Tag Archives: #writerlife

Writing Around the Distractions #amwriting #writerlife

Life has hit one of those inevitable snags, where writing has become more of a refuge than ever. My amateur nursing skills have been called into battle once again, as hubby has undergone a total hip replacement.

Four hours after the surgery, he was in the car, and we were going home. The minute the anesthesia wears off, they check the patient to make sure they’re alive and able to urinate, then send them home.

To be cared for by enthusiastic, panicking amateurs.

Two days in the hospital would have been better for him, but this is life in the USA. Even before COVID19, they sent patients home before they were able to care for themselves.

Thanks to having two children with seizure disorders and other family members with debilitating illnesses, I have acquired some of the skills necessary to handle this. My only problem is that he is 6’ 3” tall, and suffers from severe arthritis, so he has limited strength. I am just glad my brother is here to help when I need it.

We are 3 days into it, and hopefully, things will become easier as this next week progresses.

Everyone has family, jobs, external demands that limit the amount of time you can devote to writing. For me, the most important thing is to care for my family first. That means I do whatever housework is on for that day, make sure everyone is clean and fed, and if one of them is ill, I make sure they are comfortable and can rest.

I’m not a superwoman, so I do what I can around the house and don’t worry about what I didn’t get done. Some days that means just keeping a path cleared to the front door. Other days, the place is “fit for company,” as my grandma would say.

After surgery, blood clots can be a problem, so modern technology has devised an $80.00 solution, the PlasmaFlow Sequential Compression System. They are prescribed by a physician for use in the home to help prevent the onset of DVT (deep vein thrombosis) in post-surgical patients by stimulating blood flow in the extremities. They do this by stimulating muscle contractions. These are battery-operated, rechargeable cuffs that go around the patient’s calves.

The surgery was on Friday, so of course, they failed at about noon Saturday. This didn’t seem to surprise the on-call physician at the other end of the telephone. They quit charging, and we can’t get replacements until Monday. So, I am making sure he does some extra exercises and helping him do the ones he can’t yet do independently. Regular massage and exercise should do the trick.

Sleep the first night was like the first night you bring the newborn baby home. Sleep for an hour, get up to resolve something, sleep for an hour, get up to resolve something—not a lot of rest. But the second night, he was able to sleep straight through, so that was good.

I have plenty of downtime between things, though. That is when I write or work on whatever revisions are needed. You would be amazed at what you can get done in ten-minute bursts.

The fact is, I rarely watch television. While I do play a little Stardew Valley (see my game review here), my real interests are reading and attempting to write the stories I wish I could read.

This week I have been trying to think up decent titles for two of my works in progress. So far, nothing has risen to the top. “Accidental Novel” is a fair enough working title but probably won’t sell the book.

Before hubby went in for surgery, I sent my Accidental Novel to my structural editor for a beta read. I have a gut feeling that the ending is weak, so I asked her to give me any thoughts on reworking it. All the rough spots will be resolved once I get Irene’s revision notes back. The external eye is crucial at this stage. Having a trusted reader who is also an excellent editor is a gift from heaven.

So, all in all, life is good. Once we get through this week, my husband should be on the road to better health, and we will be able to settle into a routine.

Life can be a bumpy road. The key is to focus on the good things and laugh at the annoyances. Make a little time to do what you love, and always make time for the people you love.


Credits and Attributions:

We Can Do It, by J. Howard Miller, Restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Choosing a publishing path: Traditional vs. Indie #amwriting

The publishing industry is in a state of flux, as is the rest of the world.

According to the December 2020 Statshot of participating publishers, the Association of American Publishers, published February 25, 2021, total revenues across all categories for December 2020 were down 8.5% compared to December 2019, coming in at $1.1 billion.

In terms of physical paper format revenues during the month of December, in the Trade (Consumer Books) category, Hardback revenues were up 14.2%, coming in at $312.5 million; Paperbacks were up 2.4%, with $248.1 million in revenue; Mass Market was down 1.6% to $25.9 million; and Board Books were up 6.2%, with $16.7 million in revenue.

eBook revenues were up 18.4% for the month as compared to December of 2019 for a total of $89.7 million.  The Downloaded Audio format jumped 30.0% for December, coming in at $66.0 million in revenue. Physical Audio declined 6.7% coming in at $1.9 million. [1]

In this publishing world, what share of the market is claimed by Indie book sales? For Indie books, those published without ISBNs, the Amazon market share accounts for roughly 83% of US purchases.

What do these numbers mean when trying to decide whether to self-publish or attempt to go the traditional route?

In recent months, the traditional publishing industry has undergone a shrinkage. Where they once were the Big Five, they are now the Big Four: HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.

Literative.Com says: Authors who publish with them may still not have boatloads of money (depending on how many books they publish in a year), but they certainly have prestige. [2]

The fact is authors, either Indie or traditionally published, rarely earn enough in royalties to support their families. This is because publishers, large and small, don’t waste budgets promoting work by unknown authors. They spend their money on the few who have risen to the ranks of their guaranteed bestseller lists.

So, why should an author consider going traditional? Why go to the trouble of wooing an agent and trying to court a publisher?

The fact is, the traditional publishing industry offers many legitimate perks to those who get their foot in the door.

  1. Once you are signed with a reputable publisher, you have an editor who works with you personally. Most of the time, you can forge a good working relationship with this editor. If you go Indie, you must hire a copy editor, which is not cheap. (And should not be.)
  2. While they may not treat a new author the way they do Stephen King, traditional publishers will dedicate a small budget to marketing your work for its launch. It will be more money than you might be able to pony up as an Indie.
  3. Once you have proven yourself, traditional publishers can get your work into markets like Target, Walmart, Costco, airports, and grocery stores.

That is a huge thing, assuming your publisher considers your work worthy of such a commitment on their part. Their confidence will have to be earned. You must expect to find your work on the slow track for a while as the publisher tests the water and sees how well your work is received at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

  1. Once you have proven yourself, you will have a wider distribution, make far more sales. With those sales, your work will meet the criteria to be considered for industry honors and awards, which will help sell your books.
  2. There is an air of respectability, the cachet of being able to claim you’re traditionally published.

These are valid reasons for attempting to sell your work to the traditional publishing industry.

However, if you seek a legacy book contract, you must go through a gauntlet of gatekeepers. You must pass the assessments of literary agents, acquisition editors, editorial committees, and publishing-house CEOs.

These people all must answer to the international conglomerates that actually own the majority of American publishing companies.

This is why you are most likely to be stopped by a rejection letter. It’s not the quality of your work; it’s the publisher’s perception of what the reading market will purchase and what it means to the accountants, who in turn must answer to their shareholders.

As an Indie, you may not become a bestseller, but you’ll make more money on what you do sell. In most standard book contracts, royalty terms for authors are terrible, especially for eBook sales. Most eBooks are sold through online retailers like Amazon.

For the traditionally published author, if a publisher prices their eBook at $9.99, this is how the Amazon numbers break out (and remember, Amazon is still the Big Fish in the Publishing and Bookselling Pond):

  • Amazon takes 30% of the list price, leaving about $7.00 for the publisher, agent, and you to split.
  • The publisher will keep 75% of that $7.00, or $5.25.
  • The publisher will pay you 25% of that $7.00—just $1.75.
  • The author then must pay their agent a 15% commission—or 26 cents.
  • The author nets just $1.49 on each $9.99 eBook sale.

This is assuming the publisher honestly reports your sales and royalties. In my personal experience, while most small presses are honest, some small presses fail to pay royalties and can have an author’s work tied up in legal limbo for years. Investigate small presses before you sign with them. This is where knowing your legal rights and having a lawyer read your contract before you sign is a good idea.

If you self-publish your eBook at $4.99 or even $2.99, you stand to sell books and make a decent profit.

If you self-publish, you’ll get paid quickly. When a publisher accepts your book, he offers you an advance against sales. Advancements are often paid in installments stretched out over long periods and are tied directly to how well or how poorly your book is doing in real market time. Publishers report sales and pay royalties slowly, as royalty statements are usually issued semiannually. Your royalty checks arrive later, so you can’t rely on this income until you have become an established author in their world.

Conversely, most eBook distributors like Kindle Direct Publishing and Draft2Digital report your sales virtually in real-time. Best of all, they pay your royalties monthly, with just a sixty-day lag from the time sales began.

Finally, and from my point of view, most importantly, you retain all rights to your work. Legacy book contracts are a terrible danger zone for the author.

Most of us are not lawyers. The complexity of negotiating a contract can be confusing and intimidating.

You must hire a lawyer specializing in literary contracts or risk unwittingly signing away secondary and subsidiary rights to your own work forever.

Quote from the Authors Guild post of July 28, 2015:

Diamonds may be forever, but book contracts should not be. There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever. Yet that’s precisely what happens today. A publisher may go bankrupt or be bought by a conglomerate, the editors who championed the author may go on to other companies, the sales force may fail to establish the title in the marketplace and ignore it thereafter, but no matter how badly the publisher mishandles the book, the author’s agreement with the original publisher is likely to remain in effect for many decades. [3]

Regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not, you must do the work and absorb the initial costs of getting your name out there. You must find bookstores willing to host you for a signing, and you must get yourself to conventions and conferences.

You must still work your day job to feed your family either way.

Both paths are valid, and both have positive reasons for choosing that direction, as well as negatives.

How you go forward in publishing your first book is a serious decision. Choosing your publishing path deserves deep consideration of all the many pros and cons.


CREDITS & ATTRIBUTIONS:

[1] AAP December 2020 Statshot Report © 2021Association of American Publishers https://publishers.org/news/aap-december-2020-statshot-report-publishing-industry-down-8-5-for-month-up-0-1-for-calendar-2020/  (Accessed March 16,2021)

[2] Literative.com Popular Books Published by the Big Four, by Jennifer Mendez © https://literative.com/writers-resources/popular-books-published-big-four/#:~:text=HarperCollins,%20Simon%20&%20Schuster,%20Hachette%20and%20Penguin%20Random,in%20a%20year),%20but%20they%20certainly%20have%20prestige. (Accessed March 16, 2021)

[3] A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever, The Authors Guild, © 2021 https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/a-publishing-contract-should-not-be-forever/, (Accessed March 16, 2021)

Image: Quill Pen, PD|by author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

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What I #amreading, and #amwriting

Hello from a dark and rainy town somewhere near Olympia, Washington, USA. The time of year that I like to think of as “baking weather” has arrived. It’s cold and rainy, with the promise of snow in the next few days.

Let’s face it: when the house feels cold, Grandma gets cooking.

Bread, cookies, lentil loaf—in my family, food is love. My house is full of good smells and tasty treats, and my clothes are shrinking.

Hunkering down with a cup of hot tea and a good book is another enjoyable activity for this time of year.

I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Michio Kaku, The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth.  This book was published by Random House in February of 2018. The way I learn requires a more in-depth approach to reading it, as I need to read slowly and take notes, so it’s been several weeks and I’m only halfway through it. This book is a journey, not a speed-read.

I’m drawn to a wide variety of books on philosophy and natural history and have them on my reading list because they offer new ways of looking at the world. I love learning but don’t have the patience to take college courses anymore.

I just finished reading “Murder in an Irish Village,” a cozy mystery by American author Carlene O’Connor. Published by Kensington Books in 2016, it’s the first book in a series of seven so far. It was a fun little mystery, well-plotted. Siobhán O’Sullivan is an enjoyable protagonist, and the cast of characters and suspects were believable. It kept me guessing to the end. I had one dislike, which is the abundance of relatively obscure Irishisms—at some points it’s rough going. I suspect even native Irish speakers have to look some words up. I understood all the dialogue only because I was reading on a Kindle and could easily search for the meanings of words I didn’t know. Despite that minor flaw I give the book four stars, because it’s a good novel.

So, what am I writing? I finished the first draft of Gates of Eternity, my accidental novel. That’s the working title, but I have no idea what the final title will be. I have a lot of work ahead of me before it’s ready for my editor, but I’m satisfied with how the storyline has fallen into place.

I am setting that book aside now to finish working on Bleakbourne on Heath. This Alternate Arthurian novel grew out of a serial I began writing in 2016. The ending has been written, but a certain amount of work remains, as the plot is a little thin in some places.

Committing to write that serial back then was how I discovered that writing and publishing a chapter a week is NOT my strong suit!

This last week, I entertained myself by creating a digital map for a friend’s next novel, a mystery set in the general area my husband grew up in. She gave me a hand-drawn basic layout, and I took it from there. I love drawing maps for my own work and have often thought I missed my calling as a cartographer.

Jasperson Back Yard, May 2020

On the homefront, we’ve been getting the yard tidied, small preparations for spring whenever the weather allows. The tree man was here to prune the apple tree and cut back the maple that loves to block my front window. He also trimmed up the cedar hedge which had gotten out of control, suffocating our rhododendrons, so we’re good to go for another year.

As always, writing for this blog requires a small commitment of time and creativity, but it is one of my great joys, a diversion when things get a little hectic.

All in all, it has been a busy month, with plenty of books to read, lots to write, and new recipes to try out. I hope you’re enjoying life as much as is possible during this pandemic and the lockdown, and staying safe.

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Do the research before you do the murder #amwriting

I recently began reading a murder mystery where the author used a mushroom to kill the first victim. That’s where this book fell apart—the idea was good, but the facts and execution weren’t.

Using a mushroom stroganoff to poison him was a poor choice because fungi is an undependable weapon unless you are an expert. Also, individually, one mushroom may be more or less poisonous than another of the same kind, rather like people are. Judging how many one would need to kill a three-hundred-pound man takes more thought than I am capable of plotting out.

Also, it was stroganoff, which is basically beef and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce. This author danced over the fact that serving the food at this dinner party would have been a tactical nightmare. It would have been nearly impossible to ensure the intended victim got the poison mushrooms and no one else did, which is how this murder was written.

Agatha Christie knew that and regularly poisoned entire dinner parties, literarily speaking. Her murderers made everyone at the table sick but only the intended victim actually died.

This particular mystery was set in Scotland, and I don’t know how poisonous their mushrooms are, but I think that logic would hold true there as well as it does here in the Pacific Northwest.

If I hadn’t been on several nature walks with Ellen King Rice, a wildlife biologist and amateur mycologist who writes well-plotted mushroom thrillers, I would have accepted the slightly contrived fatal dinner as written and focused on the other failings of this novel.

This experience reinforced my belief that readers are often more knowledgeable than we authors are. E-readers can do the research just by highlighting the word and hitting search.

For this reason, having a solid base of information to back up what we are writing is critical.

My disappointment as a reader could have been avoided if the author had gone out to several mushroom hunter websites or even if she had found a local person to talk with. With only a small amount of effort, she could have made her plot a little less flimsy.

Targeted research is essential if you want your fiction to convey a feeling of truth. Identify what you want to know, use the internet, ask an expert, and create a searchable file or database of information that backs up your assertions.

Once you establish the technological era you are writing in, you know what you need to research and how theoretical you may have to get.

Here are some of my go-to sources of information:

If you seek information about low-tech societies (the past) :

My best source of information on low-tech agrarian (farm) life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid-to-late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This textbook was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who personally knew the people she wrote about.

I also find a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons.  Under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830), you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands.

These painters created accurate records of ordinary people going about everyday life. Their genre art depicts how they dressed, and what was important to them.

Talk to police, talk to doctors, talk to lawyers–many are willing to help you with your quest for accuracy about their professions. Also, you can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there.

Looking things up on the internet can suck up an enormous amount of your writing time. Do yourself a favor and bookmark your resources so all you have to do is click on a link to get the information you want. Then you can quickly get back to writing.

Resources to bookmark in general:

www.Thesaurus.Com (What’s another word that means the same as this but isn’t repetitive?)

Oxford Dictionary (What does this word mean? Am I using it correctly?)

Wikipedia (The font of all knowledge. I did not know that.)

TED Talks are a fantastic resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.

ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.

Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.

Nerds on Earth has useful information about swords and how they were used historically.

If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Big Name Bookstore, and look at the many publications available to the reading public. You can find everything from mushroom hunting, to culinary, to survivalist, to organic gardening. If people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.

We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.

SpaceX

NASA

Digital Trends

If you write sci-fi, you must read sci-fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the era of classic science fiction is today’s current tech.

Ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy.

Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side, and your teenagers won’t put theirs down long enough to eat dinner.

MAPS: If you are writing a story set in our real world and your characters will be traveling, walking a particular city, or visiting landmarks, bookmark google maps for that area and refer back to it regularly to make sure you are writing it correctly.

USE GOOGLE EARTH!

If you are writing about a fantasy world and your characters will be traveling, quickly sketch a rough map. Refer back to it to ensure the town names and places remain the same from the first page to the last. Update it as new locations are added.

Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the many bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing. And for the love of Agatha Christie, make sure your literary murders are done in a way that doesn’t fly in the face of logic.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Jan Steen, Dutch (active Leiden, Haarlem, and The Hague) – Rhetoricians at a Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Jan_Steen,_Dutch_(active_Leiden,_Haarlem,_and_The_Hague)_-_Rhetoricians_at_a_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=355150081 (accessed September 10, 2020).

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Chapter Length #amwriting

I was recently asked in an online group what length a chapter should be. I’ve discussed this before here, but I’m always happy to repeat myself. In my opinion, there is no hard and fast rule.

When we commit to writing daily, our writing style grows and changes. Fifteen years ago, I wrote long chapters, some over 4,000 words.

However, as time has passed, my writing style has evolved. Chapters have become shorter, averaging between 1,500 to 2,250. Some will be much shorter, for reasons I will go into further on down this article. Some might be longer if the story demands it.

However, it’s a good idea to consider comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length, a personal choice.

I’ve read and enjoyed many books where the authors made each scene a chapter, even if it was only two or three hundred words long. They ended up with over 100 chapters in their books, but the chapter-length went unnoticed by me when I read it.

L.E. Modesitt Jr. sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each point-of-view character’s storyline separate and flows well.

For me as a reader, books work best when each chapter details the events of one large scene or several related events.

Chapters are like paragraphs. Packing too many unrelated ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected. In the end, you must decide what your style is going to be.

The key to a smooth, seamless narrative is how an author handles transitions.

This could be a conversation that moves the story forward to the next scene within a chapter.

Conversely, the transition conversation could end a chapter by offering a tidbit of information that compels the reader to turn the page—the hook.

Information is crucial but should be given only as the reader requires it.

A good conversation is about something one or more characters don’t know. It builds toward something they’re only beginning to understand. A conversation is an opportunity to close a scene or chapter with a hook.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter. Each should reveal something new and push the story forward toward the final showdown. If a scene is there to fluff the word count, I suggest removing it.

Fade-to-black: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black in the middle of a chapter makes the story feel mushy.

Hard scene breaks: When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to use the old 1-2-3:

  1. Wind it up with a firm finish
  2. Leave the reader with a hook that makes them want to turn the page
  3. Start a new chapter.

Short stories are different. If you are writing a short story, dividing it into chapters isn’t an option. At the end of a scene, you may find that a hard break is required. Editors with open calls for short stories will often ask that you insert an asterisk or hashtag to indicate a hard scene break.

Pacing is deeply intertwined with chapter length. Most readers find it easier to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the narrative.

Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view. That is my choice also, as a hard transition between characters is the best way to avoid head-hopping.

Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck” and makes following the storyline difficult.

Sometimes an event occurs where more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown. How you navigate this will significantly affect the readability of the narrative.

If you switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you either change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs, or consider ending the chapter.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the complaints some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is how he wandered around between storylines as if he couldn’t decide who the main character was.

Rand Al Thor begins as the protagonist, but Matrim, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are also given prime storylines.

I’m a dedicated Wheel of Time fan, but I was halfway through reading the series when I realized there was a good chance that we were never going to see Rand do what he was reborn to do. At that point, I kept reading because the world, the characters, and the events were so intriguing.

As very few of us are writers at Robert Jordan’s level, I suggest you concentrate on developing a single compelling, well-rounded main character, with the side characters well-developed but not upstaging the star.

Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers or give each chapter a name? The authors I am acquainted with seem divided by this question.

What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If good titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means, go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book.

Whether you choose numbered or titled chapter headings, be consistent and stay with that choice for the entire book.

Limit point of view characters to one per scene.

Each chapter should detail scenes and events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated happenings.

In regard to chapter length, you as the author must decide what the right word count is.

End your chapters at a logical place, but do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

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Choosing a Writing Group, revisited #amwriting

NaNoWriMo is roaring along, and once again, authors are asking me about local writing groups.  This post first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on June 28, 2017. What I said then still stands today: connecting with a good writing group has been an invaluable asset to my writing path. Their insights have helped form the foundations of my work.


Writing groups come in all sorts and sizes, some specializing in general fiction and some in genres like mystery, science fiction, fantasy, or romance.

Some focus on critiquing, others on beta reading, still others on supporting each other’s career.

Most communities have clusters of authors. In your community, you will find groups for beginning writers and some that cater to more advanced crowds. I guarantee there will be one to fit your needs.

Making a poor choice can be devastating—it can undermine an author’s self-confidence and destroy their joy in the craft. We’ve all heard the horror stories regarding critique groups, and perhaps even experienced one. You are not required to return to their next meeting. Continue seeking out a more welcoming group.

However, most writing groups are good, supportive gatherings of authors who stay for years and welcome new authors into their group with open arms.

There is a difference in types of writing groups. Some are traditional critique groups, people who usually read a few pages aloud at their sessions and the others discuss it in detail in a round-table fashion, while the author listens. Often, these groups are large and because they are pressed for time, they don’t allow the author to ask questions or clarify points of confusion. Despite that flaw, this sort of focus on your work can be just right for some authors.

A group like that can tell you if you have made editing errors and point out areas that need work within the few pages they have sampled. For authors strapped for cash and unable to afford to hire an editor, this sort of group is an invaluable resource.

What you learn about your writing habits in those pages will carry over into the larger manuscript, improving your writing skills.

However, because traditional critique groups focus only on 3 or 4 pages at a time, they lack the context to be able to discern inconsistencies and flaws in the overall story arc. They don’t see enough of the work to tell if your protagonist is developed sufficiently by the first 1/4 of the tale, or if you have flattened your arc by placing your inciting incident too far from the beginning.

Unless you have submitted your entire novel over a period of time, formal critique groups usually can’t see subtle problems with

  • pacing
  • the overall story arc
  • worldbuilding
  • character development

They can’t see these things because these larger elements can only be judged by sampling more than three or four pages of a novel. One way around that is to seek input privately from one of the members if you have found someone who reads the genre in which you write and feel comfortable enough to share that much with them.

If you are looking for input on large issues, my advice is to find a beta reading group.

But how do you select a group? Before you join a critique or beta reading group, you have the right to know what that group focuses on. Attend one of their meetings as an observer.

What do I want from this group? How do they treat each other’s work? When you get home, ask yourself these questions:

  • Did they address places where the submitted chapter bogged down?
  • What did the group think about the characters?
  • Did they address places where they became confused?
  • Did the group point out spots they had to read twice?
  • How did the group address places where the story become unbelievable or too convenient?
  • Did the readers care enough to wonder what would happen to the characters next?
  • How did the group phrase their comments? Was it supportive as well as instructional?
  • Did they encourage conversation about the chosen work?
  • Is discussion discouraged? If the author was not allowed to discuss their work or ask questions, it is a red flag that should be noted.

Ask yourself, “What vibes did I get from this group of people? Will I benefit from sharing my work with this group? Did the comments they made to each other sound helpful?” Hopefully, the answer to those questions will be a resounding “yes.”

If you are considering joining the group, ask the leader/chairperson these questions:

  • If the group is a beta reading group focused on first drafts, what do they consider a first draft? Do you have it thoroughly edited before you submit it to this group? Because that is not a first draft, and that group would be a waste of your time.
  • Will you receive insights into your manuscript on points you hadn’t considered, or will the focus of the discussion center on minor editing issues that you are already aware of?

Ask the leader to define for you the specific areas that readers will be looking at:

  • Character development,
  • Pacing and the arc of the scene,
  • The arc of the conversation,
  • Worldbuilding.

When you think have found a group you feel comfortable sharing your work with, and you trust them enough to submit your first piece to them, take notes on the experience. When you are home, ask yourself:

  • Do I still feel positive about my work or do I feel like my work was treated as being less than important?
  • Did I gain anything from the experience that would advance the plot, or did I just hear a rehash of armchair editing from a wannabe guru?
  • Did I feel as if they were sincerely interested in helping me with my work?

If the answers are anything other than a resounding “yes” you have the right to leave the group.

The answers to these questions have to be that you feel good about your work, that you saw the weaknesses through their eyes, and you now know what you need to do to make your story great. You must be filled with the conviction that you know what needs to be done, and you must still have passion for the story.

Authors attend their first meeting with a new writing group hoping to find likeminded people. We are filled with uncertainty and fear the first time we meet these people. At the end of the day, you have to feel as if you have gained something from the experience.

Hopefully, you will be as fortunate as I have been, and find a group of authors who will support and nurture you in the craft of writing. The way to repay them for their help is to support them and their efforts wholeheartedly.


Credits and Attributions:

Choosing a Writing Group  ©2017 by Connie J. Jasperson first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on Jun 28, 2017

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Navigating the different ways in which we learn #amwriting

I went to school in a small town in Washington State and graduated in 1971. I don’t exactly know how that happened, as I was the most undereducated and socially ignorant student ever given a diploma from Tumwater High School.

While I didn’t thrive in school, I was a boomer, so I suppose they passed me along to make room for the next year’s students.

For the most part, I didn’t like school. Everything happened so fast and moved so quickly that I rarely understood what was going on, or what we were doing. I was the odd duck in the pond, never quite aware of the proper social cues, and always out of step.

Teachers regularly pointed out that I was an underachiever.

Music was my refuge, my guaranteed A. When it came to reading, English, and literature, I was ahead of the class. Because social studies/history and science were so reading-intensive, I managed to get decent grades in those classes too.

I was funneled down the college path by my parents, despite the fact I didn’t have a clue about algebra. Proficiency in advanced mathematics was a requirement for admission into any college or university.

No amount of private tutoring could do more than barely keep me from failing. Getting a “D” was the best I could do in that subject. But I did understand bookkeeping math, and because I could see why everything added up, I liked it. I was a bookkeeper for most of my working life.

In 1993, the company I worked for finally bought a computer. All the Microsoft products in those days came with a large book, but I needed to move my files from paper to Excel as quickly as possible. Out of desperation, I brought my then-fourteen-year-old son in on a Saturday, and he showed me how to transfer my handwritten spreadsheets to Excel.

Once Daniel began showing me how it worked, it was as if a supernova had gone off in my mind. All those wacky algebra equations I had never understood suddenly made sense.

In Excel, I had a visual system before me that showed me how it worked. A workbook has several spreadsheets in it, each made of rows and columns of cells. You must use the right language, such as =sum(A1+A2). But once I learned the language, the bookkeeping world was my oyster.

Best of all, if I changed the values in cells A1 and A2, the sum in A3 automatically updated.

And I could link cells between spreadsheets in the same workbook!

Hallelujah! The Income & Expense report automatically updated every time an entry was made in the check register, accounts receivable, or accounts payable.

No more poring over a 32-column spreadsheet with a yardstick and calculator for half a day only to be 3 pennies off at the end. Mistakes were easily and quickly dealt with, saving an incredible amount of time.

As an adult, I discovered that I am a visual learner. In other words, I don’t do abstract well at all. In 1997, I was diagnosed with a learning disability that no one ever thought about in my era. But it is actually pretty common: attention deficit disorder without hyperactivity (ADD).

So, I was not a lazy student, as my report cards all said. I really was working hard, trying to keep my head above water.

I was just unable to see the shore I was swimming toward.

And what does all that mean? I don’t see it as a disability, because for me, it can be worked around.

I just have a different way of learning that didn’t lend itself to the way traditional public school systems taught during the time I was growing up.

College was easier for me to navigate in some ways. As an adult, in classroom situations, I get confused easily when hearing verbal instructions.

However, college-level textbooks aren’t as ambiguous as those we had in elementary school. If I am given handouts with the high points written out in plain English, I can take the time I need to research and absorb the information.

Despite my less than happy years in public schools, I love learning. All my adult life, I have been educating myself, sometimes formally, but mostly via the internet. Being able to learn at my pace and not have to wonder what I missed is sheer heaven.

This is why writer’s conferences are good for me. Yes, most lectures are delivered verbally, but they are short, and the presenters are willing to answer questions. Also, having a laptop gives me the ability to take readable notes as the presentation goes along. And most presenters give useful handouts or direct you to books that illustrate their subject.

I did enjoy the PNWA virtual conference this last weekend and was able to sit in on many excellent seminars. Much of what I heard reinforced previous knowledge.

However, every new concept I was exposed to is still fermenting, rolling around in my mind, and will probably emerge in a blogpost. I heard several different ways of looking at one aspect of writing craft or another, but I still need to think about them.

Yes, even virtual conferences are a test of my endurance.

I still feel confused as I sit in a Zoom meeting, taking notes and trying to understand the finer distinctions between simple things that everyone else grasps right away.

But that no longer paralyzes me.

I now know how to navigate the way I learn. I go back to my notes to see what I want to investigate further. Then I go out to the internet and seek information from more than one source. By having several differently phrased explanations, something I didn’t quite understand will be made clear.

I absorb and remember information in a different way than the majority of people do, but I no longer panic over it. You may learn in yet another way.

None of us fit into that box in the center of the learning spectrum, the one labeled “normal.” The key is to relax and absorb the information in the way you feel most comfortable.

Being diagnosed with a learning disability at the age of 44 was a surprise, but it explained so much. I’d gone through life feeling like the lone puzzle piece from a jigsaw puzzle with a similar but different picture that had been put into the wrong box. And now I knew why I didn’t fit.

That diagnosis in 1997 gave me the tools I needed to educate myself. It also gave me the confidence to accept how I am different and be a little more outgoing. I still lack certain social skills, but I’m improving there too.

And one final update on the PNWA conference: my dear friend and fellow member of the Tuesday Morning Rebel Writers, Johanna Flynn won the Nancy Pearl award for her book, Hidden Pictures. This is so meaningful, beyond the cash prize, as it is an award that is voted on by librarians.

So, keep writing, and keep submitting your work. Educate yourself in the way you feel most comfortable and have faith in yourself. We never know what lies just around the corner.

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Virtual Conferences #amwriting

We are now entering the virtual convention season. PNWA (the Pacific Northwest Writers’  Association Conference) kicks off on Thursday the 24th. This will be the first year they’ve been virtual.

I will miss the people I usually see there and hope that next year we can meet in person.

However, while the in-person conference was a lot of fun, this is much gentler on the budget. I don’t have to rent a room for three nights, and I can prepare my own food as I normally do, which is not an easy thing for a vegan on the road.

I’m really looking forward to the awards night, as my good friend, author Johanna Flynn is up for the prestigious Nancy Pearl Award for her book, Hidden Pictures—and that is a big deal.

I was a reader in the short story category, and one of the stories I read is up for an award—this makes me happy. I love it when I come across a brilliant piece of writing, and some of the entries I read this year just shone.

The Nebulas were a virtual conference this last May, and I enjoyed how easy it was to navigate the whole thing. I wouldn’t have attended the Nebulas had it not been virtual, as the total cost for air-fare and rooms and dining would have been prohibitive. It was a real joy to be involved, even if only on a virtual level.

The reason I love conferences is simple. You meet people and make connections, and sometimes you forge friendships. If anything is missing from a virtual conference, it is that little touch of humanity.

However, much can be gained, even in these challenging times. This year, Brit Bennett, New York Times best-selling author of The Vanishing Half and The Mothers,  will be giving the keynote speech. I’m looking forward to an inspiring evening.

The master’s classes are included in the basic fee this year since it is a virtual conference. I’ve always enjoyed these classes when I had the extra money, but there were years when I couldn’t afford them. Many people have wanted to attend master’s classes but couldn’t find the extra money, so this year they will have that chance.

I am interested in writing craft seminars (of course). Still, I will be attending workshops on negotiating the rough waters of the business side of writing. Sunday will focus on screenwriting.

PNWA is offering both 20 minute and 1-hour seminars, which allows folks the chance to walk around and stretch their legs. I think a shorter meeting will encourage people to remain at their computers and engaged.

I hope to have a lot of new ideas for posts on craft and the business of writing in general. Some years I come home fired up about specific topics that were covered, in both craft and business. I hope to end this conference with new viewpoints on what sometimes feels like old dogmas.

I love learning. Discovering fresh ideas, seeing new ways of looking at things we take for granted—these are the reasons I attend writers’ conferences.

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The literal layer #amwriting

McLane Pond, taken in July 2018

Stories are created from countless layers. Today we are looking at the many outwardly visible aspects of a story. These are the surface features that define not only genre but which either attract or repel a reader at first glance.

If you’ve ever seen a pond on a calm day, you may have noticed the sky and any overhanging trees reflected on the still surface. The picture I’ve included at the top here is one my husband and I took while walking the McLane Nature Trail, not far from our home. We took it in July of 2018.

If you were there on a stormy day, things were different. The waters were gray, reflecting the color of the clouds. Ripples and waves stirred the waters.

The surface of a story is the Literal Layer, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

In a story, events and the way our characters move through them stir the surface, creating the image our reader sees.

This surface is comprised of

  • Setting
  • Action and Interaction
  • All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.

When we look at the surface, we immediately see something recognizable.

Setting and props – things such as:

  1. Objects the characters see in their immediate situation
  2. Ambient sounds that form the background
  3. Odors/scents of the immediate environment
  4. Objects the characters interact with
  5. Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)

The mechanical order of events forms the structure of the literal layer because they appear to be the story. This framework is the easel on which the setting and props are displayed:

  1. The opening.
  2. The inciting incident.
  3. Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
  4. The introduction of new characters.
  5. The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
  6. The final showdown

How do we shape this literal layer to entice the casual reader? We can add tropes common to a particular genre. Sci-fi or fantasy elements offer an immediate clue to a prospective buyer.

Many sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in close-to-real-world environments. The settings are familiar, akin to what we know. As readers, we could be in that world.

Good world-building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019

An obvious point I still want to make, is that the literal layer is also comprised of word combinations and word choices. This aspect distinguishes the level at which the intended reader will be able to comprehend and enjoy.

I prefer the prose in my casual reading material to be suitable for the average adult, not too pretentious, and not dumbed down. I seek that happy medium when I peruse the paperbacks or use the “Look Inside” option for eBooks at the big store in the sky.

What we put into the surface layer of our story draws the reader to look more closely at the depths. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are profound aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

While the surface elements of the story ruffle the surface and stir things up on the literal layer, they are only a glimpse of the deeper waters.

A memorable story has soul and hidden depths. It makes you think about larger issues you might not have considered before.

Plot charts the twists and turns of events, but depth opens our eyes, enabling us to see how other people think, feel, and experience life.

Depth changes observers into participants.

Prose and how we choose words to express emotion and ideas most powerfully is the medium by which we convey depth.

Writing to formal constraints, as I’ve discussed in several previous posts, forces us to find words that drill down and say what we really mean. By using the dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, we can find ways to write concise prose that isn’t repetitive, isn’t longwinded, but still has a cadence to it that is our voice, our style.

Have you read the opening page of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss yet? That is your homework.

Go to the eBook section of the library or go to the online store of your choice and use the “look inside” option or the “download sample” option. You don’t have to do more than read the first paragraphs to complete this task.

Use one of the above cost-free methods to see how a master wordsmith uses prose to stir the surface in the opening pages of a fantasy novel.

With that ruffling of the waters in the first paragraphs, you are given a glimpse into the depths that lurk below.


Credits and Attributions:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019 (One of the Needles, Cannon Beach) © 2019 by Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved (author’s own work).

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On Poetry: Interview with Maria V A Johnson @amwriting

One week ago, I asked three good friends who write both novels and poetry, Stephen Swartz, Shaun Allan, and Maria V.A. Johnson to each answer the same 5 questions about how they approach writing both poetry and novels. (Which is why my questions might seem familiar.) It’s amazing how differently they have answered.

Each author has shared a different aspect of how they tap into their inner poet.

Part 1, Stephen Swartz can be found if you click on this link.

Part 2, Shaun Allan can be found if you click on this link.

I first met Maria when she joined Myrddin Publishing Group, the indie publishing cooperative I have been involved with since 2012. Maria is a meticulous editor and is easy to work with, and her poems are moving and inspirational.


CJJ:  When did you begin to write poetry?

MVAJ: I first started writing poetry when I was 16. My Nan died and I wanted to write something for the funeral. It drew heavily on inspiration found online, but I discovered I enjoyed it and haven’t looked back since.

CJJ: What is your favorite form, rhyming or free?

MVAJ: When it comes to forms, I’m a very modern girl and prefer free, though I did experiment a lot while at University.

CJJ: For me, poetry becomes an emotional catharsis. Where do you find the emotional strength to write and publish something as deeply personal as poetry?

MVAJ: I like to think that I’m not unique and others are in the same place as me. If my poetry can help them in some way, then I believe it is worth the emotional upheaval of sharing this part of myself. On the plus side, having a form of Autism (known as Aspergers) means that I struggle to connect with my emotions. While I can do it, my natural state is slightly distanced which lessens the pain of sharing. It does have a downside though – when I do connect to write, it can be quite overwhelming.

CJJ: We all write what we are in the mood for. Which literary form, novel or poetry is easiest for you today?

MVAJ: I’ve discovered that the best form for my poetry is modern free. This type is more focused on imagery than anything else, and I find that this works best with the hyperfocus that is part of being autistic.

CJJ: What are you currently working on?

MVAJ: At the moment I’m not working on anything. All my projects have been on hold since I bought a puppy in January. She was just reaching the stage where I could get back to work when the Covid-19 Lockdown took effect and I haven’t been in the right frame of mind to do anything, so I’ve been making greeting cards instead. However, I have a couple of projects to return to when I can. One is a poetry collection about disabilities, and one is a short novel about a damaged girl post-coma. I tend to flit between the two as the muse moves me.


Thank you, Maria, for giving us a glimpse of your writing world. I think many authors are finding it difficult to be creative right now.

On Wednesday, for the final post in this interview series, I have the good fortune of featuring Alan Shue. He is a poet and the author of three hilarious children’s books. Alan lives in my area and is active in local writing groups where we have mutual friends—so I prevailed on a member of my writing group to connect us via email.

(That was bold, I know, but nothing ventured, nothing gained!)

I can’t wait to share Alan’s interview with you. I’ve changed up the questions and he’s been a good sport about it.


About Maria V A Johnson:

Maria V A Johnson is a voracious reader, professional editor, and published author and poet with a Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing. She loves the challenge of taking a raw manuscript and turning it into a polished novel. She specialises in Fantasy, however she can edit any genre. She first started writing seriously, when at sixteen she wrote a poem for her grandmother’s funeral and she grew to love poetry and writing from there.

She has collaborated in several anthologies which raise money for Farleigh Hospice in Chelmsford, Essex. She also has a poetry collection called Hearts and Minds released November 2012 and has been published in several anthologies since. Her first novel is currently in editing and she is working on her second as well as another poetry collection.

She has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, though she doesn’t consider it a disability, but rather a different way of looking at the world. If you want to know more about it, visit the National Autistic Society page at: https://www.autism.org.uk/

Maria’s book of poetry, Hearts and Minds, is available at Amazon.

You can find her at: https://maria7627.wordpress.com/

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