrong and I am right. Forcing myself to accept the other person is right, especially when he or she challenges a key point in a story is hard. The trick is to try and see how you can be right and the other person can be right too. This sometimes it even leads to a better story. Of course, sometimes I ignore the comments too.

It is fair to say that my first novel is result of rejection. Originally the novel was bigger and had more to it. But based on the rejection I received, I broke it into parts, created a series from it, and focused on what was the first chapter of the original novel.

The result is a much stronger first chapter, which is now a novel in its own right with more to follow. Doing this was hard but I felt it was necessary if I was going to tell the story the way it needed to be told. I also learned a few things in the process so that writing the second novel was easier.

I also have a vague sense that my writing is better, that my creative writing skills have grown and matured, and that I might just be ready to face the horde of reviewers.

So try to keep your perspective and take rejection in stride. Don't let it derail you or make you doubt yourself. But be honest too. If there is merit, even a little bit of it, in the comments, embrace it and revise as needed. It is the only way to get better and the only way to get published.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Handling Reviews

One of the potential ordeals all writers face is handling reviews. I describe it in this fashion because review vary widely; they can be full of praise and easy to swallow or full of criticism and much harder to get down.

I admit I'm not good at this taking criticism. In fact, I was torn recently when I asked about getting my novel reviewed. For a split second I panicked and a twinge of fear made me worry about what people would think of my work. This is important for the new writer who has no reputation yet. Any bad word could scuttle a promising writer before the ship is even launched or out of the harbor. In that way, new writers risk everything when their work is reviewed, not that they have much choice. Reviewers are necessary because they also generate buzz, which in this Web 2.0 world of ours, is the thing new writers need. You have to hope the buzz is good. If not, then it is a learning experience for next time.

My own pang of fear was short-lived. My novel is as good as I can make it. So it must leave the nest and start its life in the real world. But I digress. The point here is not about handling rejection, that will be another post mostly likely, but handling reviews.

But let me clear, I'm not talking about feedback on a draft of a story; I'm talking about a review of finished/published work. I recently got reviews from folks on a short story I completed. The reviews ranged from "very good, but..." to the very terse "it ends badly". Other comments clearly showed the reader missed key points either because they read too fast or perhaps I was vague. When only one person misses the point, I assume the former, they read too fast. If I was vague, other people would've commented on it.

What I really want to see is reviewers adopt the rules for critique posted at critters.org. This is a very good web site focused on critiques and have rules on how to give a good one. More people should really follow these rules.

The other thing to remember is a review is an opinion. Since writing is subjective, just because reviewer A does not like your story or novel does not mean it is bad work. You can still find an audience for it. On the other hand if reviewer A through J don't like it then maybe something is wrong after all. This more likely true in self-published work because on something published by a small press an editor will have gone over it and the publisher won't even buy it unless it is a solid piece of work. But even if you have sold some of your work you will still get the snot-nosed-know-it-all who thinks their view is king to rag on your story or book.

I have a nephew like this. He thinks every thought of his is great and has never been thought of before in the 6000 years of recorded human history. My only response to this is: "Wrong! And before you open your mouth again, please do some extensive reading in the fantasy genre so you know what is good and what is bad. Maybe then your opinion will be credible and have some substance to them."

Aside from all this, I recommend you take reviews, both good and bad, in stride. Comments on your work are just that comments on your work, not you. Can a bad review affect sales of your book? Sure. But you'll write a better one next time. So don't let a bad review get you down.

Just dust yourself off and get writing on the next story. Show everyone you can do better with your next story.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Building Community

I've had a Facebook account for awhile now, something like two years I think, and in that time I've made a number of friends, many of them writers, like myself. Most of them have the same goal as I do to publish, or if they've achieved that goal, to promote their wares. What strikes me about this is that their pages cry out into an unknown void hoping that someone is paying attention and is interested in the books they are hawking. It reminds me of 19th century street vendors barking to sell their goods.

The other thing that occurs to me is that each writer is very much isolated, which is ironic since Facebook is a social networking tool. I thought to check the groups on the site and even the discussion groups and have found little activity. And this got me thinking: is there a way to use Facebook to build a community of writers who will interact and help each other write, publish, and sell their work?

I don't know the answer this question but I do know that in all the groups of writers in which I've work, we are best when we come together. So imagine the potential here magnified by the Internet and Facebook.

But I also know that people are busy and have little time to participate. They are want to see a real benefit or want to perceive value in something before they commit to it. So without such a community now, there's no way to show value or benefit to prospective writers who could benefit or enhance the value overall the community for all.

I am also reminded this Independence Day that being alone is very American. It is woven deeply into the American character and makes us who we are as a nation. We admire the lone worker who helped build this country, tame its wilderness, and who today is the very backbone of our economy. And, as we all know, writing is a solitary act by its very nature.

And yet feedback on a piece of writing is key to its improvement. Unless we come together and help each other, such improvement is slow or may not come at all. Likewise, the more people who like a book and are willing to promote it because they believe in it, the better for the writer.

In my view, coming together to build a community that helps each other is the most benefical thing we can do to promote good writing and improve our own skill sets. I know that because I've volunteered for a non-profit for 12 years. I always got back more in learning than I gave. And I learned things it would have taken me even more time to puzzle out for myself. I learned about people, technology, movitation, and writing.

I've also seen some very interesting discussions on the Walls of some of my Facebook friends. What a shame these aren't captured for all. Some of us even challenged each other to change the way we write to stretch ourselves and go in a direction we normally wouldn't take. Seems to me this sort of thing should be done more often.

But, of course, I can't force anyone to do anything about this. And I can't do it by myself either. What I can do is put the idea out there and see if it takes root and sprouts. So if anyone is interested in discussing this further, please contact me or leave a comment. I'll be happy to discuss this more and see how we might be able to make this happen.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Changing the World

Three months ago after countless revisions to my novel I put it away, mostly out of frustration. It didn't seem to be going anywhere and attempts to sell it failed. Worse still I got angry, mostly with myself for wasting my time writing stories when there are many other things I could be doing. I've been focusing on writing only because I had a belief that I could write well and get something published. But without having any publishing credits to my name, it was getting hard to maintain that belief.


I suppose this was a crisis of faith in myself and my skills. So I devised a test. I set out to write a short story and see if I could get it published. If I could then I would know that I had the skills I needed. If I couldn't, I'd quit and stop deluding myself.

But where to target the story. Well, as it happens, I know someone on Facebook who advertised that any story sent to him would be published. So I set out on my quest and began writing.

I put all my skills into the effort and spent weeks writing and polishing. Finally, I finished it at the end of May and sent it to him. He liked. He liked it a lot, except for the ending. I shared my success, limited, as it was, with others. Then a strange thing happened.

Nothing in my life changed.

I was sure it would. All I needed was one success and I would change the world. Fame and fortune were mine I just need to publish. People would sit up and take notice of me. I would be somebody.

I don't know where I got any of these ideas but they were in my head. And turns out they are all completely false. The only people taking notice of me are the people reading my blog (a growing audience it seems but nothing to change the world). I sighed, laughed at myself for being foolish, and moved on.

The only thing this experience showed me is that I should trust my writing instincts. So I've gone back to my novel now and re-read it. I've revised weak scenes, clarified vague passages, and am getting ready to try selling it again to another publisher.

Moral: Don't try to change the world. Just write the best stories you can.

P.S. If anyone is interested in reading the story I wrote, send me some mail or post a comment and I'll share the URL.