Monday, November 28, 2011

Be A Better Writer: Writing Prompt.

One of my favorite exercises in Creative Writing class was the Writing Prompt, where you'd take a picture, song, clip, or poem and use it as a prompt to write a story. The only rule was that you had to incorporate the prompt into your story, somehow. So, just for the fun of it, here's a writing prompt. Let your creative juices flow!

Write at least a half a page scene based off of this picture:

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Multi-Media: He Writes, He Sings!

I sometimes hesitate to tell people that I'm a writer. Not because I'm embarrassed, or feel unworthy to give myself that title, but rather because I feel like it's limiting. Writing implies that I only work with the media of words on paper, and that's not the case at all.

I'm a story-teller.

I tell stories in many different media, whether in writing, or in drawing/painting, or in music. Telling stories is what I do.

And, to that end, I'd like to invite you to hear some of my music. Here's a way to download one of my songs:

You can also go buy the full live album on itunes.If you want to. No pressure.

I also composed a Christmas medley: Songs for Shepherds
So, don't ever limit yourself. Yeah, that's the lesson here.

UPDATE: If you are reading this in an RSS reader, there's a good chance some of the embedded objects above aren't showing up for you. If so, just click here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

So Wrong So Write #1: The Blockhead

So Write So Wrong 1: The Block 
Here's my very first comic. Made by me!

MMGM - Backlist Edition: The McGurk Mysteries.

Shannon Whitney Messenger has done a fantastic service to the reading/writing community by highlighting Middle Grade books every Monday in Marvelous Middle Grade Monday!!! (Exclamation points my own, though I assume appreciated by Shannon.) I've decided to contribute in my own quirky, history nerd fashion by highlighting a series that is out of print, but can still be purchased online. (At the screaming rate of $.01 per book.) This series was one of the very first that I ever fell in love with, and one that pulled me out of the Bobbsey Twins/Boxcar Children stage and planted me firmly into the Isaac Asimov/Graphic Novels stage of my reading maturity. That series is the McGurk Mystery Series by E. W. Hildick.

One of my favorite books in the McGurk Series.

The books follow the adventures of McGurk and his friends as they solve age-appropriate mysteries. I say age-appropriate because, for the most part, they investigated missing lawn ornaments, kidnapped cats, or other fantastically minute yet intense crimes within the 12-year old community. There was one book that involved an investigation into insurance fraud, but in that case they worked within the normal limitations of children. (Brilliantly done, I must say)

The first book, The Nose Knows, came out in 1974 and the last, The Case of the Wiggling Wig, came out in 1996, thus there was a time span of 22 years and 24 books. Over that time, the team was comprised of McGurk (the leader and eccentric supersleuth), Joey (the Watson to McGurk's Sherlock), Willy (who specialized in smelling clues), Wanda (the tomboy gifted regarding trees, both identifying and climbing them), Brain (the boy genius and inventor), and Mari Yoshimura (the ventriloquist from Japan who was a human lie detector). They were incredibly diverse, considering the time they were written, and incredibly entertaining.

I'd recommend picking up a few of these and reading them, if for no other reason than to give some love to an author that hasn't gotten a lot of attention in a while.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I've been interviewed!

Well, folks, I've been interviewed over at QueryTracker by Patrick McDonald. Go read it for more info on the journey I took to get my agent.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guest Blog: Bill Shakespeare

Decided to let somebody else write for me today. Here's Bill Shakespeare with a Sonnet, he calls it Sonnet 27.

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tir'd,
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body's work's expir'd;
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Over/Under Selling

Salesmanship is one of the essential non-writing tools for your writing toolbox. But how do you do it?

If you've perused many agent websites, you've heard the complaint about those query letters that say, "This is the next great American classic" or "I guarantee a massive movie deal with this book" or some other nonsense like that. It makes me think of the Snake Oil salesmen of the old west, who claimed their concoctions could cure rheumatism, headaches, neuralgia, toothaches, earaches, backaches, sore throats, chest colds, swellings, sprains, cuts, bruises, baldness, and deafness. Unfortunately, it was usually just urine in a jar.

Which is probably what a lot of those books are, too.

At any rate, those of us who have read those claims from writers have become gun shy. At least, I know I did. We're so afraid of Over-Selling our work and ourselves that we Under-Sell instead.

Oh, sure, you might craft a query letter that is formatted correctly, and is devoid of error, and so sanitary you could eat off it. But, where's the pizazz? Where's the bells and whistles? Where's the juice that'll get them begging for more?

It's all about salesmanship.

And, even beyond the query letter, you have to keep selling as a writer. Whether it's in phone interviews with agents or editors, or whether it's in booking and attracting events, or whether it's in your social marketing skills, you have to be a good salesman.

So, how do you do it?

  1. Know your product. If you're talking about your book, you had better know your book like you know your own face. You need to recognize its good qualities, and know how to feature them above all else. It's like when a woman puts on makeup, she knows that her eyes are her strong feature, or her lips, or the mole with the hair on it, or whatever. And she knows that she needs to highlight that in order to be attractive.
  2. Ensure your product. There's an old saying, "Under-Promise, Over-Deliver." When it comes to selling, the only way you can effectively sell something and still Over-Deliver is if you have a darn good product. So, seriously, make sure that your book is edited, revised, and as good as you can get it on your own. Make sure that you, as a product yourself, are free from scandalous twitter pics, or vicious tirades on your ex-spouse. Make sure that you know how to avoid the f-bomb in normal conversation. And please, oh pretty please, make sure that you actually HAVE a book before you get everybody all worked up over it.
  3. Pitch your Product. You have to be able to sell your product in one sentence. Yeah, it's hard. But, if it's your book, that's what the logline is all about. And, if the product is you, that is when you learn how to say, "I used to be a diagnostician, but now I'm a writer of Middle-Grade fiction which gets kids interested in medical diagnostics, and I'd love to present an assembly to your school. Where can I send you more information?" (yes, I'm imagining Dr. Gregory House as a MG writer of Medical Mysteries. And, yes, I would advise him to be silent on his Vicodin addiction.)
Selling is such an important component of succeeding as a writer (and as anything, really) that I hope you'll take the time to practice and prepare to be the best you can be at it.


Friday, November 11, 2011

How to put on a great presentation!

If you are going to be giving a presentation, the biggest priority in your mind should be entertainment.

That’s not to negate the importance of information, or education, or any of the other goals that you may have assigned to your public appearance. But, trust me, the single distinguishing factor of any presentation is the entertainment value. Do you capture the attention of the audience, keep it through out, and leave them happy that they gave you the last 45 minutes of their life? If not, it won’t matter how pristine your content was, you have failed.

And, you want the entertainment to be intentional, not accidental. Yes, there is a sick pleasure to be found in watching someone crash and burn on the stage, like observing the sinking of the Titanic or the most painfully awkward moments on The Office. But moments like those will not help you sell your book. And, really, that’s what it’s all about, right?

So, how do you create the most entertaining presentation possible, while still staying true to yourself and your goals as a writer?

Here’s my way:

1.       Grab the audience from the start. Maybe you open with a joke. (Of course, telling jokes can be one of the most terrifying activities in public speaking) Maybe you give them a video. How about a quote, or a riveting fact. You say you wrote a paranormal Romeo and Juliet parody, starring Zombies from the Appalachians and from New Orleans? And the reason you picked those two locations was because of the voodoo tradition from New Orleans, mixed with the Rip Van Winkle folklore of Appalachia? How about opening like this: “Rip Van Winkle was a zombie. You all knew that, right? He was a brain eating, flesh skewering, never showering zombie. What, you don’t think that’s true? Prove it.”
2.       Escalate your momentum. Now you give them the story. Not the story of your book, but the story of you writing the darn thing. Of course, this isn’t the flowery story you’ve shared with your friends and family, the one where you were so frustrated you wanted to quit and take up professional crocheting. Save that for your blog. Instead, give your audience the truncated, Reader’s Digest version. Take out all the boring parts. Make it easy to follow. Let the audience feel like anyone could do what you did, but there’s no way anyone could do it the way you did it.
3.       Slap them with substance. You know all that crap about theme and archetypes you tried to keep from being too obvious in your book. Now’s the time to make it obvious. And, even more importantly, it’s time to make them relevant. So, your Zombie romance dealt with cultural differences, grief, and vegetarianism? Give it to your audience, with details of why those issues are important to them. But, remember, it’s a sin to be boring. So, give them stories relating to the theme. Real life stories, and then weave in the story of your book.
4.       Leave them wanting more. One of my favorite movies is That Thing You Do. In that movie, there’s a band that is on tour, and their manager tells them to bow, smile, and leave the stage as soon as the song is over. That’s what you need to do, too. Don’t give them everything you’ve got, give them enough so they want more from you. If you want to have a question and answer time, that’s awesome. But, limit it. Let everyone know that you’ll be happy to answer one question per person at the signing line afterwards.  And if there aren’t any questions? Leave them with one final story, the kicker, that piece that will have them salivating to talk to you. It can be funny, sad, or exciting. Whatever you do, leave them asking for more.

I hope that you all have a wonderful career of public speaking in front of you, especially if you are a children’s and young adult writer and you are hoping to make school appearances.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Say It, Don't Spell It! The Writer's Guide to Public Speaking

We've all heard this Seinfeld quote, right?

“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

And, to so many writers, that rings true.

Now, let me preface my little advice here with some info. Before I was really a writer, I was a professional public speaker for 15 years. I was a teacher, a motivational speaker, and a program director. I've spoken before audiences with numbers into the thousands, in venues from California to Tennessee, and also internationally. And (here's the kicker) I still get nervous before every presentation.

So, how do you do it? How do you get over the butterflies (or in some cases, the vampire bats) and get up there, wow audiences, and give your book and career the best shot possible?
  1. Have Something to Say. Yeah, this seems like a no-brainer. But, you'd be surprised how many times people get up and plan on spontaneity taking over. After all, you're talking about your book, right? How hard can that be? Pretty darn hard, if you don't have a plan of what you're going to say. So, what should you plan?
    1. Your inspiration for writing. Why did you decide to write what you wrote? What life experience gave you insight into the world you created?
    2. The writing process. How long did it take for you to write your book? Where were you living when you wrote it? Did you write daily, off and on, or what?
    3. Your life. Why did you decide to become a writer? What were you before you started writing?
    4. Themes in your book. Your book has a subtext about cruelty to snails. Where did you come up with that? Why are you passionate about that? What are some real world applications to this topic?
  2. Practice, Practice, Practice. I still run through every single presentation at least twenty times before I give it. In the car, in my house, while I'm doing laundry, I memorize my presentations like a script. Now, I've been doing this for a while, and I generally adjust and improvise when actually giving my presentations, but when I was first starting out, I memorized until I could do it in my sleep. Videotape yourself, talk in front of a mirror. Don't leave anything to chance. What, you hate hearing yourself talk? Not as much as your audience will if you don't hammer out the kinks! Practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more.
  3. Give Yourself the License to Screw Up. The biggest reason people are afraid of public speaking is because they fear what the audience will think of them. And, trust me, it can SUCK to know that you screwed up royally. But, you WILL screw up royally. It's going to happen. It does to everyone. Prepare yourself, forgive yourself ahead of time, and push through it.
  4. Expect the Unexpected. One time, I had a heckler in the audience. An ACTUAL heckler. Another time, there was a child that ran up onto the stage and started crying. And then there was the time the fire alarms went off. Oh, and that time someone stormed out, screaming profanities. Yup, weird things can happen. Get ready for them. In fact, enjoy them. Trust me, there's nothing better than telling your friends about the guy that started undressing in the middle of your presentation. (Happened to a friend, not to me.)
So, have I succesfully scared you off? Hopefully not, because as a writer, giving presentations in front of your readers can solidify your career. And, trust me, you CAN do it. In a couple of days, I'll give one more piece of advice about public speaking: "Planning An Amazing Presentation"


Monday, November 7, 2011

Non-Writing Tools for your Writing Toolbox

Ah, being a writer. Isn't it wonderful to have a job whose title and job description are basically the same? It's not like being a cashier, who barely handles cash these days, or being a bank teller, who never tells anyone anything worth hearing. Nope, being a writer is simple. You write, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, your job as a writer is to write your book. But, if you want to be a successful author (wait, there's no job description in that title!), you need to develop some skills beyond pounding the keys on your preferred writing utensil.

What skills? I'm glad you asked.

  1. Public Speaking: I think I just heard a collective wretch coming from all the writers reading this blog. Indeed, the very reason you became a writer might be because you're more comfortable typing in your jammies with a steaming cup of Earl Gray than you are speaking in front of your family reunion. (Heck, you might be more comfortable exfoliating with a cheese grater than with public speaking.) But, if you want to promote your book, learning how to speak in public is a necessary skill you can't afford to ignore. In fact, I feel this skill is so important (and, after 15 years as a professional public speaker and musician, I should!), I'm going to be writing two more blogs about it this week (Pt 1 here, Pt 2 here). So, fear not, glossophobics, I'm here for you.
  2. Selling: I used to hate sales. Every time I tried to sell anything to anybody, I felt like a used car dealer, laying on the BS so I could swindle a poor, unsuspecting person out of their hard earned cash. Then I realized two very important facts: (1) If you feel like Snidely Whiplash you're probably doing it wrong, and (2) If you want your book to sell, you'd better be ready to start selling.
  3. Negotiating: But, wait, isn't that why I'm getting an agent? (Or, isn't that why I'm self-pubbing, so I don't need to negotiate with anyone?) Sure, it's pretty darn important that you let your agent do their job of negotiating for you, but there does come a time when you have to make some decisions on your own about your work, your income, and your future as a writer. A lot of writers either are as hard headed as a ventriloquist dummy and make no concessions whatsoever, or they're doormats and wind up miserable because they didn't stand up for themselves. Finding the balance between what you want and what you can sacrifice to move ahead is a skill not naturally born. Read a book about it, and you'll see what I mean.
  4. Booking: Yeah, it'd be great if your Google Calendar was suddenly filled with speaking engagements, school assemblies, book signings, library visits, interviews, and TV appearances. It'd be nice if the publisher came along and handed you the perfect book tour. But, guess what? It's not going to happen. Inevitably, you need to learn how to call venues, set dates, find cheap hotel reservations, get the best flights, negotiate rental cars, and fill your calendar on your own. And, for the love of all that is literary, write things down! Double booking is a sin, I tell you.
  5. Accounting: Ok, before I even get into this, let me put a disclaimer: The most important, beneficial person you will ever team up with will be a bookkeeper/accountant. The headache and hassle of filing Self Employment taxes, estimated quarterly taxes, etc. etc. etc. will drive you to finding a job at McDonald's. However, even after you partner with a brilliant accountant, you still need to take care of your own dadgum finances. Here's why: Nobody, not even your accountant, is going to tell you how to spend your money wisely. Not when it comes to the day-to-day operations of your life. So, you need to learn how to budget, how to keep receipts, how to determine your weekly paychecks out of your lump income, and on and on.
  6. Self-therapy: How many writers in history were alcoholics? Or drug addicts? Or committed suicide? How many divorces have stricken writers? How many kids turned out screwed up? How many spouses committed adultery? Too many, far too many. You need to learn how to see the signs of impending danger and how to ask for help. Just like with the financial side of your life, having someone you can trust with your mental and emotional health is also an essential part of your writing life. (And, yes, my wife is a therapist, so I am a little biased) Remember, writing can be a lonely exercise, but it doesn't have to be.
 I'm sure there are more, and if you can think of any, leave them in the comments. Coming up in a couple of days: "The Writer's Guide to Public Speaking"


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Wait for it... (The Author's Life Post-Agent, pt 1)

I've read a TON of blog posts about seeking agents, querying, pitching, etc. I've read far fewer about what to expect after you've signed with an agent. Thus, I decided to start writing as much as I safely can with advice on this stage of the game. And so, my first bit of advice is this: Learn how to have patience. Lots and lots of patience.

Certainly, it's a long, grueling process finding an agent. It's nerve wracking to send out query letters, wait on your haunches, receive rejections, lather, rinse, and repeat.

And I wouldn't want to go back to that, to be sure.

So, if you're in that stage, press on. It does get better. I'm not even going to insult you by saying, "enjoy it while it lasts." No, embrace the discomfort of the agent-finding stage and use it as motivation to get better at writing, make your book better, get that query letter pitch-perfect, and find every avenue possible to advance your career.

That is the ONLY nice part of the pre-agent stage. Everything, for the most part, is truly in your control.

Once you've signed with your agent, you're in a joint venture. The revision process takes place together, you work together to understand the pitchable qualities of your book. And then...

Then you take your hands off your baby and let your agent do their job. You've done your revisions, and you're waiting to hear what the next step will be. Will there be more revisions? Is the book ready? Does she want to go ahead, or does she think there's still more work to be done?

If you can learn how to hibernate for the winter, do it.

If not, then you need to find a way to occupy your time so you don't (a) Go Crazy and (b) Drive Your Agent Crazy.

But, what to do?

  1. Write your next book. Sure, you'll feel like you're cheating on the other one. And you'll still keep thinking of things about your first book. But that's ok. Consider this the only infidelity that's permissible.
  2. Get a hobby. My wife and I have taken up puzzles. Then we talk about my book while we do them. Ok, it's not the most effective. I've also started cooking more (as my twitter feed should inform you). With lots and lots of bacon.
  3. Spend time with your family. You know those people you've been neglecting for the past few months. How about making a family day? Or week? Go for a trip, do a picnic, whatever. Time with your kids is truly time well invested. Plus, they have no idea what advances against royalties are. It helps.
  4. Get caught up on TV. That's what Hulu and NetFlix are for, really. Depending on how long I'll be waiting, I'll be watching Private Practice, Vampire Diaries, Archie's Funhouse, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. In that order.
  5. Blog more. Hence my blog has been injected with adrenaline. Maybe this time I'll make it a habit. Or, you know, maybe not,

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bring on the crazy

Well, I wasn't going to do it. Nope, I had too much on my plate to take part in NaNoWriMo. I had revisions to do, I had to work on other projects. Nope, not this time.

But then my revisions got finished. And my projects either (a) got completed early or (b) fell off my radar.


NaNoWriMo here I come!

Admittedly, I'll be rewriting a novel I already completed, so I'm cheating a little. But, I have well over 50,000 words of writing ahead of me. So, I think I'm ok.

At any rate, time to post the badge and wear it with pride:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Happy National Author's Day!

A little late in the day, but let me wish you all a Happy National Author's Day!

To celebrate, here is a list of some of my favorite authors:
1. Mark Twain.
2. Isaac Asimov
3. C.S. Lewis
4. Alexander Dumas
5. Donald J. Sobol

Who are some of yours?