Friday, January 1st, 2010

Have You Resolved?

I have not. However, I am  setting a few goals for myself.

A few years ago I wrote a post on my old Web site about not making resolutions for the new year. I’d have to dredge it up from the archives to quote myself accurately, but my reasoning went along the lines of:

“If you don’t make resolutions, you don’t have to worry about breaking them.”

Short-sighted, perhaps, but it left me feeling perfectly content in December when others were lamenting their lack of fortitude and inability to meet their resolutions (or scrambling madly to attain what a little pre-planning during the year would have accomplished…with much less fuss.)

Now, I simply make goals. I know it’s just semantics, but I’m a wordsmith, right? Semantics are my territory!

Last year I set a modest daily goal, and allowed myself to count my blog posts as part of that goal. I exceeded my goal, nearly doubling what I set out to do.

Don’t applaud yet.

I deliberately picked a small number of words to meet because I work full time, have a 2+ hour commute daily and a youngster…

Time is slim. So I picked a number which I thought was challenging, but doable.

As I’m reviewing my records (in columnar format in a spreadsheet, with a page for each month and a line for each day, and a “yearly” page with all the months at a glance with auto percentages and red font for negative goals) because I’m just analytical like that…I realized that I’d missed my own point.

I did meet my goal of a certain amount of words per day, but I didn’t actually write EVERY day. Except for the 1st, I wrote every day in January 2009, February only has a few days filled in, the rest of the year is better…especially October, when I went on my Writer’s Retreat… but on average, I failed to write daily.

In fact, I failed to write more than 50% of all days last year….and managed to produce quite a bit of stuff: some of which was published in 2009, some of which has been accepted, and much of which is making it’s rounds to editors now.

(And now I’m sitting here wondering how much more I could have accomplished in 2009 if I’d just considered my goal in a different light.)

I’m upping the ante this year.

My goal is to write between 57 and 71% of the days of the year. The difference between the two is one day a week. Writing four days out of seven = 57% of the time; five days out of seven is 71%. I’m reserving the weekends for family, even though these are the two days that I actually have the most time to write.

I’ll be content to meet 57%. I’ll be ecstatic if I manage 60% or better. Even if I don’t constrain myself to a minimum word count, I should still see the numbers increase for 2010.

My other main goal is to get my office organized. Does anyone else operate out of boxes?

This year, stuff is getting into the filing cabinet. I started doing a bit of that as I prepared for my retreat in September, but I’m determined to get the desk cleaned off, the boxes emptied, and everything still on floppies transferred to some other media.

Some minor goals include trying out Simon Haynes ywriter software with one of the novels I’m working on. I’m also going to try Writer’s Dreamkit software. I bought and tried it a long time ago and didn’t like it…but I’m going to give it a second chance. I’ll write about both here on the blog when I’ve evaluated them.

Finally, I want to get out more and meet more people, whether it’s an additional conference, a reading or a book store. In fact…just about anywhere will do.

So… what about you? Are you resolving?

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

Overkill


House iwth Too Many Decorations -

I took this photo on Christmas day.

I call it, “Overkill.” At least twenty-four blow-up decorations can be counted from this angle.

I love it, because it shows so much energy and excitement for the season. The exuberance behind it just makes me laugh. At the same time, I realize it’s just too much.

The theory can be applied to writing, especially journalistic writing. (Remember, “Just the facts, ma’am.” ?)

A news story answers only the whos, whats, when’s and wheres. Follow-up news stories might contain the hows. If it’s more in depth, the whys might be explored.

Whatever you do, don’t offer your own opinion or theory (although you might quote someone else’s) and don’t resort to language greater than one-syllable words unless the word you’re using has no alternative.

In other words, use “red” and not “vermillion”. Do use the word cytosol  instead of saying, “that jelly-like substance between cells.”

More on how to write a news story in another post.

There’s plenty of overkill in fiction, too. It’s best to “kill your darlings” if you find yourself writing too much.

Spare, elegant writing is usually better than ornate, dazzling words. When I see writing like that, all I can think is that the writer cared more about showing off his knowledge (“Look at how many big words I  know!”) than about telling a good story.

I find in my own writing it’s the prose that seemed to flow so freely — when it feels like my muse is sitting on my shoulder and whispering the words right into my brain — that I’ve got to review it for probable “overwriting.”

I’m getting good at not allowing it to appear on the page at all, but sometimes it sneaks in. New writers are especially fond of overwriting…especially if they are aspiring literary artists.

Here’s an example. Start with a perfectly good sentence:

Jane walked through the park, pushing the stroller.

But what about the park? We haven’t really described it in any detail…

Jane walked through the 250-acre, half-wooded park, past the duck pond where children and old men alike paused to throw breadcrumbs, where July sunshine beamed down on the water bouncing light around, pushing the stroller.

It’s getting there, (if a bit awkward) but we don’t know anything about the situation from Jane’s point of view, do we? This sentence is about her, after all. Her and the baby, right? Let’s put some emotion into it. And when you’re done, you’ve got a fantastically overwritten  sentence.

Jane happily walked through the 250-acre, half-wooded park, past the duck pond where children and old men alike paused to throw breadcrumbs, where July sunshine beamed down on the water bouncing light around, pushing the stroller containing a smiling, gurgling infant.

There’s a lot of rich detail in the final product, but it’s hard to determine who the sentence is about. Is it about Jane and the baby? Or is it about the old men and children feeding the ducks at the pond? Worse, could it be about the park?

All the extraneous clauses, adverbs and adjectives conceal the point of the original sentence.

Don’t feel like you’ve got to pack every bit of detail into a single sentence. If you want to say more, write another sentence. But beware, sentences in a paragraph can be just as cluttering as words and clauses in a single sentence.

When in doubt, leave it out. 😉

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

The Cliche is Dead, Long Live the Cliche

Or, How to Write Copy Like a Trained Journalist – Part 1

I spent a lot of years working as a reporter. I find writing like a reporter is perfect for writing for the Web, and in most instances, can help to bring your fiction alive as well.

Journalistic writing is characterized by spare prose (“just the facts”), with the most important information at the beginning of the piece. There are other rules, usually found in a style guide (more on that in another post), which characterizes other parts of the writing.

One facet of journalistic writing is to avoid cliches.

A cliche is a phrase or an expression that has become overly familiar through use. Two cliches should be evident in the following sentence:
 

The car barreled down the road at breakneck speed.


Which of the following cliches haven’t you heard?

  • a note of warning
  • beat a hasty retreat
  • black as night
  • cool as a cucumber
  • dazed and confused
  • flood of tears
  • green as grass
  • hard as nails
  • in the nick of time
  • long-suffering
  • made ends meet
  • very much in evidence

(My original list was much longer…but it just looked silly on the page… I think you get the point.)

Cliches should never be used in a news or feature story (or fiction!), no matter how great the temptation–and temptation will beckon. (Trust me on this…it’s so much easier to write the cliche than to think up something new!)

And, there’s a reason why cliches are so popular: they’re familiar and easily understood by an audience. They bubble to the top of your thoughts when you’re considering what to write. And if you’re facing a deadline, it’s easy to rely on tired phrases to get your point across, rather than write fresh copy.

It’s much harder (not to mention more time consuming) to think up something new (especially if you’re like me. I like to dither over phrases and make them “perfect” before moving on.) But the use of cliche represents poor use of language, and in some cases, can identify the author as either inexperienced or, worse, lazy.

Appearing lazy can lose you commissions.

The problem with cliches is they make all stories sound the same:

The robbers terrorized their victims and made their escape on foot, fleeing with the loot.

So, the rule is: avoid cliches like the plague.

When writing fiction, don’t let your characters resort to cliched thought. Avoiding trite phrases will allow their personalities to develop. (And you may find that you learn more about your characters themselves if you have to work hard to make them think on their own, rather than relying on tried and true expressions to get their points across.)

When writing Web copy, keep your thoughts fresh and your words crackling. Cliches allow your reader to skim the writing, but if you use new language, your readers will actually have to think about what you write.

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Shiny Kindle Version

Cover: Dragon's Clause by Kelly A. Harmon
 
The shiny Kindle™ version of my story, “The Dragon’s Clause” is now up and running at Amazon!

Amazon is telling me that it’s “still in the publishing phase” according to my account. Yet, there’s a purchase link!

Go see it here, and then come back and tell me how nifty it looks up on the Amazon Web site. 🙂

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Did You Know November 1 was National Author’s Day?

I didn’t! To boot: it was the 80th anniversary!

Let’s be fair: none of the many author/editor/agent Web sites I frequent mentioned the date. I hadn’t heard it advertised anywhere. Only by mere chance did I learn of it. Even Web searches turn up very little.

I did learn that National Authors’ Day was adopted by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1929. (Note: but apparently the holiday has slipped under their radar, since I could find no mention of it on their Web site.)

In 1949 the US Department of Commerce awarded the observance a place on its list of special days, making it official.

The resolution states: “by celebrating an Authors’ Day as a nation, we would not only show patriotism, loyalty, and appreciation of the men and women who have made American literature possible, but would also encourage and inspire others to give of themselves in making a better America…”

(This information from Jane Sutton on her Web site, Jane’s Ride. –Thanks, Jane!)

If you missed it, it’s not too late to celebrate!

Here are some ideas:


  • Buy a new book! How about mine? Here’s a link to Blood Soup.  😉

  •  

  • Have a book party! Ask everyone to bring their favorite and read a few passages from it. (Better yet: ask people to read from things they’ve written… a poem, a short story, a novel, even a term paper.)

  •  
  • Swap books with someone (or ask your guests to bring some to swap). This is a great way to learn about new authors and take a chance on reading genres you might not have picked up otherwise.

  •  
  • Get kids involved by reading with them. I recommend anything by Edith Nesbit and Edward Eager and (almost anything) by Shel Silverstein.

  •  
  • Email your favorite author.

  •  
  • Write something yourself!

  •  

    and, my favorite, from Janette Rallison’s blog:

    • Yes, pull out your Mark Twain centerpieces, your Jane Austen wreathes, and those life-size twinkly Bronte Sisters for the yard. Then let’s all sing a few Thank-goodness-we’re-not-in-school-anymore-so-we-don’t-have-to-read-Hemingway-again carols.

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Susan’s Got Me Thinking…

Community

Susan Adrian posted a great essay on her Web site a few days ago that really got me thinking. It’s called, “How Not to Act,” and she describes two writers she’s following through the course of their careers.

One writer takes the time to comment on blog posts and to reply to comments on her own blog as well as to any tweets she receives, etc. The other doesn’t.

Guess which one sets the better example, according to Susan?

Susan tells it better. Go read her essay and then come back.  I’ll wait.

I know her post is about many facets of Web etiquette, but it really got me thinking about commenting on blogs. I read a lot of blogs but rarely comment – especially if I have nothing new to add to the conversation. After all, why should I comment if my point has already been made? I get tired of reading, “Me, too!” comments on blogs…so why should I inflict them on others?

Why, to build a community, of course.

(And there are much nicer ways to say, “Me, too!” without actually saying it.)

Susan really hit the nail on the head.

If I’m not commenting, how do you know I’m even reading your blog? How do you know I’m out here listening to what you have to say? How do you know I care?

The thing is…you don’t.

So, I think I’m going to change my personal comment policy… I’m going to try to comment a bit more on the blogs I read…even if someone else beat me to my point. At the very least, it will have me considering how can I say, “Me, too!” without using those words? Writers love these kind of exercises, you know…

Thanks, Susan!

 

photo credit: http://isferea.jrc.ec.europa.eu/Communities/Pages/default.aspx
Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Good Review for Blood Soup!

Cover of Blood Soup

Blood Soup went out to several reviewers in September and October and I’ve been anxiously awaiting a response.

I’m thrilled to see the first is a good one.

Kari at Kari’s Korner Reviews apparently enjoyed it very much. I’m doubly honored since Kari reviews mostly romance.

To wit:

With the scary title BLOOD SOUP (Eternal Press, ISBN: 978-1-926704-53-1) by Kelly A. Harmon, it even has a cover that immediately catches your eye and makes you shiver. This is a medieval tale about a kingdom destined for certain dire ruin if the King’s heir isn’t a girl.

The characters in the story work together AND against each other as they secretly manipulate, scheme, hope, and react to the surprising birth of the King’s heir.

Filled with murder, mystery, and very dire consequences, this is a fast paced Novella with vivid portrayal of events and characters, pulling you into this harsh world the author has created and no doubt leaving her with new fans eagerly awaiting her next book.

 

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If you’re interested, Blood Soup  can be purchased:

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Back From Retreat

I’m back from retreat at the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia. This was the view from my window in the early morning. Isn’t it gorgeous?


Glorious Mountain View

If you’re looking for an inexpensive location to get away to for “recharging” your writer’s batteries, I can’t recommend it enough. The Abbey built the retreat house specifically to lure people to the grounds, ostensibly for religious retreat, but not necessarily. My face-to-face critique group chose the Retreat House location primarily for writing.

One wonderful aspect of the Retreat House is a rule of respectful silence.

No talking is allowed at meals, no visitations are allowed in rooms, and guests are requested not to talk when meeting in the halls. In fact, it’s encouraged not even to meet the eyes of others or to nod or greet each other, as one aspect of retreat is meditation, and a simple acknowledgment of another’s presence could possibly interfere with his or her thoughts.

This silence created the perfect atmosphere for writing.

If that doesn’t excite you, the scenery might. Holy Cross Abbey is located in the Shenandoah Valley, surrounded by mountains and hundreds of acres of pastureland. I spent a few afternoons soaking up the sunshine, banging away at the keyboard, listening to the cows low.

I sound like a commercial, don’t I? I can’t help it. I’ve had a fabulous week on retreat, and I’ve got all kinds of ideas kicking around in my head now. I can’t wait to get started.

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Preparing for a Self-Directed Writer’s Retreat

I talked to the Baltimore Chapter of the Maryland Writer’s Association a few months ago about “Getting the Most out of a Writer’s Workshop.”

Much of what I talked about related to instructor-led workshops. But what about “self-directed” workshops or retreats? No agenda exists for them, not even a boilerplate one can subscribe to.

So, how do you prepare?

(Or do you toss preparation to perdition and ignore planning?) Maybe your idea of the perfect writing retreat is to grab your laptop and just sit down and write…?

You could do that.

I agree that taking that approach might result in extraordinary verbiage…but what will you have accomplished other than obtaining the writing equivalent of a high score?

I think if you take a more focused approach: get your writing affairs in order and make some goals, you’ll enjoy a more satisfying experience. That’s what I do.

I’m gearing up to go on retreat in October with my face-to-face critique group. I’ve no doubt I’ll spend some time with them while we’re away for the week (we haven’t discussed how much), but I believe we’ll be spending the bulk of our time away together…alone.  And I plan to use that time to target projects to get off my desk and submit to various markets. I’ve no doubt in doing so that I’ll manage satisfactory, if not a veritable high score, of word count along the way.

Discounting everything about the retreat except my writing (What should I take? What should I wear? What should I bring? Etc.) these are the things I’m doing to prepare:

1 – Cleaning Up My Writing Files – Both Paper and Electronic

I create a new electronic file for each article, story or chapter I’m working on almost every time I open it. There’s a reason for this: I might change something so drastically that “track changes” can’t revert. Keeping the old file allows me to do that. Or, the file may be corrupted as I carry it around on my thumb drive – I’ll have the previous file for retrieval.

Mostly, I maintain a separate file so that I can see how the word count grows each time I work on it. But those files tend to multiply rapidly…often in the wrong directory as I go from desktop to jump drive to laptop. They need some cleaning up.

My paper files aren’t so bad, but I have many projects running all the time: so there are lots of pieces floating around. Likewise, there are usually scraps of “story ideas” laying about: prints from science journals which caught my eye, something torn from a newspaper, lots of scribbled notes, etc.

I’ll be spending several hours putting it all away. And then I’ll be dusting off the desk and pushing the chair “just so” under it.

Why do this?

When I was younger and still lived with my parents, my Mom encouraged the family to clean the house top to bottom before we left for vacation. Everything had to be in its place: toys away, clothes washed and hung, floors vacuumed and swept. I hated it. We often cleaned until the minute we packed up the car to leave. Mom insisted there was no better feeling than coming home to a clean house to relax in after an exhausting vacation.

Mom was so right. (Are you reading this, Mom? You were right!)

When I get home from retreat, everything will be spic and span, files and research will be where I can find them, and my desk will be free of clutter to distract me from the writing momentum I hope to achieve while away.

2 – Evaluating Everything on my Writing Plate

My “writing plate” consists of everything I’ve ever started writing that hasn’t been sold yet. Big plate.

It includes the novel I’m shopping and the two novels I’m currently writing. It also includes a bunch of short stories that are languishing for whatever reason: plot holes, lack of market to send it to, forgotten about, not enough time to finish, etc. I also have some files of “vignettes” I started writing: scenes with wildly interesting characters or stories that petered out after the initial torrent of words spewed onto the page. Some are a mere sentence long; others, a few thousand words. And then, there’s the idea file: hundreds just laying there waiting to be written.

Lets not talk about non-fiction items.

I’m reviewing each article/fiction item/idea and evaluating what needs to be done to it in order for it to be marketable, and making a list of those items to work on while on retreat. There are several things I’m contemplating as I evaluate:

* How close is the piece to completion?
* If it’s complete, why is this piece still on the plate and not out making its rounds?
* What will it take to finish?
* Does it only need polishing? How long will that take?
* Does the item require more research before writing can continue?

Sadly, I have several stories that are finished and critiqued by my critique group. They only need the groups’ comments incorporated before sending out. These will be the top items on my list to complete.

(This would probably be a good time for me to make a “Master List” of all my files, along with notes of what needs to be done and how soon I think they can be completed. I should probably keep this kind of list up to date as I write…but I’m usually too busy writing to bother with the details… If I find time, I’ll probably do this while I’m evaluating.)

3 – Ranking the List

After reviewing all the items in my files, I’ll rank them in importance against my criteria (Should you feel compelled to try this insanely detailed system yourself, your criteria will likely be different, according to your goals). Items with the highest number of points at this stage will be put at the top of my list.

Below is my arbitrary point system. A story can meet multiple examples below and thus leap to the head of the pack with a very high score.

25 points Anything currently under a deadline, including self-imposed deadlines.
20 points All my completed, critiqued stories.
15 points Anything that’s almost done. Items that only need dedicated time at the computer to polish up.
15 points Any item in my “work in progress” directory that’s been there more than 12 months.
15 points Any non-fiction item – complete at 1500 words or less – for which the research is already done.
10 points Vignettes, story starters and scenes of 1000 words or more. (These may need additional evaluation later, to see if an actual story or plot emerges. For now, if I anticipate there may be time to work on any of these items while I’m gone, I’ll add them to the list.)
5 points Story ideas that might be worth tackling if there’s time.

Once everything is evaluated and ranked, I’ll return to my file cabinet and get any research or critiques which accompany the pieces and set them aside to take with me. Now will be a good time to make sure I pack any reference books I might need. (Of course I’ll take a good dictionary and thesaurus, but maybe my story set in ancient China will require me to pack the history book I was reading which inspired the tale…I’ll get that now and put it with the other items I plan to take.)

4 – Reviewing Market Lists (or: Modifying the Ranks)
There are many Web sites and newsletters which specialize in listing markets which are open to submissions. These are usually broken down by category, genre or closing date. I check several regularly: Ralan, Duotrope’s Digest, SpecFicWorld’s Market Database, to see if there are new or emerging markets than those I regularly submit to.

If any market looks interesting, I’ll review my list again and look for potential matches. I’ll add the points below to existing work and then re-rank the list, if necessary.

10 points Add to a story which might be a match for a market currently open to submissions.
15 points As above, if the market has a tight deadline.

The existence of an open market will allow me to focus even more on finishing an item.

5 – Making Sure All Completed Items are Out for Submission
While I’m doing all this record keeping, I’ll be updating my Submissions List: a spreadsheet of items I’ve got circulating to various markets. It’s an invaluable resource for me: I can see, among other things, what pieces are out and how long they’ve been at a particular market.

It’s also a nag.

A quick glance shows me which items have sat too long at particular markets, or (rats!) which pieces have been rejected – or whose rights have reverted back to me – and should have been submitted the day I got them back.

Ideally, those items shouldn’t have been left sitting, but sometimes I ignore the “business end” of being an author so that I can spend more time writing. So, before I leave, I’ll query, or resubmit, all those languishing items.

This isn’t a deal breaker. If I don’ manage to get this far, I’ll still go on retreat. But if I can manage it, all the better. How nice it would be to return not only to a clean desk, but a check in the mailbox!

So, that’s my plan. If I work hard enough before I go, I’ll have a roadmap for success (my weighted-list of projects to complete while I’m gone), a pristine work space to return to, and possibly an acceptance (or check!) in the mailbox as well.

As detailed as it sounds, I don’t intend to work the plan “no matter what.” Perhaps my muse will strike and I’ll work on (and one hopes, complete!) something new and exciting while I’m on retreat. If that happens, all the better. The prep work is still valuable…and puts me in the proper frame of mind for writing.

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Going on Retreat

Holy Cross Abbey GroundsI’m going on a writing retreat in October.

I got the confirmation card in the mail yesterday, reserving my room at the Holy Cross Abbey. All I need to do to firm up the reservation is send a postcard back, letting them know when I’ll be arriving. Will it be for dinner, or not?

I can’t wait to go. Two other members of my face-to-face critique group will be going as well. We’ll each have a private room, but we’ll be able to meet at any time to hold critique sessions (if we want). This is a retreat of our making, not one set up by the abbey, and we’ll be the ones to set the rules.

The only thing we’ll not be able to do is chat over dinner. Dinner at the abbey is a silent affair. No talking aloud. (In fact, this edict may mean no communication at all throughout the meal. I intend to find out: I’m going to use that time for studying how a silent meal is undertaken by monks…the experience will prove invaluable…for perhaps my next work-in-progress.)

Another thing I want to do is attend Vigils, a mass at 3:30 a.m. In fact, I’d like to spend an entire day attending all masses: Vigils, Lauds (7:00 a.m.), Mid-Day Prayer (2:00 p.m.) Vespers (5:30 p.m.) and Compline (7:00 p.m.) — just to have done it, of course. (Imagine the experience gained for writing!) But I think my writing will suffer…or at the very least, accomplishing my goals for the week may suffer.

My 2009 goals including finishing everything I had started. I believe it was around March that I realized I wouldn’t reach that goal…not while continuing to start several new projects this year. And although I’m already mulling over a piece I want to write once I arrive at the Abbey, I’m going to see how much of a dent I can put into my 2009 goals.

More about goals later. I’ve got a post card to fill out and return…and decisions to make: what shall I take? When shall I leave? What do I hope to accomplish?