Saving time with your website

I revamped my website a few months back, and I’ve been pleased with the new look. The main reason I decided to make the change was that the new site is WordPress based. Not only is WordPress the most-popular platform out there, I wanted to use certain plug-ins that aren’t available for non-Wordpress sites. Also, because the new site is WordPress based, I was able to integrate a history blog that I maintain. Previously, I could only offer a link on my website to the blog.

I found a writer who had put together a great template designed for writers. Check out her site here. She made the transitioning from my former website to the new one painless.

Her template also made creating a website store so easy. It was a pain to do on my old site, but the new template makes it a breeze. In fact, it makes maintaining the site a breeze.

When you are a one-man show, you want to be efficient and make the most of your time. This new template is one way I do that. Check out my new site here.

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Writing serial fiction

UntitledAlthough it’s not a popular form of writing any longer, I’ve had the opportunity in recent months to write a serial. It has been a fun experience that I hope will continue because I’ve come up with a few more ideas for serials while working on the six-part story called “The Anger of Innocence.”

The serial is a horror story running in The Catoctin Banner Newspaper in Frederick County, Md. I write and edit stories for the paper on a freelance basis. When the paper went through a major redesign earlier this year, I convinced the publisher to try out the serial in the Arts & Entertainment section. I write a few local history columns for newspapers, and I have noticed in my research many of the old newspapers used to run serial fiction. I saw it as a way to entertain readers and give them a more-rounded newspaper-reading experience.

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While a serial can run for any number of parts, you should keep a few things in mind when planning to write a serial. Here’s what I learned:

  • Make sure your story has enough hooks. While I like to have my story parts end with a cliffhanger, I can’t always do that. However, you still need to keep the reader coming back whether it’s with a cliffhanger, unanswered questions, or a fascinating situation. I tend to use the old movie serials as my inspiration.
  • Serials work with all genres. While the serial I’m working on is horror, the other ideas have are a romance, a coming-of-age story, and a historical thriller. Since I write primarily in the history and historical fiction genre, I find it interesting that my serial ideas are from outside of my area of familiarity.
  • Find a way to recap each story. You can’t count on everyone reading your serial from the first part so you need to recap just enough to familiarize new readers with the situation, the characters, and what has come before without boring or turning off existing readers. You also need to consider how long the recap will be. Each of the story parts I’m writing for “The Anger of Innocence” is around 1,300 words. If I spend too much time summarizing what has happened, I won’t have time to move the story forward.
  • Each story should be complete. Even if I use a cliffhanger ending, the story part still feels complete. A situation happened and concluded. While I will use a cliffhanger to entice a reader back because they want to find out what happens, I don’t want readers to feel unsatisfied with the current part they are finishing.
  • Write the entire story before it starts running. Certainly, you can publish your story parts as you go. It definitely makes writing a serial more challenging that way but is it better for the reader? I started publishing “The Anger of Innocence” with two parts left unwritten and the last part not even planned. As I’ve written the last two parts, I have found things that I could change in previous parts before they were published. I have also found a few other things (luckily, nothing major) that were already set in stone because they were published. I’ve had to work around them. I’m all for challenging yourself to write better but only if those improvements make the reading experience better for your readers. Don’t give yourself an unnecessary headache because you find you have written yourself into a corner because you didn’t plan out how your serial would progress.

When this serial finishes, I’ll talk with my publisher to see if she wants me to do another one (I hope so). I will also look into bringing this story into print, most likely as an ebook.

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When your family doesn’t read

I saw a Facebook post this morning from an author asking how other authors feel when their family members don’t read their books. That started me thinking because I have that problem.

It is frustrating that my family doesn’t read. They used to. My wife used to read a lot, although she never read my books. My oldest son was never a reader. My youngest son read a lot until he discovered video games.

I’ve asked them to be beta readers to encourage them, but they never take me up on my offer. I dedicate some of my books to them, hoping they will want to read them. Nope.

I have a son who is in prison. It is a sad situation, but my non-reader son has taken up reading. He even read War and Peace! Once, I found this out, I started sending him books by some of my favorite authors to keep him interested in reading. When I talk to him, he tells me about some of the books he has read, what he likes, and what he doesn’t. It’s a nice connection to have with him in sad circumstances.

Now, if I could just get my youngest son and wife to read without something bad happening to them.

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The birth of a story idea

Yellowstone 10I just got back from a two-week-long family vacation that hit 15 states and covered 5,800 miles. It was wearying, but I saw a lot of things that I will always remember. I’ve written in the past about how going on vacation helps recharge my creativity. That remains true.

During our long driving stretches through stretches of Kansas, South Dakota, Colorado, and other places where there was little to see, I had two different writing projects I worked on. One was a novel and the other a novella. Both were historical fiction. I didn’t complete as much as I would have thought for being on the road at least 100 hours. I did move both projects forward, though.

My surprise, though, was that I came up with an idea for a children’s book. It was a total surprise since I’ve never written a children’s book.Yellowstone 34

We were driving though Yellowstone National Park when we got tied up in traffic because of road work in the park. I saw a slope that led to the road that was covered with lots of flat, loose rocks. I also noticed that the edge of the slope was barely taller than a dump truck stopped on the road.

Now, we had also been watching for bears in the park. For one thing, the park has signs posted all over the place about leaving the wildlife alone. However, we had also been looking for animals. We had already seen bison and elk. My wife said she wanted to see a bear and mountain lion, so I was searching the woods as we drove along looking for bears.

When I saw the rock slope, an image flashed in my mind of a bear cub at the top of the slope losing its footing on the loose rock and tumbling down the hill into the dump truck just as the truck drove off. That became the nugget for my story.

Yellowstone 42Once I realized that was what it was, I had a few stray ideas about possible scenes in the story, but it wasn’t until we reached the New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia, nearly a week later and halfway across the country that the story gelled for me.

My wife and I were getting ready to climb a steep, rocky trail to an overlook when the story suddenly came to me. I whipped out my smartphone and turned on the recording app. I dictated the outline for the story as we began the climb.

I tell you this story just to show you that you never know what is going to inspire you to write a story. Look around you. There are stories everywhere.

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Facing the skeletons in my writing closet

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I used to wonder how a centerfold or porn actor explains their past to their children. In today’s age of the Internet, it seems all of those past skeletons in the closet never stay there. Just look at what happened a few years ago when all those celebrities’ phones got hacked and someone posted embarrassing photos of them on the internet.

The writer’s version of this must be when old novels or articles come back to haunt them. One of my favorite authors, Dean Koontz, wrote lots of novels until pen names when he was struggling to make a living. Apparently, some were even softcore porn. He has said in various interviews that he has bought back the rights of those novels and they will never again see the light of day.

However, the novels were published and copies are still out there if you know what name Koontz used when he wrote them. I’m not sure if all of his pen names are known, but if they are, then it’s just a matter of someone finding one of those pen names of a book cover.

When I started out freelancing years ago, I had to scramble to make ends meet. One way I did this was to write for web sites called content mills. They are websites that provide content for a lot of other web sites like eHow.com and Livestrong.com.

The articles didn’t pay much, but they also didn’t require a lot of work. I could turn one article around in an hour, and to be sure, that is what I did. Since content mills didn’t pay well, I wasn’t going to put hours of work into the story. I got $20 for a 500-word article, on average.

So I didn’t put a lot of work into these articles. Turnaround was important, and I tried to do 3 or 4 a day before I went onto the work I really wanted to be writing. These articles weren’t ones that I put a lot of effort into, but I tried and research them to get them right.

On top of this, the articles were vetted by editors who also weren’t putting a lot of time into their work because they got paid by the number of articles they edited. That means, sometimes, even when I had something right, the editor changed it to something that was inaccurate.

I wrote most of these articles around 10 years ago. However, every once in a while I get an e-mail from someone with a question about the accuracy of one of the articles. Most of the inquiries are from polite people, but some are aggressive, accusing me of all sorts of things.

I try my best to answer the questions politely (even the mean ones). However, honestly, I don’t remember these articles. By contrast, I remember the articles I cared about. So I cannot answer these questions fully, which is not a position that I enjoy being in.

I am embarrassed that these older pieces are still out there after all this time. They certainly don’t represent my best work, but they are still out there representing me. I don’t even have any rights to the work because they were all done as work for hire. That means I can’t ask for the articles to be taken down when I come across one of them.

If there is a silver lining, though, these articles show me how far I’ve come since I started on this freelance writing journey.

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Does a change of scenery boost your creativity?

1Someone asked me yesterday if I was a coffee house writer. I thought about it and told her, “Maybe.”

I hadn’t really considered it before, but once I did, I realized that the coffee house writers are, at their essence, writers who need the change of scenery to stimulate their creativity.

While going to a coffee house wouldn’t do me any good since I’m not a coffee drinker, I do think going to a fast-food restaurant, park, or some other different place might help me write more.

  • I have found that I often start to envision scenes and dialogue while taking a long walk or drive. (This week, I even dictated ideas into my phone while riding my bike.)
  • Last summer, during some very nice days, I took my laptop into the sunroom attached to our house to work and found it didn’t disrupt my productivity.
  • When I’m on vacation with my family, I am up hours before they get up in the morning. I typically get a lot of writing done during those times.

These things lead me to believe that maybe a change of scenery a few days a week would help me up my game. There are quite a few places where I could test out this theory and all of them are nearby my house:

  • Fast-food restaurant.
  • Library.
  • Hotel lobby.
  • Park pavilion.

I will try these places out and see which ones work best for me. The added benefit I see is that it will get me moving around, and in the case of a park pavilion, I’ll be outside and enjoying the nice weather.

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Write & Wait vs. Write, Write, Write

A friend wrote me an e-mail yesterday asking for my take on doing simultaneous submissions for article query letters. This is an issue that has vexed a lot of writers. Magazine editors generally don’t like it because it puts pressure on them to respond to an article quickly. However, sending out a query letter and waiting months to hear from an editor isn’t a productive use of the writer’s time. Writers don’t want to tick off editors who might be willing to buy a story by sending out the same query to multiple markets, though.

I’ve got two ways I use to work around this problem.

Customizing a story. Some story ideas lend themselves to market customizing. For instance, I’ve written three articles about an itinerant movie director from the 1920s through 1940s. He would go from city to city using a stock script to shot a movie in which he cast local people in all the parts. He changed the title of the movie based on the city in which he was shooting.

I sold the article to three magazines. Each article was different in that I focused on the movies the director made in the magazine’s market area (i.e., Cumberland, MD; Pennsylvania; Tyrone, PA), but other information in the articles the same, such as biographical information on the director. In cases like this, the articles are different enough that I don’t mind simultaneous queries to non-competing markets.

Make it up in volume. The technique I use more often grew out of the volume of queries I have out at any one time. I’m at the point where I have so many queries with magazines I don’t worry about submitting the same idea to two magazines at once. I send out a query each week. Using this method, simultaneous queries don’t really become an issue because I’m too busy with other ideas.

The exception to this is when an editor doesn’t get back to me about an idea. I usually follow-up with queries if I don’t hear from an editor in a month or so. If I still don’t hear back, I consider the idea open to send to another market.

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