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 benefits of joining a writer’s group

Writing can be lonely work unless you count your characters as company. Even if you’re writing non-fiction and interviewing people, the relationship is different than if you’re talking with friends.

That’s why I enjoy being part of a writer’s group. I’ve been a member of a half dozen or so over the years and have enjoyed them all. It’s nice to get together with other writers occasionally and talk about projects you’re working on, the craft or even something unrelated to writing.

Sure, a lot of writer’s groups are about reading pieces and getting feedback, but the value I get from them is simply being able to talk to someone else who understands the frustration of writer’s block, the joy from having a book published or the sadness at having one rejected.

That said, here are the top five benefits of joining a writer’s group as I see them. Let me know if you have anything different to add.

  1. Leads for new work. I actually got a new job writing a weekly column because a member of my writer’s group told me that the editors had changed at a local newspaper.
  2. Sympathetic ears. As I said, it’s nice to talk to someone who understands the writing life.
  3. Discussions about how to improve your technique. Lots of writers pay hundreds of dollars to hear other writers talk about creating fuller characters, writing vibrant dialogue and other things. In a writer’s group, you get it for free.
  4. Camaraderie. It’s nice to have friends with shared interests.
  5. Feedback on writing. What are you doing wrong? What are you doing right? Find out before you make a fool out of yourself by sending your manuscript to an agent.

writers-critique-group

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A writer’s winter

winter-blues-snowmanI finished up my last event for the year, and now, for me, winter begins. It’s not only a season, but it’s also the time when my business slows down. It won’t pick up again until mid-March.

In some ways, this is a good thing for me. I catch up on writing projects so I’m on track to release the early books I have planned for the year. I have time to do more research for stories. I get all of my tax information together to fill out my taxes. I lay out plans for my broad-term marketing for the year.

On the whole, though, it’s a rough time for me. I don’t have as much income coming in. I have to tap into my business savings to make up shortfalls.

I’ve learned to plan for this period. I save up during my busy months to have income for this time. I put off certain projects knowing I will work on them during the winter.

It’s all part of being a full-time writer. For anyone planning on a writing career starting with the New Year, don’t let the slow start off put you. It’s typical and cyclical.

Things will get better, but then winter comes every year.

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One reason I’m proud to be a writer

wayside2 (1).JPGI’ve done a lot of interesting things as a writer. Some have been fun like competing in a demolition derby. Some have appealed to the nerd in me like leafing through a 500-year-old illuminated manuscript. Some have made me part of history like being one of the first reporters on the scene of the Shanksville crash on 9/11.

Today, I’m taking part in something that makes me proud. A memorial wayside erected in Gettysburg to honor Marine Captain George W. Hamilton, a highly-decorated World War I Marine officer, and Gunnery Sergeant George R. Martin, is being dedicated today.

Additionally, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has issued a proclamation declaring June 26, 2018, as Captain George W. Hamilton and Gunnery Sergeant George R. Martin Remembrance Day “in grateful recognition of their military service.”

Marine Captain Hamilton, of World War I fame, survived the bloody Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918 (also known as the “Germans’ Gettysburg”), with honors, only to perish in a dive bomber crash on the Gettysburg Battlefield during Marine maneuvers held in 1922, along with Gunnery Sergeant Martin, a veteran of the Santo Domingo campaign.

On June 26, 1922, Captain Hamilton was piloting a de Havilland dive bomber over Gettysburg battlefield, with Martin, at the head of the column of 5,500 Marines arriving for training maneuvers and Civil War reenactments, when their airplane crashed while attempting to land on the Culp Farm, killing both aviators.

The deaths of the aviators were declared as line-of-duty deaths, resulting in their being the last such deaths to have occurred on the historic battlefield since the 1863 battle itself.

wayside1.jpgThe effort to create the memorial came about after I wrote The Last to Fall: The 1922 March, Battles, & Deaths of U.S. Marines at Gettysburg, (co-authored with Richard D. L. Fulton). The book is the only one on the topic, and it made local Marines and citizens aware of this forgotten event.

Years ago, a couple articles I had written led to a name being added to the National Officers Down Memorial. I was proud that day, but in that case, the memorial already existed. The Marine wayside would not have existed if not for the book Rick and I wrote. Now, the two Marines killed on the battlefield in 1922 will finally have their recognition.

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Staying healthy at work

McLGX78KiWriting can be stationary work. Sure, I get to go out and do an interview, attend a meeting, or do an interesting activity from time to time. Most of the time, however, I’m sitting behind my desk. That’s not the healthiest way to live.

I get up from time to time and walk around the house. The creaking in my joints lets me know it was a good choice.

I try to use the treadmill desk, but I’ve never gotten over the awkwardness of it. I do use it, but for probably only an hour or two a week.

My point here is that writers need to stay healthy. Besides helping you live longer, the less you are sick, the more productive you can be. My grandfather used to tell me a story that after he went deep into debt borrowing from anyone who would lend him money in order to build a small grocery store so that he could go into business for himself. He told me that every night he would pray that the Lord would keep him healthy so he could work and pay back all those people whom he owed money.

If you are ill, you won’t be writing and earning a living. So stay healthy.

I do a lot of bicycling during the summer. I like getting out and exploring my county. I also do resistance training with resistance tubes. This hasn’t been as effective for me as the biking.

I decided to rejoin the YWCA in town and use their fitness center. I love spin classes. I can also start using the free weights for resistance training again.

Meanwhile, I have also started jogging again. (Some people may call it fast walking.) I haven’t done this is decades because of a bad knee. My body does not like this much, but I am slowly getting better at it.

It’s all in the effort to improve my health, keep me away from the doctor’s office, and keep writing.

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92 More Books to Write!

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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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Telling the life story of a living person makes me nervous

635997942813178091-3-hes-cb-05252016-chuck
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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Why Employers Like Freelancers

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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Why I started indie publishing

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.

Getting started on a new book

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.

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