Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Do Writers Read?

Umberto Eco, an Italian philosopher, literary critic, and novelist, was quoted in the UK Guardian (May 24, 2011): “I’m a writer, not an author.”

Can you imagine a chef never tasting another’s cooking? Or an artist never drinking in the beauty of another’s creation? What about a musician never listening to music of any kind? There is something about celebrating others who do what you do -- other writers, authors, experts, and authorities. By celebrating others and supporting their work, you gain a higher level of appreciation for the craft you are honing.

Oftentimes, writers think that if they read other books in the same genre or with a similar subject matter as theirs, that it will somehow taint their ability to write effectively. These writers are afraid that they might unwittingly incorporate the storyline, twist of suspense, phraseology, or other writing technique of another author. That is a fair concern. However, most often the reality is quite the contrary. 

Reading the works of other talented authors serves to sharpen your own writing style, your storytelling ability, and your grasp of the language. I get inspiration and satisfaction from reading an eclectic mixture of materials, including those in the same genres in which I write. Not only does reading feed my soul, it also builds my intellect and boosts my skills. 

So why should you read?
  • Read for fun! As you read just for the sake of reading, you will subconsciously notice innuendos, twists in the tale, or attention-grabbing prose that will help sharpen your own writing style.
  • Read to get new ideas. Even if the subject of the book you are reading now is not related to the book you are presently writing, you’ll still get fresh insights.
  • Read to keep your mind sharp. Reading is never a waste of time – if you aren’t learning something constructive, you may still learn something NOT to do in your own writing.
  • Read to enhance your knowledge and your conversation. Talking about an interesting book is always a good conversation starter – but don’t give away the ending!
  • Read and write alternatively to find your own style. Experiment until you find what is natural to you.
  • Read to expand your vocabulary. Make note of new or unfamiliar words you read. Practice using them in your own writing.
  • Read for sheer enjoyment and entertainment. There is pleasure, relaxation, humor, suspense, drama, revelation, knowledge, and so much more to be found on the pages of a good book. Let reading become your preferred form of entertainment.
I agree with Charles W. Eliot who said, “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Name Game

No matter how wonderful the content of your book may be, if it isn’t packaged with pizzazz, your book may never sell. What makes anyone pick up a book when browsing the bookshelf? Color and design play a big part, but the title is usually what catches anyone’s attention. When the title is intriguing, the reader is tempted to pick it up and turn to the back cover for more. 

How many words are too many when it comes to your book’s title? Is one word too short to get the message across or to pique the interest of readers? Although there is no tried and true formula for naming your book, you can learn a lot from studying other book titles. How do these popular book titles grab you?

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – A Story of Race and Family Secrets, by Bliss Broyard
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
It, by Stephen King
Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill
The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-create Your World Your Way, by Wayne Dyer

As a self-publisher, you have more control over your book’s title than if you were using a traditional publishing house. You also have 100 percent of the responsibility for knowing your ideal readers, what they want, and for developing a title that will attract them immediately.  

Keep these tips in mind as you mull over the Name Game:

Captivating  – Use your creativity to make the title stand out. Use double entendre, puns, or other grammatical tricks/gimmicks to make readers curious enough to pick up your book. Using rhyme or alliteration will also add interest.

Imaginative – Choose descriptive words for your book to evoke mental imagery and give readers a taste of what’s inside.

Informative – Use a subtitle to give a clear description of your book's content if the title doesn’t give an obvious meaning. You don’t want purchasers to think they are buying a cookbook, when the content is really about rocket science.

Target – Keep your target audience in mind. If your book is serious in tone, don’t use a title that is cute or funny. 

Test – Develop several possible book titles and invite friends, colleagues, or a sample group of your target audience to choose their favorite title. This informal survey could prove helpful in selecting a great title.  

A lot of brainstorming, creativity, and experimenting is involved in crafting a title that says the most in the fewest number of words. Apply these tips and stay committed to creating a title that let’s your book shout “Read me!”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Writing Mistakes to Avoid

Writing is a skill, it’s a talent, and some might even say it’s a gift. Still, there are others who would call writing a chore; and it can be if you have difficulty expressing yourself in print. For many authors, one of the most difficult parts of writing is keeping the content fresh and interesting for readers. In the effort to do so, authors sometimes develop habits that threaten the effectiveness of their content.

Most authors may be aware of some common writing mistakes to avoid, such as poor spelling, incorrect punctuation, and fragmented sentences. But have you considered these more obscure slip-ups that might prevent your book content from having the impact you want it to have?  

Repetitive catchwords. You know those favorite phrases or words that pop up repeatedly throughout your book. Most likely, you also use them when you speak. You might not notice them, but a good copy editor will. Avoid using these as a crutch. 

Redundancy. Using two words when only one will suffice. It sometimes takes a keen editing eye to catch these words.

Know the difference between show and tell. A descriptive sentence that tells what the reader sees can either make or break the scene. Instead of saying “a tall, blonde,” be specific and say “ a 6’2” willowy figure with hair flowing past her shoulders.” Play on the senses, so when readers close their eyes, they can envision what is being described. One word of warning: be stingy with your words when describing a character or scene. Less is more.

Dialogue. Sometimes, dialogue is used when narration or description would be better. In writing, the rule is to “Show, dont’ tell.” Avoing using dialogue as a crutch to describe a scene. Use dialogue to give insight into a character’s personality that will not be evident with description alone. 

Modern lingo. If you use current idioms, your book will quickly become outdated. “Neat” was a “cool” word in the 60s, but means nothing to today’s young folks.

To be or not to be. Avoid all forms of be (was, is, etc.). Instead use active, engaging verbs.

Too many words. Minimize extraneous material. If it has no direct relation to the plot, leave it out. Eliminate details that don’t enhance the story.

Character overload. Too many characters tend to clutter a story. It can be confusing and difficult for readers to keep up with a plethora of characters in any type of book. Keep it to a handful of well-developed characters.

Clichés. We’ve all heard them enough times. Be imaginative and make a tired cliché exciting.

Good writing takes practice. Keep at it, watch for the above common writing traps, and experience your writing gift evolving. The more you do it, the better you’ll become. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Procrastination is a Thief

Procrastinate: to defer action; delay; to procrastinate until an opportunity is lost.

We’ve all done it. In fact, most people continuously do it. You know what I’m talking about. Procrastination. You put off for tomorrow – or next week or next month – what you really should be doing today. Sometimes you put it off forever. You delay, forget, avoid, and make excuses all to sidestep doing that thing you either need to or want to do, such as starting or completing your manuscript, getting published, or designing a publicity plan for your book. But why do you do it?

There many reasons why people procrastinate. I would venture to say that more often than not, those reasons are mental rather than tactical. It’s the thought of the thing that stops you in your tracks. You know how to do it and what it will take to complete the task, but you just can’t wrap your mind around getting started or getting it done. What are some of your mental blockers?

  • Uncertainty: Are you unsure of the next step to take? Do you need help or information?
  • Fear: Are you afraid of failure, success, the unknown, what “they” will think or say? Do you cringe at the thought of what will be expected of you when your book is complete? Are you afraid your next effort won’t compare to this one?
  • Doubt: Do you doubt your ability or your expertise?
  • Process: Do you focus more on the process than on your progress? Do you stumble mentally because you can’t envision the finished product and the results you want?
Moving beyond procrastination takes more than just “getting over it.” You really have to do some self work and determine which of the above blockers – or some other – is keeping you from accomplishing your goal. Think about your book project and the times you’ve procrastinated with it. At what point in the process did you stop moving forward? Was it during the planning, the writing, or some other part? Did you freeze up when trying to decide the main point of your book? Did you reach a point when you were not certain how to explain a concept or describe an incident? Did you get stuck when researching professional copy editors to review your content? Were you afraid you wouldn’t have enough money to complete the self-publishing process or to hire a publicist? Did you talk yourself out of approaching an organization to inquire about speaking to their membership about your book? What was it?

Next, determine the behaviors you typically exhibit when you procrastinate. Do you hoard, avoid phone calls, focus on busy work, overindulge in social media sites, go shopping, watch television, nap, eat, drink alcohol, or do something else? Identifying your avoidance behaviors is critical to stopping the cycle of procrastination. Most often, you know when you’re procrastinating, but you fill your time so thoroughly with other activities that you convince yourself that doing those things is more important than accomplishing the goal of completing your book.

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, stop. Consider why you are procrastinating and notice the behaviors in which you’re indulging. Then, consider these tips to help you move beyond procrastination and into progress.

Think about the grand goals you have for your book project. How will you feel once your book content is complete, expertly edited, professionally designed and printed, and in your hand as a finished product? How exciting will it be to speak to audiences about your book, to sign copies in the back of the room, to fulfill bulk orders, to get more business, to make more money, to donate proceeds to charities, to inspire other authors, to live the life of your dreams?

Break your project into smaller, manageable tasks
Maybe you put off writing because it’s such a huge project that you feel there’s no way you can ever complete it. Split the project into achievable milestones, and mark off your progress along the way. Set weekly goals. Decide on one of the following: how many words, pages, or chapters you will write each week.

Make an appointment with yourself
To help you stay on track with your milestones, schedule writing appointments with yourself – and stick to them. You would think twice before breaking an appointment with a friend, colleague or professional. Give yourself and your book project the same respect and priority.

Stay focused
When you sit down to plan, write, or make contact with people who can help with your book project, stay focused. It’s tempting to check email, review a news site, text someone, or browse your favorite social media sites – and you can still do those things ... as soon as you accomplish what you set out to do. Remain focused on the activity at hand. Do not become burdened with feelings of depravity, thinking that if you work on your book now you won’t be able to do other things. Staying focused on your objective and completing the task can actually relieve you of stressful feelings about other, less important activities.

Be accountable
Find a friend or family member to give you the support you need to stay on track. Is it words of encouragement, a firm taskmaster, a listening ear, an honest reviewer, or a reality checker that you need most? Tell your accountability partner what you’ll need him/her to do along the way. Be honest and check in regularly. Your partner should be strong yet loving enough to keep you on course.

Take breaks
Allow downtime in your schedule for resting. Burnout is a real possibility if your timeline is too rigid. But don’t take breaks that are too long because it may be hard to get back into your routine.

Give yourself a break
As tempting as it may be, don’t berate yourself for procrastinating. If you miss a deadline, or get off schedule, pick yourself up and head for the next milestone. Life happens and things come up that sometimes get you off track. But keep your vision in mind and you’ll find it easier to accomplish your goals.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

5 Ways to Overcome Writer's Block

Have you ever reached the point where you stare blankly at the computer screen anxiously awaiting the next great sentence to magically pour from your fingertips? All writers experience writer's block, even the greats. But you don't have to remain stuck there. Here are a few tips for getting un-stuck.

Be True to You
Writing begins with feeling. So, when you get stuck, immediately get in touch with how you’re feeling. Maybe you’re avoiding a painful or embarrassing incident that you want to include in the story, but you don’t want to tell it. In this case, move forward with writing about the incident exactly as you recall it - warts and all. Often, this is a cleansing exercise and presents an opportunity for you to get in touch with your feelings. Put it aside for a day or so. When you return to your writing project, read through your description. Is it still embarrassing? Painful? If so, perhaps you could change the names of the people involved, eliminate a few details, or remove it altogether.

Reach Out to the Experts
Perhaps you’re writing about something you’ve never actually done. Research or interview an expert and quote them. Always, without exception, ask permission and give credit when using someone else’s intellectual property or when quoting someone.

Find Your Voice
Oftentimes, writers get stuck when they try to imitate someone else’s style. Rather than  writing with the flowery, emotional flair of an ancient storyteller, the forceful passion of a contemporary motivational speaker, or the rhythmic cadence of a much revered poet ... work on developing your own true voice. Authenticity shows through in your writing. Believe it or not, your readers can tell when you’re not being yourself. Bring your own passion to the pages. Try writing whatever comes to your mind; write, don’t think.

Be In Your Comfort Zone
Being comfortable when you write is an important aspect of the writing process, and it can do wonders for getting un-stuck. Consider these aspects of comfort:
  • Environmental – Make sure you are relaxed, have all of the materials you need for writing and eliminate distractions and interruptions in your writing place.
  • Personal: When you’re hungry or tired, you will inevitably encounter writer’s block. As much as possible, satisfy your basic physical and personal needs before sitting down to write.
  • Emotional: Worry, fear, guilt, shame, anger and other emotions can become a roadblock to your writing. Try deep breathing for several minutes before starting to write. Imagine yourself in a beautiful scene and focus on only that. If worrisome thoughts creep into the scene, just practice the breathing exercise and reposition yourself in the scene. Remember that you are in your writing place to create something wonderful.
Discover Writing Prompts
Perhaps you’re searching for the right words to construct that amazing sentence. To get your creative juices flowing:
  • Grab an old photo album and select a picture that you have a particular emotional connection to. Recall what it was like at that moment. Then write about it.
  • Reread love letters, thank you notes, birthday cards and recall the pleasant feelings you had when you received them. Write what you feel.
  • Choose a magazine article that addresses one of your current interests. Write a summary of the article and describe how it speaks to your personal concerns or interests.
  • Recall a dream you’ve had. Describe what happened, what you did, how you felt and how it ended.
  • Consider the seasons. Describe the changes in the landscape,
 There'sno one magic solution for getting un-stuck. Writer’s block is a real thing, but it doesn’t have to imprison you. Keep your writing flowing and just remember that writing is a process. You are a writer and you are here to write your life.