Saturday, 29 March 2014

Don't Beat Yourself Up ... But for Pete's Sake, Get a Move On!

I spent an hour and a half vacuuming my unfinished basement last night. Even as I was doing it, my brain was telling me, "Vero, this is probably the most useless chore you've ever spent time on." But of course, the most useless things suddenly become important when you just don't want to write.

It's a shame, too, because it was the quietest hour and a half I've had all week. It would have been the perfect time to pull out my laptop, brew a nice peppermint tea and sit down to tap out another chapter of my work-in-progress (A Noble Deception, by the way, coming soon ... shameless plug).

The (Un)Glamorous Writing Life

Writing is a tough gig ... as any writer will tell you. It takes a heck of a lot of mental energy to summon the voices in your head and translate them to paper (or word processor or whatever your medium of choice is). And when you just don't have it in you to write, it's almost impossible to force yourself to sit down and do so.

Unlike other nine-to-fives, writers have no down time. Any down time is prime writing time. Because of this, most writers live in a constant state of guilt: I have no energy to write; I should be writing; I just can't do it; I should be doing it.

And so on and so on. 

Make no mistake: the writing life is NOT glamorous. You spend half your time drilling your fingers into your keyboard, and the other half of your time berating yourself because you can't seem to park your rear in front of your computer and force yourself to write.

The Writer's Conundrum

There seems to be two recurring tips for writers on the issue of discipline. The first is that you need to sit down and write every day. Even if you don't feel like it, get your bum in your seat and start writing. Search #writingtips on Twitter and, guaranteed, you'll find that piece of advice about a million times.

The second common writing tip is ... don't beat yourself up if you don't write every day.

??? Well which one is it? 

The Art of Compromising

Okay, so I'm sure that this has probably been proposed before, and it wasn't me who came up with the idea. But I like to think that since I arrived at this conclusion on my own, that's got to count for something.

The key is to know when you write best. Identify the time of the day when you are most productive, and then exploit it. For me, I write best in the morning. And I have a favourite diner around the corner from my house where I love to go for a spot of coffee and a good, old-fashioned fry up. What better time is there to write? I grab my laptop and I type away over my bacon and eggs and I get quite a lot done. 

If you can do that, the next step is to identify when you don't write well. I don't write well in the evening. I know this. Coronation Street's on ... nuff said. So when I don't write at the times that I know I don't write well, I try not to beat myself up about it. I'm wasting prime writing time, sure, but I did take advantage of more prime writing time in the morning.

Give Yourself A Break ... But Try to Push Yourself ... But Don't Beat Yourself Up ...

Being a writer is hard, and we writers tend to make it harder on ourselves by being the toughest critics of our own work and writing habits. Yes, we need to push ourselves. Yes we need to give ourselves a break. But we need to set ourselves up for success by recognizing when the right times to push and the right times to relax are. 

That said, it's 7:30pm, and I'm now sitting down to an episode of "The Supersizers" with Giles Coren and Sue Perkins. My half finished novel can wait. Moira MacInnes and Lachlan Ramsay, I'll see you tomorrow morning over a plate of peameal and scrambled.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Managing Twitter Stress with a Posting Schedule

Twitter is a tough business. You have to be posting constantly if you want to attract new followers and - more importantly - keep the followers you've gained. And what you're posting has to be valuable to your followers. They need a reason to keep following you, after all.

It's only fair. But it's also labour-intensive. And if you're like me, an author-blogger trying to build your name and your platform, your blog content is probably taking a back seat to your in-progress manuscript ... or worse, you're neglecting your manuscript in order to produce content for your blog.

Talk about your double-edged sword.

The Beauty of Twitter

One of the great things about Twitter is that you don't need to produce your own content to share great content with your followers. Twitter is saturated with writers - great writers with great insight on everything to do with writing and blogging and marketing and what have you.

By sharing other bloggers' posts, you not only provide valuable content to your own followers, you help market your fellow writers and extend their reach.

It's a beautifully digital twist on the classic symbiotic relationship.

But once again, if you're like me, time is an issue. You have to spend time looking for valuable content to share. You've got to get yourself organized with the author's Twitter handle, a Bitly link (or an Owly link, or whatever), and an understanding of the content you're sharing.

Something that's meant to save time is still pretty labour-intensive.

Enter the Posting Schedule

I got the idea for a posting schedule from an acquaintance whose job is social media in a corporate environment. With this brilliant little tool, she organizes her Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest posts a month in advance.

Admittedly, as a writer, I don't quite need the same degree of organization to my Twitter activity. So I adapted the posting schedule to my own purpose.

Here's How

  • When you have time, search Twitter for interesting posts that you feel your followers might find valuable
  • Create a shortened link right away and record it in a spreadsheet 
  • Record the title of the post, the author's Twitter handle, and the website's Twitter handle if the author has written a guest post
  • Keep a column where you can record the date of when you made the post

Keep all these things in a running spreadsheet for later use - when you are strapped for time but want to send out a tweet or two to keep yourself active on Twitter. 

It's kind of like the glycemic index, isn't it? You compile a list of three or four valuable posts at a time, as time permits, and hold onto them for sustained release.

Here is what my current posting schedule looks like:

And here's a helpful hint: if you use different computers at different times of the day (perhaps you're at work, or using a tablet when you're away from your personal computer), create your spreadsheet through Google Docs. You can then access and work on your posting schedule whenever - you are not limited by access to only one computer. If you have wifi, you can work.

Sharing other writers' content is just one of the many ways you can be a valuable contributor in the Twittersphere. To keep control of the stress of having to find things to tweet, organize yourself by using a posting schedule.

I've been doing it for a while now, and it's been working great for me.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Struggling with My Niche ... What IS My Niche?

If you're an indie author, you've got to blog.

At least, that's what I've been told by, like, just about every "how to" blog post I've seen. Blogging increases your following. Blogging makes you more visible.

... It's also a major time-suckage.

Whether it is, or is not, necessary, I've gotten myself into it, and I'll be damned if I'm going to give up on it now (persistence ... it's one of my more unattractive qualities).

What Should I Blog About?

Lately I've fallen into a trap: I've spent several posts on writing tips. Why have I done this? Peer pressure, I guess. I've seen all those blog posts out there that say "five tips for ..." and "how to ..." and I thought, that's what people want to read.

But ... is that really what I want to blog about?

Don't get me wrong, as an author, I've learned a few things about creating a manuscript. I know a trick or two about how to craft a gripping plot. I even know what makes a good character.

But I'm not just about the craft of writing. And I don't pretend to be an expert on it.

So Again ... What Should I Blog About?

I've come to a realization: I'm a writer.

I'm a writer. And as a writer, I spend a lot of time brooding. Thinking. Musing. I outline stories in my head for the fun of it. I scope out character flaws while I'm on the treadmill. In short, I'm a deep, deep thinker.

Yes, I know a bit about the craft of writing. Sure, I can write "how to" posts and then send them out on twitter with the hashtag #writingtips. And every now and then I'll want to share some of the knowledge I've gleaned in the past ... well, X number of years.

But that's not the limit of my interests. And that doesn't have to be the niche I plunk myself into as a blogger.

My niche, I've decided, is the author-blogger, and I've only just been able to define what that means to me. It means that I've got to trust the voices in my head. Heck, they've never led me wrong in my books. It's time I let them have free reign on my blog posts.

Have I been musing over the merits of a clean-cut hero versus a rough-and-tumble one? Did I watch a movie that has influenced my latest project? What did I think of the latest book I've read?

The Author's Blog - Not Just A How-To

Writing endless how-to blog posts seems to be a popular thing to do. And if I wanted to, I could probably continue to follow the herd.

But I'm a writer. I'm about challenging myself. And finding things to blog about other than "five secrets to a great plot" or "how to write a loveable lead" is a challenge. It's also kind of scary, because it means I have to put myself out there. It means I have to expose my flaws, my self-doubts and my sometimes-lack-of-expertise.

Then again, writing and publishing my first novel was kind of scary. I had to do all those things then, too.

And you know? Somehow I came out better for it. 

Friday, 7 March 2014

(Not So) Secondary Characters

In life, we meet countless people who are secondary characters to our life story: our neighbours; our colleagues; the servers at our favourite coffee shop. These people don't exist solely to serve our life stories. They are their own entities. They have their own back stories, their own personalities, and their own actions, reactions, thoughts and feelings.

But our novels aren't real life, and often the importance of secondary characters are overlooked in the author's pursuit of the plot. They exist because they have to: you can't have your hero and heroine falling in love in the empty Scottish Highlands, after all. 

When we're plodding along, committing our brilliant little stories to paper (or word processor), we often focus too much on the main characters and not enough on the secondary characters. 

To the detriment of our finished books.

Why are Secondary Characters Important?

Main characters are the meat of your story. They are what everyone can't wait to dig into; they are what everyone congratulates the chef on. But you can't have a balanced dinner without the veg, starch, and cheesecake for dessert. 

Secondary characters are like your side dishes. Boiled potatoes, steamed carrots and undressed lettuce are pretty forgettable. But scalloped potatoes with cheese, maple-glazed carrots and caesar salad with bacon, on the other hand ... well, you get my point.

(My apologies to the vegetarians reading this post, as an aside.)

Secondary characters need to be fleshed out. They need to have their own, individual voices, their own flaws and quirks, and their own back stories. They are what give your story vibrancy. And, more importantly, they help bring your hero and heroine to life, too. They are the catalysts that propel the actions, thoughts and feelings of your main characters.

Spoiler Alert ...

Take, for example, my Highland Loyalties series. Would anyone have cared about Ruth's violent and untimely death if she'd been only a stock character? An un-opinionated, impersonal maid who cleans out Lady Jane's chamber pot every morning would have earned very few tears when she's wrongly hanged for treason.

Or Tearlach (that's Scots for Charles, by the way). Would anyone have cared whether or not he survived the final battle with Baron D'Aubrey's men if he weren't the loyal, fatherly figure to Robbie MacGillivray, but instead was just the stand-in character that represented the Dunloch steward?

Secondary Characters Matter

As with real people, your secondary characters should be living, breathing entities. Memorable secondary characters are what make your readers care about the story as a whole. Spend time introducing them to your readers, spend time developing them into the multi-faceted gems they are. They deserve to be as much a part of your novel as your hero and heroine do.

And, if you serialize your novels, they can in turn become main characters themselves. Bonus!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Head-Hopping - Why the Dual POV is a Powerful Tool

Have you ever heard of the term head-hopping? Lately, a lot of the blog posts I seem to be reading warn against head-hopping. They claim that using a dual point-of-view (or a triple, or even a multiple point-of-view) can ruin a story if it’s not done right.

I admit that dual points-of-view need to be done correctly. If you head-hop, you need to make sure your reader understands a) that the hop has taken place and b) whose head they’ve hopped into.

That aside, though, head-hopping can be an effective tool. Especially for romance novels, where emotion is a significant aspect of the plot.

So then, what does head-hopping do that makes it such an effective tool?

1. It keeps the narrative fresh

How many times have you read a book where you’ve been in the heroine’s head from start to finish? Doesn’t that get a bit boring after a while?

If you’re writing in the first person, then there’s no help for this; everything needs to be filtered through your main character since it’s s/he who is telling the story.

But if you’re writing from a third-person-omniscient perspective, you don’t have to stay in one character’s thoughts. You can explore different situations, give them different twists, and tell them with a different voice by seeing them through a shifting lens.

2. It encourages sympathy for a character

Take a quick peek at Amazon’s reviews, and chances are you’ll find at least one where the reader lamented that they didn’t like a character, or they just couldn’t sympathize with them. Head-hopping helps you get past this roadblock.

Take these two different perspectives on the same situation:

Lady Cora glared at the handsome Lord John who her father had just told her she must marry. Must marry? It was not fair! Why must she simply submit to her father’s will? Anger flared inside her, and fresh tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. She held them in, determined that she would not cry.

And ...

Lord John waited for Lady Cora to say something. She glared at him with all the defiance of her wilful nature. But underneath it he saw the turmoil she fought hard to suppress. A tender sorrow blossomed in his breast as her eyes glistened with fresh tears which the lady refused to shed.

Both scenarios are meant to inspire sympathy for our Lady Cora. But with the first one, if it’s not handled carefully, she can end up looking like a spoiled brat (you might almost expect her to stomp her foot and threaten to hold her breath). With the second one, we see the reaction her suffering inspires in Lord John, and we are more likely to agree with his sympathy for her.

Dual (or multiple) points-of-view are the most effective way to keep your story interesting and multi-faceted. It is a more engaging, and a more malleable option for driving home the emotions you want to evoke in your readers.

It’s a powerful tool. Don’t shy away from it.