Three Great Apps for Writers

20130911-161151.jpgNot too long ago, by beloved Blackberry went bust. I was a die-hard BB fanboy for years, but had been getting disillusioned; the OS always felt sluggish, the included browser was painfully slow, and the app store was vacant because developers preferred the much more lucrative Android and iPhone markets. So when my phone died, I didn’t go back–I joined the pack and got an iPhone.

And I discovered something: I was using my Blackberry for very particular purposes, but I was missing out on a lot of innovative apps that would help my writing and my work. Now, I don’t intend to stay with the iPhone–I love my Android based Kobo Arc, so it makes sense to go with an Android phone–but these apps run on both systems. And I’ve found them indespensible:

Any.do

I’m a fan of checklists, and every time I upgrade a device, I search for a good list app. I’ve found the ultimate in Any.Do. It’s intuitive, robust, and it syncronises across my phone, Kobo and even an extension in my Chrome browser.
It couldn’t be simpler. When you launch the app you’ll see a list of your to-do items. You can add an item by pressing the + symbol, and the iPhone and Android devices accept voice input. You can then organise by due date (even pushing items to “someday”) or create folders. I have folders for Work, Personal and based on different projects with related tasks. When you complete a task, you can swipe to strike it off the list and–the fun part–shaking your phone will clear finished items.
Any.Do has also introduced a “Plan Your Day” feature, which will walk you through items that don’t have a due date so you can set priorities. Ask Any.Do to remind you in an hour, set it for tomorrow, or push it to next week. This is an excellent app, and I have it up on my work computer constantly through the day. If you want to keep track of progress and tend to forget the little details, get this now.

Any.Do has also built a Calendar app. I’m just getting used to it, but I like it a lot better than the native Iphone calendar. It’s clean, fresh, and simple–plus it lists your to-dos from Any.Do, and you can set it up to cycle through different images in the background. They’re also working on mail and notes apps, which I’m eager to try. Check them out!

Springpad

Which leads me to Springpad. A note taking app is essential for me, as I tend to have ideas in the most inconvenient places. If I don’t write it down right away, I’ll forget it–so having a note app on my phone is great. I don’t much like the native apps because they’re not that helpful, beyond writing stuff down. So I’m always on the look for a better one.20130911-161251.jpg
I settled on an app called Catch, which was simple to use, organised things into folders, and had a web plugin. Unfortunately, they’re gone now and no longer support the app.
Instead, I’m trying Springpad, and so far I really like it. You can organize notes into books as well, and it’s very easy to navigate between notebooks. The best part is the web plugin–set the shortcut on your toolbar and all of your notes are accessible from the browser. This is a godsend for writers; you get an idea on the bus, jot it down on your phone, and by the time you’re home you can launch Chrome and the notes are there, ready for you to put into your word processor.
Springpad also has a really nice interface. It’s not unlike Pinterest, and captures your notes in a series of tiles you can share. Springpad also has a Search feature, which lets you find other people’s notes, share ideas, and collaborate on projects. You could set up an account at work, and give each employee access–everyone adds their ideas and it’s all put down in one place. My wife and I use it for shopping: you can create a checklist, which we use for groceries, and both of us can access it at any time to add items we need.
This is note-taking meets social media, and it’s a really nice combo. After using it for only a couple weeks, I’m a convert.

I should also mention the note taking heavyweight, Evernote. Many people swear by it, and it’s got its good points. Personally though, I never liked it; I’ve found the interface dull and counterintuitive, and it just never seemed helpful to me. To each their own.

Pocket

This is the one app I’m really excited about these days. I never really got into RSS readers, as they seemed to be pretty redundant; why download an article to read offline when the device you’re using is constantly online? The one application I can see is turing off your wifi or being in a location that doesn’t have access; not wanting to use your airtime is a good reason to use this app, but when wifi is so ubiquitous nowadays, it seems pointless. So I never bothered.

Until Pocket. I’ve been playing with this app for only a few days, but I’m hooked. I’m seeing the appeal of reading a headline or wanting to look something up, but not having the time to delve into it–Pocket lets you save that webpage or article and puts it in a queue for later reading. Again, simple as pie, but powerful if you use it right.
This app has solved a problem I didn’t realize I had. Although I don’t tweet much myself, I read twitter very often, and love getting interesting articles or hearing about releases from fellow Indies. When I come across a link I like, I tend to forward it to my email so I can check it out on a PC–many webpages just don’t display well on a phone browser.

Pocket allows me to get around that with no fuss. Just send it to the app, and it’s there when I’m ready. The best part is that Pocket has a web extension–I’m a fan of that integration, you can tell! If I come across a website I want to look at when I have more time, I can send that to pocket too. I’ve already got a nice list of things to catch up on.
Pocket also has some nice integration with other apps. I have yet to play with all the features, but you can send links to Pocket through Twitter, email, Digg, GReader, and more–over 300 apps and counting.

And here’s the really great news: Kobo recently announced that Pocket will be integrated in all its readers. You’ll be able to open your Reading Life to access all your Pocket pages. This brings e-reading to a new level; effectively it’s an electronic newspaper curates to your exact specifications. The feature is set to launch on September 13–I can’t wait to use it!

That’s it for today, but keep an eye on the blog for an upcoming interview with David A Hayden, and a review of Sarvet’s Wanderyar, by J. M. Ney Grimm!

 

 

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Traditionally Published Authors a Step Closer to Indies?

One of my favourite “traditionally published authors,” Kevin J Anderson, recently posted about what he called a ground breaking change in the publishing industry: a new service called Cunable, which allows authors to sell their published works as eBooks without going through a major distributor. You can read it here. It is indeed a big change, but what does it mean for the Indie Publishing Community?

There are those in the community who are much better versed in how Cunable will affect self-publishing, if it will at all–but I wanted to comment on it. I’ve started to see Anderson as a champion for the eBook format; he’s released a lot of his back catalogue as eBooks on his own website, and seems eager to encourage e-reading. It helps that he’s a major voice in the sci-fi and fantasy genres–he gives exposure to the format.

And now, he’s embarking on this experiment with Cunable. The creator of this service, John Grace, describes it as “Self Retailing for the Published Author,” and it seems very close to how Indie writers are publishing and selling their books.

Basically, Grace is concerned with putting money into the hands of authors, insteads of publishers. In an interview on Kirin Design, he points out that an author doesn’t get a lot of the revenue from their own work, and that this is something that can change. It’s part of what motivates the Indie Community, which gets a large percentage of sales compared to going through one of the Big Five publishers (if you can get there at all). Indeed, Grace admits that he was inspired by the “growth and success” of the self-publishing model, and sees it as a way for published author to “eliminate the retailer channel.”
Of course, Indies see another (and more important) benefit to self-publishing–we get our work out directly to those who want to read it, and can communicate with our network of readers. I think Cunable will fulfil this goal too, though Grace doesn’t explicitly reference it.

Grace would like to see the Big Five sign on with his service so he can distribute published works through his website, or allow authors to distribute through theirs. Anderson says that the 30-35% cut that publishers normally get from sales would instead be split between Cunable and the author–I’m not sure how happy publishers would be about that, but it does sound like a good idea for people who just want to write for a living. Really, it’s about taking the publisher out of the picture; getting the book directly from the author, no middleman, no fuss. Another reason Indies do what they do. I’m glad a person like Anderson is involved in this,  as he could give Cunable some real momentum. It will be interesting to see where they go.

But what does this all mean? The first thing that popped into my mind when I read the blog was that published authors are going to start flooding the market. Anderson has already dipped his toe in, and I could see others following him. And that’s good on one hand, because it gives even more credence to self-publishing and to the eBook format. But on the other hand, I don’t think self-publishing needs more credence–and the system itself could potentially change.

The funny thing about Community is that it’s (ironically) exclusionary. A community of like minded people will either exclude those who aren’t of “like mind,” or change its own definition to welcome them. I see the latter happening here; if Cunable takes off and traditionally published authors start joining the ranks of the self-published, the Indie Community changes. It may not be a bad change–maybe the traditionalists will join the ranks of Indies, something that’s already been happening for some time. This could only strengthen the community.
But–and this is the thing that I really wonder about–it could also mean greater competition. One of the hardest things about self-publishing is that the marketing is all up to you. It’s challenging, and I think it takes a special type of motivation to get it done right. But put those people up against someone who has an established name, and the competition gets a lot more fierce. I loved Anderson’s Captain Nemo, for example, but I think Lindsey Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge novels are better. An uninitiated reader given the choice between them might go with the name they recognise (though I have to give props to Buroker, arguably one of the most recognisable names in self-publishing). I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing–but it’s something to watch as it develops.

The one big difference I’m seeing, though, is pricing. Anderson’s prices haven’t changed since partnering with Cunable. His current Zombie PI series Dan Shamble is selling for around $13 a book–most Indie books hover between $1 and $5, and given some of the great percentages Indies get, both can potentially earn about the same from each sale. But–and this is a big but–given a choice between a $5 eBook and a $13 eBook, many will choose the lower price. For Cunable, I think this is inescapable–they’re still distributing books that are under a publisher’s contract. But for a company moving into the self-publishing model, it’s an interesting complication.

At any rate, as I said above, there are those better versed in the self-publishing model who can comment on this development more eloquently than I…but it’s a very interesting development, and I’m excited to see where it leads. I applaud Anderson for getting on board, and my big hope is that this will encourage the continued paradigm shift for publishing. At the very least, it helps with distribution and accessibility–and in the end, getting more books into the hands of readers is what it’s all about.

Build the House Before the Rooms: a Case Study in Framing

Recently I mentioned a series of four short stories I’m trying to write to get back into my deadlocked project. The main idea is to have all four stories in the same release, using a frame story to link them together. It’s a great convention, and can bring seemingly isolated stories together into a cohesive book–but like any writing technique, it’s easy to do it poorly.
I’ve never tried a frame story before, so I thought I’d do some practical research and look at some examples. Here are three of note:

Shades of GrayStar Trek: The Next Generation

We’ll start with the bad. This episode of Star Trek is often pointed to as one of the worst in any of the series, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It also points to a larger problem in television: the clip show. I’ve always thought of a clip show as little more than a marketing tool–it’s a way for producers to reel in potential new viewers by showing them the “best” clips of a series–but most of them are, in fact, frame stories.

The episode starts with Commander Riker getting injured on an away mission. He slips into a coma, and has a series of dreams–which, of course, are shown to the audience as clips from previous episodes. The premise is so on the nose that the writers might as well have grabbed the camera and shouted: “Do you remember this one? Huh? Do you??” I admit that Star Trek has some lousy episodes, but this one is plain ridiculous.

/Vitrol. Anyway, the thing with clip shows is that it’s difficult to introduce a plot while cramming in all those clips from past episodes. And that’s the issue here; the writers concocted a interesting problem for the characters to overcome, but neglected it in favour of showing clips. Riker’s illness could have made a good episode if they concentrated on it, but it’s pushed to the side. The point of this episode from a production standpoint was that they didn’t have the budget to do a big show, and were forced to recycle. Because of that, much more focus is put on the clips than the central problem the frame story introduces, and the episode as a whole suffers for it.

As a frame story, this fails because the frame does nothing to really connect the clips. There’s an excuse that Riker’s illness forces him to relive painful moments, and this is supposed to provide a thread for the episode to follow–but it really doesn’t hold up. The whole episode feels disconnected and thrown together, and as a result is largely forgettable.

The lesson here is that when using a frame story…use the frame story. Don’t introduce a convention then leave it behind, you’ll just confuse your audience.

The Illustrated Man–Ray Bradbury

Bradbury is an unquestioned master of science fiction, and this is probably one of the best introductions to his work. It’s a series of short stories (all but one previously published in periodicals), which, like most great science fiction, deal with the human condition. The stories are often dark, but they all put across some great questions. It’s a really nice collection, and a seminal work for sci-fi enthusiasts.
The frame store here is about a man who comes across a vagrant covered in tattoos–tattoos that move. The vagrant explains that a woman from the future inked them, and that they each tell a story. As the man gazes into the animated tattoos, we transition into one of the eighteen short stories in the book. It’s simple, effective (to a point), and intriguing. But it doesn’t entirely work.

Again, we have a disconnect between the frame story and the short stories written around it. The stories include some of Bradbury’s great classics–The Veldt, Marionettes Inc., and a personal favourite, The Rocket–but they don’t all have a clear connection to one another. The ‘human condition’ theme is vague enough that it covers almost all of science fiction, so it doesn’t really serve to string these stories together.
“But,” you say, “that’s what the frame story is for!” And you’d be right–the purpose of a frame is to create some sort of cohesive narrative. But it’s difficult to do that with such disparate stories; it’s like building a house with rooms that all have different heights. Your ceilings won’t match up, and your roof will end up a jagged mess. Of course, I wouldn’t say this collection is a mess–Bradbury is an excellent writer, and he makes it work. But for those of us who don’t have dozens of classics under our belts, this book can serve as an example: put some careful thought into how things are linked together.

I, Robot–Issac Asimov

And here we come to the shining example of how to do a frame story right. In my opinion, anyway–I have to admit I’m partial to Asimov, so I’m a bit biased. It also features one of my favourite characters in science fiction, robot psychologist Susan Calvin. This book is such a great example of a frame story that it doesn’t seem like a frame at all. It’s more like reading different chapters of the same book.
In fact, that’s kind of what it is. It’s a collection of Asimov’s robot stories, of course, but the collection as a whole is set up as a sort of history of robotics. Dr. Calvin is being interviewed by a reporter looking for the “human angle” in robotics, and she tells him a series of stories in loosely chronological order. The robots are the real characters in this book, and because we sympathize with them, we see how “human” they really are; this in turn tells us important things about ourselves. Which, as I’ve said before, is exactly what science fiction is about.

That’s all well and good, but why does the frame story work so well? Calvin is a peculiar character; she’s cold and generally emotionless, but is excitable in a certain way when she talks about or works with robots. She’s like them–she understands them. And because she’s the one telling the stories, we understand them better too. Her intent in telling these stories to the reporter is to give him a more accurate view of robots, rather than treating them like literal machines, and each of the stories in this collection dance around a similar issue. The frame story is carefully interwoven with the rest, so well that you wouldn’t think that it was written apart from them.

And that, I think, is the secret to writing a great frame story. You build the house so the rooms fit inside it, so to speak, not the other way around. The reader has to care about the frame as much as they do about the surrounding stories. It’s not just a convention, a tool for writers–it should be an integral part of the narrative as a whole.

But, that’s just my opinion. Like I said, I’ve never actually written a frame story before. I want to hear your ideas: what works (or doesn’t work) for you in a frame story?

Weaving a Tapestry: a Creative Experiment

I’ve talked before about my Tapestry project–a series of stories and novels, each based on a different facet of the Tarot. I’ve also spoken at length of how it’s fallen apart. For a while I considered abandoning the project (a fate that this story has suffered many times in the past decade), but I kept on it, mostly thanks to this blog (which keeps me accountable) and the Indie Writer’s Community (which inspires me to no end). But the fact remains that the project, sadly, has ground to a halt.

So I decided to try something radical to inject some much needed life into the project, something I’ve never done before: a pre-determined plot.

But not like you’d think. I didn’t want to just take a tired trope or formula and churn out a “well made story;” I still wanted something creative and true to the structure of the greater Tapestry project. So I went back to the Tarot.

Tarot is a wonderful tool for a writer (whether you believe in it or not) because essentially, all it does is tell stories. You draw cards randomly and arrange them in a pattern, then read them in a certain order while relating the disparate meanings of each card. The simplest spread is done in three cards: past, present, future. Or, in terms of storytelling, beginning, middle and end.

A simple three card spread

A simple three card spread

I’ll give an overview of this reading as an example. The Priestess represents spiritual growth and intuition, a “lifting of the veil” to find something innate; the Knight of Wands is direct, full of forward momentum, and has a tendency to burn out for all that energy; the Ten of Wands is a symbol of a great project that’s been very successful–almost too much so, as it’s now become so large it can only be sustained through immense effort. If this were the plot of a story, it would be of a protagonist who has great ambitions but ignores their intuition in favour of quick (even reckless) action. The result is that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. There’s a further layer in Tarot; in this spread, the Knight is clearly turning away from the Priestess, but the figure in the last card is working his way toward her, with the Knight “standing guard” in his way. He knows the project is too large, and wants to get back to the “core” of things–but his exuberance and demand for results is preventing any real progress.

It’s the beginning of a fascinating story, which brings me to my point. I wanted to kick start my creativity, so I decided to write four short stories (each based on a different element, the backbone of the “world” of my stories). I drew five Tarot spreads, one more than I needed so I had some leeway. Each spread is intended to be a vague outline of a story, which I’d explore from there.

I was excited to try this; after all, the rest of the project is steeped in Tarot symbolism, and one part of it will follow the “Fool’s Journey” laid out in the Major Arcana–why not try to develop a story from a spread of cards? It appeals to me because each spread is random–unique–and because it would be a challenge to fit my world and themes into whatever came up.

But–there’s the rub.

Has this experiment worked? Yes and no. It’s certainly got me to thinking about my world and characters again, which is great. On the other hand, I find I’m trying to shoehorn that world and its characters into the spreads that come up. To a certain extent, it feels inauthentic. Part of that can be explained with last week’s post about plot vs concept. I’m not sure much will come out of it in terms of actual writing. If I can develop these plots into concepts and further into fully fledged stories, this will have worked. But only then.

In the meantime, it’s an interesting project. I want to continue toying with them; the spreads I came up with all have their own personalities and stories, as Tarot spreads always do. The thing I love most about Tarot is that it makes so much sense when you string everything together. These cards are based on archetypes that exist for a reason–they’re buried in our collective unconscious, as Jung would say–and the interplay of various archetypes is what writing and storytelling is all about. You don’t even need to believe in divination to get some benefit from this–just enjoy the art and the tales the cards tell.

But–for those of you who, like myself, believe that Tarot can enunciate things you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have otherwise, this spread in particular spoke to me. It’s a clear allegory of what I’ve been going through with my Tapestry project as a whole: I have a great idea that speaks to me, burst out of the gate with dozens of ideas I wanted to implement immediately–then watched as it fell under its own weight. Of course, it’s only one in the five I drew. It’s quite an interesting coincidence, I’d say–though there are those who don’t believe in coincidence…

For those that are interested, the deck I used here is the Gilded Tarot by Barbara Moore with art by Ciro Marchetti, which is available at Amazon and many other vendors. It’s become my “go-to” deck because it’s based on the Rider-Waite (the ‘seminal’ Tarot deck) but with much better artwork. If you’re interested in Tarot, this is a good deck to start with, though I’d recommend getting a separate book to help you learn the cards; the one included with the deck is helpful, but not as thorough as others.

What’s in a Name?

by Alan O’Rourke, c/o Flikr

Holden Caulfield. Romeo, Desdemona and Falstaff. James Tiberius Kirk. There are certain names in fiction that just stand out. They become more than just a name; they share an identity with the character, add an air of personality of mystery, or even imply a metaphor that evokes a deeper meaning to the character. They’re crucial in good fiction–a good character name might computer a reader’s attention, but a great name will capture their imagination.

I was thinking this week about fellow Indie Writers, and the names they use for their characters. There are tons of great examples.
Ryan Casey’s main character in What We Saw is named Liam, a common enough name for its English setting. To a Canadian like myself, it was just different enough from what I’m used to that it stood out, even above the other very English characters. Liam is familiar, but sufficiently unique to be set apart from the others in the book–just as it should be for a main character.
Lindsay Buroker has a litany of great character names; Sicarius, Maldynado, Amaranthe and Basilard are really colourful names that each evoke their separate personalities. When you read the Emperor’s Edge books and first come across these characters, you get the impression that they couldn’t be named anything else.
In Brian Rathbone’s Call of the Herald, we come across Catrin Volker. It’s a name that seems common and ordinary–but there’s an almost thrumming power beneath it, and it’s just different enough from ‘Catherine’ that it sounds exotic; fitting for a fantasy novel set in a world like ours, but only just.
David Alastair Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess has some wonderfully exotic names that have a very Latin feel. There’s no doubt that the world of Pawan Kor is a fantastical one, but giving the names a Roman theme gives the book a firm military feel. In a way, the names are as much a part of the World Building than his description of how magic works.
Some of my favourite character names come from J.M. Ney-Grimm. Her books have a mythic Norse feel to them, and the names are evocative of that. Just like Hayden, her names are a part of the World Building. When you come across names like Sarvet, Elspeth, and Gefnen, you know what you’re getting into.

But why do these names work? I think the prime point is choosing a name that describes your character, to a point. Buroker’s Sicarius is a case in the point: Sicarius is Latin for Assassin, his role in the story. Yet that’s something that most readers wouldn’t know, or wouldn’t think to look up; it stands as a great name because even when a reader does figure it out, it only adds to the character. Caitrin is another good example–you can almost parse out her name and use it as a rough character sketch. She’s a common girl who’s rather suddenly (and unexpectedly) granted enormous power; Catrin is an unassuming name, but Volker sounds important, almost virile.

When I try to think of character names, I often start with a character sketch, and pick one or two words that sum up their personality, or their role in the story. One of my first major characters was Sojo (the “j” pronounced as a soft “y”). He was a nomad, never settling in one place–a sojourner. I think it’s a bit obvious now and have put him aside in favour of a new protagonist, Tobias Osir. Tobias is a character taken from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, where we walks with the Archangel Raphael in a spiritual journey–much like Osir will in Tapestry. Alkut (my main protagonist) and Ahbinzur (another protagonist) are taken from the Kabbalah; Malkuth is the Kingdom of Earth, the beginning of the spiritual journey where one is concerned more with worldly things than enlightenment. Binah is Understanding, or a special kind of insight. As represented by the Queen of Swords in the Tarot, Ahbinzur fits that bill pretty well.

But having a name that means something isn’t enough. It has to be catchy, memorable, and most of all, easy to pronounce. J. M. Ney-Grimm makes a good point:

It’s a good thing to keep in mind: if your reader can’t pronounce the name after seeing it a few times, chances are they’ll give up and gloss over it from then on–and this can cause them to distance from the character. Or, at the least, not to get as invested as they could have been. Even worse, a dedicated reader might stop and figure out how to pronounce it whenever they come across it; until they get it, they’re taking themselves out of the world of the book, and that’s a bane for a writer.

Most of the examples here are fantasy books, and there’s more leeway as mentioned above. But you don’t want to make them too exotic. Once again, if a reader can’t relate to the characters’ name, they’re not going to relate with the character–that goes for place names as well. A name should always be something at least vaguely recognizable, so there’s an inherent connection to the reader. George R. R. Martin is a master at this; almost all of his character names are subtle variations of names we’re familiar with–recognizable, but just different enough that we know he’s not writing in our world.

So where do you find names?

Scrivener has a name app built into the program; you give it a certain number of parameters, and it’ll cough out a bunch of names. As much as I love the program, I’ve personally never found this feature useful–but then, I like names that mean something, so Scrivener isn’t going to give me anything I’ll like anyway. J. M. Ney-Grimm suggests looking up lists of foreign names, and this can work well too. You’ll likely come up with something your reader isn’t familiar with, and that’s a name that will stick out. Just keep in mind that those names may be foreign to you, but they won’t be foreign to all readers.
I also like to use Google Translate and the Anagram Server at Wordsmith.org. If you want a certain cultural feel, Translate is great; pick a few choice words, punch them through to a different language, and play with the results. The Anagram Server is a bit less useful, as it will only give you real words–still, it can spur your creative juices. That’s where I came up with Ahbinzur (the “zur” is a suffix given to mages of a certain caste in my World).
Another great source, of course, are baby name books. There are scores of websites that give baby name lists, so I won’t even begin to list them here. For the same reasons noted above, this isn’t my favourite source, but it’s useful.

But in the end, there’s one overwhelming reason to choose one name over another, especially for your main characters: they have to be simple. They have to roll off the tongue, stick in your reader’s memory. You want a name, like those at the beginning of this article–not only memorable, but evocative of your story as a whole. If your character’s name can’t be separated from the story, your readers won’t forget either.

Next week, look for another Indie Writer Review–this time of David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame!

Pinterest: A Worthy Writer’s Tool?

Pinterest_FaviconRecently I mentioned that adding too much too soon to your story can cause it to collapse–as mine is in danger of doing. If you see this happening, it’s a good opportunity to step back, take stock, and find out what you really need to write. Roz Morris excellent blog post on how to correct this problem was an eye-opener for me, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last week. One of the ideas she suggests is to use Pinterest…so I thought we’d look at that briefly today.

If you’re not aware of Pinterest–and admittedly, though I’ve heard of it I never really looked into it until now–here it is in a nutshell: you find pictures you like on the internet, and “pin” them to a virtual corkboard. Once pinned, others can find you and re-pin what you’ve pinned, and you can pin their pins. The result is a board filled with images that are shared and shared again. When I first heard of it, I thought it sounded like most social media–useless to anyone who didn’t know how to use it properly. Further, what good would it be to an artist who works in words, not pictures? I never really bothered to explore it further than that.

But Pinterest does have one very important thing to offer writers: inspiration.

This is why Roz recommended it. You can start a Pinterest board and fill it with images related to the story of book you’re writing. Then, when you get stuck or go off track, you can go back to your board to see what inspired you about the story in the first place. It’s like a visual notebook where you can jot down ideas, feelings, and themes. For those of us who are visual learners–that’s me–this can be a great boon. Imagining a book in your head is one thing, but I’ve already found that compiling images that reflect that imagery can be inspiring.

Another way I can imagine Pinterest being helpful is in World Building, especially for speculative fiction. In fantasy, you need to create a comprehensive setting that is exciting and makes sense, and it can be challenging to keep things straight. This is one issue I keep having: I lay down a “rule” for my world (such as that the Elements produce magic), but keep tweaking it until it loses the effect I meant it to have. Or I describe an area as being a desert wasteland without considering how the relatively close major river seems incongruous. Finding pictures of the setting you want to convey can give you real-world analogues to keep your setting believable.
One thing I want to develop in a more concrete way is the varying species of dragons in my world. As the Elements create magic, so too do they infer magical beings, so I want each species of dragon to not only correspond with, but represent their Element. This has already been beneficial for me; in searching for pictures of salamanders, I found one (pinned to my board) of a spotted salamander that, if it were the size of a man, would make a formidable dragon. A salamander is a creature of fire–thus, a fire dragon.

One thing to be aware of, I think, is the difference between Inspiration and plain Stealing an Idea. This can be a dangerous line to walk on Pinterest, where it’s easy to just click “pin” on anything that catches your fancy across the internet, without caring where it came from. If a certain picture serves too well as the basis of some creative idea in your story, it’s not really yours. If I take the picture of the spotted salamander and use it as my cover image, I’m stealing it. If someone draws a picture of a water dragon and I describe it too closely in my book, I’m stealing someone’s idea. I think you’d have to be careful about where you draw the line.

Using Pinterest is easy. You set up an account through Facebook or Twitter, then start new boards for whatever topics you like. My first board is four The Courts–the four stories that make up Phase One of my Tapestry Project. I may divide them into four separate boards, one for each story, but this serves for now.
Then just go searching. You can search Pinterest for whatever you like, and each picture that comes up has a Pin button on it. Pin it and it’s in your board, where others can see it as well. You can also pin images from anywhere on the Internet–there’s an option to add a “Pin It” button to your browser. I put it on the toolbar right below the address bar on Firefox, so it’s right there.Any time you pin an image, you can choose which board it goes to, and add a caption.

Like any social media service, people can also follow you, so they can see all your boards as they’re updated. For some baffling reason, I got 50 followers within an hour of setting up my account. I can’t say I know how this works, or how I can turn it back on my writing–but the point is that you can create a community. And that community can help build your author platform.

There are a lot of writers out there who swear by Pinterest. Here’s a few articles about it for further reading–and it’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, is Pinterest worth it for writers? Truth be told, I’m not sure yet. I’m still experimenting with it, but so far it’s been…interesting. I think the biggest challenge for a writer is, as Roz points out in her article, using it. It can be tempting to just browse for pictures–I got lost in this yesterday–and forget why you started this in the first place. But if you’re diligent and this kind of “imaging” is something you enjoy/get use out of, then by all means, check it out. You might be pleasantly surprised.

At the very least, you’ll gleefully waste an afternoon looking at pictures of food and crafts.

What do you think about Pinterest for Writers? Is it useful, or just a distraction? Do you have a Pinterest board? I want to hear your comments and see your links!

How to Make the Time

Time goes by so fast by JanetR3, c/o Flikr

A while back, I posted about how we give ourselves permission to procrastinate, and that the excuse of “I don’t have enough time” is a thin one. The moral: you won’t have the time until you make the time. So I thought it would be nice to follow up today with how you can do just that.

I used to be a House Manager at a live theatre company–essentially, my job was to make sure our patrons were safe and comfortable before the show and during intermission. A large part of it was customer service–but really, the job was all about time management. It was important to learn how to manage my time so that less important things–like making sure the doors are unlocked–don’t take away from time spent on issues like getting change to the bar, resolving seating issues, and heaven forbid, medical emergencies.

Time Management isn’t just about hitting your deadlines or making sure you have time to complete projects. It’s about making the most use out of the time you have, identifying what you don’t have time for, and knowing what’s most important to get done right now.

And all of this relates to writing just as well as it does House Management, or any other job. Let’s address it in a few simple points:

Prioritization

This is the big one. If you’re focusing on the little things, you’ll never get good at time management. It’s as simple as not knowing where your energies need to go–if you spend all your time on something that doesn’t matter in the larger picture, you’ll find yourself running out of time to complete the big projects. It sounds pretty straight forward, but I’ve found that it takes practice. Most of the time, it’s easy to tell what should get your attention first–but sometimes, it’ll surprise you.

For example, you might think that designing a cover for that book you just started is a long ways off. You still have edits, revisions, formatting. The book cover is the last detail you want to think about when you’re in the middle of your first draft. But really, it’s a crucial thing to think about early on, maybe even before you start writing. The cover is how people are going to find your book, especially when they’re shopping online. You also need to think about branding; your books should all have a similar ‘feel’ to them, so it’s easy for readers to make the connection between your works. If not, it’s easy for them to pass your other books by.

Allocation

Prioritization is how you order your task list; Allocation is how divide that time between tasks. Another common mistake in time management is allocating too much time to a relatively unimportant project, and too much time to something else. I’m really bad at this when it comes to a specific example: research. I love researching things, to the point where I’ll research a topic just for the fun of it with no end result in mind. But when I have a particular story to write, I can get tied up in research enough that I use up time I could have otherwise spent writing–and that’s when I start missing deadlines.

Case in point: I thought it would be interesting for the system of magic in my Tapestry Project to make use of foci. A Mage uses magic by manipulating one of the four elements, but if he has a focus attuned to that element, the magic is more potent. I want to use particular gemstones as foci, and started doing some research into it–and wasted all the time I’d set aside for a couple days. All for a nice bit of “flavour” that ultimately doesn’t have a large impact on the plot. I could have stopped my research short and gone back to it later, and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The fallacy of allocation is that every part of your project is important–it’s just that some things are more important than others. Research is crucial for a good book, but you need to make time for other things too. Finding that balance can take practice as well, but ultimately, the most important thing is that you write. That should always be your priority, and the majority of your time and effort  should be spent on it.

Organization

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it’s really very important. If you’re not organized, you’ll have trouble getting out of the gate. Fortunately, it’s simple to get on the right track–just utilize your resources and play to your strengths.

I’m a “project” guy. I work best when I have a clear goal in mind, and I’m able to set out specific tasks that lead toward that goal. Checklists work wonders for me; as I complete tasks and mark them off my list, I have a real sense of accomplishment which propels me forward. Others may prefer to have a vague outline of what their end game looks like, and work toward it in an organic way. There’s no right answer here, as long as you’re organized. There’s a lot of software out there for this, everything from email clients and electronic calendars to synchronization software and memo pads. Much of it is free. Investigate what you think will work best, try it out, and use it.

Goals and Intent

Again, it might go without saying, but if you don’t have an idea of where you’re going to end up, you won’t have much luck getting there in any timely fashion.  You have to start somewhere, but you have to have a destination in mind as well.

The trick here, I find, is to have several very specific goals instead of one vague one. “I want to publish a novel” isn’t going to help you, because there’s so much work that goes into it. “I want to write X number of words each day” is a much better goal because it’s attainable, and it’s measurable. Also–and this is important–it’s something you can change day to day. Having a goal is great, but having a flexible goal is better. Sometimes life happens, and you can’t reach your destination when you thought you could–but that doesn’t mean it can’t change tomorrow.

Intent is also very important. You want to be clear about what you want to achieve; not just what your goal are, but why your goals are as they are. You want to write 5000 words by the end of the week? Fine. Why 5000 words? Why a week? What will you do when you get there, whether you can meet that goal or not? Being clear on the intent behind your goals will help you work towards them because it’s no longer arbitrary, it’s tangible.

 

Time Management is a big subject, and I won’t pretend to have covered it all here. I’d like to elaborate on this post eventually, with some tips about managing your time–but in all honestly, I’m out of it for this week! We’ll see you Wednesday!

How to be (in)Visible

Social, by JD Hancock c/o Flikr.

One of the greatest challenges facing an indie author is visibility. Simply put, if nobody out there knows you’re writing, nobody our there will be reading. So how do you become visible?

This is something I’ve been struggling with since I started this journey. I’m by nature a shy person, and I’m not comfortable asking people to buy or try my stuff. I tell myself that I don’t like “imposing myself on others.” This is something I’m slowly getting over, but it’s been a challenge to say the least.

When I started self-publishing, I figured that a few good words and some solid stories would sell themselves; I didn’t care if it took a bit longer, I just thought that it would eventually steamroll under its own power. This, I’ve since learned, is one of the cardinal sins of self-publishing: never assume that your work will sell itself. The biggest reason for this, again, is that nobody knows you’re out there. Even with a lot of concentrated networking and shilling, it can be a challenge to get a large audience; why would they appear out of thin air? This is the best way to become invisible to your market: hope it takes care of itself.

But there are some relatively simple actions you can take to increase your visibility. Here’s three, and they don’t take that much more effort than doing nothing:

Twitter

Social Media is the big one. You should at least have a twitter account: here’s mine. When I started publishing, I had about 40 followers, because nobody except friends and family knew I was on twitter. I still have less than 100, but it’s growing; I’ve hovered around 85 for about a month. I want to grow my twitter audience, because they’re an easy way to distribute information–but the trick is being relevant. Use hashtags, talk about things other writers talk about, and be active. And by active, i don’t just mean tweeting a lot; I mean starting and participating in conversations on twitter. If people know you’re putting some effort into it, they’ll listen.

A few weeks ago, I found myself without a lot of time to catch up on twitter. I’d go a full day before checking twitter or tweeting myself. And I noticed a steady drop off on followers. People were checking their own twitter streams, realizing I wasn’t saying much, and taking me off their lists to make room for others. But as soon as i tweeted a couple useful links or started a conversation, my followers grew. And the more you have, the larger your audience and the more potential for further growth. Ryan Casey has a great post on how to properly use twitter.

Networking

Which leads into the next point: networking. I used to be very bad at this–like I said, shy guy. But in my new job, networking is essential, and I’m learning how to make effective and useful connections. Networking in the indie community is no different–and actually a bit easier.

The thing about networking is that people want to share their experience. They want to help you out, and they want you to help them in return. In the indie writing community especially, people out there are chomping at the bit to make you the best writer you can be–and it’s only fair to give back.

The first thing any indie writer should do is start creating a network of friends–fellow writers–who can help. You shouldn’t actively ask them to promote your work or teach you how to edit; that will come naturally if you cultivate the relationship. But even just a few people will help you immensely. They’ll give you writing advice. They’ll re-tweet your tweets. They’ll link to your blog. And in all likelihood, they’ve got a larger platform than you right now: everything they share of yours is going directly to their audience. And that audience, properly cultivated, can also become yours.

That’s the great thing about the indie community: there’s no finite market. Writers aren’t competing with each other as much as they seem to in the “professional” world. My readers can be yours as well, and that overlap is far from harmful (as thought in some capitalistic ventures); it’s actually helpful. Because it all helps spread the word of what the indie writer’s community is doing: revolutionizing the publishing industry.

How do you get a network? I started by following people on twitter whose work I enjoyed reading. Get in touch with the author, tell them you like their book. Ask them questions. Talk to them about things other than writing. My own network is small so far–I’m only just cluing into all these tips–but it’s growing. And the larger the network, the more people who are out there to help you when you need support, encouragement, or advice.

Outside Promotion

This one was scary for me. Not to beat a dead horse, but I don’t like asking people for things. It makes me uncomfortable to thing I’m requesting a favor, or asking them to do something they may not want to do. But you know what? It’s not that hard. And most people in this community are not only willing to help promote your work, they’re eager to do it.

That’s not to say you should spam indie writers with requests until someone complies. That’ll get you blacklisted. But there are a few simple places to start.

One I’d recommend is The Book Designer, by Joel Friedlander. He’s a designer, but has tons of useful information about self publishing. He also runs two monthly features that help writers promote: the eBook Cover Awards and the Carnival of the Indies. There’s no cash prizes or anything like that–this is much more valuable. Joel has over 17,000 followers on twitter, and I can imagine there’s many more who frequently read his blog; and when you’re in one of these features, your name (and blog) are sent out to all of them. I’ve been featured in both this month, and have experienced a significant amount of traffic because of it. Definitely check it out.

There’s also a Round of Words in 80 Days. I talk about them often, so I won’t go into length here: just follow the link if you’re interested. Suffice it to say, it’s your own community within the writer’s community, which helps people set and achieve writing goals. If you sign up, you’ll be invited to post a link to your check in blogs twice a week, and these links are promoted to others in the collective. It’s win-win.

The last thing I’ll mention about outside promotion is that if you give, people will give back. I’ve noticed that when I re-tweet someone’s book link or blog post, they’ll often re-tweet that to their followers–which means that all their followers can now see me. Share and share alike; that’s how this community works. It feeds upon itself, but isn’t diminished by that–it’s made stronger.

Now, of course, the next step for me is to translate this growth into sales. I haven’t had the chance to update my site to include links to my books–which is really a glaring oversight. I’ll get on that soon. In the meantime, my platform is growing, and now that I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve, it’ll keep growing at a decent pace. And really, it wasn’t that difficult to start.

Do you have any tips and tricks about increasing your visibility? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

 

Organization Woes, OneNote, and ROW80

I’m a writer of short stories. This is something that’s starting to become apparent as I work my way through my Tapestry Project–writing an extended series is a much different thing. It will be, effectively, an epic length novel by the time it’s finished–and a novel has very different considerations than a group of short stories.

We won’t get into that today–I want to share, as part of my ROW80 update, what has helped me get back on track. As I mentioned Monday, I’ve been having trouble with some of the basic plotting of my project, in particular what the characters will be doing. So I sat down and did some careful organization–and I used a new (to me) Writer’s Tool called OneNote.

OneNote is a Microsoft product bundled with their Office Suite. It’s basically note taking software; you can make notes,add images, sound or video, organize it into separate workbooks, and generally keep everything tidy. It’s a one stop shop for all your notes and research.

Now, I know I’ve talked about Scrivener and it’s organizational qualities, and they’re great–but OneNote is something I’ve wanted to try for a while, and now that I have, I’m loving it. It’s easy to use and does exactly what I need it to do. The only trouble I’m having is synchronizing it between computers–but I’m troubleshooting that.

Anyway, this program has helped me get back on track. My update on Monday showed I haven’t moved very far in the project, and I’m afdraid I can’t extend that progress–at least not in word count. But, I’ve been able to set down what I want, and some deadlines as to how I’ll get there.

OneNote 2

Deadlines

As you can see (click on the image to enlarge), this is a very long term project. I based these timelines on the ROW80 schedule; this first round I’m participating in will encompass Phase One; I’ll tackle Phase Two over the next couple rounds, and Phase Three will probably take two rounds in itself. All in all, I don’t expect to finish the project by at least 2014.

That seems like a long time away, but I like giving myself the extra time. Realistically, I may be able to write parts of it much faster–but keeping a schedule like this will keep me on track, and allow me to see when i’m dropping behind. It should be interesting to see how I keep up with it.

(Incidentally, you’ll see I was also doodling on this tab in OneNote; the program has a drawing toolbar like Word, though I had to use a paint program to fill in the lines and dots and such. I’ll get into this symbol another time; suffice it to say it’s an Occult Glyph that the Hierophantic Caste uses, and that its meaning will be explored across the project as a whole. Meanwhile, I’ll promise a free copy of the entire project to the first person who can decode it in the comments below…if you can!)

OneNote is great for all sorts of things. The ability to insert check boxes made drawing up that schedule pretty easy. The big thing I like about this program, though, is that you can write anywhere on the page–just point your cursor and start typing, and it’ll put your text into a separate box. You can then pull this box around the page, fitting it wherever you like. That proved helpful in the page you see to the right.

OneNote 1

My plotting of Phase One

This is a Plotting Diagram for Phase One. As I’ve explained, Phase One will contain four stories of four scenes each; putting each story into it’s own block allows me to move them around

as I decide which will come first. My original order was Court of Sand, Court of Rain, Court of Sylphs, and Court of Tinder; comparing all of these together makes me wonder if I should switch Rain with Sylphs.

I’m a very visual person when it comes to organizing, so being able to basically shuffle index cards and move them around was very helpful for me. And I use that metaphor intentionally; one of the highlights of Scrivener is the use of Index Cards on the corkboard, which would can move around as you please. The difference is that in Scrivener you can only change the order–you can’t place a card wherever you want. In OneNote, you can put one card on top of another, move it off to the side, or move it completely off the page (as I did with my scene by scene synopsis in the picture here; I didn’t want to give you any spoilers!)

So this is how I’ve spent the last few days working on my Tapestry project. No, I don’t have a word count to offer for ROW80 this week–I wanted to, but didn’t make the time. However, all of this planning and finagling has helped me achieve something very valuable: I know have a very concrete idea of where I want this story to do, how my characters should act, and how long it will take me. I feel like I’ve painted lines on the road and am ready to barrel down the highway–remembering of course that in writing, it’s occasionally encouraged to go off the rails.

Lastly, you’ll notice a change in the theme I’m using for this blog. I got tired of the ragged page looking one, and wanted a bit of colour. I haven’t settled on this theme, and migth play with a few others over the next while–tell me what you think in the comments!

~J

Research

The best days are not planned

The best days are not planned by Marcus Hansson via Flikr

I was going to use today’s post to talk about cover design, but I haven’t had time to do any work on my own cover this week. So we’ll save that for Monday.

Instead, I want to touch on one of my favorite parts of writing: research. Here’s five important notes about doing research effectively:

1. Sources

This is the big one. To do effective research, you need effective sources–and you need to be discretionary when you select them. For starters, don’t rely on Wikipedia.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great resource–but it’s not a reliable source. Wikipedia is edited by the general public. While most of the time people will have a vested interest in their contributions–and thus are reasonably accurate–there’s no way for you to know how reliable the contributor is. Maybe they think they know a lot more than they do, or maybe they don’t have an objective viewpoint (see below). Maybe they’re outright lying–there are tons of people who vandalize Wikipedia pages. It’s a great place to start, but you shouldn’t stop your research there.

Instead, you should look for Primary or Secondary sources. A Primary source is an original material, an eyewitness account, or something that was written as an event occurred. For example, if you’re researching Ancient Greek Philosophy, you should be reading Plato and Aristotle’s original works. Quite literally, you go to the source of the topic. This is where you’ll find the most accurate and relevant information.

Then, follow up with your secondary sources. These are commentaries on primary sources. A book written by a philosophy professor discussing the subtext of Plato’s Timaeus, for example. These are valuable sources as well, because they involve interpretation and opinions of the topic in question, and can give you a deeper understanding of the topic. Most of the time, you’ll find many more secondary sources than primary ones, though the primary sources are generally more important.

2.Follow the Leads

This is my favorite part of research. You read your primary source, and the author cites another work–so you look it up. You read that work, and it references another primary source you hadn’t considered. That source mentions your primary source as well, but looks at it from a different angle. Put all three together, and you get a comprehensive “three dimensional” picture of your topic.

Following the lead of a topic can be thrilling. It’s like a treasure hunt. Sources have a way of revealing secrets, or teasing you with ideas that never occurred to you before. It may be that in following the leads in a source, you find a completely different topic that fills a hole or answers a question. Or sometimes the leads go nowhere, and you learn nothing you need to know for your writing. But it’s still a fun trip.

A great example comes from University. I was researching my favorite Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus, for a paper about the cycle of revenge as presented in the play. For those who don’t know the story, there’s a character named Aaron, who has a baby son; Aaron is captured and executed, but not before his rival Lucius swears to bring up the baby as if it were his own. This is a typical Shakespearean resolution for a protagonist, and completes the cycle of violence.

All very well and good. But in researching, I read a throw-away comment about the BBC Television production of Titus, in which Lucius kills the child anyway. Now it’s a completely different play. I watched the BBC video, and ended up writing a completely different paper, theorizing that this ending makes more sense in the context of Shakespeare’s Senecan influences…but that’s a long story. Suffice it to say, following the lead was the best thing I could have done for that paper.

3. Citation and Credit

This is an easy one. Don’t steal someone else’s work. Even worse is to pretend that you came up with the idea on your own. At best, you’ll draw the ire of the original author; at worst, you’ll be accused of plagiarism. Always reference your sources.

For fiction, this is a bit more relaxed. In a non-fiction book there are specific protocols for citation; in fiction, you don’t need to bother with footnotes and indices. But you should mention your research in a forward or acknowledgements section. Or you could include a “further reading” section which mentioned that these were the books you found helpful in researching your work. You could even give a metaphorical nod by dropping the author’s name in the book itself. Just make sure to give credit where credit’s due.

4. Objectivity and Facets

Another important thing about research is casting a wide net. Don’t go to just one Primary Source (although sometimes there is only one). Read as much as you can from different sources and authors–especially if they have conflicting viewpoints.

That may seem counter productive. Why would you want to read something that’s the opposite of what you read last week? That’ll only confuse you, right? Wrong. What it will do is give you some breathing space, an excuse to step back and come up with your own conclusions about what you’ve read.

If you read three books that claim Mars once had salty oceans and can only find one book that says it was as dry in the past as it is now, you’ve learned two very important things: that the “dry hypothesis” is no longer accepted, or is in the scientific fringe, and that someone out there has a reason to believe the scientific consensus is wrong. Then you ask why that person thinks it’s wrong, and suddenly you have a much more vibrant picture of your topic than you had before.

If everyone agrees on every facet of your topic, it’s not very interesting. Facts are facts, but they don’t paint a picture. You want to find the disagreements; these will lead you to more questions which will breathe life into the topic.

Objectivity is very important here, though. The person who wrote that Mars has always been dry? Maybe he’s writing for a right wing newsletter who believes that the space program is a waste of taxpayer money and wants to dissuade people from finding a reason to go to Mars. If someone writes a scathing attack on a scientific idea without providing any evidence of their own, maybe they have a vested interest in protecting their religious beliefs. (See Dawin vs Creationism…which we will not get into here).

It doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong in these instances; what matters is why they’re writing what they’re writing. If they’re not being objective, it’s probably not a good source.

5.Fact vs Opinion

Which leads into fact vs opinion. When you’re researching, you almost always want to exclusively look for facts. Opinions are fine, but they change from person to person; if you base your research on someone’s specific opinion, it won’t be believable.

This is a can of worms, though, and you have to be careful. Many people will pass off their opinion as fact, and get up in arms if you challenge it. It’s something you really just need to get a feel for, and a lot of it has to do with the objectivity of the author. The bottom line is that your research needs a solid foundation, and you can’t build that on a series of ideas that differ from person to person.

But that’s just my opinion.

How do you do your research? Do you focus on it a lot, or just do enough that you can write comfortably about your topic? Tell us about your research in the comments!