Keeping Honest with those Writer’s Resolutions

We’re now half-way through 2021, and it seems like a good time to review your progress on all those writer’s New Year’s resolutions that you made. How is your writing coming? Are you satisfied with your progress? If not, are there things you can do to get back on track? Even one or two little things can be very helpful. The wonderful thing about writing is how patiently your unfinished books wait for you to come back to them.

After giving that advice, I guess I should review my own author resolutions from my January 1 blog post. I’ve actually done a lot better than I thought I would.

So here is my update:

1. I resolve to write at least 500 words of fiction per day until I finish the current fantasy novel that John and I are writing: Prophecy’s Malignant Son. Completed. The galley proofs are currently being reviewed and the book is nearing publication.

2. I resolve to learn more about advertising and marketing our fiction books. I think it’s fair to say that I completed this one. While I still have a lot more to learn, I definitely know more than I did on January 1, 2021.

3. I resolve to develop a marketing strategy before the next book is released to help improve its visibility and to attract potential readers. *Sigh.* I’ve got some ideas for marketing the upcoming book, but my ideas only count as a “marketing strategy” in in the broadest, most generous definition of those two words. I guess it’s time to follow my own advice and get back on track with this resolution.

4. I resolve to come up with a more complete outline for the next novel that John and I write and to start writing that new novel before the end of June. Completed. The outline was finished in June and I already have a very rough draft of the first chapter.

5. I resolve to keep writing and publishing this blog every Friday for the rest 2021. So far, so good. All you wonderful blog readers will have to judge how I do with this one.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/2/2021

Visiting the Stones that Speak

Carvings on a stone pillar at Karnak, Egypt.

Last week, my blog discussed ancient ruins and fantasy novels. Today, I want to write about a special subset of that topic: carvings and rock art.

A portion of the Alta rock carvings in Norway.

Humans have been communicating by leaving words and pictures on stone for thousands of years. As a fantasy writer, I find petroglyphs and rock art particularly intriguing. There are stories hidden within the carvings, some of which we can only guess at.

Petroglyphs at Ginko Petrified Forest State Park in Washington.

If you are an aspiring fantasy author, it can be a great experience to visit the places where people recorded their messages for later generations. It is easy to imagine that those ancient people were story-tellers, just as we are, with tales every bit as fantastical as the ones we love.

The Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, Hawaii

One of my favorite ancient “stones” is the mysterious Phaistos Disc. (It’s actually made from fired clay, not stone.) I’m sure there is an interesting story behind the stamped glyphs on the disc, but its symbols remain enigmatic and very different from other ancient writing and rock art that I have seen.

The Phaistos Disc at the Heraklion Museum on the island of Crete.

Petroglyphs and ancient writings don’t even have to be real to catch the imagination. The “writing” on the walls of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, for example, always adds enjoyment to what would otherwise be a boring time standing in line.

-Susan 6/25/21

p.s. As always, all photos in this post are mine. The Phaistos Disc picture is almost 30 years old and was scanned from a print of a photo shot in available light with a 35 mm camera. I am embarrassed by the picture quality, but even more embarrassed that I managed to cut off the top of the disc when I took the picture.

The Literary Lure of Ancient Ruins

One of the structures in the archaeological reserve at Cahal Pech, Belize.

“On the top they found, as Strider had said, a wide ring of ancient stone-work, now crumbling or covered with agelong grass.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Looking out from one of the cliff-dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado.

Ancient ruins, both real and fictional, have always sparked my imagination as an author. They combine the mysteries of centuries past with the excitement of modern discovery. Their half-standing structures carry a multitude of stories within them, both new and old.

In fantasy fiction, ancient sites can serve as setting and background (as in the Tolkien quote above), or they can be an integral part of the story (as they are in the Indiana Jones movies).

Doorways at the Chaco Culture National
Historic Park, New Mexico.

The addition of ancient ruins can add history and depth to a fictional world. They raise a host of questions, just as they do in real life, that even the characters in the novel may not be able to answer. Who lived in those structures? What were their lives like? What ended their civilization? In fantasy novels, you can also add the query: did humans live there or someone else?

The sun going down at Luxor, Egypt.

When a fantasy author includes an ancient site in a novel, how much of the background behind the fictional ruins does the author need to know? Clearly Tolkien knew the complete background of every site he included in his stories, but is that required for every fantasy novel?

Reconstructions of storage jars at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini.

The answer depends on the purpose for which the author has added the ancient site to the story. If it is used as background or setting, the author should know enough to make the location plausible in the fantasy world. If the ruins will serve as an integral part of the plot, on the other hand, the writer probably needs to develop the history underlying the site.

The Terracota Warriors, Xi’an, China

Given my love of archaeological sites, it is not surprising that part of the plot in 60th Hour includes discoveries made in a hidden chamber below a set of ruins. It is far more surprising to me that our soon-to-be-released novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son does not include any ancient ruins. Clearly, John and I will have to work on that in the sequels.

-Susan 6/18/2021

Five Places to Inspire Writing

Venice, Italy, one of my favorite “storybook” places in the world.

Readers really seemed to enjoy the “Castles!” blog a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve decided to try a short series (maybe the next two or three Fridays) of places that can inspire writing and, in particular, fantasy novels. As I’ve mentioned in the past, travel can be a great inspiration for fantasy world-building and for writing in general. Even though global travel is still mostly off-limits at present, we can all look forward to a time when the world will open up again.

So, to start off the series, I’ve chosen five places that made me feel as if I was walking through a story when I visited them.

Venice, Italy– Yes, the city really does have canals…and gondolas…and beautiful piazzas. The first time I stepped onto a stone bridge to cross over a canal, I knew I was in a magical place. The city seemed to be full of twisty alleys with new things to discover at every turn.

One of the many carved structures in Petra, Jordan.

Petra, Jordan– If you’re like me, you first learned about Petra from a fictional archaeologist who didn’t like snakes and once got chased by a giant boulder. There is more to Petra, however, than the “Treasury” (which is the place used in the movie). Just walking through the narrow gorge to reach the famous site is an adventure. There are also many other beautifully carved structures, although the Treasury is the best preserved.

An artifact in the British Museum. I’m think it’s from the Sutton Hoo collection.

One cautionary note: Remember that you have to climb back up the gorge once you are done. It almost killed my dear co-author to walk back up the trail too fast in the heat of the day!

London, England– I love London! The city has always seemed like a larger-than-life place to me. You can’t walk for ten feet without seeing a street name or locale with a literary or movie reference. The British Museum, alone, is the stuff of legends.

Looking down on the beautiful village of Cesky-Krumlov.

Cesky-Krumlov, Czech Republic– Over the years, I’ve visited many beautiful, fairy-tale villages. Cesky-Krumlov is definitely one of the best. The river winds around ornate, old-fashioned houses and shops. As you walk through the streets, you can easily imagine yourself in another time or place.

A photo taken somewhere along our snowy route to Triberg. (Sorry for the photo quality — it was scanned from an old photo album.)

The Black Forest, Germany– “John, are you sure we’re on the right road?” Sometimes you enter those fairy-tale moments unintentionally. Back in the days before cell phones, when tourists still relied on paper maps, John and I were trying to drive from Stuttgart, Germany to Triberg. We had planned our route in advance, only to learn that there were long delays on the main road due to construction. A helpful person at a restaurant told us of a route we could take via backroads to arrive at our destination more quickly.

Of course, he gave us the directions in German. John understands some German…some…enough to get us on the correct road…I think. It was a little, windy, one-lane road through the mountains, with snow-covered forests on both sides. After driving for a while, we realized two things: first, we were the only car we had seen for a long time, and second, we had no idea where we were. It was very beautiful, with snow drifting down from the tree branches, but part of my mind was thinking of all those stories that ended with the words, “And they were never seen again.” Maybe not the best type of fantasy story to land in.

Fortunately, the directions were good and we did eventually reach our destination. In retrospect, it was a lovely adventure. Triberg is definitely worth a visit.

-Susan 6/11/2021

Fighting Writing Procrastination

When I told Danny Atwood, my good friend and fellow Emerald Cove author, that I wanted to brainstorm ideas with him about ways to combat writing procrastination, he said, “We should schedule a time to talk about that later.”

Despite that inauspicious opening, we did eventually discuss the topic. Here are some of my take-aways from our talk:

The methods to combat writing procrastination may differ depending on the cause of the procrastination. Often the tasks we put off are the ones we don’t want to do. For example, I can put off housework for years. While that non-preferred-task explanation could apply to writing projects like a school or work assignment, it should not affect our fiction writing. After all, those of us who want to be novelists must like writing or we would not do it. We’re certainly not doing it to get rich.

So why do so many authors who like to write find it hard to sit down at the keyboard?

Feeling the Muse: We all write our best when we are inspired. That’s wonderful when it happens, but if waiting until you “feel the muse” is preventing you from writing, perhaps it’s time to adopt a new strategy. Writing can be a joy, but it is also a discipline. Don’t wait until you’re “in the mood” to write. Set yourself a writing schedule and stick with it. I’ve heard of people who choose a particular time of day to write or block out a certain amount of time, such as an hour a day. My preferred method is to set a word count, such as writing 100 words a day.

If you are going to try this, I suggest that you start with small amounts. Don’t decide that you will write for six hours every day or require yourself to complete 1,000 words every day. You wouldn’t start a home jogging program by running in a marathon. Try writing 50 or 100 words a day or blocking out a short amount of time to write. The important thing is to develop a writing habit through consistency.

And don’t worry about how good the writing is. You can always rewrite later.

That Busy Schedule: If you’re like me, your daily activities will expand to fill whatever amount of free time you have. If you want to write, then you have to make your fiction writing a priority in your schedule. Of course, there are some activities that must come first, such as children, work, school, and health. I am not talking about neglecting important matters.

But what about the rest of the activities that try to dominate our lives? How often do we endlessly flip through kitten or puppy pictures on social media? Right now, even as I type these words, my phone is buzzing every few seconds with a series of group text messages from friends about an rpg we play once a month. If I keep stopping to read those texts, I will never finish this blog post.

If you are serious about your writing, then prioritize your writing instead of those social distractions. The text messages and social media posts will still be there later for you to review.

The same applies to that “shiny new toy” you just bought. Finish your daily writing first and then play that new video game.

The Overwhelming Task: Over the years, I’ve learned that the projects I postpone the longest are the ones that feel overwhelming. When I don’t even know where to begin a huge task, I keep putting it off until I am absolutely forced to confront it.

My personal strategy to combat this type of procrastination is to break the task into smaller, manageable pieces. I might even list those sub-tasks on a piece of paper, so I can check off each one as I complete it. An entire novel can seem like a mountain of work, so I tend to set my writing goals on a much smaller level. My goal will be to finish a single chapter or even an individual scene. Once that is complete, I work on the next goal.

One Additional Strategy: One method Danny uses to fight procrastination involves setting a deadline to exchange writing with another author or group of authors. Our Emerald Cove writer’s critique group meets once a month, and Danny found that he was the most productive on the days just before the meeting. At his suggestion, he and I started additional weekly meetings (via Zoom) to discuss our writing. This weekly writing “deadline” has helped his productivity.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 6/4/2021

Castles!

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. The quintessential fairy-tale castle.

Castles are amazing, mythic places that always inspire the fantasy novelist in me. Towers, barbicans, winding staircases, crenellation — the very words evoke magic and wonder.

Budapest, Hungary. I’m not sure if this bastion is actually part of the castle, but it’s still beautiful.

Of all the “standard” elements of fantasy stories and games (things like dragons, unicorns, and elves), castles are among my favorites because they exist both in the imagination and in the real world. You can visit an actual castle. You can walk inside it and look out from the tower windows.

A staircase in the Rosenkrantz Tower in Bergen, Sweden.

Fantasy authors can describe a character walking down the narrow staircase to the castle dungeon. No words, however, will match the feeling of those steps beneath your shoes or the sensation of running your hand along the uneven walls to brush your fingertips against the cold stones.

Bunratty Castle in County Clare, Ireland.

Historic castles can differ from what you expect. The first time I visited a real castle when my family went to Europe in the 1970’s, I was surprised by how drafty and damp it seemed. Castles were no doubt warmer when people actually lived in them, but it was still a surprise to me.

One of the fortifications on the island of Rhodes in Greece.

When I asked John his impression of the castles we had visited, he said he was surprised by how small the interior rooms were. Based on the way castles tend to be portrayed in fantasy media, it is easy to expect huge halls with vaulted ceilings

Cesky-Krumlov, Czech Republic. This arched walkway was one of my favorite parts of the city. I think it is considered part of the castle, though I could be wrong.

As much as I adore historic structures, I must admit that I also love that magical castle in Anaheim. It was the first castle I ever visited, back in the days when I was so young that “Fantasyland” still seemed like a real country to me.

-Susan 5/28/2021

p.s. This was my first attempt to incorporate multiple pictures into a blog post. (I hope it works!) Although I took all the pictures posted above, I am not responsible for the photo quality — some of them were scanned from old 35 mm prints in my photo albums and one was taken with a very early digital camera. Photography has come a long way since I first started visiting castles. Any weaknesses in photo composition, on the other hand, are entirely my fault.

Why is Self-Promoting a Book So Difficult?

On January 1, 2021, I made several New Year’s resolutions relating to writing. In one of them, I resolved to “develop a marketing strategy before the next book is released to help improve its visibility and to attract potential readers.”

Since then, I’ve been taking KDP classes related to book selling, reading about book promotion, talking to people, etc. I’ve learned that successful Indy authors have marketing strategies, and I’ve learned that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of companies willing to tell you their strategy if you pay them money (sometimes lots of money).

This is the point in the blog when you may be expecting me to say, “Then I found [insert name of company] and they solved all my marketing problems!”

Yeah, that would be nice….if it was true.

Instead, I am just as uncertain about which (if any) of those marketing-strategy companies to approach as I am about marketing in general. No doubt, some of those companies have good ideas, but trying to decide which company to choose is itself a confusing and daunting prospect. Should an Indy author spend precious limited financial resources on strategizing or save them for advertising? While my beloved co-author is wonderful at developing and enhancing story ideas, he doesn’t know any more about marketing than I do.

The second draft of the new fantasy novel is done, and it should be ready for publication in June. John and I have a completed manuscript, cover art, and an excellent editor to help review the galley proofs. What we do NOT have is a marketing strategy. I keep telling myself I should create one, but I keep putting it off. (At some point, I should blog about procrastination, but that’s a problem best left to another day.)

So, I open the question to any of you wonderful blog readers who are also Indy authors, particularly fantasy authors. What strategies have you used to promote your books? Are there strategy and/or advertising companies that you have found helpful and why? Feel free to leave a comment. I would very much like to hear from you. Thanks!

-Susan 5/21/2021

Meanwhile at Emerald Cove…

It’s been a while since I provided an update on the Emerald Cove writers’ critique group, so this seems like a good time.

The big news is that we may actually be able to start meeting again. Meeting for real. In person. Around a table. At our favorite Denny’s. Yay!!! All of our authors will be fully vaccinated and beyond the two week, post-vaccination waiting period by mid-June. I can’t speak for the others, but I am very excited about the prospect of seeing everyone in person again. In my experience, writing critiques are far more effective when delivered face-to-face instead of on a little screen. Technology has been a real sanity-saver during the pandemic, but it can never take the place of personal interaction.

The shared-world anthology is nearing completion. Most of the stories are already finished and the final one is almost there. Sue’s cover art is progressing nicely. If there is a San Diego Comicon this fall, we are still hoping to release the book at that time.

Danny is working on a new novel. He is up to chapter 12. From what I have read so far, I believe it will be one of his best books.

As for John and me, our second draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son is now finished and has been given to the critique group for another review. I hope to start the publication process on Amazon by the end of this month. After learning from our formatting mistakes with 60th Hour, I plan to order Galley Proofs for review prior to publication. I have an outstanding reviewer/editor lined up to do the final proofread.

That’s all for today. I’ll keep you posted when we have an actual publication date for Prophecy’s Malignant Son. Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 5/14/2021

Second Draft Anyone?

There comes a point in an author’s career when one must face the prospect of…shudder…rewriting.

I tend to approach writing the second draft of a novel with all the enthusiasm of eating leftovers. It’s a lot easier to make dinner by throwing leftovers in the microwave than it is to cook a meal from scratch, but leftovers are seldom as tasty or fun to eat. In the same way, writing the second draft of a novel is easier than the first, because I already know the story, but it seems a lot more like drudgery than writing the initial draft.

For an author like me, who tends to start with a story premise instead of a complete outline, rewriting is critical. The second draft is where the book really comes together. In the first draft, it’s easy to think the problems will “all come out in the wash.” In the second draft, it’s laundry time.

With my current manuscript, I have started the rewriting process by going chapter by chapter and reviewing all the critiques I’ve received from my fellow Emerald Cove authors. If the suggested changes are simple grammatical issues or spelling corrections, I make them as I go. For the more detailed plot or scene suggestions, the rewrite can take more time and might require me to kick around ideas with John before I change anything.

At times, it can be tempting to ignore the critiques, particularly when they involve major changes to a scene or chapter. However, in my experience, the final product becomes much stronger when I make revisions in response to those criticisms, even if it means rewriting a chapter multiple times.

Once I finish with the chapter-by-chapter rewrite, I plan to reread the entire story from start to finish and see how it all fits together. If it needs further revisions, I’ll start work on the third draft. When the entire story is satisfactory, it will be ready for the final editing for grammar, spelling, and formatting issues.

I’m hoping to finish the second draft of the current manuscript in the next two weeks. If all goes well, the release date should be some time in June.

Talk to you next Friday.

-Susan 5/6/2021

Blogging About Writing: What My First Year Taught Me

Woohoo! Tomorrow (May 1) is my one-year anniversary for writing this weekly blog. It seems like a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned from blogging for a year.

1. The most important lesson: Engaging in any kind of writing makes me want to write more. When I first started blogging, I was concerned that the need to produce a written post every Friday would take away from my fiction writing time. The result has been the opposite. I’ve done far more fiction writing during the past year than I did during the five previous years. For the first time in my life, I wrote the first draft of an entire novel in six months.

Of course, the pandemic, with its “shelter-at-home” orders, gave me plenty of time to write. Undoubtedly that had a great influence on my ability to create a novel in such a short time. However, based on what I’ve seen from my friends and fellow authors, the pandemic alone cannot account for my recent interest in writing — some of my author friends have written practically nothing since March of 2020. I think this blog saved me from the “pandemic malaise” that seems to have hit so many of my author friends. Writing a weekly post about our books and/or writing in general got me excited about working on our latest novel. (Writing about writing got me excited about writing…who would have guessed?)

2. The second thing I learned: I like blogging much more than journaling. Franky, I’ve never been good at journaling. In the past, when I’ve attempted to keep a journal, my entries have tended toward a spare recitation of the events of my day. (“First we did this. Then we did that.” Nothing literary or even particularly interesting.) Blogging, on the other hand, forces me to select a topic and then focus on it. My thoughts become far more coherent and (I hope) more interesting.

I suppose I could use the same method for journaling — focusing on a new topic in each entry. Even if I did that, however, I don’t think the result would be as satisfying as blogging because no one would read my journal. Which brings me to lesson number three.

3. The third lesson: I enjoy having people read what I write. That probably doesn’t sound like much of a realization — if John and I didn’t want people to read our books, we wouldn’t be Indy authors. It’s no surprise that I get excited every time I find out that someone is reading 60th Hour. What I did not expect was the amount of happiness I felt the first time I discovered that people were reading this blog. I still get a real sense of delight every time people “like” what I have written or choose to follow the blog. (To all of you reading this…thank you! You’re all awesome!)

4. The fourth lesson: Thinking of a new topic to write about each week can be tricky. When I started writing the blog a year ago, I worried that I would run out of things to say. While that has not happened, it came close a couple of times. The need to produce a post every Friday has helped to build my discipline as a writer, but sometimes I arrive at Thursday night with no clue what to write the next day. Fortunately, my idea guy (John) has come through for me on those occasions and I was able to post on schedule.

As those of you who follow this blog know, one of my New Year’s resolutions as an author was to continue posting once a week through the end of 2021. So far, I have succeeded. Will I manage it for the rest of the year? Stay tuned and find out!

-Susan 4/30/2021