Blogging: What’s the Point?

I’ve been blogging for about 3 1/2 years. In that time, my site has experienced quite a bit of evolution. But for a few months now, I’ve been posting once a week on whatever comes to mind, plus a regular update for A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80).

Lately, I’ve been asking myself: What’s the point? Why am I blogging? What’s the purpose, the goal, the focus of my blog?

Some answers are fairly clear, and others more elusive.

Blogging Word Cloud

Blogging: What’s the point?

Better writing. I strongly believe that regularly writing blog posts hones your writing skills. All these blog posts have tightened my writing and helped me develop consistent output. The more I’ve written here, the better my writing overall has become.

Building community. Through blogging and commenting on others’ blogs, I have increased my involvement with the writer community. Many of those who read my blog are also writers, and I read their posts as well. (Although one frustration is not having enough time to read all the blogs I’d like.) Not surprisingly, online communication builds online interaction.

Accountability. Maybe this one is less clear, but it’s been a good one for me. There’s something about having a blog, and posting updates for ROW80, that has kept me on track. Preparing for blog posts has increased my desire to learn new things, share what I know, report progress, and publish my stories. If I zone out here, it could reflect me zoning out with my writing in general.

Outreach. This is the main goal most authors have with websites — ultimately, we’re trying to reach potential readers. And this is where I think I’ve struggled. I currently write for teens. But how many teens are reading blogs? The teens I know are on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, etc. They aren’t usually combing the web for 800-word posts on this, that, or the other. So how much outreach is happening on my blog? It’s a question I’ve been asking lately.

Fun. I don’t want to discount the enjoyment I get from writing blog posts, reading others’ posts, and the interaction we have. I love to write, love to laugh, love to engage. So yeah, this whole blogging thing is truly fun at times — most times. If I had no other reason, I might blog simply for the fun of it.

I’m still ruminating about the focus of my blog, the brand I want to convey, and the methods I can use to engage with others. But I don’t have hard-and-fast answers just yet. I hope you’ll share with me below why you do or don’t blog.

In the meantime, it’s time for that accountability thing — with my weekly report for A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

ROW80 Update

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. My novel has sat for a full week so that I can have fresh eyes for the next edit — which begins tomorrow. Anyone want to join me beach side, where I hope to go through my novel in one sitting with the viewpoint of Jane Reader?

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. I worked on one short story this past week, with good progress.

3. Read 12 books. Finished Promise of Magic by Melinda VanLone and started Sass and Serendipity by Jennifer Ziegler. I’m at 11 books for the round.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Finalizing my query, polishing the novel, then following through with those who requested the manuscript. I think I’ll make it before the end of the round.

Now, why do you blog or not blog? What are the benefits to you of blogging or reading blogs? How do you engage with your community and potential audience?

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Contests, Critiques, and Queries: Not for the Fainthearted

If you want to be a real writer, you have to get better — better than you started out, better than thought you were, better than you are. You have to be okay with putting your work out there and seeking feedback from good critiquers. This past week, I’ve been on that road.

Wizard of Oz

Way back in December, my local RWA chapter had a Christmas party, and one of the activities was to write down a goal for 2014 which we would review at the next Christmas party (this December). I wrote down: “Enter three contests.”

And I did enter those three contests, finaled in two, and placed first in one. (Which, I won’t lie, felt awesome.) But I’ve decided to enter two more contests as well, and I’ve been getting those submissions ready. Entering contests provides an opportunity to get your work in front of other writers, hear their feedback, and possibly get an industry professional’s take. I was reluctant at first, but now I’m sold on the benefit of contest entries.

When choosing which ones to enter, look for appropriate genre categories, what exactly gets judged (chapters? synopsis? query?), what the requirements are, and who are the final judges. I chose one of my contests solely based on an editor judge from my dream publisher; the potential of getting a request from them is worth the entry for me.

I’ve also been getting critiques from critique partners in my midst. I am so blessed to have fabulous writer friends willing to do everything from brainstorm plot or characterization issues, to read a passage I’m struggling with, to go over whole chapters and provide detailed feedback. I also love getting to read work from others and give my perspective. I believe my commentary has improved as my understanding of craft has deepened.

One of the most common questions I see in the writing community is “How do I find a good critique partner?” And honestly, I still don’t know how to answer. I sort of stumbled upon my marvelous luck. My beta readers/critique partners came from an in-depth writing class, a conference, online interaction, a local writing chapter, and a long-term friendship. I guess the threads through all of those are finding ways to link to other writers and being willing to share your work, try out those connections, see if you fit.

Critiques are a must-have for any serious writer, and your critique partners should be your most honest critics and your best cheerleaders. This past week, I’ve been getting the criticism and the cheerleading, both of which I need.

Speaking of critiques, I am taking an online query class through Lawson Writing Academy this month: Submissions That Sell with RITA Winner Laura Drake. Queries are a different animal. Many writers hate the idea of having to summarize their hundreds-of-pages novel in a few paragraphs or — how can it be done?! — a single logline. But this is the business of selling the novel you spent so much time writing. Whether you query a traditional agent or publisher or write marketing blurbs for a self-published novel, you’d better know what your book is about and be able to state it in the attention span of a gnat.

I’ve queried before and actually enjoy writing up these letters, along with loglines and synopses. It’s a good challenge. However, I admit to feeling a little wounded by the critique of my query I posted on the online class forum. (Just right there — in the left chamber of my heart, a half-inch by half-inch space, a little bit of an ouch.) Yeah, my query could be better.

But this is no time to be fainthearted. If my query can be improved, I need to know. I need to present the product I’ve spent hours and hours and hours putting together in the best light possible. I want people to read this baby! So there will be blood, sweat, and tears expended on query writing. Which I consider well-worth my effort.

So that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing this past week: contests, critiques, and queries. Oh, and writing. And editing. And . . . well, here’s my progress report for A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

ROW80

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel.

Snoopy doing happy dance

That is my update. I’m now letting the novel sit until midweek, then tackling another edit.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. I can now start on this goal this week!

3. Read 12 books. Read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and almost finished with Promise of Magic by Melinda VanLone — which will make 11 books for the round.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Just waiting to finish #1.

So what feedback do you receive and recommend? What do you think of contests, critiques, and/or queries? And how was your week?

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Writing “Rules” I Now Break

Author W. Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Maybe there aren’t any rules per se, but there are quite a few suggestions given often enough that they almost seem like rules for writers. And I’ve been thinking lately about which ones I’ve learned to break.

Broken pencil

“Just vomit the words on the page.”

Many successful authors suggest that you write as quickly as possible and with wild abandon. Theories abound that you can tap into that deeper, truer subconscious when you spill your story onto the page like a rushing waterfall. Word sprints and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are dedicated to the idea that you should get out that first draft by surging forth and getting words, words, words on the page.

Yes, I’m sure this method works for many, and I encourage writers to give it a shot. (I even wrote once about my 25k week.) However, I’ve discovered my “muse” often cannot be trusted with such carte blanche. She turns out a lot of horrible drivel that way, with very few gems. I don’t like having to throw out 20,000 bad words I wrote in a hurry when I could use that time to slow down and make sure what I’m putting down is the best I can do. I simply don’t write well this way, so instead I now write at the more measured pace that works for me.

“Turn off your internal editor.”

In the same vein is this idea that you should shut off that pesky internal editor that wants you to fix errors right now. I agree, and have written about, how you shouldn’t be editing with a fine-tooth comb those pages you may very well throw out. That’s a waste of good writing time.

However, I do two editing things while writing now:

1. I start each day going back through the last scene I wrote and tweaking as I go. That gets my brain back into the story but also quiets that little voice in my head that has been wondering since yesterday if “plucked” would work better than “yanked” in that scene (or something like that).

2. When I realize I have a plot or character problem/inconsistency, I go back and fix it where it occurs. Some people just write a note in the margin or asterisk where they need to fix the plot hole or keep a running list of issues to address later. However, my brain goes too far down that wrong road if I don’t go back and fix the problem as soon as I realize it’s there.

I kind of like my internal editor. She isn’t too bossy, but she’s got a lot of helpful things to say. But hey, that’s just me.

“If you’re blocked on a scene, just writing something, anything…just write!”

Writers write and claiming writer’s block for days or weeks while you piddle and ponder is certainly no way to finish novels.

That said, this last week I just couldn’t get a particular chapter down. I finally walked away. I folded laundry, washed dishes, started dinner, and listened to music. Periodically, I contemplated what was happening in my book and why I was struggling. Finally, as I was moving linens from my clothes washer to the dryer, I realized what the kink was in my scene.

Would I have figured out that if I’d continuing plowing through the scene, trying this or that? Or even jotting down questions and answering them? I don’t think so. For myself, I find that I can resolve certain plot or character problems better when I’m nowhere near my novel — when I’m walking the neighborhood or taking a shower or petting the cat or even doing laundry. So for me, no more plugging through a scene if it isn’t working. It’s better for me to take a day off and work out the kinks than keep writing.

So how is my approach working for me? Here’s my weekly update for A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

ROW80

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. So close, I can taste it! I should be done in a day or two, then I’ll let the manuscript sit for a week before diving in for another round of edits.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. Waiting to finish #1 first.

3. Read 12 books. I’m still at 9 books for the round, having stalled out a bit this week.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Attended the conference, learned lots, and getting close to tying up the loose ends.

So what writing “rules” have you heard? Which ones do and don’t work for you? And how was your week?

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The Importance of Setting

I’ve been thinking a lot about setting lately — how certain settings in novels come alive . . . and how describing setting has sometimes been a struggle for me.

I tend toward blank room syndrome: placing characters in a seemingly blank room and calling “action.” Instead, I desire the richness of setting attached to many of my favorite novels. Sometimes a setting itself is almost a character, acting and challenging the protagonist and others or mentoring them in some way.

Different settings evoke a different tone, emotions, sensations, thoughts, tension. Consider your own immediate reaction to the following locations, all from well-known stories:

Lucy opening the wardrobe

Lucy discovers Narnia
The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

Narnia

District 13

Camp Half-Blood

Neverland

Hogwarts

Forks, Washington

Oz

(From The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, Twilight series, and The Wizard of Oz)

Just reading those names and pausing for a moment, we can imagine ourselves there. The worlds are fleshed out, seemingly real, though only imaginary.

But the same world-building occurs even in contemporary fiction. For instance, the world from Dairy Queen*, a novel about a small-town teenage girl growing up on a dairy farm, is quite different from the world of privileged teenage thief Katarina Bishop in Heist Society*. We all live in a distinct world of some sort of other, and authors bring us into a character’s world when they effectively paint that picture through description, dialogue, and a character’s perspective.

If you’ve read the following, you may also have an immediate reaction to these contemporary “worlds”:

Hazel Grace’s support group room (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

Paris boarding school (Anna and The French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins)

The town of Rosewood (Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard)

Camp Green Lake (Holes by Louis Sachar)

So why has this all come to my mind lately? Two reasons. One, because I’ve been reading through The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter, and the girls’ spy school is a rich setting that tells so much about the main character’s life. And two, because I was writing a scene last week in which my own main characters attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and I pondered how to describe the building where animals are on display. So I asked myself:

What does it look like? It’s sort of like an indoor barn.

What does it smell like? Like hay and livestock.

What does it sound like? Like a bunch of animals and crowds milling around.

What are people wearing? Everything from all-out cowboy gear to t-shirts and shorts.

Cattle at Texas State Fair

Texas State Fair, but you get the picture, photo by Andreas Praefcke, via Wikimedia Commons

Notice how all of my original answers pretty much assumed my readers had been in a barn or around livestock or seen cowboys. Because that’s a world I’ve lived in! I had to regroup and think about how to explain it all to someone who’s maybe never seen a cow milked or a rodeo event or a parking lot carnival or real (not stereotyped) cowboys. Because I want that scene to come alive, to make them feel what it’s like to attend the world’s largest livestock exhibition.

Such setting attention enhances a story, draws the reader in, and deepens the characterization. And it’s worth my effort as an author.

Now what other efforts have I put in this week regarding writing? Here’s my weekly update for A Round of Words in 80 Days:

ROW80

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. Six chapters done, which I consider good since I didn’t have as much time to work this week with registering kids for school and enjoying some last-hoorah summer activities with the family.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. Still aiming for September releases after #1 is finished.

3. Read 12 books. I read 2k to 10k: How to Write Faster, Better, and More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron and Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover and Only the Good Spy Young by Ally Carter (a wonderful series, with a unique setting of a girls’ spy school). I started a couple of other books, but sadly abandoned them. All in all, I’ve now read 9 books this round.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Waiting on feedback on my query for those who requested a manuscript at agent/editor meetings.

So what stories have impacted you with a rich setting? What locations or cultures can you easily imagine after reading about them? And how was your week?

*Dairy Queen is by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Heist Society is also by Ally Carter

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Should You Take the Ice Bucket Challenge?

I got tagged by friend and fellow author Danette Fogarty, so I did my version of the ice bucket challenge. Which meant that I had to know how this thing got started, why people are doing it, and what the results of this tag-and-donate challenge have been. And, of course, I share that all with you!

Tagged: Bonnie K., Jenny Hansen, and Jess Witkins

Whether you accept the ice bucket challenge or not (assuming you get tagged), I pray this viral sensation encourages us to look for more opportunities to be charitable.

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Must You Suffer for Your Art?

Robin Williams

Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society

This past week, there’s been an abundance of news stories and reflections on the life of a comedic genius and extraordinary actor, Robin Williams. Despite his public persona as the funny man, he clearly suffered from deep depression and suicidal thoughts. There’s been plenty of debate about his life, the causes of his suicide, and what those suffering from depression should or can do.

I’m not getting into any of that.

But several articles also suggested a link between creativity and “insanity,” or perhaps better called “instability.” After all, Seneca the Younger (an ancient Roman philosopher) said: “There is no great genius without some touch of madness.”

We have a character archetype of the mad genius or the suffering artist — the person whose creative tendencies keep him from eating or sleeping or succeeding in relationships. We certainly have many examples of brilliant, yet self-destructive, artists — from Vincent Van Gogh to Ernest Hemingway to Janis Joplin to Heath Ledger. And we rightfully pay homage to their creative contributions.

But I want to speak up and squash the myth that you must be a mess inside to produce excellent work outside. The suffering artist type is often romanticized, and I think it’s bunk.

"The suffering artist type is often romanticized, and I think it's bunk."

Yes, our difficulties in life can make us more aware of senses and emotions and underlying truths. I do believe that some become artists because of the lives they have experienced and their subsequent desire to speak to the flawed human condition. But I don’t think it’s a necessary avenue that one must have massive hardship to create well, or that you must perpetuate suffering to continue your creativity. Indeed, the human experience itself is sufficient to produce all the material needed, since no one gets through this life without some challenges.

Sometimes I hear other writers talk fondly of sacrificing so much for their art. One keynote speaker at a conference I attended even recounted the failure of his first marriage as simply the cost of pursuing his creative path. How heartbreaking! Is it not possible to create excellent art and live a happy life at the same time?

Let me assure you that many others have done exactly that. (Personally, I’ve been heartened by the successful comeback of Robert Downey, Jr., who stopped torturing himself with drugs and has produced some of his best film work since.) It’s well worth the effort to be both excellent at creativity and at life.

Yes, Robin Williams’s work will be remembered and cherished for years, but what about the heartache he endured? The family he left behind? The memory of a life gone too soon? I choose to believe that Williams’s amazing talent would have flourished with a happier life as well. Because talent can be like that — it can thrive in bad times and good.

If you’ve bought into the myth of the tortured artist and you’re accepting life pain for the sake of creativity, for heaven’s sake, I’m begging you to stop. Trust that your talent goes deeper than that. Trust that you can have, and deserve to have, a happier life. Get help if you need it. Be a creative, yet happy, soul.

Other excellent articles I read on this topic: Why I Hate the Myth of the Suffering Artist; Scientifically-Backed Reasons Why Being Creative Can Make You Happier

As a happy person myself, let’s now see how creative I was this past week. Following is my weekly update on A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

ROW80 Update

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. Seven more chapters completed. It’s going quite well, and I hope to be finished in a couple of weeks.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. I’m aiming for September releases and will tackle this goal when #1 is finished.

3. Read 12 books. This week, I read Radiant (novella) and Boundless by Cynthia Hand, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, and Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter. Not counting the novella, I’ve read 6 books this round (halfway there).

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. I polished up my query, delivered it to a critiquer, and I’m waiting for feedback.

One bit of happy news! My novel, Sharing Hunter, finaled in the young adult category for the New Jersey Romance Writers of America Put Your Heart in a Book Contest. My thanks to those who put on these chapter contests, which offer valuable feedback and opportunities to hone one’s writing.

So what do you think of the “suffering artist” stereotype? Is there truth to it?Do you believe it’s necessary to suffer in order to produce great art?

And how was your week?

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My Recent Travels and #ROW80

From July 12 through August 3, I was out of town 17 of 23 days. So it’s no wonder I’ve been a bit MIA on my blog. I’ve been catching up this last week, and I thought I’d catch y’all up too.

Here are my recent travels, summarized with photos:

Camp Staff Photo

Here I am in the front, on the staff of 89 adults who led church camp at a facility on the Medina River near Bandera, Texas. It was my ninth year to attend and my first year to teach story writing classes to kids ages 9 through 16.

Kids at camp

If 89 staff members sounds like a lot, it’s only because there were 360 campers.

DSC_1799

In addition to teaching writing classes, I also got to teach the younger kids one night. I absolutely love getting to hang out with elementary-age children.

Julie at camp

It was a fabulous experience, but admittedly, I was not looking my best by the end of the week. For instance, fashion was not forefront on my mind. (If only you could see the knee socks and tennies I actually wore with this shirt and skirt combo. Hey, it was raining!)

I returned home on a Saturday evening and hit the road again on a Tuesday morning — heading to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) National Conference in San Antonio.

Diana and Me on Riverwalk

I got to hang out with the lovely Diana Beebe (fantasy author) at the Marriott on the Riverwalk. (You wouldn’t believe how long it took for us to get this fuzzy selfie of ourselves with that view.)

Steampunk party

Diana twisted my arm (not much twisting required) to attend a Steampunk-themed party one evening, hosted by the terrific Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal chapter of RWA. [Shown in photo: Callene Rapp, Tameri Etherton, Diana, and me.]

The conference was wonderful…and huge. Texas-size huge. It’s one thing to visualize being among 2,000 writers, and another thing to experience being one among so many pursuing and enjoying a writing career. I learned so much and interacted with such encouraging people. It was an unforgettable week.

RITA Awards with Friends

The week culminated in the RITA awards ceremony, a formal event during which the highest awards for published and unpublished books are given to romance authors. [Shown in photo: Same people, opposite order.]

Laura Drake and Me

One super-special treat was being there when Laura Drake was announced as the RITA winner for best debut novel, The Sweet Spot. Congratulations, Laura! Well-deserved.

Then it was home for four days and back on the road. (I’m starting to hear Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” in my head.) Because I was meeting up with family members to enjoy a weekend in Round Top — a population-91 town in Texas that has made a name for itself with great shops, fabulous food, and interesting sites.

Royers Cafe

One place where we ate delicious food was Royers Cafe, which has been featured in numerous newspapers, magazines, TV networks, and the Food Network. Yum!

Julie with Osmonds lunchbox

We checked out several antique shops, including this one where I located an Osmonds lunchbox. Having been a huge Donny Osmond fan when I was a young girl, I had to get a picture. If it hadn’t had a $49 price tag . . .

Black Cat Choir performing

In addition to wonderful shopping, the town had a court yard area outside the Stone Cellar restaurant where bands perform in the evenings. Here’s the Black Cat Choir covering 70s rock.

Finally, by August 3, I was back home and ready for some R&R. But that’s not all I’ve been doing. Indeed, with all of my traveling, I’ve skipped a couple of check-ins for A Round of Words in 80 Days.

So here’s the scoop, and how I’m doing with my writing goals.

ROW80 Update

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. Burning it up, y’all! I’m so excited. I love how it’s coming together. I whipped through maybe nine chapters this past week of rewrite, edit, polish. If only you could see my happy dance . . .

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. I’m now aiming for September releases, but I did get some excellent feedback from fellow writers on my back cover copy. As soon as #1 above is done, I’ll be tackling this goal.

3. Read 12 books. I should have kept better track. I’ve let my Goodreads account go idle the past couple of weeks. However, I believe I’ve read the following: City of Bones (Mortal Instruments #1) by Cassandra Clare, Hallowed by Cynthia Hand, and I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter. (By the way, I met Ally Carter at RWA, and she is both a genuinely fun person to spend time with and a great author.) So that makes 3 books down, 9 to go.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Obviously, I went! Now for the follow-up. When I got home, I connected with those authors I’d met at RWA and had contact information for. Now I’m pulling together the manuscript to send it to those who made requests.

So that’s it! Now how’s your summer gone? Have you been busy, or enjoying the lazy days of summer? And if you’re doing ROW80, how are your goals coming along?

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