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.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Basics of Plot: A Classical Approach

There are a lot of plotting strategies taught today - The Snowflake Method, The wagon wheel, The heroes journey. These all have merit as ways to help you develop your story. If one of them works for you fine, but for me I always return to the classics. Classical understanding of fiction divides a story into six parts. If you understand the function of each of these parts, then plotting your story (even if you are a pantser and not a plotter) becomes more natural.

At it's core a story is simply this a person is doing something, but a problem arises, in trying to solve that problem several complications arise, eventually all those complications resolve themselves to one final problem to be resolved, after which the person can relax changed by the adventure be no longer engaged in it.

The classical elements of this type of plot are: exposition, action, conflict, complications (or rising action), climax (or crisis) and resolution (or falling action.)


The exposition is where we get to know the characters and who they are. We find out something about the setting and the motivations of the characters. Long expositions have fallen out of favor in our time, but if you read someone like Dickens, you will see several chapters at the beginning devoted to simply setting the stage for the story.

Today, however, this needs to be kept short and character introduction and establishment of setting is typically accomplished during the action and conflict portions of the story. However, some background, particularly in novels, may still be established in early chapters. For instance, cozy mysteries may take a "slower" approach and spend more time getting to know the characters in the first 2-3 chapters than say an action-adventure novel. Knowing the character had a passion for pistachio ice cream, lived 30 years in the same house, and generally made enemies of all his neighbors may be vital clues to unravel the mystery.


This is where more modern novels begin. The main character engages in some sort of activity. Let's take a simple paranormal romance story (as if romance were ever simple even without the paranormal element). Jennifer, a 50-year-old college professor teaches a class on horror fiction derisively called "Ghosties and Ghoulies 101" by her colleagues. The action begins as she begins a new semester of the class with a discussion of the horror classic Dracula. One suave gentleman about her age engages in the conversation in an intelligent and provocative way.

Jennifer's goal is simple. She just wants to teach another semester of her favorite night class. She is  engaged in doing just that one more time.


If Jennifer just teaches another class successfully with nothing out of the ordinary happening, we really don't have a story. Something has to happen to change the course of the intended path the main character has set out for herself at the start of the story. Something has to interrupt her plans.

In this case, that interruption is Jonathan Langston, a suave 50 something, student with piercing eyes, graying beard and salt and pepper hair. Jennifer feels her heart race whenever she glances in his direction. She finds it difficult to avoid directing her lectures to him alone as if they are the only two in the room. She hasn't felt these feelings in years, so when he asks her out for a snack after class, she breaks her own non-fraternization policy and begins a relationship with this exciting, but mysterious man.

Some people misunderstand conflict. They think it has to be something dramatic like a dead body falling out of the ceiling or a shot ringing out in the night. Conflict is simply something that gets in the way of the main character's goal. In this case, her goal is to just teach another class without any change. Meeting and deciding to date Jonathan Langston changes those plans and sets off a series of complications.

Complications (or Rising Action)

The conflict spawns a series of secondary conflicts called complications. Take the book Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The conflict occurs when Huck decides to help the Slave Jim run away to the north. Everything that happens after that in the book is a result of that decision.

Each complication in the story makes it harder for the character to resolve the initial conflict and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. Let's go back to our paranormal romance. Jennifer finds that she is lacks energy during the day following her night class or a date with Jonathan. Jonathan's study group has had several students call in sick and drop out because of illness. Jonathan's fiction project spins an eerily realistic tale of two species co-existing on earth with one living off the psychic energy of the other providing the foundation for the vampire myths. She continues to get sicker. Jonathan becomes more distant and wants to break off the relationship, but both find themselves drawn back together.

Climax (or Crisis)

At some point all the complications culminate in a final conflict, the outcome of which will determine the future of the characters. This is like reaching the peak of a mountain you have been climbing throughout the story. This is where the hero battles the villain one on one, the detective reveals the murderer, the asteroid threatening earth is fitted with the rockets to divert it and the rockets fire, the final vote is taken at the board meeting to determine if you retain control of the family business.

Returning to our paranormal romance. It is obvious by this time that Jonathan is more than he appears to be. She is about to confront him at dinner when she collapses entirely. She is rushed to the hospital. She is found to be dangerously anemic. Jonathan visits her in the hospital and concludes the telling of his "story" to her about the vampire in love with the mortal who must leave her to save her. He kisses her and says good bye.

Resolution (or falling action)

After the climax, the world changes in some way. The mystery is solved. The bad guy defeated. The lover won (or lost). The world saved. And the character changes as well. Jennifer can no longer teach night classes. The night which once was so soothing in it's quiet darkness now only holds sorrow for her and her memories of a mysterious student with a remarkable story.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A simple route to Publication: The How To Article

One day I was sitting in the library and got an idea. I took 100 magazines off the shelf at random. Yes, I got some strange looks from the librarians, but they know me and know I do strange things. They also know I'm more familiar with the library than they are. So, they don't worry too much.

Out of the 100 different publications I surveyed 83 of them had some sort of how-to-do-it article in the current issue. The how-to article is so ubiquitous that we rarely even think that someone has to write those articles. It might as well be you.

One advantage to the how to article is that it is easy to organize. There are only four parts to one. They are the hook, the why, the how to and the go-to-it.

The Hook

This is the introduction where you "hook" your reader. You have about 100 words to do that, if not they will turn the page or click over to another part of the website. More importantly, the editor won't stick with the article longer than it takes to type your name on the rejection slip.

The idea hook for a how-to article is something that appeals to the person's self interest. For instance, if you are going to write an article about how to get more mileage out of your car, you might begin: "If you've been to the gas station recently, you know the price of gas just keeps going up. However, with just a few simple and inexpensive tricks, you can improve your gas mileage by 20% or more saving thousands of dollars a year."

The Why

If you didn't clearly appeal to self-interest in the introduction, then you want to do so shortly thereafter. After all, someone is going to spend the next 15-20 minutes or more of their life reading what you wrote. You need to give them a reason to do so.

The How To

This forms the bulk of the article. This is where you tell the reader step by step how to do whatever it is you are showing them how to do. Most of the time this will be a sequence of activities. For instance, if you are writing an article about some sort of craft project you might begin with a list of materials and then start with the very first step in the process and continue to the last.

It can be helpful, if you do the project and take notes throughout the process. That way you will be aware of all the steps including those you might forget if you weren't actually doing the project.

Sometimes, though, a how-to article won't be sequential. For instance, if you are a financial advisor and you are writing about how to pick a winning stock, it might not matter whether you check their price to earnings ratio first or their stock rating with Standard and Poor's.

Either way, you want to keep the steps simple given your readership. For instance, let's say you are showing how to build a china cabinet. If you are writing the article for the Professional Cabinet Makers Quarterly, then you could say "Make a dovetail joint," and that would be all you would have to say. However, if it was "Weekend Woodworker" targeting amateurs, then you would need to go into more detail because many of your readers would not know how to make a dovetail joint.

The Go to It

This is the conclusion. You want to end on an upbeat note letting the reader know that if they follow these steps they can succeed on the project.

So, what are you waiting for. How to's are easy to write and easy to sell. GO TO IT!!!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Let's Pretend

Making up stories is one of the ways we had fun as children. We made up fantastic tales about superheroes, knights and princesses, monsters and ballerinas. We pretended to be cowboys and spacemen, doctors and fire fighters, police and criminals. As we played, our little imaginations grew.

Somewhere along the way, we lost our permission to pretend. Our education, our work, our "real" life pushed out our imaginary one. We became the teachers, nurses, mechanics, stock brokers, welders, clerks, doctors, lawyers and business executives that we were supposed to become. 
Today, I give you permission to play "Let's Pretend." Here are a few exercises to get you started.

Chance Encounters 

Our lives are filled with "chance" encounters. You decide to go to the gym on Monday instead of Tuesday, and you meet the person who will become your best friend. You go to church one Sunday morning, and you sit behind the person who eventually hires you for your dream job. This exercise is about chance encounters. It is challenging, but my students have a lot of fun with it. Just a side note for teachers, this also makes a great creative drama group exercise.
This exercise takes some preparation, though. Get a package of file cards. Pull out about 30-40. On each card, write down a different character. Keep them vague like little girl, sales representative, reporter, actor, starship captain, etc.
The more variety you have the better.
After this, take out about 20 cards and write down locations like the supermarket, a space station, street corner, the old west, etc. Again, aim for variety.
Now, comes the fun part. Pull two cards out of the character stack and one card out of the location. Take 15-20 minutes to write a short story or slice of life about these two people meeting in this location. Don’t worry if the story is silly (it probably will be) or the writing forced. You are not going to be publishing this. It’s just a way to brush away the cobwebs and get started writing.

The Computer went Crazy and….

We live surrounded by technology. Most of us don't understand any of it or how it works. Sometimes, it seems like it has a mind of its own.
What if it did have a mind of its own? What if one day it had the electronic version of a psychotic break? What would happen? Imagine your computer went crazy (I mean crazier than it already is). What would it do? Would it go on strike and refuse to do any work until you upgraded its memory or bought it a cool new DVD drive? Would it try to take over the world? How might it accomplish these things?
You can do a few variations on this theme. Instead of the computer imagine your toaster or vacuum cleaner or TV went crazy. What if your car went crazy? Okay, it's been done, but your car might go crazy in a nicer way. Maybe instead of killing people, she imagines herself to be a superhero.

From the Monster's Point of View 

Most of us are familiar with monster movies. They are almost universally told from the monster hunter's perspective. However, it can be fun to look at things differently. Write a story from the monster's perspective. Here are a few "monstrous" ideas:

Create a Monster.  If you had to be a monster, what kind of monster would you be? Would you be big and hairy with four eyes and long fangs? Would you be a scaly dragon breathing fire? Would you be a multi-tentacled sea creature?  When making your monster, also think about how the monster got that way. Genetic mutation caused by radiation? Witches curse? Biogenetic engineering? Arrival from another planet?

Misunderstood Monster.  One of the most poignant scenes in horror cinema is from the original Frankenstein movie. The creature comes upon a girl by a pond picking flowers. He is attracted by the flowers, and he wants to play with the girl. Someone sees him, and they start screaming, and the girl starts screaming, and he accidentally kills the girl not knowing his own strength. Write a scene where your monster is misunderstood in some way.

    The Monster Under the Bed . I'm not sure if, as children, we were scared of the monster under the bed or comforted by it. In a strange way, that monster was our own bedtime companion. It was, also, a good way to get Mom and Dad's attention.  Imagine there really is a monster under your bed. What's life like for it? Does it get bored? Why is it under the bed and not out terrorizing the village?

Creating a scary monster, that's easy. Creating a sympathetic monster is much harder and much more fun.

Magic Doors and Secret Passages

Here are a couple of simple exercises to get your creative juices flowing:
1. You wake up. You go into any room of your house and notice a door that wasn't there the night before. Open it and describe what lies behind it.

2. You are cleaning the bookcase in your new house, or you are visiting a friend, and you tug on a book. The bookcase moves out of the way to reveal a secret passage. Where does that passage lead? What happens when you get to the end of it?

The Trunk in the Attic

I don't have an attic, but I do have a cedar chest I inherited from my mother. After she passed away, I went through the memories stored there. I found some tiny booties, a wedding dress, clippings of stories I wrote for the school newspaper, letters from my Dad when he was stationed with the occupation forces in Japan after WWII, pictures of my grandparents, scrapbooks, baby clothes. Here lay 83 years of life stacked in a four-foot long wooden box. We pack away our memories and let years go by without even looking at them, but those bits and pieces of life trapped in the things we cannot throw away tell a story. They tell many stories.

Here's an exercise. Your mother (or grandmother, aunt, best friend or those of a character in your story) has passed away. You are cleaning out the attic. You come across a trunk. You open the trunk. What do you find? Write about it. What story does it tell? How might what you find in it change your life? What secrets does it reveal?

For variety, it can be a garage or a storage closet or a maybe a four-foot long cedar chest.

Only One Day 

 Back in the 1960's, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called "Last Night of the World." The premise was that everyone woke up one morning and "just knew" it was the last day of the world. Many creative works feature someone with a limited time to live. Two that come to mind are A Lesson before Dying and Tuesdays with Morrie. There was also that 60's TV show starring Ben Gazzara called Run for your Life about a man with only a year to live.

Why not give your character the bad news? The Doctor tells your main character that s/he will be dead by midnight. The person will be in good health until then. What does that character do with the time left? Describe their day.

 Here's a more disturbing variation, but, if you have the courage to do it, you will benefit. You have only 24 hours to live. What do you do with the time? Write a short story describing your day. Be honest. Don't write what you hope you would do. Write what you think you really would do. Since most of our characters, stories, articles, essays and books come from within, understanding what's inside there helps make us better writers.

Time Machine 

Here is a fun exercise. You sit down at the controls of a time machine. The dials spin randomly and land on a date. You open the door. What do you see? You can randomize this exercise by writing some dates on pieces of paper and drawing one out by random.  Write 1000 words describing what you see.
It's a good exercise for historical or science fiction writers.


The original title for this was "Christmas Ornament Stories." Then I realized that Christmas had passed when I wrote it. However, the idea works for any type of keepsake.

Many of us have keepsakes around the house. Christmas ornaments are a perfect example. When I look at my tree, I see the plain blue and green globes that I bought for my first Christmas after I moved out on my own. Fewer remain, and they aren't very fancy, but they have a story behind them.
Then there are the ornaments given to me by my students over the years. A few I bought because a niece or a nephew wanted me to buy them.  They were in charge of decorating the tree for several years.
I also collect Teddy Bears and Tea Pots. My Mom has her collection of Salt and Pepper shakers collected from the places we visited when I was young. I can point to each and tell you where and when and why we bought them.

So, if you are stuck for an idea to get started writing, try pointing your attention at one of your keepsakes and begin writing about where that came from. You'll find the creativity of remembrance flooding through your heart and onto the page.

A short video course on Social Media for Writers

Some of you are already heavy into all social media. Some of you use one or another of them. Some of you are still scratching your head and saying, "So on Facebook, you post whatever you are doing and then what?" This video gives you some of the advantages and disadvantages of various online media.

Social Media for Writers from Terri Main on Vimeo.

Also, remember, we are still offering free copies of Creative Calisthenics, and if you promise to pass along the offer to others through Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, your own blog or email list, we'll add a collection of Carolyn Masters Short Mysteries and a $20 pre-launch premium course upgrade for the new website. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Getting Ready to Write: The Art of Prewriting

When most people think of writing, their image begins with the hapless scribe sitting down in front of the computer and beginning to compose the story, article, play, essay or whatever else they might be writing. Some a bit more savvy about the writing process than others might acknowledge a research stage or an outlining/planning stage. However, there is a stage before one even begins to plan a piece of writing. That is called pre-writing.

Prewriting is the stage where you get ready to write. In one way, everything that ever happened to you prior to your writing session could be considered Pre-Writing. However, that is a bit too philosophical for our purposes. We are going to discuss ways to enter a writing session.

Before beginning, remember, these steps aren't always necessary. Many times you can and will just sit down and start writing. Other times you simply don't have time for this. However, sometimes you just have to "warm up." Think about it like stretching before an exercise session. There are three types of pre-writing activities. (Probably more, but let's try to keep things simple here.) Rituals, Meditations and Exercises


Many people begin by using a variety of rituals. Most wouldn't consider them rituals, but they are behaviors which get them in the mood for writing. These might include sitting down in your favorite recliner with your laptop (okay I'm thinking of mine).  Some have a particular dietary regimen with snacks and drinks nearby. For others it might be a type of music playing on the stereo. It may even be a lucky T-shirt or a Teddy Bear tucked under one arm. Hey, what ever works and is legal.

What rituals do you perform before you sit down to write? Share with us .


James Qwilleran, a journalist character Lillian Jackson Braun's Cat Who... series of mystery novels, says that 90 percent of writing is thinking and 10 percent the actual writing.  I am likely to be laying on my bed with my eyes closed envisioning myself writing the story or article. Sometimes my fingers even twitch. I'm not saying you should do this, but it's one of my ways to prepare to write. Of course, this is not a good idea at the end of a very long and tiring day. Meditation can easily turn to sleeping.

Some of us who have strong religious beliefs include prayer in our pre-writing routine. As a Christian, I will ask God to give my his wisdom and inspiration and to guide my writing. I even do this with my secular writing. I find it helps me to have not just a project, but a purpose.

Whatever method works for you, a time of reflection before writing can give you extra focus.

Is there a way that you reflect or meditate prior to writing? Tell us about it


We will be examining these more in future lessons, but when you are having trouble getting started writing using writing prompts or creativity exercises can help you get ready to write.

I began creating Creative Calisthenics more than 20 years ago when I was teaching three-hour long writing classes. We began each session with a quick exercise. These exercises did two things. First, they helped us limber up those creative muscles for the more substantive exercises to come. However, secondly and as importantly, they were FUN!!

Writing is work. We all know that. But too often, especially when working on assignment or pushing a deadline or just trying to make that first sale, we forget that what draws most of us to writing in the first place is the sheer joy of putting words together in interesting ways, of creating characters and the worlds they inhabit, of finding out about a subject and writing about it. We forget about the fun.

A reminder of that element of fun in writing before getting to the work of writing lightens the load when struggling with the fourth revision or expunging passive voice and correcting commas.

You know, even if writing prompts did nothing more than help you have fun, they are probably worth it.

So, for the next few days, let's have fun.

Do you have any favorite exercises you use? We'd all love to hear about them. Post something in the comments below

This is adapted from Creative Calisthenics: The Ultimate Workout for the Writers Imagination. Email me to receive a free e-copy of the book (A Five Dollar Value) as well as an anthology of Carolyn Masters Mysteries calledLunar Calendar including one story never before published introducing a pintsized genius and a robotic cat, an exclusive excerpt from Dark Side of the Moon, and a $20 pre-launch discount on premium upgrades to courses offered on the new website. For complete details of this special offer good through November 30, email me and put “Free Book” in the subject line. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Creating Your Own Writing Prompts

At the risk of being like the magician who reveals her tricks, I'm going to pull back the curtain and teach you how to create your own writing prompts. It's not as hard as you might think. All you need is an observant eye and a bit of imagination.

Writing prompts provide the writer with a way to jump start a writing session. Sort of like stretching before an aerobics session. Also, when you get stuck for ideas, writing prompts can help prime the pump so to speak. When you hit an impasse writing something different can give your mind the break it needs to work its way around that block. Besides all that, THEY ARE FUN!!!!!!!!!

I wish I could give you a step-by-step method for writing the perfect writing prompt. I can't, but I can give you some principles that will help you develop your own file of exercises so you never have to say, “I don't know what to write about” ever again.

Warning: Don't overthink your writing prompt. There is no right or wrong way to do this. A good writing prompt is anything that gets you to writing. You aren't in high school English class. No one will grade you on your writing prompt. If it isn't fun, do something else.


You can build writing prompts around random events. A simple one is to keep a bag of objects next o your desk. Pull one out and start writing a story about it. My bag is full of weird and unusual objects I've picked up over the years in second hand stores. I pretend that I'm an archaeologist, and I found this in a dig. I begin to daydream thinking about what someone in that time and place might have done with it.

Another fun exercise is to make up a bunch of cards with characters on them like “Vampire, school teacher, little girl, soldier, starship captain, etc.”  Pull out two characters at random and begin writing a story about them. It doesn't have to be good or even make much sense. To make this more interesting create another set of cards with settings on them. So you might have a psychiatrist and a space vampire  on a talk show.

What are some ways you can use random events to create writing prompts?  Why not share a few in the comments.

Real Life Observation

Story ideas are all around you. You just have to look for them. One day, I was on my way to an appointment in San Francisco's Civic Center District. As I approached Grove and Van Ness on the corner I saw a pair of sensible, but new, ladies shoes. They sat just like they had been set on a shoe store shelf. A couple of hours later, I returned. Only one shoe remained. There is a story behind that. I don't know what it is, but someday, I'm going to write it.

Keep your eyes open and you will see writing prompts all around you. That elderly couple sitting in the booth next to you at the restaurant holding hands. What is their story? The child escorted onto the plane alone with a name tag like a piece of luggage. Where is she going? An abandoned house once sheltered a family. What happened?

News stories are another source of writing prompts.  A ten-year-old piano prodigy is playing at the local concert hall. What is life like for someone like that? What will it be like 20 years from now?

Sometimes just an interesting character appears. I recently met an old guy in a pet and feed store when I was getting some pet food. He had a shock of white hair and a scraggly white beard. His face was like leather. While finding the pet food, he talked about being in Viet Nam and about his farm and the time when he was raising peacocks. He grumbled good-naturedly about his arthritis, but hefted a 25 pound sack of Friskies into my trunk with ease. Now, let's say I take that guy and put him into a scene in my work in progress. What would he say, do, contribute to the story?

Is there something you have seen or some interesting character you've met recently, that in retrospect might make a good story starter? If so, post a note in the comments and share it with us.

What if...

If you don't already speculate about alternative realities, now is a good time to start. What ifs are wonderful things. For instance, if someone hadn't said, “What if we combine a computer with a video screen we would be spitting out reams of paper online.

For the writer, what ifs create stories. For a good writing prompt, you can go crazy with your what ifs. For instance, What if cats ruled the world?  What if writing had never been invented? What if all the computers stopped working? What if...

If you find yourself stuck on your work-in-progress, what ifs can help break the log jam. What if the doorbell rang? What if the main character won the lottery? What if one of the characters died? What if a tornado ripped through town? You might never use it in your story, but the what ifs can get you writing and maybe reveal more about your characters and your story.

Well, I'm pretty sure you can come up with a lot of what ifs.  Why not post a few in the comments?

Mix and Match

Sometimes to stimulate your creativity you need to mix things up. Bring together unlikely combinations. For instance, vampires are scary creatures of the night who are evil through and through and live dark, mysterious lives. What if you have a teenage vampire, going to high school? Okay, that one is taken, but the idea is that you take two things that don't seem to match and put them together.

Sometimes genre blending is a good way to start. Instead of chick lit, why not chick lit/science fiction. Young innocent girl from an agricultural planet flies off to a commerce planet where she gets a high powered job hanging out with the movers and shakers of the galaxy. Or how about a horror western. Dracula in Tombstone maybe.

What are some ideas you might mix and match to make a writing prompt?  If you have any ideas post them in the comments.

Point of View

Try playing around with point of view. Take a “typical” story and change the POV. For instance, monster stories are usually told from the point of view of the monster hunter. Why not tell it from the point of view of the monster? Other variations could include telling a love story from the point of view of the waiter in the restaurant where the couple meets for dinner, writing an action adventure tale from the point of view of the taxi driver of the cab commandeered by the hero, telling a sword and sorcery story from the point of view of the horse ridden by the hero.

Just a note, sometimes, if you find yourself stuck with a piece of writing, switching point of view can help. For instance, what is the villain's take on what happened in that last scene?

Can you think of a writing prompt in which a shift in point of view can get you thinking differently? Why not post one in the comments?

Role Playing

As children we pretended to be other people. As writers, we do the same in a different way.  Even when writing certain types of nonfiction, you have to imagine your way into someone you are profiling. The only difference is that you have to stick to what is known.

Here are some great ways to role play:
Write a blog  or diary in the persona of your character.

Write a series of letters or emails from your character to a friend

Interview your character.

What other ways can you “get into the head” of your character?

Are there other ways you can think of to create your own writing prompts? Post your ideas below.

This is adapted from Creative Calisthenics: The Ultimate Workout for the Writers Imagination. Email me to receive a free e-copy of the book (A Five Dollar Value) as well as an anthology of Carolyn Masters Mysteries calledLunar Calendar including one story never before published introducing a pintsized genius and a robotic cat, an exclusive excerpt from Dark Side of the Moon, and a $20 pre-launch discount on premium upgrades to courses offered on the new website. For complete details of this special offer good through November 30, email me and put “Free Book” in the subject line. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

What a Character: The Creative Calisthenic Way to Build Great Characters

Be sure to read through to the end for a special offer from Education Wants to be Free.

A story stripped of everything else is simply some people doing something somewhere. But notice the construction of that sentence. The people come first. Without well developed characters acting in character, your writing will be stilted and lack realism. 

Here are a few exercises to help you develop great characters:

Background Check

Read to the end to find out how to get your copy
If you find yourself wondering what your character might do next, then you may need to get to know your character better. Try this exercise. Pretend that your character is under investigation by the police as a "person of interest." The detective turns to his sidekick and says, "Run a background check on ___" What would they find? 

What's their credit like?
What are some of their past jobs?
What's their education?
Were they ever arrested? For what?
Where did they live before the start of the story?
Do they have relatives? Who are they? Where do they live?
What organizations do they belong to?
How many times have they been married? 
Do they have children? Grandchildren?
What are their hobbies?
What awards have they won? 
Where do they work? 
Where did they work in the past?

You get the idea. Even if none of this goes into the story itself, it helps you understand that character. That understanding will make it easier to know how that character will respond when he or she gets into some sticky situation.

Home Beautiful

Everybody has to live somewhere. Whether it is a mansion on Nob Hill or a cardboard box in the Tenderloin, it's home to somebody. Where does your character live? Here are three ideas for bringing your characters home to the readers.

Create a Floor Plan.  What direction does you character turn when leaving the kitchen for the living room? Is her bedroom at the rear of the house? Is his study so close to the kitchen he can smell the roast cooking in the oven? A simple way to keep track is to draw a simple floor plan of the house. You can base it on a real floor plan or create your own. If you want to get fancy about it, you can buy computer programs that will help you lay out your rooms complete with furniture. 

Decorating style.  Describe your character's decorating style. Is it ultra-modern, colonial or country cozy. Maybe it's eclectic. Maybe it's just a jumble of stuff s/he likes. How does your character feel about the décor? Is the husband happy with his wife's choices for his study? Is the wife happy about her decision to let her husband decorate the den? How does the parent feel about the posters of pop stars adorning the walls of their teenage daughter's room?

Real Estate Brochure.  Pretend that your main characters are selling their home. Write up a brochure. Cut pictures out of magazines to illustrate the rooms. What are the big selling points for the home? Large backyard? Pool? Close to schools? 

Find the Emotion Inside You

You have probably heard of method acting where the actor finds in himself or herself the emotions the character is feeling and uses that to create a depiction of that character. Well, that's a good way to understand the emotions of your characters as well. 

 It starts with a sense memory of an event. Let's say your character is being chased by bad guys. S/he is running for his or her life. Take a piece of paper and write down a detailed description of some time when you were terribly scared of something. Be specific. What were your feelings? Did you heart pound? Did you perspire? What did the perspiration feel like? Smell like? Taste like? What about your breathing. Since your character is running, remember a time when you were running (whether you were running from someone or not) what was that like? Pain in the balls of the foot, blisters, limping, perspiration burning the eyes? 

Once you have those memories clearly in mind, write the scene, drawing on those experiences. 

Help Wanted: Great Characters

Here's something that happens to a lot of fiction writers. We come up with a great premise and a bit of a plot, but then we realize that plots and premises are fine, but it's people who make the story go forward. Even when we have a good idea of what the main characters might be like, we have the supporting cast and a whole host of "bit parts." To help get a good idea of what these characters are like write a help wanted announcement.  Here's one for my work in progress which takes place in an underground settlement on the moon which looks a lot like a small town. 

Wanted: proprietor of a general store on the moon. Must be conversant with the odds and ends of daily life. From everyday china to hammers, nails, screwdrivers, screws and umbrellas. Your job is to keep people supplied with what they need. You should also be able to deliver a little folksy wisdom. If people underestimate you or consider you eccentric all the better. Some side work as a spy may be included in your duties. 

A follow up to this exercise would be to write out a series of interview questions for different "applicants" for the job. What would they list as their qualifications, prior jobs, hobbies, skills, etc. It can be a different and enjoyable way to create a backstory. 

Award Dinner 

I came up with this one while talking to one of the other speech instructors at the college. One of the assignments she gives her students is to prepare a presentation speech for an awards banquet. I thought, "What a great idea for developing a fiction character?" 
One of your characters is receiving an award. What award is it? Who presents it to him/her? What does the presenter say about the recipient? How does your character feel about the award? What does he or she say when accepting the award?

Now, try your hand at one or more of these. Share your results. Also share ways you get to know your characters.

This is adapted from Creative Calisthenics: The Ultimate Workout for the Writers Imagination. Email me to receive a free e-copy of the book (A Five Dollar Value) as well as an anthology of Carolyn Masters Mysteries called Lunar Calendar including one story never before published introducing a pintsized genius and a robotic cat, an exclusive excerpt from Dark Side of the Moon, and a $20 pre-launch discount on premium upgrades to courses offered on the new website. For complete details of this special offer good through November 30, email me at and put “Free Book” in the subject line. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Calm Down - The Meta Tags are Coming!!!

Don't Panic!!! I'm going to talk a bit about HTML code. I said to stop panicking. Okay, take a big drink of water and calm down. These are simple pieces of code you can add to your website to make them more accessible to search engines. These are called META tags. Don't ask, I don't know why. Each of them begin with the word META. The two we will look at here are 'description' and 'keywords.' We will also talk about the 'title' tag.

These tags all go into the "head" section of the code. When you open up the code, you will see a lot of stuff that doesn't make much sense unless you know HTML. Even if you do know code, it can still look confusing because each programmer lays out their code differently.

Just look for the the tags <.Head> and <./Head> (Note: I added a period in front of these terms to keep the system from reading this as actual code. Remove the period before using any of these pieces of code. Better yet, type it in without the period.)

This is the place where you will place your Meta and Title Tags. Let's start with the Title.

The title tag is simple:

<.Title>Your Wonderful Title<./title>

The title should be descriptive and include at least one search term. So, if you have a site that reviews Science Fiction called Starry Eyed Observations, you could have this title tag:

<.Title>Starry Eyed Observations: Reviews of the Best in Science Fiction<./Title>

META tags have two parts: the identifier and the content. The Description tag looks like this:

<.META name="description" content="In about 15-25 words describe your website. Avoid any type of sales pitch, just describe what the reader will find.">

This description will sometimes show up in the search engines or at least part of it. Make the first few words the most descriptive since it may get cut off in the listing.

<.META name="description" content="Starry-Eyed Observations reviews Science Fiction books and websites. Features reviews of new Science Fiction books and interviews with Science Fiction authors.">  Yes, it is redundant. But I got in a main search term three times. Save the great writing for your website.

The second is the keyword meta tag. In this you will list all of the keywords and phrases that people are likely to use when searching for a site like yours. Don't repeat exact key words, but you can repeat those key words in phrases. Also consider including common misspellings.

<.META name="keywords" content="science fiction, science fiction novels, science-fiction, book reviews, book reveiws, interviews, interveiws, literature">

These should be included on each page and customized for each page. So, if one page has links to book reviews of your novel, then emphasize reviews in your description, title and keywords. If it is an excerpt, then emphasize literature, novel, etc.

Okay, breathe slowly. That wasn't too bad was it?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ten Tips for Search Engine Optimization

Most searches begin with a search engine. That means we want to be able to show up well in the search engines. However, I must point out that when I check my stats most of my visitors come from other web sites and not search engines. Nevertheless, we don't want to miss out on any visitors because our websites are not search engine friendly. I've been reading about search engine optimization recently. Here are some of the things I gleaned from the reading. I must say, that there are a few changes I'll make to my websites based on this reading.

1. Content rich sites are best. Sites that are mostly collections of links or ads will not show up as well in the rankings as those which have articles. Even if you are going to feature audio or video on your site, write several pages of copy relevant to the subject, even if they are only about how to use the audio or video player. The search engines like words.

2. Keep the flash to an inside page. I'm sorry. I love those slick, cool, flash pages, but they are nearly invisible to the search engines. You notice that very few major commercial websites have flash only splash pages. They have content rich front pages which might contain some flash content, but doesn't take up the whole page

If you want to keep the flash, surround it or augment it with some actual text that is relevant to the search terms. Some tips if you are wedded to that flash page.
  • Use search term rich meta-tags in the "Head" section of the page. I'll write about meta tags later
  • Submit the site manually to the search engines. Both Yahoo and Google have utilities for doing this. It takes several weeks for them to put it into the queue, but could be worth it.
  • Add normal Html to the page. put some text below the flash that includes at least one search term. Like "To skip this flash presentation and proceed to the best Christian science fiction site on the web click here"

3. Run from frames. There are many alternatives to frames, use them. Put a vertical nav bar in plain html on each page. Use tables to lay out the page. Better yet, use CSS.

4. Use the search terms. Now, this is a bit tricky. You want your page to be readable, but at the same time, the more times you use a variation on the search term the more the page seems more relevant to the search engine. I guess the best thought is to look for places where it won't hurt the flow of the copy. Instead of saying, "I hope you enjoy the stories on this site," you could say, "I hope every science fiction fan will enjoy the stories on this site" or "If you love dragons, you'll love these stories" or "Get your fantasy fix here."

5. Inward bound links. Now, this means "quality" links. What the search engines mean by "quality" is a bit vague, but some things they don't mean are "free for all" link pages where anyone can post a link or massive link exchange pages. Some ways to get quality links include posting responses on blogs and including your link in the post itself not just the sig file. Include your link in the sig file on this board and similar ones. When people review your books, ask them to include the link to your website order page instead of the Amazon page (Amazon has enough inward bound links). Write articles for places like Article Announce and Associated Content or press releases for some of the sites I've mentioned in other posts. Also, ask for links. I talked about this in greater length yesterday, but simply write to webmasters who have links to websites like yours and invite them to visit your site and link to it if they would like. Write each email separately and uniquely and make mention of something you saw or noticed on that site so the reader knows you are not just a spam artist.

6. Metatags. These are placed in the "head" portion of your webpage. While not as important to SEO today as in the past, they still matter. Compose a good description of the page rich in search terms and a list of keywords. I'll talk about how to do metatags in another post. It isn't hard, but it takes some time to describe.

7. Title. Have a unique and descriptive title for every page that includes a search term. For instance, my web client just puts a default title on the page based on the first line of text. This then appears in the title bar. But that line may not be descriptive. So, instead of "Wayfarer's Journal", I could put "Wayfarer's Journal: Science fiction stories, essays and reviews with a spiritual, ethical or moral dimension."

8. File names. Incorporating search terms into the file names when appropriate can help. For instance, I might have a page of science fiction reviews entitled "sfreviews" which would be incomprehensible to the search engines or I could have "science_fiction_reviews.html" Or if I wrote a review of a Frank Perretti Novel. I could put frank_perretti.html If I also had in the Title "Review of New Frank Perretti Novel - Name of Novel" and in the meta tags a preview with his name mentioned, and his name mentioned several times in the review and the file name including his name, this becomes even more relevant to the search engine.

9. Pay for placement. It isn't that expensive. You can set your own price and pay only when someone clicks through to your site. For one of my search terms for Creative Calisthenics, I can get the bid down to about 30 cents per click through. Then several times a day people looking for that search term will get one of my ads appearing in the "sponsored links" section at the top of the page.

10. Site map and text links. Creating a site map helps the search engine crawl your site. Tips on creating these site maps can be found at

If you use fancy java or javascript navigation bars or buttons, that's fine, but you should also have somewhere on every page some plain text links with descriptive titles.

As a rule of thumb, the 'cooler' the effect, the less likely for the search engine to recognize it. And being ignored by the search engine is not cool at all.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Your Mission... Should you decide to accept it.

[Note: I found this in a file of things I wrote three or four years ago. Considering that I am moving closer to a time when writing will be my main "career" focus, this was actually helpful to me, as I hope it will be to you.]

Most businesses and nonprofit organizations have mission statements. A mission statement is an (ideally) short statement of the purpose of that organization which sets a focus for the organization's activities. Of course, the reality of mission statements is that often they bear little resemblance to what the organization truly does and those that do, are rarely short.

So, what does this have to do with you as a writer?

Often, we lose focus as writers, just as organizations can lose focus. Our writing goes off in all directions and we are unable to learn to excel in certain targeted areas. Now, I'm not suggesting we do not need to stretch or try different things. Those are matters of personal growth I take seriously. Nor does it mean that we try to find ways to make our writing fresh, original and surprising even to ourselves. However, until those things become central to our writing, then they fall more in the area of personal improvement, entertainment or hobbies and not a part of our main writing career/ministry.

At some point, you may feel competent enough in these peripheral pursuits to make them part of your central focus. Or if not competent, committed enough to them to develop them thoroughly. I'm not sure I've hit the skill level to consider myself fully competent in the execution of long fiction, but that is core to my personal writing and should be reflected by my mission statement. However, if I had to make a living writing, then it would be more peripheral and probably not reflected by it.

One important thing to remember is that mission statements tend to evolve over time as our careers take different and sometimes surprising paths. The mission statement is as much descriptive as it is directive.

Mostly, the mission statement (and more importantly the career focus contained within the mission statement) helps you drive your marketing. When promoting yourself either to a publisher, a local business client or directly to the reader, it helps you shape your marketing message. It's not enough for your profile in Facebook or LinkedIn to simply say "Writer." The potential client/publisher/reader is asking what kind of writer. Whether you use the words of your mission statement directly or not, it can help you answer that question.

So, how do we construct a mission statement? Remember, when I said mission statements are mostly descriptive. Start by listing the types of writing you are doing right now. Start with those which are consuming most of your time. We invest our time in what we consider most important. So, I'll use myself as an example:

Writing which teaches writing
Science Fiction Writing
Mystery Writing
Learning materials for oral communication
Writing which assists other writers market their writing
Bible Study writing
Christian Living writing

Since writing learning materials is more related to my teaching than to a more pure personal writing activity, I'll leave it out of the mix. I write the Bible studies primarily for the church, and devotions/Christian living writing are peripheral forms of writing right now done more for personal enjoyment and fulfillment. They are not things that form part of the core of my professional writing efforts.

The next is to make a list of things which you expect or desire to form part of the core of your writing within the next year or two. Don't worry if they overlap or are identical with the previous list.

Science Fiction Writing
Fantasy Writing
Mystery Writing
Writing which teaches Writing
Writing which teaches creative forms of Bible study
Writing assisting other writers marketing their writing.

Okay, I have a good deal of overlap along with two new items: fantasy and creative Bible study. The Creative Bible study has emerged from a specific project which may or may not become a major part of my future writing. I think I'll leave that out for now until I see whether or not it becomes important enough to promote as part of my total writing effort. Now, I have enough to begin work on the mission statement. As a good practical rule of thumb, try to keep the mission statement under 25 words. It is not a listing of every project you are pursuing or would like to pursue. It is a general direction and not a specific road map.

So, let's see how I can condense my goals into a mission statement:

Terri Main's mission is to write entertaining, character-driven, science-fiction, mysteries and fantasy stories and assist other writers in developing their writing abilities and marketing skills.

Not bad but it still came in over 25 words, lets see if I can condense it. Let's assume I want to write things that are "entertaining" rather than boring and eliminate that word. And, on second thought, fantasy is still something I'm just experimenting with, don't want to make it part of my public persona just yet, nor make it a core part of what I am planning to do. And, if I am assisting writers, one would assume they are "other" writers and not myself since I am not a plural. So, let's see what we have now.

Terri Main's mission is to write character-driven science-fiction and mystery stories and assist writers in developing their writing abilities and marketing skills.

We are now down to 24 words. I'm still not sure about leaving in the word "abilities," but sometimes you can over think a mission statement. This is not one I would have written a year ago and it will be changed by next year I'm sure. But for now, it gives me a personal direction and a direction for my future marketing.

Now, is your turn. Try your hand at writing a personal mission statement for your writing ministry/career.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ye Have not because ye Ask Not!

The other day someone asked about my first book review whether the person just offered to review the book or if I approached her. I did approach her. I posted a notice on an email discussion list offering the book for review. I just finished writing an email to another blogger who reviews books. I don't know if she will pick it up or not, but it only took 30 seconds to compose the email. 

I get a lot of links to my websites the same way. I ask. 

Now, some of you are already thinking the sp word SPAM!!! No, I don't do that. Every email is an unique creation slanted toward that reader or list. I only send out such requests to discussion lists where I have a continuing presence where I am participating over the long term. When approaching an individual blogger, I read a bit of their blog and comment on the blog itself before asking. The same goes for websites where I am trying to get a link. 

I used to edit a website of Christian Science Fiction stories before the workload became too heavy for me to keep up. However, let's use that as an example.  

First, if I am going to ask for a link from a website, I check out the website to see if they have a link list or resource page. I also check to see if they have a news page. Because if they don't have a link page, but they have a news page, I can send them a press release instead. 

Once I know they have a resource page, I look to see if they have a contact email. I make a note of the name of the webmaster/editor. Then I begin my email with that name

Dear Mr. Johnson,

Immediately, the person knows I'm not just coming up with a purely computer generated email. Now, I go ahead and make a comment related to the site itself. 

I dropped by your site today. It is good to see other people publishing quality Christian science fiction. I especially enjoyed the story by Mary Jones. She wrote a story for Wayfarers Journal that was good as well. It's at ____.

It doesn't necessarily have to be a compliment. Although, if you can sincerely compliment something, that's a good idea. But some sort of statement that demonstrates you actually visited the site and looked around. Something as simple as mentioning the resource page by name or making reference to the layout is enough to say that you actually visited the site.

Now, you go ahead and invite the person to come visit your site and, if they want to, give you a link. I personally don't offer link exchanges unless, this is a site I really think my visitors would like to visit. My first responsibility is to my own visitors. But if it is something I think will benefit them, then offering to exchange links can "sweeten the pot."
The reason I'm writing is that I would like to invite you to visit Wayfarer's Journal and browse around. If you think it is a worthwhile site, I would be honored if you included it on your resource page. 

Terri Main
Wayfarer's Journal
May God bless your ministry.

Notice, I spend more time in the email talking about his site than I do talking about my own. 

Here's an example of a letter asking  for a review on a blog:

Dear Ms. Juarez,
I dropped by Books I Love today. I notice that you recently reviewed The Arcturian Way by Clive Henry. I loved that book when I read it. I notice you have reviewed several 'hard' science fiction books recently. Those are some of my own personal favorites.
My new book Dark Side of the Moon takes a hard science fiction approach, but also works in a country cozy mystery feel as well. If you would be interested in reviewing this book I could make an electronic copy available to you immediately. All I ask is a link back to the website. I wouldn't presume to tell you what to write. I enjoy the good reviews and learn from the negative ones.
I wish you well with your blog.

Terri Main
Author Dark Side of the Moon Just released by MuseItUp Publishing