My plan to spend less time volunteering has failed

It wasn’t a New Year’s resolution. Maybe it was just a nice passing thought but with the New Year, I wanted to spend less time volunteering at my kids’ school and more time writing.

For the past two years, I have been an officer in the parent-teacher association (PTA) at their school. With that volunteer position comes a big time commitment. It means helping out at PTA functions as well as doing my officer position as Treasurer.

prez_volunteer_awardlogo_april_09_flat_customI volunteered enough hours in the past two years to receive the Silver Presidential Volunteer Service Award. This is a national award given to those who volunteer between 250 and 400 hours a year. (I received a certificate and a lapel pin each year.)

This year I am the first vice-president in charge of parent education and PTA programs. This position isn’t as time intensive as keeping the books for the PTA, but I do still volunteer a lot of my time helping with our programs.

So at the beginning of the year we had a PTA board meeting. I took myself off the scholarship committee announcing that I was trying to cut back my volunteering. I didn’t raise my hand when they were forming the budget committee.

When they talked about things that need to be done for our upcoming festival, I agreed to do the flyers and signs because that is something I love to do, and since I did them last year, I have many of the files already done.

Then came the news that the woman in charge of the fifth-grade pool party (an end of the year celebration for those leaving elementary school to attend middle school) had to step down. They were looking for those who would chair the committee or at least help out. Since I have a fifth-grader, I couldn’t say no to helping.

I bet you can see where this is going. Yep, by the time we had our first committee meeting, I had begun talking to people about last year’s party. And since I was treasurer the past two years, I had access to the party expenses. And before I knew it, I seemed to be in charge of the committee even though I haven’t officially taken on the chair position.

Ok. The party isn’t until the end of May and tons of parents usually want to be involved so I think I should be fine with this additional responsibility. And then…

The PTA needs to form a nominating committee to elect officers for the next school year. When the PTA President announced this at our general meeting last week, there was dead silence from the audience. No one wants to be on the committee, and we need five members. Finally a few of us dedicated PTA board members raised their hands. (Yes, you know I was one of them.)

After the meeting, the five of us on the committee were supposed to meet and pick a chair. Somehow three of the others met without me and said while they didn’t mind being on the committee that they didn’t want to chair it. I bet you can guess what happened next. Yep, I am chairing the nomination committee.

The good news is the nominating committee is a short term commitment. We will be done by next month.

So I had good intentions to volunteer less. I do want to spend more time writing. I guess now I will just have to find a way to do it all.

World Building: The Rules of Magic

When I was a child, I always thought it would be interesting to have magical powers. You could levitate a snack to you or close the door without even getting up. You could keep someone from grabbing you or perhaps start a fire with just a thought. But not once when I was thinking of these magical powers did I consider that there would be a limit to what could be done.

However, if you are writing a story, whether it is a fantasy, romance or horror, with magic in it, you need to spend some time developing a believable system of magic. Magic needs limits or consequences. Without these, whoever wields magic would win. There would be no conflict to your story or in other words, no story. And without a story, you have no readers.

Since magic is often a big part of a fantasy novel (the genre I write), I have written about it numerous times – Creating Believable Magic, Innate versus Learned Magic, Magical Duels, and Gods & Magic. But looking back over what I have written, I realize there was more to address so I have written a 2-part post about Magic.

Part One – The Rules of Magic

rules-of-magicBefore you begin writing, you should know everything about your magical system. You need to know the ins and outs of what type of magic your characters use or will run into. You need to know what they can’t do and what happens when they use magic. But as you develop that magical system, you need to remember the Rules of Magic.

Rules of Magic

1.) Limit Magic/Give Magic a Cost

2.) Keep to the Rules

Limit Magic/Give Magic a Cost

Magic needs limits. If magic is all-powerful, then a wave of a wand or a simple incantation would solve every problem. Your story would have no conflict. How do you have magic and conflict? It is simple – give a limit to what magic can accomplish or give it a cost so that it isn’t used freely.

Limiting magic is easy. The possibilities are endless – magic could require a specific set of actions/knowledge, magic only works for those with access to certain items, the strength of the magic is based upon the location of the source, or magic can only be used for certain purposes.

Now there is nothing to say that magic can’t be commonplace and everyone in your story can wield some form of magic. But there still needs to be rules to what they can and cannot do or the magic has no real purpose in the story and could be left out.

You also may want your characters to have to pay a price when they use magic. If magic is effortless, it doesn’t feel real. When you run away from a bear, you use energy. When you drive your car, you use fuel. Everything comes at cost and so should magic. Maybe they have to make a deal to give up something (first born) or offer a blood sacrifice. Or perhaps using magic makes them age or takes away days/years of their lives or at the very least drains them temporarily of power. Again, the possibilities are endless.

Keep to the Rules

Once you design the rules of magic in your world, you need to stay true to them. You cannot decide to change the rules just because you want to. You cannot create surprise magic out of the blue to save your characters. Yes, that might mean difficult choices have to be made and consequences accepted. But keeping to the rules will make your story believable and increase your credibility with the reader.

Now nothing says you can’t have a “chosen” one who is extra special or more gifted than others. But even he should not be able to break every rule. If you want them to stand out from the masses, allow them to break only one rule of your magic system. And you should make absolutely certain that the exceptional case is declared early and perhaps repeated several times. (Such as the prophecy of the chosen’s one’s coming.)

And this wraps up my two rules for creating a magical system. Of course, there is so much more to be decided – where magic comes from, how your characters access it, how to explain the magic to your readers and whether you even need magic in your story. I will cover all of that next week.

Animals as props or characters in your novel

In the past, I have written about using cats as characters since there are cat-like creatures in my fantasy trilogy, The Elemental. Today, I want to focus on using any type of animal in your novel, whether they are there just as an animal or as a character within the story.

Okay before I begin, I guess I have to differentiate between just having an animal and having a character that just so happens to be an animal. If your character is feeding the chickens or walking her mom’s dog than most likely these are only animals in the story. These animals are more like props to help set a realistic scene rather than integral to the story telling.

horse faceHowever, if the horse your hero rides has a habit of biting people, being stubborn or making his own decisions and these traits play a part in the story, then, in my opinion, your animal has gone from just being a prop to being a minor character. In my case, my animals play a much bigger role as they even communicate telepathically with the humans and in some cases major characters.

When including animals in your novel – whether as story props or as a character – you need to know how these animals would behave. It helps if you have spent time with the animal and know how it moves and reacts. I choose cats as I am a cat lover and have been around cats my entire life. I like to think that my knowledge of cats comes through in my writing and that my cat characters behave in ways you expect cats to behave.

If you don’t have personal experience with the animal you are writing about there are lots of options for you to read up on their behavior or better yet watch videos of the animal to help make your descriptions accurate and realistic. Again, research is key.

Now having animals as characters is not limited to fantasy writing. Many other authors use animals as characters such as Rita Mae Brown in her Mrs. Murphy mysteries or Lillian Jackson Braun in her Cat Who series.

One thing you will need to decide when including animals as characters is how they will communicate with humans or other animals. Will the animals speak to each other as they do in Charlotte’s Web or will they be restricted to animal-like behavior such as the cats Koko and Yum Yum from Braun’s mystery series? Animals can convey a lot non-verbally.

Tosh

Tosh – the telepathic “cat” from my THE ELEMENTAL trilogy

Or perhaps they can communicate with humans. It is your world, so they could talk or be telepathic as my “cats” and dragons are in my trilogy. You could even change the animals behavior to include things we mere Earthlings would be shocked to see but could be the norm for the people of the world you create. So animals could be able to pick up items, walk on two legs, smoke a cigar or open doors while here we just expect them to meow or purr.

Just remember that if you are using animals as a character, you will need to develop them as you would any other character. This goes beyond their physical description. They need a history, their own quirks and problems. In other words, you need to do the work to make the real to your readers.

Writing a novel recap

Blame it on summer…I am falling back on an old favorite that I pull out when I am temporarily at a loss about what to write about or when I simply don’t have the time to pen something new. So today I am doing a recap of some of my posts about writing a novel.

Starting a novel…

So you have decided to write a novel. Before you sits a blank screen. For some that brings excitement at the unlimited possibilities but for others it can be intimidating. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task at hand. (read more)

story ideas9 ways to brainstorm story ideas  

Many authors are teeming with story ideas, so they just need to pluck one and develop it into a novel. But newbies and even a few veteran authors sometimes falter when finding a story to write.

Here are nine ways to help you think of an idea for your next story. (read more)

Can your story idea be original? 

There are so many plots that have already been done that it sometimes is hard to come up with something new and unique. While yes, your story may be original with its characters, but many times the story itself has been told before. (read more)

Making sure your story idea is sound

You have a brilliant idea for a story. You can imagine the main character and even the opening scene…but when you sit down to write, you realize that is all you have. You don’t have a complete story with a structured plot and a satisfying ending. All you have is this great story idea. (read more)

Choosing the setting for your novel

irish wolfhound grey dayWhen many new authors begin writing, they focus on plot and character. While these are important, it is vital to consider the setting of your novel.

The setting is the location where the events of a scene take place. This could be in a room, a park, a car, a pool hall, the White House, in space, on another world or any of a thousand different places. (read more)

Deciding how to begin a scene in your novel 

The goal of the beginning of a scene is to draw the reader in. It must make the reader want to read more. A few months ago, I wrote about writing the opening scene of your novel. That crucial scene is often where readers decide if they like your book or not. (read more)

Finding the perfect ending to your scene 

Last week, I discussed ways in which to begin a scene in your novel. Alas, every scene also must end, and that is what we are going to focus on today.

Every scene has a beginning, middle and end. The ending moments complete the scene and should leave the reader wanting more. It should make them eager to begin the next scene. (read more)

Tips for writing a prologue (if you even need one) 

Where to begin your novel is always a daunting decision. You want to begin with an interesting scene to draw in your reader and set the stage for your story. But sometimes your reader might benefit from more information before they are introduced into the world you have created or so that they may understand the importance of what is happening. This is where a prologue can come into play. (read more)

Do you need an epilogue?

An epilogue is a section at the end of the book that wraps up the story. This is not to say you can’t just end your book with the final chapter.

However, sometimes, and I often see this in romance novels, the epilogue shows a snippet of what happened to the characters at a later point in their lives, whether it is several months, a year or perhaps even a number of years later. (read more)

Beginnings of a novel: Establishing Routine and the Inciting Incident

A good way to start your novel is to begin with a gripping scene that grabs the readers’ attention. But most of the time this gripping scene is probably not what is drawing your character to leave their “normal” life to partake in the adventure of your story. (read more)

Following a Story Arc

arcWhen you write a novel or even a short story, your storyline will follow an arc. Knowing and understating the nature of this arc can help you ensure that your story stays on course or let you know if the story is getting away from you. (read more)

Writing a Trilogy – Dos and Don’ts

I recently read a book that was supposed to be the first book in a trilogy. But I don’t think the author knows what a trilogy should be. It turned out to be more of a short story that suddenly stopped. To find out what happened, you needed to buy the next book. No thanks.

A trilogy is a series of three movies or books that are closely related and involve the same characters or themes. (read more)

Short Story, Novella, Novel – what’s the difference?

Many new authors ask, “How long should my story be?” The simple answer is as long as it takes to tell the story. (read more)

Choices for Authors: Marketing vs. Writing

You can’t write a book and expect it to be an instant best-seller. (Or if you do, you will most likely be disappointed.) It takes time and effort before most authors make consistent sells. And the only way to do that is to market yourself and your books.

How much marketing you need or what marketing strategies work best is so dependent on each individual author that there is no right or wrong answer. There simply is no one-size-fits-all plan for marketing.

The stories about authors who succeeded without any marketing are rare. Most books, even the really good ones, will become lost in the jumble of the millions of other available titles unless something is done to make them stand out, to make them become discoverable to their target audience. Remember that even successful authors like Stephen King and John Grisham do marketing (or pay a marketing firm to do it for them).

Now many new authors ask about marketing and the best advice I can give them is to simply keep writing. By having multiple books, you increase your credence as an author. With each published book, you broaden your appeal and add credibility to your name. There are many readers who scoop up every title an author has written previously if they like your book. I know one author that said it took until her eighth book before she had established enough of a following to really take off and need less marketing.

Of course, the best tip for any author is to write a good book. Good word of mouth is the best advertising.

But I think one of the biggest problems that I and many other authors fail to do is establish a marketing plan. Many authors don’t even figure out who their target audience is. You need to find who will be interested in your book and then target that market.

But no matter how you market your book, remember – marketing takes time. Not just the time to do it but the time to see results. Your ad this week may not cause a spike in sales, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work. People have to see something – a new author, a new book – multiple times before they take the time to investigate to see if they want to know more or perhaps even buy the book.

You have to keep working at marketing to be successful. Remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint. You need to be in it for the long haul. You have to be a relentless self-promoter. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the time for that. But anything you do whether it is something daily or just something once a week will help.

6 Tips to strengthen your writing

The best way to become a better writer is to simply write. And even if you have been writing for years and have numerous books under your belt, you can always improve.

weightsYou have probably already heard all the typical advice: read often, write daily, learn grammar and style and so on. Here are a few more tips to help strengthen your writing.

1.) Read it out loud – This is the perfect way to catch if your writing doesn’t flow, or if you are missing a word or two. Hearing your words rather than just looking at them can change your opinion of your writing and expose potential flaws such as boring dialogue or unnecessary or missing words.

2.) Eliminate unnecessary words and repetitive words or phrasing – Many writers have a word (or two or three) that they use too much. I find I use the word “that” too often so I routinely search for this word (and many more) as part of my editing step. If I made an effort to watch for these as I wrote, then my editing step would be even easier!

3.) Don’t start sentences with “There was.” Though this could be appropriate sometime as there is an exception to every “rule,” most often you can rephrase your sentence to be more active.

Example: She looked out the window to see there were two big dogs chasing her cat.

Revised: She looked out the window to see two big dogs chased her cat.

4.) Avoid “due to” and “because of.” Add strength and clarity to your writing by eliminating these words. Simply, take the noun or phrase following “due to” and “because of” and make that noun or phrase the subject of the sentence.

Example: Due to the war, his business failed.

Revised: The war made his business fail.

Even better: The war destroyed his business.

Best: Wartime fuel shortages destroyed his business. (best because it explains what specifically damaged the business)

5.) Keep it short – I am talking about line length here. Studies show that people read longer lines faster. But you don’t want them to read your work fast. You want them to absorb what you wrote and to understand your message so keep your sentences and paragraphs short.

delete6.) Use Adverbs and Adjectives sparingly – While these words are used to help describe how something is being done (lazily) or describing a particular quality (wise grandmother) you can do better by using stronger verbs and showing how wise grandma is without coming out and saying it. As for the adverbs, you can do a search of your manuscript for “ly” and then delete or revise away!

The list of ways to strengthen and improve your writing could go on and on. Each of us has our own writing weaknesses. But by far, the best bet is to keep writing. Only through practice will you get better.

5 New Year’s Resolutions for Writers

resolutionsAnother year dawns tomorrow. And while I don’t typically make resolutions for the New Year, I thought I would list some resolutions that might appeal to the writers out there.

1.) Start (or Finish) your novel – Have you been kicking around the idea for a novel? Or maybe you have already begun one but haven’t finished it up. This is the year to get motivated and start writing. (For tips on starting a novel, click here. And for tips on dealing with writer’s block, click here.) Set realistic writing goals and stick with them!

2.) Stay on task – Do e-mails and Facebook distract you from working? Or maybe you get caught up in marketing your books? Can you find any reason to procrastinate? Make this the year that you learn to stay on task. Make your resolution specific. Don’t just say you will “procrastinate less.” Resolve to set a timer for 20 minutes and work until the timer stops. Or vow to write for an hour BEFORE you do any marketing or checking of email.

3.) Find time to write – Maybe distractions such as Facebook and e-mail aren’t your problem. Perhaps it is the fact that you are working a full-time job, raising a family, doing charity work, volunteering at your kids’ school, taking care of your elderly parents or a host of other responsibilities we all take on as adults. It often becomes hard to find time to dedicate to writing, but most of us can easily carve out 30 minutes to an hour for writing. Get up earlier or dedicate the time after the kids are in bed for writing. Even a few minutes here and there can add up.

4.) Become a better writer – You are never too old to learn something new. Even if you have several published books under your belt, there is always something new you can learn. Take the time to read a blog or a book on writing. Heck, just take the time to READ! The more you read, the more different styles and genres you read, the better your own writing will be.

5.) Increase your marketing – Sometimes promoting your novel (and yourself) is hard. You would rather be writing…or even editing than figuring out how to market your book. Now is the time to plan your Facebook page, blog or web page or to set up a marketing campaign. Again, be specific. You want to post twice a week, send out 10 tweets or appear on 4 blogs a month or whatever you think will help your marketing plan.

So whatever your writing resolutions or goals, just make them simple and realistic. And most importantly, write them down and keep them posted above your computer so you follow through! Happy New Year everyone, and may 2016 be an awesome year for you and your writing!