The Power of Words

I have two special things for you today, then I'm off to write and meet with my critique partner. We haven't been able to get together much lately, and we miss each other desperately. I've decided that in order to get more words written, I'll be scaling back my blog posts to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Daily blogging takes a lot of time and creative energy, and I need to direct some of that towards my novel.

First up is a wonderful short animated movie, that is nominated for an Oscar. Right now, you can download it free on iTunes. The Fantastic Flying Books is just 14 minutes long, but it's a wonderful film about the power of words and how they change lives. It's directed by the brother-in-law of author and publisher Jeff Gerke, who I've featured several times here on the blog. I'm hoping it wins the Oscar!

The other surprise today is a brief glimpse into a picture book for those of us torn between physical books and electronic books. Lane Smith beautifully illustrates the difference. Someday, I imagine we may be having this same conversation with our grandchildren.

It's an honor for us as writers to add to the creative words in the world. What work in progress are you adding to this week?

Six Ways to Win With Writing Contests

On the road to publication, it's nice to have some folks cheering you on--besides your friends and family. You may not win the contest, but here's how to win no matter where you place.

Know the Benefits. Entering a writing contest can do several wonderful things for you:

~Help you meet a deadline.
~Force you to prepare for submitting to agents by following manuscript guidelines.
~Give you valuable feedback from publishing professionals.
~Develop your confidence in letting others read your work.

 Choose a Goal. Is your mission to gain publicity? To get feedback? To interest an agent? Or maybe you just want to force yourself to stretch your writing. Some contests give a prompt, whether written or visual. You might discover the seed of a novel you never would have thought of before. It was through a writing contest prompt that I began my current novel.

Stretch Yourself. If you write romance, don't limit yourself to the hundreds of romance-oriented writing contests available. Try something in another genre or format (like flash fiction, if you're a novelist, or write some sci-fi if you like to write mysteries). Often contests outside your comfort zone can help you uncover a previously unknown ability in a certain genre. 

Uncover the Details. If the contest has a fee, evaluate whether it's worthwhile for you. Many organizations run contests to raise money through contest fees. This is legitimate, but stop to evaluate your chances of winning, and what you'll receive. 

I enter the Pikes Peak Writers Paul Gillette Contest every year. There is a fee, but I receive two in-depth score sheets from professional writers, along with a chance for a cash prize or attendance at their writing conference.

A writing contest whose deadline is coming up next month is the Pacific Northwest Writers Association.

Make Like a Professional. It's never too early to learn to follow directions. Sure, a contest's directions for entries may seem strange, but consider it your boot camp to becoming a published writer. If you can't follow (seemingly) arcane instructions now, what will you do when the twelve agents you plan on submitting to each have their own do's and don'ts?

Don't Forget to Debrief. After the contest is over, evaluate how it went. If you received score sheets or judges critiques, spend some time reading through the comments. If the opinions hurt, set it aside for awhile, or go over it with a critique partner. 

If you entered an online contest, like one hosted on a blog, you can often read the winning entries. Take the time to go over the stories that placed, and try to determine why they are different. Did they just follow the guidelines better? Are there craft issues you can work on? Think of it as just another learning experience that will hone your skills as a writer.

How have contests helped your writing?

Where do your blog readers come from?

Just a quick post today. I'm off to spend an unknown number of hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles, since my sister-in-law lost her license.

I had to chuckle today, though. As a writer, storyworld is a huge part of a novel. And three of my blog readers came from towns famous for the stories that took place there. Can you guess which towns they are? The answers are at the bottom of the post.

Photo Credit: Stock.XCHNG

Photo Credit: WackyStuff on Flickr

Photo Credit: Stock.XCHNG

The towns are Bethlehem, Bremen (Germany), and Nottingham, England. Did you guess all three? If you have a blog or website, what are some of the unusual locations of your readers? I've discovered readers in Iceland, and tiny islands I've never heard of before.

Free Resources for Setting Up Your Author Website

Aspiring authors have a difficult decision. Besides writing, editing, and getting critiqued, they have to figure out when they're ready to submit to agents, then write a query and synopsis. And on top of that, there's the choice of when to set up an author website.

It feels weird to think about a professional website when you may not have a book contract, or even an agent yet. But at the same time, you hear how important it is to have a place interested agents and publishers can visit to learn about you.

Thankfully, mystery and romance author Jordan McCollum has put together an ebook that examines all the angles and gives great advice an links. Culled from a blog series she posted, the free ebook is a great tool for writers making this important decision.

McCollum details nine things an author website must do (and includes seven things an author website must have). 

Writers often agonize over whether their blog is enough of a web presence. McCollum shares how to make a basic free blog more like a website, but also explains the pros and cons between Blogger and Wordpress services, including advice on hosting.

If you write more than one genre, you'll appreciate McCollum's analysis of how many websites you need. She also touches on topics like how much personal information to include, and setting up and evaluating goals for your website. Also included are tips on site layout and typography, and how to make your pages search engine friendly.

Head over to McCollum's site to download Aspiring Author Websites, and let me know what you think!

Quiz Your Characters: Find out what makes them tick

The characters in your novel have a heavy responsibility. They have to come up with witty dialogue, have interesting lives, and make snap decisions in difficult situations--all while looking fairly good and carrying the story. I don't think I'd want to trade places with mine!

To make characters that are more than cardboard thin, you have to get to know them. One way is to fill out any number of character questionnaires. Completing the exercises in Donald Maass' Fire in Fiction is also highly recommended (and I'll get to take his workshops again at a writing conference this spring!). 

But I stumbled on another way to go deeper with your character. Take a personality test in their name. I got the idea from Fae Rowan over at Writers in the Storm. Her post, Meyers-Briggs: a tool for authors and other humans, details using a psychological survey on your character, and how to analyze the results. She even has a link to a free online test you can use.

Anything that helps a writer deepen their knowledge of their characters is a plus.

And now, just for fun, here are some questionnaires for you. Pick your favorite and find out more about yourself:

Did you find out anything fun about yourself? Have you ever given your character a questionnaire?

Start Earning Free Books with #SwagBucks

Writers are readers. And readers can't get enough books. Since royalty dollars are not rolling my way, I need to find other ways to satisfy my craving. 
I definitely use the library, and borrow books from friends. I find free books for my Kindle through Pixel of Ink. And I trade books I don't want for those I do on PaperbackSwap and BookMooch.

But when I want my own copy of certain books, I need to break down and just buy them. It got a lot easier once I found SwagBucks.

SwagBucks is a Google-powered search engine that rewards users for many of their searches. As you accumulate points, you can exchange them for tangible prizes. Sure, you can save up for an iPhone or a music album. But I like to turn my points into Amazon gift cards. That way, I'm able to buy the books languishing on my wish list.

It's easy to sign up for SwagBucks. You can even install their toolbar so you don't have to remember to head to their site to do a search. The SwagBucks site keeps track of your points, and offers many other ways to earn points, as well.

This week happens to be Spirit Week, where they're giving away lots more points with special promotions. Take a few minutes to sign up, and try doing all your searches on SwagBucks today. See how many points you accumulate. One hint that helps me: when I get a page of search results, I always click on the second and third page of results. Sometimes that helps generate the rewards. 

I did a quick search just now, and won $10 in SwagBucks. Give it a try. Just click on the banner above, or the banner on the right side of the blog to get started.

Are you a SwagBucks member? What do you use your rewards for? Do you have other ways of picking up the books you're longing for?

Undressing Your Character: Historical Fiction Resources

Short of hopping in the police box with Doctor Who, it's not always easy to dress your characters. Especially when they dressed in layers. You might find drawings of period costumes, but understanding what lies beneath can be difficult to determine.

Fortunately, there are historians and authors who generously share the research they've already done.

First up is author Deanne Gist, who ordered up a complete Victorian outfit. She conducts workshops at writing conferences where she starts out in her underwear and demonstrates the lengths women went through to look their best. The video and slideshow reveal why a ladies maid was a necessity, and drive home the fact that bodice-ripping love scenes are not accurate.

Keep up with the posts on the blog History Undressed to find details about historical attire from many different eras.

History Hoydens is a group blog that covers lots of details from historical periods.

Costumes and the requisite props, like parasols, fans, and gloves, played a big part in flirtation and communication. Check out some of the inventive dating rituals of Victorian times.

Author Kalen Hughes goes into great detail about undergarments from a variety of periods, and includes a helpful handout with lists of movies to view that give readers a better idea of authentic costumes.

Want more? Check out these links:
The Fashion History of Undergarments, Facts about European Underwear (including surprising details on how women dealt with--or didn't deal with--their menstrual cycles)
The Ladies Emporium--where you can buy your own historical undergarments

Hopefully, some of these resources will help to make your historical fiction more accurate and realistic to read. Will your characters be dealing with undergarments?

Book Review: Fiction is Folks, by Robert Newton Peck

For Christmas in our house, everyone gets a few books. Even me. : ) In December, I was browsing in a used bookstore, and I came across Fiction is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters, by Robert Newton Peck.

It's an old book. Out of print. Sometimes books like these can be lemons, but then I read that the author also wrote A Day No Pigs Would Die. I decided to take a chance on it. Besides, it was only a dollar.

I'm glad I did. There are few craft books that are difficult to put down. This is one of them. Peck is funny. Sarcastic. Entertaining. And in between the entertaining words, the reader finds Peck has hammered home every one of his points. The subtitle is absolutely correct: Characters are what readers remember, what editors look for, and what turn aspiring writers into published authors.

In Fiction is Folks, writers will learn:
~how to use yourself as a character--and when not to
~how to write about people the way they actually are--instead of how they ought to be
~what homework you need to do on each of your characters--and how to use the results
~"narrative drag"--what it is and how to cure it
~how to create believable villains
~how to turn what bugs you into a salable idea
~how to take a short story and turn it into a novel
~why you should invite trouble into your story.

Really. You should find this book. Buy it used on Amazon, or check out PaperbackSwap or BookMooch. I couldn't find out if Peck is still living (he was born in 1928), but he's a fascinating guy. He's the first of his entire family to read and write. And Fred Rogers (yes, that Mr. Rogers) was his best man. Add this book to your library.

Learn to Upload Electronic & Print Books

Do-it-yourself has flooded the publishing industry. The landscape of publishing has changed so much in the last several years. More and more authors are skipping the query-writing, agent-hunting, contract-grasping travails of writers past, and taking their books in hand to make their publishing dreams a reality.

Because of the rapid changes, it's hard for writers to keep up with what to do and how to do it. There are resources waiting for self-publishing writers, but it's difficult to weed through the enormous amounts out there.

Mary DeMuth is both a traditionally published author, and the author of several ebooks. She has put together a free report: Free Step-by-step guide to uploading e & print books.

In this 30-page guide, DeMuth shares:

~how to upload an ebook in 7 steps

~how to upload a physical book on CreateSpace in less than 2 hours

~the site she uses in conjunction with PayPal to administrate her e-purchases

~a brief overview of copyediting and writing mistakes to get your manuscript in shape

~marketing tips for your new book

~photos of the exterior and interior of books from CreateSpace

If you're interested in the free book, head over to DeMuth's site Write Uncaged. Signing up for her free monthly newsletter gives you the book in a few minutes. While you're there, check out DeMuth's blog, with posts like Why Writers Can Seldom Live On Advances. And don't miss the freebie page, with articles on querying, becoming an email jedi, and publishing myths.

Have you taken the plunge into self-publishing? Are you considering it?

Writing Inspiration from Martin Luther King

Today's post is short. My husband came down with the flu yesterday, so nursing skills will be put into use more than writing skills today. I decided to browse through some Martin Luther King quotes to see if any could apply to writers. He was a gifted man with words, himself.

Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent.

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.
Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.
Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

And my favorite of the day:
Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase. 

The staircase of publishing is long and winding, but there are many traveling with us. Hoping you'll find inspiration to write today. 

More Hours In the Day: Time Management for Writers

I'm ending the week with one more post on time management. One more opportunity to prod myself into action.

I was inspired by Michael Hyatt's article on How to Shave Ten Hours Off Your Workweek. Several of his tips give advice on keeping computer and internet time from consuming productivity--something I struggle with. My friend Stacy S. Jensen has the right idea. She's begun the year by getting her writing in before going online.

Copyblogger has a post called Time is not on your side that includes links to a quiz that helps you figure out if you're a time waster, a downloadable time log,  and a downloadable survey to help set goals.

And if you need something more in-depth, Manage My Time Now has a free time management course and a time management personality test.

But don't take too much time away from writing to read about time management. The best thing we can do as writers is to establish some kind of daily writing ritual that doesn't get shoved aside when life gets busy. Even if we're only getting a few hundred words down, it's progress toward writing "the end".

So now it's time to get some writing and critiquing done so I won't be ashamed when I meet my critique group (The Fearsome Foursome) tomorrow. How about you?

Writing Goals for 2012: Have you got yours?

These first few weeks of the year are always full of paper. And not the fiction kind. Receipts, bank statements, and check registers are spread in piles as I fill out college financial aid forms, and get our taxes in order.

But one sheet I fill out every year is my list of goals for the year. If I've got nothing to shoot for, I'll certainly hit it. In 2010 I used this sheet, and it worked well. Last year, I hand-wrote my goals. This year, I decided to look for something a little more official.

I found lots of downloadable goal sheets on the web, but I'll highlight just a few since it can be overwhelming.

My favorite of these worksheets is from a site called Money Saving Mom. With this set of sheets, you choose six priorities for the year. Each subsequent sheet allows you to take one specific goal and break it down into smaller, achievable goals. The bottom of each sheet has a spot where you can do a monthly checkup to see if you're on track.

Summit Street Joy has a single page that gives room for not only a timeline of when you want to complete your goals, but also asks the questions "why does it matter?" and "what's my motivation?".

The first three downloads on Tip Junkie are great for goals or resolutions. If you scroll down the page, you'll find dozens more free downloads for all kinds of organization.

And if you want to go more in-depth, check out the free Goal-setting and Action Workbook at Live Your Legend. You can download the pdf, or an MS Word version that you can type directly into.

Other resources you might be interested in:
Michael Hyatt's free ebook, Creating a Life Plan.
Kenda Turner's guest post on finding time to write: Aim, Shoot, Bull's-Eye.

The important thing is to have something you're aiming at. How do you record your goals for the new year?

Get in Gear for the New Year

Wow. In more than two years of blogging I've never taken more than a week off here or there. Over the holidays I took a two and a half week break.

We had two family reunions in two separate states. I cooked and baked enormous amounts of food. We visited the incredible Grand Canyon. We nursed my sixteen-year-old son, who was sick the entire vacation. And we said goodbye to a beloved cat, who passed away while we were gone. 

It was a break full of ups and downs. Can you imagine how much writing I got done?

That's about right.

So here I am, trying to find the wherewithal to get back into my routines. It's hard. I have to work on taxes. And Fafsa applications for two kids. And the dozens of things that go along with life.

But I'm going to write today. Even if it's only for 30 minutes while waiting in the orthodontist's office. My daughter suggested I go back to using the Pomodoro Technique of time management. She's probably right.

If you're having trouble getting back to your routines, check out the new Writer's Digest article, 6 Simple Ways to Reboot Your Writing Routine. Number one was the tip I really needed to read.

How is the new year treating you? Are you starting off with a bang, or do you need to get in gear, too?


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