The Times They Are A Changin’

       “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts

On Saturday, October 29th, those of us living on the U.S. East Coast were pummeled with a pre-Halloween storm. “A fifty-year storm,” one weatherman called it. By early evening over a foot of snow had fallen. Our trees, still holding tight to their brilliant autumn leaves, were quickly blanketed with wet, heavy snow. Branches began to droop dangerously low.

We lost our power around 1:30 PM. I was at my desk writing on my computer when the lights flickered on…off…on…off, in rapid bursts, as if struggling to hang on. Finally the power failed altogether. Lamps, computers, and all things electrical went out.

The electric igniter on our gas range didn’t work, but that’s what kitchen matches are for. For a late lunch, I heated chicken rice soup on the stove top instead of the microwave. And instead of completing another chapter on my computer then watching Bride of Frankenstein on the television as planned (it is almost Halloween), my husband and I spent a few hours engaged in deliciously quiet conversation.

After a time, a dear friend called from Wisconsin and we caught up on her life, and mine. Then my brother and sister-in-law called from their nightmarish vacation in Hawaii. (Yeah, nightmare…in Hawaii, but that’s another story.) More talk. I’m glad we still have a non-electrical land line. My cell phone battery never would have lasted.

Our power was restored before nightfall. We were lucky. As I write this, many in the East are still without electricity as diligent linemen work non-stop.

Youngest son called home around 11:30 PM. His bus from New York City had been cancelled so he took a different line but it didn’t go to where he’d left his car. So, around 1:00 AM middle son and I drove to a Park and Ride to bring him home for an unexpected overnight visit. On the drive there we skirted four fallen trees.  This morning revealed cracked branches in our own backyard.

Such were yesterday’s small adventures, courtesy of the changing weather patterns. But global warming and changing climate, if that’s what it was, isn’t the only change going on in the world. Change is constant, and it is everywhere.

“The only thing constant in life is change,” wrote French author François de la Rouchefoucauld in the 17th century. Given the times he lived in, the man well knew what he was writing about. So, too, did Bob Dylan. His classic 1964 song, “The Times They Are A Changin‘” became an anthem during the Viet Nam peace protests of the 1960’s as well as the Civil Rights movement. It maintains its popularity.

This morning I watched a news story on CBS Sunday Morning about Asian carp that have escaped from Arkansas to the Illinois River, and the havoc these vicious leaping fish are wreaking. The story told of other invaders to the U.S., the Kudzu vine creeping across southern states, the Burmese python slithering through Florida, and others. A sign of our changing world as species once unknown in this country flourish in a landscape with no natural enemies.

Gunpowder caused massive change in the Middle Ages. The invention of steam engines heralded the Industrial Revolution. In today’s world, along with weather and environmental changes, the primary element of change is technology and its many ramifications.

Earlier technology – telephones, radio, and television gave way to computers, microwaves, cell phones, i-pads, e-readers. The list grows daily. Keeping up with hardware, software, and applications is not always easy, especially for this aging baby-boomer.

As writers, the change in most minds is the transition from traditional publishing to e-publishing. The issue is more complicated than it might seem to those unfamiliar with the topic. What is happening is creating a far greater change than if inventors had simply built a better printing press for established, traditional publishing companies.

E-readers and companies like Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble, have given writers (not just publishers) the ability to publish electronically and distribute that work easily, efficiently, and cheaply – all without the need for traditional agents or publishing houses. For the first time in history, writers have become empowered, in charge of their own careers.

Will a lot of rubbish be published? I imagine so, but doesn’t that already happen in print publishing? How often have you paid good money for a print book by an author everyone raves about, only to toss it aside? There will be bad writing in e-publishing, but I believe good writers will also emerge, outshining the bad. Professional writers will create stories that today’s editors and agents, many barely out of college, now reject simply because “it won’t sell” or “it doesn’t rock my boat.”

Writers will win, and so will readers as stories of all lengths, all genres, all topics, become available. And traditional publishing?   Change, my friends, is constant.  Plunge in, move with it, and join the dance.  ♥

NJRW – 2011 Writers’ Conference, Day 1

This weekend I’m attending the Put Your Heart in a Book writers’ conference sponsored by the New Jersey Romance Writers.  Three hundred plus writers, agents, and editors are gathering to celebrate writing. It’s a much anticipated, much loved regional conference. Many arrived Thursday to hit the ground running early Friday morning.

In Friday’s three-hour Pre-Conference workshop, NY Times and USA Today best-selling author Brenda Novak spoke on Emotion: The Heart of the NovelA few highlights from her talk – Creativity happens in a series of tiny sparks, she said.  The more ideas we have the better.  Take risks.  Expect to make lots of mistakes.  Develop a network of colleagues.  More than anything, she said, creativity is about hard work and sticking with it.  I especially enjoyed her words on subtext in our writing.  We write who we are, she said then told of a writer who’d written a stellar lighthearted contemporary; every part was technically perfect – the plotting, dialogue, character development.  But the inherent negativity of the author bled through and the manuscript never sold. Subtext, she said, will leak through.

After Brenda Novak’s superb presentation, I joined up with three writers I’d met last year – Laura Thomson, Marta Bliese, and Laurel Wanrow.  All are members of the Maryland Romance Writers.  We stepped out into the chilly October air and across the parking lot to the Kona Grill for lively conversation over lunch.

Friday afternoon was divided into three forty-five minute workshop sessions.  Each time slot provided a choice of six workshops to attend.  For my first session, I chose to hear Brenda Novak again, this time speaking on Networking: Sowing the Seeds of Success.  The equation for writing success, she said, is to present a quality product (our writing), have an eye for opportunity, a credible source (can you deliver?), and the right networking mentality.  She gave pages of helpful info in a short amount of time.

My second session was given by award-winning author Annette Blair who writes single titles and vintage magic mysteries.  Annette spoke on Stuck in the Middle – A Life Raft of Solutions.  She recommended reading Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY (several times), and referred also to workshops by Barbara Wallace and Deborah Hale.  The more conflict in your story, the more pinches and twists, she said, the stronger your middle will be.   She passed out a worksheet that she advised using as a template for our sagging middles and which we reviewed in detail.  Incredibly helpful.

My third and final Friday workshop was NY Times bestselling suspense author Laura Griffin.  Her topic was How to Make Any Book a Page Turner.  We need to open our book with a character the reader can care about then immediately introduce conflict into the story.  One of her many suggestions:  Each chapter must end with a hook.  Beyond that, she said, end each chapter with a powerful and vivid word.  Instead of “a pool of blood on the floor” write “on the floor was a pool of blood.”  More vivid, more emotional.

At 6 pm we all gathered outside the Diamond Ballroom for a cocktail reception before the awards ceremony.  Midway through wine and pasta, fire alarms blinked and blared, although the sound was muffled by our conversations.  We were asked to vacate to the parking lot and front lobby area.  Fire trucks arrived and firemen trooped into the building.  The adventure sparked some writers’ imaginations and provided fuel for some future scene. 😉 Within several minutes, though, we were allowed to return and resume our reception.

Each year, NJRW honors its contest winners in an awards ceremony.  The Put Your Heart in a Book award is for unpublished writers.   This year’s winners:

Put Your Heart in a Book

  • Short Contemporary – Judith Wherett – RUNNING FOR HER LIFE
  • Single Title Contemporary – Jeanell Bolton – PASSION
  • Historical – Dianna Quincy – TEMPTING BELLA
  • Paranormal – Dawn Groszek – ROSE OF HOPE
  • Romantic Elements – D. B. Schuster – BREACH OF CONTRACT

The Golden Leaf is awarded to those contest winners who are published with an RWA recognized publisher.  After each category’s finalists are announced, an intriguing snippet of the winning entry is read by sultry-voiced Anne Walradt.  This year’s winners:

Golden Leaf

Hall of Fame Inductee, Cara Summers

When authors succeed in winning three Golden Leaf Awards within a category, NJRW inducts them into the Golden Leaf Hall of Fame.  Friday’s ceremony was crowned by inducting two such authors – historical author Hannah Howell  for her award-winners in the Novella category, and Cara Summers for her award-winning Short Contemporaries.

After the awards ceremony I was invited to attend a late night gathering hosted by the group from Maryland Romance Writers.   Several of us sat talking, laughing, sharing our stories, and working through two pitch sessions.  Saturday would be another full day.

Writers, what did you find most valuable about this conference or another you may have attended? Please share your comments.   ♥

Listen to the Universe

That whisper you keep hearing is the universe trying to get your attention.    ~Oprah Winfrey

The past months have been crazy-busy.  While trying to keep current with day-to-day tasks at my office day job, I’ve had new projects and programs to learn.  At home I’ve been writing steadily, preparing my work for launching.  Through it all, I’ve been desperate to read and absorb all I can about the ever-changing world of Indie Publishing.

Still, this week I’ve had moments when I’ve heard the whisper of the universe.  They’ve jarred me from intense focus and opened my eyes to a sense of the world’s wonder.  None of the moments were huge. No weddings or childbirths.  No grand championships, or lottery wins.  Just everyday events that softly nudged my soul.

On Friday at work, a new mom brought her seven-week old son to the office to see his grandfather.  I was just coming back from lunch when I saw them walking toward me in the hall. We stopped and talked. Smiling, I watched mom hand the babe to her dad.  He lifted his grandson (his first), cradled him against his shoulder, and gently rubbed his back.  A few co-workers gathered round ooohing and ahhhing, as we women tend to do when we look on a new baby, especially a cutie like this little guy. And while I watched the proud grandfather hold his sweet, sweet grandson, I felt a tiny tingle as the universe whispered. This is life.

Friday night we attended our high school’s football game. Both teams were undefeated. In the chilly October air, hubby and I sat close on the metal bleachers, atop a red plaid stadium blanket that pre-dates our thirty-something sons.  From the booster clubs’ refreshment stands, the scent of hamburgers and fries drifted our way. The bands blared, crowds roared and feet stomped shaking the stands as plays were intercepted, players were tackled, and finally took the ball in for a touchdown, and then another.  Final score – 20 to 16.  We’re still undefeated. 🙂  We don’t go to games often, but when we do, I hear the universe whisper.

Saturday evening, four in our family went out for an early dinner to celebrate son #2’s birthday.  We sat at the table sipping coffee, munching simple food, licking our lips over ice cream desserts.  Throughout the meal we caught up on each others’ lives, and reminisced about earlier times.  They talked of the time son #2 cut his younger brother’s hair.  “You cut his hair?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said. “You wrote a column about it.”  Funny, I had no memory of the event, or my article.  “How old were you?” I asked.  “Young enough that I was using those little kid’s safety scissors.”  Still no memory, not even of the article.  He shrugged.  “Maybe I cut it up with the safety scissors.”  More talking, laughing, savoring our time together.   And as we parted with warm hugs outside the restaurant, the universe whispered again.

We drove home, passing broad farm fields filled with brittle cornstalks.  Off in the west the sun was setting in a brilliant yellow-red glow, radiating off the clouds.  I wanted to take a picture but was afraid we’d be too late to catch it at home.  My husband turned and drove up to the old Indian Tower on a hill high above our town so I could capture some of the fading brilliance.  And once more, the universe whispered.

It is easy to let precious moments slide by in a rush of daily routines – going to work, cleaning, laundry, shopping.  But as writers, and as humans, we must pay close attention.  Such little moments are gold to claim and commit to our stories, not only to make them real to the reader, but also to live on in our memories.  The velvet feel of a baby’s silken skin.  The proud love in a grandfather’s face.  The blare of a high school band after a touchdown.  Laughter at family stories.  Aroma of strong coffee. The fading brilliance of an October sunset.

I’ve read that the secret to good writing is to just write.  But in our writing we must also learn to pull raw emotion from our daily lives, to transfer those feelings to the written word.  No heightened soap-operaesque overkill, just simple human emotion.

We must listen to the universe.   Thank you, Oprah.  ♥

Project: Blog Fix

Most bloggers crave readers.   They pounce on reader comments faster than a hot, homemade Toll House cookie just pulled from the oven.  Well, some of us do anyway.  😉

Two weeks ago in Successful Blogging I spoke of social media and ways to draw more readers.  But how does someone start?  How do we add flavor and substance to a bland blog?

Here’s a mini-primer in Blogging 101.  Yes, it is basic, but read through and see what you may have missed.

1. Custom Header – A header is the stationary picture at the top of a blog. A custom header helps identify a blog. Does your current template allow for one? If not, change the template to one that does. Then use it. In Dashboard, click Custom Header. Insert a photo you’ve taken, or one that works for your blog. Some bloggers change headers seasonally; others keep it consistent.

2. Custom background  – A whole new look is born by changing background margins.  Insert a soft picture or a new solid color every few months.  I love greens and blues. They go with my header so I vary those colors. Try seasonal colors. Or a photo of ocean waves, clouds, or something else appropriate to your blog’s theme. Experiment until you find what you like.  In WordPress go to Appearance; Background.

3. Tagline  – “Just another WordPress blog” is on a lot of new WordPress blogs, just below the title.  WordPress puts it in the template as a placeholder.  It is not meant to be permanent. You are promoting your blog. So, what is your tagline?  In a few simple words, what is the focus of your blog?  Go to Settings.

4. Categories – A category keeps related posts together. It quickly tells your reader what to expect. Is your post about blogging? Death? Baseball?  Halloween?  Never let your category read “Uncategorized” or it’ll look like you don’t know what you are writing about.  Add the category on the same page where you are typing your blog.

5. Tags  – Tags are more specific than categories. They are a string of words that hones in on your main topic.  In a search, especially in WP, they help readers find your blog. In my prior post on  Successful Blogging, my category was Blogging.  My tags were: Blog, Facebook, gaining readers, marketing for writers, social media, Twitter, success, and writer’s resources.

6. Share – I’m repeating this one from an earlier post, and I may repeat it at a later date; it’s that important!  Make it easy to pass your blog on to others. Post Share links to Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, and others. Include an e-mail link so the reader can send it to a friend.  In WordPress, go to Dashboard, Settings, Sharing and follow directions. Be sure to check mark the boxes at the bottom so they show up on all pages. For an example, see my Share buttons below.  (Hint: If you liked this article, please pass it on!  🙂)

7.  Paragraphs – I’m still surprised how many bloggers write long, unbroken paragraphs. Blogging is like newspaper writing. Paragraphs should be short and easy to read.  Find a natural break and use it, even if your old English teacher might wince. Blogs are about readability, not perfect format.  After you write your post, review it and look for a way to condense or break up the paragraphs. White space makes easier reading.

8.  Links – Links are a bonus for your reader and can be on your sidebar or in the body of your post.  For more permanent sidebar links, search for other blogs/sites that complement yours then create a link.  Under Widgets, move Links to the sidebar.  Then on Dashboard go to Links.  Create new links and link categories. By default, link categories are in alpha order so play with your titles. Occasionally test your links to make sure they are still active.

You can also create links to sites within the body of your article, like this one to Lifehacker (no special significance here, just an interesting link I found).  In this case, highlight the word, then click the link icon above where you are first typing your post. Insert the URL and click add link.

9.  About – If you want readers to connect with your writing, tell them who you are.  Use a two-liner and a photo in the sidebar, or a few paragraphs on the “About” or “Bio” page.  Preferably both.

10.  Contact – Readers should also be able to contact you. Many bloggers shy away from putting an email address on their blog where anyone, including spammers, can see it.  Instead, add a contact form box on your blog.  A good place to do this is on the About page, where you’ve written your short bio.

Creating a blog is a methodical process.  Take it step by step.  Readership develops over time. You’re competing with a lot of other blogs. Make yours tasty, sweet and easy to digest and the readers will find you.

 How do you add life and professionalism to your blog? What advice would you give to someone new to blogging?  ♥

Doodles & Googles & Wordles, oh my!

Technology has created an ever-changing language that only a committed techie can hope to master.  Along with new terms, new tools and techniques for using computers in daily life continually burst forth from creative minds.  One has to be committed to even try to keep up.  And yet, it’s worth trying.

On Friday I attended a technology workshop sponsored by the PAEOPThe purpose of the program was to demonstrate a variety of free links, and how to use them.  Our presenter was Laura Mikowycek, a woman with an amazing grasp on Internet programs and their value in a school or office setting.

Doodle is a great tool to help schedule a meeting for a group of people. The person scheduling selects a series of dates and times, emails them to the participants, and they each select their preferred dates and times.  Doodle is a democratic tool; the most votes win.

We learned about Google Docs. It allows a group of people to share a document via the Internet and work on it collaboratively.  Sharing a completed document is easy in Dropbox.  A free account at Dropbox gives the user up to 2GB of storage.  The creator can then email address/es and “share” the documents.  My writer’s mind immediately speculated on how either Google Docs or Dropbox could be used by critique groups, as well for online RWA Chapter meetings.

With a background in graphic design, she showed how to create readable and interesting Power Point slides, and a few tools to help. One of them, Wordle, transforms a string of words into a work of art.  It can make a small statement about a workshop or a website. It’s also a whole lot of fun! 🙂  We were also reminded of the importance of hand-outs at a meeting and encouraged to use shortened URLs, created with bit.ly or tinyurl.com.

There are many excellent, free sites on the Internet.  On Friday I learned about a dozen or so.  Most were totally new to me.  Of those, I’ve chosen those I think will be most helpful, or interesting, to you.

Sharing knowledge is one of the beautiful things about technology. It has allowed us to do so on a scale never before imagined.  So, the next time you read or hear about a really helpful website, click the link to FaceBook, Twitter, or whatever social media you prefer.  Or simply email to a friend.  Tell the world about it.   ♥