Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Power of Hashtags on Twitter

When I first started using Twitter, I was confused by all the hash marks in front of words. I'd see a Tweet like this:

#amwriting about the #civilwar and I need information about #rifles used by soldiers. 
Eventually, I learned what was going on. These are called "Hashtags." They make use of the power of the Twitter search engine to create ad hoc groups and to aid research on Twitter. Here's how it works. Let's say I am a fan of Haven on the SyFy channel, and I want to see what other people are saying about Haven and maybe even join the conversation, I can go to and type #haven into the search bar at the top of the page. It will pull up all Tweets that have been posted with that word preceded by the hash mark.

I just did that with #Haven and the first post was someone asking when the new season would start. I'm sure some person will have an answer and respond with the #haven hash tag.

Now, just as an aside, this points out to one aspect of Twitter which should make you think before you tweet. Since all tweets (unless you purposely elect to have yours hidden) are searchable and basically public, you need to be careful what you tweet. I don't mind. I don't tweet anything I don't care that the world reads. I'm less cautious on Facebook because I can control who reads my posts there more precisely.

Now, Back on point, hash tags make it possible for you to communicate with thousands of people who are not "following" you on Twitter. They can also respond to you. This is huge because some people follow certain hashtags all the time. For instance, there's a hashtag #amwriting. Writers post that they are starting to write. It provides a type of accountability. But they also often ask research questions, post links of interest to writers or just seek support and advice. I have a column open on Tweetdeck following that hashtag group all the time.

Writers can use hashtags in many ways.

  1. To target special interest groups. Let's say you just posted a blog about your new book on motorcycle maintenance. You could post a tweet like this:

    Fix your Ride. #Motorcycle #repair for everyone. Find out more at URL

    This will not only go out to your own followers, but also to everyone who searches for #motorcycle that day. That could be thousands. 
  2. To network with writers and others. Writing can be a lonely business. Sitting on the computer pounding out copy can get a bit tiring at times. Just knowing there are others out there doing the same thing can be an encouragement. Some good hashtag groups for writers are #amwriting, #amediting, #nanowrimo and #writingsprints. You can also follow specific genres such as #scifi, #sciencefiction, #mystery and #romance. 
  3. To create your own group. Maybe you are in touch with a number of people who share a given interest, you can come up with an agreed upon hashtag and use it to reach across twitter accounts to keep in touch. For instance, you might have a writers group in your town and create the hashtag #mytownwriters . Then just search for that hashtag to see what everyone is doing or set up an automatic search in an aggregator like TweetDeck or HootSuite. 
  4. To do research. With hundreds and even thousands of people following certain hashtags, you can post a request for information and almost be sure to get a response. Let's say you are doing' research on caregivers for Alzheimer's patients. You could post something like:

    #amwriting an article on #alzheimer's #caregivers. Looking for interviews DM or email at _____.
    It is best to use an email address that is specifically used for research and not your personal email because this is very public.  By hashtagging #amwriting, #alzheimer's and #caregivers you increase the chances of people responding because people searching any of those terms will see your request.

    You can also simply search for your subject. For instance, I just plugged in the hashtag #alzheimer's and got a link to an article from Everyday Health about what to do when dementia patients refuse help. Indeed, this is a twitter account devoted entirely to Alzheimer's. So, clicking on that link, I find all sorts of links to articles about Alzheimer's including many related to caregiving. In fact, I found myself happily clicking through several articles. My father had the disease and I'm always interested in information about it.
So, before you post that tweet, think about "hashtagging" it a bit. 

Learn more about Social Media and other Computer Mediated Communication in a special course offered just for writers. This 18-Week Course covers all the social media including the new Facebook features and Google Plus and Twitter. But goes beyond social media to also cover blogging, researching online, writing for the web (and the opportunities to write for online publications), creating websites on a budget, digital publishing, online collaboration and using email professionally. This course is based on one I teach at my college, but geared toward the need of writers. The instructor guided course begins February 1 and costs $19.95. An abridged autopilot version will also be offered for free. For information about all the new courses go to

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New Courses for Spring and Big Bargains

I know I haven't been posting much. November was really busy setting up the Novel Writing Course. I hope to be back on a regular schedule of blogging in a few days.

However, I've been having enormous fun with my Novel writing class. I just hope they are having as much fun as I do. I got a little behind at one point because of technical problems, but we got caught up and on a much more stable platform. These courses are all offered at

While this course is ongoing, I nonetheless will be offering four new courses for Spring 2012.(Note: All courses begin February 1, 2012)

Write Your Novel YOUR Way in 100 Days. This course takes a different approach to teaching novel writing. Instead of giving you a single route to writing your novel and prescribing a specific system, you learn about what goes into the final product and then I give you a buffet of techniques to use to write your novel. Can't stand plot outlines? No problem. Need a highly structured plot outline? No problem. Need something in between? No problem. Many roads lead to Rome but you may find one more accommodating than another. The course includes a critique of up to 50,000 words of your novel, feedback on individual assignments, interaction with both students and instructor. ($19.95 for 18 weeks of Instruction)

Writing and Selling Magazine Articles. Writing magazine articles provides the easiest road to publication for the beginning writer. For the established writer, it can give you an additional revenue stream. Writing magazine articles is easy and profitable. I have taught this course many times and always have students sell articles or get assignments during the course. Includes critiques of two magazine articles, feedback on individual assignments and interaction with both students and instructor via email and a discussion board. ($19.95 for 18 weeks of instruction)

Computer Mediated Communication for Writers. The idea of the solitary writer working alone is becoming an anachronism. Writers today are connected to the world from their computers, tablets, smartphones and even ereaders. This connection has changed the environment in which we communicate. From Social Media Marketing and Networking to Online Collaoration to Writing Effective Emails to Epublishing and Writing for Digital Media, this course introduces you to the world of Computer Mediated Communication and how to use it to advance your writing career. This is a specially dedicated version of a course I've taught for three years at the college. However, unlike the college course, this one focuses entirely on the needs of writers. This course is built around a discovery model with the Student working individually and in a group of other students takes part in a number of exercises. By the end of the course, the student will have created  Facebook Friend and Like (formerly Fan) pages, a Twitter account dedicated to writing endeavors, a blog and a website. Student will also develop a social media marketing plan. Instructor will provide feedback on all of these assignments. ($19.95 for 18 weeks of Instruction)

Time Management for Writers. This one month course expands on the popular week long seminar I've taught at the Muse Conference. During that one week, we could only really talk about the techniques of time management. In this course, we will apply those techniques. By the end of the course, you will have completed a time inventory, set up a daily planner customized to your lifestyle, apply at least three time management techniques for an entire month and report on the results. You will interact with other students, sharing triumphs and challenges, and the instructor. ($3.95 for four weeks of instruction)

Give the Gift of Learning

If you have a writer friend (published or unpublished), you can make a gift of learning by purchasing one or more of these courses. Email me at webservant2003@... for information.

Two-fer Specials

I know, the Holidays are sometimes tight financially. So, I've got a Holiday special for you. If you register (or purchase a gift registration) from one class at full price, you can register in a second class of equal or lesser price (now or anytime within 12 months) for half price. Or if you want to register with another person, one of you will get your registration for half off. It's great to take classes with another. You can buy one and give the other to a friend. So, You could get two novel professional writing courses for $29.90. Or take the Magazine Writing and Computer Mediated Communication class together for the same price. Since these same courses will be offered Summer and Fall 2012, you don't even have to take the courses at the same time. Email webservant2003@... for details.

The Super Bundle

I've held off on my best deal for last. You can have the whole writing bundle for $40. That's all four courses, plus you'll receive two free ebooks - a $10 value.

BTW, I'll give half off on any one course to anyone who will promote these classes in some way on their blog or website.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Seven Free Books from Writers Digest

Talk about a super-cool offer. Writer's digest is offering downloadable copies of seven novel writing books for free. These are not excerpts, they are full length books that have been published by WD press. The books are:

  • Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
  • Write That Book Already by Sam Barry and Kathy Goldmark
  • Getting the Words Right by Theodore Rees Cheney
  • How to Be a Writer by Barbara Baig
  • Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier
  • Hooked by Les Edgerton

They are available in Kindle, Nook, Sony, Google and Itunes downloads. 

This is part of a promotion related to National Novel Writing Month, so I suspect this offer will go away at the end of November. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Creating Your Online Newspaper Part IV

Now, that you have created your paper, you want to promote it. In a way it is self-promoting. By clicking on the "promotion" tab in the settings box, you can choose to have a tweet sent every time your paper is released. It goes out to your followers and looks something like this:

Science news for Sci-Fi Writers is out! ▸ Top stories today via @wokyt @k_university @jhundseder @ind_insights @diffbw
It will list your followers whose tweets provided the links for the articles. This all by itself is a bit promotion because those people will usually click through to see which articles they had referred. Also, many of them will re-tweet. I usually get 2-3 retweets a day some of these people have over 1000 followers. Many of the people who see that their items have appeared in this paper choose to follow me as well. I am currently getting about 3-5 new followers a day compared to 1-2 a week previously. Some even tweet me to tell me that they are following specifically because they appeared as a "contributor" in the paper.

However, I don't leave it up to the automated system to promote the papers. I do three things:

Rewrite, Repost and Retweet

First, I read through my paper. I move articles I think will be most interesting into the headline section. I remove those that are not really relevant to my assumed audience. I also check the "inside" pages. Sometimes there are stories buried there that would make good headline stories.

Then when I've got it looking good. I identify three interesting stories and I feature them in a Post I make on Facebook and Google+ It looks something like this:

Science Projects for Halloween, Jupiter mistaken for distress flare, Video from ISS, in Science for Sci-fi writers.

This is a teaser to get people to click through. I take the same teaser and adapt it for Twitter like this:

#Science Projects for #Halloween, Jupiter mistaken for distress flare, Video from #ISS, in Science for #Scifi #writers.

In insert the hashtags most likely to reach the readers who would be interested in this paper.

Using this technique, from all my papers, I'm getting about 100 hits a day for about 30-45 minutes of work.

Promoting Your Self Through Your Paper

While I have to admit I just have fun putting these together, reading the stories and tweaking the layout, these papers can also help promote your other interests in four ways: Twitter followers, embedded links, positioning and embedded stories. We have already talked about how such newspapers can generate Twitter followers. So Let's look at the other three.

Embedded Links

You have a place on your paper for an "Editor's Note." You can use this to give the basic mission/philosophy of the paper and you can embed a link. Here's an example from my Free Your Education paper

To create this note, simply click on the link to create an editors note. It looks like this:

You will get a box that looks like this:

Simply enter your copy and I suggest a link to your website or blog. This gives people a place to go for further information of a similar nature. I'm already getting click throughs to my website from these papers.

Embedded Stories

Of course, it also helps if you can get your own stories included in the paper. You can do this in two ways.

First, whenever you post a link on twitter to a blog post or your website be sure to pack it full of hashtags relevant to your paper. You can also add your own Twitter account as a stream for the news when you set up the content, but limit the scope by using the filters to specify key words in those tweets.

Secondly, once you start using, you will notice in the side bar once you log in a link you can use to add a tool to your bookmark bar. Using this tool, you just go to any web page and click on it, and that page will be added to the next issue of the publication.


Positioning is a marketing concept that says you need to find a place in the marketplace that identifies you. By putting out a newspaper linked to your business or writing you position yourself as someone knowledgeable about that area.

I'm getting a lot of recommendations by my Twitter followers that following my tweets will be interesting. I'm getting regular "follow Friday" mentions now. One said about me and three or four others "These tweeps scour the web for great links." That's positioning.

So, that's it. You can set up a newspaper for yourself or for a wide readership. It can be fun and profitable.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Creating Your Own Online Newspaper Part III

I'm a bit late on this, but my offline life got in the way these last couple of days.

You have now built your paper and it is feeding you news, but you see an article near the bottom of the page which you think should be featured or you have a perfect image to use as a background or maybe one of the articles really doesn't belong there. In this article we are going to talk about customizing and promoting your paper.


While you can't rewrite the articles, you can do some editing of your paper. You can reposition some articles and you can delete them.


You have a limited ability to reposition articles by selecting which you would like to be the featured article on the front page. This pushes the featured article either down or to the right. By doing this several times you can create a block of articles you want near the top.

I happen to like to have an article with a strong graphic in that top left position and if the program doesn't provide it I'll just bump something up from the bottom.  Here's how. Just hover your mouse over the bottom right of the article you want to move. You will see something like this:

You will see an arrow pointing upward. Click it and that article will go to the top of the page in the featured position. 

Next to the arrow is an "x." By clicking that x you can delete an article. For instance, today in this paper I had two links to the same article. 

I wanted to get rid of one of them. I clicked the X and I got this menu. I can delete the post or block the person who tweeted the link or block the website. Well, I don't want to block either website or tweeter, but I do want to delete the post. So, I clicked delete. 
When deleting videos, sometimes the "x" is on the left side instead of the right. I don't know why.

Background Image

You can add a background image to your paper or change the color of the background. Here's how. First, you have to enter the settings. In the upper right corner of your screen you will see your twitter profile pix. Right next to it is a down arrow you can click:

When you click it, you find "Paper Settings" with some tabbed options:

You simply select  a background image from your computer. I chose for my Science for Science Fiction Writers something I found at the NASA website. It's pretty and in public domain. I chose not to tile the image which means repeating it over and over since that would look weird. However, I changed the background color of the website from white to black by clicking on the background color icon and sliding the selector all the way down into the black range. What I ended up with was this:
Publication Frequency and Time of Issue

Another setting you can use is the one which sets how often your paper will come out and at what time. This is found under the first tab and looks like this:

You can choose to have a daily edition or by clicking on the pull down box get a morning and evening edition or opt for a weekly edition, which is good if you don't think you'll get enough to fill up a daily. 

You can also choose the time of day this comes out. The default is midnight GMT. But you can change it to your local time and set the time. It uses a 24 hour clock. so 06:00 hours is 6 am while 18:00 is 6 pm. 

Well, this post has gone longer than I expected. I think that I'll come back tomorrow with some ideas about promotion and using your paper to help promote yourself.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Creating Your Own Online News Paper Part II

So you have decided, it would be nice to publish a newspaper. So how do you do it?

The process is quite simple. You go to and log in using your Twitter account. Then you click on the button that says "Start a Paper" You will get a screen that looks like this:

In the upper box you enter a title for your paper. Keep the title short but descriptive.

After that you begin to add "streams." These streams are places or keywords the program will search to find content. You can test out the keywords and hashtags by going to the twitter page and running a search on your key words. Let's take a closer look at the items you can add.

First, you can add a single user. This will essentially pull every Tweet from that User. For instance, in my Publishing News for Writers I have the user name for Publishers Weekly and Writers Digest among my streams. Of course, if you want to limit what you get, you can add a filter.

Say I'm preparing a newspaper about Egyptian Archeology. I might want to get the news from Archeology Magazine. So, I enter the Twitter User name for the magazine @archaeologymag . But I'm only interested in Egyptian archeology, so I click on the option to add a filter. I can put in either an exact phrase, or a search which contains all the words I designate, though not in that order, that has any of the words I designate or none of the words I give. Well, in the example, I put in several keywords that would appear in tweets and articles I would be interested in seeing included in the paper.

Secondly, I can choose to include myself and people I follow in the list. If I follow a lot of people who post interesting stuff about this subject, adding them to the list makes sense, but again it is good to identify some filters other wise you might have the program serve up their vacation videos or links to their kids softball scores.

I can also add a Twitter List. This would be a select list of my followers which I create on the Twitter site. So, maybe I have a list of archeology feeds from the Smithsonian, Biblical Archeology Review, National Geographic etc. I can put them all into a single list and the program searches those tweets for links to articles, videos, pictures and blogs.

Next, I can add a Twitter #tag. If you use Twitter a lot you know that hashtags (#tags) are ways you can use the twitter public search engine to find tweets on a certain subject. So I might include create a feed using #egypt or #egyptology or #pyramid

The Keywords work like the hashtags just without the hashmark. However, the words are less likely to be specific to that subject. For instance, someone might post something like Before you go to egypt check out this video. Doesn't relate to Egyptian archeology at all.

You can also search through Keywords on Facebook. Again, probably will turn up more false positives than you would like. But using a carefully defined filter it can work.

Finally, you can add an RSS feed. Many blogs, online magazines and websites have RSS feeds. One of my favorite publications, The New Scientist has a bunch of them. I could create an entire newspaper just out of their RSS feeds.

Below this section you have a few more options:

You can choose a language. You might start by leaving it set at Any Language and see if you get too many posts outside your chosen language. Since English, for good or for ill, is pretty much the Lingua Franca of the Web, you probably won't limit yourself too much by choosing it. Other languages may produce fewer stories. 
Under this there is a list of possible sections you can create for your paper. If you uncheck them all then your key words and hashtags will be used. If you leave some of the items checked then the program will automatically try to separate them into the appropriate categories with fairly good results.

Once you are finished, you click publish and the program goes to work collecting the stories for your first issue. 

Tomorrow: How to Customize and Promote Your Paper

Monday, October 24, 2011

Create Your Own Paper for fun and profit. Part 1

You may not know it, but I'm the publisher of six newspapers. What's more I don't spend more than an hour a day on the job. Some days I don't do anything at all and the paper still gets published. And you can do the same thing.

It's all through the power of technology offered through, an online service that scans Twitter feeds for links to articles, pictures and videos related to key words you select and then turns them into a newspaper. You can remove any of the articles you want or reposition them on the page.

Here's what one of my papers looks like:

How it Works

You know all those links you get in Twitter to various articles, blogs, videos etc. Well, searches through the entire Twitter data base daily for fresh content that matches your key words and other parameters you set up. It then collects them together into a newspaper format. Even if you never really go public with this it's a nice way to search for your own content on subjects that interest you.

Why would I want my own paper?

The first reason is to just keep up on subjects you find interesting. This is a great way to find articles galore. You can also set up the program to just search links posted by certain twitter accounts. So, if you want to keep up with articles posted by Writer's Digest, Scientific American and Biblical Archeology Review, you can set the program to just search those twitter posts for links.

The second reason is to promote your own content. You can do this in two ways. In the photo above you see the blue box on the right. That's an editor's note. You can post in it why you have created this paper and include a link to your own website or blog or Facebook Fan Page. You can also change it at any time. So, if you want to announce a book signing related to the subject of the page you can. I would however, steer clear of overt advertising.

Another way to promote your own content is by including an RSS feed to your blog or website as one of the feeds you configure for the service.

Thirdly, this helps with your own personal positioning in the marketplace. You are positioning yourself as someone providing the public with useful information. Indeed, you are the "expert" so to speak. You have provided the customer or potential customer with something valuable.

Finally, it's a good way to get twitter followers. Whenever the paper comes out those who provided the links get a mention in the promotional tweet that goes out. I have been getting 2-4 new followers a day since starting my papers. At that rate my number of followers should triple by the end of the year. And these are serious followers. They aren't a bunch of people following you because you sent out a bunch of follows to them. They are actually interested in this topic and thus interested in what you have to say.

Tomorrow, I will give you some tips for setting up and customizing your paper. 

If you want to follow or subscribe to any of my papers here are a list of links:

Free Your Education
Science Fiction and Mystery Writers
Science for Science Fiction Writers
History News
Publishing and Writing News
Bible Study

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Writing My Novel My Way: The Explorer

You will find me repeating a lot of what I said in an earlier post when I discussed how I go about planning a novel. That is because I'm an explorer. I don't usually go into a writing project with no plan at all. I do know where the story starts and what the ending is going to be. Sometimes I even plan backward from the ending. However, detailed plot outlines are a bit too restrictive for me and time consuming because I know some things will change as I write my story and get to know my characters more.

I fit into the Explorer or Discoverer mode. I use the words interchangably because like an Explorer, I do my research, I have a destination in mind, I have some idea of part of the terrain before I leave, but much of the journey, if not most of it, is still a mystery to me. But I'm also a Discoverer because I discover much of my story (especially subplots and side plots) as I write. I set my characters loose in the world I've created and follow them around seeing what they do. There are certain "destination points" I want them to get to eventually, but I discover with them how they get there.

Here are some typical (but not universal) ways that Explorers plan their novels.

Research, Research, Research

Depending on the nature of your novel, good solid research can help you develop ideas and provide some plot elements. Also, if you have the research at hand, when you get to writing the novel, you don't have to stop the writing process to go look up some fact or figure out if it is in fact, feasible that someone could be decapitated using a garrotte (I write murder mysteries. These are legitimate questions.)

Character Creation

If I am joining my characters on this journey of discovery letting them lead the way through the choices that they make, then I need to know them inside and out. I will spend hours making lists of things to know about them from the color of their hair to how they lost their faith in college and regained it in grad school. Some minor characters, I let emerge without much planning, but the main characters, they are as real as any of my family or friends by the time I finish developing their personalities.

World Building

Your story takes place somewhere. You need to be very familiar with that somewhere. Now, you might set the story in a town where you live  or have lived and stick with familiar scenes. In that case you probably don't have to do much physical world building. On the other hand, if you are writing a science fiction or fantasy story, or even just a cozy mystery that takes place in a mythical small town, then you need to get a clear image in your mind of what that world is like.

I've been writing novels and short stories about colonies on the moon for four years now. By this time I know each settlement, each ag dome, each mine, each town as if I have lived there. Sure I'm still discovering new places. This year we will be visiting a clear domed resort. However, I know that place very well.

Of course, your world is more than buildings and geography. You also have cultural and institutional world building to do. First, cultural. What is the culture like in your primary setting? This can include ethnicity, but think beyond ethnicity. A poor Mexican-American Family living in the Barrio is different from a poor Mexican-American family following the crops is different from a wealthy Mexican-American family headed by a lawyer. Culture varies. What culture is your character thrown into? How is it different from their own? How do they feel about that? The classic is a big city resident forced to move to a small town. Culture is a multifaceted thing taking into account economics, regionalism, ethnicity and geography.

Institutional world building is one of those things many people ignore. We don't only live in a physical place with a specific culture. We also work, live, worship, play within institutional settings as well. My main characters, for instance, are college professors. They work at Armstrong University on the moon. That is a specific type of institution. They teach. They do research. They attend committee meetings. There are particular characters they like, dislike or tolerate within that institution. Other institutions can include churches, the military, police, fire departments, clubs, hospitals or other health care facilities.

The Map

Before embarking on my adventure, I do have a map as an explorer, but it is a minimal map. It lays out a few of the basic stops I'm going to make along the way. I have the beginning and the end blocked out. Then I set my "destination points" things which MUST be included (at least from my point of view prior to writing) for the story to work. The details of  how the characters get to those points are not included. Here's the map I have for this year's novel (taken from my previous article)

  • Mike and Carolyn join Eric and Linda on a trip to Xanadu a domed resort on the surface of the moon to help them plan their wedding in the "Earthlight Chapel" at the resort. 
  • Jason Kellen, proprietor of the resort invites the pair over for dinner where he shows them his private collection of lunar exploration artifacts. He proposes giving them to the college and funding the building of a museum to house them. They include the golf ball Alan Shepherd hit during his trip to the moon. 
  • Carolyn brings in Moonbeam and the mobile crime lab to help with the a authentication,
  • Before the lab can arrive, the golf ball is stolen. Mike and Carolyn are  asked to investigate quietly. 
  • The day after the Eclipse, Jason is found dead in a crater without an EV suit by Linda and Eric. 
  • The investigation begins
  • They sort out the suspects:
    • His daughter bitter over the divorce
    • The construction engineer who found the golf ball and was paid handsomely for it. 
    • The "waiter" whose facial structure is a close match to that of a theif
    • The Casino owner who wanted to buy the museum collection
    • The ex-wife 
    • The gigilo she brought with her
    • The disgruntled employee fired recently.
    • The holiday director who is everywhere, but no one really knows.  
  • The investigation takes two tacks: Theft of the Golf Ball and Murder of the Host. 
  • They narrow down the suspects to the waiter for the golf ball theft, but then he is found dead with a faked golf ball in his apartment causing everyone to wonder why he didn't just put it in the glass case and no one would be the wiser. 
  • More investigation. Discover the golf ball was a fake from the beginning. Construction engineer is the culprit. He killed the waiter/thief, but was on his way back to Armstrong on the train when Jason was killed. 
  • Investigation proceeds. Physical clues point to the Casino owner. Turns out the Casino owner was a partner with Jason in a failed land investment scheme on Earth. Jason discovered the Casino owner sabotaged the deal and pocketed the money swindled from investors. He was going to turn him in during his stay.
  • Casino owner is murdered. 
  • More investigation and a key piece of physical evidence is found to point to.... (No, you will have to read the book to find out)
That's 50,000 words of story condensed into about 200 words of outline. This outline would not please most novel writing teachers. It is not detailed, etc. But it is just fine for me to find my way through the forests and have a few adventures as well along the way.

Plotter, Pantser or Explorer there is more to writing a novel than knowing your style. These are different methods used to craft an end product. Knowing more about what a quality end product looks like and how you can use your own style to create that product is the philosophy of My Novel My Way at . Check it out, the courses begin November 1.

Writing MY Way: The Plotter

Friday we discussed one end of the spectrum when it comes to planning a novel (or any other type of writing for that matter) - The Pantser who "writes by the seat of his or her pants" without doing much in the way of planning. At the other end of the spectrum (and it is a spectrum not just three distinct ways of doing things) is the Plotter.

If you take just about any novel writing class offered (with the exception of mine) this will be the one and only method presented. The arguments are compelling. Having a clear detailed outline before you begin to write will keep you on track and reduce the need for as many revisions later on. Also, since you have the plot laid out in advance, you won't find yourself saying, "So where do I go from here?" Likewise you can spot the holes in your plot early and correct them before you begin to write. Also, it gives the student an exercise you can grade. :-)

Seriously, many people feel much more comfortable with a detailed plot laid out in advance. They do not feel it reduces their creativity, because the creative effort goes into creating the plot outline. They do, indeed, find it easier to write when they have a clear plot in front of them. They may even write faster and probably do have less to do when they begin editing.

And, savvy plotters know that plots are written on paper and not chiseled in stone. They can be changed if in the midst of writing they get some new ideas.

Methods of Plotting 

If you feel that you would prefer to work from a complete plot rather than make it up as you go along, here are a few good ways to create a plot outline. Remember, these are not the only methods. You can use any of them or none of them. Combine them or ignore them and create your own. However, these may give you some ideas for creating your own plot outline.

Page Per Time Unit. Dick Perry in his book One Way to Write Your Novel puts forth a fairly simple method of detailed plotting. His method works like this. You get a three ring binder. You put in one page and write on it what happens right as the curtain rises on the story. Then put in another page one write a one sentence description of what happens at the end of the story. For instance, in my book Dark Side of the Moon, that would look like this:

Opening: Carolyn is waiting in the spaceport to go to the moon to take a job as a history professor at Armstong University.

End: Mike declares his love for Carolyn after they have revealed the identity of the killer.

Now, using this method, you figure out the time from the first scene to the last. In the above example that would be 12 months or 52 weeks. I could choose either interval, but I'm going to choose the 52 weeks.

You then put a page in your binder for each unit of time. On those pages you jot down your notes as to what happens during that week/month/day/hour. What characters are involved? What challenges do they face? How do they resolve those challenges? How does the main plot and each of the subplots advance during that time frame? Once you finish writing those notes, you have a detailed plot outline.

Scene-by-Scene This method thinks about the novel like a play. Consider a three-act play. In act 1 we met the characters and the main character encounters a problem. In act 2 the character struggles to understand and confront the problem. In act three the character confronts and solves the problem (or fails to do so in a tragedy). Each act has a number of scenes which lead up to the next act.

Of course, you can't directly equate a novel with a play. Novels are more complex involve more subplots and secondary plots and more detours than plays do. However, novels do take place one scene at a time. The scene-by-scene approach recognizes this and builds a planning model around the scenes. Most of these models create either a page in a notebook or a file on your computer for each scene in your novel. In general this is done sequentially in the order in which you expect them to appear. There are two ways to do this. First, you can take an overview followed by filling in the details. In other words, create a file for each scene with just a minimum amount of information. For instance:

Mike and Carolyn have dinner with Jason and a few others and offers his museum to the University.
The other method is to plan out each scene thoroughly before going on to the next.

Either way, the idea is that before you set down to write, you have each scene planned out.

File Card Method Both of the previous methods had one thing in common. They encourage the author to plan a novel sequentially from beginning to end. However, many of us have minds that work differently. We jump around in our thoughts. So, I'm working on the first scene of the novel and suddenly I get an idea for a scene 75 pages later. I say, okay, that's another 20 scenes, I'll write down when I get there. And what happens is we forget all about it.

The File Card Method is similar in many ways to the scene-by-scene method. However, it differs from that method by encouraging you to let your mind wander if it wants. You grab a bunch of file cards. On one you write a short description of your opening scene (it could even be tentative). On another write a description of the last scene. Keep this short. A sentence or even phrase would would adequate. For instance: "Arrive at the crime scene" and "Reveal the Killer" would be fine. You will come back later and fill in the details.

You make a card for every scene in the novel. If you have a lot of ideas about that scene, jot them down. You can even plan out the whole scene on the card (You might get 4x6 or 5X8 cards). But if an idea comes for another scene, grab a card and jot down the idea. Likewise, if you really don't feel much like planning the proposal scene right now or maybe you need more research before your main character has that discussion with the medical examiner, you can skip over them.

You might have an idea for a scene to come somewhere in the story, but you don't know where. You can jot down the idea and maybe when you get some context, placement will become obvious.

Try not to edit yourself too much at this stage. If you have an idea for a scene where your character watches kids on a playground and remembers her own troubled childhood, but aren't sure you would want it in the final cut, jot the basics on a card and come back to it later.

Once you have all the scenes you can think of jotted down either as short sentances or as complete outlines, think about organizing them.

First, go through the cards you have and eliminate any that don't really belong in the story. Then look at the remaining scenes and ask one question: "Which scene logically comes first?" Lay that card face down on the table. Then ask which scene follows that one? Continue to ask that question until you have your cards organized. Leaf back through the cards. Are there any scenes missing? If so, pull out a card jot down a couple of notes and put it the stack where it belongs.

Visualization Method. Some plotters view themselves as pantsers because they don't write down their plot outlines. However, they often have very detailed storylines visualized in their minds. Of course, there is not "technique" involved. It is merely a matter of thinking about your story long enough that you have down the whole plot in your mind before you start writing.

Storyboard Method. For very visual writer, you can create a detailed plot outline by taking the scene-by-scene method and creating a storyboard with sketches of each scene and notes about what is happening. This is especially good for action-adventure type writing.

There are five methods plotters can use. Tomorrow, we will look at the Explorer.

If you are enjoying these posts, you might enjoy our Novel Writing Your Way course. This is a course that recognizes differences in learning and work styles and works with those styles to help you develop a winning novel. With the premium option ($19.95) you get an instructor guided course with a critique of up to 50,000 words of your novel as well as guidance from the instructor and fellow students every step of the way. Check it out today at 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing MY Way: The "Pantser"

Perhaps we should begin with the most maligned of all techniques known as the "Write by the Seat of My Pants" approach or "The Pantser." I've read many writing books on all types of writing and have never seen one good word written about this technique.

I think I understand that. After all, if I am trying to sell a book on how to write, part of that book is going to have to do with planning my writing projects. Several dozen pages will deal with that subject. Yet, if someone is not planning, what will I put in those pages?

Indeed, if you look at most well-known writing instructors' signature approach to writing, it is rarely about characterization, editing, language usage or any of those essential elements of a novel. The core of The _____ Approach to the Novel is usually a plotting technique.

It is easy to dismiss the pantser. Many of us follow that old adage which says "Plan your work, then work your plan." The problem with that is that I'm not sure the pantser sees writing as work.

While not a pure pantser, I think I understand that mindset. Fiction writing for me is like interactive entertainment. As I write, I become part of the story. Writing fiction is not a "job" for me. The "job" appears when I have to edit and revise what I've written, but the writing itself is a vicarious adventure. If I know what stands behind every bush before my characters pass that bush, it spoils the fun.

Now, I like a bit more structure than the pantser. We will talk about that approach in a couple of days. But I understand the pantser excitement with discovering the novel through the writing. In essence the first draft of the novel for the pantser IS his or her plot outline.

The Pantser's Strengths

The main strength of the pantser is spontaneity. Sometimes writing down a plot outline can limit your creativity. You get a better idea when you are writing, but that means changing the plot outline and shifting around your carefully outlined scenes, so you stay with the original idea and ignore what might be a better approach. Even for explorers, this can be the case. I know where my plot has to get to in a few pages and this would throw off that plan.

Another strength is character-driven fiction. Frequently, "well plotted" novels focus on the action over the character. By that I mean, that the author is thinking mostly about what the characters need to do to make the story work out. The story can easily be forced down the throats of the characters.

The Pantser's characters are driving the story. Mostly the pantser puts characters in a setting with a problem and let's them figure it out as s/he tags along. If the pantser has a well developed set of characters what they do will usually be in character because he is not trying to force a direction on them. (Of course, that can lead to other problems, but we'll discuss them in a moment.)

The pantser can also bring a joyful passion to the story which can show through the way s/he tells the story. Often in the first draft, the pantser gives the impression of "being there" which those of us who have more complete plans may need to create during our revision and editing stages.

The Pantser's Dangers

If you are a pantser, life is a wonderful adventure, but we all know adventures also have some dangers.

One of the biggest dangers for the Pantser is getting off track of the story. This means you will have to spend a lot more time in editing removing irrelevant scenes. It also means you will find yourself going down narrative blind alleys which don't really lead to any place significant in your story.

A couple of tips for the pantser to stay on track. If at all possible, have your conclusion in mind. In fact, I suggest writing or at least summarizing the climatic scene first or right after writing your first scene. Set this aside and glance at it occasionally asking yourself how what you are writing is bringing you closer to that end.

Another tip, even if you don't have your ending planned out, is to simply stop and take stock about every 5000 words or so and ask yourself where is this leading? If it isn't leading anywhere profitable, then change direction.

Are You a Pantser?

Only you can answer that question, but here are a few ideas to consider. When you go on a road trip, do you tend to ignore the map and just head in the general direction of your destination and find your own way? Do you have a tendency to take spontaneous detours? When you cook, do you tend to make up your own recipes or just watch someone else and then do what they do? Would you have trouble finding the measuring spoons in your kitchen? Are you someone who gets a new program and installs it and doesn't bother to read the handbook or instructions at all, but prefers to figure it out on your own? If that is the case, you are probably a pantser.

Here's a good test. You probably have some sort of idea for a story, Sit down and set a timer for ten minutes and start writing on that story. If at the end of that time you find yourself generating more ideas for the story and wanting to continue, you are probably a pantser. If you run out of ideas and wish you had some sort of guide to follow, then you probably are not. You may well be a plotter. We'll talk about that Tomorrow.

Plotter, Pantser or Explorer you may have found yourself frustrated by Novel Writing books and courses that tried to squeeze your creative process into someone else's box. If you want to try something different check out the course Write Your Novel by Valentines Day - Your Way!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I WROTE it My Way!!

Back in the late 60's Frank Sinatra had his signature hit song, "I did it My Way." One cannot deny that the "Chairman" did it his way throughout life. Sometimes that worked out for him. Other times - not so much. But the point he made in the song is relevant to writers as well as singers with questionable associations. You have to find a process that works for you.

As I have been preparing lessons for the Write Your Novel by Valentines Day - Your Way! course which begins November 1 at the Education Wants to be Free Learning Space. I am struggling to make it student driven, rather than instructor driven. By that I mean that I want to help the student approach the job of writing a novel in a way compatible with his or her own unique personality and still produce a quality product by the end of the course.

Over 30 years of teaching writing students, I've seen many who are confused about the "right" way to write just about anything. This is understandable. We all want to do things "right." However, we something confuse the "right" product with the "right" process.

Let me give you an example from a totally unrelated field - Magic. Back in my youth, I studied sleight of hand, card tricks and the like. In one popular trick, the magician displays a pack of cards to his audience. He asks a member of the audience to come forward and pick a card from the deck and show it to the audience and replace it in the deck. After some hocus-pocus, he lifts up the top card to show it is NOT the chosen card, then lifts it again to reveal the card has magically changed into the card picked by the volunteer.

You have seen this various times, often with a variation on how the card is revealed. The core trick, though, is bringing the card to the top of the deck. The interesting thing about this is that there are about 5 ways to do this. No, I won't tell you what they are, you can get the magic books and learn them yourself. Or maybe down the road, I'll teach an online magic course for beginners. But even an amateur magician doesn't casually reveal the secrets to the trade.

The point is that one book tells you one way to bring the card to the top of the deck. Another takes a different approach. You buy the trick at a magic store and you have yet another method. And so on.

The same is true of writing. The end product - a novel, short story, article, nonfiction book - must have certain characteristics when finished (the card must rise to the top of the deck regardless of the technique used). However, how you get there depends greatly on your personality.

 Reading books on writing, though useful in many ways, can simply add to the confusion. I've read probably 50+ writing books over the last 30 years and if I include articles in Writer's Digest, The Writer, on blogs and websites, I probably read the equivalent of another 50 or 100 books in the 45 years since I first decided I wanted to write things other people would publish.

I've learned from each of them. I have also been confused by many of them. One book was all about plotting and the "proper" way to do that. Another I read, said "plot is an illusion." According to that author, plot is merely "the accumulated actions the character takes in resolving a problem." Hmmm... Sounds like a plot to me.

Most require very long and very detailed plot outlines, although the nature of those plot outlines varies greatly. Some look like snowflakes, some like wagon wheels, some are meandering paths, some are written on cards and shuffled, some are pages in a notebook. Each author has his "one-and-only" way to write an outline. Interestingly enough, I've been reading a book about novel writing by a fellow academic. She was discussing at great length about how important a detailed outline was to writing a novel, and if you didn't want to write one, then you simply should stop trying to write a novel. I was intrigued, since I write fairly limited outlines, and decided to look up and read one of her novels. To my amazement, she had not written a novel. In fact, aside from three short stories in literary journals and a handful of essays she had published nothing except this book on Novel Writing. Not only did a reputable company publish the book, they also sponsored her in an online writing class that has a $500 price tag!

Sometimes it is good to see the credentials of the person before you buy into their method. However, even established writers vary in their approaches to writing. I've read about some novelists who simply sit down and start writing with only a vague idea of where the story is going and produce best sellers. Others have massive, detailed outlines that they don't waver from. One author said he uses a slash-dash approach. He sits down puts a slash and a short description of what he is about to write and a list of things that need to be in that scene preceded by dashes. For instance:

/Carolyn and Mike join Jason for dinner
- he talks about his passion for lunar history
-he shows them his artifact collection
-alan shepherd's golf ball
-gives the collection to the college. 
Then he writes that and creates another slash-dash block and that's how he writes a novel.

I guess the basic message is to be sure you find a technique which is right for you. Over the next three days, I'm going to talk about three common techniques for planning a novel, their advantages and disadvantages and how to decide which one is right for you.

BTW, in the shameless plug category. If you want a course that will help you optimize your own method of writing, consider Write Your Novel by Valentines day - YOUR WAY!  being offered by Education Wants to be Free Learning Space. This 13 week course will take you through the process of writing a novel giving you a variety of options at each stage to find your own pathway to success. Plotters, Pantsers and Explorers will each find help in making their own personal approach work best for them. 

You will be able to browse through the course materials for free during the course which begins November 1 as a guest. However, you will get the most value if you opt for either the Deluxe course (9.95) or the Premium (19.95) With the deluxe course you gain access to the instructor and other students through a discussion board and email. You also receive feedback on up to 25,000 words of your novel and a proposal. In the premium course, you will receive feedback on all assignments, 50,000 words of your novel and a proposal.

Monday, October 3, 2011

MY Way to Plot a Novel

It's Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) time again. And October is just a bit over 24 hours away. That means NanoPLOTmo is upon us. National Novel Plotting Month as we head into the craziness of November.

I know some of you are "plotters" and some of you are "pantsers." Some need a detailed plot describing what happens virtually on every page before sitting down to write. Others "fly by the seat of your pants" not having anything on paper creating the plot as you go. And people in both camps produce great novels, so I'm not going to tell you one is better than the other. I'm going to just give you a third model that lies somewhere between the two. I'm calling The Journey of Discovery model.

First Things First

Before you begin to think about plot (plotter, pantser or discoverer) you need to do some prep work. For me that's settling three specific things: Premise or Story Concept, Characters and Setting.

Premise. The premise for me is sort of like "the elevator pitch" professional writers talk about. You are in an elevator and you see the acquisitions editor of a publishing house in the elevator. You are carrying your manuscript and the editor says, "I see you're a writer. What's your novel about?" And you have to tell them before  they get to their floor.

This is also sometimes known as the "concept" and really is trying to boil down the entire story into a single sentence. So, this year I'm doing a sequel to Dark Side of the Moon using the same characters and setting I did in the first book. This one is called Total Eclipse of the Moon. Here's my premise:

While vacationing at a resort in a clear dome on the surface of the moon, the proprietor of the resort is murdered during an eclipse and our heroes must find the murderer. 
Okay, it's a bit awkward, but who cares. Until you have to write the marketing blurb, you are the only one to see this. This gives me the specific direction for the story. Everything in my central plot will relate to that concept.

Characters.  I'm a list maker, so I list out everything from their height, weight, hair color, etc. to their likes and dislikes. Basically, I work on their character sketches/dossiers until the character becomes real for me. The way I think about it is that I don't know the character until I reach the point that I wouldn't be surprised to see him or her walking down the street, and, if I did, I could carry on a conversation with that person. At this point I don't do this for every character, just my main character(s).

Setting. Your stories also have to take place somewhere. Of course, they may well move around the world like National Treasure, but there is a starting location and probably one that you will spend the most time in. You don't have to do full world building at this point, but I close my eyes and try to visualize the scene.

Expanded Story Concept

After I have these things in place, I create an expanded story concept. I write 3-4 paragraphs or sometimes simply a bulleted list of the general arc of the story. Nothing detailed. Mostly just where the story begins and where it ends.

Here's a quick one for Total Eclipse. It will likely change dramatically, but this is the preliminary concept:

  • Mike and Carolyn join Eric and Linda on a trip to Xanadu a domed resort on the surface of the moon to help them plan their wedding in the "Earthlight Chapel" at the resort. 
  • Jason Kellen, proprietor of the resort invites the pair over for dinner where he shows them his private collection of lunar exploration artifacts. He proposes giving them to the college and funding the building of a museum to house them. They include the golf ball Alan Shepherd hit during his trip to the moon. 
  • Carolyn brings in Moonbeam and the mobile crime lab to help with the a authentication,
  • Before the lab can arrive, the golf ball is stolen. Mike and Carolyn are  asked to investigate quietly. 
  • The day after the Eclipse, Jason is found dead in a crater without an EV suit by Linda and Eric. 
  • The investigation begins
  • They sort out the suspects:
    • His daughter bitter over the divorce
    • The construction engineer who found the golf ball and was paid handsomely for it. 
    • The "waiter" whose facial structure is a close match to that of a theif
    • The Casino owner who wanted to buy the museum collection
    • The ex-wife 
    • The gigilo she brought with her
    • The disgruntled employee fired recently.
    • The holiday director who is everywhere, but no one really knows.  
  • The investigation takes two tacks: Theft of the Golf Ball and Murder of the Host. 
  • They narrow down the suspects to the waiter for the golf ball theft, but then he is found dead with a faked golf ball in his apartment causing everyone to wonder why he didn't just put it in the glass case and no one would be the wiser. 
  • More investigation. Discover the golf ball was a fake from the beginning. Construction engineer is the culprit. He killed the waiter/thief, but was on his way back to Armstrong on the train when Jason was killed. 
  • Investigation proceeds. Physical clues point to the Casino owner. Turns out the Casino owner was a partner with Jason in a failed land investment scheme on Earth. Jason discovered the Casino owner sabotaged the deal and pocketed the money swindled from investors. He was going to turn him in during his stay.
  • Casino owner is murdered. 
  • More investigation and a key piece of physical evidence is found to point to....
You didn't really think I was going to give away the culprit in an open forum did you? 


Now, I lay down, close my eyes and follow the whole story in my mind as it unfolds sort of like a movie in my head. Okay, it's weird, but I enjoy it. I begin to fill in  some of the missing bits and some of the secondary plot elements (No, I didn't forget about Linda and Eric's wedding. That's a whole subplot to be explored) as well as the daughter discovering the father she never knew after his death. 

That's It!

For me that's where it stops. I may add a couple of things like maybe the key bit of physical evidence I haven't quite worked out yet or some notes about one of the subplots, but I don't make my plot outline more detailed than what you see there. However, plotters can do just that. They can work out every individual scene by taking each line in this bulleted list and writing notes on each scene which connects them. 

So, that's how I plot a novel. What about you? What tips do you have about writing the novel?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Having it All, Doing it All and Other Myths of the Modern World

I just read an article on the NPR (National Public Radio) website by Adam Frank based on his book About Time (definitely buying this one) called "Beyond the Punch Clock Life: The Tyranny of Time." In it he says:

Each day, every day, Americans are queuing onto freeways hoping for the best and praying against the worst. The frustration and hopelessness we can feel even in short traffic jams is indicative of the constant struggle to do more in less time. When our morning commute fails to hit its expected mark then, like dominoes, the time-logic of tightly stacked to-dos and appointments topples, leaving us drained before the day even begins. 
The value of efficiency we learned as children drives the expectation that we can "time-manage" our way out of impossibly overbooked schedules. The myth of multitasking has only compounded this dilemma, taking efficiency to new imaginary limits where we can somehow duplicate ourselves and get twice as much done. 
The truth is that we have limits. (Emphasis mine)

Back in the 1980's Helen Gurly Brown, founder of Cosmopolitan Magazine, wrote a book called Having it All. It told a generation of women that they had to sacrifice nothing in life. They could work 60 hours a week pursuing a high powered career, be a fantastic lover and wife, be an amazing mother and save the planet. All they had to do was want it enough. There was even a popular song at the time used in a perfume commercial in which this woman sings, "I can bring home the bacon, Fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you're a man."

It was, of course, a total fantasy. Trade offs are a part of successful living. The philosophy in Brown's book, and many other sources at the time, led a generation of women to frustration and despair and what became known as the "Superwoman Complex." This was characterized by an unrealistic guilt that somehow because they couldn't be the perfect executive, mother and lover all at once they were failures.

They forgot two simple rules of physics - Time is finite and so are you. 

The Myth of Time Management

I have taught a good deal about time management. I believe most of us can benefit from taking a good hard look at how we use our time and make effective choices about that use. However, time management is not a way to bend the space-time continuum and give you more hours in the day. Even squeezing the most out of every minute (which may just lead to more stress in your life) doesn't mean you can take on 25 hours of work in a 24 hour day.

Some people believe that they can do everything and give up nothing, if they just manage their time better. The result is they feel frustrated, rushed and trapped by a schedule that no human being can possible meet. Nevertheless, they feel guilty about not meeting that schedule. They set the bar impossibly high and then punish themselves with stress, guilt, anxiety, high blood pressure and digestive disorders when they can't clear it.

What the have-it-all, do-it-all super person (men and women both succumb to this just in different ways) fails to realize is that true happiness does not come with having it all, but with managing the trade offs well.

The Joy of Known Limits

Self-help gurus tell us all about our possibilities. That is a good thing. Many of us underestimate what we can do. We need to be reminded that we are capable of more than we think sometimes. However, there is also freedom to be found in setting limits and living within them. This is what I mean by "managing the tradeoffs."

Take money, for example, I have so much to spend each month. Sometimes I try to spend more than I have. I go into debt. Now as long as I can service that debt I'm okay, but by going into debt, I reduce my  ability to buy other things. It also reduces my ability to respond to an emergency. And if I have too much debt and can't service it, I have even more stress. I'm sure many of us (myself included) have been in that situation. Leveraging debt to get more things actually results many times in being able to do less with our money.

The same goes with time management. When I over-schedule myself, I not only run out of time, but out of energy. Plus, rushing to meet all those obligations just adds to the stress. So, my performance on each decays or I can't complete them at all creating more stress, which drains more energy which makes me less efficient, which make me more stressed, which..... You get the idea. It's like using one credit card to pay the bill on another card.

However, assume that I defer the gratification of buying a wide screen TV when I can't afford it and begin saving for it so I can pay cash by brown bagging it to lunch for a couple of months, then I can enjoy the TV without worrying about how I'm going to make the payments.

The same goes for time. Turning down that offer to coach your daughter's soccer team, may give you less time with her at the game, but it will give you more time with her and the rest of your family at home.

So, What to Do?

First, Recognize you do have limits, and it is OK. The illusion that you can do it all will only cause you pain and stress when you fail to do everything. Philosopher Kenneth Burke said that we all feel guilty because we can imagine perfection, but can never achieve it. We need to free ourselves from the prison of limitlessness.

Second, Use time management skills to give yourself time and not to fill up every moment. Time management is not a bad thing, if it is used to create a time budget which recognizes the need for periods of unstructured time and the value of setting priorities and making effective trade-offs.

Third, Work is not the only priority. I have to say this one is one  of my issues. I definitely define myself by my work. Facing retirement in seven months, I've been having to rethink that. Family time, recreation, spiritual and emotional development and just plain having fun also need to be priorities.

Fourth, Create realistic assessments for time investment. Every thing you do will take time. The question you have to answer is how much time. If you underestimate, you will find yourself either scrambling to complete on time or have to juggle your schedule for other activities.

Fifth, Let Go. This is hard, but some things you just have to give up or delegate to others. If  you want to have more time for the important things, you have to give up some other the less important ones.

Remember, the world will keep turning even if you aren't pushing 24/7. Give up on trying to "have it all" and take stress free pleasure in what you already have.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Education Wants to be Free Full Courses Offered

I'm excited. Over the weekend, I put together the first of our full courses at Classroom. This is the beginning of what I hope will be a major force in online education for people simply seeking to learn things without having to spend a lot of money.

The name Education Wants to Be Free is adapted from the hackers ethic stated Information Wants to be Free. There is a double meaning in this. Free means both without restriction and without cost. The nature of information (and hence education) is to find its way to learners. As the old proverb says, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." When you want to learn something you will seek out venues in which to learn it.

Wanting to learn and wanting to get a degree or take a class are often two different things. You may have to take a class and pass it for your job. You may see taking classes to get a degree as "paying one's dues" in order to get that sheepskin which is the key to a career. There is nothing wrong with that. However, there are times when YOU - not your boss, not your guidance counselor, not the school system - want to learn something for its own sake. It may be how to write a novel, ancient Greek history, Science fiction as literature or how to give a speech. That's where Education Wants to be Free Learning Space is there to help.

You will be able to learn without restriction in those courses we offer. No Entrance Exams. No long registration forms. No governmental restriction. Crazy idea, but we believe that educators are the best at creating educational opportunities. You will learn online through a state-of-the-art distance learning website powered by MOODLE, an open source course management software, used by many universities in their own distance education programs.

We will be offering courses in writing, history, Bible study/Theology, communication, literature and education. We will likely add other categories as we expand. Right now we are taking registrations for two courses: Preparing for Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) and Basics of Novel Writing.

Preparing for NanowrimoNational Novel Writing Month every year brings together thousands of people from around the world to do one thing - Write a 50,000 word novel. It's wild, crazy, and wonderful. It's called a month of "literary abandon." However, you might feel overwhelmed by the event. Well, not to worry, this course will help you prepare to complete Nanowrimo. Think about this a training for a marathon. You wouldn't decide to tackle a marathon but not bother to train for it in advance. Well this is your training center. Fortunately, all your training here can be accomplished sitting down. Now, that's my kind of training.  This course is offered FREE OF CHARGE

Basics of Novel Writing. This course leads you through the process of planning and editing your novel. By the end of this course you will have completed a first draft (or at least 50,000 words toward a first draft) of your novel and will have written a plot summary. Dates of instruction: November 1 - January 31. New lessons appear weekly during this time period. There are three version of this course

Autopilot (Free) This free autopilot course provides you with no feedback from the instructor, however, there are forums where you can share and receive critique and feedback from other students.  

Deluxe ($10.00) This course is an instructor guided course. You will have full access to the instructor through the course discussion board, MOODLE messaging, and email. Two of the major assignments (First 25,000 words of the first draft and your plot summary) will receive a general critique from the instructor as well as informal critiques of some assignments throughout the course. Upon successful completion of the course, you will receive a certificate of completion.

Premium ($20.00) This course is an instructor guided course. You will have full access to the instructor through the course discussion board, MOODLE messaging, and email. You will receive feedback on all assignments (except the autoscored ones) and a critique of the full 50,000 word draft and story summary. Upon successful completion of the course, you will receive a certificate of completion. Additionally, a file will be created in our student archives for you with the course outline, your scores on assignments and your choice of up to two critiqued assignments. This can be useful if you need to provide verification of continuing education to an employer. Additionally, you will be invited to special Premium student only events such as chat sessions with published authors, editors and publishers.

Free? No Way!

Way. Every course offered will have a free version. Some like the Nanowrimo prep course only have the free option. Others like the novel writing course will have an "autopilot" version with text lessons and access to a student forum but without instructor input or feedback as well as Deluxe and Premium versions offered for less than $50 and usually from $10-20.

I've taught at the college level for close to 30 years. The last 10 years I've taught mostly online and have been instrumental in training other online instructors. These courses will be treated just like my college courses with the same quality of instruction you would find at most colleges and universities.

Why so low?

You may be wondering why, if a state supported college has to charge over $100 to $300 dollars for a creative writing class, I can offer mine for $10 - $20 on average. It all boils down to overhead. A college has a huge plant to maintain all the time whether anyone is there or not. You still have to heat a classroom whether there are 15 or 150 students in that room. There are janitors, maintenance people, clerks, secretaries, electric and gas bills that run into 5 - 6 figures a month.

My overhead? Website hosting and the Domain name. That's pretty much it. About $10-15 a month. One paying student a month covers my overhead. The rest is my own time. But I enjoy teaching and I'm retiring from the school system next year so I'll have lots of time. And I can actually show a profit at $10-$20 a student.

Anyway, I hope to see you over at the new website. But I'll still be posting my mini lessons here as well. Because wherever I post it Education Wants to be Free.

Friday, September 23, 2011

TV and Time Management for Writers

Okay, I admit it, I like to watch TV. And living alone, it is sometimes nice to have some noise around the place other than the cats playing and those sounds of the house settling which your own paranoid mind turns into a serial killer in the next room. Okay, maybe that's just me. However, you can get your TV fix and write. Here are a few tips:

1. Write during commercials and station breaks. The average network TV show has 20 minutes of commercial breaks per hour. In three hours of TV, that's an hour of potential writing time. Just leave everything set up, then either mute the commercials or slip out of the room and go do a power write, edit a few paragraphs of a WIP, answer an email from an editor or client. Each break is 3-5 minutes long. It's amazing how much you can accomplish in that time. 

2. Work while watching. Okay, I'm not one who can write while the TV is playing. However, I can run a spell check on a document during that time. I can also run a search for some research materials online. What are some things you can do while watching TV?

3. Time Shifting. I have Comcast Cable on-demand. I pay a bit extra each month, but most of my favorites shows are available after midnight, the day they air for about a month or two depending on the show. I can even watch part of the show, stop it and come back to it later and pick up where I left off. DVR's and, if you are old school, VHS can help you save programs for another time. Also many are available in full episodes online at places like Hulu and Fancast and the Network websites. Right now one of my favorite shows is on, but I decided to work here for a while and then crawl into bed and watch CSI:NY at my leisure. 

4. Only watch what you want to watch. Now, this one really hits me between the eyes. Sometimes I find myself staring at the tube watching something that doesn't really interest me just because it is on. Sometimes I click up and down the dial over and over again when I could take that time to write. I understand compromises need to be made with families, but what I mean by this is don't just keep watching a show that is boring you silly when you don't have to. Turn it off, or just slip away if others are enjoying it, and take that time to write, edit, research, catch up on email whatever helps with you writing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Put in the Big Rocks First: Time Management for Writers

The story is told of a business consultant giving a lecture about time management. He set a large glass bowl on the table and put in a bunch of fairly large rocks. He turned to his audience and said, "Is this bowl filled?"

Everyone agreed it was. Then he took out a bag of small pebbles and poured them in around the rocks. Again he asked: "Is this bowl filled?" Again the audience agreed. He then took out a bag of sand and poured it in filling the spaces around the rocks.

Then he said, "What does this tell us about time management?"

An eager young junior executive shouted out, "No matter how busy you are, there is always room for more work?"

"That is NOT the lesson!" the consultant said. "The lesson is that you will never get the big rocks in unless you put them in first."

Whenever I offer a lesson on time management, people think I'm going to show them some magic trick to find large blocks of unused time in their day or maybe bend the laws of physics to get an extra couple of hours added to the clock. That is not going to happen. If you want time to write (or do anything else for that matter) you have to make time for it. That will probably mean dumping something else. Right now, there is a TV show on I'd like to be watching, but I'm writing this lesson instead. I made a choice. I decided that this is more important than watching a rerun of a show which will likely be run again later. I made this a priority.

What are your priorities? We are often pushed around not by important tasks, but urgent ones. I can hear you saying, aren't those the same? No, they are not. Urgent means it needs to be done quickly or it won't be done. That doesn't mean it is actually important. Some things don't matter if they are not done.

We often let low priority items push out the high priority ones. Look at your calendar for today. Mark each item on it with 1-3. One being the highest priority and three being the lowest. What low priority items can you eliminate to make time for your writing? If you mark everything as a high priority, take another look. Odds are, not everything you do today is essential to one of the priorities for your life.

If you want to write, you have to make it a priority. Ask yourself as you look over your schedule today, "Compared with writing my novel, studying my craft, editing my articles, research my book how important is this event. Is it more important? If not, then why should I be doing it instead of writing?"

What things can you eliminate from your schedule or at least cut down in terms of time to get more time for writing? Post a few ideas here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Lesson from Aristotle about Building Characters

One of the first things I learned in college, which I didn't already know from high school (our high school was pretty good so the first two years of college were mostly an advanced review), was a quote from Aristotle's Rhetoric. Aristotle wrote, "There is an object at which all men aim in any action which they choose or avoid; and that object may be called happiness or possession of The Good."

I capitalize The Good because it is an interesting word in Greek. Aristotle combined two Greek words translated "good" in English to create a concept unique to his writing. One is Kalos meaning "good, useful, beautiful, practical, and well made." The other "agathos" means "morally good, righteous, ethical, justifiable." In other words, the actions we take are motivated by what we perceive as being both desirable on a material level, as well as, morally right.

So, what does this have to do with fiction writing?  Your characters do things. The question you must ask before they do them is "Why?" We have all read bad literature where characters just do things to advance the plot without there being no clear motivation for them to do so.

One cliché from the movies is the shy, wimpy, scaredy-cat woman, who, upon hearing a noise in the room down the hall, instead of calling 911 and running out of the house, takes a flashlight and opens the door to the room to see what's going on.

We all say, "Give me a break!" We know it is out of character for her to do so. When we ask what this character with this personality expects to achieve by doing such a "courageous" act, we don't know.
Now, if it has been built into the script that she has called the police one too many times about imaginary threats, and she is trying to overcome her own paranoia, then it makes sense for her to do this possibly foolhardy thing. Her concept of The Good (overcoming her fears) outweighs the threat.

Go back to each of your characters and ask yourself, "What is this character's concept of The Good in this scene. What do they hope to accomplish? How will this act help them achieve that?" If you can't come up with a satisfying answer, then you need to revise either the character or the plot so that the action makes sense.

Many fictional villains, especially those in action-oriented fiction, seem to lack motivation. The classic is the one where the villain decides to do something that will destroy the world. Hello! You are on the world you are ready to destroy. Unless you write into this characters arc that he is suicidal, you have a real problem with motivation. At a less obvious level, why do the bullies in the youth novel harass the kid?  What does the drunken husband expect to accomplish by drinking? What is the concept of The Good that drives the evil brother to the king in the fantasy novel to attempt a palace coup?

In other words, ask yourself, "What do my characters want when they do things?" Write according to your answer.