Happy Summer Solstice!

Photo credit: Salix alba at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Welcome to summer and the longest day of the year…at least in the Northern Hemisphere.

To readers in the Southern Hemisphere, sorry, this is your shortest day but, from now on, the days will grow longer, honest.

To folks who live in the far north, summer solstice is especially appreciated after long, dark winter days. Today, at my Montana home, latitude 48 north, the sun rises at 5:37 a.m. and sets at 9:41 p.m. But dawn can be seen coming for almost an hour before then and twilight lingers until around 11 p.m.

At latitude 64.8 north, Fairbanks, Alaska enjoys almost 24 hours of sun today. Here’s time-lapse video:

 

For TKZ’s crime dogs who are also star-gazers, five planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—are currently lined up across the sky like train cars with the moon as the caboose. According to Space.com, the last time this type of alignment occurred was March 5, 1864.

The Farmer’s Almanac offers these tidbits from history and how different cultures celebrated summer solstice.

  • In Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice coincided with the rising of the Nile River. As it was crucial to predict this annual flooding, the Egyptian New Year began at this important solstice.

  • In centuries past, the Irish would cut hazel branches on solstice eve to be used in searching for gold, water, and precious jewels.

  • Many European cultures hold what are known as Midsummer celebrations at the solstice, which include gatherings at Stonehenge and the lighting of bonfires on hilltops.

Here’s a fun quiz about the summer solstice, also from the Farmers Almanac. Feel free to share your score in the comment section.

In the early 1960s, archeoastronomer Gerald Hawkins was the first to theorize that Stonehenge (built somewhere between 2950 – 1600 B.C.) was a giant astronomical calendar that tracked movements of the sun and moon. According to Wikipedia:

He fed the positions of standing stones and other features at Stonehenge into an early IBM 7090 computer and used the mainframe to model sun and moon movements. In his 1965 book, Stonehenge Decoded, Hawkins argued that the various features at the monument were arranged in such a way as to predict a variety of astronomical events.

From the center, the observer can see the summer solstice sun rising and setting in exact alignment between the monolithic stones.

Photo credit: By simonwakefield – https://www.flickr.com/photos/simonwakefield/3149066878/ (cache of original license), CC BY 2.0,

While rabbit-holing, I ran across a site called Spiritual Gangster, which sounded appropriate for crime writers and readers. Here’s an excerpt about setting summer intentions:

The Summer solstice is an energetically charged day and an important one to set intentions. Direct your intentions on the themes of this phase, which are patience, nourishment and trust. Create powerful “I am” statements that reflect these qualities and the development of them. Include “reception” statements that open you up to receiving the energies available on this day. Examples are; “I am open to receiving nourishment and growth” or “I am able to receive the energy needed to develop trust in my life.” Set your intentions and continually remind yourself of them all summer long. 

The longest day of the year is a good opportunity to review New Year’s resolutions you may have made in January and assess how well you’ve achieved them (or not!).

Remember that solemn vow to write XXX words or pages each day?

Or submit to XX agents?

Or organize your writing space?

Or finish that #%&$ manuscript languishing on your hard drive?

Or send your First Page to TKZ for critique? Here, I’ll make it easy for you with this link. We’re waiting—don’t make us come and get it! 

Who cares if you didn’t check off resolutions in the first half of 2022? You still have six months to nail goals you want to accomplish.

June 21 is the longest day of the year. Grab your hazel branch, set a bonfire, and dance like a Druid. Make the most of that additional daylight and score some extra words.

Happy Summer!

~~~

TKZers: Do you take stock of your writing/reading goals at the year’s midpoint? How are you doing?

Do you celebrate the first day of summer? Favorite activities and traditions?

 

Are You Anxious or Eager?

Photo credit Pisit Heng, Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

We wordsmiths know that language changes over time. Words often veer far away from their original definition and usage.

Take, for instance, the adjective ANXIOUS. Anxious is an old word, originally coined in about 1548 that (according to Google’s dictionary) means:

1. experiencing worry, unease, or nervousness, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.“she was extremely anxious about her exams”

2. wanting something very much, typically with a feeling of unease.”the company was anxious to avoid any trouble”

However, consider the following examples heard in current everyday speech:

“She’s anxious to reunite with her childhood sweetheart.”

“He’s anxious for his first book to be released.”

“She’s anxious to wear her new jeans.”

The implication is the subjects can’t wait for these occurrences to happen because they are generally considered happy, exciting events.

That made me wonder if EAGER is a more accurate word to describe the above feelings.

So I checked with Merriam-Webster. That source adds a third definition that reflects the increasingly common usage in today’s speech:

  1. ardently or earnestly wishing.

Merriam-Webster goes into a deeper discussion:

Choose the Right Synonym for anxious

EAGERAVIDKEENANXIOUSATHIRST mean moved by a strong and urgent desire or interest. EAGER implies ardor and enthusiasm and sometimes impatience at delay or restraint.  eager to get started  AVID adds to EAGER the implication of insatiability or greed.  avid for new thrills  KEEN suggests intensity of interest and quick responsiveness in action.  keen on the latest fashions  ANXIOUS emphasizes fear of frustration or failure or disappointment.  anxious not to make a social blunder  ATHIRST stresses yearning but not necessarily readiness for action.  athirst for adventure

Can anxious Be Used as a Synonym for eager?

The fact that individual words can have multiple senses that are closely related in meaning is something which many people find objectionable about the English language. Anxious is an example of such a word, as people will use it to mean “worried,” “eager (but with an undertone of worry),” and simply “eager.”

Here are a few more examples of words whose meaning has changed over time:

AWESOME – originally, it meant inspiring awe. Now the word is overused as a superlative compliment for any and everything great: “That sushi is just awesome, dude.”

Which leads to…

Public Domain

DUDE – Merriam-Webster’s definition:

1 : a man extremely fastidious in dress and manner : dandy. 2 : a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range (see range entry 1 sense 3b) especially : an Easterner in the West.

Yet in the past several decades, how often have you heard dude used in that context? Probably not too frequently since surfer and “bro” culture co-opted the term. Now it’s mostly a casual greeting: “Whassup, dude?” Or dude is a noun that refers to a guy.

Which leads to…

GUY – This word has an interesting, violent history. Guy originally referred to Guy Fawkes, a British terrorist. In 1605, Guy and several co-conspirators tried to blow up Parliament with gunpowder. He was sentenced to be hanged and drawn and quartered but, on the way to the noose, he either fell or jumped, breaking his neck. November 5 is still celebrated as a holiday with fireworks and bonfires. Guy is an eponym, meaning a word that is believed to be named for a person or event.

Originally it referred to males, e.g. “He’s a nice guy.”

Nowadays, it’s used collectively—“You guys are an awesome audience!”—inclusive of men and women, adults and kids.

Which leads to…

Photo credit: Pinoydiscus CC BY-SA 3.0

KID – My third-grade teacher Miss Parker didn’t approve when we referred to ourselves as kids. She always corrected us, saying, “A kid is a baby goat.” Ultimately, she lost that battle because Merriam-Webster now lists the first definition as: “a young person, especially a child;” followed by the second definition of “a young goat.”

Which leads to…

Muhammad Ali CC BY-SA 3.0

 

OLD GOAT – an insulting way to refer to an old man, goat has evolved into an acronym especially popular in sports: G.O.A.T.Greatest Of All Time.

 

 

 

TKZ word geeks, let’s open the discussion.

As a writer, do you feel anxious or eager when words evolve and change meaning over time?

Please share examples you’ve noticed lately. Do they annoy you? Or do you appreciate the fresh variation?

~~~

 When the law prevents justice…When DNA isn’t proof…When a lie is the truth.

Please check out Debbie Burke’s new release, Until Proven Guilty. Available on Kindle, Nook, Apple Books, and online booksellers at this link.

The Writer’s Voice

By Elaine Viets

We talk a lot about the writer’s voice, and how we develop our own.
But some readers want more than the writer’s voice on the page. They want to hear the writer’s actual voice.
They want to know what this author sounds like. Is their voice high and reedy, low and sexy, gruff, educated, or sweetened with a soft Southern accent?
When writers read their own work for audio, we readers hear their voice in our head every time we pick up their book. It changes the book: now the writers are speaking directly to us.
Their writing becomes more personal, more intimate.
We expect entertainers to be good at reading their own books for audio, and most are. Listen to Tina Fey read her book, “Bossypants.” Trevor Noah is terrific reading his “Born a Crime.”
And hearing Maya Angelou read her poem, “Still I Rise” brought tears to my eyes.

But what about ordinary writers? Should we read our own work?
Some years ago, I read my first four Francesca Vierling mysteries for audio. It was hard work. I was exhausted when I finished each day. I read my mysteries in the studio for six to eight hours a day.
Want to know what it’s like to read an audio book?
Okay, read this blog out loud, down to this line – without a single stumble, pause or mispronunciation. Go ahead. I’ll wait for you.
Start reading now. In three. Two. One.

Difficult, isn’t it? Every time you make a mistake, the producer has to stop the recording, back up, and have you start again.
I decided to read my first four mysteries because I’d had speech lessons in New York. To get ready for the studio, I went into training. I printed out the books in manuscript form and read from them several hours a day, to be familiar with the words. I outlined each character’s part with a special colored pencil, so I could change my voice at the right time.
I wrote notes at the top of the pages to remind myself. Mostly, SLOW DOWN!!!!
Finally, I thought I was ready. I flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico to begin reading in the studio. Santa Fe is a much drier climate than I’m used to, and my throat quickly turned scratchy. Now I sympathized with singers who babied their throats.
I had a patient producer and the reading went fairly smoothly. I followed the advice of some pros and drank warm water with lemon. No sugar, no tea, just warm water and lemon. I swilled gallons of the stuff. After a while, my mouth puckered when I even saw a lemon.

When I finished, I needed to put my tongue in a sling. My sore, scratchy throat took weeks to recover.
I was lucky to get kind reviews for my work, but when it came time to read my other mysteries, I left that to the pros. Tanya Eby and Amanda Stribling read many of my books now. Why did I stop reading my work?
Because I was good, but not quite good enough. And I wanted the best for my work.
So what about you? Have you read your own work for audio? Do you have a favorite audio reader?

Listen to my audio books free during your 30 trial with audible.com. Listen to my Dead-End Job mysteries, Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mysteries, and the Angela Richman Death Investigator mysteries. https://www.audible.com/author/Elaine-Viets/B001HD2WX2

How to Earn Short-Term Rewards During the Long Haul

Author Debbie Burke and Buffy

No, this picture is not Photoshopped clickbait. It’s me and a real bear. Details below. 

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

In your real-world job, would you be willing to work for two or more years before receiving a paycheck? Probably not.

Yet, as authors writing books, that’s exactly what we do.

Writing a novel is often likened to a marathon. It takes months, if not years, to complete a book. Traditional publishing tacks on another one or two years before you see your book for sale. Indie-pubbing speeds up the process but it still doesn’t happen overnight.

Thirty-plus years ago, I was stuck in the endless loop of writing novels, submitting them, and being rejected. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Because fiction was my passion, I didn’t really consider writing nonfiction until a couple of journalist friends offered their help and encouragement. I dipped my toe into article writing and made the happy discovery that nonfiction was much easier to publish than fiction (not to mention it paid better).

At last, I had the satisfaction of seeing my words in print.

One magazine gig led to another. As my file of published clips expanded, editors began to call me. Article assignments took a little sting out of the rejections that my novels continued to collect.

Many more years would pass before I reached the ultimate reward of a published novel but, along the way, articles were small consolation prizes. They encouraged me to keep moving toward my goal.

My journalist friends taught me another neat trick—take the same article but re-slant it for different markets. Do research once and get paid several times.

For instance, a story about how to run a successful garage sale could be pitched to community newsletters, antique/collectible magazines, and senior-interest markets as tips for retirees to earn extra money.

An article about gold mines might fit in a travel magazine, a state historic journal, and a niche publication for hobbyist prospectors.

Often, during research, I ran across interesting people and wrote personality profiles about them.

One in particular led to a number of offshoot articles plus a memorable experience with the stunning bear in the above photo.

At the Flathead River Writers Conference in the 1990s, I met Ben Mikaelsen, a kid-lit author who had his own bear. Buffy had been a research cub that couldn’t survive in the wild. To save him from being euthanized, Ben adopted him. Life with Buffy inspired Ben’s award-winning novel Rescue Josh McGuire and several other books.

Side note: Ben does not advocate keeping wild animals as pets. He went to great effort and expense to build a suitable home for Buffy that was approved by state and federal authorities.

The unique friendship between an author and a bear was a story idea that begged to be written. Ben graciously invited me to his home near Bozeman, Montana, for an interview and to meet Buffy

Yes, that really is me feeding Wheat Thins to the 700-pound black bear. Fun fact: He didn’t use his teeth or tongue to take the treat but rather his prehensile lower lip, similar to an elephant’s trunk. I watched in awe as his bottom lip gently folded around the cracker in my hand.

The amazing encounter resulted in multiple articles that were published in Writer’s Digest (including a reprint in their annual children’s writing guide), several Montana general interest magazines, and international nature and wildlife magazines.

This experience was definitely not a consolation prize but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I’ll always be grateful.

Back to the marathon. While I wondered if I’d EVER have a novel accepted, articles were like short sprints where the rewards of publication and payment were only months away rather than years. Those helped sustain me through decades of discouragement.

In addition, writing nonfiction helped hone my craft.

Here are a few things I learned:

Write concisely and clearly. If an editor said 500 words, that’s what has to be turned in.

Choose what’s necessary and what should be cut. No matter how fascinating the research might be, it can’t all be crammed into the allotted space.

Always meet deadlines.  

Most important, I learned about storytelling and pacing to keep the reader engaged.

The 21st century changed the market for short nonfiction from print to online. As the internet expanded, magazines went out of business.

Nowadays my articles are mostly digital content. Fewer trees give their lives. I no longer have to buy sample print copies to study magazines’ style and focus. Finding outlets to write for is as easy as asking Mr. Google.

The downside is online markets often pay little to nothing because there is so much free content on the net. To make significant money, one needs to find particular niches that pay for specialized content.

However, there’s a different kind of reward: Publication is fast. As soon as authors hit submit, their writing is available to an audience of millions. 

On top of that comes the gratification of immediate feedback. I really enjoy reader comments on my posts for TKZ.

Steve Hooley recently asked me if research for an article had even sparked an idea for a novel. Not yet. But the research I do for articles often finds its way into my plots.

The second book in my series, Stalking Midas, concerns elder fraud. I attended seminars presented by local and state watchdogs to learn about that growing, insidious crime. Unfortunately, research turned personal when my adopted mother was victimized by a caregiver. Her experience became a True Crime Thursday post.

Several newspapers published my elder fraud article. It also formed the basis for a talk that I give to senior groups. Additionally, I revamped parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate what I’d learned.

I started writing articles to counteract discouragement during the long marathon of trying to get novels published. Articles became short sprints refreshed by water breaks of publication. They helped keep me going toward the ultimate finish line.

In 2017, my thriller Instrument of the Devil was published.

Seven novels later, I’m writing more articles than ever because…

A funny thing happened during that decades-long marathon. I discovered I like writing nonfiction as much as fiction.

Especially when I get to meet a bear.

~~~

TKZers: Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both? How important is getting published to you? What sustains you during the long haul of writing a book?

~~~

 

 

DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal in my new thriller, UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. Please check it out at these online booksellers.

A Disturbing New Trend

There’s a disturbing new trend on social media that could bankrupt authors. I first learned about it on Facebook, but it’s since traveled throughout all social media.

Some readers feel it’s fine to buy a Kindle book on Amazon, read it, enjoy it, and then return it for a full refund. After all, who’s it hurting? Authors, that’s who.

Did you know if authors rack up too many returns Amazon can send them a bill? I didn’t realize this, either, but it’s happening as we speak. I’ve heard from more than a few Indie authors who, along with royalty payments they received a bill for returns. And these are professional authors who sell 200-500 books per week.

Before you dismiss this post because you think it doesn’t apply to you, this trend affects all authors regardless of how they choose to publish.

A massive influx of returns might result in a publishing house dropping the author. At the very least, they may be hesitant to buy the author’s next book. Why? Because too many returns give the impression that readers are not enjoying the series, when in fact these habitual returners do it to save money. For some reason they’re under the misguided impression that all authors are rolling in dough. They also don’t take into consideration how hard we work. Most authors I know work six days per week, sometimes seven if they fall behind.

Is it fair for these habitual returners to prevent us from earning a livable wage?

Look. I’m not sayin’ if the book sucks due to a lack of editing or poor formatting you shouldn’t be able to return it. That’s different. But to read the entire book and then return it is just plain wrong. Would you go to a theatre, watch the movie, and then ask for your money back because you didn’t like the ending? Of course not. So, why do habitual returners think the same rules don’t apply to ebooks?

Amazon makes it easy to return digital products within a seven-day period. Here’s the kicker. If these habitual returners continue to game the system, Amazon can stop them from buying more Kindle books for at least a year. Nowhere could I find the parameters of what’s considered abuse, but there’s at least one habitual returner who publicly apologized for her behavior after getting banned from Amazon.

Thankfully, I haven’t seen an increase in returns, but this new trend worries me. Some authors are even habitual returners — and they’re bragging about it on social media! I will never understand what goes through some people’s mind. Be reckless all you want with your own life, but don’t let your crazy loose on the rest of us.

I have never returned a Kindle book in my life, and I’ve slogged through more than my share of crappy reads. Now, I download the sample first. If I like it, I buy it. If I don’t, no harm done. That’s why Amazon has the sample feature.

The return feature is available for readers who one-click by mistake.

SUBSCRIPTION ALTERNATIVES THAT DON’T HARM AUTHORS

Join Kindle Unlimited

For $9.99 a month, you can read an unlimited number of Kindle books. You will only have access to books within the KU library, but for voracious readers it’s a good option. Amazon offers a free 30-day trial period or a two-month deal for $4.99.

FREE ALTERNATIVES THAT DON’T HARM AUTHORS

Prime Reading

Yes, you need a Prime account, but most households have one to save shipping costs. If you don’t, you will need a subscription ($99/yr.). Otherwise, a Prime account automatically gives you access to FREE Prime Reading books. I’ve found some amazing new-to-me authors this way. If I love the author’s writing, I usually buy all their books, but that’s me. You could stay within the Prime Reading lending library and never buy another ebook.

Local Libraries Offer FREE Ebooks Through Libby.

Download Libby from the App Store or Google Play. The welcome page will ask if you have a library card.

If you do, click YES.
Then click ADD LIBRARY.
Enter your zip code.
Select your local library from the list.
Enter your library card details.

If you don’t have a library card, click NOT YET.
Libby will walk you through requesting a library card through the app.

Once you’re inside Libby, you can browse through the books or search for a specific title, author, or genre. Libby adds new titles all the time.

If you read on a Kindle device, click READ ON KINDLE and Libby will open an Amazon account log-in window.
Enter Amazon username and password, and the ebook will automatically download to your Kindle.

Never worry about late fees. At the end of the loan period (time varies among local libraries), the book vanishes from your device.

Libby also provides audiobooks, as Jim mentioned in this post. If you live outside the U.S., you can access Libby through Overdrive.

Become a Reviewer on NetGalley

Use NetGalley for free to request, read, and recommend books before they are published — and provide essential reviews and feedback to publishers and other readers.

Contact Your Favorite Author

Tell the author how much you love their work and ask to join their ARC team. If you keep up your end of the bargain by posting honest reviews, the authors will continue to send you FREE ARCs. Plus, you’ll be the first to read new releases!

With all these free options, why return Kindle books? Unless you one-click by mistake or the book is riddled with typos or formatting errors, please, please, please stop returning ebooks to save money. Think about your favorite authors. Do we deserve to feed our family? Do we deserve a roof over our head? Do we deserve heat in the winter and cool air in the summer? Then let us earn a living. We’re not asking for donations. We’re simply asking habitual returners to stop stealing our work.

If you want to help prevent this trend from continuing, sign the Change.org petition.

TKZers, have you heard of this disturbing new trend? Have you been affected by it yet?

Tips To Write a Character You Hate

Have you ever written from the perspective of a character you hated?

It’s a unique experience for me. Which is sayin’ something, considering I write psychological thrillers involving serial killers. With all my other serial killer characters, I could find at least one endearing quality, and I clung to that while I wrote from their perspective. I may not have agreed with their motivations, but at least I understood how they justifIed their actions.

Let me back up a minute.

I mentioned in one of my Reader Friday questions that I’ve been teaching a virtual course about serial killers as part of the Advanced Education Program for a school in Connecticut. I’m also racing toward the finish line in Book 5 of my Grafton County Series. I drew a firm line between the two projects until an Ah-ha! moment slapped me across the face. I was working on the lesson plan for Week 3 of my course when a deliciously evil idea popped into my head.

Don’t you love when that happens?

Even though the finish line was within reach, I couldn’t ignore the new idea. It’s a game-changer, and the perfect way to round out the series as a whole. It also required me to go back to page one, drop a few new clues, and include POV chapters from the killer.

Writing from a serial killer’s point of view isn’t anything new for me. In my Mayhem Series, readers expect a cat-and-mouse chase with alternating POVs between protagonist and antagonist. The Grafton County Series is different. I don’t normally include scenes/chapters from the killer’s POV.

To write a character in deep POV we need to know everything about them or slipping into their skin would be challenging to say the least. And here’s where my two projects—fiction and nonfiction—blurred together.

Out of all the serial killers we’ve discussed during class the most frightening of all was a nasty individual named Israel Keyes, whose MO happened to fit my plot. As part of my research for class, I sat through endless video confessions from Keyes, and learned a lot about who he was as a person and what motivated him to kill. Subconsciously, I must have had in mind all along and only now realized it. After all, if I fear him, so will my readers.

To write from his point of view, I had to view the world as he did. Think as he did. Feel—or more accurately, not feel—as he did. This was problematic for one huge reason—I despised everything about him. He’s evil to the core and didn’t possess even one redeeming quality.

Now, you could say, but Sue, this is fiction. You can add anything you want to his characterization. True, but then he wouldn’t be as frightening.

See what I’m sayin’?

The part of him that most frightened me was his complete lack of empathy toward anyone or anything, his arrogance, his inflated self-worth, and the violent blitz attack of his home invasions. If I softened his psychopathic personality, I’d lose the qualities that made me choose him in the first place. A softer villain wouldn’t pack the same punch. And let’s face it, after going head-to-head with numerous other serial killers in Books 1-4, my protagonist is no shrinking violent. She needs a frightening opponent.

Basing an antagonist on a real serial killer is hardly a new concept.

In the 1960s, Thomas Harris was visiting the Topo Chico Penitentiary in Nuevo Leon, Mexico while working on a story for Argosy, an American pulp fiction magazine that ran for 96 years, between 1882 and 1978. The 23-year-old Harris was interviewing prisoner Dykes Askew Simmons, who was committed to the prison’s psych. ward and sentenced to death for a triple murder. Simmons bribed a guard to help him escape. The guard took the money but had second thoughts during the prison break and shot Simmons.

As Simmons lay on the ground, bleeding out, another inmate, Dr. Alfredo Balli Trevino, treated the gunshot wound, saving his life.

This led Harris to develop an interest in Trevino. He interviewed the doctor and learned Trevino was convicted for the murder of his boyfriend, Jesus Castillo Rangel, in a “crime of passion” after an argument.

Apparently, Rangel had attacked Trevino with a screwdriver. The enraged doctor administered anesthetic to Rangel’s body and dragged him to a bathtub, where he slit his throat, draining all the blood out of his body. Trevino then chopped up Rangel’s body into small pieces and packed them into a box, drove to a relative’s farm, and asked if he could bury medical waste there. One of the farm workers called the police.

Thomas Harris said the doctor “had a certain elegance about him,” even as he discussed dismembering his boyfriend in a bathtub.

I found no such qualities in Israel Keyes.

How do we write from a hateful, despicable point of view?

Much like an actor who plays a villain, we must become one with the character. We have to identify with him. Win his arguments, even if those twisted views rub against our values. I despise this antagonist as much as I do Israel Keyes. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to breathe life into him, bring him to life on the page. The only time we can express our own personal feelings is through the protagonist if, and only if, the protagonist shares our views.

I find it easier to skip over a hateful character’s chapters while drafting the storyline. Then I take a day or two, get into character, and bang out his chapters. The next day when I reread those chapters I’m stunned by his actions and comments. That’s a good thing. If it shocks me (the writer), imagine readers’ reactions.

In my case, though the real killer can’t hurt anyone else—he committed suicide like a coward—it’s left me with one burning question: How many other Israel Keyes walk among us? I’d tell you, but I don’t want to shatter your reality. 🙂

Have you ever written a hateful, angry POV character? Did you handle it in a similar way?

It’s Crucial to Know Who You Are as a Writer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Brandon Sanderson

Have you heard about what Brandon Freaking Sanderson is doing? As they used to say in the 60s, “It’ll blow your mind, man.”

Last Tuesday Sanderson made a “surprise announcement” via YouTube, telling his fans that over the course of the last two years he has produced four—count ’em, four—“secret” novels. Instead of releasing these books through a traditional publisher, Sanderson is running a Kickstarter campaign to sell directly to his readers. The books will be delivered each quarter in 2023. And not just books. At certain levels supporters receive a box of Sanderson swag in each of the other eight months.

When you run a Kickstarter, you choose a minimum goal for your campaign. If you don’t hit it, the pledges aren’t collected. Sanderson set his goal at $1 million.

In one day his pledges hit $15 million

In three days he raised over $20 million (from 84,600 backers) and officially became the most successful Kickstarter in history. And the campaign is open until the end of the month!

It doesn’t stop there. After the books are delivered, Sanderson will turn around and license those rights to a traditional publishing company and reap those royalties, too. 

This is, in short, an awesome display of how to exploit intellectual property. 

However, some things to keep in mind at this stage of my post.

  1. You are not going to make millions via Kickstarter. 
  2. Kickstarter campaigns are notoriously difficult to run successfully. The time and effort do not, in my opinion, offer enough Return on Investment (ROI). Sanderson is an exception because of his enormous popularity and the fact that he has a “team” to help him. Just thinking about the fulfillment aspect of this project makes my head explode. But if anyone can pull it off, he can.
  3. Forget about Kickstarter.

If that is so, why am I bothering to write about this? First of all, it’s publishing news. It’s viral. And it’s amazing. Just thought you’d like to hear about it if you haven’t already.

Second, to get to the basic reasons why Brandon Sanderson is able to do this, note that he is: a) a very good writer; b) prolific; and c) nurturing of his fans.

Thus, while very few writers ever get to the Sanderson level, we can do the same three things within our own sphere. To wit:

Be Good

You know me. I believe in a never-ending self-improvement program for writers. We expect that from doctors and plumbers; why should we not expect it from artists who ask us to spend money on them? 

Write, study, write, get feedback, improve. Write. That’s how you get to be good.

Be Prolific

Brandon Sanderson is a writing monster. I mean, not only has he written his own epics, he hired on to complete another massive series after the original author died! (The Wheel of Time books). 

Not many of us have the time to produce on that scale. But we can all produce with the time we have. I’ve said it often here and in my workshops, and I still consider it the best piece of advice I got as a new writer—write to a quota. I put it this way: figure out how many words a week you can comfortably produce. That means what you can write without turning the rest of your world—family, friends, day job—into a maelstrom of stress, anxiety, recrimination, illness or the desire to overeat. 

Be easy on yourself. Find your comfort zone, then up that total by 10% as a stretch goal. Make this a weekly quota divided into six days. That way, if you miss a day, you can make it up by writing a little more on the other days. Take one day off to recharge.

If you miss your weekly number, forget about it. Start your new writing week fresh. 

Be Nurturing

As your readership grows, find ways to connect with your audience. You can do this by:

  1. Growing an email list. Give away free content in exchange for signing up (I offer a free novella). Put a link to this in the back matter of all your books. 
  2. Communicate with your list regularly. Once a month is good. Every other month minimum.
  3. Make your communications fun to read. You don’t want readers to think you’re just more spam. If they like the content of your communication they’re much more likely to buy what you pitch to them.
  4. When readers contact you, answer them, and soon.
  5. Have a minimum social media presence. I say minimum because the key, in my opinion, is to pick the few that you enjoy and don’t try to spread out everywhere. My social media is:
    1. TKZ, because I love it here.
    2. A Twitter profile that I guard carefully from controversy (there is no benefit in that. Twitter is not the place for nuanced discussion). 
    3. A mini-social media site of my own, via Patreon, which I enjoy immensely because I can write short fiction for fans and interact with them there.

Could I do more? Yes, but I’ve calculated the cost/benefit for me is ultimately negative. I want to spend most of my creative capital writing more books.

As a final thought, I’m sure many writers look at the Sanderson numbers—and the numbers of many others in a higher income level—and feel some variation of envy over the money being made. Don’t let that happen. Every writer wants to make good dough and therefore has to utilize business thinking to one degree or another. But that degree depends on your personality and what kind of life you want to live.

For example, the quest for success can wreak havoc on personal relationships (you could have asked any one of Norman Mailer’s six wives about that). Money is a powerful motivator but can also be a menacing siren. As a wise Nazarene carpenter once observed, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed—life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

On the other hand, a writer who creates without even a sideward glance at the market should not later howl at the moon because his stuff doesn’t sell.

Balance is the key. It’s different for each of us. I feel, after over 25 years in this game, that I’ve found my sweet spot. That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to learn and explore ways to increase my revenue. But I don’t run after every money-making morsel like a hungry ferret. Thus, don’t look for me on Kickstarter or doing dance videos on TikTok (my daughter is greatly relieved). 

And whenever doubts or disappointments start to creep in—Am I doing enough? Am I fooling myself? Will I ever be as successful as ____? Or even ____?—determine to write just one more sentence…and write it!  Then write the one after that. Get lost again in the joy of making stuff up. That is your safe haven, your home sweet home.

In short: Carpe Typem. Seize the Keyboard!

The questions for the day are as follows: Do you have an idea of what kind of balance you want from your writing life? Do you feel stress about any aspect of it? How would you describe your ideal writing profile?

Ten Tips from a Chiropractor for Writers

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Disclaimer: nothing is this article should be construed as medical advice.

Writing can harm the body. Okay, it’s not as bad as logging, or bull riding, or bomb dismantling. But sitting all day hunched over a computer is not a healthy lifestyle.

Recently I had an enlightening conversation with a chiropractor, Dr. Erika Putnam, shown here consulting with her office manager, Hartty.

Dr. Erika has unique insight into the particular physical problems that beset our profession because she herself is a writer. In addition to her chiropractic practice and operating a yoga studio, she contributed to the Ultimate Guide to Self-Healing Volumes 1-5. She is also working on her memoir and a how-to manual for yoga instructors.

So…I asked her for tips specifically to help writers.

Her overall approach is to develop a “long-term vision of our health and career path.” She says, “Value your wellbeing and work toward preserving that. Think prevention rather than fixing damage.” She believes for optimal health, humans need fresh air, sunshine, the earth…and time away from staring at electronic devices. 

People who spend long hours sitting at a computer tend to develop tight chests, tight hip flexors, and are weak in the core and the butt.

What can we do about that?

Here are Dr. Erika’s 10 tips:

  1. Undo what you do. If you use muscles in the front of the body, you need to counteract by using muscles in the back. Below is a good exercise to undo writer’s slump.

 

2. Strive for anatomical neutral: This means good posture with shoulders back, head up, chest up, arms at your sides with hands extended. For yoga aficionados, this is similar to mountain pose.

3. Neck care: a head-forward posture is hard on the neck. The farther forward your head is, the more strain on your neck. Sit straight with your head in line with your shoulders and pull your head and chin back. Try the old balance-a-book-on-your-head trick.

4. More Neck Care: At least once an hour, turn your head from side to side, looking over your shoulders.

5. Breathing: When shoulders curl forward, breathing becomes shallow. Take deeper breaths to improve posture. Stretch arms over your head to move/open the ribs to allow deeper breathing. Repeat several times/hour.

6. Neutral spine: When seated, rock your pelvis to find the correct neutral spine posture.

7. Sitting posture: If you sit on the back of the “sit bones,” pressure on the pelvis over time wears out disks in the spine.

Instead, sit up on sit bones. A pillow behind your back may help.

 

8. Hand care: Typing uses finger flexion which tends to curl hands into claws. To counteract, open your hands, stretch fingers, and press palms together.

9. Get up and move around at least once an hour. Take a walk. Do stretches. Dr. Erika suggests: “Go outside and play with dirt.”

10. I’ll take credit for this tip which came about after my visit with Dr. Erika.

After spending an hour with her, I became much more aware of my posture, standing straighter, shoulders back, chest up, head up. When I got into my car to leave, I noticed the rearview mirror was tilted too low. It had seemed fine while driving to her office. But, after an hour of consciously improving my posture, I realized I now sat a couple of inches taller in the seat. I needed to adjust the mirror upward.

I decided to leave the mirror in the higher position as a reminder to sit up straight.

The more reminders the better.

 One final note: Dr. Erika says she can’t back up the following observation with scientific studies but she has frequently noticed that people with a right-side head tilt often have a great deal of left-brain activity.

Here’s a discussion of right brain/left brain from Medical News Today.

JUST FOR FUN — Here’s a totally unscientific experiment to try:

If you’re having problems with plot organization, see what happens if you tilt your head to the right. Does that activate your left (analytical) brain?

If your story needs more feeling, trying tilting your head to the left. Does that activate your intuition and emotion?

Does head tilting make any difference in your thinking process? Please share your results in the comments.

~~~

TKZers: What helps keep your writer’s body in good condition? Do you have favorite exercises?

Interview with Randy Ingermanson – The Snowflake Guy

By

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Randy Ingermanson AKA the Snowflake Guy

Brilliant people understand complex concepts. But, despite their superior intelligence, they often cannot explain those concepts to less-than-brilliant folks.

But Randy Ingermanson can. He’s brilliant but he has a simple way of breaking down the incomprehensible so we mere mortals understand what he’s talking about.

For those who don’t know Randy, he has a PhD in physics specializing in elementary particle theory. According to the bio on his website: “Most of my work was in nonperturbative methods in quantum field theory.”

Did that lose you? Yeah, me too.

When I Googled nonperturbative, I recognized three words in the definition: cannot be described. That’s for sure!

Yet…Randy, in his spare time, became a successful author of fiction and nonfiction as well as a sought-after writing instructor. His two-book Snowflake series and Writing Fiction for Dummies still remain in the top 100 writing reference books on Amazon many years after they were published.

Randy has the extraordinary ability to break down complex writing concepts into easily digestible bites. In addition, his step-by-step plan of action template helps writers track and accomplish their goals.

Randy graciously agreed to chat with us here on TKZ. Welcome, Randy!

Debbie Burke: Your day job as a physicist requires a lot of brain energy. You also keep up the Advanced Fiction Writing blog and write bestselling craft books. Plus you write multiple fiction series, some involving extensive historical research, including archaeological digs. And you have a family. Do you ever sleep?

Joking aside, your ability to juggle multiple projects is impressive. Can you share some hints on how you manage your time and prioritize tasks?

Randy Ingermanson: For a big chunk of my life, I didn’t manage my time very well. I took on too many things and then felt really stressed. But things began to change about 15 years ago when I read David Allen’s classic book Getting Things Done. I realized that I was doing things badly, and that’s the first step to doing things better.

One key thing I’ve learned is that sometimes you just have to prune things out of your life. That’s very hard, but over the last several years, I’ve cut back several parts of my life that I thought were essential. And nobody died. I have a theory that everyone has a set limit to the number of main projects they can juggle. My limit is three. Some people can do four, and I admire them to death, but I can’t do it.

Another key thing I’ve learned is that it’s OK to have a hundred things on your To-Do List, as long as they’re not all visible right now. So I have a cascading sequence of To-Do Lists, one for “Someday”, one for “This Year,” “This Quarter,” This Month,” “This Week,” and “Today.” Every Sunday, I review the lists and promote some tasks from “This Month” to “This Week”. Every day, I choose things from “This Week” to put on the “Today” list. The beauty of this is that a day is a success if I knock off all the things on the Today list. I only have to look at those 15 items and decide which to do next. I don’t have to look at the dozens or hundreds on This Week or This Month or This Year. Those will all get done in due time, but the name of the game is to not be overwhelmed. When you get overwhelmed, your brain goes into panic mode, you spend all day spinning your wheels, and you end up eating all the Haagen-Dazs.

I use a nifty method called “Kanban” to manage my tasks. (This is very popular among software developers.) There are a bunch of websites that let you set up Kanban projects. The one I use is at Kanbanflow.com, and it works for me. But I recommend that people always use a tool that resonates with them.

DB: Writing a novel is a hard project. You have a wonderfully workable system for how to tackle hard projects. Can you explain the steps in that system?

RI: I wrote a blog post awhile back on the general problem of managing any hard project. I’ll refer your readers to that post here: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2021/01/21/how-to-make-an-action-plan/

I’ve gotten extremely famous for my system for managing one particular hard project—writing the first draft of your novel. The “Snowflake Method” will probably be listed on my headstone. It’s a ten-step method I use for writing my first draft. I wrote out the ten steps back around 2002 in answer to a question somebody asked in an online writing group I was on. And some people liked the idea enough that I posted it on my website. And then it just took off. It’s now been viewed more than 6 million times and has earned me a ridiculous amount of money.

The core idea is that you design a novel before you write it. Some people hate this idea and would rather just write by the seat of their pants. That’s fine by me. Different people are wired different in the brain, and it doesn’t matter how you get your first draft down on paper. We all can respect each other and recognize that we don’t all think alike. The Snowflake Method happens to work well for about a third of the writing population.

You start by taking an hour to write down a summary sentence for your story. This will be your selling tool forever, so it makes sense to take a little time to do it. But don’t spend weeks obsessing on this. Write down your best one-sentence summary for now and then move on to the next step. You can always come back and improve it later. In fact, you certainly will.

The Snowflake Method has another nine steps, and I don’t have space to even summarize them here. But anyone can Google “Snowflake Method” and find my 3000-word web article or my 50,000 word book on the subject. If you like to know approximately where you’re going before you start writing, then the Snowflake Method is designed for you. If you don’t, then it’s not for you.

 

 

DB: Most authors dread marketing. What do you recommend as the most important marketing tools for a writer?

RI: I used to hate marketing. In fact, I remember the day I told an agent friend of mine, “I hate marketing! I’m a terrible marketer, and I don’t ever want to have to market my books again!” She got a panicky look on her face and told me not to say such things out loud, because the walls have ears. And she was right.

I now believe there are three main keys to good marketing for a novelist. I call them the Three Rings of Power. They are:

  • Your website
  • Your email newsletter
  • Paid advertising

Your website is important because you own it. Social media is notoriously fickle, and any social media platform can suddenly become unusable, for a variety of reasons. Various platforms can ban you, or go out of fashion, or start charging you. But you own your website and it’s very hard to take it away from you.

Ditto for your email newsletter. If you have a newsletter with 5000 loyal readers who know you and actually read what you send, you have a guaranteed bestseller, every time you launch a book. That’s gold.

Paid advertising is now just a fact of life. None of us like paying for ads, but they work. If you use Amazon ads and Facebook ads and BookBub ads and the various book promo sites effectively, you can move copies with a positive return-on-investment. I think TikTok will soon join this short list of paid-ad opportunities that authors routinely use.

So the Three Rings of Power are great, and I personally have done extremely well using them. However …

However, a lot of authors don’t see a good return on their investment for their website, their email newsletter, and their paid ads. Why not? Do the marketing gods hate them?

No, the reason is very simple. The Three Rings of Power are useless unless you also master the One Ring that Rule Them All. That One Ring is copywriting. The ability to write good headlines, strong sales copy, and a compelling call-to-action, all without smelling like a weasel. This is a fine line to walk, but once you learn it, you can apply it everywhere. To your website. Your newsletter. Your paid ads. And away you go.

As it happens, I began to learn copywriting shortly after I had my “I hate marketing” conversation with my agent friend. And that has made all the difference for me. In some sense you make your own luck in marketing, and my luck changed permanently when I took the time to learn how to write copy.

Copywriting is not particularly sexy or fun. But if you go to Amazon and do a search for books on copywriting, you’ll find any number of sources that will teach you the fundamentals. And then you just need to go do it, determined to learn it, no matter what.

Learn copywriting, and the Three Rings of Power are your servants, not your masters. Many Bothans died to bring me this secret.

DB: What are you working on currently?

RI: I read Steven Kotler’s book The Art of Impossible back in October, and it revolutionized my thinking. I decided that for the next few years, I’m going to focus on fewer things and do them better. I have a day job doing image analysis for a biotech company in San Diego, and that consumes half my life, because it’s a half-time job. I am currently writing a series of historical novels on the most influential person ever to walk the planet, Jesus of Nazareth, and that’s going to take me another three or four years to finish. And I’m working on a project I call “Project Chronologicus” that will combine my mathematical/computer skills with my interest in ancient history—it’s a project to harvest historical data from ancient documents and compute the best-fit chronology for ancient history. (This is a notoriously hard problem, too difficult for any human to solve without a computer; but my whole career has been spent solving problems humans can’t solve alone, so I may possibly be able to write the software to solve this one. And if not, I’ll have fun.)

 DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any questions you wish I’d asked?

RI:  As Gandalf once said, you don’t know your danger when you ask a hobbit such a question, because the hobbit will go on endlessly. This hobbit will have mercy on you and just say no.

~~~

Randy, feel free to go on endlessly with all the knowledge you have to impart to writers! Thanks for visiting The Zone!

Randy’s Snowflake series

Advanced Fiction Writing blog

Randy’s website

~~~

TKZers: Have you tried the Snowflake method of plotting?

Please share your best tips for time management for writers.