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DdfpPEkU0AATruuSo I’m back from a three-day weekend in Lancaster, Pa., for the 31st annual Pennwriters Conference. Once again, this conference did not disappoint.

I went looking for some tips to better marketing myself, and I found plenty of that. One session was called “School Visits 101” with Donna Galanti. I went looking for advice for how to get talks in schools. She delivered on that, but she also had information about preparing a presentation and publicizing it. I will be going over my notes from that session more than a few times to try and glean everything that I can from it.

Another session that I really liked was “Writing for New Technologies” with Katie Ernst. This session introduced me to some new possibilities for new markets using new technologies to sell your writing. I have to admit, I was a bit intimidated by it since I am not an early adopter of new technology. However, I will try these new things out (slowly).

I had two classes and a luncheon talk that were all well attended. I thought I had flubbed the luncheon talk, but I got a lot of good feedback on it afterward.

I got to sit down 20 minutes with agent Louise Fury and talk about indie writing, marketing, and being a hybrid author. VERY INFORMATIVE! I loved it. She was very friendly and I’ve got more information from her that I need to follow up on. This was a new thing Pennwriters offered this year, and I hope they continue it.

I also pitched a couple agents projects I had done as J. R. Rada. This my pen name for YA, fantasy, and horror. I have been thinking about trying to get an agent for my work as J. R. Rada and continuing the indie route with my own name. Both agents asked to see different novels, so we’ll see how this all works out.

A great weekend for recharging the writing batteries!

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writers_group-1One of the benefits I’ve discovered about being part of a writer’s group is that it readies you for dealing with people. Between the critiques and social interactions, a writer’s group is a good way to learn how to come out of your shell.

Let’s face it, writing can be fairly isolated work. Yet, I go to my weekly writer’s group and meet and talk with other writers who may not have had a lot of interactions. While most of the people in the group are wonderful, sometimes someone will say or do something that sets someone else off. Things won’t erupt into an argument or anything. The offended party just lets things fester until he or she simply stops coming to the group.

Occasionally, we learn the reason behind the person’s absence, but other times not. I also tend to think that a lot of the reasons for the person leaving the group are misunderstandings that I would hope could have been resolved if the issue had been addressed.

Then, of course, there are critiques. My group tries to keep any feedback during reading night positive. Again, it may not be taken that way.

One thing I know from nearly 30 years of professional writing is that you need to develop a thick skin. If I had given up when I received my first rejection letter, I would never have known the joy I find as a writer.

So, when you find a writer’s group to join, take advantage of all it has to offer. Learn how to improve your craft, but also learn how to deal with people and handle criticism. While learning former will help you become a better writer, the latter two will help you be a happier person.

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RADA-1Pennwriters is the statewide writers’ association in Pennsylvania. I’ll be presenting three sessions at their annual writers’ conference later this month. As part of their promotion for the conference, they conduct a Q&A with their presenters. Here is the one that I did.

  1. What do you think is special about the genre you write in?

I write in a variety of genres, although most frequently, in non-fiction history. The thing that I find most interesting about this genre is that the stories I tell are true, and if I find the right one, they are just as interesting as fiction.

  1. What do you find to be the most difficult part of writing? Did you ever encounter a serious roadblock and how did you overcome it?

The most difficult part of writing is dealing with mean-spirited criticism. I’ve been a professional writer since 1988. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin, but that kind of criticism still bothers me for days.

As for serious roadblock, I busted through one earlier this year. I had a novel idea that I had been working at on and off for years, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I had outlined the book, written a few chapters, and even done research. Something was missing that I couldn’t put my finger on. I kept starting and getting nowhere. In January, I decided to make one change with my main character, and that broke the logjam. I had ideas pouring out of my imagination. One book has now become three, and I am using almost nothing from my earlier efforts.

This particular book is also coming together in a very disjointed way. I am writing scenes from all over the book rather than the typical beginning-to-end process. This has probably kept me from getting stuck on the project again.

  1. What’s individual or unique about your writing space? Do you have a memento or good luck charm on your desk?

My office is my space and filled with things that make me comfortable. On my walls, I have old movie posters, a triceratops head, historical photos, historical newspapers, family pictures, and even a piece of comic-book art. One my shelves (which cover two walls), I have books – lots of books, of course – but I also have fossils, interesting rocks, robots made from scrap metal, Lego creations my son made, and the California Raisins. If I’m really stressed, I have a tank of fake jellyfish that look real. I turn that on and watch them swim around to destress.

  1. What has been the most satisfying or significant project of your literary career?

It’s a tie between two projects. The first would be a biography I wrote about a WWII veteran I met. This man has a fascinating life story. I tell people he has led a “Forrest Gump life” where he has participated in historical events or met famous people almost accidentally.

The other project is a book a couple years back called The Last to Fall. It’s a true story about a virtually unknown 1922 event in Gettysburg that helped saved the Marine Corps. When the book was released, the local chapter of the Marine Corps League started an effort to put up a waymarker near the site where a plane crashed during the event killing two Marines. This Memorial Day weekend, that waymarker will be dedicated with hundreds of Marines attending the ceremony. It’s very satisfying to see the two Marines who died in the crash finally get remembers.

  1. What is your favorite tip or advice for writers?

Don’t sit around waiting to hear back about an article or book you sent out. Get started on the next project. Keep writing.

  1. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you take with you?

A motorboat, gasoline, and a satellite phone. That way, I wouldn’t be stranded for long.

  1. If you had a time machine, where and when would you be right now? 

That’s a hard one. Doctor Who has been around for 50 years exploring that topic, although he winds up in London more often than not. I think the first stop I would make would be to Nazareth to meet Jesus Christ. Then, I think I’d like to visit the Old West. Finally, I’d visit the Jurassic period because I’d love to see real dinosaurs.

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Of the thousands of pages of articles directed towards engineers in more than 6,000 technical, business, academic, and trade publications in the United States, only one percent are written by people with engineering degrees. It’s not that editors don’t want articles written by engineers; they aren’t receiving articles written by engineers. Why are engineers so shy about writing?

Frank R. Smith, editor of Technical Communication, a journal of the Society for Technical Communication, says that of the many papers he reads each year for possible publication, “most are written by the same people.” Bill French, executive director of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, agrees, adding, “It’s a constant battle to find practical papers.”

Harvey Bjelland, in his book, Writing Better Technical Articles, says “In science, agriculture, bacteriology, chemistry, forestry, engineering, mining, medicine, metallurgy, physics, or any other technical field, writing is essential in most stages of every important project if a person does not wish to remain anonymous.”

Though the publish-to-survive mandate is a part of academic life that many regret, Smith says that “publishing an article is like getting an endorsement from an outside authority. It’s a positive factor when a [performance] review comes up.” Christina Kessler, editor of the Construction Specifier, agrees that “writing articles builds credentials,” especially valuable for freelancers.

Kessler says of engineer-writers, “Their style is a little dry, but their English is no worse than anyone else’s.” But most technical people know that they need to learn to write better.

French says engineers don’t know how to write because their education was heavily based in science rather than liberal arts. Tim Reason, assistant editor for the Professional Surveyor, thinks that there’s a lesson to be learned from technical people without degrees. “We are occasionally disappointed with article removed from academics. Surveyors are not so self-conscious about writing. They like airing issues.”

Despite having everything to gain professionally by publishing an article, most engineers say they don’t have the time or don’t think they have anything to write about, says Smith. The first problem can be solved by emphasizing the benefits of having an article published: Writing is the only tangible result of much engineering research. The second problem can be solved by gaining a wider perspective: Because they do it day after day, engineers may fail to see their work as unique.

Bjelland suggests a third reason for not writing: fear of being seen as inexperienced or not knowledgeable. This can be solved by striving for excellence in writing as just one more aspect of research: The profession can’t advance if technical people don’t write about their work.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Editorial Eye in 1994, but it still has useful information for today’s writer. It was actually my first professionally published article.

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shutterstock_217661482When I first read the Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway in English class, I enjoyed it. Then came the class analysis in which my teacher left me with the feeling that I had just finished a

 

Suddenly, I found that I enjoyed the book far less.

  • I felt stupid that I didn’t pick up on all of the symbolism in the book.
  • I felt manipulated because Hemingway was supposedly putting hidden messages in his writing.

In another high school English class, I loved reading “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. My teacher didn’t pick this story apart with hidden meaning, but I remember that someone told me a story that a student had once asked Jackson if the story contained all of the symbolism that his teacher had said was in the story. Jackson reportedly told the student “no.” She had written the story to be what it appeared to be.

Since then, I’ve been skeptical of literary critics.

Recently, I found an interesting article, “Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional” on MentalFloss.com. A 1963 high school student decided to go right to the source to determine whether his teacher knew what he was talking about when he uncovered all of the symbolism in novels. The student mailed a four-question survey to 150 novelists. He asked them:

  1. “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”
  2. “Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”
  3. “Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? … Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?”
  4. “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

Half of the authors responded to the survey. You can read the article to see some of the responses. My first take away from the author responses is that most authors don’t intend to inject symbolism into their writing, but the subconscious sometimes makes connections that the author might not realize while writing. My second take away is that when an author does try to create symbolism in his or her writing, it often comes across as forced or false. (However, that may be the symbolism that I’m reading into the responses!)

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2018PWCLogo_4RegSite_header_copy_2I enjoy writers conferences. They give me a writing energy boost that has powered me through writer’s block in the past.

One conference that I have attended in the past and enjoyed is the annual Pennwriters Conference. It alternates its location between Lancaster and Pittsburgh. This year it will be in Lancaster. You can attend lectures, panels, keynote addresses, and luncheons for three days. Learn how to write better, sell more, and market more effectively. You might even find a new author to read. James Rollins was the keynote speaker at the conference I attended, and now, I’m a fan of his books. This year’s keynote speaker is thriller writer Gayle Lynds.

I will actually be teaching three sessions at this year’s conference. I will be demonstrating ways to use e-publishing to help invigorate your writing, doing historical research for authentic stories, and making extra bucks as a freelance writer. I hope everyone will find them as helpful as I find the sessions that I attend.

So take a look at the conference offerings at the Pennwriters Conference Page. The link to the schedule can be found here. You can if there is something for you.

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This should be of interest to all writers, but non-fiction writers in particular. I’ve had this happen to me. Sometimes the reader has been right. Sometimes (thankfully, most of the time) I’ve been right.

My process is simple:

  1. I investigate the claim.
  2. If I’m wrong, I fix my copy and repost. Then I let the reader know the correction has been made and thank him or her.
  3. If I’m right, I let the person know that I looked into their claim, and I still support the original version. I also send them any supporting information about it. I then thank them.
  4. If they continue to insist I’m wrong, then I end the conversation. This has only happened to me when the claim of being wrong is about someone’s opinion versus my opinion. In the past, I have tried to talk it through with the person with no success. It has led to one person leaving a one-star review for one of my books. I can’t do anything about that but move forward. In another case, someone got really belligerent on a blog, so I just deleted their comments.

I know I’m not right all the time, and I’m willing to consider making corrections, but in the end, I make the decision whether to make the change or not. Whichever way I go, I make sure that I support my position.

Here’s another writer’s view on the subject. I meant to simply post this, but then being a writer, I decided to weigh in with my experience.

Source: Writing: How to Respond When a Reader Claims There’s an Error in Your Book

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2061471151-rijagd4irI’m often told that I get a lot done in a day, so I must be a good time manager.

I don’t think so.

I think I get a lot done in a day is because I have a lot to do. One of the things about being self-employed is that unless you want to pay someone to do it for you, you have to do everything. So not only do I have to be an author, I have to be a salesperson, book designer, social media marketer, blogger, accountant, PR rep, graphic designer, and more.

My to-do list every day is longer than two people could finish. It helps that I don’t have a long commute that eats up an hour or two each day. It also helps that I’m finding new technology all of the time that helps me automate some of the routine things that I need to do.

So even when I accomplish a lot each day, I always know that more needs to be done. I just keep chipping away at the list like a man trying to eat an elephant. I take small pieces, knowing that eventually, I will finish the whole thing. I do a little bit of each project every day to keep them all moving forward. It takes longer to finish any individual project, but I don’t fall behind on any of my projects. Doing things this way means that if I run into a problem with one of the projects, I have the time needed to fix things without having to pull an all-nighter. It’s something that I learned to do in college while taking a full course load and working a full-time job.

Since college, I’ve learned two other techniques that help me.

The first is that I reprioritize my list every day. Projects that are due sooner are at the top of the list and get a bit more attention. I have found that by doing this, some projects consistently fall to the bottom of the list, and I might not even need to do them.

The second thing I did was to watch less television. Some studies show that the average American watches five hours of television a day. Now I’m no saint. I still watch an hour or two a day, but that still saves me three hours a day. Also, I stream my shows or watch DVDs on my computer on half of my computer monitor and work on other projects on the other side of the monitor; nothing complicated, just routine work.

One final thing is that I have gotten used to things getting done a little slower than I would like, but they get done. That’s the important thing.

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a_team_20My dad used to watch The A-Team when I was a kid and the main character. The main character, John “Hannibal” Smith, was known for chomping on a cigar and saying, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

I know how he feels. I’ve had this historical novel project in mind for at least five years, probably more. I knew I wanted to do a novel set around the 1922 national coal strike set in Western Maryland. I’d written about the strike in a couple articles, and it had come up in a non-fiction book that I’d written. It seemed like a rich setting for me to work with. The strike seemed like it would have a lot of action and drama.

Previously, my efforts in historical fiction have either been my family saga, Canawlers, which is set on the C&O Canal or action-oriented books as in The Rain Man or October Mourning. This novel I envisioned as being more action-oriented. However, I’m beginning to wonder about that now. It may wind up being a very character-driven story.

I had many false starts with the book. I’ve probably written the opening two or three times. I’ve written different scenes. I’ve got it outlined, and have done a lot of the research I needed. Yet, they didn’t work. Something was missing. It wasn’t coming together.

Every time that I put the book on my schedule as a project that I wanted to finish, I’d get started on it and then get distracted by another project. For me, when that happens, my belief is that if I’m writing something that I can’t stay interested in, I’m not going to write something that a reader will be interested in. Plus, I need to maximize my time, and if I’m struggling to push through writer’s block on a project, that is time I could have been doing something that pays.

I actually had this project on tap as one that I wanted to release this year as a herculean effort to produce four books in 2018. I’m putting the first book on the schedule to bed now and doing work on the second book.

Then all of a sudden this past weekend something clicked inside my head and pieces started falling into place for how I could structure the story, which has a working title of In Coal Blood. However, even though I’ve loved that title for a while, I’m not sure it will fit the book that I’m writing now. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe my title caused me to think of the book differently.

I spent all weekend writing notes about characters, outlining section of the book, and writing scenes. I’m really liking what I’m coming up with. I think this has been the turning point for this project. I believe that this year will finally see the publication of the story. I think that I may even switch it with the project that I should be working on.

I had this happen once before when I hit a major stumbling block with my first historical novel. I actually got about halfway through the draft, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. I banged my head against the wall for a long time before I finally laid the book out chapter by chapter on postcards. That’s when an epiphany hit me that a major character who was supposed to survive the story needed to die. Once I wrote that into the story, the floodgates opened, and the book was easy to write from that point on.

That’s how this has happened. I think the key point this time was that I needed to make the story more personal for my main character. Originally, he had no ties to where he was. He was being sent as an undercover Pinkerton agent into a community to infiltrate the miners’ efforts to unionize. It was a job and that was pretty much all it was. Then I decided to connect him personally to the community and have him face some of his demons.

He was always a WWI veteran, but I began to think of him as a man who had joined the army at the beginning of the war to escape the mining life. After the war, he did not return home because his parents had died from the flu. He had missed their funeral because he was still in Europe. He still works for the Pinkertons in Baltimore as an undercover agent. However, now I have him returning home because he was offered a job that would pay more than usual because of his connection to Western Maryland. He is also trying to get away from the memory of a failed romance in Baltimore.

By connecting him to the community, the book is now so much better for it. It is all coming together. I’ve created new characters and fleshed out the ones I already had.  This is giving me a better understanding of who these characters are, and with that better understanding, I am so looking forward to writing this book. I’ve got so many ideas. Now my problem is getting my other work complete because I’m spending so much time on this story.

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UntitledHere’s the cover for my next book, Secrets of the C&O Canal: Little-Known Stories and Hidden History Along the Potomac River. It is also the third book in my “Secrets” series.

Secrets of the C&O Canal contains 29 true stories about the canal and 67 photos and illustrations. My favorite stories include:

  • The chapter about where the original destination for the C&O Canal was. Hint: It wasn’t Cumberland, Md., or the Ohio River.
  • The sad story of the Spong family and how they met their tragic end on the canal. This one might give you nightmares if you’re a parent and even if you aren’t.
  • My third-favorite story is the one of about the connections between the canal and the JFK assassination. Let that sink in. The C&O Canal closed in 1924, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and this story takes place in 1964.

It should be no surprise that the C&O Canal is a favorite topic of mine. I’ve written three novels, a novella, and dozens of short stories about it. I’ve even got an outline for another non-fiction book that I want to write about the canal.

One thing that I find fascinating about the canal is that although it closed in 1924, we are still learning new things about it nearly 100 years later.

Secrets of the C&O Canal will retail for $19.95 when it is released next month. You can pre-order a signed copy and get it shipped free to your home (U.S. addresses only) at this link.

If you’d like to take a look at the other books in the series, take a peek at their Amazon pages.

3 Secrets

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