Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Interview with Kris Kringle

An Exclusive Interview
Kris Kringle
by Kemberlee Shortland
copyright December 2010

I caught up with Kris Kringle over the summer and had the chance to chat with him about his life as Father Christmas and the goings-on at the North Pole. Grab a mug of eggnog and take a moment to learn a few secrets about auld St. Nick! The truth might amaze you . . . or shock you!

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us, Kris. We understand how busy you must be this time of year.

{Santa laughs}

What can you tell us a bit about yourself, your family, and your job?

{thinking, eyes rolling toward ceiling briefly} I was born in Patara of Lycia, now Turkey, sometime in the middle of the 3rd century {winks}. When you're my age, the exact date doesn't seem to matter. Ho, ho, ho! {belly jiggles like a bowl of jelly} I was raised in a monastery in Myra when my folks passed away. When I was 30 I became the Bishop of Lycia. Of course, back then I was called Nicholas.

I'm married to Mrs. Claus. In all our years of wedded bliss, she still won't tell me what her first name is {lifting brow and muttering something about complicated women}. We weren't blessed with our own children, but we have hundreds of Elvi living with us now. And well, we've kind of adopted the children of the world as our own, haven't we? {smiles with cheeks like roses}

I think I've got the best job in the world. I work one twenty-four hour shift, then I'm off for the rest of the year. Ho, ho, ho! If you believe that, maybe you should get coal in your stocking this year {winks}. Seriously, being Santa Claus is no laughing matter. Certainly the 24th is the busiest night of the year for Claus and Company, but the rest of the year we put in long days and sometimes the evenings too. We now have billions of names to check, crosscheck and re-check again to be sure they're on the right list. Then there are the letters we get from those little tykes asking for special presents. We have a special department for that. Then there's production, quality control, engineering . . . we've quite a large manufacturing facility at the North Pole. Sure, I could just wiggle my nose and make presents appear, but that wouldn't be any fun now, would it? {winks, touches the side of his nose in "that way"}

What do you enjoy the most about being Mr. Christmas?

Ho, ho, ho! Oh . . . there's just so much I enjoy about being me. I get to meet people from all over the world. I know all the languages. Even that silly hand thing they do on the lower east side {shakes head, incredulous}.

I love to give gifts too, but only to the good boys and girls. For the bad girls and boys I have a coal shed out back {winks}. Hey, where do you think we get the coal for the stockings?

How did you get started and interested in gift giving? When did Christmas begin?

Back in the old days, and I'm going back to the 3rd century, I used to be creative with my hands. I'd carve and shape things all year, and save them up for the big day. I had this cute little donkey, Ho, Ho, Ho . . . that was his name, Ho, Ho, Ho . . . and we'd ride out across the countryside once a year and deliver the toys to poor children. Word got around and the wealthy parents started commissioning things for their kids. Then neighboring communities found out and they wanted things for their kids and well, it just snowballed . . . pardon the pun.

It was after they made me a saint that I moved to the North Pole. I was hoping for a little peace and quiet up there. Then I met the Elvises. Nice little family with pointy ears and funny shoes who love to sing. Requests for gifts kept pouring in, so the Elvises helped me set up shop, and well . . . you know the rest.

Do you have any favorite toys?

{looks around quickly, narrows his gaze then whispers} I promised Mrs. Claus I wouldn't talk about those {winks}.

{interviewer clears throat} Moving right along . . . What has been your best memory of Christmas so far?

Ho, ho, ho! By far the feeling I get when I see the joy on the little one's faces when they receive their special Santa gifts {sighs}.

Do you have a routine you follow during the year to help get in shape for the big night?

{groaning} You know, I tried that low carb diet and the South Beach Diet. Poor Mrs. Claus suffered through the week I was on the cabbage soup diet. Who am I kidding? The poor Elvises threatened to quit if I didn't have more windows installed in the factory. In the end, I just stopped dieting. My good friend and mentor Father Time reminded me that I'm immortal and that a skinny Santa just wasn't right. Ho, ho, ho! I do have to pace myself though. At every stop is a plate of cookies or Christmas cake waiting with a glass of milk {rubs belly}.

What do you find the hardest about preparing for Christmas?

You know, if I had a few more hours in the day I'd like to relax a little, maybe sit by the hot tub a little more, get one of those little Jamaican gals to come up and braid my beard {glancing around quickly for Mrs. Claus, then grins}.

Seriously, a few more hours in the day wouldn't go amiss, especially on the 23rd. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to pack a few billion toys onto that little sleigh? {shakes head, disbelieving}

What is your biggest pet peeve about the holidays? Is there anything that turns you off about Christmas?

Heck yeah! I think the whole thing has gotten too commercial. Back in the old days, it was about love and family and community. Today it's all about "keeping up with the Jones's." Kids want toys better than the kid next door, Mom's trying to bake herself into exhaustion, Dad's obsessive about the turkey. I tell you, Spot and Whiskers have it right. Just camp out by the fire all day with your legs in the air. Ho, ho, ho! And I can tell you, the Jones's are just a normal family!

I think we should get back to homemade gifts, things we create especially for someone, things that come from the heart. That's what Christmas is all about. Tell someone you love them. That's the best gift anyone could get.

I'm sure the readers would like to know about your reading habits. Do you have much time to read?

I love to read. It's a great way to escape for a few hours. I especially love them romance ones. Gives a man ideas! {lifts eyebrow} Unfortunately, the only time I get any peace is in the "necessary" so I read in there quiet often.

What books are you anxious to grab when they come available?

Oh, just about anything really. I love to read. Over the centuries I've learned to read quickly so I can go through a couple books a day. I especially love exotic locations. You know, living in the snow all the time really makes me appreciate sunnier climates.

Like Jamaica?

Ho, ho, ho! {blushing}

Do you have any aspirations to write a book of your own someday?

Maybe one day I'll write my memoir, but for now I'll just stick to Naughty or Nice lists. {scratches chin through his thick beard} You know, if I was anyone else, I'd publish those Naught Lists . . . donate the proceeds to charity. Could end world poverty! {winks}

You haven't mentioned the reindeer yet. How's the gang doing?

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudy are all doing well. Dash and Vixen hooked up. Comet, Donner and Blitzen are sharing quarters now. Dancer and Prancer are an item now too. To each their own. {rolling eyes}

What about Rudolf and Cupid?

Rudy's a playboy. The girls love his red nose. He's ever the gentleman, but to Mrs. Claus's disappointment, we don't think he'll ever settle down. But you never know, do you?

Cupid {sighs}…Cupid's a lover. Loves everyone, everyone loves Cupid. We're afraid that he spends too much time playing matchmaker that he'll never find his own match. {taps the side of his nose} The Elvises are onto something though. Can't say yet, but {makes imaginary quote marks in the air} watch this space. Ho, ho, ho!

{interviewer grins} Tell us something we'd be shocked to discover about you. Kris?

I have an all over body tan. There's this great little nude beach in Jamaica . . . {attention wanders reflectively}

{clearing throat, getting things back on track} Is there anything you'd like to add to this interview, Kris?

Ho, ho, ho! I'd like to wish all the boys and girls a Meeeerrrrrry Christmas {he sings}. There's still some redemption time left before the big night. You know who you are out there {lifts a single fluffy brow}. Do some good deeds between now and the 24th and that lump of coal will become a special gift in your stocking.

Thank you very much Kris for the time spent doing this interview. It's always great, getting to know our Saints better.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Making Time to Write During the Holidays

When we think about the holidays, it's usually the time around Christmas. But really, and especially in America, it's the last three months of the year. Halloween begins with kids wanting the perfect costume for school events, and maybe a different costume for trick or treating with their friends. And while we might have a short lull before Thanksgiving, we're still consciously thinking about all the dishes needing preparation before the big day. Never mind the decorating!

Come Black Friday — that day after Thanksgiving Day when we all realize there's just four weeks until Christmas — utter panic sets in. We have to shop for gifts, post holiday cards, put up decorations, make sure the dinner invites have been sent, and we can't forget to order The Bird, shop for food, then start cooking.

There's no time to sit on our laurels, as the after-Christmas sales start on the 26th. Then comes New Years Eve and Day — another day of too much food and drink, and if you like to go out that night, add in all-night dancing.

By January, once all the holiday excitement has passed, we're left wondering why our current work in progress is still on the same page where we left it before the holidays. I won't even mention NaNoWriMo — the November month long writing burst to write a novel in a month. Anyone who can complete that in the middle of the holidays is a saint in my eyes! But for the rest of us who just want to get in some writing when we have time, how do we make the time?

It's called DELEGATION. A lot of writers are control freaks. If we weren't, we wouldn't love creating characters and new worlds where WE controlled everything. We can write tales of men who listen to us when we talk and really understand what's in our hearts. We can write tales of children who keep their rooms tidy and get good grades. We can write about dogs with incredible intelligence, cars that drive themselves, and anything else that allows us to exhibit our controlling nature.

In reality, control isn't so easy. The pressure of the holidays can really weigh us down. As control freaks, we want to do everything so the end result is exactly how we want it. We're afraid if we let someone else do something that it won't be perfect. But what's perfect anyway? Is perfection 'our way'? As in, it won't be perfect unless *I* do it?

Get over it. The holidays are about being together with family and friends, not how much food you've made, how many decorations you've put up, how many people you got around your table...

Delegation is the only way to survive the holidays.

If you have kids, give them chores. My husband's family did that, and their holidays, while pressured, created many happy memories. There are four siblings, and when they all lived at home, they each had a chore. My husband's was to ferry the grandparents between their homes to his home for the big day. His brother's chore was to help clear up after dinner. Of the two sisters, one was to decorate the tree, and the other set the table. Four really important jobs that mother would have had to do without the help. The father's job? Stay out of mother's way! Seriously, he did most of the job-jobs, such as pulling the tree out of the attic and setting it up, making sure there were enough chairs brought down from spare rooms upstairs for everyone to sit on, fixing the odd things that are bound to break just when you need them, or even run to the shops for something forgotten on a shopping list. All that was left to do was the cooking — mother's domain.

When I came into the household I'd come from a family who, to some extent, all chipped in with cooking duties. After asking if there was anything I could do to help, my mother-in-law laughed and said, "Yes, you can get out of my kitchen." And it's been that way ever since. However, my 'job' soon became to supply the 'afters'... dessert.

For my first Christmas in Ireland I brought with me three pies — deep dish apple, pecan and pumpkin. Apple tarts and pies are a staple on most dessert menus all over the country, so mine was nothing new. The pecan was intriguing though, but it was the pumpkin pie that's been the one demanded every year. Forget that pumpkin puree is almost impossible to get in Ireland and I import it via wonderful family members. But it's nice that I have something to contribute to the day that makes my mother-in-law's cooking job lighter.

By everyone chipping in, it makes the control freaks . . . I mean the cooks . . . job easier. By allowing people to help with holiday preparation you shold find some spare time to get in some writing.

And if it doesn't, you can always get devious! This takes a little prep, too, but the results will be rewarding. The essential thing to remember is that you must have either a pad of paper and pencil, a recording device, or a small laptop which is easily concealable.

1) First, hide your evaporated milk in the back of the cupboard, and under the pretense of going to the supermarket, head out with your purse (with your essential writing aids, as above) to the local coffee shop. You're not stopping longer then to grab a cup. If you stay in the shop you run the risk of running into someone you know and will lose your time talking rather than writing. So, take yourself somewhere scenic and quiet. And write. Give yourself a time limit. It can be anything from 30 minutes to an hour. Remember, you only went to the supermarket.

2) If your family is savvy to this antic, take frequent potty breaks. It's an unwritten rule in our house that when you're in the bathroom, people leave you alone. There's almost nothing worse than someone trying to carry on a conversation with you through the door. They might as well be in there with you, right? And who can do their business with someone watching! Take a pad of paper and a pencil with you. If you have to, stuff it in the middle of a magazine and tell your family you'll be a while. Hey, we all read in the bathroom. There's no use denying it. Swap reading time for writing time.

3) Take a bath. We all need 'down time' from the holidays or when we're stressed. A bath is always relaxing. You can use this personal time for plotting. Have a pad of paper nearby you can jot down a few notes.

4) Can't get peace in the bathroom? Go for a walk. Use a tape recorder or the recording option on your cell phone and do some plotting. Or if you prefer, keep a pocket-size notebook in your jacket with a pencil. Use a retractable pencil so you don't mark up the fabric.

5) There's always the option to get up earlier in the morning, when the rest of the house is still sleeping, or stay up a little later. I'm not a morning person, but for people who are, an extra half hour in the morning could be just the thing you need. Or if you're a night owl, the nighttime peace and quiet could be your Rx.

6) Alternatively, schedule your day. Set aside a block of time and tell your family you're going to write, and unless someone is bleeding or unconscious, you don't want to be disturbed for that block of time. Put and 'out of order' sign on the door, close it behind you, and flip on your computer. Watch the clock though, because your family will be, too.

And frankly, taking chunks of time off, especially around Christmas, is wholly acceptable, so don't feel guilty if you decide to do this. January isn't too far off and I have no doubt that all the ideas and notes you may have had or made will flow out so quickly it will give you the energy you need to let the words fly through your fingers. I love it when that happens. It's as if my characters have taken over and are channeling their stories through my hands.

The main thing is to not let trying to find writing time stress you out, too. Whatever you do to make time to write, have fun with it.

Happy holidays!!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Writing is Writing

{please note, this article is aimed at writer's not participating in this month's NaNoWriMo}

"OMG! I haven't written anything — anything — in a month! Where has the time gone? What's wrong with me? I'll never get this book published if I can't hunker down and write!"

Have you said this? I bet you have, at least to some degree. But let's look back over your last month, or number of weeks, since you've written.

Have you been concentrating on submissions of a previous story?

If you're previously published, are you submitting to reviewers or doing guest blog spots to promote your latest book?

Are you a member of a critique group or have a partner you critique with?

Do you write a blog?

Have you got buried yourself in research?

There are a number of reasons why you're not working on your story, but that doesn't mean you're not writing.

If you're submitting to agents and publishers, that's important if you want your story published. But that's no reason so sit back and wait for one book to sell before starting the next book. Don't put all your eggs in one basket, as they say. In other words, don't expect one story to launch your career and earn you enough money to live on. A first publication is your foot in the door. Those submissions are ultimately just as important as writing the book. But don't wait until that book sells before starting the next one. Keep the submissions going. It might be a good idea to set aside days where you concentrate on just submissions, and on the other days, concentrate on writing your next story.

The same goes for submitting your book for reviews. People who consider reading your work will often read reviews to see what the book is about and get the reviewers opinion on what they thought of it. It's important to build a good and lasting relationship with a selection of reviewers who like your work. Be sure to post those reviews on your website, too. Reviews are an important aspect of getting sales for your book. AND, prospective future publishers will also often look at your website and read previous reviews, too. When they see how well a first book was received, they're more likely to invest in your current story.

If you're involved in critiquing, whether in a group setting or individually, you're still engaged in some aspect of the writing process. It's called editing. OK, so you're not editing your book directly, but your partner's comments will be instrumental in how you see your story and your writing ability. And vice versa. Getting another person's opinion often shows us where our writing becomes inconsistent, passages may be confusing or contradictory to something you wrote previously, point out passive writing or even words you over-use. Like raising kids, ours are always perfect. It takes an outside view for someone else to point out our child has been wearing the same shirt for a week!

If you blog regularly, that's another aspect of writing, especially if your blog is writing related. I run several blogs, but they're not all about writing. I keep a personal blog about my life in Ireland. As well, I write travel and historical pieces for a travel site. Those are nonfiction, but I'm still writing.

What about research? That's also part of writing. Without the research necessary to plot your story, there would be no story. Research involves a lot of note-taking, so don't discount that as part of your writing life.

A writer's life can be hectic at times and take our focus away from the actual writing. After all, it's that story that needs to be published so we can have the rest of it . . . that promotions, reviews, guest blogging, etc. All of it is important.

If you find it difficult to schedule your day, here are some suggestions to help you through it —

1) I use the alarm setting on my mobile phone's calendar app for important appointments I need to remember. The alarm is not just for appointments outside the house, but for internet ones, such as guest blogging, when articles are due, etc.

2) I use a yearly diary to keep appointments as well. It's spiral bound so it doesn't take much space on my desk, and it's flipped open to 'today's' date so I can see what's due today and what other tasks need doing. When I schedule a guest blog or anything else that has a due date or appointment, I can quickly flip ahead in the diary to see what's coming up. It helps me plan my week.

3) I also keep a to-do list. I write one out every Monday — things that need to be done during the week at some point, but not necessary due on any specific day. Those are mostly goals I want to accomplish with in my work week. This list includes a lot of non-writing tasks, like laundry, vet appointments, grocery lists . . . even web design commitments and such. The to-do list and the yearly diary help me schedule life tasks with my writing ones.

It's funny how I used to laugh at people who lived like this — keeping diaries and setting alarms. Now I am one of those people. I'm not laughing anymore! While I've published short stories in previous years, I've never been busier than since my first novel, A Piece of My Heart, was published earlier this year. Scheduling has become even more important, which is ironic since I've never worked to a schedule in my life!

I've always said, "It's better to be busy than bored." However, it's not hard to lose focus on the side of writing that's made me so busy with all of the other writing responsibilities.

Stay tuned for my article on how to make time to write during the holidays!

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Romance and Young Readers

I was recently asked what age I thought was too young for reading romance novels. My first inclination was to say at least 16. But then I got to thinking, what was the first romance novel I read and how old was I? I started reading romance when I was 13 but really, it was probably earlier.

I distinctly remember buying my first romance novel and knowing it was romance. That was in 1981 when I was 16; the book was Highland Velvet by Jude Deveraux. I was an early reader though and thought romances were adventure stories. I can't remember titles or authors prior to Deveraux, but I do remember being captivated by tales set on the high seas, wagons crossing the prairie, or epics taking place in far off places. I was a young woman on the brink of adulthood and where I'd previously ignored the intimate scenes of the characters, I was now intrigued by them.

The question of how old a girl should be before being allowed to read romances has long been asked. Friends who started reading romance at a young age say, "The sex? I just turned the pages until the next action scene started." Secretly, we read the mushy stuff because we were all growing up. Sex was something we didn't understand. We read romances to see how the whole boy-girl thing worked. Sex Ed classes were basic and focused on the physical rather than emotional. What romance did for young girls was introduce us to the emotional. We craved the knowledge of a real loving relationship. We giggled over the purple prose, but we were growing up, and we wanted boyfriends!

The publishing industry recognized this need in the market and started publishing books like Ann Brashares's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High, Judy Blume, Jenny O'Connell . . . even V.C. Andrews. And more recently, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. These authors focus on relationships and emotional attachments of love while giving us great adventure.

So what age is too young for romance? Only a parent can answer that question, especially romance with graphic sex. But if you ask me, given a choice of books about love or war, the adventure of life over quests filled with horror, I'll pick love and adventure every time.

And secretly, I still giggle over the purple prose — even when I'm writing them!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Designing an Author Website: Website Basics

So, you have a blog and you're wondering why you also need a website.

The biggest difference between a blog and a website is that blogs are generally about current, up-to-date information. The most current of that information always comes up immediately when visitors log in.

Websites are generally more static, offering semi-permanent landing points for visitors who want to learn more about you and your work. Traditionally, the homepage is the only page that frequently changes. And for people like me who have a blog and a website, it's easy to use the blog as the homepage to the website, then use the website itself for the semi-static information. More about this later.

First off, here are the top ten reasons why you need a website —

1) Compartmentalization - By setting up dedicated areas for specific things, visitors to your site can click into that section and find everything they're looking for in that topic in the one place, such as all of your books or to learn more about you.
2) Easier Navigation - Compartmentalization allowed for easier navigation. All of your links are together in an easy to understand format.
3) Selling Point - It gives your readers a place to buy your books.
4) Promotions - Offers a primary place for visitors to find out more about your newest releases, enter your contests, and learn about special or short-term discounts that may be offered on your books.
5) Additional Web Presence - Anyone Googling your name on the internet will come up with results for all of your sites — blogs and websites.
6) Additional Marketing Tool - With more places to find you on the internet, the higher your search engine rankings. Also, it's one more place where readers can find you, as well as potential publishers and agents.
7) Information Sharing - A website offers you a place to share tools of the trade with your peers, such as links to areas of special research, cross-links with your peers, etc.
8) Full Customization - Even more so than blogs, websites are completely customizable and gives your creativity free reign. You can also add applications that post your Facebook and Twitter posts, lists your bookshelf at Goodreads and Shelfari, post your book videos, etc.
9) It's expected - When you discover a new-to-you author, what's the first thing you look for? Usually it's a website because that's where authors list all of their previously published works, promote the latest book, and give fans a sneak peak into their work in progress (WIP).
10) Because it's fun! - Let's face it. We're all about the fun!

While every website suits a different purpose for each person, as authors we need to remember that even though we enjoy the craft of writing, publishing and making a living at what we write is a business. And a web site is a selling tool.

I spent about 25 years in retail so the best analogy I can give you is this one: Our website is essentially our store. Like every retailer, we rely on customers (readers) to buy our products (our books) so we can stay in business (continue write).

There are two basic structures working together on a website — site structure and page structure. First I'll discuss site structure and the basic pages that make up that structure.

1) Home page - Imagine your homepage (the first page to come up when someone types in your URL*) is your storefront. What visitors should see is an attractively decorated window offering your latest products. The door into your store is the menu bar links. Those links include —

2) Bio page - Every author site should have an 'about me' or 'bio' page. It doesn't have to be long, but readers like to know more about the author they read or will potentially read. Readers like to connect with authors as well as characters in the books they read. Use this space to include some personal photos, including one of yourself if it's not already on your homepage or on your site header.

3) Books page - This link can say anything from just 'books' to 'my books,' 'backlist,' 'my backlist,' or anything else that's obvious this is where readers can find your books.

If you have a number of books published, use this first page like a table of contents, linking each book to individual pages that includes as much information as possible to entice readers — book image, publisher name, ISBN, release date, blurb, excerpt and reviews, including any awards those titles have received.

If you're a newly published author, one book is acceptable to list here. Be sure to include all those above details on this single page.

4) Contact page - This page is just as important as your homepage and your books page. Here, readers will have a way to contact you through a mail form or email address. You can also link to social networking sites you maintain online, such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc.

5) Additional pages - Your site isn't tied down to just four pages, though these above are the main ones you should include. Others are generally considered fluff, but good fluff. These pages give readers another dimension to explore your personal and professional interests.

5a) Links page - Use this page to list links to your favorite sites online: authors, blogs, research sites, music sites, etc. Remember to contact the person who owns the site you'll link to and let them know. Ask them for a reciprocal link. Site-to-site links boost web search result ranks for you and the sites that link back to you. Use links for cross marketing where possible.

5b) Favorite quotes - I've added a page of my favorite quotes. I love great quotes from books, movies, song lyrics, speeches, etc. and share them with readers on my site.

5c) Personal photos - As I live in Ireland, readers enjoy seeing photos from around the country so I've added a photos page, too.

Then there's page structure: ie your layout or where things fit on your pages. I'm given to analogies so here's another one, as I describe the four basic areas of your pages.

Imagine your website is like a farm and items you'll need to start your farm include a gateway onto your farm, a place to live and a place to grow crops or raise livestock.

Keep in mind that websites are structurally 25/75-40/60%, which means 25-40% of the site can be dedicated to header and footer space, and 60-75% is for the body of the page.

Here are some basics —

1) URL - Uniform Resource Locator or domain address. Ideally, this should be your name and can be likened to that fancy sign over the entrance onto your farm. essentially says, "This is Kemberlee's ranch."
2) Header - As it suggests, this is the head or top of your website. Make it attractive and inviting. You can layer your name with a background image, or go simple and just use your name. If you're using a graphic relevant to your site, remember to watch the size of your name within this space. You don't want it so small it gets lost in the image design, or so large that it looks like a roadside billboard. And don't make it so complicated that visitors have a hard time trying to figure out what you write.

3) Menu Bar - Essentially, this is your farmhouse, each link being rooms within your house — your homepage, bio page, books page, links page, contact page, etc. The menu generally runs either horizontally just under the header on vertically designed sites or on the left of left justified sites, also called sidebars.

4) Body - This is the main part of your site and where you grow your crops or raise your livestock, ie promote your work. Sticking to 25/75-40/60%, the body of your site will have the majority share of real estate.
5) Footer - This is where your copyright and disclaimer goes.

OK, so you have the basic knowledge of both site and page structure. The next question is, "Where do I get the tools to design my website?"
There are a number of programs out there to suit many budgets. Unfortunately, the best of them don't come cheap. But, they are a great investment for your long-term career. And if you look for older versions, you may find them at knock down prices, or even free as shareware.
The tools I use to design my sites are Adobe Dreamweaver for page design and Corel PaintShop Photo Pro. Both of these programs offer free 30 day trials. After 30 days the program just stops working. But if you decide you like either program and want to buy it, you simply make your purchase through their sites and they send you an unlock code. The free trial versions are the FULL program so you see exactly what you're buying.
Dreamweaver is a dual design program. If you know HTML, Dreamweaver offers an HTML view for hand-coding pages. If you don't know HTML, there's a WYSIWYG view — What You See Is What You Get. It works similarly to MSWord or other document programs, but automatically inserts the HTML coding your server needs to read the page.
Dreamweaver CS5 is currently selling for $399usd. Upgrades from previous versions is $199usd.
PaintShop Photo Pro (and similar programs such as PhotoShop) are programs that allow you to design graphics and manipulate photos —
a) Graphics - These are computer-generated images. When using graphics on your website, be sure to save them in .gif format. If you save them as .jpg or .jpeg, they will pixelate slightly around your edges and make image appear soft.
b) Photos - Photographs, pure and simple. When using photos on your website, be sure to save them in .jpg or .jpeg format.
PaintShop Photo Pro currently sells for $99.99usd or $79.99 upgrade.
Adobe PhotoShop currently sells for $699 or $199 upgrade. But if you're on a budget, try PhotoShop Elements 9 for $99.99, though it's currently on sale for $79.99.
Note: These prices are accurate as of this posting. Please refer to the company websites for accurate pricing.

So, these are the basics for getting started designing your author website.

I should also note there are three elements to getting your website online. If you have any questions about these, please let me know. If I go into them here, this post will be twice as long! Those three elements are —

1) URL/Domain name - As I mentioned, you'll need a domain name so people can find you. Try to find a 'dot com' address (example: Have a few options available so if your first choice is already sold, you can choose another:,,,, etc.
It's important to remember that you technically do not own your domain name. You're simply leasing it. You will have to pay an annual cost for your domain name. If you do not renew in a timely fashion (you will be sent notices) it's extremely likely that another company will snap it up instantly and use it themselves. Most often, I'm sorry to say, for pornographic purposes. So mark your calendar each year and watch for those notices from the domain name reseller!
2) Your website - As we've discussed today.

3) Server space - This is the place where your website will live and where your domain name will direct visitors to see your site. Most domain resellers also offer server space, but you do not have to use their server space just because you're buying a domain name from them.

The best things you can do is do your research, ask your author friends questions, and feel free to let me know if you have any questions. I've been doing web design for close to fifteen years now.

Finally, here are some highly recommended tips for designing your site —

1) Make sure your site reflects what you write
2) Avoid white space: big sections of space with nothing in it. If you're stuck for words, insert a relevant image, but never leave it empty.
3) Choose complementary colors: avoid color clashes, neon colors, and anything that hurts your eyes.
4) Don't overdo the graphics. Your website is for selling books, not to display graphics. Use them sparingly to enhance. Most especially, animated graphics.
5) Internet browsers view websites differently, so when you're designing your site, look at it in a number of browsers. Internet Explorer will view a website differently than Firefox or Opera, and vice versa.
6) Most users out there today view websites on a 1024 x 768 screen resolution. Aim to design your site at least 1024 pixels wide. Length isn't an issue, as above, but width is.
7) Have a friend or family member, or several, look at your site. Like with your writing, a critique partner comes in handy for helping you make suggested changes to your site.
8) Don't be afraid to ask for help.
9) Don't feel like you have to design your website yourself. There are a number of great services out there. Really look at the sites you like and make notes about what attracts you to them; ask friends for referrals; don't be afraid to email website owners to see how did their website (though most often, their web designer has a link in the footer somewhere). And finally . . .
10) Have fun with it!!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

20 Reasons Why You Should Blog

Blogging is the 'in' thing at the moment. Everyone seems to be doing it. But why? What makes it so popular?

Before we can go into the reasons why one should blog, let's look at what a blog is.

The word blog is the combination of the words web and log. A web log is essentially an online diary.

The forerunner of the blog was the online journal or online diary. Claudio Pinhanez's "Open Diary" is thought to be the first web page in an online diary format. He published his diary at the MIT Media Lab at Cambridge, Massachusetts's website from 14 November 1994 to sometime in 1996. In 1994, "Carolyn's Diary" was published by Carolyn Burke. In subsequent years, several other online diaries were started, and by 1998, the word blog first appeared on the scene.

Since that time, the word blog has been entered into most English dictionaries and has also become part of our everyday language —

"Are you going to blog today?" or "Are you working on your blog today?" and "Yes, I'm blogging now" are excellent uses of the word blog as a noun and verb.

What's the fascination with reading someone else's online diary? Are we voyeurs wanting to look into other people's lives, hoping to catch some exciting gossip, or do we really care what someone had for dinner last night?

In July 1998, Simon Firth described in Salon magazine how many earlier online diarists were abandoning this form of communication. But he also followed on to say, "While many of the movement's pioneers may be tired and disillusioned, the genre shows plenty of signs of life — of blossoming, even, into something remarkable: a new literary form that allows writers to connect with readers in an excitingly new way."

So here we are in 2010, nearly 2011, and web diaries are all the rage. Firth was correct that this medium would blossom into something remarkable.

While there's a huge selection of blogs to chose from — everything from random posts (messages) that suit the author's whim, to educational information, to company news, to following a diarist journey through cancer therapy, political rants, and more — let's concentrate on why you, a writer, should maintain your own blog.

Here are the top 20 reasons why you should keep a blog —

1) Keeps you writing - Writing is writing. On days when you can't seem to find the inspiration to write fiction, or whatever your genre is, blogging keeps you writing. Your blog can be about anything — writer's challenges, staying in touch with family, sharing pictures and stories from a recent holiday, etc.

2) Improves your writing - The more you blog the more you're writing. Experts always say to keep writing. The more you write the more you'll improve your craft.

3) Self-expression - Funny as it sounds, blogs are as individual as the person who writes one. It shows your personality and talents. Doodling, photography, painting, sculpting, poetry, writing, etc., are all forms of artistic self-expression. Use your blog to share your creativity with others.

4) Reader comments - Readers of your blog can leave comments. This is a great way to connect with other writers or people with your interests. Their comments may also be constructive or informative and compliment what you've written. Or they can correct misinformation, which you need to handle responsibly (see #7 below).

5) Increases readership and fan base - Use your blog as a marketing tool. Promote your work, share awards, connect with people who share your interests, etc.

6) Guest blogging - This is a fun way to increase readership. You write an article to post on a friend's blog and they write one to post on yours. You'll also find that review blogs are used for guest blogging and author interviews. This is a great form of cross marketing.

7) Networking - This is another form of cross marketing. You can place a "follow" link on your page for readers. When you post on your blog, a notice or excerpt is automatically sent to your followers so they can go to your blog to read your whole post. If you use Facebook or Twitter, you can use the NetworkedBlogs application. This application automatically posts an excerpt and link to your full blog on your Facebook/Twitter pages as soon as the blog is published. Anyone following your blog through NetworkedBlogs will see that excerpt and link appear on their page as well.

8) Shared links - When your excerpt and link appear on your readers' Facebook and Twitter pages, they can use the "share" link to share with their friends. Your blog link will then appear on all of your friend's friend's pages. And if those friends like your blog, they can click the "follow" link on your blog, follow your blog through NetworkedBlogs, and share your excerpt with their friends. And if your friend's friend's friends like your blog . . . I think you get the picture.

Also, depending on how your blog is laid out, you can post hard links to other websites, such as blogs you read that might interest your readers, your regular author website, places where your reviews have been posted, etc.

9) RSS feeds - RSS stands of 'Real Simple Syndication.' This is another form of cross marketing where your readers will get a FULL copy of your blog in an email, rather than just an excerpt and link. People who read a lot of blogs prefer this method rather than logging into a dozen or more sites.

10) Archives - Each of your topics are archived for retrieval at a later time. New readers can go back to the day you started your blog and read everything you've written. Using "keywords" allows readers to search for specific subjects. You enter the keywords before publishing your piece, and with the aid of a "keyword gadget", all of your keywords will be shown on the side bar. One click on a single word, brings up every piece you've written with that keyword attached.

11) Agents and Publishers - Blogging shows potential agents and publishers you're actively writing and promoting your work. Agents and publishers often use the internet to research authors they may offer a contract. If they see you're actively promoting your work, they're more likely to consider you a serious writer and worth their time.

12) Raises your Google rankings - Speaking of internet searches, did you know Google owns one of the most popular blog sites? This is a two part service: Blogger is the main site where you'll sign up and manage your blog. Blogspot is part of the actual address of your personal blog. And because Google owns Blogger/Blogspot, they list Blogspot pages first on search engine results! Would you rather be somewhere in the middle of page three or at the top of page one on a Google search for your name? Note: for the sake of simplicity, I will call Blogger/Blogspot Blogger, as this is the company name. Blogspot is just the address where your blog is hosted.

13) Publisher requirements - Odd as it sounds, most traditional mass market publishers require their authors to maintain a web presence on as many sites as possible. Today those include Facebook, Twitter, My Space, author site, and blogs.

14) Versatility - You can design your blog to mirror your website. That means whatever look you give your website, you can make your blog look and act exactly the same. This gives your overall web presence continuity.

15) Make some money - Yep, you can make a little money with your blog. I'm sure you've seen small ads links on other sites. Those are managed through Google ads. Place relevant links on your blog, and you earn a little money through "click-throughs" . . . when someone clicks on the link. You don't want to have too many ad links on your blog or it will just look like an ad site, but a few well-placed links could earn you a few bucks.

The last five are probably the most important reasons why you should blog —

16) Privacy settings - If you write something unsuitable for the under-18 market, such as erotica, you can enable the privacy setting for your blog. While this is on the honor system, as with all privacy settings, a reader who visits your site must click on the link that says they're 18 and allowed by law to access the site.

17) Learning opportunity - Use the opportunity with every blog you write to learn something new. Even the experts must do a big of research before writing an article, and so will you. Just be sure if you're going to quote someone that you supply a link where that quote was obtained. You might even email that person or site to let them know you're referencing them. You could earn yourself another reader!

18) Teaching opportunity - By blogging on various subjects, you take the opportunity to teach others, as I'm doing here on the subject of blogging.

19) Establish yourself as an expert - Or at least establish yourself as being knowledgeable on the topic you're writing about. Sometimes it pays to be at least one chapter ahead in the book!

20) Credibility - If you know what you're talking about, give credible information, and you write well, you will establish yourself as a credible, reliable or believable source of information.

I lied. There are two more —

21) Because it's FREE - Yes, most blog services are free.

22) Because it's fun!! - 'Nuff said!

Are you excited to get started? Do you have an idea for an article or post? Or do you have a theme picked out?

Before you start, there are some things you need to know. Just because you publish something doesn't mean instant success.

Here are the top 10 reasons why blogs fail —

1) Inconsistent posting - If your method is to post once a month, week or day, you must keep to the schedule and be consistent. Posting every now and again when you feel like it serves no purpose. And don't apologize for not posting in a while if you miss your own deadlines or publishing dates. Just publish the post.

2) Incorrect or invalid content - You'll lose readers faster with incorrect or invalid information than with inconsistent content. What you're posting must be correct and legitimate. If you have online sources, link to them.

3) Uninteresting or unhelpful content - Content that doesn't interest anyone won't win you any readers. Be sure your pieces are interesting and well written. Don't ramble. You don't have to have a theme for your blog. You can post a mishmash of topics, as I do on my non-author blog, Heart Shaped Stones. But don't ramble on about a subject you either don't know anything about, haven't researched thoroughly, or just to hear yourself speak . . . so to speak.

4) No promotion - Even blogs need promotion. See my comments above about cross marketing.

5) Fear of competition - We all like to know what we write is great. But like fear of failure, sometimes we have a fear of success. That feeling can come over strongly when we find another blog with content similar to ours and it looks better or is better presented. That's no reason to stop blogging. Use it as a lesson or inspiration to improve on your own work. And remember, there's probably another blogger out there envious of your blog!

6) Lack of self-confidence - Every writer, at some point in their career, has said, "I can never do it" or "It'll never work" or even "I don't write well, so no one will want to read what I have to say." Horse pucky! When I took horseback riding lessons and fell off, I told my instructor, "I can't do it." She said, "There's no such thing as can't. What you're telling me is you won't." This was one of the greatest lessons in my life, so far. And I'm saying the same thing to you. Face your fear, and get in the saddle. If you fall off, get back on. Your fears will be put to rest the moment the first person comments on something you have to say. Guaranteed! Why? Because everyone loves validation.

7) Negative feedback - OK, so not everyone is going to post positive responses to your posts. Remember what your parents taught you — opinions are like noses; everyone has one. If someone posts a comment about your piece correcting a detail, go back and examine what you said and your source(s). The person posting may be right, or they may have it wrong themselves. It's possible they haven't done their research and think what they believe is true. Don't get into a sparring match with them. If they're correct, thank them kindly. If they're incorrect, site two or three credible sources where you got your information. Remember, blogging is an opportunity to learn as well as teach.

8) No personality - Your blog, like a website, must have a look that says something about you or what you write. While your articles might have loads of useful information, who wants to read a blog that's just white background with black text and nothing else? You might as well be sending out emails. Use your blog site's design functions to create a page with personality. And once you're savvy enough, you can also custom design your blog to be something totally unique through HTML coding — hyper text markup language — the programming used to design websites.

9) Lack of interest - This goes for both you and your readers. If you've become bored with blogging, or are bored with a topic, it will come through in your writing. You'll lose readers quickly if your pieces aren't fascinating enough to hold their interest.

10) Takes too much time away from regular paid writing - This could be a good thing. If your regular writing is earning you money and blogging is taking away from your money-earning writing career, there's nothing wrong with letting readers know you're going to be blogging less for a while. Some bloggers feel they have nothing new to say and decide to stop blogging. It's perfectly OK to stop blogging in these cases.

So, you're ready to take the plunge and start a blog of your own. The question is, which blog site will you use? There are a number of services on the internet —

Blogger - As above, at the moment, this is the most popular blog service. It's easy to use and versatile, and offers the most options for customization, moderation, dashboard controls, etc. In a moment, I'll walk you through setting up a Blogger account. You can also read more about Blogger's features online.

WordPress - This is the second most popular service for blogging. Like Blogger, you can customize your page and there are options on your control panel for set up and moderation.

LiveJournal - This service is fairly basic. Customization of your page is limited. Your content (text and images) is what makes the page interesting. Finding and using your user settings are difficult and challenging. Pre-formatted with lots of Google Ads, which you have little control over.

These three are the top blogs at the moment. Another option Blogger and WordPress offer is a downloadable version which is run from your own server and not their server. You load it to the same site where your regular website is and it runs from there. That way, when a visitor logs into your site and clicks your Blog link, they will stay on your site rather than navigate away onto the blog site. To keep people on your site, you can also set these sites to open in a blank or new browser window. I'll discuss this more in the future when I write about author websites.

Other sites that offer blogging —

Facebook - Facebook uses a program called Notes for blogging. Each post stays on your Facebook page and each of your friends will be sent a notice every time you post. What happens on Facebook, stays on Facebook. At the top of your profile page, you can set tabs for subjects you want to highlight. The default tabs are —

Wall - where you can micoblog (up to 240 characters) and share links, and where friends can post messages to you
Info - your personal information, where people learn more about you and your interests
Photos - self-explanatory, set up folders by subject
Notes - this is a notepad style editor for blog-style articles
Links - for linking to favorite sites

You can also add other tabs through the "+" symbol on the tab bar —

Music - for linking in with iLike where you can 'like' some of your favorite music and play it back later while you're working
Events - if you have an event you want to advertise, such as an autographing, post it here and a notice will appear on your friend's pages where they can RSVP
Videos - where you can post short videos
Blogs - as above, where you can link to your blog so that posts to your blog appear on yours and your friend's Facebook pages as excerpts with links
Additional tabs - If you're on sites like GoodReads, Relatives, and others, you can often link them by adding additional tabs

Twitter - This service is considered a micro-blog. Where standard blogging offers you almost unlimited text and photos, Twitter only allows you 140 characters worth of text. You can post links, but that's it. Linking to friends' accounts means you can see their posts and vice versa. You can also send private messages. But the purpose of micro-blogging is that it's quick and easy, much like phone texting. One of the perks of Twitter is that you can link to your Facebook page and each post on Twitter is automatically posted on your Facebook page. And as above, if you have your Facebook page linked with NetworkedBlogs, your blog posts will automatically post on Facebook and Twitter. Another perk is that if you're posting a URL . . . website address . . . Twitter will automatically shorten it for you through a services such as Bit.Ly.

Note: Currently, Blogger, Facebook and Twitter are like the Holy Trinity of social networking sites. And as a writer, you will find these are the ones your publisher and agent will want you to start off with as a means to market your work.

Formerly popular blogging sites include —

MySpace - This was once the leader of the pack for social networking, but Facebook has taken its place.

Bebo - Before MySpace, there was Bebo. Poor site management led to serious security issues for members who moved to MySpace.

TypePad - This is one of the rare blogs that requires a monthly payment. It offers nothing the free sites don't.

There are other blog sites out there, but Blogger, Facebook and Twitter are currently the most popular.

So, are you really ready to get started? Great! Let's create a Blogger account —

1) Log into Blogger - You will need to have already created an email account with this service, or sign in from your Gmail account.

2) Click on "Create A Blog"

3) Create a Google Account - Fill in the details on each line and click continue

4) Name Your Blog - Give your blog a name and check availability. If it's not available, chose something else, or see if your original name can be altered to suit availability. *Try to come up with an appropriate name or something catchy or memorable. Don't just choose one of the recommended names offered by the service, as they might not be appropriate. Click continue.

5) Design - Chose one of their templates to get you started. Remember, you can change it later, even customize your blog to look just like your website.

6) Your Blog Has Been Created!! - Congratulations.

Before you get started, log into your dashboard. This is the control panel for your blog. You'll see several options here. Let's go over them quickly. You'll see your name and Manage Blogs sections. Let's look under your name first —

View Profile - This is what visitors to your site will see when they click on the profile link on your blog page. Use the edit link on this page, or go back to your dashboard to edit your profile.

Edit Profile - This is the main section for editing your profile. Here you will have settings for privacy, identity, photograph, audio clips, general information, location, work and extended information such as your personal hobbies and interests, favorite books, music and movies, etc. At the very bottom, Blogger has some fun by asking you a random silly question.

Edit Photo - You can edit your photo in your profile edits. This link will take you there as well.

Edit Notifications - This link simply asks if you want Blogger to send you notices and updates from Blogger.

Under the Manage Blogs section you'll see your blog listed, or if you have more than one, they will all appear here*. You'll see three lines of information. Let's go over them —

First line - Icons for setting up text blogging and email blogging, and your blog title, and if you have any followers, it will tell you there as well.

Second line - How many posts you've published, when the last one was published and to view your blog. Click the view blog link and you will be taken directly to your live blog page. There's a small icon here with a box and arrow. Click the icon and your live blog page will open in another window. This is handy if you need to work on a post, save it, then look at it on the live side. You can do this by simply refreshing the page in the second window.

Third line** - Links here for new post, edit post, comments, settings, design, monetize and stats. These links pretty much do what it says on the tin.

New post - Is the link to create a new blog post.

Edit posts - Takes you to a window where you can click onto any of your previous posts and edit them. The most current post is always at the top.

Comments - Lets you see all of the comments made to your articles. If you have comments set to moderation, you can approve or delete them here.

Settings - Allow you to change your blog settings — title, description, privacy and global settings.

Design - Allows you to change your blog's look any time you wish.

Monetize - Allows you to insert Google Ads as a way to generate some money on your site. Keep in mind that click through rates are less than one-half of one percent, so there's not a lot of money to be made this way, and you don’t want to turn away traffic on your site by putting too many ads up.

Stats - Stats are your statistics. This link allows you to see your blog's traffic numbers. This link shows you which articles have been the most popular.

*If you set up new blogs, be sure to do so on the dashboard so they all appear together. If you set up new blogs under another email address or outside of your dashboard, they will appear as separate accounts and you will have to log in individually to access them.

** You'll notice when you log into any of these settings that a set of tabs open on the top of the page. These are duplicate links for the third line of the dashboard page. You'll find navigation on Blogger is very easy. And each option has line by line instructions about what the option means before you decide to change it.

Let's write a post. You can delete this later. Let's just practice.

From the dashboard, click New Post.

In the new window, you'll see a box where you can type in your message. You have two views, Edit HTML and Compose. If you are HTML savvy, you can hand code the blog post. If you prefer, click on Compose and you'll have a blank page similar to a Word document that allows you to type and drop photos, videos and other clips to the page by way of icon links on the top of the text box. You also have a Preview link where you can see what your blog will look like when it's published.

Let's start by inserting an image. Click the icon that looks like a photo. Another window will open where you can load a photo from your computer's hard drive, or insert a link from a website, such as a photo on your own website. To get that link, go to the page with the image, right click and under properties, you'll find the link URL. Highlight and copy that link and go into your Blogger photo page and paste it into the appropriate place. Choose positioning on the page and size of the image, and click Upload Image. When it's done, the image will appear in your text box on the New Post page.

Start typing.

You can add images as you go, but keep in mind that Blogger's photo editor automatically adds extra lines between paragraphs through the document. You can backspace or delete these lines when you're done. You may wish to add all of your photos first before you type your message, then drag and drop your images where you want them to go.

When you're happy with the way your post looks, don't forget to give it a title.

You can also set keywords. Keywords are words that link similar articles together. You can then chose to view articles with a common theme rather than have to wade through them all, or try to remember which article was about what. This is beneficial for your readers too. You can add a keyword option to your side bar.

Click Publish. On this next page you have the option to view your blog or edit it. Remember the box icon with the arrow will open your blog page in a separate browser window so use this link to see how your post looks. You can go back to edit your post on the original window, then just refresh your second browser window to check changes.

I have three pet peeves about blogger —

1) The text box to create a blog just isn't large enough. As you can see by the length of this post, more space would have been appreciated.
2) Neither the text box or the Preview page aren't representative of how the blog will really look once it's published.
3) When you add photos as you type, Blogger's photo editor automatically adds extra lines between your paragraphs so you have to go back and edit them out. And if you don't know a little about HTML coding, it's difficult to correct them in the HTML editor. But you will learn how to correct these things yourself as you gain blogging experience. And if you do have any HTML experience from designing your own website, then you can correct this. So my biggest pet peeves are really the first two.

So there you have it — Why you should blog, how to keep your blog from failing, the basics of creating your blog account and setting up your profile, and writing your first blog post. A job well done for the day!

There's so much more to learn and experience with blogging. Don't try to do it all in one day. The most important thing is to have fun!

Please let me know if you have any questions about blogging. I'm happy to help if I can. Until then, blog on!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Writing to Tell vs. Writing to Sell

I'm sure I'm not the only one whose editor has said, "This is telling. SHOW your reader . . . ".

Here's an example —

Telling: Mary showered before dressing.

Showing: Mary stepped from the steaming shower and wrapped herself in a thick white terrycloth towel. Her hair was bound to keep it dry, but now she let it down. She watched the coppery curls fall about her bare shoulders in the foggy mirror, her reflection an apparition in the haze.

In the showing example, the reader is in the bathroom with Mary. While her actual features are blurred in the foggy mirror, we know she has coppery hair and it's long enough that if falls about her shoulders.

Here's another one —

Telling: John played the guitar.

Showing: The sound was as gentle as a pleasured woman’s moan yet seemed almost too big for the tiny room. John closed his eyes, enjoying the erotic sensation of the hum of the cords reverberating through his belly. He let his fingers slide over the strings and listened to the slow gut-twisting refrain.

This example shows us John is an experienced guitarist. We see him playing the instrument in a small room, possibly a recording studio. The piece he's playing awakens particular emotions in him, which the reader also gets a sense of.

How do we know any of this? Because we've been shown through the narrative.

We can also be shown a story through dialog. Look at these examples —

Telling: Mary paled, as if she'd seen a ghost.

Showing: "Mary, you're white as a sheet. You look like you've seen a ghost."

Telling: John loved dogs, but not jumping all over him.

Showing: "Mary, you know I love Spike, but would you mind controlling him?"

In the business of writing fiction, writers must tell a story in such a way that readers can see, and feel, what's happening in the story. But does this make us storytellers or story showers?

Traditional storytelling goes back well before the written word — to a time of oral storytelling. This is the most intimate form of storytelling, as both the storyteller and the audience gather in a close environment to hear the tale. I won't go into a history of oral storytelling here, but give you some examples of how this art is used.

Imagine you're a medieval trader of exotic spices or fabrics, and you're visiting a town to sell your wares. The local lord invites you into his home where he trades a hot meal and a bed for the night in exchange for you telling him tales of your travels. What tales would you tell? One of a dangerous ocean voyage? Perhaps, exotic people from other countries? Maybe you'll relate some of the ancient stories you were told while in that foreign country.

What if you were a time traveler who's gone back in time and you must explain about where you came from and how you found yourself in the past? How do you explain cars, planes and walking on the moon to someone who wants to know what the future is like?

As writers, we take these stories and write them in such a way that readers are pulled in, much the same as listening to traditional oral storytellers, and become part of the story. The biggest difference is that oral storytelling relies heavily on watching the storyteller, as he/she may become animated or perhaps sing to embellish the story. With fiction, the reader only has the page filled with words and their imagination. Their imagination is fueled by the words we put on those pages. And while a simple story, such as Cinderella, might be enough to entertain young children, an adult wants a story with a lot more meat in it. We want to tell a story to keep our readers up all night turning pages, not tell a bedtime story that puts them to sleep.

One of my favorite stories is an ancient Danish ballad called Hellelil and Hildrebrand. It was translated into English in 1891. The ballad, or a story written as poetry, tells the story of forbidden love. Kind of the Romeo and Juliet of Denmark, if you will. In my next example, I've pulled a scene from the ballad in which Hellelil, explains how her father, the king, has twelve knights watching over her safety, and how she's fallen in love with one of them. Hildebrand happens to be the son of the King of England. Son of royalty or not, he's still just a knight and she's a princess. Read this scene and see what you get from it —

My father was good king and lord,
Knights fifteen served before his board.

He taught me sewing royally,
Twelve knights had watch and ward of me.

Well served eleven day by day,
To folly the twelfth did me bewray.

And this same was hight Hildebrand,
The King's son of the English Land.

But in bower were we no sooner laid
Than the truth thereof to my father was said.

Then loud he cried o'er garth and hall:
'Stand up, my men, and arm ye all!

'Yea draw on mail and dally not,
Hard neck lord Hildebrand hath got!'

While this excerpt is telling an interesting story, it's not what today's mass market readers want.

Now read my excerpt, retelling what you've just read above, but in a format that makes the story sellable —

"You must go." She pushed her lover's shoulders, yet he would not release her.

"I'll not leave you, Hellelil. I love you. No one will keep us apart."

Her heart pounded in her breast, but she couldn't tell if it was from the danger they were both in or the thought of never seeing Hildebrand again. Most likely it was both. He was her one true love, but she knew if her father found them together like this, his anger would know no end.

"Please, Hildebrand. If my father catches you here, he'll show no mercy. You know I'm promised to another."

"I'm a Prince of England, and I will have you."

He embraced her within the safety of his powerful arms. The scent of their recent lovemaking clung to his skin. One more kiss, one more embrace, certainly laying with him one more night would do no harm. She knew they were both already meant for Purgatory. He'd taken the virginity she so gladly gave him, for she loved him too, and would rather him have the gift of her innocence than a man she didn't love.

Yes, one more night . . .

Just then, there was no mistaking the sound of her father's voice bellowing below stairs.

"Hildebrand has gone too far. I will see his head on a pike at my gates before the day is out."

The sound of clanging metal grew louder as her father's knights ascended the narrow stairs.

Hellelil's tear-filled gaze flashed across Hildebrand's face. She sought to memorize everything about him. The color of his eyes, the wave in his hair . . . his kiss-swollen lips.

She stroked her fingers across those lips, remembering the feel of them on hers not moments before. Her chamber door was locked, but it would not remain closed for long. One more kiss was all there was time for.

She pulled him down to her. "Kiss me, Hildebrand. For if I'm to die this day, I will take the sweet memory of your kiss with me."

Hey, I write romance so you knew that would be schmaltzy! But, as you can see, the modern day version is the same scene, but it's written in such a way as to flesh out the scene. It puts you in the room with Hellelil and Hildrebrand, and lets you into Hellelil's head, and heart, by telling the story through her point of view. You feel her anxiety of being torn between her love for Hildebrand and the fear of their being caught together. Her heart pounds, she touches his lips with her fingertips, her love races through her in a desperate attempt at showing one last act of that love. We feel a great sense of urgency in this piece that we don’t feel in the original ballad.

The reader also knows Hildebrand's feelings toward Hellelil by his words and the narrative action. Hildebrand holds Hellelil within the protection of his strong arms, his declaration of love, and his promise to have her as his own. We sense because he's a prince of another realm that he holds some stature in the household where he is. He's not just a simple knight who's taken the virginity of the lord's daughter in a heartless dalliance — he loves her. Hildebrand is a man of honor and breeding, and he knows his own heart and mind. So what if she's promised to another.

Did you get any of that from the original ballad? Didn't think so. Maybe a flicker if you applied it to another romance story you read, or a movie you saw, or even likened it to Romeo and Juliet. But reading my version puts it all out there in black and white without having to reference and compare it to something else to give it credit. This story is now sellable in today's market.

By the way, the image above is called Meeting on the Turret Stairs and was painted by Sir Frederick William Burton in 1864. The original is hanging in a private viewing room at the National Gallery in Dublin Ireland. I've seen it. It's incredible! The characters in this painting are Hellelil and Hildebrand. Note the Celtic motif on his tabard and the Norse motif on her gown. Remember, he's a price of England and she's a Danish princess.

So, here's my challenge to you —

Take a passage from a classic tale and turn it into a excerpt geared for today's market. Doesn't matter which tale it is. It doesn't have to be romance. Any work of classic fiction will do — fairy tale, ballad, poetry, etc. Take a short scene or a passage from a scene and rewrite it so it will appeal to today's readers . . . something that will sell to an adult audience.

Now, get writing!

Just for fun, here's an Irish seanachaí (pronounced shan-a-kee . . . storyteller or teller of old lore) spinning a great yarn.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Fallacy of Writer’s Block

Writer's Block - n. Psychological inability to begin or continue work on a piece of writing.

Imagine this scenario —

You're at your desk. You've been in a writing frenzy; the words are pouring out of you like water. Suddenly you're sweating, struggling to find the right words, then story comes to a blinding halt. You sit back and think about it for a while. What happens next?

You check your email to see if anyone wants to talk to you, because obviously, your characters don't want to. You check Facebook. Check your crops at Farmville. You might even make a few phone calls. They're just little things, right?

Back at your story, you reread the last page or two to catch up. You're ready to write again, but when you come to the last thing you wrote two hours ago you suffer the same problem. What happens next? You've gotta think about it for a while, so you get up and vacuum the floor.

Back at your desk, you look at the screen before you. The cursor is blinking where you left it. It's like a heartbeat, and the more you stare at it, the faster it seems to blink, as if adrenaline is feeding it. Your own heartbeat speeds up.

You decide the dishes need washing. After all, the last week you've neglected most house chores because of your writing frenzy. You just need a break and tidying up is as good as anything, right?

By the end of the week, your house is sparkling. And the dogs have had so many walks they're hiding from you! But something's off. It's like everything you've spent the week polishing are now winking at you, mocking you. You look around for something else to clean, but there's nothing. There's just a black cloud hovering over your chair at the desk, and it's churning like a slow moving hurricane, flashes of lightning sparking off each other. Looking closely, it's almost as if the cumulus formations resemble your character's faces and they're contorted in pain, pleading for you to save them.

Frightened, you back away. This dark cloud is pressing down on you. The page cursor blinks heavily, steadily, demanding you to sit down and write. You pull at your hair, your own face contorting, and shout, "I can't write. I can't think of what happens next. My muse isn't talking to me anymore. I have writer's block!"

Go on. Admit it. This is you. Or has been at some point in your writing life. All writers suffer from some sort of 'block' that sends them into housekeeping mode. Or the do-anything-but-write mode. It's at this point when you can think of a hundred other things that must get done right away, such as cleaning the cat box or raking dog dirt from the lawn, rather than sort out why your story is suffering.

In an effort to define writer's block, I've asked some of today's popular writers and a book reviewer for their take on things.

1) Do you believe in the traditional writer's block or just a stilted thought process?

Denise Lynn, author of Pregnant by the Warrior, Harlequin - I don't buy into writers block. I think its nothing more than an excuse to keep us from the page. It's a way of not having to admit, or face, the real reason(s) that keep us from working.

Writing is a job; just like any other job it requires you to show up. As a human being, we all have other responsibilities that sometimes keep us from working. Kids, parents, family, home, illness, pets, all require our attention, too and at times that attention gets more focused on our personal stuff more than our work stuff. That’s just life and it has to be dealt with regardless of the job we hold.

Isabo Kelly, author of Mate Run, part of the Fang Bangers anthology, Ravenous Romance - I don't really believe in writer's block. I think you can get stuck in a story and you need to talk it through with other writer friends or just stare into space thinking how to fix the problem. I do believe we writers will put off writing for no good reason and then call it writer's block. Even though writing is something we love to do, we also procrastinate sitting down and actually putting words on the page for a variety of reasons . . . And if this goes on for a while and we can't hear the muse calling, we liked to say we're blocked. But personally, I think this is just an excuse to make our procrastination sound artistic.

Charlene Raddon, author of To Have and To Hold, Zebra - For me I'd say it's more a stilted thought process. It's not being sure what to write next. The scene or the words refuse to come to my mind.

Elizabeth Delisi, author of Restless Spirit, part of the One Touch Beyond anthology, Cerridwen Press - I do believe you can reach a point where you're temporarily unable to write. There are, no doubt, as many different reasons for this as there are writers.

Viviane Crystal, book reviewer, Crystal Book Reviews - I think traditional writer's block is a bored and perhaps even frustrated brain process. Great writers of fiction and even of reviews get bored when only stereotypical ideas or language rules the day (and night). In my own experience, I write book reviews. If a novel has nothing that stands out from what anyone else has written on a topic, I'm generally bored silly and don't have one clue to what I can write that is unique. Reviews can be stereotypical, as well, which we all know. The opposite can happen when the language, plot, characters, etc. are so vividly, creatively, and enchantingly wonderful that I want my review to capture that magic and convey it to the reader. Sometimes I have to wait a few days before the right words come. For this latter scenario, I rarely get writer's block for more than a few days. And oh, how I love the latter challenge!

2) Name three reasons why we get blocked.

DL - Sometimes fear keeps us from the page – but who wants to say, “I’m afraid I’ll blow this” when it’s easier to say we have writer’s block. At some point in time, I’m sure just about every writer questions their ability – that’s normal, it doesn’t make you special, nor is it an excuse to quit.

Who wants to admit they’ve tackled a project too far out of their reach, when it’s easier to give up and blame it on writer’s block? How many people want to admit they’ve bitten off far more than they can handle with the kids, family, home, day job, writing, and all the other extras when it’s easier to set aside the writing and declare writer’s block?

Sometimes lack of focus keeps us from the page. If that’s the case, it’s time to take a step back and investigate the lack. If it’s too many irons in the fire, dump some of the irons. If you can’t find a reason, make an appointment with your doctor to make certain nothing is wrong physically – or to tackle whatever is wrong.

IK - There are a lot of reasons why we stop writing in the middle of a story or won't sit down to write. But I think my personal top three are —

I've reached a point in the story where I don't know what happens next, or I don't know how to get my characters out of the mess I've gotten them into, or the scene itself isn't working and I can't decide why.

The story seems to be grinding along and is actually a little boring to write, but I don't know how to speed things up.

And I'm feeling all manner of fears and insecurities and they're yelling louder than my imagination.

CR - Facing a scene we feel unsure of.

Often it turns out that the scene just wasn't right or didn't belong in the book.

Too many personal problems can certainly interfere and create a block.

ED - You started the story in the wrong place.

You haven't programmed enough conflict into the story.

You're trying to "write to the market" in a hot genre that you don't particularly like, instead of writing what you love.

VC - Three reasons I get bored are —

Stereotypical writing on the author's side.

Frustration that I can't find the perfect words for a review no matter where my opinion lies on a book.

Sometimes failure to find the right words to address a broad range of audiences, even beyond what a novel seems geared toward.

I would add a fourth - being critical in an objective manner that is gracious, without being cynical, sarcastic, or just plain insulting.

3) What tricks do you use to get your creative juices flowing again?

DL - I don’t have any tricks to get me to the page—it’s my job, it’s what I do for a living, so I sit down and write. Does that mean I never get stuck? Uh, no. When that happens it’s not writer’s block, it’s because I screwed up the story somewhere. I go backwards scene-by-scene to find out where and fix it.

Sometimes the fix is nothing more than changing the POV character, and sometimes it’s an entire rewrite.

Sometimes I just don’t feel like working and nothing can get me to the page. Then it’s time to play hooky for a day, or time to schedule a vacation in the mountains.

IK - One thing I've found works every time is to read someone else's fiction. Taking a week away from my current WIP to indulge in a reading holiday really helps get my own juices flowing again. It reminds me why I love to tell stories and it really brings my imagination back to life. I tend to put off reading fiction while I'm writing a book so I don't get distracted from my own storyline. I know this isn't a good thing for a writer. But I still fall prey to this habit. And if my story is dragging, it turns out this is the most important way to wake me up again—read! Simple, right? You'd think I'd take note and stop setting aside pleasure reading while I'm writing.

Another thing that works really well is to get together with another writer friend(s) and do a brainstorming session then a writing session all at the same time. Sitting with a friend will force you to put at least a few words on the page—because someone is watching! Also, if the reason you're not working is because the story itself has problems, you can work those out with another writer. Having a fresh perspective can do wonders.

And finally, I take a shower. I think my muse lives in the bathroom. J And when I'm showering, I can let my imagination wander through my current WIP without worrying about interruptions or the other things I'm supposed to be doing. Actually, this can work doing any chore that doesn't require much thought. But I find the shower works wonders for me personally.

CR - Just sit down and write. Read a book that inspires you, an old favorite from your keepers' shelf. Talk things over with a friend to get a different perception. Write in first person for a new perspective.

ED - Sometimes rereading a favorite book does the trick. It can be inspirational to take those one-sentence descriptions of movies from the TV Guide and develop a story outline around that description. Playing "what if" with people you see in a public place, say a mall, can give you new ideas. And sometimes you just have to sit down and force yourself to write, even if all you write is, "I hate writer's block" over and over--the simple action of writing anything can often shake loose the blockage.

VC - The tricks I use to get the creative juices flowing —

Look for a unique quote from the book or scene that exemplifies the overall theme of the book - or even its opposite. If I can't find that quote in the book, I may look for one on the topic itself from my notes, research, etc.

I ask the question: What's the special essence of this novel that the writer is suggesting as a purpose - whether that be entertainment, educational, argumentative, provocative, supportive, etc.?

I ask what parts of this novel will touch people and why - that means mentally (reason/logic) as well as emotionally, spiritually, fantasy, whatever it is. Who else has written on this topic and how does that treatment resemble or differ from this story?

And then sometimes, it's just what I call the creative muse, where the right words stream through my brain, heart and typing fingers and the result is sheer magic! That's not a fat ego; that's gratefulness for a gift that occasionally touches me, especially with a great work! There are so many events in the world that can foster creative juices, as well as people in our lives, personally, on the news, in magazines, radio, etc. - the key for me is to move out of pondering my own inability and out to what is generative and inspiring.

So what have we learned through these great ladies? Does writer's block exist? No, not really. Family commitments aside, what are some things that keep us from writing?

1) Fear of failure or fear of success - Both challenge us in their own way. Fear of failure might have us comparing our work to others, saying, "I'll never be that good. They won't like me." Fear of success might have us stressing over the 'what ifs' — "What if I get a three book contract. OMG, I'll never be able to write three books in a year."

2) Losing ones way while writing - For me personally, plotting a story is like routing a road trip. As I'm writing a story and following along with my plot, it's like reading a road map while driving. If, while I'm writing, I come to a dead-end in the story, I think, "What would I do in the car when I come to a dead-end in the road?" Turn around! Go back to the last junction where I knew where I was and find another route. Judging by the ladies above, I'd say they think along the same lines. It's not the muse, it's not you, it's not anyone specific. It's not even the characters. It's the story itself. Something's not working, which means going back over your plot and examining how you got to this point. Maybe you need to do more research. Maybe you have too many characters or not enough. Perhaps there's not enough story in your story. And sometimes we just need a break after a writing frenzy. Exhaustion plays a huge role in how we deal with writing stresses.

3) Trying to write outside of our comfort zone - The market changes quickly and, unfortunately, we can't all write as quickly to cater for those changes, which can be frustrating when trying to sell our work. What we submit today might cater to the current market, but by the time it's read at the publisher we've submitted to, the market may have changed. We all know that getting a reply from a publisher or agent can take months. In that time, the whole market could have changed. The best example is with Dorchester. I submitted to them in March this year and by July they'd announced they were going digital!

4) Boredom - Chances if you're bored with the story, it won't go anywhere. And if you're bored, your reader will be too. Avoid cliché's and stereotyping. Lazy writing will lose readers. Look for ways to say something. It's quite possible that the whole section needs to come out, even if it's a great passage, it might not work in this context. Save it to a file and see if you can use it later, or in another story. Aim to keep things moving forward. If you're engaged, your reader will be too.

5) Feeling overwhelmed - If you have too much on your plate, think about prioritizing. What are the top five things are THE most important at this time. If you put writing at #5, or it falls into the 6 to 10 area, then you have too much on your plate. Look at your top five items and the importance you put on them. Is checking Farmville more important than getting your book finished? If so, then maybe you love the idea of being a writer, but don't have the dedication. It's difficult, but sometimes you just have to stop doing things that are habit to do the things you really want to do. By doing that you create new and better habits.

Are there ways to get through your block? Certainly.

1) Read more - Easy! Chances are you're writing in a genre you love reading, so get reading. Go to your keepers' shelf and reread some of your favorite titles. What was it about those books that made them keepers for you? Was it one or more of these books that inspired you to write? If so, what was it about those books that inspired you? And because the market changes quickly, don't forget to read new writers' works. While you're at it, look at whose publishing those authors. This is a good indication of where to submit your work when it's ready.

2) Look at the structure of your story - Can it be changed to make it more exciting? When a story works well, the words will pour out of you once more. Sure, you'll have rocky places, but as long as the story is moving forward, it's all good!

3) Talk it out - Talk with a friend, critique partner or writing group you're involved in. That's what they're there for. Remember the old adage when seeing a doctor — get a second opinion. There's nothing like a new and fresh perspective.

4) Take a break - Your brain works better when it's rested. And fed. And not just food. Get out of the house for a while. Take a walk to clear the cobwebs. Go to gathering places and people watch — what characteristics to people have that draws your gaze and makes you watch them? You can use those in your story, as long as it helps move the story forward.

Remember that saying you heard when you first started writing? Write what you know! Stories come from life experiences, research, reading . . . life in general. You can only experience life by getting out of the house and living it.

Even if you're just sitting in the garden listening to the sheets flapping on the drying line, listen to them. What are they telling you? Sails of a ship on the high seas maybe? What adventure are they on? Is this a pirate ship or military vessel? Maybe it has a female captain. Who is she? How did she come to captain her own ship?

Or maybe they're just sheets on a drying line behind a sod house on the prairie and the sun is beating down, cracking the parched earth. Is she alone, widowed, married . . . ? Does she hear a wagon coming, chains clinking on the horse's harness? Who's coming and what news do they carry?

Use your imagination for not just telling the story, but also for coming up with plotting, or even starting a new story. The break away from the house may just be a trip to the library and looking through actual books rather than relying on the internet.

5) Stop procrastinating - As Nike coined, Just Do It! You must have thought there was a great story in you waiting to be told or you wouldn't have sat down to write it. You need to remind yourself what that story was. Once you have, just get it out. Don't try to edit while you're writing. Just get the story out. Tell your story in your own way. Edits will come later.

Finally, I can highly recommend a newly released guide for writers called The Blocked Writer's Book of the Dead: Bringing Your Writing Back to Life by Dr. David Rasch, Director of the Stanford Help Center.

Dr. Rasch teaches courses on overcoming writing blocks and procrastination. His book is one you'll want to print out, as it's a short workbook that can help you get through whatever block you may have.

It will also help you learn to prioritize and see, on paper in black and white, where you really are, emotionally, with your writing.

The topic of writer's block is deep and convoluted, but I hope you find something here to help you through your blocks and get your story back on track.

Do you have tips on combating writing blocks? Post them in a comment. I'd love to hear how you deal with the stresses of writing.