The Gifts of NaNoWriMo, Part I

It hurt a little when I fell off the face of the earth, I’m not gonna lie. I face-planted somewhere around Jupiter. Or was it Venus?  All I know is it was cold, and I got rocks in my teeth. Come to think of it, it might have been the playground.

It happens every November without fail. I get sucked into National Novel Writing Month, and the rest of my life gets to go hang for a little while. I’m not apologizing, mostly because I’ve been around the blogging block long enough to realize I’m the only one who suffers if I don’t blog. But also because this November was made of magic. Magic. I can’t apologize for magic.

I sign up for NaNo every year. My first year, I stumbled upon it the day before, and I jumped in with both feet. I love it. I get caught up in the madness, the late nights, the caffeine-addled reckless abandon that helps me pound out a delightfully awful first draft. This year, I met some milestones.

NaNo is a program that offers several opportunities a year to produce a novel in a month. In November, the *official* month, the goal is 50,000 words. I hit that goal in 8 days, a personal best. I ended the month at 106K, another personal best for a work of straight fiction. I didn’t find “The End” for another few days after NaNo ended, but I found it last night. I typed those words in giant, bold letters, 30 point type.  A third personal best. Usually I’m hiking the Cliffs of Insanity in February in a desperate hunt for the elusive “The End,” but I nailed it down before Squish’s birthday.

I would say "Winner, winner, chicken dinner," but I keep getting mixed up and trying to say "Neener-neener, chicken wiener," and that embarrasses my children.

I would say “Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” but I keep getting mixed up and trying to say “Neener-neener, chicken wiener,” and that embarrasses my children.

This November was a gift, wrapped up in scratch-and-sniff Strawberry Shortcake paper and tied up with a bow. Here are some of my favorite things about it.

  • I learned that I can push my limits. I learned that I have the ability to dig deep when I really need to, when I decide to. November is busy, and I knew I had to get the majority of my 100K goal written before the week of Thanksgiving. Sometimes that meant getting out 5,000 words between Squish’s bed time and mine. And I did it. I could sit down at 9pm, ready to give up and just crash, and end up with my five big ones before 11. Because I decided I wanted to do something big rather than watch another episode of Frasier.
  • I learned that rewrites won’t kill me. And maybe they’re something to look forward to. I started a story I loved, but the idea shifted within about the first ten thousand words and became something even more fascinating. And complex. Turns out, I couldn’t finish THAT draft in 30 days. I wrote 50K on that piece, and then I switched over to a project I’ve had cooking for a year to finish the 100K. But the idea I left behind isn’t abandoned. It’s stewing. Because all of a sudden, I see what I need to do to make that first story line great, and I can’t wait to do it!
  • I learned that I suck at titles. No, wait. I already knew that.
  • The super coolest part about NaNo? When I was a kid, I had a best friend. We were inseparable. Every, single weekend, she was at my house, or I was at her house. What did we do? We wrote. On her frankensteined home computer that her dad build (in the 80s! Anyone remember C-prompts?), on pads of paper, any time, anywhere. We wrote together. This year? She’s in grad school. Where I live. And we got together for some write-ins. Once, we even ended up at her dad’s, the house where she grew up, and the site of about a million sleepovers. I was ready to bake cookies and make suicides out of Coca Cola and lemon juice (no, it didn’t taste good then, either) and stay up late to watch Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live. She has published a lot of stuff. Maybe you’ve heard of her, or maybe you’re just now hearing of your new favorite author. She’s nagging me about query letters. She’s pushing me on to my next big adventure: publishing.

These are all great things, of course. But I’m holding out on you. There’s no way a single blog post can contain all of this November’s allotment of awesome. I have more things to share, and one of them is even better than winning NaNo. Way better. Immeasurably better.

Until next time.

 

Did you participate in NaNoWrimo this year? How did it go?

 

She’s Back With Another Book!

Last year I reviewed a book from a rockin’ debut author. When I was offered an opportunity to read her next book for review, I jumped at the chance. I devoured the book in a weekend. That was months ago. But did I actually review it? Erm, does it count if the words are up in my head? No? Fine. It’s time to shake those words out here.

I'm a sucker for black and white images.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of reading Rattle by Olivia R. Burton. The author herself shared a copy with me in exchange for an honest review. Here’s the honest part. I learned it was a romance novel, and I almost didn’t read it. My great-auntie devoured romance novels, bodice-rippers with some scantily clad lady in the grips of some half-naked Fabian wannabee swooning on the cover. I was a kid who would read anything, so I sneaked a peek one day to see if it interested me. It did not. In the worst way, it did not. I ever after associated romance with insipid women who preferred their men big on biceps and short on brain. So I almost gave Rattle a hard pass. I am so glad I did not.

I’ll try to share the basic premise to the story without giving too much away. I hate spoilers, you know. Finn is your average, everyday necromancer who has limited control over his power. He’s not exactly what one might call a mental giant, and he allows himself to be exploited by Angelina, who uses his sex appeal to manipulate money from clients. Following the unexpected death of a client, Finn decides to take the money and run. The chase is on, and Angelina sends her hired goons to hunt Finn down, and he flees, straight into the arms of Veruca. He wonders if he has gone from frying pan to fire when he learns that Veruca is a Reaper in the pay of the Prince of Hell.

Rattle ain’t your great-auntie’s romance novel, let me tell you. Burton manages to turn what I have always thought of as a traditional romance dynamic on its ear. The protagonist, Veruca, is beautiful and sexy of course, but she’s also smart and strong and knows what she wants. Finn is kind of a goober. Instead of being the dominant one in the relationship, Veruca essentially keeps him as a pet.

Not only does the dynamic play out in a more satisfying way, the book is well-written. Burton doesn’t mess around when it comes to world-building. She writes with a deft hand, crafting the setting, the people, the magic, the limitations of all three. And she does it without the dreaded info-dump. Burton is a master of show-not-tell, unveiling details and backstory naturally. When she shows her readers what it looks like to take a soul, I believe her. Because she said so. Her world feels real to me because undoubtedly it feels real to her, and she’s so, so good at sharing what’s in her head.

The book isn’t just a paranormal romance, either. It’s a thrilling ride all the way around as Finn and Veruca dodge the bad guys. It’s about 90% action, 10% huggy-kissy, so don’t let the romance bit scare you away.

The book isn’t perfect. The action at the end becomes a bit muddy, and I get lost from time to time, and the huggy-kissy is rather naughty. But I can skim the blushy bits if I have to.

All in all, I give Rattle a solid four stars. It’s a fun ride all around and a quick read, and I recommend it.

 

What have you read lately?

For Alice On Her Birthday

Today I’m going to tell you a story. Because Alice asked me to, and it’s her birthday. Happy birthday, Alice! You don’t know her? Oh, you should! She’s funny and so, so smart. I love her posts. Sometimes her posts make me laugh, sometimes they make me cry. Sometimes it’s both. Read her. You just might love her.

I’ve gone back and forth about which story to tell. Fiction? Not fiction? Embellished not-fiction? I want to come up with a good one. For the last week, my internal dialog has gone something like this:

There was the time that… no, that’s no good.

How about… nope. Funny only to me.

I’ve got it! Yes! Um, are you kidding me? You can’t admit to that in a public setting.

So here you go.

Sharon slid the box across the counter. It didn’t look like much. About eighteen inches square, it had been white at one time, but trotting the globe had acquired a layer of grime. One corner was dinged, and the shipping label had begun to peel, but the packing tape held fast. That bit was all that mattered to Sharon.

“Here,” she said with a furtive glance at the ceiling. “Better hurry. Dad’ll be down in a minute.”

Thad’s eyes glowed. He pulled the box to himself and began to dig at the packing tape with his thumbnail.

“Don’t open it here!” Sharon hissed, terror in her eyes. She flung an arm toward the door. “GO!” she cried. “And don’t tell Dad!”

Thad dropped a pile of cash on the counter without bothering to count it and gathered his precious box gently, mindful of its delicate cargo. Balancing the box on his arm, he was gone with the jingling of the shop door.

Sharon watched him go, not daring to breathe until she heard him climb the stone steps to street level and saw his feet pass by the basement window. She turned to the new girl.

“I can’t believe I did that,” she whispered hoarsely. “Dad will kill me if he finds out.”

The new girl said nothing. She simply wondered. Then she turned back to sorting the shipment of live fish that had just been delivered to the little basement shop.

“Okay,” Sharon said, collecting herself. “Let’s see what we have here.” She lifted a gallon-sized bag teeming with tiny, colorful fish. “Guppies,” she announced. “We’ll put those in one of the 20-longs in the back.”

The new girl did as she was told. She collected the bag of fish from Sharon. It was surprisingly heavy, but she did not drop it. She upended it gently, pouring fish and water carefully into a waiting bucket. She shook out the corners of the bag to dislodge any remaining fish and then discarded it and dropped an air hose into the bucket.

Shipment days were the best days, every available surface in the tiny shop stacked with cardboard boxes and Styrofoam coolers. She liked sorting it all out, seeing order come from the chaos, but mostly, she liked the new fish. Shipments from Florida were the best. Not only did they require a trip to the airport to collect, but they contained the greatest surprises.

In the mid-1980s, few fish species beyond basic livebearers and a few cichlids were regularly bred in captivity. It was easier, and usually cheaper, to import animals freshly caught from the wilds of Africa and the Amazon. Sometimes, swimming right alongside the common side-sucking plecostamus they had ordered, she would find something weird.

When one of these tiny mysteries appeared, she snagged it, put it in a catch box and ran for the books. Sometimes even after studying Axelrod and Practical Fishkeeping, she came up short. It was her first introduction to the enormity of the world and its diversity. She could barely comprehend she was holding a creature that Herbert Axelrod, that demigod of fish keeping, had never even seen. On those occasions, she put down her money and carted her new treasure home. Sometimes it died. More often, she kept i a few months until she grew bored with it and returned it for something newer and more exciting.

So  many weird and interesting things came into the shop unexpectedly that it never occurred to her to ask Sharon to special-order things for her. It did, however, occur to Thad.

“You can order it! It’s right here on their inventory list,” he’d said, thumping his index finger on the paper for emphasis. Sharon looked at him doubtfully.

“I don’t know,” she answered, frowning. “Dad wouldn’t like it. He said no. He told me, and he told you, and he’d fire us both if he knew.”

“He doesn’t have to know.” The new girl hated his wheedling tone, hated how many girls caved to it, hated that  Sharon, who was an adult and supposed to know better, was no exception.

“Alright,” she said. “But you have to pay for it, dead or alive, and Dad can’t know. Dad hates snakes.”

Harry, her father was the owner and namesake of the little aquarium shop. He had started it with just a few aquariums in his basement twenty years previously. The business had grown over the years until he was forced to either quit his full time job or hand over the reins to Sharon, his youngest daughter. He still lived upstairs, but she managed the place on her own. He would likely never see the invoice.

Sharon placed the order against her better judgement. When the shipment arrived, she called Thad immediately, and the transaction went down with neither hitch nor Harry’s knowledge. She thought she was out of the woods, but then the snake, a Haitian Vine Boa, escaped into Thad’s apartment and was gone for good, likely cooked in the heating vents, and he was back on her doorstep begging her to order another. And then another. Today’s shipment was his third.

The new girl worked the following day by herself. Sundays were usually slow and sleepy, and this day was no exception.

She stood at the sink scraping the hard water line from an aquarium with salt and a razor blade. She looked up when she heard the jingle of the door and was surprised to see Thad. He never came around on his days off. It was one of the many things she disapproved of when it came to Thad. She had a list.

She was even more surprised to see him holding a pillowcase, or more correctly, holding something inside a pillowcase. She frowned.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“My new snake,” he said proudly.

“Why is it here?” she asked haughtily, pretending disapproval to mask her terror. She had never seen a living snake up close, and she was pretty sure she didn’t want to now.

He laughed, seeing right through her and making her hate him more. “Is Harry home?”

“No,” she said, stuffing down her fear and turning back to attack the hard water line with new zeal.

“Good,” Thad said gleefully. She looked up to find him reaching into the bag.

“What are you doing?” she demanded, her voice an odd point somewhere between a his and a squeal.

“Hang on,” he said, furrowing his brows in concentration. “Relax. It’s a ball python. When they get scared, they roll up in a ball.”

She didn’t answer, her blade squeaking on the aquarium glass like fingernails on a chalkboard.

She didn’t look up until she heard him say “Oh, no.” The snake, a wild-caught, thin specimen about three feet long,  had clearly not read the manuals on typical ball python behavior. It showed no inclination whatsoever to roll into a ball but a rather strong desire to bite Thad somewhere in the vicinity of his face. He managed to pin the snake’s head, pressing the animal’s mouth closed with the balls of this thumbs while the snake twined its back end all the way up his arm.

The new girl took a step back, away from crazed snake and handler. She looked over her shoulder to plan the best escape route should Thad drop the snake at the same time the snake dropped him. A thump from above stopped them both in their tracks. Harry was home.

Thad said a word the new girl had only read on bathroom walls. “Help me!” he squeaked, gesturing as if he thought she might actually step forward and assist him in his snake-handling endeavors. His hand was turning purple.

“No way,” she said, shaking her head fiercely. He frowned at her. She frowned back. Another thump and the shuffling footsteps of a knee replacement from above. Harry was coming down to the shop.

Thad said another word unfamiliar to the new girl. She was pretty sure it was German, and totally certain it was bad. He did a little dance on the spot to loosen the coils constricting his arm. By some great miracle, he was able to shake the snake into the pillowcase and tie it off. Thump-thump. Harry descended slowly down the basement steps.

Thad thrust the bag at the new girl. “We have to hide it!”

“Washer?” she suggested?

“What if he’s doing laundry? Closet?”

“He might be getting fish food for upstairs!”

Thump-thump.

Out of time and optionsThad dropped the bag into the empty display aquarium at the front of the store beside the counter just as Harry rounded the corner and appeared behind the counter, scratching his grizzled head and looking at least as grumpy as the snake.

“Thad?” he said with a frown. Men, it seemed, were immune to Thad’s charm. “What are you doing here?”

“I, uh, I just came by,” Thad squeaked, standing in front of the aquarium to block Harry’s view from the contents.

Harry walked around the counter. Thad took a step back, pressing himself against the aquarium as Harry walked toward him. Thad shot a look at the new girl over Harry’s shoulder, a look of sheer hopelessness. It was all over. Harry was going to find the snake and learn that both Sharon and Thad had disobeyed his orders. Thad would lose his job on the spot.

With the look of a hunted man, Thad darted around the corner and out of Harry’s reach. He could fire Thad, but he’d have to catch him to hit him. And hit he might. Harry hated snakes.

Harry stopped in his tracks and turned on his heel to face the new girl, his back to the aquarium and his expression inscrutable. She thought she might soil herself. Did he think her complicit.

“I thought I made myself clear,” he said sternly. Her knees felt weak. Would he fire her, too? She gulped.

“Yes?” she whispered.

“You’re listening to television.”

“What?” she asked, genuinely puzzled.

“The radio,” he barked. “The radio! You’re listening to Judge Wapner. I told you and told you, the radio is for classical. It makes customers spend more money!”

The radio! She felt positively wobbly with relief. He hadn’t seen the snake bag in the aquarium. But she could. She watched in horrified fascination as, behind Harry, the snake bag came to life and slowly rose up the side of the aquarium. Thad had not tied the pillowcase down very far, giving the snake plenty of room to stretch out.

The new girl did not hear a word Harry said, so focused was she on the snake making its slow and careful way up the front of the empty aquarium, impeded only by its pillowcase. Harry, oblivious, continued to chastise her radio choices while the snake bag danced behind him.

The new girl didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It seemed impossible that he did not see the bag contorting and stretching itself… stretching itself to the top of the tank! Oh, dear God! It was going to climb out, pillowcase and all! The snake pushed up on the lid of the aquarium and it rose a fraction of an inch. She stood transfixed, terrified. The snake pressed the lid a little further. Its head, covered by the knot in the pillowcase, was an inch from Harry’s arm. One tiny poke, and Harry would undoubtedly suffer heart attack, aneurysm, or stroke, maybe all three at once. The new girl silently lamented skipping CPR class when she was a Campfire Girl.

The snake, hampered in its exploration, fell on its side with a hollow thud as loud as a gong. Harry didn’t hear it over the radio. He made a few more points, and she nodded her head in blind agreement, eyes fixed on the snake so determined to announce its presence. Finally, he walked over to the radio, changed the station, and heaved himself back upstairs.

As soon as Harry was out of sight, Thad snatched the snake out of the aquarium and beat a hasty retreat himself, leaving the new girl to fall into helpless, hysterical giggles on the counter. Harry never found out about his close encounter of the reptilian kind, but the new girl learned that she never, in fact, hated Thad. Or snakes, and in fact went on to work with reptiles herself 20 years later.

to alice

Happy birthday, Alice! Your present will be there later this week. And no, it’s not a snake in a bag.

 

My Million Excuses

I sit here frozen at the keyboard. All the words that have been rattling around in my head for the last two hours have disappeared, flitting away like figments of my imagination. Wait. They were figments of my imagination, and they’ve left me, the little traitors.

My ailment isn’t a new one, nor is it undiagnosed. I am suffering from the dreaded Rewrite Paralysis. A few weeks ago, I got the bill for Girl-child’s first year of college tuition, and I came to the conclusion that, if I want to continue my day job, I am going to have to sell a book. If you’ve been around a while, you’ll know that leaving the zoo isn’t an option. I love it too much. If you’re a new reader, click the “turtles and tortoises” tab at the top. Yeah, I’m with the zoo forever. So, it’s time to pee or get off the pot.

Lampropeltis knoblochi, or Chihuahua Mountain Kingsnake. I don't talk about my snakes as much because they tend to squick some readers out, but isn't she beautiful? She's very sweet, too, and a contestant in the on-going "Longest Tongue competition over at Animal Couriers.

Lampropeltis knoblochi, or Chihuahua Mountain Kingsnake. I don’t talk about my snakes as much because they tend to squick some readers out, but isn’t she beautiful? She’s very sweet, too, and a contestant in the on-going “Longest Tongue” competition over at Animal Couriers.

I have a metric crap-ton** of excuses for not rewriting this novel sooner. Let’s get them out here in the open.

  1. That novel was just for fun.
  2. No one will really be interested in this character.
  3. It’s too hard to sell a book with a niche hobby like showing dogs. No one will be able to relate to it.
  4. It’s a damaged book, too far off the mark for redemption.
  5. I don’t have time.
  6. My kids are still young too young.
  7. My other hand hurts.
  8. Is it lunch time yet?

But if I’m really honest, there’s only one reason I haven’t delved head-first into rewrites.

I. Am. Scared.

The what-ifs are, quite frankly, eating me alive. What if I dedicate my whole world to this book only to discover that no one really DOES care? What if I do just fine with short little blog posts, but I’m not good enough to write a novel? What if I fail?

My answer to that last what-if is simple. I might fail, but I won’t die from it. Unless a potential agent reads it and finds it so horrible that they ouleave their big city office, come to my house, and bludgeon me to death with the e-file. I am still scared, but I am fairly certain this scenario won’t actually play out. I’m unlisted.

So this summer, I am stretching out of my comfort zone by joining Teachers Write, a four-week online camp for educators. If you’re a teacher, I recommend you join. It’s free. We get valuable feedback and a supportive community.

In keeping with the busting out of my wheelhouse, I will share the character sketch I wrote yesterday n response to this assignment. I am uncomfortable with this work because I am conflicted about writing in dialect. But it feels inauthentic not to. It won’t be for everybody, and I need to stop thinking that it will be. Not everyone loved Harry Potter, you know. Also, what is a wheelhouse?

She used to be skinny. She’s not no more, not since she come over to live at Grammy Sparks’. She likes Grammy’s cookin’, especially the hamburgers, fried in a pan. She likes those a lot.

She has brown eyes and blonde hair, but not same kind of hair as Sleeping Beauty\’s got, unless Sleeping Beauty slept a real, real long time and her hair got all dusty and kind of grey.

She don\’t like school. She done been to Principal\’s office so many times that they don’t bother with the teachin’ no more. Teacher puts the sum sheet on her desk but don’t say nothin’ when she crumples it up and drops it on the floor. Most people think she’s stupid. She’s not stupid. She knows better is all. Ain’t no reason to learn two and two when her Mamma done gone to jail for doin’ math.

Her front tooth is gone. It shoulda growed back two year ago when it first come out, but it didn’t. She didn’t even get nothin’ from the tooth fairy for it, neither. But she don’t believe in the tooth fairy, anyways. Except maybe she wishes she did.

She likes Grammy Sparks’ house good enough. Except for that cat. She hates that cat. He don’t like her much, neither. He squinted up his one good eye and scratched her good and proper the first day they met. He’s a mean old cat. He prowls outside her room at night and yowls. The same sound. Ra’o, ra’o, ra’o, over and over again, like he forgot he already said it.

He’s always there, that cat, always bein’ mean. Sometimes he takes the food straight off her plate, just plops up in a chair and snakes out that stripey paw, and next thing you know, he’s got her french fry. No one knows where he come from, but she surewishes he’d go.

Auntie June says Grammy Sparks is good at dragging in strays.

Am I alone? Anyone else ever let fear stand in their way? How did you conquer it?

 

** Little known fact: the official system for measuring excuses is metric.

Challenge Accepted!

A few months ago, I found a blog out there in cyberspace. I don’t even remember how I came across it, but I started reading, and I just couldn’t stop. The woman can write, and about all manner of topics. Smart, funny, and did I mention smart? So anyway, imagine my surprise when I logged in last week and discovered she had tagged me in a post. Not just any post, but one containing a challenge. A photo challenge, no less.

You KNOW how much I love photographs!

You KNOW how much I love photographs! Click to enlarge. Because I said so.

So the first part of this challenge is to thank the person who tagged me in the first place. So, thank you, Alice. It was a huge honor to see my name on your blog.

The second part is to share one photograph and quote per day for three days. But I am nothing if not lazy, so I’ll give you three photos in one day. Click to enlarge because apparently you can’t read the text without enlarging the pics. I’m so sorry. I’ll learn photoshop for next time.

Okay, fine. Not technically a quote, but there are at least 50 shades of grey here. And they look so good on him.

Okay, fine. Not technically a quote, but there are at least 50 shades of grey here. And they look so good on him.

 

And this:

achamedit2

And last, but definitely not least. My favorite.

achamedit

So the last part of the challenge is to tag 3 other bloggers. I’d rather share with you three bloggers that you should be following. Besides Alice, of course.

Peas and Cougars. Web comic. Hilarious.

The Middlest Sister. She really gets childhood.

The Kitchen’s Garden. Sustainable farm, mind-blowing photography.

So there you have it. Do you have a favorite quote to share? Clearly I stink a quotes.

The Blogger’s Guide to Social Media: Twitter

Of all the social media out there, my heart belongs to Twitter. I like its concise format – no giant walls of text to plow through. Twitter’s reach is better than Facebook’s. Anything you tweet will show up in the timelines of those who want it to. End of story. Here’s how to make Twitter work for you as a blogger.

This post isn’t so much about how to achieve a million followers. That part is easy. Follow 2 million people. Statistically speaking, about half of them will follow you back. There you go. This post is more about how to use Twitter to make connections and promote your blog.

For those who are completely new to Twitter, here’s how it works. Follow people, and then their tweets will show up in your feed. A blue check mark beside someone’s name means they are a verified famous person, though  I can’t guarantee you’ll have heard of them. You can use the Publicize feature on WordPress blogs to automatically send a tweet with a link each time you publish a post.

Don’t know whom to follow? Twitter can help. They offer suggestions based on those you have followed before and on the preferences of those followers. It’s pretty much the same algorithm Facebook uses. Sometimes it’s spot on, sometimes it’s not. I’d like to say the more you use it, the better it gets, but that would be wrong.  “You followed a field biologist? Here’s another one for you. And another! You could follow ALL of them! No? You want field biologist who study frogs, not beetles? TOO BAD! You like rock bands? Here’s a geologist for you.” It’s all kinds of fun. But once you get started, you’ll find some peeps.

When I am on the prowl for people to follow,  I look for:

An active feed. Sometimes people take a break from the internet. That’s no big deal. But if I look at someone’s feed and see that they seem to tweet only once every six months or so, I’m probably not going to give them a follow. On Twitter, I’m looking for the potential for interaction, so unless I know them personally, I’ll probably skip them.

Varied content. I read a formula somewhere that explained the ratio of original tweets to retweeted stuff. I then promptly forgot it because that’s what I do with formulas. But the general idea is this – a Twitter feed  should ideally be a mix of links to your blog posts, conversation with other Tweeters, and retweets (also known as RT) of other people’s stuff. A timeline that contains only tweets linking back to a blog doesn’t tell me much about the account holder. If they’re new to Twitter, I might follow them anyway. Someone who tweets only reviews of their books and the Amazon links to purchase them get skipped. I have definitely bought books (and music) from people I’ve discovered on Twitter, but that’s usually only after I get to know how they present themselves.

Use photos judiciously. Many people do not love pics on Twitter. (click to enlarge)

Use photos judiciously. Many people do not love pics on Twitter. (click to enlarge)

An interesting bio. Be personable. And humble. If you’ve published a book, say so, but don’t belabor it. I prefer it when a writer links me to their website, not to Amazon. If you tell me the title(s) or have images of your titles as part of your header, I can find your work. There’s a place to link your blog, too. Be sure to do so.

Conversation. I mentioned this under varied content, but it’s important enough to warrant a bullet of its own. Conversation tells me a few things. It shows that a tweeter is engaged on the site, and it gives me a clue how they interact with others.

Spelling. I don’t care if a tweeter makes spelling errors. We’ve all done it, and there’s no way to edit without deleting the tweet and starting over. I will not, however, follow someone whose tweets are composed entirely using text-speak. My preference is in no way universal. Lots of people don’t care. But using it too often will pretty clearly define your demographic for you and limit your reach.

A respectable number in the “following” column. Sometimes I come across accounts that have a number of people following, but not so many that are being followed. I like ratios that are fairly even, give or take twenty percent, unless they are a legitimate celebrity. Refusing to follow other people maybe means Twitter isn’t the best fit for them. Tweeps want at least a little interaction.

Twitter is a useful tool and a pretty fun place once you get the hang of it. It’s more like speed-dating than an engagement, so don’t feel too badly if you lose a follower here and there.

I wrote a post about Twitter a while back that contains some of my Twitter pet peeves. You can find it here.

What do you like to see in a Twitter timeline? I’m @becomingcliche over there.

I’ll be offline for a few days. I’m having minor hand surgery on the morrow, so I may not get to comments as quickly as I usually do. I’ll be reading them, but unless I can convince my husband to be my personal scribe, I’ll be quiet for a bit.

 

 

How To Write a Blog So That People Will Read, Part 3

Welcome to the third installment in my series on writing a blog, written for writers by an inveterate blog reader. If you missed the first two posts, you can find them here and here. The opinions herein are mine. There are endless guides for bloggers out there. Read a few and decide what works best for you.

Use bullet points. Sometimes. Every how-to will tell you that people LOVE to read blogs with bullet points. And that’s true sometimes. Bold print helps to break up giant walls of text. Be aware, though, that very often, people will ONLY read the bold print. The shorter the explanation of the bullet point is, the more likely people are to read it. Also, not all blog posts lend themselves to a  bullet format. Don’t limit yourself.

Don’t hit “publish immediately.”  This is a tough thing to do, but I recommend it. WordPress allows us to save posts as drafts and revisit them. Do that. Give yourself a little space from the post, anywhere from a few hours to a few days, whatever you need to see your work with fresh eyes. Then re-read. Not only are typos and sentence fragments more likely to jump out at you, having some distance allows you to read for clarity as well. If you aren’t sure you’ve hit the nail you were aiming for, use the feedback feature. WordPress lets us send a feedback link to anyone via email, even if they don’t use WordPress. The post will open for them and will look just like a live post so all formatting, photos, etc, appear in context. Linda A is one of my go-to editors. I trust her red pen. Find yourself a Linda.

Edit.  Put your best foot forward, every single time. The way most blogs are laid out, the most recent post is right there on the homepage for everyone to see. Make sure everything is all cleaned up. Root out any mixed up homophones and sentence fragments where you’ve cut and pasted and rearranged. And please, for the love of muffins, use paragraphs. I know. It’s not school, and we should feel free to format as we wish, but God created paragraphs for a reason.

Find your best time to post. This bit of advice is more from the standpoint of a blogger. You want to schedule your posts at a time where you have the most readers online because individual posts get buried in readers and in email.  Here’s the sad part. Every blogger’s sweet spot will be different. If I posted after 9pm, I heard nothing but crickets, but my friend sj’s rants posted at midnight would immediately receive 100 page views within minutes. Every demographic is different. You will need to experiment. Try a time slot for a week or two, then try a different one, maybe a little earlier or a little later. Check your stats. What time slots do you see those peaks? Here’s what I can tell you as a reader:

I rarely read blogs on weekends, holidays or particularly solemn occasions. I am usually too busy doing other things on weekends and holidays. As a blogger, I found this to be true as well. Hits were low over the weekend. If you’re a seven-day-a-week blogger, your weekend posts may get buried without many people seeing them. When there is an event of great magnitude, I turn off the computer completely. During mourning periods following a school shooting, racial injustice, etc, most of the stuff that is dumped onto the internet becomes senseless noise. I don’t read, and I definitely don’t contribute.

Your readership will have natural peaks and valleys. Write anyway. This tidbit isn’t a tip, just a heads-up. In the summer, for example,  page views may go way down. People are outside, on vacation, away from computers and devices. Write anyway. Write to improve your skills and, more importantly, to stay in the blogging habit. You can always reuse any gems later when people ARE reading.

 

What other tips do you have?

Next week I’ll start talking about social media for bloggers. Anyone out there use Pinterest or Instagram to promote their blog? Want to guest post, or at least give me some insight? Let me know in the comments, or contact me via email.

 

How To Write a Blog So That People Will Read, Part 2

This is the second bit of a mini-series on blog writing. If you missed the first installment, you can find it here.

There are endless how-to posts about blogging out there. A quick online search for “How to write a blog” turns up 723 million results, and I do not pretend to have the be-all, end-all guide. I encourage you to read other posts on the topic to find what works for you. In this space, I’ll share what has worked for me, both as a reader and a blogger.

1) Watch the length of your posts. This is a brilliant bit of advice from Angelique at Sappho’s Torque. I agree. I prefer to read posts that are 1200 words or fewer under normal circumstances. 700 words is even better. It’s not because I have a short attention-span and am easily distracted (Here, kitty! Can I braid your hair?). It’s because shorter posts are frequently better-written. Not always. Not always. Not always. I follow some blogs that routinely pass the 2K mark, and I stick around because they are stellar. But more often, shorter posts tend to get to the point quicker and more clearly. In the words of good old Polonius, brevity is the soul of wit.

2) Understand that not everyone is going to like you. And that’s… okay. (I feel like I’m channeling my inner Stuart Smalley here.)

And that's...okay. Photo credit

And that’s…okay. Photo credit

It’s also the hardest thing for most of us to accept. We want to write something brilliant, something that will resonate with everyone. But think about it. There are seven billion people on this planet. That’s a lot of resonance for one blog. The better goal to aim for is that each time we hit “Publish,” we make someone (someone, not somebillion) laugh/think/smile/start a conversation.

Negative comments happen sometimes. I have both read and written posts that hit someone’s nerve. The bigger your audience, the more likely you are to make someone mad. Comments can be unkind. It’s up to you to handle them in good grace, and to define what “good grace” means to you. Do you delete those comments? Allow but ignore? Allow and respond? You decide. But my best advice is to grow a thick skin and let it slide.

Sometimes, worse than spawning a giant poop storm,  a post is ignored completely and quietly dies. I bet every blogger out there has a post that didn’t get the attention they thought it deserved. It happens. But if one person got one thing out of it, maybe that can be enough.

3. Make your blog visually appealing. First impressions are everything. A blog appeals to me when it’s easy to find what I’m looking for, but it’s not an information over-load. Some things are a matter of taste, of course. Here are some suggestions for layout.

  • Three must-have widgetssearch, email follow, social media follow. Sometimes a post you wrote sticks in someone’s mind. Make it easy to locate. Also, an email follow button is appreciated. Clicking “Follow” at the top of a blog means that blog shows up in someone’s reader where it can get buried really fast. Give folks the option of appearing in their email inbox where they are more likely to see (and read) it. Social media widgets give readers more options for how to follow you.
  • Choose a theme that is easy to read. No white text on black, please. Or that deadly “Google blue.”  Show old eyes some love. WordPress has so many themes to choose from, and you can give them a tiny test-run before you commit. Many are free.
  • Consider carefully the location of your widgets. Nine times out of ten, widgets that run down the sides of the page are more useful than ones clustered at the bottom. It’s a cleaner look, and the widgets are more obvious. I followed one blog for a year before I realized the widgets were all at the bottom of the page.
  • Limit the number of posts that appear on a page. On WordPress, go to WP Admin>settings>reading, and then choose how many posts should appear. 10 or fewer is best. When a reader has to load every post you’ve written, it takes forever. Slow-load means fewer readers.

One blog I love is Peas and Cougars. If you visit Rae’s site, you’ll see she has an attractive header and image widgets on the sidebars that are pastel and not too distracting. There’s plenty of white space and just enough going on to make it interesting.

4. Lift the seat before you pee. Whoops. Wrong…list… my bad.

5. Blog about what interests you. There is nothing more appealing than someone sharing something they really love. I love a fanatic. One of my favorite Tweeters is passionate about sports.  I don’t know a futbol from soccer (see what I did there?), but she does, and her enthusiasm (and sometimes rage) is entertaining and contagious.

Some blogs have a focus topic tight as a laser-beam. I always know what to expect when I visit. Others are a mixed-bag, always full of surprises. Both can work well. Alexandra began her blog taking photos of her exotic cat. Later, she began adding posts and a shop to raise money for homeless cats in her country of Montenegro, where there are no cat programs or shelters. She handled her focus-change neatly by adding a menu bar at the top of her page to help readers find the posts that most interest them. To learn how to create a menu, go here.


So that’s it for this week. Next week, I’ll post a part 3, and then we’ll talk about blogging and social media. If you use Pinterest or Instagram to promote your blog, please  let me know. I may go out on a limb and offer a guest post position on these two, since I don’t have direct experience myself.

How To Write a Blog So That People Will Read

This year, one very popular resolution  has been to either start a blog or to be more involved with an existing one. I think I can help you guys out!

No one asked me for advice, but I’ll pretend they did. I think I’m pretty qualified to make some suggestions, not because I’m a blogger, but because am a reader. I read blogs. A lot of them. Every, single day. A significant portion of my lunch break at work is devoted to catching up on my blog reading. I enjoy reading the work of old friends, and I adore discovering the next great voice.

So how do you make your blog stand out? I’m a WordPress user, so some of my suggestions are specific to this platform. If you use Blogger, you’ll need to check and see if your platform has similar features.

1) Decide your intended audience: Ultimately we should write for ourselves, of course, but most of us hope to have some readers.  Knowing your audience will help determine your approach to a given topic. Blogs intended to be read only by family, for example, will likely have a different focus than one that is meant for a wider readership. A back-to-school post meant only for grandma might consist of a snapshot of little Lulu and her giant backpack with a caption “Lulu on the first day of preschool. What a big girl!” A post with a bigger readership will need a bit more meat to it. Those related  to her actually care about Lulu. The average reader won’t. A back-to-school post may still be appropriate, but it will need to be handled a different way. A tortoise blog directed toward the scientific community is going to be much more technical than one aimed at the general public.

Word to the wise, cats make a poor intended audience. They tend to be snooty and judgmental about grammar.

Word to the wise, cats make a poor intended audience. They tend to be snooty and judgmental about grammar.

An aside here: for  parents who are new to blogging, decide from the get-go how and if you are going to present those kids in your blog. Will you use their first names? An initial? A nickname? It’s a personal decision, and it makes no nevermind to me as a reader, but I’ve talked to a number of parents who wished they had given more thought to using their kid’s name. Once that name is out there, it’s really tough to take back.

2) Post regularly. This bit of advice is on every how-to list you’ll find. There’s a reason for that. Posting regularly helps people get to know you. Writing regularly also helps to hone your skills. Posting daily is fine, especially at first, but don’t feel like you have to, and don’t expect all but your most loyal readers to read every day. I only follow a few daily blogs, including this one. I don’t have time to read a ton of dailies. You’ll find that certain days of the week get more traffic than others, anyway. No point in wasting your brilliance on a Saturday if all of your readers are at the beach.

3) Don’t post more than once a day. New bloggers are very excited and have lots to say. Publishing multiple posts in a day can be a hardship for readers, however. Assume that anyone following your blog also follows others. Be respectful of their time. Use WordPress’s  auto-post feature. Schedule posts out over the course of a few days, a few weeks, even a few months.

4) Use SEO to your advantage, but don’t abuse it. Search Engine Optimization simply means tagging your posts effectively. If all of your posts are uncategorized, it’s harder for a search engine to point readers your way. Use relevant tags.The important word here is “relevant.” I’ve seen a few bloggers try to boost their traffic by using tags for hot-topics that aren’t related to their post at all. Tagging a post about taking your cat to the vet with “Ferguson” or “Bill Cosby” may bring some traffic, but it will also land a blogger on WordPress’s naughty list and will turn off conscientious readers.

Don’t forget to tag your images, too. Which brings us to…

5) Throw in an image or two. Pictures help break up walls of text. We humans are visual creatures. Gimme something  to look at. And you don’t have to be a great photographer or even own a camera. There are plenty of good quality images available under Creative Commons. Here’s a great article on where to find free images and how to properly credit the image owner. Pick smart. Don’t steal. Karma is a you-know-what.

I was hoping for a place to share this image. It's our Little People nativity illuminated by a leg lamp. I need people to know that I am classy.

I was hoping for a place to share this image. It’s our Little People nativity illuminated by the soft glow of a leg lamp. I need people to know that I am classy.

6) Use social media properly. Now that I follow a gazillion blogs, social media is my favorite way to follow new ones. Use the Publicize feature on WordPress to automatically publish links to your post on your favorite social media sites. Be aware that most of your Facebook friends will never see your post in their feed unless you cough up some cash. Twitter, however, directly publishes to all of your followers.  Be careful that your Twitter isn’t cross-posting to Facebook, which then cross-posts to Twitter, which then cross-posts to… This is a common mistake. Check your social media settings. Sometimes I’ll see six identical posts in a row from the same person because their all of their social media is set to cr0ss-post everything.

7) Be yourself. My favorite blogs have one thing in common – they are unique. Amy’s blog is very different from Nicole’s blog, which is nothing like Linda’s blog.  None of them are trying to be anybody else. Be who you are. Unless you’re mean. Then go right ahead and pretend to be something else.

8) Write what interests you. We talked about intended audience and all that, but your first reader is you. If you don’t like what you’re doing, no one else will, either. I write about tortoise belly buttons. Because it makes me happy.

9) If a reader leaves a comment, respond if you can. Answering comments helps to build a sense of community. Never, ever responding to comments completely is kind of rude. Sometimes we’re not available to respond immediately, or we find ourselves with 80 comments in the queue,  or an individual comment gets buried in the notifications. Readers get that. And sometimes a comment is antagonistic, so withholding an answer is actually taking the high road, but most readers are earnest in their comments. Answer when you can.

10) Read other blogs. Don’t just read them, engage with them. Leave a (meaningful) comment where appropriate.  Not in the hopes that they will return the favor, either. Engage with other bloggers. Build your own little blogging family.

What do you love in the blogs that you read? This post may morph into a mini-series, so additional tips are welcome!

Dreaming, The Second One

When we last met our heroine, she was all giggles and happy sighs because two fantastic things had happened – one, she had a piece published in Writer’s Digest, and two, she found a galley that not only did not make her want to gouge her eyes out with a blunt instrument, she loved so much she wanted to promote it. And give it away. All caught up now?

So here, you get part 2 of my interview with Olivia R. Burton, author of the decidedly awesome Mixed Feelings.

Me: If you could have a super-power, what would it be? What power would you NOT want to have?

Olivia: I’m always torn on this question when it’s not multiple choice! I would love something that lets me be more efficient at life, like stopping time or the ability to teleport, but I’d also adore a fun power like being able to talk to and understand animals. My cat Martin and I already have long conversations, but they’d definitely be more interesting if he could meow words other than, “NO!”

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Having Rogue’s life-draining superpower would be pretty unfortunate, as it would make sex all but impossible. Having a superpower like Gwen’s wouldn’t be that great, either, if you didn’t know how to control it. In one of my other series set in the same world, we meet an empath who knows how to utilize the power and it’s quite a boon. Gwen is pretty passive in her empathy at the start of the series, however, and it uses her more than she uses it.

Me: What advice would you give to readers who hope to publish their own books one day?

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Olivia: Take criticism, but know your audience. I’ve had a lot of writer friends who want lots of people to read and give input on their books, but I think they overextend. I don’t like high fantasy, so having me read your epic Tolkein-esque adventure tome isn’t going to do either of us any good. If you write technical sci-fi, find your friends who like that sort of thing and get their thoughts. Listen to their input, and evaluate your work honestly, but don’t lose confidence in what you’ve written if they have a lot of criticism. A few mistakes don’t mean your work is crap, it just means it could be better.

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Always be willing to give back, too. Don’t just expect others to read your stuff if you’re not willing to help them better their craft as well.

Me: Gwen likes sweets of all kinds, and yet I am not sure she has ever had a MoonPie. Do you have something against them, or have you not gotten around to writing them yet?

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Olivia: I’ve heard of MoonPies, but I wonder if they’re regional, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen one here on the West Coast. I have nothing against them, I just haven’t gotten the chance to feed them to Gwen. From my light and recent research into what they are, I can promise you Gwen would be all too eager to stuff them into her face.

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Rest assured, were she real, she would fight you for the last one in a bin. Whether she wins or not would depend on if you have fighting experience and if you are smart enough to distract her with another sugary treat. You could probably just chuck a Tootstie Roll and go, “Fetch!” and the MoonPie would be yours.

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Now, who wants to win their own copy of Mixed Feelings? Just click here to visit Candlemark&Gleam where the lovely Rafflecopter is set up just for you! The only reason you log in with your email is so that we know how to contact you if you win! So easy! No salesmen come calling.  Would you rather buy it? No problem! It’s only $5 right there on Candlemark&Gleam’s site!

Batman says enter to win! Look into his startling blue eyes and feel the fear dissipate. Enter to win. Enter to wiiiiinnnnn!

Batman says enter to win! Look into his startling blue eyes and feel the fear dissipate. Enter to win. Enter to wiiiiinnnnn!

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***I do apologize for the formatting this morning. Word and WordPress don’t play nicely together.