Making the Most of Video Calls

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When work events and a local conference moved online, I had the opportunity to speak in the comfort of my own home. However, communicating through a video call isn’t necessarily easier than speaking in person. Here are some tips for successful video calls and presentations:

  • Take advantage of new opportunities. With events moving online, we’re no longer bound by physical location. At work, I’ve spoken at an event in a different state that I might not have presented at if the event took place in person. Even if you’re stuck at home, see if you can expand your network. Of course, although location might not matter, time zones still do, so remember to double check the clocks before you accept an invitation to meet or present in another time zone.
  • Find a friendly face. If you give a presentation through a video call, you might find it’s more difficult to read your audience. You might see them only from the shoulders up, you might only see a few members at a time, or you might not see some of them at all. As you start to speak, try to catch a friendly face in one of those little camera displays. If you’re an audience member, consider offering a smile as a presenter begins to share. You might be the boost of encouragement who helps them get off to a good start. 🙂
  • Recruit a monitor for incoming comments. When presenting in person, audience members generally don’t shout out in the middle of your talk. However, your online meeting software might have a chat area where people can comment and ask questions throughout your presentation. Recruit a helper to moderate these incoming comments so you can focus on your talk.
  • Be yourself. I enjoy seeing quirky video call backgrounds, whether home décor or a cartoony virtual background. Fun elements like these can start conversations and help folks get to know each other better. Of course, if your situation requires you to be more formal, use good judgment in this area and save the fun stuff for time with friends.

Even though video calls and presentations might take some getting used to, I’m thankful that I can connect with others through technology. How have you been handling video calls? Please feel free to share other tips and tricks in the comments!

Ereader Appreciation

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During these unusual times, I find myself turning to my ereader more often than normal. Although I tend to choose paper books over digital, more digital reading has made me appreciate the ereader for its own advantages.

  • The ereader can fit bookcases of books into a space smaller than a tablet. The ereader is a good option for those short on space.
  • The ereader is compatible with my online library catalog. When my library building is closed, it’s nice to have the online catalog and check out books on the ereader. Even though my selection seems smaller, and interlibrary loan isn’t available, checking out ebooks is simple and easy.
  • The ereader is easy to hold. After a book reaches a certain size, it might become unwieldy, but when read on an ereader, giant novels and short chapter books feel the same in my hands.
  • Ebooks are easier to search. I like searching in an ebook by typing a word into a search bar instead of flipping through pages trying to remember where I saw something.
  • The ereader doesn’t get warped by sweaty hands. My hands sweat. A lot. So much so that paperback covers and printed pages are in danger of getting damaged. Thankfully, the ereader’s plastic casing has proven resistant to sweaty hands so far.
  • Ereaders help facilitate the distribution of free books since ebooks don’t have to be shipped. Whether free books are given as prizes during a Facebook party or from a publisher’s giveaway, ebooks are convenient for giver and receiver alike.

I miss checking out physical books from my library, but especially now, I’m thankful that I have the ereader to keep me company.

Writing through Grief

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2019 hasn’t been an easy year. Then again, is there really such a thing as an “easy year,” anyway? Life is an ebb and flow of opportunities and challenges, trials and joys. This year my grandmother passed away. Despite her age, she was healthy, and her loss was unexpected. It became difficult for me to write, especially because the humorous middle grade fantasy I was working on featured a grandmother as one of the main characters.

A one-size-fits-all grieving process doesn’t exist, but here are some things (not including faith-related things) that I’m trying to remind myself of as a writer as I wade through loss.

  • It’s OK to take a break. Time stops for no man, and along with it, neither does the internet, the business world, or the publishing industry. But life goes beyond deadlines and word counts, and I try to tell myself it’s OK to take a break. Admittedly, taking a break can be difficult to do without feeling guilty. That said, though, I tend to know when I hit a wall with a story and where I’m at a point in which I’m no longer having fun and just doing it to do it. Yes, writing involves discipline, but I’ve also heard that readers won’t have as much fun with a story if the writer didn’t also have fun with it.
  • Spend time with loved ones. I might not feel like being around others when I’m sad, but I know that leaving myself to my own thoughts isn’t always the best idea. Talking to others has helped me divert attention off of myself as well as gain a broader perspective.
  • Read something different. Reading is an essential activity for any writer, but I found my desire for fiction lacking. I took an interest in nonfiction books instead and found them a nice change of pace. I’ve also enjoyed graphic novels because they can be faster to read.
  • Play games. Although books are perhaps my primary source of inspiration as a writer, games also have an impact on my storytelling. I enjoy the immersive experience of a video game with an engrossing story, and I’ve enjoyed plenty of laughs with my Dungeons & Dragons group.
  • Write stuff down for fun even if you think it’s not high quality content. Because I wasn’t going anywhere with my humorous middle grade book, I penned stuff that came to mind even though I knew it wasn’t going to be fit to publish. Somehow these words spawned an idea for a sci-fi novel for adults. I don’t know what will eventually become of this story idea, but even if it never gets published, maybe it’s just what I needed for this moment, and that’s good enough.

As I mentioned, a one-size-fits-all grieving process doesn’t exist. What are some things that you’ve done as a writer through loss? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Thank you!

Back up your writing when preparing for a storm

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Photo of Plink the mechanical bird, external hard drive, and writing supplies

External hard drive, notebook, fountain pen–looks like Plink is getting prepared!

With Hurricane Florence looming in the distance, I’m seeing a lot of talk about preparations for weathering the storm. Protecting material objects should never be first priority, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared if you can. If you’re concerned about what might happen to your writing if your house or property become damaged, here are some thoughts on how to back up and protect your written words–after you take the steps you need to protect yourself and your loved ones.

  1. Store your files online. Upload your documents to Google Docs, Box Note, or email them to yourself. You can keep your writing private but still reap the benefits of accessing it on the internet.
  2. Back up your computer on a portable external hard drive. I own two of these drives. I keep one at work and one at home. I sometimes bring one with me when I travel. An external hard drive allows you to recover your files if your computer crashes or is destoyed.
  3. If you write with pen and paper like me, you might have a few notebooks with partially drafted manuscripts. If your household waterproof and fireproof safe still has room in it after you’ve stowed your essential documents like social security cards, consider adding the notebooks in.
  4. Keep your writing materials in the safe room in your house. If the storm comes, and I have to retreat to a central room with no windows, I’m going to bring the essentials like food, water, and flashlights. I’m also going to bring my laptop, external hard drive, the most important notebooks, and some of the fountain pens.

I’m not sure what I’ll experience with the storm later this week. Prayer will be another part of my preparations. If you’re also in the path of the hurricane, please take the precautions you can to stay safe. Words can be written again, but you can’t be replaced!

Packing for my first writers’ conference

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Essential supplies include business cards and an orc.

This week I head out to Realm Makers, my first ever writers’ conference. While not comprehensive for everyone, here’s a list of some things I’m planning to pack. I figured I’d post it here in case it helps someone else, too. 🙂

  • Writing supplies
    • Pencil case
    • Pen
    • Backup pens
    • Notebook
  • Drawing supplies
    • Sketchbook
    • Pencil with pencil cap
    • Backup pencil with pencil cap
    • Art pens for inking sketches
    • Eraser
    • 6-inch ruler
  • Author supplies
    • Copies of my book to sell
    • Business cards
    • Bookmarks
    • One-sheet (if you’re pitching a story)
  •  Wallet
    • Cash
    • Credit card
    • ID
  • Personal hygiene and health
    • Shampoo/Conditioner
    • Toothbrush
    • Toothpaste
    • Floss
    • Comb/Hairbrush
    • Deoderant
    • Prescription medicines
    • Vitamins/Supplements
    • Glasses cleaner
  • Clothes
    • Glasses
    • Backup glasses
    • A set of clothes for each day (I like to pack outfits together so I know I’ve brought enough and that the clothes coordinate.)
    • An extra set of clothes
    • Pajamas
    • Jacket
    • Costume for the awards banquet
  • Food and beverage
    • Something sweet
    • Something salty
    • Something reasonably filling/healthy
    • Water bottle for water
  • Misc.
    • Suit case (Of course!)
    • Bag to carry around at the conference
    • Cell phone
    • Umbrella
    • Small plush or figure to take photos of. (I’m not camera shy, but I think it’s fun to take photos of toys.)
    • A book to read during the flight
  • Things I’m not bringing
    • Items related to my “day job”
    • My personal laptop computer
    • Fountain pen and ink (I normally prefer a fountain pen over a ballpoint, but I don’t want to risk losing a nice fountain pen, nor do I want to bother with transporting ink in a suitcase or carry-on.)
    • Handheld game console (I enjoy video games, but I’ll only pack them if I think I’ll have enough down time to play them.)

Making your story stand out

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Do you ever feel like all the stories have already been told? Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “There is no new thing under the sun.” Thankfully, when writing a story, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to make the reader care about it or see it in a different way.

Whether you want to write romance, epic fantasy, or anything else that’s been done time and time again, here are three factors to think about to help make your story stand out:

  • Writing style
    • Sunsets happen all the time, but we still read Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose.” If you can help me see something in a new way or make me pause and give it a second look, you can hold onto my attention.
    • You don’t need to be a poet, either, although reading and writing poetry can certainly help. Skillful wordcrafting and insights into life are an asset to any genre, from cozy mysteries to grimdark military sci-fi.
  • Quirky characters
    • When I read, I appreciate action and a plot that moves at a good clip. But it’s the characters I care about. I might gloss over a cool fight scene if I’m not concerned about the characters in it and what happens to them. I don’t need every detail about the characters, but I like enough information for my imagination to get a sense of who they are as people.
    • Setting can be a character in its own right and can be used to shape the rest of your cast. A familiar plotline can feel fresh and new if placed in a vibrant setting.
  • Twist of trope
    • Take a common scenario or a character stereotype and turn it upside down. My book, Nick Newton Is Not a Genius, is a twist on the “child genius” trope. Instead of being a genius in a “normal” family, my protagonist is a “normal” child in a family of geniuses.
    • Of course, sometimes tropes get twisted so often that the twists themselves become tropes. It’s a good idea to check out other books in your genre to see what’s already out there.

How do you make the stories that you write stand out? What draws you into stories that you read? Please post your answers in the comments!

My writing process

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Tools of the trade include pens, ink, and notebooks.

Some writers outline. Some writers fly by the seat of their pants. The key is finding what works for you. Here’s a general idea of my writing process. Feel free to use it, modify it, or just think it’s weird and stick to a process that you’re more comfortable with instead. 😉

  • The idea
    • Ideas can come from pretty much anywhere: real life, history, fictional stories, experiences.
    • They can come at inopportune times, such as during work or when trying to fall asleep at night.
    • My Dad would tell me, “Strike while the iron is hot.” Catch the idea as it comes by and jot it down somewhere so you won’t forget it.
    • Don’t worry about being neat or even making sense at this stage. Just get the idea out of your head and into words.
  • The raw draft
    • After working the idea out to a point where you have a general idea of where you’re going, such as a basic outline, it’s time to create the raw draft.
    • Draft the story from start to finish.
    • As with the idea stage, don’t worry about being neat or even consistent. If your character’s name changes in the middle of the manuscript, fix the beginning later.
    • To discourage backtracking and to encourage pressing forward, I like to use a pen and paper at this stage, but a computer is also beneficial because you’re going to have to type the story up eventually.
  • The rough draft
    • If you wrote longhand for the raw draft, now’s a good time to bring your manuscript into a digital format.
    • Fix the story’s problems. Now’s a good time to patch plot holes and make the story consistent, such as fixing your character’s name if you changed it midway through the raw draft.
    • You’re not ready for sentence-level edits just yet, though, so while you can fix comma or spelling errors if you notice them, don’t make a fuss over the grammar or focus on editing your story on the sentence level.
  • Edits
    • Continue to polish your story by making multiple passes through it and correcting problems.
    • Different stories may require different amounts of editing.
    • Know when you’ve hit a wall and need to start collecting feedback. If you notice yourself getting stuck on a lot of trivial matters and come to a point of diminishing return, that could be a sign that you’ve gone as far as you can go on your own and that it’s time to start getting fresh eyes on your manuscript.
    • Even if you know that the story will change after you get feedback, I still feel that it’s polite to try to omit as many grammar and spelling errors as you can before sending it off to first readers.
  • Feedback from critique group/first reader
    • Send your manuscript to your critique group/first reader.
    • Consider feedback and revise accordingly.
  • “Done”
    • Are you satisfied with your work?
    • Is a deadline looming?
    • It’s hard to define “done,” so set deadlines for yourself and stick to them.
  • Send to a publisher
    • Find a publisher that’s a good fit for your work. Sometimes finding the publisher might be your first step, and then you tailor your work to fit the publisher.
    • Be certain to review the publisher’s guidelines to format your manuscript correctly. Some publishers also specify that you shouldn’t send the same manuscript to another publisher until you receive a response from them.
    • Publishers may respond within a period of days or months. Depending on the publisher, you might not even receive a response at all unless they are interested in accepting your work.
    • I have a document to help me keep track of the manuscripts I’ve sent out. I record when I’ve sent them, where I’ve sent them, and the responses I’ve received.
  • Wait and write more
    • While you’re waiting to hear back from the publisher, start working on your next story. Because publication can take a long time, it’s good to have multiple manuscripts in progress at the same time and in various stages of the process.

Please feel free to share about your own writing process in the comments. Best wishes and happy writing!

Essential writing supplies

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Essential writing supplies: No, you don’t need a fountain pen and an action figure. 😉

Last year I wrote a post about getting started with publishing, The New Author Starter Kit. But what if you’re just getting started with writing itself? Here are some “essential writing supplies” that I hope will help out!

  • A notebook and pen
    • You might get an idea in the middle of the night or right before dashing out of the house, and you don’t have time to turn on your computer and wait for it to start. Or maybe you get an idea while you’re on a nature walk, and you don’t have your computer with you. During times like these, you can pull out your paper and pen and jot down that idea before it vanishes away!
    • Why a pen? I like that I can’t erase my pen ink. It pushes me to go forward instead of letting me backtrack by erasing pencil or deleting words on a computer. Crossing out mistakes isn’t the same to me as erasing or deleting them. Of course, if you enjoy sketching ideas with pictures, you might want to carry a pencil and eraser instead. I have a separate sketchbook for drawings, but I prefer to write with a pen.
  • Computer with a word processer and internet access
    • As much as I enjoy drafting with a pen, all of my submissions to publishers have been typed up on the computer. I use Microsoft Word, but other programs work well, too. Online word processors can be especially useful if you’re collaborating with other people, and multiple people want to type in the same file at the same time.
    • The internet enables me to look up information, whether fast facts for research or a random name generator for a character. I also submit to publishers electronically. Just be careful that you don’t get distracted by all the info you can find online!
  • First reader/critique group/editor
    • After you’ve written your story, it helps to get another pair of eyes to look at it. My writing partner and I swap stories and offer feedback on one another’s work. After polishing my manuscript thanks to my writing partner’s feedback, I can then send it to the editor at my publishing house, who offers additional feedback.
    • Parents and friends might make good first readers, but loved ones may have a tendency only to provide positive feedback. Remember that, ideally, you want to get a mixture of critique as well as encouragement.
    • If you’re a student, teachers might give good feedback, but please also be respectful of their time, which applies to any reader. If someone tells you that they can’t read your work right now, try asking someone else or wait for a time that is convenient for them.
  • Good books
    • If you want to write, it’s important to read! Read in the genre that you want to write in, but don’t forget to read other books, too. Reading a wide variety can enrich your writing overall.
  • Other interests
    • As important as it is to have skill in writing, be able to give yourself a break. Try to develop a wide array of interests. Be curious!
  • Perseverance
    • I can’t think of any professionally-published authors who have never received a rejection letter. It’s OK to be sad when you encounter rejection, but if you really want to write, keep writing!

And that’s my list of “essential writing supplies!” Would you like to add something (or someone) else to the list? Please let me know in the comments! Thank you!

Great Gifts for Writers

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The Christmas and holiday season is upon us. If you’re still looking for a gift for a writer friend, here are some suggestions!

  • Buy their book. Send a greeting card with a word of encouragement and a note that you purchased copies of their book for yourself and/or to give to others.
  • Review their book. It’s free for you and encouraging to the writer. You can mention in a greeting card that you enjoyed their book and left a review. Amazon and Goodreads are both good places to leave reviews, and you might even be able to leave a review on their publisher’s website. You could also consider writing a blog or social media post to spread the word about their book.
  • Writing accoutrements. If your writer likes to use pen and paper, a nice notebook or writing utensil could be a fun and useful gift. If your writer composes solely on the computer, consider accessories like a keyboard cover or laptop case instead.
  • Membership to a writers’ organization. Writers have to pay fees to become or remain active members of organizations like ACFW and SFWA. If your writer belongs to groups or is interested in becoming a member, gifting them funds to cover the fee is both practical and supportive.
  • Funds towards a writers’ conference. Costs to writers’ conferences can add up. Funding even small amounts towards these trips can be a big help.

Of course, if your writer friend likes scented candles, coffee, or power tools, those options can be just as great! I happen to like bananas, and so a friend of mine gave me a word game in a case shaped like a banana, which is pretty great! As their friend, you know best.

To writers and their friends and family—what are you gifting this year? Is there anything that you would add to the list of gift ideas? Please leave your thoughts in the comments! Thank you and Merry Christmas!

Sequel Strife

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Writing a sequel to my first book, Nick Newton Is Not a Genius, came with new challenges, such as…

  • Remembering all the facts about my first book to make sure the world and its characters stay consistent. Sure, it’s one thing to remember your characters’ names, but what about details like the layout of a building or character quirks like how the protagonist feels about clowns? I have a new respect for large franchises whose stories span movies, video games, and books across decades of time. Yes, you can probably still find inconsistencies, but the fact that the franchise is even remotely coherent is no small feat.
  • Making the second book accessible to readers who might not have read the first one. Ideally, a book series can be read out of order and still be enjoyed. I’ve experienced series, whether books or video games, out of their intended order. Sometimes it’s just a matter of what I happen to find at the used bookstore or video game store. To make each volume of a series stand on its own, as a writer I need to make sure I fill in the gaps, but I also want to avoid spoiling the previous book. It’s a delicate balance.
  • Resisting the temptation to be influenced by the success or lack of success from my previous book. In at least a couple of popular series, I’ve felt like the writing got sloppier and less concise as the series progressed. Are the authors saying more now that they know the audience is willing to listen? Is the editing no longer as tight because of deadline pressures to get the next book out? In the future, I would like to look back on my publications and see that I’ve improved as a writer and storyteller…even if sales haven’t been as high as I would want.
  • Balancing the old and the new. A new book will likely provide the opportunity to introduce new characters and new settings. You should probably take these opportunities so you can keep the story interesting. However, you don’t want to neglect the characters from your previous storylines, nor do you want to create character overload. In my second book, I found myself approaching too many characters. In subsequent books, I may have to hone in on only a few to prevent using too many characters at once.
  • Leaving room for another book to continue the series. Don’t paint yourself in a corner. If you know you want to write another book in the series, you may want to leave some small loose ends hanging so you have something to latch back onto and resolve in a subsequent volume.

I’m working on my second book to be published, but I’m still a new author. If you have tips on writing sequels, I’d be interested to hear them in the comments! Thank you!