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Finding Your Voice

As a first-time writer, I found it difficult to figure out how I wanted to write. Sure, I knew the story I wanted to tell. How do I tell it, though? I decided to approach it the way I do tough projects at work: analyze, research, and implement.

I am a voracious reader so I decided to analyze the books I liked. How did the writer structure the story? Did he or she describe every detail in the room, or was the reader left to fill in most of the blanks? Was the story heavy in dialogue? Did we spend a lot of time in the mind of the characters? Did the writer engage my senses – sight, sound, smell, touch?

I watched webinars on storywonk.com. They offered short, free sessions about a variety of topics, which was great for my sometimes limited attention span. I also downloaded some of the paid courses. The fees were modest, and the topics helped me understand more about the writing process.

I tried to read some books about “how to write a book.” I confess that I just didn’t find them engaging enough to hold my attention. I enjoyed the online webinars through storywonk.com so much more.

Now that I had lots of information, it was time to put everything into practice. It turns out the best advice is to just start writing. I first wrote a very long draft of the story. Then, I read what I wrote and changed some things. I repeated this process many, many times.

With each rewrite, I noticed some trends. I have a tendency to use the same words over and over again. I used the navigation tool in Word to search for those words and made sure I did not overuse them.

In my book, I have a tendency to write short paragraphs. Have you noticed that?

I discovered that I like to use little techniques that make it easier to follow the story. I like to read before bedtime. The next night or maybe the next day at lunch, I’ll pick up the book and flip back a page or two to figure out who’s talking or what’s going on. In Through the Mist, I made a conscious decision to structure my book in a “reader-friendly” way. If you put the book down, you (hopefully) would know where you were in the story the next time you picked up the book. I began each section with the name of the character involved in the scene.

Another thing I found was my lack of explanation. I assumed too much from the reader. For example, I called Malcolm Campbell a “laird” in one version of my story. In the critique, Mrs. Rich said I needed to brush up on my history; he would not have used that title after the ’45 Rising. At first, I was a little miffed because I knew damn well that the clan system was destroyed by the Act of Proscription. (Google it; it’s an interesting read.) Then, I understood. While I thought Malcolm’s use of the term showed his old-fashioned sensibility, it did not. I had far better ways to portray Malcolm Campbell, and I should not assume that the reader had a thorough knowledge of the aftermath of the ’45.

By the way, whenever someone says “the ‘45” or “the Rising,” they are referring to the Scottish rebellion against the English in 1745. There were a few Scottish rebellions, but the ’45 is the most significant. The English essentially committed genocide after the ’45. That’s my opinion. I suspect many Scots would agree.

Anyway – moving on….

So, the “implement” part took over three years. I rewrote scene after scene so, so many times, to get it just right. The story that I published differs a great deal from the original. I added much more material as I tried to paint a picture of the landscape and Castle Fion as well as take the reader into the minds of the characters. It took that long to figure out how I write.

If you are embarking on this journey, I wish you luck. Consult with whatever resources you have at hand. It is always useful to understand how other people write and how the process should work. However, in the end, it is your book. Tell the story in the way that fits best for you. If that means you write extensive outlines and put major plot points on note cards, great. If you prefer to jump into the story and make it up as you go along, that’s good too.

I do not believe there is a fixed way that everyone should write. I believe you should write your way. Most importantly, just write! 

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Constructive Criticism

I paid a modest fee to have the first 25,000 words of Through the Mist: Restoration (TTMR) reviewed by Mrs. Lani Diane Rich at storywonk.com. I thought that the book was done, so this was akin to putting on a few finishing touches. Oh, I was so, so wrong.

The genre of TTMR meant that Mrs. Rich was the victim at storywonk.com. She gave a great critique of my work. A devastating, but great, critique.

Up until this point, “criticism” usually meant something negative. Let’s face it. At work, folks are all too happy to tear you down. When I received her critique, I learned that there is a different form – constructive criticism. What a revelation!

Mrs. Rich offered the objective opinion I needed from a professional writer. I learned so many valuable lessons that sent TTMR and me on a completely different path.

For starters, I have a problem with point of view (POV). I still don’t understand how writers can construct a story in an omniscient viewpoint. Maybe I will learn how as I write more books. For now, it is better for me to remain firmly in one character’s viewpoint.

I realized that I did a poor job “painting a scene,” as I call it. I should not assume that the reader knows as much about Scottish history as I think I do. While I do not need to spend pages on a topic, I can toss in a sentence here and there, change the actions of a character – those sorts of things – and thus provide the reader with necessary information. The reader does not need to be bored with research material and history lessons. As a writer, it is my responsibility to push the story along, and sometimes that involves sharing the facts tumbling in my head.

I also adjusted the timeline. I don’t want to give away too much of the story. Let’s just say that certain events happened sooner rather than later. I should have allowed Tilly more time than I did. In my defense, I have known people who endured similar hardships. These women are amazing. They pick themselves and do extraordinary things. Still, one does need a little time to catch one’s breath. I may have pushed Tilly too much.

The biggest change came with the prologue. (I might publish the original here someday, just for giggles.) Mrs. Rich believed prologues were a bad idea and strongly recommended that I eliminate it altogether. If I insisted upon keeping it, she suggested that I try writing the prologue from a different POV.

That was the best advice. For kicks, I wrote it from Morag’s POV. I decided that, if I did not like it, I would not use it. The new version vastly improved the story. It completely changed the entire tone of the book.

I kept the prologue – sorry, Mrs. Rich. In my humble opinion, it is necessary for the book. I have no intentions of writing a prologue for the next one, though. It has no purpose there.

Remember - it is your book, so tell the story how you like. At the same time, I strongly advise you to seek an objective reader for your work. I spent so much time working on the story that I could no longer spot the weaknesses. I want people to read TTMR, something they will not do if the work is deeply flawed. I did not want readers to toss the book aside because they could not follow the story or were disgusted by the quality of the writing. You probably feel the same way too.

I desperately needed the constructive criticism that Mrs. Rich provided. Even if it stung a little. No pain, no gain, right? I hope you have had an opportunity to read TTMR and agree.

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Marketing: It's All You!

As a writer who chose the self-publishing route, you will quickly find that you must do a lot of work yourself. You may think that the difficult work is behind you after you write the book. Oh, no – it has just begun!

I mentioned in previous posts that you can find people to do some of the work for you. These services usually are not free, though. And, whether or not you pay someone else, you make the final decision about everything from formatting of your book to artwork to website design.

I have found this part of the process to be a bit annoying. While I enjoyed some aspects like website creation, other tasks have been daunting. Take Facebook, for example. Until I published this book, I did not have a Facebook page. I am one of those rare individuals who have been “in the dark.” My reason is simple – if you are my friend, we already talk, text, and email. I don’t need to “like” you on the Internet. I already like you in real life!

Unfortunately, when you are trying to market a book, you cannot have that viewpoint. Your readers need a way to get in touch with you and follow what’s going on. A website and blog are nice, but not everyone goes there. Like it or not, people prefer searching on FB.

I have spent hours trying to get an author page setup on FB. I am not technically illiterate. I know that a “thin client” is not a person who won the battle with his/her weight. I have setup complex software and created new processes and procedures. Why is FB so damn confusing?? Maybe part of the fault is mine. While I am on FB, I cannot help but think that it is a HUGE waste of time.

So, the moral of the story is you may find yourself taking on tasks that have nothing to do with writing a book. What do you do? You have a couple of options.

If you do it yourself, the Internet is a good resource for learning more about marketing. Find out what venue works best for what you are trying to market. For example, readers who like Steam Punk might not be interested in a book about 17th-century musical instruments. Also, think about what your technical abilities and interests are. Do you have friends who could help? Are you willing to take classes to improve your skills?

You can opt to have other people build this stuff for you. That will likely cost money. You should set a budget for the project, just as you would anything else. It is easy to spend thousands of dollars that you may never recoup from your book’s sales. A quick Google search can help you locate people who could help. I prefer using trusted sources, though. Try to find websites that tailor to your genre and see what other authors use. I am a big fan of the folks at storywonk.com.

Regardless who does the work (you or someone else), you must do some sort of marketing work. You took the time to write the book. People who are not your friends or family should read it, right? That’s the point of marketing. You want readers!

Good luck!

P.S.

I still haven't figured out how to set up that *&^% Facebook page. Not an account, a Page. I can create it, yet the URL does not work. Grrrrrr....see what I mean about the problems of "do it yourself?" 

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Self Publishing is Soooo Easy

I was blissfully naïve when I decided that self-publishing my book would be easy. It is a lot of work.

In some aspects, the publishing process is better than it was 10, 20 years ago. You don’t need a literary agent or fat publishing contract to print your book. Several vendors are happy to assist you with getting your book printed in eBook and/or paperback form.

I ultimately choose Amazon and their parent company, CreateSpace, because their service is free on the front end. Amazon provides you with tools and other resources to create and publish eBooks. CreateSpace, which will produce your work in paperback form, has similar tools that help you create the cover, market the book, and handle loads of other questions. Both venues take a hefty cut of the total price. I was deeply saddened to see that my dreams of making writing a full-time career likely will not come true. Unless I sell millions of copies, my proceeds won’t even pay for that glass of champagne I featured in the first blog post.

So, yes, anyone can publish a book. That’s also the bad part. When my book is published, it is akin to tossing a pebble in the ocean. Literally hundreds of thousands of books are out there. How can I get people to notice my humble work?

I suppose that’s where the literary agent and traditional publishing house comes into play. All the work I must do on my own would be done by them. I created my own web page. I took the photo that appears on the cover of my book and designed the cover itself. I formatted the book for publishing on both Amazon’s eBook and CreateSpace’s paperback sites, which were two completely different formats. For the most part, I edited the book on my own.

You can find people out there who would be happy to perform a lot of these services for you. Someone would have been happy to design the website, edit the book, et cetera. All of those things cost money, though. When it is your first work, it is hard to justify the expense. It is especially difficult when you have no idea whether or not you have a prayer of making money on the venture.

For that reason, I have done a lot of the work myself. Some snarky folks will say it shows; well, help me for free then. Tell me what I should have done differently – in a nice way.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a very valuable resource that I used. As a fan of Outlander, I discovered a podcast called “The Scot and the Sassenach.” The couple who produced the podcast reviewed each episode of the series. It is a brilliant podcast conducted by two writing professionals. They provide an interesting prospective.

They also offer loads of writing classes (both free and paid) on their website, storywonk.com. They will perform all sorts of other services for you – help you with editing, design, et cetera. I found an offer where they would take the first 25,000 words of your novel and provide a critique. It was not terribly expensive, just $100 at the time. I considered the price to be very fair, especially when I received the feedback.

The review was admittedly disappointing at first, because I thought I was finished. However, the criticism was constructive. She helped me to see problems I had with various aspects of the book. In fact, I eliminated the first few chapters and started over. She is not a fan of prologues and wanted me to scrap it, but if I was “stubborn,” she suggested that I write it from a different character’s point of view (POV). I did, just to see how it would read – and the prologue in the book today is the result. It is far richer and ties the story together much better than the original.

If you are thinking about the self-publishing route, be prepared to do a lot of work. Set a budget for what you are willing to invest. Know that you may never, ever recoup that cost. Then, you can decide how much you can do yourself and how much you must pay someone else to do.

Do I wish I had a literary agent and big, fat publishing contract? I really don’t know. I imagine you must relinquish a certain amount of creative control. That’s really the big reason to go with self publishing – it is all you. No one imposes a deadline. No one tells you that you cannot say something. Some people may find that overwhelming. Some may find it liberating.

No matter which way you go, though, the key is to start writing! I do not believe this will be the venture that will rescue me from my job. I probably have a better chance of winning the lotto. However, that is not my primary reason for writing. I have a story to tell-and now I am finally able to tell it.

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