Wednesday, December 19

If Instagram Can Sell Your Photos Without Your Permission, What Is Next?

If Instagram Can Sell Your Photos Without Your Permission What Is Next?

I'm sure you've all heard that Instagram was going to change their Terms of Service. After January 16, 2013 Instagram wanted to sell its users' photos without their permission and without compensation. (See: Instagram says it now has the right to sell your photos)

Instagram has since backed down and has pledged to remove "language from its legal terms that would have let it sell users' photos or use them in advertisements" (Instagram apologizes to users: We won't sell your photos).

Instragram Backed Down But Who Will Be Next?

Nevertheless, it boggles my mind that a company felt it had the right to suddenly change its Terms of Service to give them the rights to sell their users' creations without their permission and without any form of remuneration. That is brazen.

As Nathan Bransford writes:
WordPress shouldn't be able to publish books pulled from people's blogs. The makers of canvas and paint don't own a painting. Providing the platform shouldn't mean the company then owns and profits from the creation.... [I]f there's money to be made directly off someone's content, it should accrue to the creator. (Instagram reminds us that we are the product for sale)
Think if suddenly Wattpad announced they were changing their Terms of Service and now had the right to publish any story hosted on their servers without the author's consent and without compensating the author?

Wattpad isn't doing that, and as far as I know isn't going to do it, but the idea that it is possible for a company to make such a brash move is disconcerting to say the least.

Do you use Instagram? Perhaps I'm overreacting. What is your take on this issue?

Other articles you might like:

- The Cure For Perfectionism
- The Value of Google+ As A Writer's Platform
- The Benefits of Handwriting

Photo credit: "Water and Fire..... and a cold morning" by Sukanto Debnath under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, December 18

The Cure For Perfectionism

The Cure For Perfectionism

A fellow blogger and writer, John Ward, published a post today about the problem of perfectionism. (See: The Trap of Perfection)

That got me thinking.

I know I've written in the past about my encounters, actually they were more like knock-down-drag-out fights, with writer's block and how the feeling that one's prose has to be perfect lies at the heart of it. (See: Perfection Is The Death Of Creativity)

Of course we all want our writing to be brilliant, but there's a special sort of inferiority, a certain acute sense of ennui, of hopelessness, that blossoms within me whenever I read a truly stunning piece of prose--two of my favorite writers are Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood--and I'm pretty darn sure my own scribbles aren't going to ever ascend to that level.

The Cure For Perfectionism

The cure, for me, is to realize I'm not alone.

It's not just your prose that is likely never going to ascend to the dizzying heights of the greats. The overwhelming majority of writers--and here I'm talking about professional writers, folks who have spent their careers publishing book after book and who sell well--aren't going to be wordsmiths of that caliber. (This is, of course, IMHO.)

So, you're in good company. Professional writers don't let the fact that they probably will never be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature stop them from writing the best darn story they can. Remember, stories are about plot too, and creating narrative drive and all the rest of it.

While Dan Brown will likely never be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, he told a darn fine story, one that many folks enjoyed reading and that sold well. For me, Dan Brown is an inspiration.

The next time you're feeling as though your writing will never be 'good enough', go down to your local bookstore and browse through the bestseller section. These are books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and I guarantee you that you're going to find at least one book where you have the reaction: I can write better than this.

Hold onto that!

In those times when you feel like giving up, look at books like these. Sometimes that's just the sort of perspective you need to leave your self-doubts, your self-consciousness, behind and write.

At least, one can hope! :-)

If you have a tip or trick for smothering the siren call of perfectionism please leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you.

Other articles you might like:

- The Value of Google+ As A Writer's Platform
- Getting Ready for 2013: A Writer's Guide
- The Structure Of Short Stories

Photo credit: "winter friends" by AlicePopkorn under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

The Value of Google+ As A Writer's Platform

The Value of Google+ As A Writer's Platform

I've blogged before about the importance of a writer having a platform, what a platform is, and how to build one but I've never talked specifically about the value of Google+ for writers.

Many feel that Google+ was a good attempt to build a social networking platform but that it falls short. For instance, Chuck Wendig has written that he's underwhelmed and more than a little confused by it (Of Google-Plus And Circle Jerks).

It seems to me many people, perhaps most, share Chuck's assessment of Google+.

The question: is Google+ a graveyard?

How To Quantify The Popularity of your Google+ Feed

What I've wanted is a way to quantify how many views my Google+ account received. I've been more active in Google+ over the past month and I wanted to see if that increased activity resulted in increased views.

The problem: I didn't know how to get a listing of views for my Google+ account.

How To Measure Google+ Traffic Using Google Analytics

If you already have a Google Analytics account this is easy to do. If you don't, Google Analytics is free and easy to set up. A friend of mine who gleefully describes herself as a Luddite did it, by herself, in 5 minutes. (By the way, you have to wait a month or so after activating your account to get meaningful data.)

What we're going to do is measure Google+ traffic by measuring referral traffic to your main blogging site, or website.

For instance, say you have your blog on Wordpress or, like me, on Blogger. Go into Google Analytics and open up your blog's profile. Now go into:

Traffic sources > Sources > Referrals 

Here you'll find a listing of which URL's send your blog the most traffic as well as the number of visits you receive from that URL each month.

The URL you're looking for is:

Click on that URL and you'll see a graph that depicts the number of visits from your Google+ account. (You can change it to measure pages per visit, average visit duration, percentage of new visits or the bounce rate, among other things.)

You can also compare how your current traffic compares to the traffic from a month ago (you can customize this feature).

For instance, I discovered that since I've been more active on Google+ that visits to my blog from my Google+ account have increased by 40%! That said, I still get 5 times more referrals from Twitter, although I do have about 12,000 Twitter followers while I have only about 550 people in my Google+ circles.

Is Google+ Worth The Time?

I find it's always a question of time, where one's time is best spent. Every person is different, but it's difficult to decide where to invest your precious time without some sort of objective guide.

My intention in writing this article was to show you a way to find objective measures that could help you decide what is right for you, where your time is best spent.

If you'd like to read more about how to get the most out of Google Analytics for Google+, click here: How to measure Google Plus with Analytics.

Do you use Google+? What social network (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and so on) do you use most?

Other articles you might like:

- The Benefits of Handwriting
- Getting Ready for 2013: A Writer's Guide
- Writing Goals Versus Writing Dreams: How To Get From One To The Other

Photo credit: "U2:all because of you" by visualpanic under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, December 17

The Benefits of Handwriting

The Benefits of Handwriting

Handwriting And Writer's Block

A while ago I suffered from writer's block. Every time I sat at my computer, readied my fingers on my keyboard and looked at the white 'paper' on my monitor, my inspiration would dry up.

Then, thanks to a writing exercise a friend put together, I discovered I could write if I used pen and paper rather than a keyboard.

Handwriting saved me.

NaNoWriMo helped get me back to using a keyboard--it wasn't fun writing 2,000 words longhand then typing them out. But I still find it easier to compose my thoughts when I write longhand.

More than that, I find it easier to enter into my imagination while I write. For me, writing longhand is much more like transcribing thoughts. When I use a keyboard it feels as though there is an extra layer between the ideas themselves and their expression.

The Benefit Of Slow Writing

Perhaps my preference for handwriting has to do with time. I write longhand slower than I type. Perhaps that gives my muse the time she needs to sort my ideas. I have time to mull, to consider, to think. (Typing vs. Longhand: Does it Affect Your Writing?)

I mentioned to a friend of mine--not a writer--that I wrote most of my short stories and blog posts by hand and then typed them.

He looked at me as though I'd confessed to the wholesale slaughter of small furry things. "But why?" he asked. "It takes so much more time. It's so much more work?"

And it is.

I tried to explain my difficulties using a word processor, I tried to explain that the words rebelled, that they refused to come.

But perhaps this isn't a bad thing. Perhaps handwriting is better.

The Cognitive Benefits of Handwriting

When I researched this blog post I discovered some claim writing longhand can do everything from staving off debilitating diseases to increasing the intellect. (See: How Handwriting Trains the Brain.) Make of that what you will.

In any case, it's reassuring to know I'm not alone. Anne M. Leone writers:
I'm good with technology, I get technology, I use technology. I use it in my writing, too .... I type each chapter into my computer on the same day or the day after I finish it, along with all of my scribbled notes and thoughts in the margins. It gives me the opportunity to do a brief revision and rethink of what I wrote, as well as providing a readable, search-able record of my work.

But once I return to the writing, I have to switch back to my notebook. Simple rewriting and editing I can do on the computer, but anything more complex, I need to write by hand, even if it's just to write down a new phrase, insert a paragraph, or restructure a scene.  (Writing by hand, Anne M Leone)

Programs That Will Help You Transcribe Your Work

Dragon Naturally Speaking

All you need is a headset or digital recorder and Dragon Naturally Speaking. You can feed the sound file from your recorder to Dragon and the program will transcribe it. You need to train Dragon first but, after a while, this can save you a lot of time.

Tablet Apps

Use a tablet to write then use software to transform your chicken scratch into text.

- Handwriting Apps For iPad
- A Review of Handwriting Apps on the iPad

I looked for Apps for other tablets but didn't find any. If you know of one, please let me know! :-)

Other articles you might like:

- Getting Ready for 2013: A Writer's Guide
- Roleplaying Games And Writing, Does The One Help The Other?
- How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover

Photo link: "Handwriting - free texture" by Crafty Dogma under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Getting Ready for 2013: A Writer's Guide

Getting Ready for 2013: A Writer's Guide

It's much easier to make our dreams come true if we craft goals that can get us there.

Jan O'Hara, in her article Tormented by Toothless Writing Goals? Try These Tools, tells us how to create goals that can make our dreams a reality. (For more on this see: Writing Goals Versus Writing Dreams: How To Get From One To The Other.)

What's the secret to making one's dreams come true? Making SMART goals:

Specific: Goals not Dreams

As I wrote yesterday, we don't have direct control over our dreams (Earning a living from your craft) but we do over our goals (Write 1,000 words a day, Publish 4 books next year).

Let's use a concrete example:
Goal: Write, and complete, 2 books next year.

That's a good goal. It's specific. We'll make it even more specific and say that each book will be around 80,000 words.


A good goal is one we can use to check our progress and see how we're doing. For instance, if we're going to complete 2 books next year we'll be writing (2 * 80,000) 160,000 words.

But we won't write the entire time--we need to edit the book, go through re-writes, and so on. Let's give ourselves 3 months to write a book and 3 months to edit it.

To write 80,000 words in 3 months we will need to write 80,000/(30 * 3) = (about) 889 words per day. If you do more, great! You'll get done quicker and have more time to edit.

Measuring your progress

We could put a calendar on the wall and use Jerry Seinfeld's chain method to keep us on track by putting an "X" through each day we complete our 889 words.


Decide WHEN you are going to write as well as WHERE. Many writers find that when they have a set schedule--always writing in the morning, or always in the evening--it helps get their muse accustomed to waking up and being active during that time. (See: Vanquishing Writer's Block)

It doesn't matter what time you choose (Amanda Hocking is nocturnal!) just so long as you're consistent. (That said, flexibility is important as well. It's better that you write, even during an 'off-time' than that you don't write at all.)

Also, you know there will be times when you'd rather walk over hot coals than write. Decide now how you're going to handle that. Could you bribe yourself with a treat? Write for, say, 10 minutes then take a break?


In my example we're writing 2 books a year. That might not be realistic for you. Although there is something to be said for trying to stretch yourself it's important that these goals are realistic. If you know you'd never be able to write two books than try for one. Or perhaps two novellas, or even a few short stories.


Goals need deadlines.

For my examples I've chosen the time frame of a year but perhaps weekly or monthly goals would work better for you. For instance, perhaps you'd like to try writing one short story a month--or one a week.

Choose deadlines that work for you and then find some way to make yourself accountable.

Accountability is something I'm still working on. I check in with my local writing circle every week and we share our goals but there is no consequence if we miss them. We're all very sympathetic and understanding--which is great! But it's easy for a deadline to slide by, unnoticed. (If you have a suggestion to make, something that works for you, please do!)

Jan O'Hara mentions a couple of motivational options: and You can read about them here, at the end of her article.

That's it! If you'd like to share your writing goals for 2013, please do. :-)

Other articles you might like:

- Writing Goals Versus Writing Dreams: How To Get From One To The Other
- The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version
- Where Ideas Come From And The Conspiracy Against Nothingness

Photo credit: "Zsa Zsa gets to work" by mpclemens under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, December 16

Writing Goals Versus Writing Dreams: How To Get From One To The Other

Dreams vs Goals

Wouldn't it be great to win the lottery? Or sell a billion books? Or have one of your titles hit the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list?

These are dreams.

Dean Wesley Smith defines a dream as follows:
A DREAM is an object of desire over which you do not have direct control.
That's a paraphrase.
A GOAL is an object of desire over which you DO HAVE direct control.
This is Dean's example:
Dream: Winning the lottery.
Goal: Buying a lottery ticket every week.
Just because you buy a lottery ticket every week doesn't mean you'll win the lottery, but it's a course of action that will make achieving your dream more likely. And if you don't buy lottery tickets you are guaranteed not to win the lottery.

You have 100% control over whether you buy a lottery ticket each week. You have zero control over whether you'll win the lottery. There are no guarantees. You may win the lottery, you may not, but you're doing something to make your dream more likely to come true.

Goals And The Self-Published Writer

I think all new writers have a similar dream. They would like to, one day, be able to pay for all their wants and needs with the money their writing generates.

Before we look at what goals will bring us to that place let's look at the entrance requirements, the cost of the dream, what kind of person will be able to achieve it.

Dean Wesley Smith: What it takes to be a professional writer

Here's Dean's list of qualities:
1) Determination bordering on psychotic.
2)  The ability to keep standing back up and going on when something knocks you down.
3) The ability to ignore the negative from all those around you, especially family and friends.
4) The hunger to keep learning writing craft and the knowledge you will never be good enough.
5) Fearlessness.
6) The desire to learn business.
7) The ability to control your own time and what comes at you.
Got it? Feeling that fearless psychotic determination well up inside you? Great! Now let's set some goals.

Goal One/Path One

Figure out how much material (short stories, novels, flash fiction, whatever) you could, reasonably, create in a year. From that, guesstimate sales.

1. Reconnoiter and inventory: What are you doing now

Each day for a week (Dean says 3 or 4 days) keep a log and record:
- How much time you spent writing
- The time of day
- Where you wrote
- Your mental state (e.g., Were you too tired to write until you had your coffee?)

Also record:
- How much time you spent reading.
- How much time you spent doing research
- How much time you spend on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. (That's my suggestion.)

Folks, this is an excellent idea! I set goals for myself every Sunday and, this week, this is my goal. For the next 7 days I'm going to record how I spend my time.

By the way, I want to do the recording for 7 days rather than 3 or 4 because my schedule changes quite a bit on the weekends. For me, it would be much more representative if I looked at the amount I work per week rather than per day.

Okay, that's the first step.

These next two steps don't have anything to do with the time of day your wrote at or where you wrote or what your mental state was like, that's for you, and it's (I think) valuable information.

I'm going to start a running log. Today, right after I finish publishing this post, I'm going to get a new notebook and make it my recording notebook.

2. Figure out your words per hour

This is what you'll do next Sunday. Take the data you've gleaned from (1) and figure out, on average, how many words you write in an hour.

3. Figure out how much you could write in a week

Take the data from (1) and (2) and figure out, on average, how many words you write a day. This will help you figure out how many books you'll be able to publish in a year. Of course you could do this from your words per week (words per week * 52 = words per year) but math is fun! :-)

An example:

Let's say you dutifully do your recording and one week from now have the following scribbled in your notebook:

The Data:
Writing time (time spend writing, not editing or researching):
Sunday: 2 hours; 1,500 words
Monday: 1 hour; 800 words
Tuesday: 5 hours; 3,000 words
Wednesday: half an hour; 500 words
Thursday: 3 hours; 700 words
Friday: 2.5 hours; 2,000 words
Saturday: None

Total writing hours that week:
2 + 1 + 5 + 0.5 + 3 + 2.5 + 0 = 14

Total words written:
1,500 + 800 + 3,000 + 500 + 700 + 2,000 + 0 = 8,500

First step: Calculate, on average, how many hours you wrote per day
14 / 7 = 2  
Average writing hours per day: 2

Second step: Calculate, on average, how many words you wrote per hour.
8,500/14 = (about) 607
Average words written per hour: 607

Third step: Calculate, on average, how many words you wrote per day
607 * 2 = 1,212
Average words written per day: 1,212

Fourth step: Calculate, on average, how many words you'll write in a year
You could do this two ways:
8,500 words per week * 52 weeks =  442,000 per year
1,212 * 365 days = 442,380 words per year = (about) 442,000 words

Fifth step: Calculate how many novels you can write in a year
Let's say you want to write novels that are about 80,000 words long.
442,000 / 80,000 = 5.525

Let me say, wow! If a person writes only 1,212 words a day for a year, you'll be able to publish 5 novels that year? (I just did the math again.) Yep!

I read Dean's figures but it didn't sink in until just now. That's amazing! Over NaNoWriMo I discovered I could write 1,500 words an hour without too much difficulty. 1,500 words a day, one hour, and I'd have over 5 books at the end of the year!


Well, editing is where my time goes. For every hour of writing I spend 4 editing the darn thing (writers can have a love-hate relationship with their manuscripts. A lot like teenagers that way ...)

Goal Two/Path Two

Figure out how much money you need to live and then figure out, from that, how much material (novels, short stories, whatever) you'd need to create in a year.

Let's say (this is the number Dean uses) you need to make 50,000 dollars a year from your writing. There are two ways of doing this, the traditional publishing route and the independent publishing route. Let's take the traditional route first.

Traditional Publishing Route

What can a new author get for a first book, or for their first few books? It's very difficult to judge, but let's say $5,000 per book. Perhaps the first book would be less, perhaps some books would be more, but let's say $5,000.

At $5,000 per book you'd have to sell 10 books a year to make $50,000.

That sounds discouraging and I don't mean it to. At first no publisher will give your book a big print run but as you continue to sell more people will want to read your books, you'll get larger print runs and so publishers will give you larger advances.

It just takes time.

Independent Publishing Route

Dean says that, at first, an indie author would be lucky to sell 25 copies a month. So, let's say they're lucky and that the novels are selling for, as Dean suggests, $5.99. That means (if they are being sold on Amazon) the author will get 70% or $4.19 (let's say $4).

Each month our indie author will make 4 * 25 = 100 per month or 100 * 12 = 1,200 per year. That means they'd have to have (50,000/1,200=41.67) 42 books in the Amazon store to make $50,000 per year!

Of course 42 books is entirely doable, but not in a year!

Which, I think, is Dean's point.

So, how long would it take you to earn $50,000 per year if you wrote 5 novels per year? That's easy: 42/5 = 8.4. It would take around 8 years for an indie author to make $50,000 per year.

Actually, that's not bad. That's doable! 25 sales per book per month isn't much and many indie books are priced at $5.99 these days.

Wow. I think this was, for me, Dean's most awesome post--and there've been quite a few!

Focus On What You Control

There are no guarantees. Your independently published book might sell less than 25 copies a month. Significantly less. Your traditionally published book might under-perform and your publisher might drop you (if memory serves, this happened to Laurell K. Hamilton with her first book Nightseer).

There's a lot we don't control but there's two things we do:

- (T & I) How much you write.

- (T) How many manuscripts you send out.

- (I) How many books (short stories, etc) you publish.

- (I) The quality of your published books (blurbs, cover art, formatting) and where the book is sold (the markets, whether you have a print copy, audiobook, etc).

Indie Authors: Focus on selling your work in as many forms as you can

Dean stresses, and for what it's worth I agree wholeheartedly, that it's a good idea to make your work available in as many formats as possible (ebook, POD, audiobook). Dean writes:
You control the attempt to sell. You don’t control the buying or not buying, but you control the attempt to sell.
I think that, even if an author doesn't sell a lot of audiobooks, it's worth doing for the exposure to another market. It is one more way for you to get discovered by readers/listeners. That said, producing an audiobook can be expensive, but you can do it yourself. (See: How To Record Your Own Audiobook: Setting Up A Home Studio)

Dean warns against exclusivity and that's an old debate, one I've written about previously a few times. (See: Does Amazon KDP Select Drive Away True Fans? and Amazon's KDP Select Program Has A Lot To Offer New Writers, But What About Established Ones?)

That's just a sample of Dean's advice. I urge you to read his article: The New World of Publishing: Goals and Dreams.

Other links you might like:

- The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version
- Where Ideas Come From And The Conspiracy Against Nothingness
- The Structure Of Short Stories

Photo credit: "Blue Darkness Across A Beach" by A Guy Taking Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, December 15

The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version

The Structure Of Short Stories: Stripping Your Story Down To Its Bones

This post is part two of my series on the structure of short stories. To read the first post, click here: The Structure Of Short Stories.

The Chicken And The Egg

One thing I should have said a few words about yesterday was how you can establish elements like setting (time, place, mood, and so on), who your characters are, what your protagonist's major conflict is, and all the rest of it, if you don't already have a good grasp of your story idea.

The fact is a lot of times we work our way into a short story through a bootstrapping process. Perhaps you have an initial idea--a critter with paranormal abilities, a pirate (arg!), two people who fall in love. Chances are, you'll have some an idea when you sit down what you want to do. Go with it. Brainstorm.

Here are some resources that might help generate ideas, or shape the ones you have:

Writing Prompts

Writing prompts can help defeat writer's block, but they're also great for generating ideas. There are many sites on the web with writing prompts, but here are two I like:

- Writing prompts
- CanTeach: Writing prompts

Seventh Sanctum

Seventh Sanctum has all sorts of generators. You can generate names, settings, even story ideas! The next time you're stuck for an idea, go browse.

The Essential Idea

If you don't have all the elements of your short story yet that's fine, but lets try and distill those you do have and, perhaps, get a few more along the way. You can make sure you're starting off on the right foot. (This is also a great exercise for after you've finished your story to make sure all the essentials are in place.)

Nathan Bransford has a terrific blog. The post I come back to the most is Nathan's Query Letter Mad Lib in which he gives the forumla for how to summarize your novel in one sentence. But to condense an entire story down to one sentence is challenging! I propose to first condense our story ideas into 5 sentences and then, from there, we can hone it even farther.

Sound like a plan? Great! Let's get started.

A 5 Sentence Story Description

Nathan Bransford very generously posted the query he used to shop around his first book: Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow. (Nathan used to be an agent for Curtis Brown Ltd.)

Let's dissect Nathan's description of his novel and see if we can't make a template out of it:

1. The ordinary world

"Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home."

[Protagonists name] has been [protagonists outer challenge] ever since [protagonist's wound]. 

2. Setting and characters introduced

"He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled."

He never would have survived without [friend1 description] [friend1 name], even if he is [friend1 fault], and his [friend2 description] [friend2 name], who is [friend2 fault]. 

3. Entering the special world

"But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver one night they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown."

But when the trio meets [threshold guardian description] they [cross the threshold] and [exciting verb for "enter"] [the special world]. 

4. It all falls apart

"That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath."

That is, until [the awful thing that happened as a result of protagonist's actions] and [antagonist description] named [antagonist name] does [some hideous deed to protagonist that hurts him and will definitely prevent him from reaching his external goal]. 

5. The challenge

"The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away." 

The [protagonist] has to work [deed] to [achieve their external goal and return to the ordinary world].

Example: The Firm

1. Ordinary world

Mitch McDeer worked hard to get top grades at Harvard Law School because he never wanted to be poor again.

2. Characters and setting

He would never have succeeded without the love and support of his beautiful wife Abby who, more than anything, wants Mitch to stop running and accept who he is, and to accept his brother, even though his family is a reminder of what Mitch is running from: the shame of growing up in a trailer park, poor, raised by a mother who didn't really care about him.

3. Entering the special world 

When the lawyers from Bendini, Lambert & Locke offer Mitch more money than any other law firm it is a dream come true and he and Abby move into their brand new house, courtesy of the firm.

4. It all falls apart

Everything is great until Mitch learns about the secret files and discovers Bendini, Lambert & Locke is just a front for organized crime. As the FBI closes in on Mitch, threatening him with prison, the mob gets suspicious.

5. The challenge for the protagonist

Mitch has to rely on his wits to save himself and Abby. But is he up to the challenge?

One Sentence Summary

"A young lawyer joins a prestigous law firm only to discover that it has a sinister dark side. (The Firm, IMDB)"

Let's see if we can't expand on that summary of The Firm using Nathan's formula:
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal]. (Query Letter Mad Lib)
Here's my attempt:
Mitch McDeere is a smart, motivated, young lawyer living in Boston. But when he gets a job with a group of crooked lawyers, Mitch must thread his way between the dual threats of the FBI and the mob in order to preserve both his life and his law degree.
What I find interesting is that certain points had to fall by the wayside. Here we are forced to only focus on what is of primary importance for the plot: Mitch, the threat posed by the mob and the threat posed by the FBI.

Mitch's wife, Abby, was a large part of the plot, but in the one (okay TWO!) sentence summary she falls by the wayside.

Being ruthless like this and cutting away until you're left with the essential bits can help you focus, right from the beginning, on what is critical to your story. It can help make it strong and easier and quicker to write.

I think that's it for now. In the next post in this series--which probably won't be tomorrow, I'll give you folks a break!--I'll talk about Dan Well's 7-Point system.

(By the way if you haven't read Ben Guilfoy's article on how to write a serial you're missing out! I think serials are the next big thing and Ben's been writing them for years. He explains his system clearly and with humor. Truly, a must read.)

 Till tomorrow, happy writing!

Other articles you might like:

- The Structure Of Short Stories
- Where Ideas Come From And The Conspiracy Against Nothingness
- Roleplaying Games And Writing, Does The One Help The Other?

Photo credit: "Sunburst" by John-Morgan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, December 14

Where Ideas Come From And The Conspiracy Against Nothingness

Where Ideas Come From And The Conspiracy Against Nothingness

I love Elizabeth S. Craig's twitter feed! Whenever I want to read an article on the craft of writing I go and pick a few links from her twitter feed and browse.

There's one thing I love more than her twitter feed, though, and that's her blog. Today she wrote about something I've been thinking about, something I was going to write about: how we get our ideas. Elizabeth writes:
Lately, I’ve had ideas bursting out of me at crazy times of the day: frequently when I’m doing something else.

I’m driving a car and am struck by three or four ideas or bits of dialogue or plot points or character names. I was honked at yesterday while dreaming at a stoplight (particularly irksome for me because I'm usually the honk-er and not the honk-ee).

I’m having a conversation with someone and get ideas.

I’m falling asleep (this is happening on a daily basis now) and getting ideas. (The Importance of Doing Nothing)
I know what she means. I've been fortunate and had the time to direct my own activities lately, to pursue what I'm really truly deep-down interested in and, right now, ideas are jumping out at me from everywhere. And I'm finishing the stories! (* knock on wood *)

Of course I'm not bored, but the key is that I have time. Time to sit and mull things over, to puzzle out whether certain ideas fit together; in short, to pursue what engages me, what interests me.

Elizabeth S. Craig talks about how children--and certainly adults--are often viewed as wastrels if they want to just sit and think, just sit and dream. She writes:
The funny thing (here in the States, anyway) is that free time, where you’re just doing nothing, isn’t particularly valued.

My son, for instance, was involved in way too many activities last year. He was gone most of the time—day in and day out, on weekends, and in the evenings. He was drained, so I pulled him out of one of the main time-stealing culprits—marching band.

I ran into one of the other marching band parents and she asked me about it. I said that he was too busy and was too rarely at home.

“Well, what’s he going to do with that free time?” she asked.

I just blinked at her. Of course I was the wrong person to ask this question of. “Whatever he wants to,” I said. “Stare off into space if he wants to. It's free time."

“He’ll be bored,” she said.

“That might be a good thing.”(The Importance of Doing Nothing)
I agree!

I've read several times that the best thing you can do for a child is to make sure they have time to dream, and I believe that.

As Elizabeth points out, so did A. A. Milne:
Here’s a bit of dialogue where Christopher Robin explains to Pooh that he won’t be around as much anymore (he’s being sent off to boarding school):

I'm not going to do nothing anymore."
"Never again?"
"Well, not so much. They don't let you." [1]

There does seem to be a conspiracy against nothingness.
I wanted to get that last bit in there because, well, it's a great line, isn't it? "A conspiracy against nothingness." I hope Elizabeth won't mind my borrowing it for my title. :)

1) The House at Pooh Corner. A.A. Milne. 1928.

Other articles you might be interested in:

- The Structure Of Short Stories
- The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?
- 12 Tips On How To Write Antagonists Your Readers Will Love To Hate

Photo credit: "Between the Dark and a Light Place" by Neal. under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

The Structure Of Short Stories

The Structure Of Short Stories

The Structure Of A Short Story

I've been thinking about short stories lately; specifically, about how to structure them. I'd like to write an article that makes it easier for a new writer to create a decent short story right off the bat, the kind of article that might have helped accelerate my learning curve when I was starting out.

(Grin) I guess everyone's gotta have a goal! We'll see how this goes.

A Caveat: Use what works for you

Let me digress for a moment. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't many fine articles out there written by folks much more capable than myself. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut's article How to write with style. But everyone is unique, everyone has a different perspective. Perhaps you and I will be similar enough that my take on things will strike a cord with you. If so, great!

I'm not saying this structure, or any structure, is for everyone. If you like it and it works for you, great! If it doesn't, that's fine. (smile) Use what works for you.

The Roadmap

I've been working on a post on short story structure for the past few days but it keeps growing and, today, I realized I'm going to have to do this in parts. In this post I want to talk about what we need to bring to the table before we start building the structure of our story, before we start talking about hooks and pinches, midpoints and resolutions.

In the next post in this series I'll discuss how to condense the essential ideas in your short story down so they can be expressed in one, or a few, lines. The post after that we'll start talking about Dan Wells 7-Point system for short stories.

Another caveat: If you have an idea and it's bursting to get out, write it! You don't need me, or anyone, to tell you how to express your creativity. This structure is mainly for folks who have an idea curled at the back of their minds like a shy kitten. They know it's there, they know it wants to come out and play, but they can't quite coax it from its hiding spot.

Preparing To Write A Short Story

Before we start talking about story structure (hooks, turning points, pinches, resolutions, and so on) there are a few things we should decide on. Things such as:

1. The basic idea your story is about

What is the setting?

Time: Where are we in time? Is it the present? The past? The future?
Place: What geographic location are you going to use? (New York? LA? Toronto? Etc) Are you going to create your world or use this one?
Mood/Atmosphere: What feeling do you want to create at the beginning? Bright and cheerful? Dark and frightening? Is this going to change by the end? (See: Short Story Elements)
Social milieu: How does the social milieu shape your character's values? What cultures are you going to include? (Setting, Wikipedia)

What is the major conflict?

There are various kinds of conflicts:

- person against person,
- person against society,
- person against nature and
- person against self.

The protagonist often has both an internal and external conflict, so person against person (the antagonist) and person against self (the internal struggle) are the most common forms of conflict found in stories, at least genre stories which are the kind I am focusing on. (See: Conflict, Wikipedia)

For instance, in The Firm, Mitch McDeere has the outer goal of becoming a wealthy lawyer and the inner goal of shedding the negative emotions he has concerning his childhood (well, at first, he just wants to run away and ignore them). His external goal changes throughout the movie, as does how he approaches his inner goal. The obstacles/opposition to these goals creates conflict.

You don't have to have an inner conflict and in a short story you might find it too much to fit in, especially if you're a new writer.

A good strong external conflict (external goal + opposition) is an absolute must. It is the engine that will drive your story forward.

2. List your characters

This is a short story so you probably want to keep the number of characters to the bare minimum you need to tell the story.

You'll have a protagonist, an antagonist and one or both of them might have a helper. Also, the protagonist might have a mentor and there might be some sort of shady character trying to keep the protagonist from leaving the status quo/ordinary world.

Keep in mind that the same character could fill more than one role. For instance, the antagonist could corrupt the mentor and the mentor could act as the shadow-y character keeping the antagonist from crossing the threshold into the special world, the land of adventure. (See: Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction)

Character Sheets

I love character sheets! I gave this link in the article, below (Before You Start Writing ...) but I'll give it here as well: Character Brainstorming Worksheet. That's, hands down, the best character sheet I've seen in a long time!

Update (Dec 14, 2012): Thanks to Sam Hunt over at Dark-Fantasy Writers I just learnt about Seventh Sanctum. They have a great character generator over there, best I've seen. Fun to play around with (well, if you're a geek like me).

Test Your Characters

Martina Boone came up with a brilliant idea: Test your characters before you write them into your story to make sure they're strong enough. If this is something you'd like to read about I'll direct you here: Before You Start Writing Test Your Characters: Are They Strong Enough?

3. Who is your point of view (POV) character?

If you're going to write in third person omniscient or third person objective then you don't have to choose just one, but chances are you won't be writing from the these points of view. Usually your protagonist will be your POV character.

That said, there are notable exceptions. For instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlocke Holmes stories from the point of view of Watson but Sherlock Holmes was his protagonist.

Sometimes you may want to have two POV characters. For instance, often in romance stories one POV character is the girl the other the guy and the POV shifts between chapters. (Or girl/girl or guy/guy depending on the story you're writing.) If you're a new writer, or you want to write a story under 2,000 words, I'd suggest you pick just one.

4. Are you going to write in first, second or third person?

I'm not going to talk about narrative points of view. Wikipedia has a wonderful write up about each one, with examples galore: Narrative mode. If you're at all fuzzy about what first person, second person, third person subjective, third person objective and third person omniscient are please do head on over to Wikipedia and brush up. I know I have to read the definitions again every few years!

Sometimes the narrative point of view you choose will be (in part) determined by the genre you're writing for. For instance, most urban fantasy is written in the first person (See: Urban Fantasy: Threat or Menace? - The Story Board Ep. 1). Second person is popular only in special areas, for instance recipes, songs, blog posts, and so on. If you are like the majority of authors (why do I feel like I've just given someone a challenge? lol) you'll likely end up choosing between first person and third person subjective (also called third person limited).

5. A description of your story

This is something I always do. I've never read anyone else say to do this, so use this at your own risk!

Eventually (we'll talk about this in the next post in this series) we'll go over writing a one liner, or tag-line for your story. But lets not worry about that yet. Right now I'd like to you to write out what your story is about, all those ideas that have been purcolating in your noggin as we've been doing all this preparation work.

Go and write it out. That's okay. I'll wait.

Back? Good!

Okay. Your description might be 5 pages long or just a list of ideas (or you might have nothing at all), it's all good, but now you need to take what you've written and hone your story down to its essentials.

6. The one-liner/tag line

I'm going to break off here. Tomorrow I'll write about how to condense your story down to its essential elements and express them in one line.

Or at least that's the goal! See you next time.

Update: Here's a link to the next article in this series: The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version.

How about you? Do you use a story structure when you write? What is your process?

Other articles you might like:

- Roleplaying Games And Writing, Does The One Help The Other?
- How To Write A Twitter Story
- Why Your Story Should Have A Theme

Photo credit: "Моя Мелочь:) | My Meloch:)" by eXage under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, December 13

Roleplaying Games And Writing, Does The One Help The Other?

Did you know that Dan Wells, Chuck Wendig and Jim Butcher, three wonderful and wonderfully successful writers, not only are avid gamers but also create roleplaying games?

What is the connection--is there a connection--between between a successful writer and gaming?

Jim Butcher

Did you know there's a Dresden Files role-playing game? That's right! Jim's also a LARPer and avid role-player. He goes so far as to, at least occasionally, take the his world-building-ideas on a trial run with his weekly gaming group.

Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig of Terribleminds needs no introduction. One thing I didn't find out until recently is that he is an avid gamer as well as game designer.

About a year ago Chuck wrote an article entitled Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games. Trust me on this, even if you would rather try and cross the North Pole naked than try a roleplaying game, his post is a great read. Here are a few highlights:

Writers should playing roleplaying games because:

1. The essence of roleplaying is characters in conflict.

What is at the heart of great storytelling? Character driven conflict.

2. Pacing

Pacing is tricky. It's not the easiest thing to get right. Too slow and it'll be easy for your readers to put your book down, too fast and you'll burn them out. As Chuck writes:
Constant action is naught but the electric cacophony of a single guitar chord blasted over and over again.
You have to ease off the gas sometimes and let your readers breathe a little.
This becomes abundantly clear at the game table. ... Let the characters talk to one another. Even the tried-and-true “our characters walk into a tavern” schtick reveals this, to some degree: they don’t kick open the door and start throwing punches. A tavern fight starts simple. Drinks. Laughs. A goblin says some shit. A paladin encourages restraint. A warrior gets all up in the goblin’s business. Someone throws a bottle. And then — explode. Spells and swords and shotguns and goblin venom.

3. No Such Thing As Writer's Block

You can't get writer's block when a goblin spits in your face. You have to do something. Anything.

4. You Have A Built In Audience

Gaming is a group activity. You can tell immediately if what you're doing works.
This [gaming] isn’t something you do in isolation. ... You’re in the thick of it. Your words — whether as a player or, more importantly, as the game master — are the central focus. You can tell when you’ve hooked them, and can tell when you’re losing them. You shuck and jive and duck and weave and do any kind of narrative chicanery to keep the momentum going, to ensure that the table doesn’t spiral off into restless side-conversations (“Do you think an Alchemical Exalted would be able to beat Jesus, if Jesus were wearing like, Mecha Armor given to him by the Three Wise Men?”). ....

Your story is the story of the moment, and it reminds you just how important it is to keep the audience in mind — not just your intent as storyteller but their interests, their needs, their attention.

It also reinforces the cardinal rule:

Never be boring.
Chuck Wendig prose is definitely not boring.

I encourage you all to go and read Chuck's article. It's great, I love his use of language, sometimes even the spicy bits: Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games.

Dan Wells

Last, but definitely not least, we have Dan Wells. You might know him as a bestselling horror writer, or from, or from his YouTube videos on how to write a short story or, well, the list goes on.

Here's Dan's connection to roleplaying: Dan's 7-point system for how to structure a story was drawn from a Star Trek Roleplaying Game Narrator's Guide.

But that's not all. Dan is designing his own game. (See: My Game Design I Keep Talking About)

Dan has been designing games since he was a kid. He writes:
I consider game design to be very similar to fiction writing, at least in terms of why I do it and what I get out of it. Both are creative outlets that let me tell a story and craft an experience for my audience. If I can get you to feel something while reading my books or playing my games, I’ve done a good job; if I can get you to feel something specific, I’ve done a great job. (My Game Design ...)

Could Roleplaying Games Make Us Better Writers?

Could be! Only one way to find out. :-)

Have you played a roleplaying game? Did it help your writing? Does writing help your gaming?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Write A Twitter Story
- The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?
- How To Earn A Living As A Self-Published Writer

Photo credit: "fairies never die" by kait jarbeau is in love with you under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.