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Here I am at The Book Center in Cumberland, MD, on Nov. 19. I’m the one on the left, in case you couldn’t tell.

I was doing some organizing the other week and decided to put all of my book ideas on a spreadsheet. At the time, they were written down on anything from a scrap of paper to pages. I put everything onto the spreadsheet including working title, genre, notes, and summary.

It took me quite a while to put together the spreadsheet because I kept finding scraps of paper in different folders in my filing cabinet. Eventually, I got everything transferred. At least I hope so. I haven’t found any idea scraps in a week or so.

My final list totals 92 book ideas!

I’m pretty prolific. I average about three books a years. That means that I have 33 years worth of books yet to do, and that’s only if I don’t add any more ideas to list. That won’t be happening. I’ve already added a new idea this month. My list also includes some books that are parts of series. The list might include an idea or two for additional books in the series, but what happens after that?

Now not all of those books will get written (obviously) because I won’t be able to flesh out the story enough to make it work. Still, when I look at the list, about a third of the titles already have a significant amount of writing done.

This is one of the reasons that I’ll never retire. I’ve got too much writing that I want to do.

The other reason that I won’t retire is that I enjoy what I’m doing. I still get frustrated at times from trying to figure something out or stressed out over deadlines, but overall, I love my job. I get to meet fascinating people and do fun activities (all in the name of research, of course!).

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in elementary school, and now that I am, I’m going to make the most of it. That means I’ll be writing and writing and writing.

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Chuck Caldwell and I at his home during an interview he did with the Hanover Evening Sun. For more Evening Sun photos from the interview, visit here.

I had a presentation this past weekend at the annual WWII Weekend at the Eisenhower Farm in Gettysburg. Now, I’ve been given an average of two presentations a month for the past couple years, but this one made me nervous.

It was a talk about Chuck Caldwell, a 92-year-old WWII veteran whom I got to know while writing his biography. I had spent about two years working on the biography, Clay Soldiers: One Marine’s Story of War, Art & Atomic Energy. So I knew the topic.

Why was I so nervous?

I think it was because I know the audience would have preferred to have Chuck speaking to them. Heck, I would have preferred it and attended. However, Chuck spoke at the weekend two years ago and the heat got to him and he collapsed. Since that time, he’s been gun shy about going back.

It just felt odd for me to be talking about the life of someone who was still alive. Some of the audience members would know Chuck. What if I said something different from their memories? What if they thought that I didn’t do Chuck’s Forrest-Gump-type life justice?

I was nervous because I really wanted Chuck to proud of the job I did even if he wasn’t there.

Well, the presentation went fine. Once I got started, I only rarely looked at my script. I even started throwing some anecdotes that really showed the way Chuck has interacted with history. For instance, one time during an air raid on Guadalcanal, he and another Marine dove into the nearest air raid shelter for cover. Well, inside that shelter was none other than Marine General Vandergrift and Army General Patch discussing the Army’s takeover of the island from the Marines. Chuck and the other Marine decided to run back out and face the Japanese bombs rather than the two generals.

Chuck Caldwell is one of the greatest people whom I have had a chance to meet and I’m glad I have gotten to know this American hero.

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freelancingI’ve written about the pros and cons of freelance writing from the writer’s perspective in other blogs. That all still holds true if you are considering writing on a freelance basis. However, the person paying the bill needs to find benefit in using freelance writers, too.  Employers don’t care that you can select your own projects or have a flexible schedule. They want quality work at a good price with as little hassle as possible.    

Part of being successful as a freelancer is understanding what role you as a freelance writer play for with an employer. How you help them? Knowing that, you can fulfill their needs better and improve their satisfaction. This allows you to more easily retain those businesses as clients and get more work from them.

Magazines like to use freelancers because they provide new sources of ideas and perspectives. If a magazine uses full-time writers, it might only be able to hire a handful, but if it uses freelance writers, the number of potential writers is limitless. The editor can pick and choose the most-promising stories from a large pool of possibilities. So not only does the magazine get more new ideas, the editors can choose from the best of new ideas.

I used to do a lot of stories for a now-defunct magazine called Maryland Life. As the name suggests, the magazine’s coverage area was the entire state of Maryland. If the magazine had had to hire full-time writers to cover the entire state, it would have been too expensive. By using freelance writers, they don’t have to pay benefits, which can account for around 30 percent more above a full-time employee’s salary.

It can be simpler to hire a freelance writer. The company pays the writer a set fee for the article and the writer is responsible for dealing with paying the employment taxes on that amount.

In general, a freelance writer would charge less than an agency a company might hire for public relations or advertising. They can also get a higher level of expertise if they search for a freelance writer with the skills they want.

These are just a few things to keep in mind. While you become a freelance writer because of the way it benefits you, the only way you can stay a freelance writer over the long run is if you find ways to benefit your clients.

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Logans Fire

My first novel. It’s out of print now, but I hope to one day bring it back in print the way I envisioned it.

I didn’t start out to do indie publishing. My first two novels back in the 1990s were publishing with a small press and mid-size press. My small-press experience was that it was virtually worthless for me, and my mid-size press experience was pretty positive.

My problem with the mid-size press came when I tried to get the second book published in what I hoped would be a series. The company sent each manuscript out to pre-readers and had it reviewed by an editorial committee. All it took was one person to say “no” and the book wouldn’t be published. I kept running into that problem as the company also started to shift its focus.

Meanwhile, I was also shopping another manuscript in a different genre around and getting frustrated from the lack of response. It wasn’t that the publishing houses were saying “no,” it was that many of them weren’t saying anything even after six month!

Then in 2000, I decided that I wanted to write a historical fiction novel after I took a bike trip along the C&O Canal in Maryland. As I was writing the novel, I started to wonder if I wanted to go through all of the hassles that I was going through to get a publisher interested in the book especially since I couldn’t take it to the two publishers I had already used. They didn’t handle that genre.

I knew someone who had been self-publishing since the 1980s, though. I talked to him about what it involved. He published targeted books that were generally collections of postcards that he owned. He also did very well with it.

So I started doing more research and I realized that everything my publishers had done for me, I could either do myself or farm out to someone. The biggest obstacle I saw at that time was distribution. I wasn’t sure how I could go about getting national distribution. It wasn’t a big concern for me, though. I thought that my major sales outlets would be places near the canal, and I could visit them myself. Also, by the time, the book was complete, I had found a way to get into the Baker & Taylor catalog to get my national distribution.

As far as marketing went, well, the publishers I had used hadn’t done a lot of marketing. I knew that I could do at least the same level. Besides, who was going to promote my book more enthusiastically than me? I had invested part of myself in it. I wanted it to succeed.

Canawlers

My first indie-published novel.

I took the jump into indie publishing and Canawlers became my first project. It is still in print and selling 16 years later when my first two novels have long since gone out of print.

I discovered that I liked having the control over the project. If there was something that I didn’t like about a project, I could change it. By contrast, with one of my first novels, the publisher didn’t like the title and changed it without asking me.

I also started making decent money from writing. I remember that my very first novel sold around 10,000 copies in three years. It had a cover price of $10. I made an average of 50 cents a copy or $5,000 over three years. My first indie published novels has a cover price of $18 and I make an average $8 a copy, taking into account printing costs, shipping, and bookseller discounts. That’s a 5% versus a 44% royalty!

About half of my income is from my books and the other half is other types of writing. I wouldn’t have been able to make the jump to a full-time writer if I hadn’t taken the indie-publishing track. I have since found out that many popular authors with mainstream publishers still need other work, despite their books being successful (just not bestsellers).

Indie publishing is certainly not the easy way out for authors.

You take on more responsibilities and duties, so much so that I would say it’s harder than simply being an author. If you stick with it and work at it, though, the payoff both financially and with a book that is just how you envision it are worth it.

thSome writers say that staring at the blank page and having to fill it with a story is the hardest part of writing. It’s the getting starting and gaining some momentum that is hard.

I have run into that problem when I write fiction. My efforts tend to go nowhere until I write that first page and get the first scene right. Even if I have other later scenes written, I need to get that first scene written before the story starts to move forward.

I guess my mind is treating me like a reader as well as a writer. I’ve got to hook myself into the story before I can see what happens next. My fiction writing tends to be very linear. I start at the beginning and write through to the end.

My non-fiction is a different story. It’s not the intimidation of the first page that causes a slow start. It’s that I have too much information that I can’t set parameters for the story and find where it starts.

Getting a non-fiction project started is like herding cats. Just when you think you’ve got them all in place, one of them jumps out of the corral.

A similar thing happens when I start a non-fiction project. I spend a lot of time and energy collecting my research and interviews. Then I have to figure out what the scope of the project is going to be.

When you are writing non-fiction history, you are writing about life and a very small part of life in the grand scheme of things. Your non-fiction history is a link in a very long chain of events that happened to cause what you are writing about and continued afterwards influenced by what you wrote about.

Your job is to cut out a section of that chain and write about it, but finding where to cut is hard sometimes because everything is connected. There may be something interesting, funny, or tragic that happened that you discover in your research. You have to decide whether it is pertinent enough to the larger story to be included, and if you do include it, does it change the scope of the story.

When I’m still in the process of herding all those cats at the beginning of a new project, it can seem overwhelming because everything seems to be in motion. Once I decide on the scope of the story and look at things through that perspective, I can start to make sense of all that motion that is my research.

At that point, I can start to get scenes down on paper. Writing things down also helps me further define the scope of my story. Oddly, I don’t necessarily need to start at the beginning when I write non-fiction. I write the vivid scenes that are in my mind. Once they are on paper, it allows my mind to focus on other things.

No matter how you start your story, it will probably be slower going than how you write much of the rest of the book. It’s all part of the process, though. Work through it, knowing that it does eventually get easier.

These articles may help you get started on your book:

 

 

 

I facilitated my first writer’s workshop this past weekend. I wasn’t sure what to call it until I started writing this post. It wasn’t a traditional writer’s conference where there are lots of speakers and classes that an attendee can choose from. It also wasn’t a writer’s retreat where a writer’s goes off to some inspiring locale for a week to write and critique writing.

The Mountain Maryland Writers’ Institute conferences are a series of three themed weekends. The weekend that I facilitated was for history and historical fiction. The institute is part of Garrett College in Garrett County, Maryland, which is a beautiful place to visit.

Friday night was an ice breaker for me, my fellow facilitator Neil Brooks, and the attendees to get to know each other.

Saturday, we traveled to the Evergreen Heritage Center in Mount Savage, Maryland. This is a historic homestead as well as a nature and ecological study site. The students got a tour of the grounds and were told about the history of the place. Then we settled down outside in a pavilion next to an old sawmill to start talking history. It was a good back and forth discussion, which helped me keep focused on making sure I was meeting the needs of the students. I also had certain points that I wanted to make sure that I hit.

There were supposed to be three different sessions that I taught on Saturday, each with a different topic, but they all seemed to get rolled into one long discussion about how to write history and historical fiction.

That evening, there was another session that was a Q&A with the facilitators about how and why we became writers.

Sunday morning was a half day of meetings. We traveled to Oakland, Maryland, to the Garrett County Historical Society to tour the facility and see the research aides that the historical society has. I talked with them about how to find the facts for a story and how to use them in their writing. We also toured the B&O Railroad Historical Museum to talk more about the value of historical sites for research purposes.

This was different than any writers’ conference that I’ve either spoken at or attended. I liked it and I especially liked not being stuck in classrooms all day. We were out and about enjoying the sun and perfect weather. I feel like the historic sites helped the writers envision the past better and I hoped they found value in what Neil and I had to say.

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A train approaching the B&O Station in Oakland, Maryland, while the Mountain Maryland Writers’ Institute was there.

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1500x1000xBoeing-B-52D-60-BO-Stratofortress-55-0100.jpg.pagespeed.ic.ggBxPxC9RMEver since I finished my last book, Clay Soldiers: One Marine’s Story of War, Art, & Atomic Energy, I’ve been looking for my next project. Usually, I know what I want to work on next by the time my last project is finished. It didn’t happen that way this time.

So I looked at my list of previously started projects and ideas for future projects. Nothing jumped out at me as something that I wanted to spend a year or more working on.

I’m a big believer in enthusiasm. A writer should be excited about whatever he or she is working on because that enthusiasm will translate in some way onto the page. If the enthusiasm isn’t there, it will be detectable in your writing.

I picked out two projects from my list – one historical fiction and one non-fiction history – and started reviewing them. I had previously done work on both (outlining, research, a couple rough draft chapters). I read through the previous work and started adding to it. I wasn’t feeling excitement for either project. That’s not to say that I won’t ever feel excitement. It’s just that whatever my subconscious wanted me working on now, it wasn’t either of these projects.

That wouldn’t stop me from moving them forward, though. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting past a mental road block in the story to get excited about. Even if I wrote entire draft without getting excited about the book, I could put the draft aside until I do feel excited about it and then go back and edit it.

52d17a1cdf5da.preview-500I didn’t have to go that route this time because a reader of my columns sent me an e-mail asking me if I had ever considered writing a book about the crash of a B-52 in Western Maryland that had been carrying two thermonuclear warheads. I had written a column about years ago. I had also considered writing a longer article about it. I even have the idea for a Cold War thriller based on the story.

Surprisingly, I had never thought about writing a book about the event. I e-mailed him back saying that I wondered if there was enough “meat” to write a book about it. He said that he had talked to family of the crew members who had died and crew members and that he believed there was. He said that there was information and pictures that had never been published.

I started getting the feeling that I get about all my new project, curiosity. I reviewed my column and some other information I had about the incident. Suddenly, I was seeing a way to write about it as a book.b526

There’s still a few ways that the story can wind up going. A lot will depend on what the interviews and research reveals. I will be starting on that next week after I meet with the person who wrote to me to get a list of contacts he has. Hopefully, the project will also push me to improve my research and writing skills. I think it will because I see some possible research possibilities are outside of my comfort zone.

One thing is definite. I am excited about the project. I even have a working title. In the future, watch for more information about Buzz One Four: The Day Nuclear Bombs Fell on Maryland.

 

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Me, Chuck Caldwell, and Bernadette the book store owner.

I had a book signing recently that went really well. I sold a lot of books and the book store owner was delighted. However, I can’t say that I was the reason for the big turnout. Sure, I had written the book everyone was buying, but they came to meet the subject of the book.

Clay Soldiers: One Marine’s Story of War, Art, & Atomic Energy is a biography of a man named Chuck Caldwell. Chuck lives in Gettysburg and is well known there from his years of running an shop where he made miniature figures. In fact, the store where we were doing the book signing was literally next door to where his shop used to be.

People were coming into the bookstore and purchasing two, four, ten copies of the book, and they all wanted Chuck to sign them. I was an afterthought. I guess I should be grateful that they even had me sign them. I went to the unit of the Marine Corps League that Chuck is a member of last month with the book. Again, plenty of books sold, but there no one even had me sign one. They were all chasing after Chuck to get him to sign them.

Besides keeping me humble, the lesson I learned from this is:

  • It’s all about the story not the storyteller.
  • Tell a good story and tell it well.
  • A good storyteller doesn’t draw attention to him or herself, but keeps the reader lost in the story.
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Chuck signing a book for one of his fans.

I hope that’s what I’ve done with Clay Soldiers. I know I had plenty of good material to work with and I found myself getting swept up in certain parts of the book as I wrote it.

I think that readers can identify with Chuck. His story is not that of a general, a high-level politician or a multi-millionaire. It’s about an ordinary guy. He was a private at Guadalcanal and charged into machine gun fire when told to do so. That’s more interesting than being the general who gave the order to charge. During the above ground atomic bomb tests in the 1950s, he went in with minimal protection to find the balls of fissionable material, sometimes even as the mushroom cloud was rising from the explosion. Meanwhile, the scientists who examined that material were safe in bunkers miles away.

Chuck is just an ordinary guy who played the cards life dealt him and did his best to be a good husband and father.

Another reason I didn’t mind being the center of attention at these events is that I got to watch Chuck’s face light up when someone he knew from years ago came in to get his book. I got to listen to him talk to people about stories in the book. Most of all, I got to see him smile.

That tells me that I got things right.

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Chuck sees someone he knows come into the book store.

 

I was looking at some of my reviews on Amazon the other day. Sure, the four-star and five-star reviews are nice to read, but some of the other reviews are frustrating. They make me want to scream because they are contradictory or just plain wrong.

Shallmar CoverSaving Shallmar probably gets the most undo criticism because it is coming from people who lived in Shallmar when they were children when the story took place or they heard things second hand. Because my story doesn’t agree with their memories, I’m wrong even though my information is all sourced. Some of it comes from people who were adults at the time so they have a different perspective then people who were children. I know because I interviewed people who grew up in Shallmar and they have plenty of gaps in their childhood memories. I also have contemporary sources for information that isn’t dulled or altered by time.

I am tempted to respond to some of these reviews when I read them, but I have learned from previous experience that most of these people when given the facts, simply find something else to rail on you about.

I’ve had a book get a bad review because someone thought the title was too close to the title of another book that I had never heard of or because a book didn’t have enough pictures. Worse yet, I had a three-star review from a reviewer whose actual review of the book was positive. These types of reviews just leave me shaking my head.

I can stand criticism. You don’t get to be a full-time writer without having gotten criticism and rejection, but what galls me is that some people feel the need to be mean or get personal about it. It’s like they want to get into an argument and they don’t even know me.

gaithersburg-book-festival-gaithersburg-mdI was lucky enough to have a festival to attend the weekend after my most-recent perusal or reviews. I had a lot of people come up to me and say that they had this book or that book of mine and had loved it. Many of them even bought another title, which certainly backed up what they were saying. It’s one of the reasons that I like selling books at festivals. I can talk with my readers and if they do have an issue, we discuss it calmly and politely.

Now if I could only get all these people to leave reviews on Amazon. That’s a drawback to selling at festivals. Because people didn’t buy the book from Amazon, they don’t think to leave a review there.

By the way, when I have come across a specific criticism, I check it out (even the ones from angry reviewers) and when needed, I make changes. Unfortunately, the reviews don’t reflect the change. That’s not the reviewer’s fault. They don’t know about the corrections. I could e-mail them about, but I’m afraid that could lead to the reviewer going and nitpicking things about my other books to see if he or she can get me to make more changes.

I like this quote from actress Octavia Spencer:

“You cannot live to please everyone else. You have to edify, educate and fulfill your own dreams and destiny, and hope that whatever your art is that you’re putting out there, if it’s received, great, I respect you for receiving it. If it’s not received, great, I respect you for not.”

 

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With the supposed arrival of spring, my busy time starts. I attend a lot of outdoor festivals to sell books. These can be enjoyable events when the weather cooperates. However, this year, spring has been slow in coming. The temperatures have been cool and rain has soaked to ground. Not the optimum conditions for an outdoor festival.

gaithersburg-book-festival-gaithersburg-mdI attended the Gaithersburg Book Festival this past Saturday. It was my first time there so I didn’t have any past experiences to draw upon for how I would do. I had heard that the festival had very good crowds and I could see that they had extensive and well-known roster of speakers. I went with great hopes.

The day before the festival was bright and sunny and I crossed my fingers that weather forecasters would be wrong.

They weren’t.

It rained all day during the festival. At least it wasn’t a heavy rain, but it was still rain, which keeps people inside side. On top of that, it was cool all day. I found myself shivering most of the day.

I was disappointed with the turnout, although I expected it when I saw the rain. I did manage to sell a decent number of books. This gives me hope enough to return next year and hope for good weather. If so, I should do a brisk business.

I have found that outdoor festivals are great places to sell books.

  • They get a lot of traffic. I attend not only book festivals, but craft festivals and Christmas bazaars, too.
  • People like to get an autographed book as a gift for friends and family.
  • Since I’m not a household name (like J. K. Rowling and Stephen King), my books tend to stand out as unique to festival visitors.
  • I’m independently published so I can offer great sales at festivals, which helps increase my sales. I experimented with different offers over the years and have settled on one that works best for me.
  • I always see an uptick in online sales and e-book sales after a festival. I understand the e-books, but I’ve never understood why someone who can get my autographed books at a great price at a festival, pass on that, to go home and buy an unsigned book at a higher price. I’m glad they do, though.

I’m always on the lookout for how to make my booths more attractive to pull in more passersby. Then once I get them to stop, I’ve got to find a way to get them looking at my books and interacting with me.

  • I have definitely seen big banners catch people’s attention. They stop walking to read the banners and look at the pictures. That gives me a chance to step outside my booth and speak with them.
  • I have expanded the types of books that I offer. For years, I sold only history and historical fiction. I have started offering a historical fantasy novel and I will be offering a young adult novel later this year. This should increase my potential pool of buyers.
  • I keep experimenting with counter displays. I am going to offer a larger book display rack that should hopefully attract more attention.

I know authors are always looking to do book signings, and they can be great. For independent authors, you can make more money and sell more books if you make the most of festivals. Don’t let the rain discourage you.

 

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