Monday, April 24, 2017

Finding Motivation

Motivation is defined by Merriam-Webster as a force or influence that causes someone to do something.
 
Motivation is abstract.  It’s not something you can see or touch, and it’s different for everyone.    Speakers make a living selling it.  Drill sergeants instill it.  Some people wake up in the morning filled with it, while others never can seem to find it.  But one thing is for sure, writers need it. 
 
Many articles describe ways for writers to get motivated.  I’ve included a few at the end of this post.   Some of the tips in these articles work for me, but just as many don’t.  Here are ways I’ve found to get in the right frame of mind to write:
Switch Gears - My blog is called Thoughts, Stories, and Novels.  I post thoughts to my blog two or three times a month.  I’ve written dozens of short stories and maintain an inventory of ideas for the next one.  When I get bogged down on my current novel, I’ll switch gears for a day or two, diverting my attention to writing a blog post or possibly beginning a short story.   I find the diversity helps stimulate ideas.  
Brainstorm – If I’m stuck at a certain point in a novel or story, I’ll try breaking away from the manuscript and brainstorming.  I might jump to the conclusion and jot down ideas on how the book might end.   Sometimes I’ll go back to visit a particular character to see what improvements could be made.  Was I consistent in building the character? Could I make the character more compelling through dialogue and actions?  Other times, I pick a chapter in the book I thought was particularly exciting and well-written and re-read it, hoping to rediscover the motivation that helped produce it.
Find the Best Time of Day – Early morning (and I mean really early) is the best time for my mind to be clear and ready to produce my best writing.  There is something about getting an early jump on the day to make me feel more energized.  Other writers may produce better work at different times of the day.  The key is to know what time works best for you.
 
Hit the Trails – Exercise is a great way to shake the cobwebs loose.  For me, there’s no better exercise than hiking the mountain trails around our home.  An hour or two on the trails, and I’m usually in a better frame of mind to write.
 
Envision Success – Reading about aspiring writers who’ve found success is very motivational. Writer’s Digest is a good source for these articles, but there are several websites, blogs, and Facebook pages featuring authors who’ve broken through. 
 
Be Happy - It’s always easier to write when you’re in a good mood.   Take a break and do whatever makes you feel better.  Listen to uplifting music, play catch with your dog, or check out this YouTube video on motivation:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sh5arV2cut0
  
These are just a few ideas that work for me.  I’m sure you have others.  I’d be interested in hearing them.

 
http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/9-ways-to-get-started-and-stay-motivated

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Do Authors Peak?

Whether it’s your career, athletic capabilities, sexual proficiency or anything else with a start, middle and an end, reaching your peak sucks.  Most don’t realize they’ve peaked because they’re too busy enjoying their view at the summit.   But when the slide down the backside begins, they know it, and there’s little to be done.
 
Being a baby boomer, I know it’s vogue to hype the advantages of aging.  I’m sure you’ve heard the “60 is the new 40” mantra coming from an ever-greying population.   I even wrote a novel, “Better Late Than Ever,” where residents of a futuristic retirement community become fixated on regaining their youth.   But the older I get, the more I accept that I will never be 25 again, or even 45.  Medical advances have enabled us to live longer and have made it easier to age, but these advances have yet to reverse the process.  Today, I hit a golf ball as far as I ever will.  I ran my last six-minute mile 30 years ago.  High school was the last time I’ll ever take to the basketball court in front of cheering crowds.  And I knew long before Bruce Springsteen that “Glory Days” will pass you by in the wink of a young girl’s eye.  
 
Peaking is more noticeable in some careers than others. Most professional athletes plateau before reaching 40.  Even in golf, a game many play ‘til they die, no professional player has won a major championship past age 46.  In business, corporate executives reach full stride in their 50s and early 60s, but the race to the top narrows dramatically for advancement-minded managers in their mid-40s.  By that age, if you’ve yet to be identified as executive material, you have likely begun a slow glide pattern back to earth.
 
Still, not everyone peaks by their mid-40s.  There’s good news for authors and others using their mind to make a living.  Studies (1, 2) have shown the more you exercise your brain, the longer your cognitive skills remain.  It turns out that learning and brain development can be a life-long process.  For writers, the message is to keep writing.  Staying healthy and physically fit also play a major role in these studies, so a long walk every day is advisable.  I find this news encouraging given I started my writing avocation in my mid-50s.  
 
There are many successful authors who didn’t publish their first book until later in life (3).  Laura Ingalls Wilder published “Little House in the Big Woods” at age 64, and then went on to write others in the series.  Earnest Hemingway was most prolific in his 20s and 30s, the period when he wrote “A Farewell to Arms.” It was generally accepted by critics that Hemingway was washed up by the time he reached 50.  Not so.  He wrote and published “Old Man and the Sea” at age 53.   Had he not suffered long-term injuries from plane crashes later in his life, who knows how many more Hemingway novels we would be enjoying?
 
I, and other aspiring writers like me, may never become bestselling authors, but as long we keep testing ourselves, we can enjoy the long uphill climb.  Who knows?  Our glory days may still lie ahead.
 

Friday, March 24, 2017

New Authors - Why So Many?

I’m amazed by the ever-growing number of new authors. 

In the U.S. alone, reports range from 250,000 to more than 500,000 new book titles published each year.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported 305,000 titles published in 2013, with a growing percentage of these books being self-published.

The growth in the number of authors and new books seems to defy trends in the book publishing industry.  A Pew Research survey of U.S. adults indicates those reading a book in the previous 12 months decreased from 79% to 72% between 2011 and 2015.  A July 2016 report from the American Association of Publishers indicates revenue from U.S. book sales was nearly flat from 2013 through 2015.  Competition is fierce.  Some genres and markets are saturated to the point it’s nearly impossible for new authors to be noticed by readers.  A writer self-publishing his/her first novel can expect to sell fewer than 1,000 copies.
So, why do more and more self-published authors elect to spend hundreds (if not thousands) of hours writing, editing, publishing, and marketing their novels?   It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, but here I am, writing my seventh self-published book.  I don’t have a concise answer, but for me, it boils down to the following:
  • FLEXIBILITY - Writing is exhausting, but it can be done at a time and pace to fit most schedules.
  • MINIMAL BARRIERS - The cost of entry is minimal.  All you need is a PC, printer and access to the Internet to begin.  For those serious about being successful, a professional cover and editor are a must, and neither is cheap.
  • SELF-PUBLISHING TECHNOLOGY - The availability, simplicity and low cost of self-publishing make it easy for new authors.  The number of offerings and quality of tools continue to improve.
  • SOCIAL MEDIA - Goodreads, Facebook, Google+, Twitter and other social media sites offer writing groups for new authors to share ideas and market their books.   A new writer never needs to feel alone in the process, and for those wanting to learn, educational offerings are endless.
  • HOPE – Optimism is a trait writers must possess.  At times, our views of success are blind to reality, not unlike Jim Carrey’s view in Dumb and Dumber.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX5jNnDMfxA
  • IT’S A CREATIVE OUTLET - I’d love to sell thousands of books, but I also write for me.  I enjoy writing.  My primary goal is to make each short story and novel better than my last.  It’s an objective that keeps me moving forward.  I think most aspiring authors feel the same way.      
I started writing books in 2010.  I’m not sure I would have made the effort 30 years earlier.  I don’t know if I could have sat at a typewriter, feeding in one sheet at a time, unable to share my progress in real time with other writers, and not knowing if my manuscript would ever be read, let alone published.
A lot has been written about the evils of self-publishing, claiming it’s watered down the quality of books by allowing less-skilled writers to be published.  This negativity isn’t likely to alter the growth in self-published authors.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in my three decades in business, it’s that you can’t fight technology or the role it plays in creating and satisfying markets.  Self-publishing companies serve two markets: writers and readers.  They generate revenue from authors by providing services beyond publishing (editing, cover design, marketing, etc.).  Many such companies also get a percentage of sales from every book sold.  Self-publishing is a business designed to make a profit.
I’m thankful for self-publishers. They came along at a time when I was ready to test my creative skills.  I expect we both will be around for a long time, although for different reasons.  Their longevity is tied to profitability, while mine only requires hard work and hope.  And that’s why there are so many new authors.                  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Optics Can Distract


My mind wanders when I write.  As an example, I often think how the use of a word has changed.  I’ll come across a specific word, and the next thing I know I’ve been shot off on a tangent far from my writing project.   
Take the word “optics.”  It used to be defined as an area of physics involving the study of light.  I guess it still is, but it’s more frequently used to describe how something appears to an observer, as in, “The optics of the situation make them appear guilty.”
I believe the word has become popular in its new context because it allows the user to influence opinions without facts.  All you have to do is claim the optics support your position.  The word comes in handy in a country where politicians, media, and everyday Americans are engaging more frequently in debates where neither side presents sufficient facts.  What better way to win these disputes, or to cloud the discussions, than to state the optics support your views? 
When people don’t know what to believe, they usually believe what they want. We live in a world that is guided more and more by optics, opinion and ideology and less and less by facts. Opinions and polls seem to matter more than what is actually happening.  Indisputable facts bounce off of today’s ideologues like rain off a duck.
Benjamin Franklin gets credit for saying, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  The difference between Franklin’s 18th century and now is no one currently works very hard at convincing the other side.  Instead, it’s all about “rallying the base,” hanging around in “safe zones” where those with opposing views can’t speak out, and labeling instead of listening.
It could be that social media magnifies discord in the 21st century, but I can’t remember this country being so divided.  I hope we find a way to come together soon, but I must admit, the optics don’t look very good.
See what I mean?  Words distract me.  Well, I better get back to writing.     

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Writing Distractions – Not All Bad

Most aspiring authors have real lives outside of writing. Even I do.  I often wonder if life gets in the way of writing, or if writing requires having a life, but that’s a much larger topic than what this post is about.

There are very few things I’d rather do than write. I find it relaxing, challenging, and satisfying. Yet, a number of distractions easily take me away from writing.  I’m not talking about time with family and friends.  They always take priority.  I’m referring to distractions I face while actually at my desk.
My office has an expansive window with long-range views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I’m fortunate to have such a serene setting in which to think and compose.  I frequently gaze out this window, distracted by the natural beauty of the trees and faraway hills.  In the winter months, days pass without seeing another person, but rarely a day goes by without seeing a herd of deer wandering through my view.  It’s an interesting dichotomy.  The quiet and solitude which make this a great place to write often has me focusing elsewhere.
Research is a large part of writing, even for a fiction writer.  The internet puts sources of information at my fingertips. With one keystroke, I can switch from composing a novel on Microsoft Word to searching a range of topics on Google, Bing, or Yahoo. While this is infinitely more productive than going to the library and digging through periodicals, internet research also presents a risk.  The risk is never getting back to writing.  One minute, I’m verifying the location of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and the next minute, I’m buying a lawn trimmer off Home Depot’s website or reading my book reviews on Amazon.
I’ve concluded these distractions can actually be constructive.  While writing requires deep concentration to ensure continuity, consistency, and correctness, it also requires an inventive and open mind.  I am able to write head-down for an hour at most. Any longer, and I lose my imagination and my writing grows stale.  It’s at these times a cup of coffee is in order.  I’ll return to my desk to sip coffee and enjoy the views out my window, or maybe read an interesting article on my laptop.  These breaks often refresh my thoughts, enabling me to return for another period productive writing.
I must admit there are days when I stare out my window, never focusing on my writing, and that’s not all bad.  If my mind’s not into writing, I’d probably produce garbage anyway.  Oh, look!  My nephew just posted pictures of his new puppies on Facebook.  I’ll finish this post later.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Does a novel need to deliver a message?


Does a novel need to deliver a message or lesson, or can it succeed on entertainment value alone?
Most of the books I read are suspenseful crime novels or legal thrillers.  I enjoy Michael Connelly, John Grisham, James Patterson, Vince Flynn and many others.  At times, these authors insert political or social messages, but they seldom detract from the main theme or plot of their book.  The messages are usually used to provoke thought, develop a character, or possibly create conflict.
Complex messaging is not needed for romance novels (or other genres) to be popular. That’s not why readers buy these books.  I doubt romance authors begin their stories with the intent of bringing attention to world hunger or saving homeless animals.  Still, an antagonist who verbally or physically punishes his partner in a romance novel can shine a light on the evils of domestic abuse, delivering a message within the context of the story.
I believe a fiction writer’s objective is to entertain. Readers come back to a given genre because they enjoy what it delivers: fantasy, suspense, romance or adventure. It’s difficult to write a fiction novel with a political, social, or religious message as its main theme. The few I’ve read kept dragging me back to the message, not giving me, as the reader, a chance to fully engage in the characters or the story.  I also think an author who continues to use his/her novels to convey messages and lessons risks becoming known for promoting specific causes, and not for writing.
So, does a novel need a message?  I liken messages in a novel to salt on a good meal.  If sprinkling a few messages throughout a novel enhances the reader’s experience and doesn’t overwhelm the main story, then I say season to taste.      

Friday, January 27, 2017

Persistence - It's Necessary, but not Sufficient.



I have a master’s degree in mathematics, and I followed it up with 32 years in sales and marketing for the same multinational company.  You may ask what either of these facts has to do with writing novels, but bear with me.  There is a connection.
Years ago, I was fortunate to retire with mileage still on my tires.  For the first time in my life, I had an abundance of free time. I filled it with many things, some productive, some not.  The most creative activity I pursued was writing.  I’d always wanted to write, but writing a novel required time, something I now had.  
I took on this venture knowing the odds of producing a published novel, or for that matter a novel that would be read beyond my small sphere of friends, were low.  After all, I spent six years studying mathematics.   The formula is fairly simple.  You take 200,000 new books written each year as the denominator and a couple dozen best sellers as the numerator, and you can calculate that 1 out of 10,000 authors might have his/her books read by someone outside their hometown.   I know there’s a middle ground for success between bestseller and throwing the manuscript in the garbage, but you get the point.  It’s hard.
So why did I think I could write a novel?  That’s where persistence comes in.  Anyone who works 32 years for the same company doesn’t give up easily.   A career is not a smooth uphill climb.  There are plateaus and even slippery downhill slides along the way, but if you keep moving forward with your eyes on the finish line, you’ll eventually get there.   It’s not unlike writing.   There are periods where the words flow, the characters develop, and the story explodes with action.  Then there are days where the page sits blank, or worse, you decide to scrap a chapter and start over.  
As I anticipated, my persistence paid off.   Over the past six years, I have self-published four novels and two short story collections.  None are bestsellers.  In fact, I’m often frustrated with the pace of sales.  After three decades in sales and marketing, it’s where I’ve faced my biggest challenges.  My books are all professionally edited, and naturally, I feel they’re well written.  I’ve received dozens of favorable book reviews, as well as contest recognition for several of my short stories. 
I’ve concluded that to be a successful writer, as measured by book sales, it not only requires a well-written book, it takes a cadre of support services.  You need to identify your target market, deliver well-written books that hit that target, construct a multifaceted marketing plan, and commit sufficient resources to execute your plan.   Most importantly, I’ve learned persistence is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.